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Beating all odds

Auerbacher was among the 1 percent of children to survive a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia

Inge Auerbacher left the audience recently at the Ridgewater College in Hutchinson in awe and amazement when she told of her three-year survival of the Holocaust in Germany from 1942 to 1945. She was only 7 years old when she and her parents were placed in the Terezin concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, where, out of 15,000 children, only 1 percent survived. She was one of the 1 percent. The reason she volunteers to give these programs is she feels she must speak out against evil and injustice. She has been lecturing on the Holocaust since 1981 and has spoken to thousands of people in the U.S., Canada and Germany. She has written five books and recently a film was made of her experience: The Olympic Doll. She has received many honors and awards for her work teaching tolerance and human rights.

Inge’s background She was the last Jewish child born in Kippenheim, Germany — a town with a population of about 2,000 located in southwestern Germany at the foot of the Black Forest. She was born on Dec. 31, 1934, the only daughter of Berthold and Regina Auerbacher. She was delivered by a doctor that was a member of the Nazi party. The town of Kippenheim was occupied by about 450 Catholic and Protestant families, and 60 Jewish families, and they all lived peacefully together. It appeared everyone shared their patriotism and passion for Germany.

Her parents belonged to the middle class and they lived in a large house that was passed down from her father’s ancestors and had 17 rooms. They had a sleep-in maid and a cleaning lady to take care of the large house. Her father was a textile merchant and covered the inns of the Black Forest and the households of neighboring villages. Her mother helped out by taking care of the bookkeeping for the business. Inge’s father was a soldier in the German Army during WWI and was wounded and awarded the Iron Cross for his service. Her maternal grandparents lived a few hundred miles away in Jebenhausen. On her second birthday, Inge received a doll from her Grandma that was made especially for the 1936 Olympics held in Berlin, which was presided over by Adolf Hitler. She named her doll Marlene after the famous movie star, Marlene Dietrich. Marlene stayed with her through her entire ordeal of the Holocaust and recently was given to the Washington, D.C. museum.

Anti-Jewish riot begins Inge was only 3 years old when the riot against Jews in Germany and Austria started  Nov. 9, 1938, and was given the name of “Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass.”  “It was a cold November morning, almost two months before my fourth birthday,” Inge recalls. Her maternal grandparents, unfortunately, came to visit, and her grandfather was arrested in the synagogue while saying his morning prayers. Her grandfather, father, and other Jewish males, 16 and older, were sent to Dachau concentration camp. She remembers the raid when a mob of Nazi soldiers broke every window in their house and they had to hide in their backyard shed. “We clung to each other as stones flew through our windows, shattering them one by one. Pieces of glass fell all around us, covering the floor with the glittering, jagged pieces,” said Inge. “I remember standing in the living room with grandma and mama, who was holding my hand tightly.” The raid lasted two days, and only women and children were left behind in the village. After a few weeks, both her father and grandfather were released from Dachau, and they had been treated very badly. “Papa and grandpa had a rude awakening of how Jews were to be treated in the ‘New Order,’” said Inge.

Inge’s parents sold their house in Kippenheim and moved in with her grandparents in Jebenhausen in 1939. Their plan was to stay with her grandparents a short time and eventually leave Germany. Her grandfather died peacefully as a result of chronic heart problems in May 1939. From this point on the life of a Jew had changed dramatically. All efforts to leave Germany failed. They waited too long to judge the danger. Escape was no longer possible. To humiliate Jews even more, in late 1941, they were forced to wear the yellow Star of David with the word “Jude” on their clothing, right above the heart.

The Auerbachers received orders for transport in December 1941 and were going to be sent to a new settlement (concentration camp). But, because of a letter her parents sent to the Gestapo, explaining the injuries her father received while fighting for Germany, Inge and her parents were excluded from the transfer. However, her grandmother was taken away and deported to Riga in Latvia where almost all of them were shot in a nearby forest. “I remember that after grandma was taken away, I cried myself to sleep every night,” said Inge.

Terezin Concentration Camp Soon after her grandmother was deported, on Aug. 22, 1942, they were forced out of her grandparents’ home. They were relocated to the neighboring town of Goeppingen. Inge, only 7 years old, was number XIII-1-498 — the youngest in the transport of about 1,200 people. All their belongings were taken from them, and they were searched. One of the German officials violently tore Inge’s doll, Marlene, from her arms. He pulled the rubber bands holding her head and looked inside the doll’s hollow body to see if any valuables were hidden. “I watched him in horror, tears streaming down my face,” said Inge. After a few minutes, he seemed satisfied with his search and gave Marlene back to Inge. From Goeppingen they were taken to Stuttgart where they stayed for two days and then were loaded onto cramped cars on a passenger train. After two days the train stopped in Bohusovice, Czechoslovakia. They were told to depart the train and leave everything behind except for a blanket, knapsack and metal dishes. “I held my doll and dragged a small knapsack on the ground,” Inge said. Her parents placed her between them so that she would not get whipped.

They had arrived in Terezin, a town located about 40 miles north of Prague. It served as a transit camp for Jewish deportees and was a gruesome place. From Terezin, the prisoners were slated for extermination in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and other death camps located mostly in Nazi-occupied Poland. Their first living quarters were in the attic of a large brick army barracks, and they slept on the bare floor using their blanket and knapsack as a cushion.

Soon after arriving at Terezin, Inge was ill with scarlet fever and spent four months in the hospital. The hospital was not a safe place either. There were two children for each bed and diseases, such as measles, mumps and ear infections, were spreading rapidly. Inge was not expected to live. Her parents were not allowed to visit her. Just before her eighth birthday, Inge was miraculously cured.

There were constant epidemics, due to overcrowding and lack of hygiene. One of Inge’s friends was infected with tuberculosis and passed it on to Inge. There were no treatments for tuberculosis so she just had to live with the disease.

The most frightening day of her three years at Terezin was the Bohusovice Ravine roll call on Nov. 11, 1943. “We were told that some inmates were missing, and a complete count of us had to be taken,” recalled Inge. “At least 40,000 of us were herded onto a large muddy field. It was a cold, rainy day, and our feet sank into the ground. We were surrounded by soldiers pointing their guns at us. Our future was uncertain. Late at night we were ordered to return to Terezin. Men, women and children were told to walk back separately. My parents and I refused to be apart and held onto each other tightly as we walked. I watched in horror as one of the storm troopers smashed the butt of his rifle into my mother’s back for defying orders. Many dead people were left on the field, but we somehow made it back without further punishment.”

The end is near In May 1945, Inge was 10 years old, and she could sense the end of their imprisonment was near. The guards were destroying the evidence of death and destruction and were fleeing in their trucks. Inge and her parents hid in a dark, abandoned cellar until they felt it was safe. More people joined them in the cellar and did a lot of praying. Then one of the men decided to leave the cellar and check on what was happening outside. He returned quickly, out of breath and shouting, “We are free, the Russians are here!”

Only a few thousand survivors were left alive in Terezin. From 1941 to 1945, a total of 140,000 Jewish people were sent to Terezin, of whom 88,000 were shipped to the killing centers of the East, while another 35,000 died of malnutrition or disease. Out of the 15,000 children sent to Terezin, very few survived. Inge was one of the lucky ones.

“The night of May 8, 1945, will forever remain in my thoughts. Liberation had finally come, and this date became my second birthday, which I would celebrate equally as my actual day of birth,” Inge stated.

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