Seventy-five years ago, Russian soldiers advanced on Auschwitz. It was January 27, 1945, when the gates were finally opened to about 6,000 prisoners. Days earlier, the Nazis had forced nearly 30,000 other prisoners to leave on foot in the midst of a blizzard.
“We opened and closed Auschwitz,” Edith Grosman says of her ordeal. It began when she and more than 900 other young Slovak women, many of them teenagers, boarded the first official Jewish transport to Auschwitz in 1942. It would end for some of them on that forced march. Edith was fortunate to survive until armistice on May 8, 1945.
Edith and I are sitting in a Soviet-era hotel room in Poprad, a picturesque town in Slovakia. Outside, snow-covered peaks of the High Tatras loom in the distance. Inside, Edith, who is now 95, is speaking of the fateful events that shaped her life. Hearing her story inspired me to keep the memory of the hardship and bravery of these women alive. I interviewed three survivors—five are still alive today—and drew on testimonies preserved through the USC Shoah Foundation digital visual archive. My book, 999: The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Jewish Transport to Auschwitz, marks the 75th anniversary of their liberation.
“One morning we wake up,” Edith says, splaying out her arthritic hands and patting the air, “and we saw outside on the street glued on the sides of the houses an announcement that all the Jewish girls, unmarried girls, from 16 up have to come to the school the 20th of March 1942 for work.”
Edith Friedman, then just 17, had dreamed of becoming a doctor; Lea, her 19-year-old sister, wanted to be a lawyer. But those aspirations had been dashed two years earlier when Hitler’s Germany annexed Slovakia. The quisling government of the Slovak Republic began implementing draconian laws against the Jews, including revoking their right to be educated past the age of 14. “We couldn’t even have a cat,” Edith says in disbelief, raising her eyebrows.
Edith pauses, then sighs heavily at the memory of that edict. “My parents had two girls ripe to go.”
Her mother, Hanna, objected, Edith recalls. “She said, ‘It’s a bad law!’”
But officials in their town, Humenné, assured concerned parents that their girls would be working as “contract volunteers” in a factory making boots for the troops. So Hanna packed her daughters’ meager belongings into satchels and sent Edith and Lea out the door to register as part of this new female workforce. She thought they’d be back for lunch.
Edith recognized most of the 200 or so young women, many of them teenagers as well, who were lining up. “Humenné was a big family—everybody knew each other,” she says. Local officials and military personnel presided over the check-in, but among them was a man in the uniform of the SS, the Schutzstaffel (Protection Squadron). “I thought it was strange there was an SS there,” Edith says.
After their names were taken down, a doctor ordered the girls to strip for a health exam. Undressing in front of strange men was unheard of, but who were they to question authority? “It was not a real exam,” Edith scoffs. “No one was rejected.”
Parents had gathered outside the school. Lunchtime came and went, and they wondered what was taking so long on this Friday, when families were preparing for Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath. Then someone noticed that guards had sneaked the girls out a back exit and were herding them toward the train station. Agitated parents chased after them, calling out names and demanding to know where their daughters were going. No one would tell them anything.
At the station, the girls were loaded into passenger cars without even the chance to kiss their parents goodbye. Edith could hear her mother’s voice in the crowd: “About Lea, I’m not so worried—but Edith, she’s like nothing.” It was a joke in the family that the winds off the mountains would sweep the elfin Edith away if she wasn’t careful.
As the train pulled out of the station, some of the older girls tried to buoy the younger ones. “I thought we were going on an adventure,” one of Edith’s childhood friends, Margie Becker, said. “When we saw the beautiful mountains, the Tatra Mountains, everybody was singing ‘The Beautiful Mountains’ and the Slovak national anthem.”
In Poprad, about 75 miles west of Humenné, Edith and her friends disembarked from the train and were marched into an empty army barracks. The next morning, male guards put them to work cleaning the barracks. “We thought, maybe this is it,” Edith says. “Maybe this is the work we are supposed to do.” Then another trainload of young women arrived. And the next day, more trains came in from the surrounding region full of young, unmarried Jewish women.
Five days after Edith’s group from Humenné had left home, nearly a thousand young women had arrived in Poprad. The guards ordered them to pack their things. As they filed past the barracks, they saw cattle cars lined up on the rail tracks. “We were crying,” Edith says. “And so afraid.”
Edith says they balked when ordered into the cars, so the guards beat them till they scrambled into the dank, fetid boxes. “I was with my sister and the closest friends of ours—we wanted to be together,” she says. “There was nothing inside. There wasn’t a bucket. No water. Not anything. Just a little window.” Edith draws a tiny rectangle with her fingers to show how small the window was. “And locked from outside.”
They had no idea where they were going, but as terrified as Edith was, she felt reassured that she was with Lea as well as Margie from the corner store; Adela Gross, with her flaming red hair; Anna Herskovic, who loved to go to the movies with Lea; and others they knew from school, synagogue, and market.
Hours into their journey, in the middle of the night, the train stopped at the border between Greater Germany (formerly Poland) and Slovakia. A secret transaction between the two governments was finalized, with the Slovaks paying the Nazis 500 Reichsmarks (about $250) for each young woman taken for slave labor. And with that, the first official rail consignment of victims of Hitler’s “final solution” chugged its way into the southwestern tip of Poland.
Life—and death—in Auschwitz
Why did Hitler’s plan to eradicate the Jews through slave labor camps in Poland begin with 999 young women? The fascist government wanted to eliminate fertile bearers of the next generation of Jews, but also, according to Slovak historian Pavol Mešťan, it was easier to get families to relinquish daughters than sons. In addition, it was thought that the girls would entice their families to follow them to the relocation camps, Mešťan says, where Jews were being “resettled” or “rehomed”—Nazi euphemisms for killed.
When the train finally stopped, Edith, Lea, and their friends found themselves in what seemed to be a wasteland, with nothing but snow as far as the eye could see. “It was an empty place—there was nothing there,” Edith exclaims.
Guards ordered men in striped uniforms to use sticks to prod the women off the train. One Polish survivor remembers them whispering to the girls, “Go quick! We don’t want to hurt you.” After almost 12 hours in the frigid railcar, Edith and the others struggled to carry their belongings across snowy fields toward what one survivor described as “flickering lights and boxes.” Until now, Auschwitz had served as a concentration camp for men, mostly POWs and resistance fighters. Edith had no idea that the men with sticks were prisoners. Nor did she know that she too was a prisoner, though she did wonder about the barbed wire fencing.
As the girls filed into the camp, Linda Reich, one of the survivors whispered to a friend, “That must be the factory where we are going to work.” The structure was a gas chamber.
During the next three years, five gas chambers and crematoria were built within a complex of barracks covering more than 15 square miles. Although the one Reich had pointed out that March day wasn’t fully operational until July, the Nazis had other ways to kill healthy young women. A starvation diet of about 600 calories a day, combined with backbreaking labor that included demolishing buildings and cleaning out swampland with their bare hands, wore them down. “The girls began to die,” Edith says.
“Some people say angels have wings.” Edith’s voice is soft and pensive. “My angels had feet.” One of the least arduous jobs in the camp was to sort the clothes and belongings of new prisoners. Margie Becker was assigned to do that, and when Edith’s shoes broke, Margie brought her a good pair. “Shoes could save your life,” Edith says.
It would take more than shoes to save Edith’s sister. In August 1942, the women were moved to another camp in the Auschwitz complex: Birkenau. Living conditions there were so bad that soon a typhus epidemic was raging through the men’s and women’s blocks, killing prisoners and SS guards alike.
When Lea fell ill, she was part of a work detail that required standing in cold water all day cleaning out ditches. For weeks, Edith gave Lea her soup because Lea couldn’t swallow bread. Then her sister couldn’t get up. She was feverishly ill.
Somehow, Edith had been lucky enough to be assigned to the clothes-sorting detail, and one evening when she returned to her block after work, she learned that Lea had been moved to Block 22, the sick ward. No one escaped from Block 22, where prisoners were warehoused until trucks came to cart them away to the gas chamber.
Edith crept in one day to find Lea lying on the dirt floor. “I held her hand, kissed her cheek. I know she could hear me. I was sitting with her, looking at her beautiful face, and I felt I should be there instead of her. The guilt of the survivor—it never goes away.”
The next day, December 5, was Shabbat Hanukkah. Edith slipped back into Block 22 before heading to work. Lea was still lying in the dirt. She was “wasting away,” Edith says. “It was so cold. She was in a coma now.” Edith had no choice but to leave her sister.
That same day, the Nazis took steps to clear the camp of prisoners infected with typhus. When Edith’s group returned from work, they were ordered to strip and march naked through the gates past the SS guards. Women who had the telltale typhus spots were hustled off to the gas chambers.
The sight inside the gates stunned Edith. “The camp was empty,” she says. Survivor Linda Reich recalled finding only 20 women in her block out of the thousand who had been there that morning. All had been taken to the gas chambers. Lea was among them.
Life without Lea was not a life Edith wanted to live, but she was a fighter. “Why else did we live but to tell?” she says. For Edith, the courage to continue fighting—the will to survive—came from one of her angels with feet, 16-year-old Elsa Rosenthal. Lagerschwestern, camp sisters, were like real sisters to women who needed someone to watch over them, especially after the death of a sibling. Elsa, as Edith’s camp sister, made sure Edith ate. She slept next to Edith at night and kept her warm. She also told Edith, “I can’t survive without you.”
“And so I had to live,” Edith says.
Leaving Auschwitz—“the snow was red with blood”
Nearly three years after arriving in Auschwitz as teenagers, Edith and her few surviving friends faced a final ordeal. The Nazis were making plans to evacuate the camp and flee from the approaching Soviet army. In the distance, the night skies blazed red and gold as Krakow burned. On January 18, 1945, in the midst of a blizzard, the last prisoners in Auschwitz were forced on what became known as the death march toward the German border. An estimated 15,000 prisoners from the Auschwitz complex of camps would die on multiday marches across Poland toward border crossings into Germany.
Of all the horrors and hardships the girls of the first transport suffered, “this was the worst,” Edith says. “The snow was red with blood.” If a prisoner stumbled and fell, he or she was shot. Sisterhood hung by a thread. If one of their friends fell in the snow, Elsa and Edith pulled her back to her feet before an SS officer could shoot her. When Edith felt she couldn’t take another step, her childhood friend Irena Fein urged her to keep going. There was no food. They slept in barns. “With my leg, limping all the way, how did I survive while others who were able-bodied did not?” Edith wonders.
Soviet soldiers liberated Auschwitz on January 27, 1945. They found 7,000 skeletal prisoners, 4,000 of whom were women—and hundreds of abandoned dead. During the next few weeks, hundreds more would succumb to starvation or disease.
Meanwhile, the Germans enslaved Edith and thousands of other surviving prisoners in Ravensbrück—the infamous women’s death camp—and in camps such as Bergen Belsen, in Germany, and Mauthausen, in Austria. Overcrowding and hunger threatened everyone’s life. When a kettle of soup spilled, women dropped to their knees and tried to lick it up, Linda Reich remembered.
Edith and Elsa were sent to a satellite work camp where they repaired airplane runways that were being bombed repeatedly by the Allies. Edith says that when the bombers attacked the compound, and the SS guards ran for their bunkers, the prisoners sprinted to the kitchen—“so we had a better life. We got food.”
On May 8, 1945, the armistice in Europe was declared. Of the 999 young women of the first transport to Auschwitz, fewer than a hundred are estimated to have lived to see freedom, among them about eight of Edith’s childhood friends. It took Edith and Elsa six weeks to get back home to Slovakia. There, Edith faced yet another trial. She’d contracted bone tuberculosis in Auschwitz, and after liberation, she became gravely ill. “I was physically disabled by Auschwitz,” she says. “Elsa was psychologically disabled”—riddled with fear and anxiety for the rest of her life.
Despite her illness, Edith says, “I felt so much hope for the world, for humanity, for our future. I thought: Now the world will change for good.” She was also in love. In 1948, she married screenwriter and author Ladislav Grosman, whose film The Shop on Main Street won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1965. Ladislav died in 1981.
Although Edith’s dream of becoming a doctor had been thwarted, she did finish high school and go on to work as a research biologist in communist Czechoslovakia and later in Israel. She now lives in Toronto, Canada, near her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“You have your little hells, but you have your little paradises,” Edith says of her life. “I have had it all here on this Earth.”
But 75 years after Auschwitz, Edith is troubled that the world hasn’t lived up to the hope she’d felt in 1945. Anti-Semitism is on the rise. Hate crimes against minorities haunt the news. “Why are there still wars?” she asks. “Please, please, you have to understand: You don’t have a winner in a war.” Her voice is frail but urgent. “A war is the worst thing that can happen to humanity.”
Heather Dune Macadam is a Holocaust biographer and the author of 999: The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Jewish Transport to Auschwitz, Citadel Press, released on January 1.