This interview with Elisabeth Masur about surviving Auschwitz was conducted in February 2021 and has been edited for brevity and clarity.
About Elisabeth Masur
Elisabeth Masur was born in December 1927 in the city Selvus/Vynohradiv, at that time in Czechoslovakia and today in Ukraine. In 1944, Elisabeth, her family and all the other Jews in the city were deported by German nazists to Auschwitz. Elisabeth was one of the few who managed to survive, against all odds. Eventually, she made it to Sweden where she lives to this day, together with her children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren. She recently celebrated her 93rd birthday.
How much do you remember of the time before being deported to Auschwitz?
– I remember my first love. He kissed my hand and I’m sure I didn’t wash it for the rest of the day. We felt an intense longing to hug and grow old together. But I also remember the antisemitism that followed me during my entire youth. It was always present. Our parents protected us of course, to the best of their ability and I’m sure they suffered more than us. My siblings and I went to school for as long as we were allowed. In the spring of 1944 we saw German soldiers marching through the streets, and that was when we realized how serious the situation was. A month later we were already on the way to Auschwitz.
How did they deport you?
– They forced us into trains. Well, it was actually freight trains intended for horses and other animals. I believe we were about 70 people in one wagon. They had left a little bit of water and a bucket to be used as a toilet. For three days we were locked up in that wagon. When we arrived at Auschwitz, the selection started. My mother was told to go to the right with younger siblings. Our father went with my brother Emerich. My two year older sister Edit and I were told to go to the left. I remember that we turned around and waved to them. That was the last time I saw my parents and younger siblings.
– After the selection they cut our hair and dressed us in blue-striped prison clothes. We were all tattooed with a number. Mine was 9132. We were placed in barracks where we slept five people in each triple bunk bed, without any mattresses or blankets. Me, my sister and three friends from back home shared the bunk on top, closest to the ceiling. Water leaked through the roof when it was raining.
Did you talk to each other about what you thought would happen to you?
– No, we didn’t. The only thing we wanted was to survive, but we had no idea what to expect. We saw friends dying around us and in the end we didn’t have any human emotions left. Our only wish was to move on and live. I remember longing for that. I was just 17 years old and I hadn’t had time to live yet.
What is your strongest memory from the time in captivity in Auschwitz?
– At one point we were asked by an SS woman if we wanted to work, and we did. We didn’t know what it would be, but it turned out that our task was to transport our dead friends and fellow prisoners to the crematorium. I will never forget it. But I did the task. We did it over and over again when they commanded us. It was so incredibly inhumane that eventually we were completely apathetic. To this day I don’t understand how I could manage it.
“We were starving. It was terrible. I remember that we were always talking and thinking about food. The feeling of hunger was always present.”
– Another strong memory I have is my 17th birthday when my friends wanted to celebrate me. We climbed down from the bunks, hugged each other, danced, sang and tried to be happy in the moment. We tried to ignore where we were and what was going on around us. I got an extra piece of bread as a birthday gift, which was the best anyone could get, because we were so hungry. We were starving. It was terrible. I remember that we were always talking and thinking about food. The feeling of hunger was always present.
What do you remember from the liberation?
– Towards the end of the war the Germans no longer knew what to do with us. They put us on a train and sent us away. We stood close, close together. So close that we could not even move. The train went back and forth between different destinations for ten days. Eventually we arrived at the German-Danish border where the doors opened and we were free. I can’t understand how we survived that trip, but we did, myself and two friends who had been with me from the beginning.
How is it possible to live a normal life after having suffered through something like that?
– That’s a good question. We first came to Malmö in Sweden, where we were placed in quarantine for three weeks. After various trips I ended up in a refugee home outside of Södertälje. We did what we could to normalize our lives. It was later, when I had my own family that I felt a purpose with life. I’m now 93 years old and my time is limited. And I’m scared. I’m terribly scared and worried about what kind of world I’m leaving behind for my children and grandchildren.
“If the Jewish Community are sending me magazines, I always ask them to put them in envelopes, because what do I know about the mail man?”
You are scared because of the antisemetism that exists today?
– Yes, it’s all around me and it has even entered my living room through the TV. I see it even though I don’t want to. It won’t leave us alone. It’s in the air. Because of the fear, I’ve never spoken publicly about being a Jew. If the Jewish Community are sending me magazines, I always ask them to put them in envelopes, because what do I know about the mail man? Do you understand how I always carry the fear with me? When I throw away any paper or material related to Judaism, I always tear them apart. I might seem paranoid, but it is what it is.
Unlike in the 30s and 40s, today’s antisemitism comes from different directions. Except the right-wing antisemitism there is also the islamistic and that from the anti-Israeli left-wing. Do you see that too?
– Yes, that is exactly right. I fear it. I’ve been afraid my whole life. As a Jew I should walk around proudly and be happy about my people. You can see the great Jewish personalities we have everywhere in society, especially in culture and science. I feel connected to Israel, which has since its founding been surrounded by enemies. But unfortunately so much has happened to us and we are constantly targeted. Like I said, I’m worried about the world I’m leaving behind. Nevertheless, I’ve also had a happy period in my life. I got married and had a wonderful family with children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren. I’m humble and grateful for that.
How have you handled all the movies, documentaries and TV shows that have been made about the Holocaust and Auschwitz? Have you watched them or have you tried to stay away from them?
– In the beginning I didn’t want to watch anything. I really shouldn’t watch it. I’ve seen it in reality, and that’s enough. But then I started thinking about the possibility that I might get a glimpse of my parents or my siblings somewhere. What if they were still alive somewhere? But they’re not, I understand that. Actually, I didn’t know anything about my brother until a whole year had passed after the liberation. I had no idea he had survived. I found out that he was seriously ill in Italy. Luckily, he got better and managed to travel to Sweden so that we could finally reunite.
As a parent, how do you explain what you have been through to your children?
– You don’t. I’ve never talked to my children about it. Never. But I know that they know. It was much easier for me to speak to my friend’s daughter than with my own daughter. But they know it all. My grandchild has interviewed me, but that was when she was grown-up. She wanted me to tell her my story so I did, but I never shared the most horrible details.
What message would you like to share with our readers?
– If people had acted in time and protested, the Holocaust wouldn’t have happened. Because of that, I want to remind people to never remain passive and insensible when injustice occurs. It is crucial. I’ve even underlined it with a red pen in my notes. I also have a quote from the fellow survivor Cordelia Edvardsson: “Auschwitz, Auschwitz. But don’t tell the man, for there are no words, no language with which you could comprehend it. There are no letters for the scream. There are no letters for the scream.” (Editors translation). These words align so well with a memory I have from a mother who lost her daughter in Auschwitz. We were together in there. When her daughter died she started screaming. An SS guard came up to her, tied her feet to a tree and abused her. Her scream is still echoing. There are no letters for the scream.
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