ST. GEORGE — “It’s very sad for me to talk of this bitter period of my life. It’s carved in my heart and in my soul,” – Basha “Bess” Anush Freilich
“There are many nights when (it all) comes back to me, and sometimes I feel like I’m going to explode from sorrow and from pain, but the world must know and it must be told,” said Basha Freilich, during a 1981 interview.
At the time of the interview, Freilich was reaching out to the future about her past, a past as a Holocaust survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
“We must stay on the guard that the Holocaust, God forbid, shouldn’t repeat itself; that what I went through should never happen again,” Freilich said.
“I pray to God that (my children, my grandchildren, and their children’s children) should never know from such sadness, humility, pain, starvation, suffering and desolation. It’s for them that I’m revealing the story of my tragic childhood,” she added.
Through Basha’s eyes, St. George author Douglas Wellman chronicles the horrors of Auschwitz in his newest historical biography, “A Teenage Girl in Auschwitz.”
“There are three points I wanted to make with the book,” Wellman said. “First, was the historical record, second to show people the inner strength they probably have and don’t know about, and finally to use the Nazi experience to warn people what can happen.”
Basha’s story is the centerpiece of the narrative.
“It’s a remarkable story of courage, strength and the indomitable power of the human spirit,” Wellman said. “I think the key to Basha’s survival, and more importantly the key for our survival and success in life is to maintain hope. In her case, Basha maintained hope even in the face of things that appeared impossible. No matter what they did to her she never gave up.”
Born Dec. 23, 1928, in Pruzhany, Poland — now part of Belarus — Basha was 14 when her childhood was brutally taken away.
Basha’s neighborhood was “pleasant,” yet “unremarkable.”
Occupied by the Russians (1939–1941), then the Nazis (1941–1944) and again the Russian Army (1944-1945), the Pruzhany ghetto had been set aside by the Germans in 1941.
Despite which conquering army occupied Poland, the Pruzhany ghetto was a place of anguish. Murder at the hands of the invading force and Nazi sympathizers, hunger, disease, rape and oppression all took their toll.
Surrounded by barbed wire and guards, the “once happy district” was now a “squalid community of hunger and fear, where residents walked the streets at their own risk.”
On Sept. 25, 1941, a ghetto was established. During the first winter, approximately 6,000 of the 18,000 inmates in the Pruzhany ghetto died.
When the Gestapo arrived in Pruzhany, arrests began immediately along with the first executions. Eighteen Jews were shot in the forest, a little more than one mile from town.
In June 1941, Germany broke the treaty with Russia and invaded Russian-occupied Poland. It was then Basha’s life went from unpleasant to unthinkable.
“She was a typical young girl from a lower middle-class family,” Wellman said. “Her father, Isaac, had to struggle to make a living, but Basha was a child and did all the things children do until World War II broke out in 1939, when suddenly (Poland was) invaded.”
Basha’s fight to survive had begun.
“Basha was no longer treated like a human being, let alone a normal 14-year-old girl,” Wellman said. “In February of 1943, Basha Anush shed her identity as a Polish schoolgirl and became Auschwitz prisoner 33327. It was tattooed on her left arm, so she could not forget it. Ever. (But), she did learn that there was more inside of her than she ever imagined.”
The “routine was relentless, day after day,” Wellman added. “Drawing on her own experience, Basha said that if a prisoner could survive the first few weeks, if they did not die or go crazy, they had a chance at survival.”
In early November 1942, the inmates of the ghetto were informed that they would be evacuated. During the exodus from the ghetto, Basha’s grandfather was shot and killed.
“My grandfather came to spend the day with us and it was like noon and the Gestapo came and chased us out and we were still in the courtyard of our house … They didn’t want to bring (my grandfather) to Auschwitz, they shot him before my eyes. They shot him and he was lying just in front of me. That was the beginning of the real inferno. That’s how it started. My grandfather was lying in the courtyard.”
Before the start of World War II, an estimated 9.5 million Jewish people lived in Europe. By the time the war ended, the Nazis had killed some 6 million European Jews in concentration camps or in ghettos.
Everyone knew about the eradication of the Jews in villages and towns — fear in Pruzhany ran unchecked.
On the morning of Jan. 28, 1943, the Jews were informed that they would be sent to Silesia as forced laborers, but instead, about 10,000 people were packed into railway wagons and deported to Auschwitz.
Freilich’s nightmare began two days later, when Nazi troops, assisted by local police, rounded up Basha and her family, along with many other residents and forced them out into the bitter cold of winter with only rumors to feed their fears.
The rumors soon gave way to reality.
“It was the middle of the night, when SS guards forced open the boxcar door, rows of high-powered lights virtually blinded the occupants, turning night into day,” Wellman said. “The SS troops shouted, cursed, and jerked the occupants out of the cars and onto the ground.”
Jammed in rail cars, typically used to haul cattle, the prisoners could barely walk when they arrived at Auschwitz.
Basha’s younger brother Shlomo had caught a cold before they were loaded onto the trains. He had been sick and feverish for the entire trip, and was weak from the lack of food and water, Wellman said.
“A soldier pulled him from the car, he fell near the tracks, unable to stand,” Wellman added. “Nevertheless, he picked up a cup he found on the ground, packed it full of the dirty snow, and offered it to their mother, who had just been pulled from the train.”
“Here, Mommy put it in your mouth. It’s going to melt; it’s going to be like a good drink,” Shlomo said.
A Nazi guard walked up to him, drew his pistol and shot him in the face, killing him instantly.
“He was six,” Basha said. “He was lying like this with a cup in his hand. There was terrible chaos, just terrible. People were all crying, people were screaming. There was shouting, they were beating us with their guns, they were kicking women in their stomachs … I wanted to go with my mother then a German came, and he said no, you’re going someplace else and that’s when my mother, that’s when she told me … ‘I raised such a beautiful angel and now only God knows what will happen to her. Go, my child, you must try very hard to survive … and if you will live, you must tell the world what they did to us.’”
On that day, Basha witnessed her mother fall from a blow to her head. She disappeared from her daughter’s gaze, and later Basha learned that her mother was murdered and burned in an open pit. Within days, five members of her family would be dead and Basha would be subjected to two-and-a-half years of abject cruelty.
“It all happened quickly,” Wellman said. “Lying on the frozen ground, Shlomo’s body was still warm as SS troops forced Basha and her horrified family off the train. There was no time to mourn. Fear overpowered their grief. It was total chaos, an overwhelming scene of crying, cursing, screaming and beating.”
Cremation furnaces at Auschwitz-Birkenau capture man’s inhumanity against man. The crematoriums at Auschwitz could process more than 2,200 prisoners each day, February 1945 | Getty Images (1548365078), Mondadori Portfolio, St. George News
Welcome to Auschwitz. For those who were not killed outright upon arrival, or forced to work, there was the crematorium.
Men and older boys were forced into one column, and women and children into another. The elderly and children under the age of 16. unless they appeared particularly healthy and strong. were immediately selected for death.
Those who appeared to be borderline cases were questioned by medical teams. If they were found useful to the Nazis, they lived. If not, they became part of the selection for death, Wellman said.
Four crematoria were eventually constructed at Birkenau. Two are capable of incinerating 1,440 bodies per day, and the other two 768 bodies. Between 1.1 and 1.5 million people died at Auschwitz; 90% of them were Jews. The Poles constituted the second largest victim group at Auschwitz, with more than 80,000 killed.
“Crematorium II was adjacent to Basha’s barrack. There had been no way for her to escape the sounds of the constant horror that went on all day and night on the other side of the barrack wall,” Wellman said.
“The men were separated from the women and children. A Nazi, usually an SS physician, looked quickly at each person to decide if he or she was healthy and strong enough for forced labor. This SS officer then pointed to the left or the right; victims did not know that individuals were being selected to live or die. Babies and young children, pregnant women, the elderly, people with disabilities, and the sick had little chance of surviving this first selection,” Wellman added.
Initially, Basha was taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau and then to Budy, a punishment camp she described as hell. When they arrived in Budy, some prisoners were forced to strip, dance and sing before they were shot. Their bodies were left to rot and sometimes eaten by dogs.
“No matter how much you can talk about it, how much you can write about it, there are no words in the vocabulary, you can’t talk about it, you can’t describe it, it’s impossible,” Basha said. “They were killing everybody.”
One day, that reality of survival confronted Basha.
“I got sick, and I felt something very hollow-like in my chest, and I got very sick, burning up with fever,” she said. “And one morning I just couldn’t go to work. So, I thought to myself that I’m going to rip a piece of blanket, and I felt like if I put something on my chest, it’s going to help me, and maybe I’ll be able to go through the day. (There) was punishment for ripping a blanket. They beat you twenty-five times over that.”
Basha couldn’t walk, she couldn’t work. At the time, all she could do was endure her pain.
According to Wellman, a female Kapo shouted the discovery of the torn blanket to her colleagues, and others soon joined. They tied Basha’s hands behind her back and began to beat her for ripping the blanket.
“I counted. I was still conscious until 16,” Basha said. “I got 25 lashes, and I lost consciousness.”
Women prisoners in their bunks in Auschwitz concentration camp shortly after liberation by Russian troops, date 1945 | photo credit: Northcliffe Collection/ANL/Shutterstock (10398766a), Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County, St. George News
The rain that poured off the barrack roof drained through the assembly area. Over time it had eroded away forming a ditch. The Kapo, Jewish prisoners who worked for the Nazis, under SS supervision, dragged Basha’s unconscious body to the ditch and threw her in. Lying in the “filthy ditch in small, lapping waves of her own blood, barely conscious, Basha watched the movement of the sun, calculating the amount of time she had left to live,” Wellman said.
Kapos had a life much easier that the other prisoners, but to keep their jobs, they had to be at least as brutal as the SS guards, if not worse.
Basha’s tormentors decided the best thing to do for a dying prisoner was to send her body to the morgue.
“They had a morgue in the barrack, for the dead people they kept that died during the night, and they kept me there and there were dying girls laying there … I’ll never forget, I was lying in a pile of dead bodies, some were dying, some were dead already. And I was laying like this on top of them I spent the night,” Basha said. ‘That night, I was conscious, and I knew what was happening to me.”
Basha was not ready to die. Despondent and in agony, with absolutely no hope for the future, Basha pushed herself to survive. But the guards, male and female including Jewish Kapos, had other designs for her life and for her death.
“I begged (a female Kapo), I begged her, ‘Bitte schlagen Sie mir nicht, schlagen sir mir nicht (Please don’t beat me, don’t beat me) because I’ll never be able to carry those buckets,’” she said. “And she started to scream at me, I should shut up, and started to hit me again. And then — I’ll never forget it until I die — I turned to this guard, and I begged him please, in German, ‘Bitte schiessen sir mir (Please shoot me). Please do me a favor. Kill me. I can’t go on like this. I don’t want to live no more.’”
Basha turned to an SS guard whose response was typically heartless.
“He said, ‘Sie alte sau’ (You old pig). He said, ‘I don’t want to waste a German bullet on you. You’ll die any minute now anyhow.’”
She finally reached the conclusion that death was preferable to living. Death would be her escape. Yet, death was elusive and never came. Basha’s daughter, Evelyn Kaplan, would later recall the perverse life her mother endured in Auschwitz.
“(The) bride in her white gown disembarked from the train. It was a sight Mom would never forget,” Kaplan said. “The juxtaposition of the scene: a beautiful young girl in a lovely dress that is now covered in urine, feces, and vomit arriving in Auschwitz, hell on earth, the armpit of the world. She was stolen away from what was to be the most special day of her life only to end up in a nightmare in a devil’s playground. Her face was that of a lost soul, frightened, alone. The image was imbued in Mom’s memory forever.”
Near the end of the war, when Germany’s military force was collapsing, the Allied armies closed in on the Nazi concentration camps. The Soviets approached from the east, and the British, French, and Americans from the west.
In an attempt to hide the truth, the Germans began frantically to move the prisoners out of the camps near the front. Prisoners were first taken by train and then by foot on “death marches,” to be used as forced laborers deep inside Germany.
Jan. 17, 1945, Basha turned out for the last roll call in Auschwitz-Birkenau. The count was 66,020 prisoners. Not all could be moved; some were simply too physically debilitated. The sick, weak and dying were left behind, approximately 9,000 of them at the time of withdrawal. The rest were assembled and ordered to march east, Wellman said.
After seeing her father briefly in the men’s camp in Auschwitz where she worked picking weeds for soup, she was evacuated on a death march, Jan. 18, 1945.
“(The Germans) were chasing us deeper into Germany and we had to walk in the snow and so many of us died, so many,” Basha said.
By the thousands, the prisoners died from exhaustion and from pain. Those who lived were faced with the horrors of the forced march.
“We were walking, the march, we were walking on bodies, thousands of bodies. We didn’t walk on the road actually; we were walking on the bodies from people that walked before us … I didn’t know what happened then to my father, but he also was on this march. Everybody was evacuated. From Auschwitz deeper into Germany.”
Nobody wanted the Jews. All the concentration camps were filled. Then finally, the throng of hopeless people came to Ravensbrück where they were accepted entry.
Nearly 60,000 prisoners are forced on death marches from the Auschwitz camp system.
The Nazis often killed large groups of prisoners before, during, or after marches. During one march, 7,000 Jewish prisoners, nearly all women, were moved from camps in the Danzig region near the Baltic Sea. On the 10-day march, 700 were murdered. Those still alive when the marchers reached the shores of the sea were driven into the water and shot.
“When Russian troops finally entered Auschwitz on Jan. 27, 1945, they found approximately 7,000 emaciated, living prisoners as well as hundreds of unburied corpses,” Wellman said. “Auschwitz survivors stated that the first Russian troops to enter the camp appeared stunned into silence. They had seen a lot of things, but nothing like that.”
Basha had survived another horror. Unfortunately, there were many more horrors to come.
On Jan. 27, 1945, the Soviet Army entered Auschwitz and liberated the few remaining prisoners. On that day, Basha weighed 67 pounds and could not retain food eaten for months afterward.
Returning to her hometown, she was taken by the Russians to a camp and questioned as a suspected German spy.
“The Germans killed the whole Jewish population and they (the Russians) found we were alive, (so) we must have been spies. They questioned us, and of course, they questioned us separately, and each girl told (her own) story. Then they kept on questioning us and torturing us and torturing us. ‘Just how come we are alive?’ That was their only question … They were questioning us, they were humiliating us, they didn’t give us no food, no nothing.”
The Russians were planning to send Basha and other survivors to Siberia, to Chelyabinsk, and its coal mines.
“We knew that after all we had lived through … the war … we lived through so much, and we lost our families, and there was a chance for us to remain alive. Once we go there (to the coal mines) it would be the end.”
The Russians held them captive in the camp for about two months. Then, without explanation, the situation changed.
“Then all of a sudden came an order that we can go on our way,” Basha said.
Finally arriving home, Basha was faced with its total destruction.
“I was only by myself sitting there, and it was dusk already, sitting in a place where once my home was, and I was torn to pieces, torn to pieces,” she said. “That’s when the old woman came and told me that her son-in-law was the first one to empty our house of the furnishings.”
That was all Basha could take. She sat on the ruins of her childhood home and cried.
Finding nothing of her home in Pruzhany, Basha fled to Lodz where she met and married another Holocaust survivor, Samuel Freilich. She agreed to go out on a date with him, and soon they were seeing each other regularly. Basha suddenly had a small bit of normalcy in her life, Wellman said.
The feeling of a normal life would soon fade. After the war, the Jews still faced a great deal of antisemitism, but this time from the Russians.
“The Polish borders were controlled by vigilant guards who demanded travel papers, which were not easily obtained. Countries around the world established tight immigration quotas, and severely restricted the number of Jews they would accept. The survivors were trapped in Poland, and Poland was not safe. Not safe at all,” Wellman said.
On July 4, 1946, an antisemitic attack in Kielce, Poland, resulted in the murders of 42 repatriated Jews.
“This was an outrage to all Jews, but it was particularly distressing to Basha,” Wellman said. “She had friends among the victims. “We tried to escape from Poland after the Kielce pogrom that they killed survivors in Kielce, 40 of them. Some of them that I knew, they were in Auschwitz. They cut out their numbers (tattooed on their arms). And that made the atmosphere very terrible. Couldn’t stay in Poland no more. The random atrocities were reminiscent of the Gestapo.”
Despite the war, her captivity, the horrors of daily life in Auschwitz, and not knowing if her father lived, hope beyond hope came true. After the war, Basha found her father alive and living in Germany. The two met in Munich.
Basha’s ordeal ended on April 26, 1949, when she and Samuel set foot on American soil.
“At Auschwitz, Chava Anush (Basha’s mother) immediately knew her fate,” Wellman said. “She knew she would not be the one to tell the story. She implored her daughter to survive because she loved her, but also so someone would live to tell the story. For this reason, the barbarism of the Holocaust should not be kicked aside as a historical sidebar. It had to be told, and it had to be told by someone who experienced it. Many times, Basha wanted to give up. The hunger and horror and pain had become nearly unendurable, but Chava’s plea imbued her with a will to live stronger than the worst tortures and indignities the Nazis could inflict on her.”
Basha and Isaac Freilich, both Holocaust survivors, met following World War II, fell in love and got married. The pair went on to raise a family and become successful business owners in Philadelphia. Circa 1970s, location undefined | photo courtesy Douglas Wellman, St. George News
After the war, Basha and her husband would become successful business owners after settling down in Philadelphia.
Although Basha’s life seemed normal, she would not open up her memories, even to her family, for decades after the war.
“Yes, I did act normal. I had to function,” she said. “But behind this normality, there was a broken heart. I disguised myself under a face that was always smiling. God, I pretended that I was happy, but I really weren’t. Always I thought ‘Why did I remain alive, and my family didn’t.’ I have guilty feelings that I’m living. It’s like I’m feeling humiliated for being born.”
Basha did not place the blame on God, who she said had not turned away from her and the millions of survivors of the Holocaust. She placed blame on all humanity who turned a blind eye to the suffering.
“The world knew of our intense suffering, of the floating rivers filled with Jewish blood, they smelled the stench of the burning flesh in the crematorium,” Basha said. “They knew our suffering; they heard the cries for help, and they didn’t lift a finger and they turned away their heads and were passive.”
Basha never became bitter or hateful, Wellman said.
“She survived and others didn’t because Basha tapped a source of inner strength that we likely all have, but many or us don’t realize it,” he added. “The big story here involves the indomitable human spirit, and the ability in each and every one of us to conquer our circumstances if we don’t quit.”
Basha “Bess” Anush Freilich passed away peacefully on Sept. 18, 2006.
For more information on Douglas Wellman and how to purchase his books, click here to visit his website.
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