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Schnurmacher: How my mother’s vanity saved her in Auschwitz

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Some survivors do not like to talk about the Holocaust to their children. Not my mom … not Auschwitz prisoner #A-25057. I knew that was her number – she showed it to me tattooed on her forearm when I was nine.

I pointed at the blue number. “What is that?”

“Vat do you think it is? It’s not a telephone number. Dis is how the Nazis kept track of their Jews.”

Mom, you see, liked to keep me informed about history in general, and family history in particular. She told me that she and her sister were walking together on a country road near their little village of Szerencs in Hungary one lazy summer afternoon complaining to one another about how boring their lives were. A few months later, she said, they would be on board separate jammed cattle cars hurtling towards Auschwitz.

I was no more than six when mom patiently explained to me that the reason I had no grandparents was because they had been gassed to death. I knew this was a very bad thing. She could not stop crying whenever she talked about it.

My mother also liked to keep me up to date about any family plans. I had just started kindergarten when she woke me in the middle of the night and told me we had to leave right away because my uncle from Montreal had arranged for a car that was waiting for us outside.

“Where are we going?”

“We are going on an adventure.”

“Why do we have to go when it’s dark outside?”

“Because it is a secret adventure and we don’t want anyone to know. But don’t worry, Tomika, it will be great fun. You even get to bring along one of your toys.”

I knew exactly which ones I wanted to take. I would bring my painted wooden streetcar and my new mandolin.

“Sorry, my Tomika, you can bring only one.”

The wooden streetcar did not really do much other than just sit there so I opted for the mandolin.

She was certainly right about it being an adventure. We were fleeing Budapest during the chaos that followed the Hungarian Revolution. Once out of the car, we would be crossing muddy terrain near the Austro-Hungarian border, climbing over barbed wire and gingerly avoiding the landmines that had been carefully planted to prevent too many citizens from fleeing the workers’ paradise.

Russian soldiers were everywhere but my parents had been assured by friends there was no need to worry – they were usually either drunk or asleep by the middle of the night. My parents were also told they could rely on Gyula, a resourceful Hungarian peasant who had helped the Russians place the landmines in the first place. He agreed to guide my family and a few others past those landmines for a reasonable fraction of the precious American dollars they had been diligently stashing away for months. Strangely, Gyula became very tired en route and asked for more money for all his trouble. My father obliged but Gyula’s fatigue set in again when I started playing my mandolin a few hundred yards from the Austrian border.

What Gyula did next ended my musical career.

Gyula may well have been a music aficionado for all I know. It was not that he had any dislike of mandolin music per se or that he was unimpressed with my fledgling talent. It is that he simply thought attracting the attention of Russian soldiers who might, say, shoot us all on sight, would not be a good idea.

Not wishing to go to any great length to explain the nuances of his assessment of the situation, he merely smashed the mandolin over my head, knocking me out cold thus ending my impromptu performance. The good news is I was carried the rest of the way to the refugee camp where they showed us movies.

•••

Not only do I know mom was in Auschwitz, I know she was tattooed on Sept. 2, 1944. She did not remember that date; I found it while perusing Chronicle of Auschwitz at the library.

Hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews were rounded up from their towns and villages and herded into ghettos. I knew that mom had been living in the Hajduhadhaz ghetto where she and many other Jews were forced to walk to railway stations and were loaded into cattle cars to be “resettled.” Few had any idea that those trains were actually headed straight for the gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz.

When the train arrived, Mom’s spirit was unbroken, and her vanity remained intact. She was young enough to jump off the crowded cattle car and land on her feet. She told me she was shoved by a young blonde Nazi thug into a lineup that was marching slowly towards a handsome man seated at a desk. That man was Dr. Josef Mengele. He was the first Nazi to save her life.

Those he motioned to the left were headed straight to the gas chambers. The ones selected for this fate were the old and infirm, those who were sick or looked sick and anyone with young children. Those who were fit for work were motioned to the right to be used as slave labour. Mengele motioned my mother to the right.

My mother is a vain woman. She told me that Mengele must have noticed that she was young and strong enough to work. I keep thinking about mom’s experiences in the most notorious Nazi death camp – a killing factory famed for doling out cruelty, torture and death to thousands on a daily basis. Other survivors have written books on their experiences, which described unrelenting hunger and thirst. Not my mom. She did not talk about being hungry. She would tell me that Mengele probably saved her because she was young and attractive. Maybe she was right.

Mom was confined to Barrack 10 in the vernichtungslager, or extermination camp. She stood in line to have her beautiful long black hair shaved off, then to have A-25057 tattooed on her arm. When she was handed her prison garb, Mom did not approve of what she saw; it just did not look right. She simply did not like the way it fit. In the midst of the hell of Auschwitz, my mother maintained her self-respect and her dignity. She was still concerned about her appearance. The outfit was too big for her, she told me. It was too loose.

Tommy Schnurmacher, right, danced with his mother, Olga, at his bar mitzvah.

After a few days, she managed to exchange her meagre rations for a needle and thread. While others slept, she altered her dress until it fit properly. She found a rag and used it as a neatly tied kerchief on her shaved head. Mom was also upset because the new shoes that her father had bought her for the Shavuot holiday were no longer shiny; they had become very dirty on the cattle car. She decided not to drink the watery swill masquerading as coffee that was parsimoniously ladled out. Instead she used it to clean and polish her shoes.

The other prisoners kept warning mom that it was very dangerous to stand out or call attention to yourself in any way. She paid no heed to any of them. She wanted to look good … as good as you can look in a concentration camp.

At roll call one morning, mom was singled out by Irma Grese, dubbed the Beautiful Beast of Auschwitz.

“How does a Jew manage to look so clean?”

My mother stared right at her. “I did not like what I was given. I sewed my dress so that it should fit properly. I think it is more important to have shiny shoes than to drink coffee.”

The other women figured she was a goner.

Grese was silent for a moment. She could have shot mom right there on the spot. She had shot many Jewish women for lesser reasons than such insolence.

“You are clean enough to work for me. Get back in line, Jew. Starting tomorrow morning, you will report to my living quarters. You will polish my boots. You will tend to my garden. You will be my personal maidservant.”

And that is how Irma Grese became the second Nazi to save mom’s life.

“She appointed me as her csicskas, or flunky, and dat is how I survived.”

As a child I recall my mother often telling me that Grese was evil but beautiful; she was blonde and looked like Ingrid Bergman. I was always fascinated to hear the story. I could never hear enough about Irma Grese and always wanted to know more. Throughout my teens and even well into adulthood, I kept peppering my mother with questions about her. In my mind she seemed like a glamorous villain. I always pictured her as a Catwoman-type figure, clad in black leather and wielding a whip.

“Wow, mom. You worked for such a famous evil Nazi. What did she talk to you about?”

“She asked me about my relatives and dere ages. She told me my parents had been killed but my brothers and sisters may still be alive. She even managed to find out my sister Evi was vorking in the Canada section of de camp sorting de property that had been looted by de Nazis.”

“Did you ever see your sister while you were there?”

“Yes. She arranged it. Grese took me to see her and told me vee could speak for 10 minutes and no more.”

“What else did she tell you?”

“Vee once saw a teenage girl drop a potato she had stolen from de kitchen. Grese shot her dead right dere on the spot. She saw I vuz horrified and said, ‘Vee don’t steal now, do vee?’ I wanted to tell her, all you Nazis do is kill and steal, but I vuz afraid to say anything.”

“What else did Grese tell you?”

“One day she saw me taking a shower and said I had beautiful breasts and should never let a man touch dem.”

“She said that to you? Maybe she was attracted to you.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. She alvays hed a Czech girlfriend, a voman who was also a beautiful blonde.”

Mom told me that when the war ended, Grese had attempted to escape on a horse-drawn wagon. She had disguised herself by blackening her face with coal to look like a prisoner.

“Did she escape?” 

“No, she did not. She did not look skinny enough to be a prisoner. She vuz caught by a group of female Polish prisoners who hated her so much, dey dragged her off da vagon and tore her to pieces.”

It was only many years later that I discovered that mom had been misinformed about Grese’s fate. She was tried for war crimes by the British and hanged.

Mom was there for a couple of months before she was transferred to Bergen-
Belsen where she worked on an assembly line soldering aircraft parts for Bremen airplane manufacturer, Focke-Wulf.

She would later tell friends that Hitler had lost the war because of the way she had been soldering the parts for the German planes. 

Excerpted from Makeup Tips from Auschwitz: How Vanity Saved My Mother’s Life, by Tommy Schnurmacher, available at Amazon.ca and Indigo.ca, and at these Montreal bookstores: Paragraphe, Chapters in Pointe Claire, Coles in the Cavendish Mall, Indigo downtown, Argo, Bibliophile and Librairie Bonder.   

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