I just read this article in The Guardian.
One of my aunts, my mother’s cousin was only 18 when she was on one of these death marches. She run away, burnt her forearm to destroy the number and pretended to be a German escaping from the Russians. Some local Germans gave her money for train tickets. My aunt got back to Prague and worked as a servant for a German family. She bleached her hair so that no one could recognise her. In May 1945, the German family wanted to take her with them ,running away from the Russians. She went to the Czech concierge and begged her to hide her, telling her she is a Czech Jew. She only came back to the relatives who didn’t get deported ( mixed marriage) when Prague was liberated. I only knew this aunt as a timid housewife, shy, grey, like a mouse. Yet, she was a hero.
I used her story in my novel. I gave her a friend, Rosa, and added things. My book is a novel. My aunt Eva who I was named after can’t read it, she died some years ago in the USA where she emigrated after the war. But my novel is dedicated to her and the others.
This is a part when the character copied from my aunt is telling Zuzana, the main character about the war. It is 1987.
“It was only after the war that people called it a “Death March”. It was July 1944, and they were marching us from Auschwitz to Loslau. It was hot, and I felt faint. I was walking slowly with the others, trying to ignore the shouting, people being beaten, sometimes shot when they fell to the ground. I was stumbling, too, and then I tripped and fell. A young male guard approached me and kicked me, hard. His boots were dusty. Then I saw the gun. I was staring at the gun, waiting for it to go off, but I did not have the strength to get up.”
I looked at Irma, she was alive so something must have saved her!
“What happened? Did he shoot and miss you?”
“No, a miracle happened. A female guard Herta Muller, who had enjoyed beating us, came closer. I expected a blow, but instead, she hit the man’s arm so that he dropped the gun, and shouted:
‘You idiot, you are too wet behind the ears to decide who lives and who dies!’
Then she pulled me up by my hand, kicked me, but only slightly, and pushed me forward. I didn’t dare to look at her.”
“Aunt Irma, why do you think she did it? Was she just showing the young man she was the boss? Did she feel sorry for you?”
“I really don’t know. After the war, we were looking for the family, not the Nazis.”
Irma told me that Rosa saw it and grabbed her hand. She was shaking.
“Walk with me, Irma. I’ll look after you.”
“So, the SS woman saved your life?” I asked,
“Yes. Maybe she knew the war was ending and wanted to have a story showing her in a good light.”
The march was chaotic. The two girls escaped to the forest and burnt their numbers.
“So, what happened in the morning?” I asked.
“We covered our very sore forearms with long sleeves and went and knocked on the door of a nearby cottage. We were hoping the people would be Polish and hide us, but it was a German family. My brain was buzzing, and then I blurted the first thing I thought of. I told them the Russians were coming and had burned our home, that we just managed to escape.”
“Did they believe you?” It was fascinating. I completely forgot about Harry having to talk to Irma’s impossible husband, I wanted to find out more. I sat on the kitchen table and stopped drying the dishes. Irma was talking while preparing the dessert.
“Yes. They took us in and gave us soup. Zuzana, I don’t know how we managed to hold the conversation and agree with them that the Führer had a secret weapon, that everything was going to turn around. Lying convincingly is a useful skill. Rosa was a very convincing liar. You know, Zuzana, my parents told me not to lie, but lying saved our lives. The German family gave us food and money for train tickets. On the long journey, we kept repeating the story. All those Germans felt sorry for us, refugees from the East. Once, somebody asked Rosa why she had an Austrian accent. “My mum was Austrian”, she said. For once, she was telling the truth and I smiled at her. When we were together, we had fun, despite the fear of being discovered. Being with Rosa was almost like being in another world, a world where the Nazis were gone, and we were just two friends, girls giggling about silly jokes, happy people. She made me happy. We sang children’s songs, and she taught me some silly ones. One was: Du bist Verrückt my Kind…You’re crazy, my child, you have to go to Vienna, where the crazy people are, that’s where you belong! We sang it on the train, laughing, and the German woman sitting close to us smiled. Was she a Nazi? Who knows? She probably thought we were.”
“I know that song from my Grandma, too.” I said.
“Rosa was funny. She embellished our story with details just to amuse herself. My lies were always clumsy, so I kept quiet. I told her, when we were alone, that she should become a writer after the Nazis lose the war. We both believed the Nazis were going to lose. That was the hope that kept us alive. Well, it kept me alive, Zuzana.” Irma started to cry. I cried, too, I didn’t want the brave Rosa to die, but why was Irma crying?”