Miriam Rappaport and I had a lot in common: We were both teenagers from comfortable middle-class homes in Kassa, Hungary; we had blonde hair and blue eyes; and we were Jews. In the eyes of the Third Reich, this last fact was unpardonable. It is why they forced us to wear yellow stars. It is why in the spring of 1944 the police ordered our families to leave our homes and report to an old factory an hour away, along with the rest of the region's Jewish population. When my family arrived, we saw thousands of people living in terrible conditions, sleeping on straw mats, with nothing but a suitcase each, the clothes on their backs, and whatever dignity they had left. Miriam was sitting on the mat next to mine. The first thing I said to her was, "What are we doing here?" We did not know that this factory, where bricks were once made, was a halfway house to Auschwitz.
She was 15, I was 16 1/2. At night we would lie on our mats, talking about school, friends, and all the other things we missed. We didn't want to admit it to ourselves, but we knew our former lives were over. Only hope and faith sustained us. "It shouldn't get worse, it should only get better," our parents told us. "The important thing is that we are together."
After three weeks, in late May, the police herded us onto cattle cars. In the madness, I lost track of Miriam.
We didn't know where the train was going. On the third day someone looked out through a crack and said, "We just crossed the Polish border." Eventually we stopped. There were a lot of SS officers and emaciated men in striped pajamas. Black smoke and a terrible smell filled the air. A sign read AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU.
As we exited the train, a tall, handsome German officer directed men to the right, women to the left. Then the women were divided again. My mother and little sister Susie went with the older women and small children; my younger sister Vera and I with the young, healthy girls. Vera was taller and sturdier than I, and I remember how the officer put his hands on her shoulders and murmured, "strong." (Later, another prisoner whispered to me that he was Josef Mengele, the Angel of Death.) Everyone was screaming for their loved ones. "Take care of your sister!" my mother cried out to me. "Stay together!"
One of the men in striped pajamas seemed to be in a position of authority. Pointing to the chimneys, I asked him, "What is that smoke?"
He said very nonchalantly, "They are liquidating another camp. Your family is going there, to be gassed and put in the crematorium."
Shocked, I asked, "Why can't you lie? I want to hear a lie, not the truth."
"Concentrate on living," he replied. "Forget everything that was before."