Who Will Remember Us?
July 20, 2023
A Conversation with Auschwitz Survivor Mrs. Judith Berg
The world breathed life as I drove to see Mrs. Judith Berg. Rich greens, riotous flowers, and the warm exhale of summer breezes surrounded me.
Indoors, it was just as vibrant. Mrs. Berg sat on a textured blue couch, smiling and laughing with visitors.
But when she shared her story—the devastation, the brutality, the loss; and the courage, strength, and potent, undiluted faith—everything else faded away. She was there again—hearing little Mende’le’s hungry cries, feeling the press of desperate humanity on the cattle cars, standing motionless for hours at appel, forcing her feet to keep moving on the Death March, escaping the malicious Russian liberators.
There’s a thread of steel that winds her narrative together, an uncrushable will to live and an eternal bitachon that carried—still carries—her through.
This is her account.
My name is Judith Berg, née Gewirtz. I was born on July 10, 1926 in Kiralyhaus, Hungary. I was a pampered and beloved only child, born to my parents 16 years after their wedding.
My town had about 120 Jewish families, but we grew up between the gentiles. I went to public school, and my parents paid a bachur to teach me Hebrew.
My father was a successful farmer, and many non-Jews worked for him. The non-Jews were as anti-Semitic as they are today; they didn’t like us, but they needed us, so they respected us for the moment.
At six a.m. on the morning after Pesach, the town drummer was making noise, and we all came outside. We knew something was wrong—he was drumming much earlier than usual.
The Germans were already in town since before Pesach, and Jews were hiding as much as they could so they shouldn’t be seen, but nothing had been happening.
“No Jews should step out of their house until the next announcement,” the drummer said.
At eight o’clock, the Hungarian police, in their feathered hats and huge rifles, came to our house. One of them was my school friend’s father. I used to play at their house.
I threw myself down in the yard and said, “I am not going. If you want, you can shoot me here.”
My father started to cry, and he said, “Whatever is going to be with all the Jews is going to be with us. Shtei oif, mein kind—get up, my child.”
They gave us 10 minutes to pack up. We were taken to the shul, and the whole town was lined up, watching us. I don’t know if they were lined up out of their good will, to say goodbye, or they were there because they were curious to see what the Germans would do to us.
It was right after Pesach, and the Hungarians knew that we had no bread. Not one of them gave us even a slice of bread—and some of them had eaten from my family for years.
We stayed at the shul until the next morning.
The next morning, I saw wagons coming. The old people and the children were put onto wagons, and we walked to the next city, which was 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) away.
They closed off some streets and made a ghetto. My cousins and my grandmother got the owner’s room in the house. There wasn’t room for us, so my family slept in a haystack.
When I woke up the next morning, I didn’t recognize my mother. From the shock, even her eyebrows had gone white. Because he was considered one of the rich Jews, my father had been taken away from us.
They gave us nothing but a little bit of potatoes and beans. There was an oven in the yard where we stayed, and my mother would turn the potatoes into a kugel, but without salt, without schmaltz, without anything.
I had a little cousin Mende’le who lived near us at home. He would come to our house, and my mother used to always give him a little drumstick. In the ghetto, he was so hungry, nebach. Mende’le would come and cry to my mother, “Please give me a little drumstick.”
After four weeks, the Germans took us to the train station. The mothers were scared that their daughters would be noticed by the soldiers, so they put dirt on our faces and tied kerchiefs on our heads.
They put 90 or 100 people into each cattle car. There wasn’t room to sit—there wasn’t even room to stand. The children were crying; the babies were crying. There was no food. There was nobody to help them.
The Eibershter had rachmanus on us, and it started to rain. There was a tiny window, so every mother ran to that window with a diaper or something that could catch the rain. They dripped the water into their children’s mouths.
After three days, the train stopped, and they opened the cattle cars. We saw some emaciated Jewish men wearing striped uniforms. They asked us in Yiddish if we had something we could give them, because the Germans would take everything away from us anyhow. Whoever had something to give handed it to them.
I was 17 years old, and I was in Auschwitz.
Life in Auschwitz
They put young people in one group, mothers with children in another group, and men in a third group. They threw my grandmother onto a truck as if she was a piece of garbage.
I ran back to my mother. I didn’t want to stay with the young people. With his walking stick, Mengele grabbed me by my collar, and he pulled me back. In a strange twist of fate, Mengele saved my life.
They told us to get undressed, put our things in a pile, and shower. They shaved us and gave some of us numbers. My number is 8866, but the tattooist made a mistake. She made a four by mistake, so she crossed it out, and she put the six near it.
They gave us each a dress and chased us to a barrack. It was pouring cats and dogs, and as we ran, we saw flames burning into the sky. What did we know? We thought the flames were burning garbage or something.
We were 1,000 girls in the cold barrack, all crying and screaming.
The blockalteste, a Slavic girl, had been in Auschwitz for three years already. She didn’t have humanity left in her. I can see her right now; she wore a white blouse and a skirt, and she held a notebook in her hand.
She came out and started to yell, “Stop screaming and crying. Do you want the Germans to come in? They are going to shoot you all.” Then she told us, “Do you see the flames? The flames are your parents and siblings burning.” She gave us the date. “If any of you are going to be lucky and stay alive, you should remember the yahrtzeit.”
“Bitachon kept me alive”
The Germans would chase us outside early in the morning for tzeil appel, roll call. Just to occupy us, they made us carry bricks to one side and put them down on the other side; when all the bricks were on one side, they made us bring them back. We were outside dragging bricks all day in the burning sun or the pouring rain. At night, every 10 girls got one blanket to share.
They gave us black water called coffee in the morning. I don’t know what they put in it, but I can tell you, it had everything but coffee. Ten people got a small lump of bread to share every day. At lunchtime, they gave us some kind of soup. You could find anything in that soup. I was a lucky girl; I found a toothbrush in it.
We couldn’t drink the water because it was contaminated. We didn’t drink any water. Every few months, they let us shower. We were always afraid to go because sometimes they used gas instead of water.
We were always sharing news. “I saw somebody who heard from someone that the Hungarians are coming to take us back,” one girl would say. The news would travel quickly. We always lived with bitachon and trust; we always hoped it was true.
Bitachon was the only thing that kept me alive. I kept thinking, I will go on and I will survive. As hungry I am and as thirsty I am, I’m going to make it.
Some of us were taken to another lager, also in Auschwitz, and from there, we did field work, digging ditches for the army. Later, we were chosen to shovel coal at the coal mines.
We walked 10 kilometers to work every day. Everybody had only wooden shoes, and the snow got in. Whoever could not make it was shot right away.
After the Yamim Nora’im, nine months after we came to Auschwitz, the Germans did another selection. We were very afraid during the selection—we never knew if we were being chosen to work or to be sent to the crematorium.
We were put in a cattle car and taken to the Malchow ammunition factory to work. When we arrived there, I thought Mashiach had come. The room was warm. Everyone had a bunk for herself. Everyone had her own blanket. There was a table with a bench, and everybody sat down. Everyone got a bowl of white soup; it looked like rice with milk. I cannot tell you the happiness we felt. And then we looked in the soup, and little worms were wiggling in it. Nobody thought twice. We all ate it. We had just gone three days without eating or drinking.
In the morning, we were called again to appel. I took care of my cousin who was four years younger than I and another younger girl who attached herself to us. Before roll call every day, I would pinch my cousin’s cheeks so she should look healthy. I put two stones in her shoes so she could look taller; my cousin was a little short.
If they didn’t like how a girl looked, the Germans would take her to the gas chambers. We never returned from tzeil appel with all the people we had come with. So I made up my rules for myself. I would stand at roll call, and I wouldn’t move. People could come in front of me and behind me, but I would stay still. I also didn’t look at the Germans; I thought they would not see me if I didn’t see them.
Always on my mind
One day, when we were going to work in the field, we saw an open truck with Jewish men being taken out to be killed. They were screaming, “Mir gein oif kiddush Hashem—We’re going al kiddush Hashem.”Everybody was looking, trying to find her father or brother.
One of the men said, “I am from Klausenberg. Are any of you from Klausenberg?”
None of us was from Klausenberg.
He screamed, “Kinderlach, farges unz nisht—Children, don’t forget us! Meir gein oif kiddush Hashem, farges unz nisht—We’re going al kiddush Hashem, don’t forget us!”
That minute I made up my mind. I said, “If Hashem gives me life, I will never forget this person.”
After the liberation, I always light a yahrtzeit lecht for him. I say, “I don’t know your name, but this is for you. Ru lechtig in Gan Eden—Rest peacefully in Gan Eden.”
Since then, I have been working all the years to make sure people don’t forget the Yidden we lost.
How many survivors are left? There are not too many my age. Who is going to remember us? Who is going to remember the 6 million Jews we lost? We didn’t yet give birth to 6 million Jews. Since 1945, I’ve been talking about this. Whenever I have an audience, I talk about this—whether they want to hear it or not. (She laughs.) I go to sleep with it; I wake up with it.
When you have a yahrtzeit, when you say Yizkor, remember these Yidden. If you’re lucky and you don’t have to say Yizkor, you can still light a candle l’iluy nishmas the kedoshim.
March of terror
In May, the factory stopped working because there was so much bombing.
We didn’t know what to do. We were lost and starving. We wandered around the camp, eating the leaves and the grass that had started to sprout.
The Russians were coming, so the Nazis pushed us farther into Germany. (Auschwitz was in Poland; Malchow was in Germany.) They made us walk for more than a week without anything to eat. We saw corpses on the streets and we saw food on the streets, but if anyone bent down just to pick something up, they were shot. We were so, so hungry on the Death March.
Liberation, not freedom
On May 9, we were liberated by the Russians. The English and the Americans took care of the survivors, but the Russians were barbarians. While we were escaping the soldiers, we once fell into piles of manure. Another time, we hid in bushes. The next morning, we woke up itchy and swollen; the bush was poison ivy.
Finally, we found a non-Jewish Polish couple traveling from Germany to Poland, who gave us a ride to the train station. There, we met a Jewish Polish boy, who gave us rolls. We must have swallowed them whole. This boy had been liberated months earlier and was well-dressed in a gray suit and hat. He was already working in the black market, carrying batteries for cigarette lighters (which were illegal) which he was going to sell in Hungary. In exchange for the rolls, we had to carry the contraband when we crossed the border.
We climbed into a wood-carrying freight train which was packed with Hungarian soldiers coming home from the war. In the freezing open air, surrounded by wood and soldiers, we made the trip back to Hungary.
We arrived in Uihel, Hungary, and saw a boy from my hometown, who called out, “Come stay in Uihel for the night. Tomorrow, I’ll put you on a train to Kiralyhaus.” I don’t know how he recognized us—we were covered in coal dust from the open train.
This boy had a house and was already engaged to a girl much older than he was. His kallah fed us, gave us water to wash up with, and gave us dresses to wear.
The next morning, we got on the train to Kiralyhaus.
When I arrived at the station, I stopped. What should I do? Where should I go?
I saw Chaim, a boy I knew.
“I live in your aunt’s house with ten other survivors,” he told me. “It is furnished because a German family lived there for a year. We even have a kosher kitchen.”
They bought food with money from the United Restitution Organization, which had a branch in Budapest.
It was a great simchah when our rav came home. Blond haired and blue eyed, he had survived the war wearing a German uniform. I took care of the rav. I made sure he had food and watched as the farmers milked the cows so he could have chalav Yisrael milk.
A postwar wedding
My husband-to-be had been fighting on the Hungarian front line of the war and had been home since November. He was black-marketeering when he met someone who told him that the Kiralyhaus Rav was home. He had learned in Kiralyhaus before the war, so he took the next train there.
On the first Shabbos after I came home, the town drummer announced, “The borders are closing. Anyone who wants to travel should go now because soon you’re going to need a visa to go anywhere.”
My cousin had left me to stay with her aunt in Budapest. I was alone.
Where should I go? Should I stay in Kiralyhaus by myself? I thought. I didn’t know what to do.
The Kiralyhaus Rav saw me crying and told me, “Don’t worry, tochter. You can come with me wherever I go.”
A few hours later, the rav called me in. “I have a good idea,” he said. “You should marry this bachur.”
The rav called in my husband and told him the same thing.
He said, “If she wants me, I’d be glad to marry her.”
The truth is that before the war, my father knew my husband, and he liked him. People were mentioning my husband as a shidduch before the war.
My husband told me, “The rav said we should get married.” That was the proposal.
I didn’t think twice. I said, “If the Kiralyhaus Rav says we should get married, then we should get married.”
I was thinking, I don’t belong to anybody; I don’t have anybody. I don’t have where to sleep or where to get a slice of bread. What do I have to lose?
My chassan said, “My sisters are home. Come stay with me in their town.”
Then, I remembered that my mother had always said, “A kallah never goes to her chassan’s house by herself.” I wondered what my mother would say if she knew that I was going to stay in my chassan’s city.
But I didn’t have a choice; the borders were closing, so I went.
Many people from nearby cities attended our wedding. They wanted to see if anyone they knew had survived the war. It’s hard to believe that we were able to dance just two months after the war.
Never forget the kedoshim. Never forget the generation of special people who went through Gehinnom on this world.
If you have your health and your freedom, you’re lucky. Be happy and satisfied; thank Hashem for what you have. The sonei did not get me. Today, I have a family of rabbanim, dayanim, and bnei Torah.
I am still here.