Susan Pollack, the survivor who testified against the "bookkeeper of Auschwitz"

by Diana Wichtel / 23 July, 2015

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The entrance to Auschwitz. Photo/Getty Images

As Oskar Gröning is convicted of 70-year-old Nazi war crimes, victim Susan Pollack can neither forget nor forgive.

Unfathomable. “You know what? Even today, knowing it, experiencing it, living through it and suffering from it, I just can’t fathom it in my mind.” Susan Pollack was Hungarian 13-year-old Zsuzsi Blau in 1944 when, with her mother and 15-year-old brother, Laszlo, she was transported to Auschwitz. “You couldn’t make sense of it. I did ask myself, ‘Where are we? What is this? A world somewhere out in space?’”

She was separated from her mother at the ramp. “A Hungarian inmate was whispering, ‘Don’t say you’re younger than 15.’ Well, I just shrugged my head. I didn’t know what it means.” But when the German guard asked her age, she replied, “Ich bin fünfzehn.” She was sent to the right, which is why we are sitting here today. At the barracks, prisoners explained what happened to those sent left. “‘Your mum, well, she was gassed,’ they said. I didn’t cry. I shut down. I shut down completely.”

Pollack has been speaking in schools for 25 years, giving talks, telling her story in a book, a documentary. The bafflement remains fresh in her voice. That world somewhere out in space where you were to be eradicated simply for who you are: it’s hard, even now, back on Earth, to grasp. She speaks at one point about those vicious, lurking stereotypes about Jews. “You know, the international connections, the richness, Shylock … We’re human beings, there’s good and bad in us I’m sure. I just want to recognise each other for what we are. I haven’t met that many murderers, I hope.” But she has. Once, she was surrounded by them. “Oh, yes,” she says. “Those.”

Those: when her father returned from fighting for Hungary in World War I, he kissed the ground. But it was the local gendarmerie that beat him brutally in 1943 when Jewish men were called to a town meeting about “resettlement”. “We sent a local Christian lady to take a basket of food to him and she came back with the information that he was unrecognisable.” She never saw her father again. “Hungarian driven, Hungarian guards,” she says, of those manning the cattle cars. “Civilised people,” she says of the perpetrators. “Sometimes I say what is civilisation? Is it just veneer-thin?”

Unfathomable. It’s 70 years since the war against the Jewish men, women and children of Europe ended. Fifty members of Pollack’s family were murdered. I’m at the end of travels to find out what happened to my Jewish family in Poland when a Hungarian journalist friend says I must contact this extraordinary woman. Pollack responds as if strangers from New Zealand invite themselves over every day. “Darling, of course you must come!” She’ll pick me up from London’s Golders Green station. I’m the one with the red bag. She’s the one who swoops to a stop to indignant toots to carry me off for a tour of the neighbourhood.

Home is a charming heritage worker’s cottage. Her husband, Abraham, also a survivor, died in January. The living room features photographs – three daughters and beautiful grandchildren whose smiling existence defies astronomical odds. She’s 84 but looks much younger. “It’s the eggs I eat,” she says, finishing breakfast abandoned to fetch me. “Free range.”

Susan Pollack last December, aged 84. Photo/Getty Images

Still giving testimony

She’s been busy. We meet a month after she testified in Lüneburg, Germany, one of more than 60 co-plaintiffs in one of the last Nazi trials. Oskar Gröning, 94: as a 21-year-old Unterscharführer in the SS, he was the so-called “bookkeeper of Auschwitz”. From 1942 to 1944, he helped preside over the murder of 300,000 Jews, mostly Hungarian. He took from those arriving at the ramp everything they owned, counted the money, transported it to Berlin. Judge Franz Kompisch asked if he ever thought about the people who owned the money he collected. “It belonged to the state,” explained Gröning, “and the Jews had to turn it in.” A civilised man overseeing civilised robbery.

He knew about the gas chambers. A good SS officer, he wasn’t too perturbed. “The killings in the gas chambers, he said, were ‘orderly’ and ‘clean’,” reported the New York Times. “‘In 24 hours you could take care of 5000 people,’ he said. ‘After all, that’s how things went in a concentration camp.’’’

He claimed he requested three times to be transferred after witnessing things that didn’t sit quite so well. He told the court about having seen a small baby left alone on the ramp, a scene he described in a BBC interview 10 years ago: “A child who was lying there was simply pulled by the legs and chucked into a truck to be driven away. And when it screamed like a sick chicken, they then bashed it against the edge of the truck so it would shut up.”

His second transfer request came after he saw attempted escapees being gassed. “The screams got louder and more desperate, then became quieter, and then were no longer to be heard,” he testified. “This is the only time I participated in a gassing. I don’t mean participated, I mean observed.”

Kompisch wasn’t buying this desire to leave. “I do not want to call you a coward, Mr Gröning, but you chose the easy way, and remained in your ‘office work’.”

Gröning broke with other former Nazis by admitting “moral guilt”. He has long been open about his role. In the mid-80s, after a member of his stamp-collecting club gave him a pamphlet denying the Holocaust, he began to speak of what he’d participated in. “I saw the gas chambers. I saw the crematoria,” he said in the BBC’s 2005 Auschwitz: the Nazis and the “Final Solution”.

There were attempts to prosecute Gröning. It wasn’t until 2011, when Ukrainian John Demjanjuk was found guilty of accessory to mass murder on the basis of his service record as a guard at Sobibór, that a precedent was set in Germany to prosecute for complicity in the Holocaust.

After 70 years, Pollack and her co-plaintiffs had their day in court. She has been there, on the ramp where Gröning worked. “If anybody had some valuables, they were made to put it down. He was collecting it, that Oskar.”

That Oskar. Reports of the trial note that Pollack refused to look at him. This time it was her choice. “I sort of shut my emotions down quickly,” she tells me. She had experience of that.

As for Gröning’s motivations, “Maybe something is troubling him before he meets his maker, I don’t know. Deep down I am a God-fearing person. I’m hoping for eternal justice. And maybe that’s what Oskar Gröning had in his mind before he kicks off.” But she has little patience for speculating about the state of his mind or his soul. “Honestly, I have no interest in the guy, how he feels innermost. I don’t feel any hatred towards him. I don’t know him.”

Trial reports recorded an electrifying moment: co-plaintiff Eva Kor, with her late twin sister a victim of Josef Mengele’s experiments, was embraced by Gröning. Kor has parted company with many co-plaintiffs by publicly forgiving the Nazis. “As I was talking to him, he grabbed me and gave me a kiss on the cheek,” Kor told the Sunday Times. “Well, I probably wouldn’t have gone that far, but I guess it is better than what he would have done to me 70 years ago.” Pollack recalls the moment: “He was glad. I couldn’t do it. I could not embrace him. I don’t forgive the perpetrators. They knew jolly well what they were doing.”

“Tomorrow you leave your homes”

Unforgiveable. Zsuzsi Blau was born in 1930 in Felsogod, outside Budapest. “We lived a very village-like life, with chickens and ducks. My father had a little business trading in wood and coal.” There were only 18 Jewish families; everyone got on. “What was life like? It was kind of jolly – Hungarians are jolly people. They like the gypsy music and so did I – dancing and dressing up in embroidered clothes on certain days.” There was anti-Semitism. “Come Easter we had our windows broken in. ‘You Jews.’ I remember we used to put up the shutters. We could live with it.”

Insidiously, life changed. “Things got so bad for us with the various legislations restricting our social life, our political life, our cultural life. Excluded. We were so abandoned, what could we do?” There were attacks on Jews. “My own uncle in a different village was brutally murdered. The guy just chopped his head in two and then continued living across the road.”

They had no passports, had never travelled further than the next village by horse and cart. There was no free press. “We set up a seance table. Imagine! It was dark. We were calling the spirits for information. Are we going to survive intact as a family?” Yes, said the spirits. “You know, one is always hopeful.”

Not long after her father was taken, the Hungarian gendarmerie came again. “They said, ‘Okay, tomorrow morning you leave your homes. Pack up the food and the bare essentials.’ So we did: a sheet on our backs. I’m carrying this heavy Singer sewing machine, a little girl, thinking I might earn, help support my family.” There was the ghetto, then another camp. “There was a brick factory, an open field and there were some latrines dug. Many children actually lost their lives because they lost their balance. They fell into it. We didn’t have implements to bring them out. Terrible, terrible times.”

Hungarian Jews arrive at Auschwitz. Photo/Getty Images

A child's unthinkable experience

The “resettlement”. Pollack speaks of these events in a sort of shorthand; snapshots from a child’s unthinkable experience not so long ago. “We walked and walked, a long, long walk to the train. Exhaustion. Waiting cattle trains. Jam-packed with women, many children, babies and old men. Two buckets. One with water, spilt immediately. And the other bucket, that spilt. People realised ‘we’re trapped. This is no resettlement.’” It took five or six days. “Many people, particularly children and babies, suffocated. The heat was intolerable and lack of water.” Finally the doors opened. “The relief. Thank God, some fresh air. It was at night. It was dark. And then terror seized our beings. They started shouting, German. We had to scramble out quickly. Most of them couldn’t move any more.” Someone whispered, “Say you are 15.”

“It’s hard to describe what terror of that extreme level can do. You withdraw within yourself. There were no normal feelings in me.” With other girls she was taken to a barrack. “Shaved heads, drop the clothes. We were treated just like animals, completely naked, inspected regularly [to see] how quickly we lose flesh, can we still be used for slave labour. This was a regular routine, march in front of the SS sitting there, Dr Mengele with a stick in his hand – ‘Go there. Go there.’ We knew what was the purpose of that.”

They pinched their cheeks, tried to stand straight, look strong. “Never look at him. Mustn’t look. That was the system they devised. They devised a system that really is below animal level. How was that possible? There’s no answer to it, is there?”

At first the starving girls played a game: what will you have for breakfast this morning? It didn’t last long. They stopped imagining, stopped thinking. “Thinking also needs energy.”

She was selected for slave labour in a big German town. “As the Allied forces were coming closer, we were sent on this death march to Belsen [camp]. It was winter. Again, no food and the ragged us.” They scraped the frozen ground for potatoes. “If we were found, of course, we were shot.”

Belsen was a place of death, total deprivation. “There was no bread, no food, corpses weren’t removed. Everybody suffered from typhus, and tuberculosis, as I was, and severe malnutrition and oedema. Ah, the stench of it. The lice. It was just a place of horrendous, horrendous suffering. Nobody was even talking any more, not that talking was ever allowed. They were just lying on the floor dying.”

Unimaginable. Pollack crawled into the next barrack. “Who do I see? My next-door neighbour. She knew my name. She said, ‘Zsuzsi, are we going to survive this hell?’ and I said, ‘Just hang on a bit.’” The following day I find her with lice on her forehead – an indication she died. So she was dead.” A day or two later they were liberated. “I was outside. I was dying and they saw a twitch in my body. Luckily for me they picked me up and put me in a converted former Nazi officer’s barrack.” There was no jubilation. Even a strong will to live can take you only so far. “You know how I survived? Because they came on the 15th and not on the 16th. That’s it.”

Years later, she spoke to one of the liberators. “I said, ‘What put that goodness into your heart, you battle-worn soldiers? You had that softness in your heart and helped us.’” Suddenly, there were people who behaved like human beings. “Yes, absolutely, coming into a world where morality somehow did not disappear. There is a world still where we care for each other. Even today I cry over it.”

Pollack’s brother, Laszlo, was forced to work as a Sonderkommando, getting rid of the bodies of gassed victims at Auschwitz and Treblinka. He went home to communist Hungary and never fully recovered. An engineer, he was charged with treason after an industrial accident. “They put him in an insane asylum.” Pollack tried to get him to come to England but he couldn’t settle. He died in 1995. For some survivors there was no liberation.

Pollack was sent to Sweden to recover, then Canada, where she met her husband, who had survived Mauthausen camp. “He was a gorgeous guy; heart of gold, generous. He was good to me and I wanted to get married.” She was 18. They settled down to start again. They didn’t talk about the past.

Pollack got a degree at 60, volunteered with Samaritans, met the Queen. The day I visit the phone never stops. There’s a talk to give, plans to take her granddaughter to the ballet as a graduation treat: that fairy tale of a young girl prevailing over evil, Cinderella. “You know what?” says Pollack in parting, “You’ve also got to go out and see a ballet. You’ve got to go and live your life.” Unstoppable.

A lesson for all time

I phone from New Zealand when Gröning is sentenced to four years. (He has appealed.) “How do I feel about that? I’m glad,” says Pollack. “That’s not the appropriate word but, yes, I’m very satisfied that the justice system has found him culpable and acted accordingly. I don’t want to go into the age, the frailty … That’s another issue. I think that justice has to be shown at all ages.”

Yes, the process has helped her. “There are signs of anti-Semitism yet to be seen but we live in a different world and it’s important for me to actually see it. I went there with my sole purpose of keeping the memory alive. I had a very good coverage in Germany. I retold my story, as I’m speaking to you. People took an interest. And that’s all. My own pain is my own private life.”

It doesn’t go away. “Now it’s a bit difficult because I’m older. I’ve got more time on my hands,” she said when I visited. “I don’t feel that hate any more but I’m more overwhelmed with that sorrow now because I miss my extended family very much. The tragedy is really very, very strong within me.”

That’s why the trial of Gröning, justice absurdly delayed, needed to happen. “We’re in a new world, thank God, and people need to be responsible,” says Pollack. “He has come forward voluntarily and that is, I think, in his favour. He didn’t have to do it when thousands did not. How many people do you think it needed to uphold that regime? God knows. He’s done that and it’s a lesson to be taken for all time. It doesn’t go away.”

This article was first published in the August 1, 2015 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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