“I am here today to honour my mother Mascha Schainberg and to tell you about her story of courage, strength and resilience and to share with you her miracle of surviving Auschwitz.
Mascha was born in Bialystok Poland, she was the youngest of four sisters. She had a large and happy family and her home was always full of friends, cousins and other family members who all used to gather there.
But the good times were short-lived. When Mascha was just twelve years old the Nazis came to their home, pointed rifles in their faces and hurried them out, with barely a chance to grab any clothing or personal items. And from that moment on nothing was the same again. Just like that she, her Mother Zelda and three older sisters Elka, Chaica and Feiga were torn away from the life they knew and loved.
They were taken to a Ghetto in Bialystok, where the walls were very high. There was no way out. Mascha recalls how her older sister Elka discovered a tunnel that led to the outside. But when an SS guard caught her in the tunnel she received 25 brutal lashes as punishment. The vicious assault marked the end of trying to escape and with it hope began to fade.
And from bad, it only got worse. A few months passed at the Ghetto in Bialystok until the Nazis packed them into boxcar trains. They rode cramped up for two days without any food or water until they arrived at what Mascha can only describe as ‘the living hell’ – Auschwitz.
As the SS guards pushed them out of the train they were immediately put into lines for selection. While Mascha and her sisters were sent to the right, her mother was sent to the left. And in that moment, Mascha’s Mother knew what lay ahead. She told Mascha, her little girl, that she is now going to Kiddish Hashem and she must not forget that her father is in South America. He was there on business not knowing that he was on the last ship out.
In a last desperate attempt, her mother held onto her four girls, refusing to be separated from her children, when an SS guard hit her over the head with the back of his rifle. That was Mascha’s last memory of her mother. She had to be carried away bleeding by other prisoners into the back of a cattle truck. Later that day, her children including her youngest, Mascha, saw a large black cloud of smoke coming out of two chimneys. There was an awful stench of burning human flesh in the air. Without understanding why they knew that their mother was up those chimneys.
With no time to comprehend or even mourn the loss of their Mother, Mascha and her sisters were stripped and shaven to the skin. They were tattooed with a number on their left arm. Her number is 34746. From then on that was her new identity; she was just a number now and didn’t even have a name anymore.
They were then issued with striped uniforms with no underwear, and sent to the barracks where they slept like sardines in triple tied rows of bunks.
Mascha remembers the heavy labour she was made to do, like carrying stones from A to B and then back to A without reason. This was the sort of psychological and physical torture inflicted by sadistic SS guards. Another job she recalls was carrying heavy logs of trees in the forest. In winter they were not even allowed to bend down to eat snow, in desperation for something to fill their weak bodies. Shoes were an issue in the sub zero conditions, as they had to wear heavy wooden clogs. And after a long hard day they would return to the dark barracks. Sometimes they were given watery soup or a slice of bread. Sometimes they were given colored water that was supposed to be coffee. And sometimes they got nothing at all. Mascha used to nibble at her tiny slice of bread in a bid to make it last until the next day.
She had a small bowl that she was forced to both eat from and also use for her needs, as inhumane Nazis only allow them to go to the toilet once a day.
Mascha’s sisters suffered from malnutrition and became very weak and depressed from their wounds and terrible abuse. As the days went by one by one they gave up on life. One of her sister’s was sent to the prison which had a tiny window. When Mascha went to see her, she handed her a little cloth, saying she won’t need it anymore. Mascha had always looked up to and admired her older sisters. All three of whom did not manage to last even a month in Auschwitz.
But Mascha went on. She endured surprise selections held by the Nazis at regular intervals. By the flick of a finger people were chosen to either live or die. On one occasion she was taken into a Sauna for a selection. It was here that she saw the evil Dr Mengela coming. Lucky her very petite frame and thin body allowed her to break a small window and squeeze herself through it, hiding under a bunker in one of the barracks. When SS guards came into the barracks with Alsatian sniffer dogs, she thought that was the end but by some miracle, the dogs didn’t sniff her out or find her, and she lived to fight another day.
Her instinct for survival kept her going as she developed some skills to obtain extra food. She used to sneak to the back of the kitchen next to her barracks and collect potato peels from the rubbish bins. One day she was spotted by a Kapo, a prison trustee, many of them criminals whom inmates feared. This fierce woman gave her such a beating stamping her boots all over Mascha’s small body and in anger reported her to the SS guards. Because the Kapo was so enraged she by mistake wrote Mascha’s number down incorrectly. And so another miracle kept Mascha from the gas chamber.
One day during a selection she was commended to go and have a shower. She was issued with a piece of soap that had the inscription SIF which reads RAIN JIDISH FETS in German. This translates to Clear Jewish Fat. After the shower she was sent into the gas chamber which was full of other inmates. She was there overnight. People were crying. But because of a malfunction they were released in the morning, straight into another selection. She was chosen to go to work and managed to survive the gas chamber at the last moment. Some of those people she never saw again.
Months before the war finished Mascha was transferred to Birchenau. There she saw how the Nazis were beginning to destroy evidence. When the Germans evacuated Auschwitz in January 1945 they transported her by truck to Ravensbrueck and finally to Mahof were she was liberated by the Russian army.
Through a series of small miracles Mascha managed to survive four years of horrendous abuse in Auschwitz. On liberation she weighed only 30 kg.
She and a friend walked back to Bialistok by foot hoping to find some relatives alive. They went into abandoned German homes for food shelter and clothing. Her friend died on the way. To her sorrow and deep disappointment there was nobody left in Bialistok.
Thereafter she was taken by a humanitarian organization to a children’s hospital, and was put into an orphanage in Bielsko. In March 1947 through the Jewish Joint Organization she located her father in Bolivia South America, and travelled to reunite with him.
In 1948 she married my late father. They lived in La Paz, Bolivia. She had two children, my late brother and myself. After her son Shammy’ passing away she moved to South Africa to be closer to her family.
In January of this year I went with my mother to Poland to take part in the 70th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz. It was a very special and very emotional time for us together. After 70 years I could even still smell the stench of burnt human flesh, and it was only then when I was standing there that I realized the suffering my mother went though. Although, I will luckily never be able to fully understand it.
My mother is a proud woman today because she says that Hitler did not succeed with his grand plan. Today she is alive, she has children, she has grandchildren, she has great grandchildren. In fact she says that today our family home resembles that of the one she remembers growing up in before it was all so cruelly ripped away.
My mother is a kind and loving person but she will NEVER forget or forgive the sinners and murderers that committed crimes against her mother, sisters, family and all the other victims of the Holocaust.
Remembering them is the key to preventing the same atrocities from occurring again. And so we must always remember the very real people, the families and the lives that were lost. Not just today but every day we must remember to ensure that it never happens again! Not to our children, not to theirs, not to anyone…ever again.”
All rights to share or publish this information is reserved to the author Doris Krinsky