by Myra Saturen; photo by Ian Shipman
March 05, 2013
Esther Bauer talked about her experiences as a Holocaust survivor on March 5 at Northampton Community College. Bauer, who will turn 89 next week, was born Esther Jonas in Hamburg, Germany, to a father who was the principal of a Jewish girls' school and a mother who was a physician, also serving as a Red Cross nurse during World War I.
Bauer lived a normal childhood until Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933. Although her parents tried to shelter her from knowledge of persecution, they could not hide from her the ever-growing antisemitic measures affecting her family and all other Jews. "Every week there was a new loss," she said. Schools and universities were forbidden for Jewish students and teachers. Money was confiscated. Jews were forced to surrender jewelry, silverware and radios. Jews had to shop in separate stores. Jews had to fasten yellow stars to their clothing and above their apartment doors. In 1941 Bauer's father's school was closed, and transports to concentration camps began. That year, Nazis seized the Jonas's apartment and sent the family to a "Jewish" building without heat or hot water.
Bauer recalled that during this time she experienced some acts of kindness: a man on a subway train, seeing her yellow star, insisted she take his seat. The family's baby nurse stayed on until the family was deported to concentration camps.
In 1942, the Jonases were ordered to the Tereizentadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. "From one minute to the next, we became prisoners," Bauer said. Her father, who had been promised that he could teach school in the camp, instead had to do hard labor, shoveling coal. He died of meningitis six weeks later, but Bauer believes that he also died of a broken heart, having been lied to by someone he trusted.
In Tereizentadt, Bauer and her family existed in an attic with a stone floor and no furniture. They sat and slept on stone, wearing the same clothes, day after day, they had worn on arrival. There Bauer came down with double pneumonia. A friend was able to secure some rare doses of medicine, and Bauer survived. Later, another friend found her a job in the camp, working in an office recording the transports of children to Tereizentadt. Meals consisted of a slice of bread for breakfast and watery soup for breakfast and lunch. Sometimes prisoners received a rotten potato.
Three days after being notified of another transport, Bauer got married. At the destination, Auschwitz, her husband and mother were murdered. (Bauer learned of their deaths only after liberation.)
At Auschwitz Bauer endured hours'-long roll calls in the bitter cold, rain and snow, dressed in flimsy clothes and wooden shoes without socks. Twelve young women slept in one bunk. During nights, Nazi guards would seize women for the gas chambers.
In Freiburg, where Bauer had been sent to work in a munitions factory, she did what she could to sabotage the Nazi regime by making rivets too short or too long.
Before liberation, Bauer did forced labor in a stone quarry at the Mauthausen death camp, where prisoners were murdered and worked to death. Near death herself from starvation, she was nursed back to health after American troops liberated the camp.
Of her survival, Bauer says that she was lucky and that the will to live is very strong. She went on to remarry, immigrate to New York, and have children and grandchildren.
Bauer was generous in answering her large audience's questions, which were numerous. Half an hour after her talk, she continued to respond to them.
Bauer's zest for life survived the Holocaust. One of the audience members noted the smile that lights up her still-beautiful face.
*According to a recently released, 12-year study done by the National Holocaust Museum and reported by the New York Times on March 3, 2013, 42,500 concentration camps existed in Nazi-occupied Europe.
Read Randy Kraft's article about Bauer's talk at NCC at wfmz.com.
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