The testimony of Edith Birkin (née Hofmann)

Edith Hofmann was born in Prague in 1927; in 1941, aged 14, she was sent with her family to the Lodz ghetto in Poland. Her parents died within their first year there. When the Lodz ghetto was liquidated in 1944, Birkin was sent to the concentration camp at Auschwitz where she spent the rest of her time there working in an underground munitions factory.

After the war she moved to the UK. She went to Belfast by boat to visit her sister; attended high school in Derry. There was a Jewish community there. She followed a teachers’ training course in London. After that she worked in Hendon and Edgware. She married in 1962 to a non-Jewish man,they were unable to have children so they adopted two boys, and a girl. In the 1970s she studied A-level History of Modern Art and went on to take a course in fine art.

Following are some excerpts of her testimonies.

About the life in the ghettos

“So when you came to the ghetto there was this dreadful dreadful smell. It was in the winter, and it was freezing, and you could smell rotten cabbages and beetroot; there was this smell of beetroot. And what we were given was beetroot soup, which I couldn’t eat at first, it was so awful. It wasn’t a sort of good beetroot soup, it was terrible beetroot soup, it was just water with bits of beetroot swimming in it. And I couldn’t eat it for a few days, but then I was so hungry I ate it and didn’t get enough of it. Or it was cabbage soup made of rotted cabbage, and I think we got a loaf of bread a week, and I think a little bit of sugar we got sometimes. And then we got what they called coffee, it was just a sort of brown water, it wasn’t really coffee, and with that you cleaned your teeth and did everything. Another thing I remember on that first day is that cart where they picked up the dead people, you know, when people died they came and collected all the dead people from the rooms, or out in the street, and just shoved them onto this sort of, like a cart, took them away. And people standing outside wailing you know, if a relative died, and get these people to collect them and they stood out there, wailing. It was very very frightening, because people didn’t do that in Czechoslovakia, all this wailing and moaning and shouting and crying and screaming, all that. That was our first day in the ghetto. It was a very very severe winter, and people didn’t have fuel, they didn’t have food enough. They got diseases, they got typhus and typhoid and dysentery and all kinds of diseases. And lots and lots of them died, thousands of people. We… there were a lot of children my own age whom I knew in that same building, and we did sort of… we found a place in the, there was a sort of attic, and we used to gather in the attic sort of place, sing songs and make up plays, and talk, and played games, you know, all kinds of games. And amused ourselves. We never went out for a walk together somehow, for some reason, but I remember being in that attic and singing and dancing a bit, and making our own amusement. In the spring then we used to go for walks; there was a place just outside the ghetto, but it was still in the ghetto you know, it was in the boundary of the ghetto, but it was like a sort of wasteground, there weren’t any houses, and occasionally there was a tree, because I remember trying to eat the bark of it, to see if one could eat it, which you couldn’t. And there were a few trees, yes. So we used to go there, and through the barbed wires you could see a bit of countryside, so we had walks in the spring.”

About Auschwitz

“When we arrived in Auschwitz we all had to get out, and then you had the Doctor there who selected us, who looked at people, and when he saw that you might be useful for work you went one side, and if you were old or ill looking you went the other side, the women were somewhere else and the men were somewhere else, the children were with the women. All different groups of people. And luckily I went with the young and so-called healthy women. I made myself big and tall and strong, soon realised you know it was probably wise to do. So I went with these girls, they weren’t really women they were young girls. I think anybody over twenty had it, you know, because they didn’t need that many for work. So, from what I remember, nobody was over thirty; I never met anybody over thirty after that.”

“Of course we soon realised that there was this big chimney, you know, out of which came a lot of smoke, and the sky was red, the sky was red all the time. And you know, when we asked what it is they told us, and we couldn’t believe it. Well the Germans didn’t tell us, but other prisoners told us you know. ‘What’s this, what’s this smoke, what’s this fire, you know, why is the sky so red?’ What is this all about, you know, we couldn’t understand. But then we were told, very soon we were told you know, and we saw these transports of people coming; they came past us because there was this Lagerstrasse, you know, this road that was going to the gas chamber, from the train, and they came past. All these transports came past us, you know, thousands and thousands of people. And they never appeared again, they just disappeared into this building, you know. Somehow you know, you just got used to it; you were there. It’s more terrifying thinking back on it now, in a way, than then. Again, they said you know, they’re giving us bromide in the soup to keep us calm. But things were so bad, and you lost everybody, that it was just another blow, you know, you just got sort of immune to these things.”

“Auschwitz was very frightening in a certain extent, because it was full of Germans. Because until then we didn’t see a lot of Germans in the ghetto, only occasionally. It was full of Germans and the Germans with dogs, and there were these barbed wires, with electricity in it you know. Discipline, very strict discipline. This feeling of death, all these people going in the gas chamber. It was a very weird place, very weird place. With this atmosphere of death all the time you know, and this unbelievable situation of people being… you could smell, you could smell these people being burnt. All the time you smelt this… it was a little bit like you know, when people used to boil glue, it was the bones that smelt like glue. You had volunteers who would go with the Germans you know, and get a bit of food, and they were what was called the kapo, and the block leader you know. Because every of these huts, it was a block, which was called a block, had a block leader who had a little cubicle all to herself, with the women a woman and with the men a man. Because there were only women in our block, we were separated then from the men, so the men had men and the women had women. And it was like a glass cubicle, so they could see us. And you could recognise them because they were not starved, you know, they looked normal in their faces, in their bodies, they weren’t hungry, they had enough to eat, and they had reasonable clothes on, they had good clothes on. So, you knew who they were, and they were very sadistic and very cruel, and they treated us, the other prisoners, very very badly. They were prisoners like us, but they had privileged positions you see.”

sources

https://www.bl.uk/learning/histcitizen/voices/testimonies/edith/birkin4/atmosphereofdeath.html

https://sounds.bl.uk/Oral-history/Jewish-Holocaust-survivors/021M-C0410X0030XX-0500V0

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