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Mirjam Penha-Blits

"we believed war would be over within three months"
On 25 February 1943 in Amsterdam 26-year-old Mirjam Penha-Blits and her husband Eddy were arrested in their bed by the Sicherheitsdienst. They were told to get dressed as quickly as possible and were given just enough time to prepare some bread. ‘We quickly grabbed some clothes and to my question whether we should bring blankets as well they answered that we were going to perish in Poland anyway,’ Mirjam wrote in her war memoirs in 1947. First she was taken to the SD headquarters in the Euterpestraat, after that she was taken via the Borneokade to Westerbork. Four days later she was put on a transport to Eastern Europe. Despite the ominous words of the arresting squad the mood in the train compartment – Mirjam’s transport was the last one by passenger train – was not gloomy, ‘as we believed the war would be over within three months’. After a few days the train stopped in Auschwitz-Birkenau, but after standing there for some time the train started moving again towards its destination Sobibor.

"before I knew it I was struck by a whip"
In Sobibor the prisoners were forcibly removed from the train. Mirjam tried to help an elderly gentleman get off the train, ‘but before I knew it I was struck by a whip’. She saw that the guards ‘were Ukrainians with grimy faces, and a skull and the SS symbol on their collars.’ The prisoners were led into the camp and the men and women were separated; it was the last time Mirjam was to see her husband Eddy. The women and children were then put in an empty barracks and told to line up in rows of five. ‘An Oberscharführer walked past the rows and selected 25 young girls, including me.’ During the selection Mirjam saw the narrow-gauge railway and the tippers on which, as she remembers, ‘all people, men, women and children, some 1500 in total’ were thrown. ‘On the tippers were also the Ukrainians, who laid into the transport with their whips. There was a lot of moaning and screaming. And then they turned the machine gun on them. We were all broken and did not have a gleam of hope left of ever seeing our husbands again.’ Mirjam and the other women who were selected to work, were taken to a barracks where they had to hand over their jewels and other personal belongings. Then they were returned to the train and taken to Lublin. In addition to Mirjam the following Dutch women were also part of this transport: Judith Eliazer, Bertha Ensel, Sophie Huisman, Cato Polak, the sisters Suze and Surry Polak, and the sisters Sientje and Jetje Veterman.

After they arrived at Lublin station the women had to proceed to the concentration camp on foot, escorted by SS. Along the way ‘the Polish people called us names and spat in our faces. Our escorts loved this, which only egged the fools on.’ In the camp the women had to sleep on a bare floor without any straw; they were not given any water or food. After several days Mirjam and the other women were sent to camp Lublin-Flugplatz. This time they were escorted by female helpers of the SS, who turned out to be much worse than the SS men. ‘They pointed out the chimneys of the crematoria and told us we would end up there, but first we would have to work. How I cursed those women, who weren’t embarrassed to get drunk and behave obscenely with the SS guards when we were on work detail.’

"life in the camp is really just one big fight"
In the camp Mirjam worked in the so-called clothes hall, where she had to sort clothing from murdered Jewish prisoners. Initially the Polish Jewesses thought it was odd that the women from Western Europe did not understand Yiddish. ‘And so they considered us Christian women. This caused a lot of trouble for us, and it was the reason for many fights.’ Nevertheless the women also had fun together. Mirjam enjoyed rendering English jazz songs, which was much appreciated and in addition earned her quite some extra bread. In October 1943 the Germans needed workers for the marmalade factory in Milejow, which was run by the Wehrmacht. Mirjam and the other Dutch girls, who could feel their strength diminishing, were afraid they would not pass the next selections. They reported to the Kapo, who accepted the women’s offer and they were taken to the factory by truck. The women were lucky. The Catholic Polish women who also worked in the factory later told Mirjam that on 3 and 4 November nearly all the Jews in and around Lublin had been shot by the SS, over 42,000 in all. Only the slave labourers in the weapons industry were spared. Presumably Himmler had decided on this massacre (Aktion Erntefest) in response to the incidents in Treblinka and Sobibor, where the prisoners had revolted. The girls in the marmalade factory knew nothing of these acts of resistance. They and a group of men were taken to Trawniki, where more than 6,000 Jews had been killed during the SS operation. Here the women had to sort the clothes of the prisoners who had been shot to death, and the men had to burn the bodies. The work ended with ‘the men themselves being shot after two weeks, and us having to burn these men too.’

In May 1944 the camp was evacuated because the Red Army was advancing. Mirjam and the other women were moved to concentration and extermination camp Majdanek, where Jews were no longer being gassed at that time. The camp now predominantly housed prisoners of war, who did forced labour. Mirjam worked as a Kapo in the laundry for the camp SS. The front came closer and closer and Majdanek, too, was evacuated in a hurry. Escorted by Wehrmacht soldiers and SS they now had to march to Auschwitz. ‘Several hundred people dropped out that first night,’ Mirjam recounted, ‘and anyone who stayed down on the side of the road was shot.’ As the Germans were also near exhaustion after walking for a few days, the last part of the death march was by train. In Auschwitz Mirjam found out that solidarity among the prisoners was sometimes hard to find and hate between the fellow-sufferers could be intense. However, this lack of solidarity was no great mystery to her. ‘It is not hard to get along and be pleasant when you are free, but to retain the slightest veneer of civilization in a camp, where things are at their worst, that is not easy. Life in the camp is really just one big fight; you fight for your mouthful of food, you fight not to get sick, to keep the few clothes you have.’ In Auschwitz Mirjam and the other Dutch women from Trawniki worked in the so-called Scheisskommando, that had to collect the faeces from the hospital barracks and dump them on a dung heap outside the camp. Soon Auschwitz was also evacuated and Mirjam and others were moved to Bergen-Belsen. After that she went via Fallersleben to Salzwedel, where she was liberated.

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