By Alon Jonas
May 27, 1944
“Raus aus den Triebwagen jetzt!” Out of the railcars now!
The shouting woke Seren from her fretful slumber. She saw alien-like men in striped clothes shoving the drowsy men, women, and children from the overfilled cattle car. The past week came flooding back to Seren as she helped her mother and sisters from the car. It had only been four days since the ghetto had been liberated but it felt much longer.
Seren held onto her mothers’ thin arm as they were swept up in the mass of people. Mrs. Gins had started looking tired and haggard these past few days. Her golden blond hair was streaked with gray and her brown almond-shaped eyes were surrounded with black circles. Seren was amazed at the huge spotlights, tall barbed-wire fences, and endless rows of cattle cars. “Everyone, stand on line! In line by fives now! Men there, woman, children there! Marschieren!” March!
The large mass started marching and Seren struggled not to cry over the chaotic noise of dogs barking, SS men screaming, children crying, and women weeping goodbyes to their departing husbands.
The marching of women and children comes to a halt and a handsome SS officer shouted, “Zwillinge!” Twins! Seren looked at her mother as two other SS officers walked along the column. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Before they could say anything one of the officers noticed Seren’s twin sisters and jerked them from Mrs. Ginz’s grip.
“Stop! Please, not my babies!” Mrs. Ginz shouted, but they were already gone.
The SS officer stopped each person and he pointed to his left or his right, separating the young from the old.
“Mother, we must stay together,” Seren said.
“No, you and Mary go on without me,” Mrs. Ginz said. “I’ll be fine. I’ll see you soon.”
Mary stood in front of the SS officer and slowly pointed to the right. Seren trembled as she stood in front of the SS officer. Seren looked down at his knee length black leather boots. Again slowly he pointed to the right and Seren hurried after Mary, only looking back to see her mother being directed to the left. In anguish Seren watched her mother walk away to an unknown fate.
“Oh, Mother, please find peace wherever they’re sending you. I’ll see you soon and I love you. Farewell, Mother.” Seren whispered, hoping the words reached her mother.
ARBEIT MACHT FREI
The letters loomed over the gate as Seren and Mary followed the column of marching women through the gates. They marched past rows and rows of barracks. It’s a road without end, Seren couldn’t help but think. But the road did finally come to an end and Seren and the other woman were herded into a gray building, where a blond SS woman waited.
“Ruhe!” Quiet! The SS woman yelled. “Wer spricht deutsch? Who speaks German? Step forward now!”
A few girls who understand stepped forward and they were now the interpreters.
“Everyone undress now!” The SS woman shouted. No one moved because the room was filled with SS men.
“Now! Undress! In five seconds anyone with clothes on will be shot!”
Seren looked at Mary and they both started undressing. Oh, God, let this be over soon, Seren thought over and over as she stood naked. After everyone got undressed they were herded over the piles of clothes and into the next room where woman in striped dresses stood with shavers and clippers.
Tears fell from Seren’s eyes as her brown hair fell to the floor. She had always thought her hair was her one true beauty. Seren looked at her sister and heard one of the women remark about Mary’s “golden braids.
Seren let out a cry in the next room as cold water poured from the ceiling. This torture lasted for about 10 seconds before they were herded into another room, where sack-like dresses were shoved at them. They were then ordered to grab a pair of shoes from a pile. Seren grabbed a left shoe that was too small and a right shoe that was too big. Seren and the other women emerge from the other end of the gray building and they were ordered to wait the four hours for roll call. Finally, they were ordered into their barracks, a huge barren enclosure.
We are now inmates of Auschwitz, Seren thought. Oh, Mother, how I hope you’re doing better than us.
As people swarmed the newcomers, Seren felt overwhelmed by all their questions. “What ghetto were you liberated from? Have you heard any news from Lodz or maybe Warsaw? Do you know of Adam Rosenberg?” The questions made Seren feel dizzy under the morning sun.
“Serena! Mary!” A girl of about 17 ran over to Seren and threw her arms around her. Seren didn’t recognize the girl. “Seren! Don’t you recognize me? It’s me, Krysha Jonas. I’m your Uncle Solomon’s eldest daughter.”
Seren studied the girl’s face. She had a round shaped face with a long chin and a small nose. Her eyes were light blue and her head was shaven. Her head and forehead were sunburned and her lips were cracked and chapped. Seren recognized her cousin Krysha, the oldest daughter of her Uncle Solomon, who was Seren’s mother’s oldest brother. Seren and her family hadn’t heard anything room Solomon and his family since they had left Poland five years earlier.
“Oh, Krysha,” Seren wrapped her cousin in a hug. “Where are Uncle Solomon and Aunt Leah and the children?”
“Papa and Joseph were taken in 1941 before we left Poland,” Krysha said. “We came to Budapest in September of 1942. We lived in Budapest until three days ago when we got sent here. Mama and the girls got sent to the left.”
Everywhere Seren looked she saw huge craters; Krysha left Seren and Mary to a deep crater where they sat down in the shade. The morning sun beat down on Seren and her throat started to burn.
“Krysha, I need water. Where do I get it?” Mary asked.
“There isn’t any water here,” Krysha said. “There is only black coffee in the morning and soup in the evening. During the day we drink from the lake.”
Krysha led the way the way to the lake, which was actually a crater filled with dark murky water.
“If you’re thirsty enough you drink from this. Just cover your nose and swallow.”
Seren leaned over the dark water and raised a palm full to her lips. It stunk but she doesn’t care. She needed something wet and cool down her throat.
The evening soup was handed out during roll call, a dark green mass in a dirt-crusted bowl. How am I supposed to eat this? Seren thought.
On Seren’s fourth day in Auschwitz, SS men entered the barracks and ordered everyone to line up. “March! March!” One of the SS men barked. Seren noticed the skeleton head on his hat. She trembled as she and Mary rushed past. Outside the women began marching away from the barrack toward the road. Seren noticed a cloud of black smoke rising from the stacks of a flat gray building. What could that be? The women were marched back into the showers, where they were once again stripped, shaved, and showered. They were marched on past many rows of barracks, tall watchtowers, and finally through the tall iron gate with ARBEIT MACHT FREI.
“Seren, look,” Mary squeezed Seren’s arm. “We are leaving Auschwitz.”
“We can’t leave,” Seren protested. “What about Mother and the girls?”
“Seren, they’ll be fine. We have to think about ourselves now.”
They marched to the train station, where rows of cattle cars lined the tracks. The cattle they were shoved into were less crowded now so there was room to sit.
“I wonder where we’re going.” Seren asked.
“I don’t know,” Mary said. “Seren, are you scared?”
“Yes,” Seren said. “I’m very scared. I think you’d have to be made of stone not to be afraid.”
“I’m afraid too. But not really for myself, but for Mama and Papa and our sisters and brothers. I don’t want anything to happen to them.”
“Oh, sweet Mary, how I love you,” Seren said, giving Mary a hug.
The train stopped at a station an hour or two later and everyone was unloaded. Seren looked at the sign that said Krakow. They were loaded into army trucks and driven into the hillside along the winding roads. They arrived at a camp with a sign that read Camp Plaszow.
The next morning the kapos, trustee inmates who supervised the prisoners, Ericka and Elva, came and selected a few hundred prisoners for their work detail. Seren looked at Ericka as she picked her prisoners. She had a long blond braid coiled around her head, green eyes and she was tall and gangly. Seren and Mary followed Ericka as she led her work deatail to a rocky hillside where they were ordered to clear the hillside in preparation for construction. At the beginning of the work day they had to climb the steep hill and by the end of the day they were exhausted.
Seren’s heart cried for answers. Oh, God why is this happening to us? What have we done? Aren’t we good people? Our only crime is that we are Jewish!
In August the camp was evacuated and the prisoners were taken to the train station and ordered into cattle cars. They travel until the next morning. Soon they were unloaded and Seren saw a sign that read Auschwitz.
Once they arrived in the camp, Seren was handed a piece of paper with a number on it. Seren pulled Mary to a line where they waited for their numbers to be tattooed on their arms. Seren didn’t want to be known as a number and she refused to look at hers. This number is our new identity. I will not be remembered as a number. My name is Seren Elizabeth Ginz and I’ll never forget that.
Seren couldn’t stand the smell in their barracks. They were much closer to the black smoke and the smell was unbearable. Someone had told Seren and Mary about the smoke, but Seren refused to believe it. No one could send men, woman, and children to their deaths in such a horrible way.
In March of 1945 Seren was sent to Dachau. Mary didn’t pass the selection so she had to stay behind. Seren prayed as the train left the station. Please, stay safe, Mary. Please, God, keep my little sister safe.
A few days later Seren arrived at Dachau and an unexpected change occurred. The Americans were approaching and the Germans surrendered the area without a fight. It was a good day that ended when open army trucks arrived in the camp. The prisoners were taken to Muhldorf station and once again loaded into cattle cars. By nightfall the loading was stopped and the train started to move. Seren slept for days and when she finally woke up the train had stopped. Seren looked around and saw everyone was sprawled on top of everyone. Seren crawled to the window and looked out at a cornfield. Not another soul was moving, so she crawled back to her place and fell back asleep. Finally the doors were pried open and Seren awoke. Male prisoners jumped into the car, shouting, “We are free! The Germans are gone! We are Free!”
The car emptied within seconds. Seren rushed out for fresh air but she soon climbed back into the car, too tired to care. All she wanted was to sleep. Seren heard gunfire and soon the car filled with prisoners again and the train started rolling. Our freedom is gone once again. Seren thought as she lay back down and sleep took her.
When the train came to a stop the next day, shouting woke Seren. “Come to the window for soup! Line up!” This was the first meal they’d had since they left Muhldorf station.
The train kept rolling for almost a week. Seren looked around at emaciated woman. They were the dead and living dead. Their skin was a translucent color and no one moved and no one spoke. How long has it been? Four days, five days? How long? The train sat unmoving on the tracks for about an hour, then the door slid open and two men in strange uniforms jumped up into the car. When they left another man dressed in the same green uniform. He had blond hair under his helmet and he was tall with muscular arms. His blue eyes looked at the women.
“Who are you and where are you from?” He asked in strange Yiddish. He talked to the women as if they were children.
“We are Jewish woman from Dachau concentration camp,” Seren said when no one else spoke up. “Who are you?”
“I’m an American. You’ve all been liberated.”
Liberated! We are free! Finally, we are free! The man helped Seren from the car. “Can you tell me where we are and the date?” Seren asked when she was on the ground.
“It’s April 30, 1945, and we’re in Seehaupt, Bavaria.”
My freedom is here. Why aren’t I happy? I survived. What about my family?
In June, Seren finally made her way back to her village in Hungary. As she walked down her old street her stomach ached. The house was still there on Main Street next to her family’s General Store. The faded yellow star was still there on the corner. The white and tan curtains still hung in the windows. Seren opened the gate and walked to the front door. The house was empty except for a few pieces of furniture. It was dirty and covered in cobwebs.
Seren left her few things and walked across the street to Mrs. Appleman’s fabric store. Mrs. Appleman had always been a friend to the Ginz family so Seren knew she would have information on her family.
“Serena!” Mrs. Appleman ran to Seren when she walked through the door. Mrs. Appleman was a short lady with fiery red hair and intense blue eyes. She was wearing a red polka dot dress covered with a dirty apron. “Oh, thank the Lord in heaven you made it! Where’s your family?”
“I was hoping you’d have information for me. I haven’t heard from them in a long time.”
“They’ll arrive soon. Don’t you worry dear. I have some stuff from your house. I took it right after you left. I’ve been praying everyday for you and your family.” Mrs. Appleman led the way into a storage closet and Seren was amazed to see boxes filled with things they had left behind.
Seren stayed in her village until August of 1945. She had found the box hidden in the basement filled with their photos and jewelry. She found out her mother had been killed in the gas chambers just hours after their arrival. Her twin sisters were two of the 3000 twins experimented on by Josef Mengele and they died three weeks after their arrival. Her father died of starvation in Bergen-Belsen. Her brother, Aaron, was also sent to Dachau in late 1944, where he died of starvation. Her sister Mary was killed in the gas chambers of Auschwitz in March 1945, right after Seren left. Her brother Peter was sent to Bergen-Belsen and never heard of again.
A month after her wedding, in 1946, Seren left Europe and immigrated to America. She never returned to the place that had caused her so much heartache.
Grandmother Ginz, Peter, and Seren taken in early 1944
from the January 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine