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.
In the horror of the Holocaust, Eva Lux Braun saved another girl's life—and a remarkable friendship was born.
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."
I can't begin to describe our terror as Vera and I were lined up with the other young women and taken to the showers. Our heads were shaved and we were stripped and disinfected as the guards smirked at our nakedness. We were given discarded clothes, herded to quarantine, and six weeks later, led to permanent barracks in an adjoining camp. As Vera and I stood in line for our meager food—thin soup and a piece of hard, dry bread—a girl approached us. It was Miriam! We were thrilled to find each other again, but clearly she was frightened, desperate, and alone. It was common for girls to bond together in the concentration camps for support; there was even a name for it: lagerschwester. "Eva," she said, "will you be my camp sister?"
From then on, the three of us were inseparable. We were together when they tattooed our forearms; at the quarry where we loaded rocks into wheelbarrows; and at night, in our hard bunks, unable to sleep. We were kicked and beaten, called swine, whores—names I'd never heard before. When Vera and Miriam refused to eat because they didn't want to live anymore, I made them eat. When they cried at night, I comforted them. When they refused to work, I urged them on so they wouldn't get beaten. Every five minutes we were told that the only way out of Auschwitz was through the chimneys. I knew my mother and sister had left that way, but I prayed my father was still alive. My dream that Vera and I would see him again kept me going.
One day the elder of the camp block said the guards needed 200 girls to work at a factory in Germany. They assembled us and divided us into two groups. For the first time in nine months, Vera and Miriam were separated from me. Everyone was ordered to strip. When the guard led my group to the showers, and when hot water, not gas, came out of the pipes, I knew that I was leaving Auschwitz and that my sisters were condemned to death.
After the shower we were herded back into the anteroom. The other group was still there, naked and shivering. Miriam and Vera were holding each other, sobbing. There was a bench between us and an SS officer with a rifle and a dog. On the floor lay a hose. Suddenly the guard was called away, leaving us unwatched.
Many times I've wondered what made me do it—despair, the will to help my sisters survive, the courage to resist. I toppled over the bench, picked up the hose and began to spray the other group. "Get wet! Everybody get wet!" I cried. When the guard came back he couldn't tell which group was which. He demanded to know who had done this, but miraculously, nobody turned me in. Fortunately, we were needed for the German war effort or they would have killed us all. By the time he had regrouped us, Miriam and Vera were with me.
We spent the winter of 1945 in Germany marching from one factory to another. With no coats, and in shoes held together with string, dozens of Jewish prisoners walked for miles through the snow. Our numbers dwindled. Several times, when Miriam and Vera wanted to give up, I forced them to continue—anyone who sat down was shot. At Salzwedel concentration camp, a French POW told us that the end was near and urged us to hold on. That night, American tanks entered the camp, but we were too frail to celebrate.
After several weeks in a transient camp in Germany, Miriam and I parted ways. She hugged me tightly and cried and thanked me for taking care of her. She returned to our hometown, while Vera and I traveled to Budapest, where we had an uncle, finally ending up back in Kassa; the city had been annexed by Czechoslovakia and renamed Kosice. Miriam was no longer there. Vera went to live in a boarding school in Bratislava, and I stayed in Kosice for a few years, working as a cashier in a stationery store, hoping against hope that my father would return. He never did.
One day, while visiting family in Nitra, I was reunited with a distant relative named Eli Braun, whose family had survived the war by assuming Christian identities. Eli and I became engaged. He had relatives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where Vera had landed two years earlier. In January 1950, Eli and I arrived in Williamsburg. A few days later, I was leaving my apartment building when I saw a young woman walking down the street. She was heavier than I remembered and wore a blonde sheitel, or wig, but there was no doubt: It was Miriam. We ran to each other, tears of joy streaking our faces, and embraced. She told me she was married to another survivor, Sam Brach, who had lost his parents and nine siblings in the Holocaust, and they had a daughter.
"Where do you live?" I asked.
"Right here!" Miriam said, and pointed across the street.
There is a saying from the Talmud, "...anyone who preserves a single life is as though he preserves the whole of mankind." Miriam acknowledged that by saving her, I had saved the children she would someday have. We lived across the street from each other for two years, and our families spent Sundays together; her daughters would sprawl on my floor, watching Lassie with my son. They often asked us about the war, but we didn't like to talk about it. We tried so hard not to remember. Today Vera is in poor health, and Miriam, a widow, lives near me. Neither of us likes to speak of those dark ages, but I feel it is my mission to talk about that time. I tell my story to high school children in New York City and to visitors at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem, where I have volunteered as a guide. My rabbi says that nothing is coincidence; everything is preordained. So I must have been meant to cross paths with Miriam, not just once, but twice; to survive where six million died; to live to bear witness, while I still can.
— As told to Dana White
A version of this story can be found in Small Miracles of the Holocaust: Extraordinary Coincidences of Faith, Hope, and Survival (Lyons).
Printed from Oprah.com on Sunday, March 9, 2014
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