Raizel Nechama Wolhandler (Part III)

Where were you during the war years?

From the ghetto we were transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau by cattle car. We arrived on a Motzoei Shabbos. By then, we knew all about the gas chambers and we were sure that that was where we were headed. When we arrived, an orchestra was playing. The smell that hit us was that of burning flesh.

Everything was very orderly and organized. Mengele stood at the front, directing everyone with his finger, to the right or to the left. Those sent to the right were sent to work; and those sent to the left were sent to the crematorium.

We were instructed to undress and leave our clothing there. We were directed to take showers to disinfect, and then we were given striped prisoner dresses to wear. The heavy people were given small dresses, and the small, thin girls were given large sizes. We didn’t recognize each other. We were given wooden shoes to wear. We laughed at our own tzaros.

We were directed to barracks with bunk beds that were three levels high. A few times a day, we were called out for tzel apel. If someone was caught trying to escape, he would be hanged. It was mandatory for everyone to come out and watch the hanging scene.

We were always hungry. We watched over our small ration of bread very carefully. The soup that I got I gave away, because I couldn’t bring myself to eat treifus. In one camp there was a small group of Chassidim that begged the aufzeier to give them raw potatoes instead of potato soup; they didn’t want to eat the horse meat that it was cooked with. But at that point it was still possible, it didn’t remain like that for long.

At one point as we passed through various transit camps, I was chosen to work. I was taken to a factory where they built airplane parts. From Auschwitz we traveled by train to Bergen Belsen. Thousands of people were squashed together.

We did not work in Bergen Belsen. In a way this was much worse. We sat around all day, as the days dragged on and on. From Bergen Belsen, we were taken back to Leipzig, Germany.

Did you know when it was Shabbos?

Yes, I knew. One of my jobs was constructing wires on a machine. Each day I had a certain quota to fill. On Friday I would work extra quickly so that I could fill a double quota, and I would put away the second set of wires to hand in on Shabbos.

Can you tell us about liberation?

At the end of 1944, we began hearing rumors that the war would soon be over. There were Polish prisoners there, helping the Germans. They had radios, and they would report the news to us. They explained the whole situation to us.

The Germans tried to get their last licks, and they began leading us to Leipzig, Germany. We walked and walked and walked, and at night we slept in the fields. We tried to find raw potatoes in the fields to eat. In the last minutes of the war, many people gave up.

We began to hear warplanes overhead. The Germans were very frightened. They started to beg us that when the Americans ask us what happened, we shouldn’t report them. Then the Germans suddenly disappeared, and we were left on our own — hefker. The Americans arrived and took over.

When and how were you reunited with family members?

Before my family was separated, we made an agreement that whoever survived the war would return to Cracow. I was liberated with my aunt and two cousins on April 26. We remained together through the Holocaust. My aunt remained with my cousins in Germany, because they had typhus.

I returned to Poland to see if anyone had survived the war. My husband heard that I was alive and went looking for me. I, in turn, was looking for him — and we missed each other in transit. He was liberated in the Gross-Rosen and Theresienstadt camps. Near the train station, I met some old friends from Cracow who told me who had survived from my family. My father had typhus and he was in the hospital.

When did you leave Poland?

After the war; we had to wait for travel documents. We left Poland at the end of 1946. We were able to go to Eretz Yisrael or to America. The Joint arranged for us to get travel documents to America through Yeshiva Torah Vodaath; they paid for the trip as well, and supported us until we found work and were earning money. We settled at 225 South 2nd street in Williamsburg.

At first, my husband worked in the pocketbook industry. Later on, we had cousins living here who took him into their business working with diamonds. I taught in Satmar, Klausenburg and Pupa girls’ schools in Williamsburg.

What stands out most in your mind about the concentration camps?

Hunger! It is impossible to describe the feeling of hunger that we had; and it is equally impossible to understand what it means to be hungry. I am not scared of death — we begged to die.

What message would you like to impart to future generations?

Whatever situation you are put into, keep your Yiddishkeit strong. Children, remember — V’chara af — even when things are rough and tough, remember — Hashem bachemHashem is always with you.

I thank Hashem that I was zocheh to build a Yiddishe home, with children who continue to follow in the ways of Hashem. Am Yisrael Chai!


These survivors’ memoirs are being compiled by Project Witness.