Story of Schulamith Khalef, nee Sylvia Wagenberg
Notes written by Regina St. for her sick friend Summer 2003
My name is Schulamith Khalef, born in 1928 as Sylvia Wagenberg in Dessau. In either 1934 or 35 my mother Lia (Lea) moved to Berlin with me and my sister Carla. My father, who was divorced from my mother, emigrated to Palestine. Two years later my mother enrolled us in the Jewish children’s home/school in Caputh. Gertrud Feiertag, a pioneer in modern learning, was in charge of the home. She was my guardian until 1943. She died in the gas chambers in Auschwitz. I was the last person with whom she was able to exchange a few words. At that time she was already gravely ill.
On 9th November 1938, the so-called Kristallnacht, the four or five houses which made up the children’s home were destroyed by people from Caputh and Potsdam. They used stones, axes and other objects. I can still remember the grand piano floating on the Havel. The Beth Einstein which belonged to Albert Einstein was also badly damaged. This was a primitive act committed out of blind hatred, which I can’t explain and for which there are no words. We children and the adults were shocked to our depths, were then threatened and hunted out of the house.
I then fled to my mother who was in Berlin and arrived in the middle of the night. Quite alone I ran from the Kurfürstendamm to Fasanen Street, where my mother lived. I was terrified. I was, after all, only ten years old. The synagogues were burning and all the Jewish shops were damaged and their windows shattered. On the streets lay the contents of the shops. It was a free for all. Crowds of people rushed into the shops and looted them. Jewish people were attacked and beaten up. Religious men had their beards pulled and were mocked. It was a dreadful sight, especially for a ten year old child running helplessly through the streets. Unfortunately, my mother wasn’t at home, so I sat on the steps of the building until she came. The first thing my mother had to do was to buy me clothes, because I had left empty-handed when they chased us out of Caputh.
I can still remember today that my mother bought me a pretty dark blue taffeta dress with a white collar with hand-made embroidery. It was beautiful and I was delighted with it. How a child could be happy in that crazy time with just a dress! My sister Carla and I stayed with my mother until the beginning of 1939. Then she took us to the Jewish children’s home at 92 Fehrbelliner Street. I attended the Jewish school in Choriner Street.
Fräulein Bamberger, who ran the home, welcomed us. Unfortunately my sister Carla soon left because she went to Neuendorf to get agricultural training in preparation to her emigration to Palestine. The Jewish children’s home in the Fehrbelliner Street was, at that time, run according to Jewish tradition and followed Jewish rules. It was completely different to that in Caputh. These two homes cannot be compared. Caputh lay outside the town in a beautiful natural setting. The home in the Fehrbelliner Street lay in the city centre and in 1939 the war had already broken out. The consequences of the anti-Semitism, and the laws that followed became more merciless. I stayed in the Fehrbelliner Street from 1939 until it was closed down in summer 1942. At the beginning my big sister was with me, but when she went to Neuendorf I felt very lonely indeed, because my parents were also not in Berlin.
In the children’s home the helpers mothered us in the deepest sense of the word. It wasn’t an orphanage, but a children’s home with about 45 to 50 children. In one room I slept with seven girls who were all about the same age. It was quite a big room. We all had a bed and a bedside table. Luckily my bed was near the window, so I could read late at night by the moonlight. Here we also played our favourite family-game of mother, father, brothers and sisters. I can remember the sisters Erika and Meta Haitner, the sisters Ruth and Thea Fuss and the twins Ruth and Regina Anders, who we called Anders dolls. I remember the sweet twins Ernst and Herbert Czerniak.
All of the these children died in Auschwitz. I can’t remember the names of any of the other children. They were different ages and not in my class. I was also the only child who Fräulein Bamberger sent from the Volkschule to the Jewish Mittelschule. It happened like this: Mrs. Bamberger called me into her office. Of course I was really scared because I didn’t know what I had done. You weren’t invited into her office every day. To my great but pleasant surprise she explained to me that I was to be sent to the Mittelschule. Beforehand I had to take four different exams. The school was in the Grosse Hamburger Strasse and was later a deportation center. It was from there that I was later sent to Auschwitz. As I have said, I learnt a lot in the Mittelschule, was very happy there and felt fine. We learned interesting things, for example different languages, all at the highest level. I had lots of good friends there, all were my age. There were 55 children in one class. My best friend was Ruth Knebel. She had a fat black plait. She and the other children collected clothes for me so that I had something to wear. All the children were friends and had befriended me as well. Most of them had at least one parent, whereas I was completely alone. Later almost all of them were killed. Ruth Knebel was one of the first to be taken away, the others later. I don’t know what happened to the rest of the children. Their sad, inhuman fate remains a deep chasm in my life to this day.
Our teacher was an excellent academic. We liked her a lot and respected her. Our history teacher was a good teacher but he had a small stutter when he spoke and we laughed at him. We had to learn a hundred dates from him, which luckily I found quite easy to do. The second teacher, who is unforgettable to me was Herr Loewy whom we called Stifte (pencil) because he was such a tiny man. He taught us bible studies but his real speciality was music. He was a fantastic music teacher. From him I learned the notes and how to play the flute. That saved my life in Auschwitz but unfortunately not his. I played in the girl’s choir/orchestra in Auschwitz with his niece Ester Krümel(crumb).
A big problem for me was walking to and from the children’s home. In the street I was attacked, mocked and beaten. It was traumatic for me. I felt threatened for two reasons. I always had to walk alone, without other school friends, and I had black eyes and black hair. I looked like the Nazi stereotype of a Jewess. When we later had to wear the Star of David, all Jewish children were threatened because we then all recognisable.
In the children’s home, Shabbat and the Jewish holidays were always a wonderful experience. We went to the synagogue in the Oranienburger Street, sang there in the choir and were accompanied by the wonderful organ. I remember Cantor Rosenthal; because I sang Alto, I sang with the boys. All the children in the home loved Friday evenings. We children scrubbed the dining room. Tables and benches were covered with white table-cloths, to make everything look festive. The Shabbat candlesticks were cleaned and white candles were put in. We all washed and put on our Shabbat clothing.
Everything was very festive. We all sat round a large orange table, which was made up of lots of small tables. Because there were no boys, every Friday evening, a different girl made the Kiddush with bread and wine and the candles were lit. There was good bread, better than during the week. Then we sang Schier Hamalot and said grace in Hebrew. After the meal the tables were cleared and several children played games with Fräulein Lewin. Because I loved these games I always sat with Fräulein Lewin. The other children sat with Fräulein Guttmann, who read to them out of books. It was a beautifully calm environment.
I can remember a few people, mostly Fräulein Bamberger who ran the home. She was a strict, good person who carried out her academic and administrative responsabilities very well. Then there was also Fräulein Guttmann, the head teacher and Fräulein Lewin. Both were our teachers. Their academic knowledge, their motherly love helped us. We all loved them and they us. There was also Fräulein Ganz and Fräulein Gutermann, who looked after the infants. We needed lots of love and attention. When I think back I realise that this was a very difficult task since all the children had had traumatic experiences and had lost their beloved parents. They also didn’t know what was yet to come, thank G-d. For all of them, the end of their lives was appalling.
Because I walked from school to the children’s home late in the afternoon, I had more friends in school and I was also a little bit older than most children in the home. I can remember three experiences in the home connected with my health.
1. Because I often suffered from tonsilitis, the doctor decided my tonsils had to be taken out, so I sat on Fräulein Guttmann’s lap during the operation. As I then however started to bleed very badly, they had to stop operating, so I was left with one tonsil. 2.The second experience was when another girl ran into me. That was in the wash room and by chance I had a hairclip in my mouth, which cut my throat, but I also fell onto the washbasin and hurt my chin which bled profusely. In order to stitch the wounds they took me to the Jewish hospital in the Iranische Street. 3.The third very serious illness was scarlet fever. I had to stay in quarantine for three weeks and could not come into contact with other children. Of course I felt very lonely and isolated. What was amazing was, that I got better.
I went to the school and lived in the children’s home until 1942 when both were closed, and with that we lost an oasis of happiness. I went to my guardian Gertrud Feiertag. At the time she worked for the Jewish organisation in the Oranienburger Street.
I also had to work there since all Jewish children had to do forced labour from the age of twelve. My job was sorting out deportation letters to Jewish families. Because of that I got the special privilege of being allowed to travel by tram or underground, which at that time was prohibited to Jews. As a thirteen year old girl I knew exactly what it meant to the poor people to have to go on the transports.
My sister Carla and her entire youth group who had gone to the agricultural school in Neuendorf to get ready for the trip to Palestine had their plans disrupted and were deported to Auschwitz on 19th April 1943 (a day before Hitler’s birthday). And I went with them. We were completely unprepared for what we found.
Aunt Trude Feiertag and all the others from the Jewish organisation, from the Jewish home and so on were deported to Theresienstadt and from there to Auschwitz. Aunt Trude told me that in Auschwitz, before she was sent to the gas chamber.
When we arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau and got down from the train we heard the shout of the SS who were standing there with dogs and shouted loudly ‘quickly, quickly!’ We didn’t know in what kind of a hell we had landed, but we learnt it quickly enough. Their shouting meant the first selection and separated men and women. Our group was made up of young people and so we stayed together, the group of young women. We came to Birkenau, one of the biggest camps in Auschwitz, where the crematoriums stood and where the exterminations took place. Any personal belongings which we had with us we had to leave at the station. We were left with only the clothes on our bodies, and these, too, they took away from us later. At the same time we also got a number tattooed on our arm. It was done alphabetically. Morning and evening we had a roll-call in front of the shed we slept in, which sometimes lasted for hours. People were sent to different places of work, among others, to a munitions factory.
In the youth group there was a young girl called Hilde Grünbaum with whom I got very friendly. She was five years older than me and had also gone to the Jewish Mittelschule in Grosse Hamburger Strasse. We had both had the same music teacher Herr Loewy. Hilde helped me and my sister Carla and other girls from the group to get into the girl’s orchestra of Auschwitz. My sister and I played the flute. Our conductress was Alma Rose, who was a niece of the composer Gustav Mahler. She was an outstanding musician. When she took over the orchestra, she lifted the musical level. All the members of the orchestra played on three-piece wooden instruments.
Alma procured scores from the orchestra in the men’s camp. Our ensemble was completely eclectic. There were guitars, mandolins and flutes all playing together. It was unbelievable that we could play Brahms, Monti, Sarasate, Strauss, Calman, Lehar and arias from Madame Butterfly by Puccini and Rigoletto by Verdi and also opperetta arias in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Luckily, we had Esther Loewy, in our orchestra. She could play the accordion, was very musical and had a good voice. She sang songs by Schubert and also well known folk songs. We also got other girls for our choir. We played when people went to work in the morning and returned. However, many awful things happened. I’d like to write about one of them.
We had to walk in a quick march. When an SS woman noticed that a young girl wasn’t keeping time she ordered her dog to attack the poor girl. The huge dog tore her to pieces. I have never been able to forget this dreadful sight for the rest of my life.
One by one, all the members of the orchestra suffered from typhoid, including me. We had to go to isolation, but because we were members of the orchestra we were saved from selection. Our block was opposite the crematorium and we saw the smoke day and night. When the Hungarian transports arrived in the summer of 1944, most people were sent straight away to the crematorium. These did not have the capacity to burn so many bodies. So the people were thrown into graves nearby and burnt there. The dreadful smell and sight of burning corpses has haunted me my whole life.
From the morning to the evening we were in the orchestra block and we practiced. These hours gave us a short respite from the awful things which were going on around us. One member of the orchestra called Arila could no longer stand the situation in Birkenau. She threw herself against the electric fence and died there.
One day, Alma Rose got sick and died shortly afterwards from an unknown illness.
After her death a Russian woman called Sonja took over the orchestra. She insisted that the Jewish members of the orchestra leave at once although they played better than the others. We got the order to wash ourselves and to collect our possessions. On 1st November 1944 we were put onto cattle vans and reached Bergen-Belsen a few days later.
They took us to sheds and we stayed in quarantine without any kind of care. The sanitary conditions were catastrophic. The water in the so-called washroom was ice-cold. It was winter. There was just one shower. People pushed against each other to get to the washroom, and in these conditions it was impossible to keep clean. We occupied ourselves with intelligent games to keep our morale and spirits up. After a few weeks, a factory to weave nylon thread was set up outside the camp. At the beginning we didn’t know for what reason. Later we learned that it was to be used for the military.
Bergen-Belsen was really not a death camp, but the sanitary conditions were very bad and led to typhoid epidemics, diarrhoea and people died like flies. Because we worked, the conditions were a bit better for us. The women from the orchestra stood together and supported each other. Because of this we didn’t lose heart and strengthened our morale. I slept, head to toe, with Hilde Grünbaum in one bed. Hilde cared for me and also another girl called Ilse. We were both the youngest in the group.
On 15th April 1945, Bergen-Belsen was liberated by the English. A large tank drove through the camp and announced our liberation. We had hoped that this day would come, but never believed that we would live to experience it. When we counted the number of survivors, we realised that many had not lived to see this day. In spite of all our care, we hadn’t managed to save everybody. Also, even on the day of liberation and for days after, many, many people died.
An English army doctor set up a hospital at once. All the sick people who could not be treated there were sent to Sweden. Huge piles of corpses had to be buried as quickly as possible. You could smell them throughout the camp. The former camp commander Kramer and an SS woman Grese and lots of other SS personell were made to help with the burial of the victims while the English army rabbi said Kaddish.
When we felt stronger we tried to find our former friends from the youth group who had been liberated in different places. We came together in Gehringshof and founded the ‘Buchenwald Kibbutz.’ We had the vision of going to Palestine. At first we accompanied by the Jewish brigade (from Palestine) to Antwerp. Then to a small harbour in southern France. From there we travelled on a tiny freighter to Haifa. There the freighter was impounded by the English and we were taken to a camp in Alit. After some time we were allowed to leave the camp and travelled on to our goal- the kibbutz of Buchenwald - today ‘Kibbuz Afikim’- in the Jordan valley.
Mrs. Khalef died shortly after dictating her story in Tel Aviv.