But on Feb. 2, 1943, Lea’s family was deported to Auschwitz, a four-day journey without food or water. People in the ghetto had heard about the Nazis’ gas chambers, and the Pruzhany ghetto’s Judenrat, a committee of Jewish notables, had killed themselves in order not to have to organize the three transports liquefying the ghetto.
“There haven’t been words invented to describe it, not even Dante’s ‘Inferno,’ ” Lea said. “You can’t describe it. You won’t understand.”
Upon reaching Auschwitz, a mass of bodies fell from the cars onto the train platform, as Nazis shouted right and left, quickly separating the women and men and creating a group for forced labor. Lea’s mother, already in the truck that would take her and their family to the gas chamber, screamed at Lea to run to the stronger-looking group and join her 26-year-old aunt, Sara. Lea’s 10-year-old sister ran after her, but a Nazi caught and hit her, forcing the girl to join her mother in the truck.
“I instinctively ran,” Lea recalled. “Why did I run? I still don’t know why. I had wanted to die with her, with my family. … It was the last look my mother gave me.”
After selection, prisoners’ names and ages were registered. The prisoner who registered Lea saved her life, insisting that she was 18 and not 16, her actual age. After the women’s heads were shaved and they were given number tattoos, they were sent running to the showers, where Lea said they prayed that gas wouldn’t be pumped in.
For the next few months, Lea worked with laborers collecting wood from destroyed houses. They were made to move quickly, and anyone who fell while working was killed on the spot. When her best friend, Malka, tripped, a Nazi’s dog pounced on her. Lea was forced to carry Malka’s body back to the camp, and she remembers the girl’s arm slapping her with each step.
“Until then, I had never seen a dead body,” she said. “When I returned [to the camp], I got melancholia. I stopped talking, I couldn’t eat bread.”
Her aunt saved her, shaking her after finding her in the barracks a few days later refusing to move.
“After that, I got used to death,” Lea said.
Hard labor injured Lea’s leg, and when she couldn’t walk anymore, she went to the Auschwitz hospital, an “antechamber of death,” in which Dr. Josef Mengele decided who would live and who would die. She approached one doctor, a Soviet medic and prisoner of war, who upon hearing Lea speak Russian, hugged her and said, “I can’t cure you, but I can try to save you.”
For the next six to eight months, whenever the doctor heard about an upcoming selection in the hospital, she would send Lea back to the work camp, where she stayed a few days before returning. But one day the doctor wasn’t there, and the infamous Dr. Mengele came and sentenced all the patients to death.
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