An Interview with Inge Auerbacher
By Reema Sanghvi and Kevin Johnson
Cold Spring Harbor High School, New York
Inge Auerbacher, Holocaust survivor and author of the book I Am a Star, was born in Kippenheim, Germany and spent the years 1942-45 in the Terezín concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. Because she believes strongly in Holocaust education, Inge writes and lectures frequently on this subject. She agreed to be interviewed by our staff on January 22, 1994.
What were your earliest memories of the Holocaust?
The Holocaust really began for me on the night of Kristallnacht. In my town it began on November 10, in the morning; I wasn't even four years old yet. I remember waking up quite early in the morning; we were awakened by the police. My grandparents had come to see us in the village of about 2,000 people. My grandfather was quite orthodox. He went to morning synagogue. There was a knock on the door. My father was told to get dressed and report to city hall. We recalled that we had heard about the unrest in Berlin.
I remember soon afterwards there was a mob going through the streets throwing stones at the Jewish houses. My mother saw how the Ten Commandments on top of the synagogue were broken. The glass all around us was broken. We were going to hide in the shed outside our house; it was like a riot. When we were just about to leave, a man came up to our window and saw the chandelier and said, "Hey, there is one still standing there." Then he took aim. He meant to hit the chandelier but almost hit my head instead. My mother grabbed me and hid me in the shed in the courtyard the whole day. That whole day people banged on the door.
We spent the night at a Jewish friend's house. We spent the next day boarding up the windows on the houses of Jewish friends. The synagogue had been destroyed, but it was not burned because of the fire threat to all the neighboring Christian houses.
The next day one of the soldiers came to my mother's house with a basket filled with ties and belts and other things. He said that those were the remains of our men. My mother asked if they were still alive because my grandfather who had been praying in the synagogue was taken. We later found out that they were taken to the Dachau concentration camp.
Somehow, after about six weeks, my grandfather returned, but it was only because my mother went to an SS embassy and showed them a bogus ticket that we were on our way out. When my father and grandfather got home, they told us what had happened. My father was a very decorated war veteran, and so we never thought they would do anything to him. He was disabled during World War I.
At that point we decided to leave. My grandfather and father told us what had happened to them in the camp. Of course, their clothes were taken from them, and they had to wear the blue and white striped uniform. They had to stand for roll call for hours and hours in the freezing cold. And if someone even so much as wanted to blow his nose, because it was cold, they hosed him down with cold water.
My father was there for about six weeks, and when he came back, we decided to sell the house. It had to be sold at a very cheap price, and we moved in with my grandparents at the end of May hoping to get out of Germany. My grandfather had a bad heart anyway, but soon after we arrived, he died, not only of a bad heart, but of a broken heart. We had been living in Germany for so long that we became part of the German community, except we had a different religion. My grandfather never wanted to leave Germany. He said that he was born in Germany and that was where he wanted to die, and that is what happened in May of '39.
I did not experience any antisemitism before that. My friends in the village of Kippenheim, where I was born, were all Jewish. I did not really have any Christian friends at that time. I was the last Jewish child born in that village. I really did not experience any prejudice, and I did not really know that I was different. We lived a comfortable life side-by-side with our Christian neighbors. In a way, we also had our separate life within that community, the life was centered around the synagogue. Everybody went on Saturday morning; it was our Shabbat. It was a very closely knit group; we took care of each other. But in the midst of a non-hostile world, I could not say that it was always so non-hostile. There were always some undercurrents of hostility against Jews. Of course, I never felt this; my parents told me this. I didn't feel it until the day it mattered, and that was the day the Holocaust began for me.
Do you remember life before the Holocaust?
As I said, I played with my Jewish friends. I spent a lot of time at my grandparents' house, about 200 miles away, and there I had only Christian friends because my grandparents were the last Jewish family living in their little village.
How quickly did the German takeover occur?
The Nazi takeover from 1938 went very quickly. The Nuremberg Laws came out very quickly after that. And the erosion of Jewish life happened very quickly after Kristallnacht. After that, we weren't real citizens anymore. We really had no more rights from that time on. In 1939-1941, we lived in this little village, Jebenhausen. Most of the people there, including my grandparents, were cattle dealers. Even today when I see anything that has to do with cows, I am reminded of that happy time in my life. In that village, there was not that bad feeling. Although my grandparents were the only remaining Jews there, people never treated us any differently. I really had many friends there.
This village was close to 50% Jews, until recently. They lived on two different streets, and were invited there by the Count of Leibwenhauser, to pay taxes. While I was there, I had many Christian friends. I ran up and down with them singing their songs, the Nazi songs. They took me in as one of their own.
Did you think of yourself as a German first and then as a Jew?
No, as a child, I didn't think much about it. My parents were first Jewish and then German. We were an assimilation; we still had our religion as our foremost priority.
How do you feel about the German people as a whole?
I resent the ones who did this to us, but I cannot condemn the young ones today who did not do it. There were some good people whom we are still friends with today. There were some, like my maid, who would risk their lives to come in the middle of the night and give us prayer books, food, and pictures (which appear in the book). There was a school to teach the Jews despite the ban on their learning. Recently, I met up with some of my old friends from that time, and I still feel gratitude towards them. I don't "hate" the present German generation because to hate is to be comsumed by negative energy. I'd rather do something positive.
Do you feel we have learned from the Holocaust?
Yes, we have learned, but if we are silent, nothing will ever happen! To be a bystander, to do nothing makes you guilty too! Today, I live in a diversified community. We must all learn not to fear others. I am lucky to live in such a community. All of us have the same problems and concerns. We all worry about our children, food and health. We are all the same.
Would you ever want to go back to Germany?
I would love to go back to Germany. Some of the people who live there have never seen a Jew. I can only imagine what they think one is. The synagogue which had been desecrated and used to store animal fodder has now been taken over by an artist and used as a studio.
What do you think of the movie Schindler's List?
I think that there are enough "real" accounts; I want real testimony from real survivors (like [Lanzmann's] Shoah). I am worried about revisionists trying to alter, in any way, what happened. However, the movie will help to bring this subject into the light and give it more attention. It really showed the degradation and fear of the situation.
Why do you feel survivors go to see Schindler's List?
I feel they want to see how the story is being told, and if the Holocaust was properly depicted.
Have your beliefs in God changed since the Holocaust?
I am not so Orthodox. Yes, I still have my faith; this whole thing has made me more respectful of other faiths.
Who do you think did this? Was God involved?
God gave man free will, and man did it.
What do you think about what's going on in Yugoslavia?
We're repeating a story. It's horrible. I could never envision that these people would take up and go to war against each other. But they have; they are two powers that are fighting against each other and a lot of lives are being lost senselessly. For what? They lived together before; why can't they live together now? Why can't they accept that other people are different and let them go to a mosque or church or synagogue. It's a religious war and is due to segregation.
How does this compare to the Holocaust?
You can never really say that this is another Holocaust. The Holocaust must remain unique. And I hate it when it is used in terms of the "Atomic Holocaust," or of "The Cockroach Holocaust." It was a once in a lifetime experience when war was declared on all Jewish people. Events in Yugoslavia are different from the Holocaust because they involve two warring powers; the Holocaust was a war on all Jewish people. Given the chance, Hitler would have declared war on all people. He already had declared war on black people also; as a matter of fact, they were some of the first people he had killed at the start of the war.
What was the concentration camp like?
It was called Terezín, and it was a transitive, holding area one step before Auschwitz. It held a lot of distinguished people, doctors, and lawyers, and there were a lot of old people there also. It was really, just a holding area, for the camps to the East. I had a friend there who was a Christian, a Christian girl.
I remember that at the end of the war there were gas chambers that were being built so that all the survivors could be gassed and killed, but they had not been completed. Once the liberation of Auschwitz and other camps, my camp began to be filled up by all the survivors who were being pushed on death marches into my camp to be killed by gassing or by drowning. The Nazis could have done this by opening up the dam and letting the river flow though my camp, which was more like a fortress.
Are you familiar with the book, I Never Saw Another Butterfly?
Yes, but I was not familiar with any of the children who were published. I was mainly with the Czech children. There was a children's boarding house where many children were held.
In your book, I remember you talking about the way the Germans lived?
Well, they had a swimming pool and everything. There was a woman who lived by the camp, and I recently interviewed her. They had horses and everything; they had stolen everything.
You said you had gone back to your home town and seen everything?
It happened; my mother heard the sound of our old clock. the carpet that was on the ground was ours, and the town had so many of our belongings.
What groups should be involved in Holocaust learning?
Do you know what countries study the Holocaust?
China, many of the European countries, where my book has been published.
What kept you alive?
Pure luck, I mean there were bodies all around, and I couldn't do anything. I mean there was hope, hope for the meal we would have one day and what we were going to do. But there were bodies all around and all that kept me alive was pure luck.
What was your worst experience?
The worst experience I ever had was on November 11, 1943, and they said people were missing in the camp. We didn't know there were so many people who came and went. We were told that we had to be counted, and they kept us out in the cold, and we were surrounded by guns. They probably had plans to kill us. I was afraid that I was going to be killed; I had real fear. It was an awful situation.
Student Art by AETI Staff Artist Jeff Renert
One of the saddest times I had was when my girlfriend was sent to Auschwitz. I was actually envious of her, because I wanted to leave too. But she gave me her doll's clothing to take care of until we met again. We were really close; we shared bunk beds for two years. She was Christian, and I remember that she prayed every night. And her father made sure she remained a Christian.
Do you have any other books coming out?
I have another book that will be coming out soon. It tells about coming to America and the struggles after, and having to spend time in a hospital because I was sick with malnutrition, and I had to learn more because I only had a first grade education.
What message do you have for future generation?
Not to be afraid, to be tolerant and have a heart, and to love with your heart. Be a brother or a sister to some one.
Do you believe in using computers to study the Holocaust?
Sure. In 20 to 30 years, we're all going to be gone. All the survivors are going to be gone, and there has to be something that will remain to teach people. As long as it's honest. I mean there are a multitude of rumors, and we have to teach people the truth.
Have you ever written any poetry for the book?
Yes, I have a poem entitled, "A Conversation with God," where I asked why he took my girlfriend away, and if he made the right decision in leaving me. Unfortunately, it was cut from the English edition, but the idea remained in the German edition.
Do you mind being interviewed?
No, every time I am interviewed, I learn about myself, and everyone should believe that there is something special about themselves. And there is where I got the title I Am a Star for my book.
What do you remember about the Red Cross?
I remember when the Red Cross began to examine the camps But they were only showed a cleaned-up area with bogus money and schools, and they saw football games. There still exist Red Cross videos that show a football game and a life that wasn't really there. It was like a theatrical event. I remember I wanted to be in the film, and my mother told me not to. She said never to volunteer for anything. The Red Cross gave out bread and everything, but after they left, the Germans took everything back, and we were sent back to our normal life.
What was the goal in writing your book?
Well, I am not getting any younger, and I wanted to bring out the lessons of what occurs when hatred interferes, and I wanted everyone to feel special about themselves. No matter who you are you are a star, and you should feel good about who yourself. We all have a right to exist. And if this is said enough, maybe it will get through.
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