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My life: Olga Horak, Auschwitz survivor

As the only member of her family to survive Auschwitz, the 87-year-old author talks to Liana Cafolla about loss and the tragedy of war

 

THE END OF NORMALITY I was born in 1926 (in Bratislava, in what is now Slovakia), the second child of my parents. My childhood was very privileged and I enjoyed the warmest, most wonderful family attention as a child. The wonderful years didn't last very long. In 1939, all German laws were adopted - the (anti-semitic) Nuremburg Laws - and were immediately exercised. When it happened, it was too late to make arrangements to leave or to emigrate. We couldn't go to school. We lost all our friends. We couldn't conduct our business. We couldn't travel. We couldn't sit on a bench in a park. We couldn't be outside after sunset. We couldn't have our professions. We were deprived of all human rights. It was hard to take, very difficult to accept.

 

THE DISAPPEARED In 1942, one night, we were at home after sunset. The guard came with a list of names of 16-year-old Jewish boys and girls. My sister was on the list. They collected her, took her away. We never saw her again. We knew later on that she was taken to Auschwitz and probably perished there, or maybe another camp. That was very harsh. Of course, my parents were heartbroken. So was I. We were given a hiding place by our next-door neighbour, who was supposed to be a good friend of my mum. She said, "Go there, you can stay there, and I will look after you." Two weeks later, she denounced us. She brought the guards. They took us away. This is how we finished up that first night in a collection camp, and then we were taken to Auschwitz.

 

MEETING DR MENGELE We were shoved, pushed, screamed at. It was Dr (Josef) Mengele who performed the selection. We had never heard of selecting people before. We were immediately parted from the men. That was when I saw my father for the very last time, and my grandma, too. Elderly people were immediately told to form a group, [as were] very young people - mothers and babies. These people were immediately taken to the gas chambers and killed. They were told, "Don't worry, you'll be put on a bus, on the Himmelsreise" - the sky trip. That was through the chimney. We just wondered, "What does it mean?" Later on, of course, we put two and two together. We knew what it meant.

 

DEATH MARCH My mum was only 39. I was 17 at that stage. We were shaved, then we were given old rags to cover our bodies, no underwear, nothing. Real rags, tatters, hanging in threads. After a few months there, we were told not to march to the forest (to work, as usual) but to march on the highway. We had no idea why but that was the beginning of the death march. We were decimated because many people just collapsed. If they couldn't continue, they were shot on the spot. After the air raid [in Dresden], we were pushed onto open railway trays - not closed-in carriages - and transported from there to Bergen-Belsen. We stood in these open carriages next to each other. It was so cold that some people froze together. This is a situation that can never be described as possible, but it did happen and I was there and I saw it.

 

THEN LIBERATION We were liberated three weeks before the end of the war, on April 15, by British and Canadian forces. The Germans still believed Hitler would win the war. They did not want to surrender. When they came into the camp, they begged the British officers to be given 24 hours grace, and the officers said, "Why do you need that?" They said, "Look, we want to prepare the documents the proper way for exchange, according to the Geneva Convention." The British officer knew there was some trick behind it and he said, "We don't give you 24 hours, we don't even give you 24 minutes. We are here now. Now you will surrender." At that stage, they took off their uniforms, threw them away and started to run.

 

TRAGEDY IN FREEDOM We had to register with the British officers because they wanted to know our names, where we came from, where we would be repatriated to. My mum came to the table. She gave her information. She got her registration card - a displaced persons card. She got it in her hand and she collapsed. Six million Jewish people were murdered. My mum is not accounted for because she was registered as a survivor. She didn't make it. There are many, many more.

I was taken in by people who took pity on me. I was 29 kilos and desperately ill. The army people had never seen anything like that. I was like an exhibition piece - a bundle of bones, no hair, my eyes were hanging out, my teeth were hanging out. I couldn't even stand up on my two feet.

 

MOVING ON We tried to emigrate to Canada, and had relatives there, and also to America, but it was impossible - Czech nationals had to wait five years, and if you were Jewish, there was time added to it. So, after 10 months in Switzerland, we had to decide to make a move and my husband's sister (Olga married John Horak in 1947) had applied to go to Australia. We wanted to be together so we applied as well. I've lived there for the past 63 years.

Hate was never within me. I always wondered how to hate people; why do they hate people? I had to live with it. I had to live with the fact that I was hated for no reason whatsoever, just because I was born into a Jewish family.

 

Olga Horak, the author of Auschwitz to Australia, visited Hong Kong as part of Holocaust Memorial Day commemorations.

 

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