For six years, she lived in the confines of a ghetto and two concentration camps. Despite the pain, she tells her story and in doing so, speaks out about the atrocities of the Holocaust.
She was born on the 24th of September 1930, when Adolf Hitler spread an ideology based on hatred and the exaltation of pan-Germanic aspirations. She was born in Piotrkow (Poland) within the structure of a Jewish family.
Her first few years of life were like those of any other child of her age: she played out in the street, she went to school, she played with her dolls and she annoyed her older brother, Ben.
Her family was a happy one, the father of which worked at a flour mill – he was part-owner – and her mother looked after the three children; Luisa was born later.
Everything changed on the 1st September 1939, when the Germans invaded her village. She was eight years old when she was disowned because of her religion, and learned to coexist with the noise of the bombings.
The military drove them to the Piotrkow Trybunalski ghetto, the first to be created. Between the land of the main square and the streets of Garncarska, Starowarszawska and Grodzka, 12,000 souls were imprisoned.
“We were crowded and, in some cases, as many as three families lived in one room”, she says as she describes the compound in which more than 25,000 Jews lived.
According to accounts, those older than twelve were required to wear a bracelet bearing the Star of David , and no one was allowed out after eight o’clock in the evening. If someone didn’t comply with the rules, “they were severely punished”.
Due to the lack of food and sanitation, a typhoid fever epidemic developed, increasing the number of deaths. Her family survived.
The situation became untenable, and, in 1942, “rumours that we would be deported began to circulate”. That is what happened. They were driven to the Treblinka and Majdanek concentration camps or those located next to the Luciąża and Wolbórka rivers; others remained.
The Christian home
Along with her cousin, Idzia Klein (11 years old), she managed to dodge that fate. “Thanks to the contacts that my father had, we went to live with a Christian family from Czestochowa”, she tells. It was a complicated stay because they suffered the consequences of famine and had no news from their families. The two youngsters fell seriously ill.
Idzia could take it no longer and decided to abandon the house. Mala had more courage and returned when she was told. Upon her arrival in Piotrkow, her cousin was not to be found. “We tried to find her, but there was no trace of her” she says tearfully.
The calm was short-lived. The military stormed the house, finding her mother, her sister and Mala. “I was in bed, not because I was unwell, but because there were so many of us that we didn’t fit in the room”, she remembers.
In order to save her, her mother lied to the military, saying that her daughter was very ill and that it was better to leave her there. Mala remained there and watched as they took her mother and sister away.
They were kept in a synagogue under appalling conditions; without light, water nor food, they lived for weeks along with 600 other people. They were guarded by Ukrainian guards who killed or wounded people from the window “for no apparent reason”.
“My father tried to use his influence to free us, but it wasn’t possible, because the military wouldn’t let children out”, she explains, emphasizing “my mother would never abandon Luisa”. She recounts the events of the 20th December 1942 with the help of historian, Christopher Browning’s book Ordinary Men, “they were driven to the Rakow forest in groups of fifty. Each one of them dug the grave for the next”.
She adds, “they were killed in the cruellest way on earth”. That is how she lost her mother and sister, thirty seven and eight years old, respectively.
The raids continued, and her aunt, Irene, was separated from her daughter, Hania (five years old). The young child fell under Mala’s responsibility (she was twelve years old).
Before the military
Shortly afterwards, something happened that, surely, saved her life: “they put us in a line in front of the military armed with rifles when – I don’t know how – I approached one of them and asked him if I could go back to my family”
Under the watchful gaze of those witnessing the scene, the soldier gave his consent. However, she couldn’t leave Hania alone and asked if she could take here with her. To her surprise, he let them go.
Five years later, on the 14th of October 1944, the military closed the ghetto. That resulted in the regrouping of Jews in concentration camps and the separation of family.
Her father and brother were taken to Buchenwald, and her cousin and her, to Ravensbruck.
Upon arrival, they were registered, stripped of their few belongings, their heads were shaved, they were showered with cold water, and they were dressed in striped pyjamas. “They stripped us of our personality and we felt like mere numbers” she recounts.
The living conditions were so vile that many couldn’t take it and died. They survived it and, after two and a half years, were taken to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
As she says, they were taken to hell: “it smelt of burnt flesh, there were piles of dead bodies everywhere, people walked like zombies, and some of them even died right in front of your eyes” she recounts in horror.
By chance, she learned that there were barracks for children and looked for them; Mala was too old to be there, but they made an exception for her sister, Luba, who took responsibility for the two of them. “We wouldn’t have survived without her help” she says, thankfully.
Typhus became a pandemic and Mala became sick. She plunged into a downward spiral of pain and despair, and looking out of the window she asked with a certain cacophony, “how can people run, when I can hardly move a muscle?”
Semi-conscious, she watched as the British army announced their release; it was the 15th of April 1945. She still gets emotional when remembering how the soldiers helped the wounded climb aboard the vehicles and thinking of that climate of both joy and bewilderment.
She explains that her brother was helped by the Kindertransport (The Central British Fund), and upon learning that he was alive, “did everything possible to ensure we were reunited”. They were so in March 1947.
What happened to the rest of her family?
My father was killed when he tried to escape from one of the death marches. This was four days before the end of the war. My auntie survived and was reunited with Hania. We found my cousin, Idzia Klein, years later.
What happened when she arrived in the UK?
Anne Frank was also at Bergen-Belsen, did you meet her?
I don’t think so. Besides, if I had met her, I wouldn’t have recognized her because she wasn’t famous then and we all dressed the same. Those of use that were at that site were numerous, and she was just one more.
Have you ever been back there?
Yes, because I was invited to the inauguration of the museum. It was very painful and was complicated to go back to that place to pay homage to all those people that died. It was like going back to a cemetery.
(Translated by Caroline Gutierrez – Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)