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Hanna's Story A Holocaust Survivor Remembers
Article first published in Vol. 12, 1994.
By Erika Lynne Witzke
Hanna Schmidt was just 16 years old when Adolph Hitler invaded her Polish homeland in 1939. This was the beginning of World War II and one of the first steps in Hitler's plan for the genocide of the Jews. At the outset, Jews were made to wear arm bands with the Star of David imprinted on them so that they would be easily recognized. Hanna and her family were at first able to walk the streets freely, but that would not last long.
Hanna Burstein today. Photo by Erika Witzke
In less than a year, the street Hanna lived on was made into a ghetto. All Jews in the vicinity were made to leave their homes and reside on this one street. A wall surrounded the ghetto, the only exit being a guarded gate. Thousands live in very cramped quarters. Families were separated. In order to prevent any additional children being born to Jews, the Nazis forced men and women to live separately. Most utilities were disconnected in the ghetto; the only "luxury" allowed was running water.
The ghetto in which Hanna lived was divided into two sections: one where the workers lived and one that housed small children and the elderly. Workers were given a piece of bread "slightly larger than a slice, but not much," Hanna remembers, for their daily food ration. The non-workers were given nothing. Hanna lived in the working section and worked in a thread factory.
On more than one occasion, Nazi soldiers stormed the ghetto to round up persons for exportation by cattle car to labor or death camps. On one such roundup, Hanna and her father heard the approaching footsteps of Nazi soldiers. "They had such heavy footsteps," recalls Hanna. She quickly told her father that she knew of a hiding place under some wood in the attic where they might find safety.
Her father at first suggested that maybe they should just go willingly because if they were found, they would be shot. But he looked again into the eyes of his young daughter and said, "We shall hide. If they find us, at least we will die together."
Hanna and her father were not found. Her mother, on the other hand, was not so fortunate. Nazi soldiers found her hiding elsewhere and killed her the same day.
A year and a half later, the ghetto was liquidated and Hanna and her father were sent to Krakow-Plaszow, a labor camp. This is the same camp, incidentally, where Oskar Shindler's factory located. Hanna worked at the other factory in the camp that made uniforms for the German army.
The workers in the uniform factory were divided into two groups: the sewing machine operators and the finishers. The finishers' job was to sew buttons and other final additions to the German uniform. Hanna was a machine operator.
She remembers a day when a guard came into the factory and ordered all finishers to one side of the room and all machine operators to stay where they were. Hanna remembers telling a fifteen-year-old finisher standing next to her, "Don't go! Stay with me! Stay with me!"
The young girl replied, "If they find out I am a finisher, they will kill me!"
Hanna then said, "Would you rather die a quick death here, or in a cattle car to Auschwitz?"
The girl remained next to Hanna. The German guard told all of the workers to throw away their labor cards that contained their job descriptions. He didn't even look at them. All of the finishers were taken to the cattle cars, all but the young girl. Her deception went undiscovered by the Nazis, and she is alive today.
On another occasion, Hanna went to the men's barracks to see her father. She was told he had been transferred to the section of the camp that housed the dying. She went there and found him bone thin and too weak to walk. His ankles were very swollen. Hanna remembers him saying, "If I could get a slice of bread, I feel I might get stronger and be able to go back to work." When a worker was no longer able to perform his or her duties, his daily food ration was discontinued.
The next morning, when Hanna was given her ration for the day, she went quickly as she could to give her portion, all the while thinking that if he got this one piece of bread, he might gain enough strength to get well again. When she came to the place he had been the day before, he was no longer there. She asked for him and was told that he had died the night before.
The barracks provided for the workers consisted of four walls and wooden bunk beds without mattresses, blankets or pillows. There was no bathroom or anything to provide even the smallest comfort.
While still at Krakow, a family was found hiding to avoid being sent to Auschwitz. The group was brought out in plan sight of everyone, and the guard began shooting them one by one. One of the children, a little girl, fell to the feet of the Nazi guard, crying and begging him, "Let me alive! Let me alive!"
Hanna remembers it like it was yesterday. "The guard in the same second shot her in the head right before my eyes, "she said. "No mercy whatsoever."
Hanna lived in Krakow for almost a year and a half until the camp was liquidated and she was sent to Auschwitz. "When we got off the cattle cars at Auschwitz, there was an orchestra there to greet us," she remembers, still disbelief. "There was a really awful smell, too, but we didn't know what it was at first. We later learned that it was the smell of human bones burning in the crematorium."
The women were then made to undress and be inspected. The infamous "Doctor of Death," Dr. Josef Mengele, performed the inspections. "This was done out in the open. With the wave of a hand, not even a word, he would decide who would live and who would die. The only women he chose to live were those with young, healthy bodies. Having a rash was reason enough to be sent to the crematorium," Hanna remembers.
The prisoners at Auschwitz were assigned numbers, which were tattooed on their forearm. "This was very painful," she recalls. Those doing the tattooing were not trained and no antiseptic was used. A young girl in line in front of Hanna screamed in pain when the number was being tattooed. "A big German female guard came up to the screaming girl, socked her in the mouth and knocked out all of her teeth," Hanna says. Hanna's constant reminder of this day is the number still tattooed on her arm.
After living in Auschwitz for over a year, word came that the Russian army was approaching. Hanna and other prisoners were sent to Czechoslovakia. They weren't given one particular job but were made to do whatever was necessary on any given day. It was difficult if not impossible to keep track of time in the camps, as the prisoners were not allowed access to any kind of news from the outside world. On Sunday, prisoners were not taken to work. This helped them track of the days of the week, but the months and years were more difficult.
On her way to work one day, Hanna could see a Christmas tree in the window of one of the homes outside of the camp, so she knew it must be Christmas time. On Christmas Day, the prisoners were not ordered to work instead were told to come out of the barracks and line up. It was freezing cold. They had no shoes, only their flimsy work clothes. The guard brought out a large German shepherd dog and proceeded to feed it in front of the starving prisoners to show that animals were more humanely treated than they were. "Many dropped dead that day from cold and hunger," remembers Hanna. "They [the Nazis] were so sadistic, so cruel."
The next day, Hanna was told to report to the Nazi officers' club to clean up after the Christmas party the night before. While there, she saw herself in the mirror for the first time in almost four years. "I looked and looked and didn't recognize myself," she recalls.
One day in early May of 1945, the Nazis did not call Hanna's group to work. They thought it was because they had become so weak, that they were going to be taken to the forest and shot. They could no longer stand, much less work. Just then, young Russian soldiers, men and women, cut through the wires of the camp and said to them, "We brought you freedom! We brought you freedom!" The war was over. Hanna was nearly twenty years old.
She looked at the young Russian soldiers and said, "Today is our birthday. This is the day we are born!" This way May 8, 1945, 49 years ago.
Shortly after the war, Hanna met and married Paul Burstein and they had a son. The El Paso Jewish community brought the three of them to El Paso and helped them to begin a new life. Hanna and her husband then had two daughters. She says her three children are the center of her life; she is immensely proud of them.
Hanna only recently began speaking of her experience because now she feels the necessity to educate the public, especially young people, about the experience of those persecuted in Europe during the Holocaust. There is a "revisionist" movement gaining strength in the United States and Europe which denies the Holocaust ever happened. But Hanna feels that as painful as the memories are to recall, survivors like herself need to give testimony to what really happened during World War II.
"I've been asked, 'How did you survive?' I don't really know," Hanna says. "All those years I hoped someone would survive, that someone would be left to tell what happened. Because if it happened once, it can happen again."