Holocaust Memorial Day – I lived among rotting bodies at Bergen-Belsen & was examined naked by Dr Mengele at Auschwitz

WHEN Susan Pollack arrived at Bergen-Belsen death camp in 1945, she had already witnessed countless murders and been subjected to naked examinations by 'angel of death' Dr Josef Mengele at Auschwitz.

But nothing could prepare the 14-year-old Hungarian Jew, by then a self-described "living corpse", for the horror of living among piles of rotting bodies, with no idea if or when she would join them.

Sharing her story to mark Holocaust Memorial Day, the 91-year-old grandmother, who lives in London, tells Fabulous: "Bergen-Belsen was a place of death and indescribable suffering.

"There were rotting bodies all over. There was starvation and infectious diseases everywhere, even the people who were alive were no longer people.

"I couldn't walk after my death march, I had to crawl everywhere and I recognised my former neighbour, a Jewish woman, in the next barrack over from mine.

"It was the first time I had spoken to someone in my language for months. She asked me ‘are we going to survive?’ and I said ‘just hold on a little bit’.

"But when I crawled back to see her the following day, she had died. Bergen-Belsen had lice which infected everyone with typhus.

"The camp's smell was diabolical, I can’t really describe it, of corpses that were rotting. It was filthy, it was a place unfit for people to live in. A place of terror, fear, indescribable suffering and no help.

"Nobody cared about us. We were like fodder (food for livestock). Sweep us up and throw us into the gas chambers to be burnt, I suppose that's what the Nazis were getting ready to do."

Susan believes she lived in Bergen-Belsen for two to three weeks, although she had no way to tell day or night by then.

She adds: "It couldn’t have been longer than that, because there was no food. It's not that I wanted to die, but your very brain doesn't function anymore."

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Mercifully for Susan, the camp was liberated in April 1945, when she was days from death.

She says: "I crawled out of my barracks, away from the smell and the filth and the crying, as I couldn’t take it anymore.

"I felt a hand picking me up, but doing so gently, and I didn't get shot, not that I would have cared.

"I was placed in a small ambulance and that’s how the British liberated me. The first thing they did was wash me, because I was filthy. They called in the local German women, made them wash us down and give us some clean clothes.

"I had my life back, but nowhere to go. I had no illusions of my family's survival and I knew I did not want to go back to Hungary."

Susan's early years

Susan was born Zsuzsanna Blau in September 1930 in Felsögöd, where she lived with her parents and brother, Laci, who was two years older than her.

She had a seemingly idyllic upbringing – a small village life with her father selling wood and coal, the family raising horses, geese and ducks, and growing their own vegetables.

But antisemitism was always a dangerous undercurrent to their lives, despite attending mixed schools.

Susan says: "There was a gradual build-up of antisemitism during the 1930s, long before we were transported. There were no other ethnic groups in Hungary, only us and the Gypsies.

"One day in 1938, my uncle was riding his horse and wagon when another man, his neighbour, jumped out of the back of the wagon with an axe and chopped off his head.

"The perpetrator was sentenced to two years in prison but didn't serve it all. He was released and continued living opposite my uncle's widowed wife."

Susan's brother Laci was regularly beaten by other boys at football matches, but the family's complaints to the council were dismissed.

Eventually, the Jewish families were told they could be resettled away from the violence and the fathers were called to a meeting, under the guise of discussing a better life for them.

Instead, they were sent to work camps. Susan says: "We were called to say goodbye to my father and I saw him being beaten up and herded onto a lorry, together with the Jewish men.

"I never saw him again. A local Christian woman who took a basket of food to him told us he was unrecognisable, they were so brutal to him. Probably beating, starving, physical abuse."

Not long after, Susan, then 13, her mother and Laci, 15, were told to pack their bags.

They were taken to a ghetto in Vác and then an internment camp – where they slept outdoors – before another train journey.

They had no idea they were being sent to Auschwitz – and wouldn't have known what it meant if they had.

'Another girl told me "your mother was taken to the gas chambers". I didn't know what this meant'

Susan says: "We were jam packed into a cattle train – mostly women, babies and children. I remember there were two buckets, one for a toilet and one for drinking water.

"We were suffocating, the buckets spilled. Many didn't survive the journey, especially young children and babies.

"When the doors opened up, we were joyful, we finally got some fresh air. Then the reality hit us. It was indescribable.

"We were numb and suddenly people were shouting ‘get out, get out’. We had no idea where we were. We were absolutely terrified.

"A Hungarian woman whispered to me ‘don’t say you’re younger than 15’. I just nodded, so when the Germans came, I said I was 15. I suppose that was my saviour, that I was considered to be useful for a short while for slave labour."

Sadly Susan's mother was not so lucky. She says: "My mum was in her late 40s, but very worn and petite and distressed. She was removed from us, and my brother was taken away with a group of boys.

"I was taken to a barrack, a big wooden shack with three levels inside. The Hungarian-speaking girls approached us and asked ‘what happened to your mum?’ I said ‘she was taken away’ and they said ‘oh she was taken to the gas chambers’.

"I didn’t understand what this meant, it didn't penetrate, this girl telling me her own mother was gassed. That camp was the Devil's place."

'My brother was forced to move bodies at Auschwitz – he always feared coming across a corpse from our family'

Meanwhile, Laci was forced to work in the Sonderkommando, moving bodies from the gas chambers to the ovens.

They reconnected years later, the sole survivors from their family.

Susan recalls: "The only thing my brother said was, he was always fearful he might come across a corpse from our family.

"I didn’t know what to say. He was affected very badly, for all of his life." Laci passed away in 1995.

Susan lived in Auschwitz for around three months. She says: "I didn’t see anything of the camp, we weren’t allowed to walk around.

"We were starving, that was all that was on my mind. There was no food, just some watered down slosh or soup in the morning.

"The starvation, day after day, ravaged our bodies. Us girls were examined by somebody called Dr Josef Mengele, stark naked, little girls.

"We were regularly inspected and if you were seen to be losing weight rapidly, you went taken straight into the gas chambers, not suitable for work anymore, useless.

"On one occasion, I was selected. But it wasn't for the gas chambers, it was for slave labour."

'Dr Josef Mengele would examine us girls, stark naked. If you were losing weight rapidly, you were sent straight to the gas chambers'

Susan was sent to Guben, Germany, to work in an armaments factory, testing equipment.

She says conditions were more favourable there, until the Nazis realised they were losing the war and herded their prisoners off to Bergen-Belsen.

She says: "The Germans didn’t want to be recognised as violent, worse than wild animals, so we were sent on a death march.

"It was a long walk, over weeks and the winter was harsh. Again we had no food. Occasionally we got some from a farmer, but it didn’t happen on a regular basis, or we’d scrape food from under the ice.

"Many couldn’t keep up with the marching so they were shot, or died from starvation."

What is Holocaust Memorial Day?

Holocaust Memorial Day takes place each year on January 27.

This date marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp.

By the end of the Holocaust, six million Jewish men, women and children had been murdered in ghettos, mass-shootings, in concentration camps and extermination camps.

1.1 million died in Auschwitz (85% of those sent there). 52,000 died in Bergen-Belsen, including child diarist Anne Frank.

After the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, Susan was taken to hospital in Sweden – to be treated for tuberculosis, typhoid and severe malnutrition.

She then settled in Canada, where she met husband Abraham, a fellow survivor, before moving to London in 1963.

The couple were married for 60 years and had three kids and six grandkids together.

Abraham – who Susan describes as "a wonderful man, very hard working, trustworthy and a good, kind human being" – died in 2015.

Meanwhile Susan still travels around schools with the Holocaust Educational Trust, telling her story. She says: "I never got over it entirely, very few of us do after the barbaric conditions we had seen and experienced.

"It never leaves you, the memory stays forever. Never mind that it’s 80 years ago, it feels like yesterday.

"It's not easy for me to speak about but I do so to warn people, 'enough of antisemitism, know what it can lead to'. It doesn’t just kill the Jews, it killed many others.

"Telling my story is my therapy. Antisemitism has to be defeated at all costs, because it devours not only the victims, but the whole of civilisation."

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