The line trudged forward, bringing Anita Schorr closer to Dr. Josef Mengele. She was fourteen years old, standing between countless women equally emaciated, but closer to the eighteen years she claimed to be. Her heart pounded madly as she strained to hide her underdeveloped body while processing the horror of the last several minutes: separation from her mother and brother, with no certainty of ever seeing them again. She reached the front of the line, in front of Mengele’s hard glare. With a wave of his hand, he decided her fate. For now, at least, she would survive.
I met Anita Schorr in 2007. Eleven years old at the time, I was keenly and morbidly fascinated by the Holocaust, elated by this chance to meet one of the individuals who had actually lived through it. True to character, however, I found myself at a loss for words once actually seated on the porch of Anita’s upscale Westport, Connecticut home. The lunch discussion turned to lighter topics.
One memory of that day, however, remains seared in my mind. Seared is the appropriate word in this case, as my most vivid recollection focuses on five numbers etched into Anita’s arm: 71569. The numbers are remnants of Anita’s time at Auschwitz-Birkenau — a new identity chosen by the Nazis and permanently engraved onto her body. They are neither the most shocking part of her story, nor the most important. Yet as small as those tattooed numbers were, both in reality and the context of the story, they seemed representative. Hidden within those numbers were memories unimaginable to anyone who hadn’t lived them.
On August 11, 1930, Fritz and Stela Pollak celebrated the birth of their first child, a girl named Anita. Anita’s childhood was defined by happy memories: playing the piano, drawing maps with her friend Ilse, and adventures with her brother Michal. But in 1939, the Nazi regime invaded Anita’s homeland of Czechoslovakia.
Under Hitler’s totalitarian regime, European Jews’ freedom completely disintegrated. Anita was no longer allowed to attend school. She couldn’t go to the parks or the cinema, and she was forced to wear a yellow star inscribed with the label Juden. “When the occupying army came, my whole childhood was finished,” Anita said.
Imbued with distaste, nine-year-old Anita wrote a letter to Hitler demanding answers for his nonsensical discrimination. “One day my teacher tells us why school is obligatory and that everyone needs to receive an education. The next day I am no longer allowed in class. I do not carry any diseases. Why are my friends avoiding me? What did you tell them?” she asked. After addressing the letter, Anita handed it to her father and left the room.
Anita never received a response to her letter, and over the next several years, she continued to face the dissolution of her once-simple life. At age eleven, Anita and her immediate family were transported to Terezin, home of the Theresienstadt ghetto/concentration camp. As with many other camps, conditions at Theresienstadt were beyond inhumane. Filth was inescapable; bedbugs and lice were constant companions. “How do you explain that there was such a horrible smell, that we lived in such stench that it smelled like an open grave?” Anita asked.
Meals were sparse and scarce, leaving inmates with just enough energy to bring them to the next meal. It was, in Anita’s words, “a vicious circle.” The lack of food affected every aspect of Anita’s life. Without it, Anita was constantly freezing and unable to think straight. She poignantly recalled her mother’s despair when her brother, Michal, was eight or nine years old. He looked at their mother said, “I’m so hungry.” All their mother could do was stand there, tears rolling down her cheek at the sight of her desperate, starving child. “You cannot measure hunger because it’s totally consuming. You turn into an animal. Like an animal, all you can think about is [getting] the next fix, the next food,” she said.
In 1943, Anita’s family was transported to the Holocaust’s most infamous death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau. Here stood the striking arch bearing the words “Arbeit Macht Frei”: work makes you free. The same sign could be found at Theresienstadt, but here, in the camp where the Nazis would kill over 1.1 million people, mainly Jews, its message was resoundingly ironic. One day, an announcement was made. All able-bodied inmates between the ages of eighteen and fifty must sign up to go to work camps in Germany. Those who remained would face a decidedly darker fate than forced labor. Anita was fourteen at the time, but her mother pushed her and said, “Tell them you are eighteen. Go. You are strong. You can make it.”
“I turned to her and [asked], ‘Why don’t you come with me?’ And she said, ‘I cannot leave your little brother. He will forget his name and we will never find him.’ She turned around and took my little brother by his hand and she walked away.”
That was the last time Anita saw her mother and brother. She ached of distress, feeling as if her mother abandoned her, because at the time, she could not have known her mother’s words would save her. Michal and Anita’s mother were sent to the death chambers, Anita to selection with Dr. Josef Mengele.
In selection, Anita queued behind other women attempting to move from Auschwitz to the work camps. She stood in front of Dr. Mengele, engineer of some of the Holocaust’s most twisted human experiments, and waited for him to decide her fate: work camp or the gas chambers. Anita passed selection. “It was a frightening thing because we knew by the wave of his hand you either lived or you didn’t live,” she said. “Can you imagine that? No. It’s unimaginable. And it shouldn’t be imaginable.”
Immediately after selection, Anita met a female SS officer who offered a glimpse of humanity amongst the otherwise inescapable brutality. After the shock of the last several minutes, Anita found herself sobbing hysterically. The SS officer took her into another room and comforted her, reminding Anita that work camp was a far better option than the gas chambers.
While at work camps in the Hamburg area, Anita met a Wermacht soldier — drafted as opposed to volunteer SS soldiers — who showed unusual kindness. He had once been a French professor at a local university, and every day he shared part of his sandwich with her. The soldier asked Anita what she would like for her birthday. She answered: a chance to swim in the ocean. On her birthday, Anita’s wish was granted. She and the soldier walked to the ocean, and Anita dove in. Before long, she could see the outline of houses on the other side of the shore. They reminded Anita that freedom was within her reach, but because of her promise to the soldier that she would not attempt to escape, Anita simply returned to the camp.
“I didn’t know his name, and I never saw him afterwards,” Anita said. “This is how it happens in life with giving and doing good things. You will do a good deed when the moment is there…and almost never the same person is going to do something wonderful for you.”
In February 1945, the regime relocated Anita again, this time to Bergen-Belsen. Her stay there was short—British Armed Forces arrived in April to liberate the camp. Following liberation, Anita searched for news of her family, finally receiving word that her father was alive and would meet her soon. The meeting never took place. Anita learned that her father fell victim to a death march, a long trek across freezing countryside designed to exterminate remaining prisoners and, with them, evidence of Nazi atrocities. At age fifteen, Anita was the last surviving member of her family.
This is how it happens in life with giving and doing good things. You will do a good deed when the moment is there…and almost never the same person is going to do something wonderful for you.” -Anita Schorr
For years after the Holocaust, Anita did not share her story. She moved to a home for orphans, joined the Zionist underground Haganah army and went to Palestine, where she lived in a kibbutz with her first husband. Then, in 1959, Anita moved to America with her husband and young son Odie. But it was not until twenty years ago, after a visit to the newly opened United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, that Anita finally opened up. “I saw that they had screens with survivors telling their stories and I thought, ‘I have to do this. I just have to do it,’” Anita said.
Anita tells her story to share a message she hopes will prevent an atrocity like the Holocaust from ever happening again. She explained, “Don’t be a bystander. Because if you don’t do something right at the very beginning, these things can mushroom into such a horror story as the Holocaust. You have to make a commitment to yourself that you will step in and be a hero when you see injustice done…you have a responsibility to step in. This is not just if you feel like it, fine, if you don’t – no. It’s always your responsibility to step in if you see injustice.”
After the Holocaust, Anita chose never to be a bystander. She discussed and continues to discuss her experience in the concentration camps, despite the personal sorrow it causes her. She has also worked with author Marion A. Stahl to produce a book, entitled Anita, detailing her experience. It is time to learn from Anita. It is impossible for anyone today to prevent the Holocaust and other genocides of the past, but it is possible to change society’s twisted ownership over women. In the words of Anita, “step in and be a hero.”
Aberrance Quarterly, July 2014