1943: Not Halina Birenbaum, thanks to a shortage of gas

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

Sometime in July 1943, a lucky accident saved the lives of thirteen-year-old Halina Birenbaum and a group of other girls and women, all of them inmates at the Majdanek Concentration Camp outside of Lublin, Poland.

Halina’s mother was sent to the gas chambers immediately upon their arrival at Majdanek. The daughter was spared to work and endure the torture that was daily life in the camp. “We were tormented day after day by roll calls, starvation, slave labor, beatings and vermin,” she recalled later in her memoir, Hope Is the Last to Die. “Lice devoured us at night.”

After two months of this, Halina was selected and sent along with her sister-in-law, Hela, and other female inmates to an empty hut in the men’s camp. The women had no idea what the Nazis wanted them for; there was nothing to do but wait.

When it was dark outside, the Storm Troopers locked the hut and switched off the light. I nestled up to Hela, and we both fell asleep on the floor, dreaming of a better camp, easier work, tolerable living conditions…

In the middle of the night, the SS noisily threw open the hut door, arousing us with their shouts and beatings; they began herding us out, making sure that no one hid or escaped. A fearful confusion ensued.

Sleepy, frightened to death, we crowded to the door, pushing and trampling one another in the darkness and panic. The Storm Troopers ran around like mad dogs. They made us form fours, lit electric lamps and counted us, swearing.

“They are taking us to the crematorium!” The terrible news fell on us like a thunderbolt and spread like lightning through the ranks.

My heart beat rapidly. I could not believe it. Once again I could not believe that death was possible, as months earlier, on the Warsaw Umshlag, when the Nazis set up a machine-gun in front of us … And I did not yield to the general panic and despair.

The SS gave an order and we moved off … in the direction of the crematorium. Some women were weeping, others tearing their hair, praying, or bidding farewell to mothers or sisters.

They herded us into a hut, the interior of which resembled a bathhouse. Despite the darkness, we observed stacks of empty gas containers on the ground in front of the hut. There was a strange sweetish odor in the air. There was no doubt now that they were taking us to execution. The women went out of their minds … They groaned, wailed, had convulsions.

They herded us into the bathhouse, and barred the door behind us. Now we had to carry out an order given previously: undress and hang out clothes up on hooks on the wall. Obediently we undressed in silence. We knew there was no way out. We hung out clothes up, then sat down on benches along the walls, waiting in extreme agitation … When and how would death come?

Time passed. Hour followed hour. But nothing happened. No one came. It was silent both inside and outside the bathhouse. Perhaps they had forgotten us? A faint hope slowly began emerging … Toward morning they came back; after the nightmare of waiting for death in the gas chamber, we went outside. They counted us again (as though anyone could have escaped from that locked building!), and took us back to the men’s camp, to the same hut as the day before. There we learned from the prisoners that the supplies of gas has unexpectedly run out during the night … We had been spared on account of this accident.

Later that day, Halina and her fellow inmates were put on a truck and taken to Auschwitz.

Several times more she escaped death by the skin of her teeth. She would survive the war, move to Israel, and become a writer, poet and translator.

She is still alive.

On this day..