'That's the thing about tragedy,' she said, 'sometimes you can completely forget that it happened. Completely. And then one day, you'll be doing something overwhelmingly normal - then perhaps there's a blockage in the shower pipes, and in that second when you wait for the water to come, the memories will swallow you. Just for a moment, you're 16 again, standing in a shower that you're not quite sure is a shower, hair hacked off, involuntarily naked, freezing... and then the water hits you, and you snap back into reality - an 80-something year old woman who survived, and let me tell you, I think all of this is the best revenge, don't you?' Her eyes sparkled with defiance.
'Oh, come on, Ben.' She threw up her arms in victory, 'This! Life! They tried to get rid of us - all of us, and now I have a big beautiful family - I've made three more generations!' She paused for a moment, her head slightly tilted in thought, 'and my hair… that’s my little private revenge. I've barely cut it since they did.' She winked.
Hana fell silent, twisting a rogue strand of hair around her finger and letting it drop onto her lap, before picking it up and doing the same again, and again.
‘I don’t think they took our hair for profit,’ she said, still watching the strands snaking around her knuckles, ‘I think that was a convenient secondary thought, I think they took it to try and take away our humanity just a little bit more.’ She sighed. ‘You know, Ben, I lived through it, and I still can’t believe that it happened.’
By Ben’s maths, Hana was almost ninety. She was plump, with cascades of brilliant white hair falling down past her hips and pooling in her lap. Her hands, twisted from old age, were stained with colour - Ben smiled as he remembered her reasoning for becoming a painter, ‘It was forbidden to be a Künstler, an artist, so I decided that that is what I should become.’ Whenever she admitted to one of these tiny acts of rebellion, a wicked smile would flash across her face. Ben suspected that it was, in fact, these little acts that allowed her to speak so freely of her past - she feels as those she has defeated her demons. Perhaps she has.
'Do you think it heard all of that?' she said suddenly, snapping out of her trance, 'do I need to repeat anything?' Ben couldn't help but chuckle - in the beginning, it took three attempts to start their interview, as Hana shouted for the recorder, leaning close to it as though it were a microphone. She was nothing if not a vivacious woman, fiercely proud of her history, incredibly willing to tell her story, and determined to defy everything the Nazi’s had ever made her do - Rutka Hana Wolczak was one of the last survivors of the holocaust.
She had arrived at Auschwitz II-Birkenau in 1942, thrown from the door of a train carriage and into the jaws of a vicious Alsatian, before being whipped for crying, then thrown into line.
‘It was the appropriate greeting for a visit to Hell, don’t you think?’ she had joked. It was remarkable how she managed to inject life into her accounts of such atrocities.
‘I remember the smell, it was like nothing you had ever come across before - my sister suggested it was some kind of meat that they were cooking for us, we soon realised it was certainly a type of meat, but not the kind that should be cooked.’
‘From the train we were taken to die zentrale Sauna, it was not like the sauna’s that we know today - we were robbed of our hair, stripped naked, and forced into a shower room. Now, Ben, you must understand that we had all been told that the shower rooms were where we were sent to be killed. Water has never felt so good as it did in that moment, when we realised it was in fact a shower, and not a gas chamber. Once we got out, we were smeared with this terrible green fluid, it made your skin burn, and they used mops to apply it, so that they did not have to touch us. From then on we were untermensch - sub-human.’
‘After that, we were given those awful striped uniforms to wear, and this.’ Hana shook her bracelets down her wrist, and pulled up her sleeve to reveal numbers etched into her forearm - 791536. ‘and then, well… you know, the rest is …history. But I have never worn stripes, ever again,’ She tugged her sleeve back down over her tattoo. ‘and nobody ever gets to see that.’
‘I know it’s no comparison, but I understand.’ Ben said, unbuttoning his sleeve and pushing it up his arm. Evidence of burns climbed from his hand right up his forearm, reaching toward his elbow.
‘Oh, my. That’s quite a scar.’
‘I used to make up stories about it when I was younger - always a heroic act involving fire… there were so many schools, and so many stories. It was ridiculous, really. My father only told me it was from an accident, so I never had a real answer to share. I never truly knew what happened. I don’t remember anything.’
‘Why so many schools?’
‘We just moved a lot, for my father’s job.’ Ben didn’t like to talk about his father - in reality, he didn’t like to recognise that his father existed. Much like Hana’s private revenge acts, Ben had one too. He was a journalist, hell-bent on defying his Nazi father by telling the story of every Holocaust survivor he could find. At eighteen, Ben had left his father and moved to England, where he had spent the last fifty years working in the media. Now he was a well-respected journalist, with a popular monthly feature column devoted to the survivors of the Holocaust - Hana would be his last interview, his retirement piece.
'Ben, there is something else I need to tell you.' Something about Hana had changed, she was wringing her hands in her lap and her eyes were fixed on the floor. ‘Get the recorder thing to listen - I will only say this once.’
‘It’s ready when you are,’ Ben whispered.
'I've never said this out loud before,' she said, her vivacity replaced with the demeanour of a scared child, 'but I've practiced saying it a million times in my head.' She took a long deep breath, then looked directly at Ben, her eyes swimming, yet determined. She cleared her throat,
'In the Autumn of 1943, something happened.' Her voice shook. ‘A young SS officer cornered me after roll call one day, and it... it just happened. You'd think, since we were Judenschwein, Jewpigs, they would not want to dirty themselves with us, but the SS leaders thought that sex made good soldiers, and that they should get it wherever they please. It continued, this same man, over and over, every morning as he did his rounds, and eventually I realised I was with child.'
'Pregnancy was a death sentence in Auschwitz - Mengele, the doctor, liked to experiment on pregnant women and their babies. There was a Jewish gynaecologist a few huts away who had been performing abortions, but once I saw her it was too late for me. I was too far along.’
'So you had to keep the child?'"
'Did Mengele find you?'
'Yet, you are still here.'
'I owe my life, rather ironically to the man who put me in the situation in the first place. The SS man saved me,’ she said, and still shaking, she continued her story.
Winter’s breath had barely left Auschwitz, despite Spring breaking almost two weeks ago. Hana was five months into her pregnancy - her frail, now seventeen-year-old frame struggled to support a second life, but she was determined to survive. The SS woke before the sun, tearing through the huts at somewhere close to 4am, blowing whistles and screaming, auf, auf, auf - out, out, out. It was routine by now, lining up in rows of ten, one in front of the other. The guards paced in front of their assigned huts, calling numbers and marking attendance. One of the soldiers stood off to the side of Hana’s group - it was him. She caught his eye, and he raised a finger to his lips, before touching his stomach and shaking his head. Hana had learnt by now that if she leaned forward as though her back was sore, her shirt would hang over her stomach, and her pregnancy was not immediately obvious. The prisoners were forbidden from moving, but she slowly inched forward, until her bump disappeared behind the veil of stripes.
A man stood in front of the groups and cleared his throat.
‘Pregnant women, please step forward - we will give you double rations today.’
The guard shot Hana a warning look. Nein, he mouthed, nein. A handful of women stepped forward, and followed the man until they disappeared between the huts. Of course they were not to know that they were to become some of Mengele’s famous kaninchen - his rabbits, his test subjects. This was but the first time that the SS guard saved Hana’s life. The second came toward the end of Spring, when the blankets of snow covering the camp had been replaced with deep, foul mud. A special roll call was announced, and the prisoners were ordered to strip for the doctor - then run in circles, again and again, whilst he wove his way through them, picking a prisoner, and pointing them left or right - to life, or to death. Hana tried her best to hold her clothes over her bump, but without her striped veil, her condition was obvious. Mengele singled her out, and directed her not left or right, but straight ahead, where a group of pregnant women stood huddled together. The SS man appeared beside her, and grabbed her arm.
‘Listen to me - tell Mengele that you are a twin, that your mother was a twin and your mother’s mother was a twin. This is important. He will not send you to die if he thinks you may deliver twins.’ He pushed her into the group, and stole away.
He was right. Mengele selected Hana for a low-impact experiment - he couldn’t waste the opportunity for tests, but also didn’t want to risk harming her too much, incase she had twins. Twins were Mengele’s favourite experiment. Hana was to be tested against the effects of exposure, stripped naked and placed in a crate, then left outside at the mercy of the elements. Still to this day, she will not allow blinds on her windows, as the faint strips of light remind her of her time in the box, when the first morning light would peak through the slats, as she lay awake listening to the roll calls and the labour marches. She was in that box, day and night, for two long months until, almost in unison with the beginning of Summer, Hana went into labour. She called for help and an SS guard opened the door.
‘It’s time, the baby is coming.’
The guard knelt down to look at Hana, she suspected it was him. It was.
‘Are you sure?’ he said, Hana could only nod. ‘I will be back soon.’
Hana was not sure how long it took for the guard to return - it felt like hours, her contractions coming thick and fast now, but it had probably only been thirty minutes. All of a sudden, the door flung open and the SS guard pulled her outside.
‘Come. To the hospital wing,’ he said, ‘Mengele has been called away on urgent business. He will not be here for the birth.’ Again, this man had saved her life, and it was not long before he’d saved another - Hana’s son was born.
‘Mengele is travelling to Günzburg, expecting a family emergency, ‘the guard said. ‘There is no such emergency.’ He winked.
Hana had a million questions, but lacked the energy to voice them. Instead she could only utter a single word.
‘Lebensretter,’ she said. Lifesaver.
Hana paused in her storytelling, only now showing the pain of the words she had said.
‘What happened to the baby? Why was the guard protecting you?’ Ben asked.
‘It will all become obvious soon,’ she said. There was no trace of her previous spirit, and Ben realised that maybe she had not defeated all of her demons, like he thought. She went on.
Hana slept for quite some time, before she was woken suddenly by the guard.
‘Where is the baby?’ he shouted, ‘where is it?’ Hana could not answer.
‘He is right here,’ a nurse called from the other side of the room - she was Jewish. She brought the baby to the guard, and his face contorted with anger. His nostrils flared, and he gritted his teeth.
‘What have you done?’ He muttered, lifting up the babies arm to reveal numbers freshly inked into his skin. He passed the baby to Hana, and grabbed the nurse, ‘What have you done?’ He screamed, and dragged the nurse from the room.
‘I remember his numbers still today, 9132514,’ she muttered. ‘I used them to look for my boy for years after the war was over.’
‘You mean he wasn’t killed?’ Ben was in awe.
‘Oh, no, I do not think so.’
The SS guard tore back into the hospital hut.
‘Mengele received word that all is well at home. He is returning to Auschwitz as we speak. I have found a job for you in Kanada, there you will arrange men’s jackets, check the linings for valuables - it is a safe job, you will be safe.’ He put out his arms, to take the baby. Hana held on to him. ‘Get up! You must go. Mengele is coming back.’
‘But, my baby.’
‘You do not speak of this to anyone. I will take him. If he stays here Mengele will kill him. He wanted twins. He will not let one survive.’
‘My wife cannot have children, but now we will have one. It is the only way. Get up, give him to me. You must go. Now.’
‘This is why you saved me,’ she gasped. Everything and nothing made sense. Hana did not know what else to do. She kissed her baby on the head, and gave him to the guard, then struggled to her feet and left the hospital.
‘That was the last time I saw my baby,’ she said. ‘I could not find him. I do not know if he is still alive, or if he died.’
‘Hana, I…’ Ben could not find the words to say. ‘Maybe I could help. I could look, too.’
Ben’s retirement piece had been his most successful - Hana’s story captured the attention of the world - as did the plight to find her little boy, 9132514. He received mail by the bag-load, letters of support, tips offs from amateur historians, and sometimes more sincere propositions from established professionals. But, two months later, the mail had slowed, and today only one tiny parcel fell through the letter box. It was a diary, bound in rich leather, with a note affixed to the front - there were only two words - For Bruno. His heart skipped a beat. He knew it must be from his father, he was the only person who knew him by his birth name. It appeared to be his journal, penned during the war.
‘Why did you send me this?’ Ben muttered to himself. ‘Foolish old man.’ He rifled through the pages half-heartedly. There were letters, photographs and a tattered Nazi clothing badge, held between the pages of detailed diary entries, all of which Ben refused to read. But then, something caught his eye. A photo, folded multiple times, pushed into the back of a paper pocket. He unravelled it to reveal a picture of tiny newborn baby, it could have only been a few days old. Ben reached for his glasses.
‘No…’ he whispered.
He dropped the diary and its guts spilled all over the floor. He wasn’t sure how he made it to Hana’s house, he couldn’t remember the drive over, and when he made it to her front door, he couldn’t bring himself to knock. Her dog barked incessantly at the window, until Hana found Ben sitting on the porch.
‘Ben!’ she cried, ‘How lovely! You should have called, I would have prepared tea.’
‘I found your son.’ Ben uttered, his eyes fixed on the floor. A lump grew in his throat, and tears threatened to spill down his cheeks. Hana clapped her hand over her mouth.
‘Where is he? Is he alive?’ Ben couldn’t answer. He looked up at her, and a rogue tear ran down his face. He pulled up his sleeve, to reveal his scar.
‘It wasn’t an accident, Hana. They were getting rid of my number.’ He pulled the photograph from his pocket, and passed it to her, his hand shaking so much that the photograph appeared to dance. He pointed to a number on the babies arm.
Ben ran his hand over his scar, its position mirrored that of the babies tattoo. Hana turned over the photo. It was inscribed - Bruno Schröder, 1944.