Memory in Trutnov

Fri, 05/05/2017 - 11:51am

The sun was setting when we pulled up to a fenced-in lot behind which stood a crumbling redbrick textile factory. There was a sign on the front gate that read “For Sale.” It wasn’t the kind of signage I expected to find on the site of a former women’s forced labor camp where my mother and 350 other Polish Jewish girls had been worked nearly to death, making thread used to sew Nazi uniforms. Gabersdorf survivor Sara Sliwka Bialas-Tenenberg, a resident of Berlin, had volunteered to revisit this painful spot to show me what my late mother never could. My mother had changed her name from Hela Hocherman to Tamar Fromer Fox to bury this past, which I was now determined to uncover.  

“She had beautiful red hair and big brown eyes,” Sara recalled of my mother, as we climbed the creaky factory stairs that threatened to buckle under and she led me to the second floor pointing to where my mother worked processing raw flax into giant spools of thread. “I cleaned the flax and brought it to her.”

Sara Sliwka Bialas-Tenenberg Sara Sliwka Bialas-Tenenberg
Then she took me by the hand, picked up bundles of dirty gray flax laying in the corners of the factory floor and led me to another spot. “This is where I was beaten so badly, I lost my eye,” she said, showing me the socket now filled with a glass eye. We talked in that rotting, filthy factory, holding back tears, particularly as she sang defiant songs the Gabersdorf girls would chant in their darkest days.

“It was my happiest and my saddest moment,” she said recalling liberation. “I learned everyone in my family was murdered, that I was now alone in the world with no home to return to.”

She drifted from Poland to France and then to Israel where she lived with many other survivors, who also suppressed their wartime pasts. After losing a son, she moved to Germany, where she knew no other survivors and was overcome by the trauma of her wartime memories. I knew this trip wasn’t easy for Sara, but I knew it was as important for her as it was for me. She sought validation after a life of suppressed suffering, and I sought clarity about a buried past that kept me from feeling whole.

Though I was filming Sara for my book and film, “By A Thread,” committing her story to posterity, I saw how the “For Sale” sign at the front gate nearly knocked the wind out of her. The Gabersdorf girls, and the former prisoners of all 11 Trutnov camps, deserved better and I vowed I’d do something about it.

I tried to contact the mayor of Trutnov, Czech Republic, to ask him to put up a plaque and mark this turf. Locals, apparently, had no idea that the textile mills in their backyards had once been sites of Holocaust persecution. But the mayor was away and never got back to us. Amidst the various commemorations that took place in 2015, marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and Dachau, I thought of my mother and my vow to Sara. Since our trip a few years earlier, I had interviewed dozens of other Gabersdorf survivors, discovered there had been 10 other women’s slave labor camps in Trutnov, then Trautenau, Sudetenland and that the 5,000 Polish Jewish women trafficked to Trutnov were among the first to be imprisoned in Nazi camps and the last to be liberated, on May 8th--9th, 1945. Didn’t they deserve to be honored, too?

Commemoration of Trutnov Forced Labor Camps

A new monument honoring victims of women’s slave labor camps, most of whom were Polish Jewish teenagers at the time, was unveiled on May 9th, 2016, the 71st anniversary of their liberation, in Trutnov, Czech Republic. The camps, part of Organization Shmelt, were located by textile mills and included: Gabersdorf, Parshnitz, Schatzlar, Ober Alstadt, Bernsdorf, Arnau, Dunkenthal, Hohenelbe, Ober Hohenelbe, Leibau and Bausnitz. After the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, they became concentration camps grouped under the administration of Gross-Rosen. The women prisoners came from Zaglembie and Upper Silesia, Polish towns like Sosnowiec, Bedzin, Zawiercie, Wadowice, Oswiecim and Chrzanow.

Special Thanks to Marisa Fox and Ita Gordon for curating this exhibit.

Gerda Frieberg on Survival

In honor of the 71st anniversary of the liberation of the Sudetenland women’s forced labor camps, listen to the testimony of Gerda Frieberg, who returned to Trutnov, Czech Republic, for the unveiling of a monument recognizing the suffering of 5,000 Jewish young women imprisoned there from 1940- May 8, 1945.  In addition, listen to the testimonies of interviewees who survived the concentration camps in the area of Trutnov and who performed textile forced labor under difficult living conditions.

  • Gerda Frieberg on Survival

    Language: English

    In honor of the 71st anniversary of the liberation of the Sudetenland women’s forced labor camps, listen to the testimony of Gerda Frieberg, who returned to Trutnov, Czech Republic, for the unveiling of a monument recognizing the suffering of 5,000 Jewish young women imprisoned there from 1940- May 8, 1945.  In addition, listen to the testimonies of interviewees who survived the concentration camps in the area of Trutnov and who performed textile forced labor under difficult living conditions.

  • Sabina Winter on Transferring to Gabersdorf

    Language: English

    Sabina discusses her transfer from the Sosnowiec-Dulag camp to Gabersdorf. She traveled by train with a group of women and was told that she would either be working in a cotton factory or live through the war.

  • Natalie Scharf on her transfer to Sosnowiec-Dulag

    Language: English

    Natalie talks about the last time she saw her mother, when she was taken away with a group of young girls on a wagon. Natalie was taken to a train station where she was transfered from Jaworzno to Sosnowiec-Dulag, with only the socks and shoes on her feet.

  • Helga Neuberg on her injury

    Language: English

    Helga discusses her time at the Gabersdorf camp. She talks about her experiences working in a textile factory, with about 360 girls. While working one night, she injured her hand terribly in the machine she worked on and was terribly hurt for some time. 

  • Sally Birnholz on Hope

    Language: English

    Sally discusses her difficult time living in the Parschnitz camp. She remembers going through a camp selection for Dr. Mengele and trying her absolute best to stay out of the way of the guards. Hope was the only thing that kept her going and she believed she still had a future. 

  • Manya Usher on Kratzau

    Language: English

    Manya describes the terrible conditions of Kratzau concentration camp in Czechoslovakia.

  • Sala Grinblatt on Her Uniform

    Language: English

    Sala shows a photograph of herself wearing the rubber apron with the Yellow Star as a uniform during her forced labor assignment in the Gabersdorf concentration camp in Czechoslovakia.

  • Eta Batalion on the Arrival of Auschwitz Prisoners to Ober-Alstadt

    Language: English

    Eta describes the physical condition of Hungarian prisoners from Auschwitz upon their arrival at Ober-Alstadt camp.

  • Esther Gold on Ober-Alstadt Concentration Camp

    Language: English

    Esther describes humiliation she experienced and additional work she was made to perform at Ober-Alstadt.

  • Sala Kirschner on the Struggle for Survival

    Language: English

    Sala describes the struggle for survival at Schatzlar concentration camp and how she and her friends helped each other to survive.

  • Tosia Jakubs-Schwartzbaum on Liberation of Gabersdorf

    Language: English

    Tosia describes the liberation of Gabersdorf concentration camp by the Soviet armed forces.

I reached out again to Trutnov mayor Ivan Adamec and told him I wanted to commemorate the Polish Jewish women of all 11 Trutnov camps on the 70th anniversary of their liberation. This time he responded and said he would commit to erecting a marker on the site of the former Gabersdorf. It wasn’t ready in time for that trip, but a year later, I stood on the spot I had visited a few years earlier with Sara and watched her speak, a new woman, proud and rehabilitated by the recognition she so rightly deserved, speaking with conviction and singing “The Partisans’ Song,” along with Karsten Troyke, the Yiddish singer she trained who initially connected me to her in 2011.

I also brought with me my oldest child, Leo, my Israeli cousin Yehuda and his wife, Riana, whose parents were Czech, and their son Ofer. Before I uncovered my mother’s Gabersdorf past, they had traveled through Trutnov, saw the many abandoned factories and figured they had been remnants from the country’s communist past. Who knew my mother and most of the women who survived the Holocaust from Zaglembie, the southwest corridor of Poland near the German border, had been trafficked to this region and others throughout Sudetenland and Silesia, and had survived in these factories, clinging to life by a thread?

Unveiling the monument in Trutnov Unveiling the monument in Trutnov
For Gerda Frieberg, returning with her grandson to Ober-Astadt, one of the larger Trutnov camps, where she, her sister and mother had been imprisoned, was a powerful and difficult experience. Her son is a guide on March of the Living. “It’s always Auschwitz,” she said. “It’s time to shift the focus to other camps, like the ones here.”

At the unveiling ceremony, she spoke of her drive to survive, the sisterhood that enabled the girls to endure the brutality of the Nazi slave labor system and to form tight bonds that lasted long after liberation. She also spoke of smuggling potatoes they would warm by the factory heater, knitting socks from stray threads and how their Nazi commander had wired the periphery of the camp with dynamite on the eve of their liberation, telling the girls that this would be their last night alive.

“We didn’t know if we were going to live or die,” she said, also recalling the sadism of an SS guard who would beat her to a pulp each day after her shift. “Imagine living like that for three years. It was easier to die, as my friend Pepi did when she learned her family had been murdered. I promised her that if I survived, I would tell the world about our suffering.”

Her book, “I Kept my Promise,” is dedicated to Pepi. But it’s the spirit of survivors like Gerda and Sara, the talkers and the silent ones, like my mother, who never spoke of their past out of misplaced guilt and shame, but who were so brave, so hopeful, so young and determined, who inspired me to see this monument through completion. What my mother couldn’t tell me, I feel obligated to discover and share. The Trutnov monument is the only one outside of Ravensbruck and Valory, Czech Republic, that honors women victims of Nazi slave labor. May it not be the last Holocaust monument that recognizes women. 

Marisa Fox-Bevilacqua