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January 28th, 2020 | 4 min read

By Susannah Black Roberts

The only Auschwitz survivor I knew well was my friend Claire Fiala. She died about 18 months ago; she was my neighbor, and I spent a couple of winters shoveling her walk, until, in the last two years of her life, she hired a guy to do it. She spent her 16th, 17th and 18th birthdays in Auschwitz.

She survived because she was one of the first in, a Slovak, and educated.  When she first got there, they gave her a clerical job– faking death certificates for political prisoners– and that’s what she did for the next three years: boring office work for the Wehrmacht.

The Jewish death records, no one bothered to falsify, but the political prisoners had families outside, and each family got a form letter.  “We are so sorry to inform you that your son became ill and died, although we did everything we could to try to save him.”  And she would fill in the appropriate name.  The political prisoners didn’t go to the gas chambers, she explains, but  “they knew just how many calories to feed them so that they would die after three months.  They were so systematic about it,” she says.  “Imagine if they had used that attention on the front: they would have won the war.”

She credits her survival to her parents, who taught her to be self-sufficient, proactive, intrepid.  This made a difference, she thinks. “I always found out things,” she says.  “Mainly what I want to tell you is the secrecy.  Nobody really knew, out of the land, because there was every single secret.  Everything was verboten, that means forbidden.  When we worked, in the barrack, there were about five rooms on one side and five on the other.  The Gestapo had one room where they were working, and then there was one room where– they were called schreibstube, the typing room, where the typing girls were, Jewish girls.  And then there was the room where we were sitting, four women, Jewish girls, and three men, Polish Gentiles.  All prisoners, of course.  And that’s where the filing system was.”

“We had the cards to take– how do you say it, ABC, where you look up?  A card file, and that had in it the records of all the people who had died ‘normally.’  That’s what they called it.  It did not mean that you were not beaten to death or starved, but that you had not been gassed.  And the political prisoners were not gassed– only in special cases.”

“One of the Polish men, he lived not far from Auschwitz, and he had a liking to me.  The Poles had connections to people in the kitchen, it was all secret, but they were able to get things out of the kitchen.  Every day he brought me a sandwich.  Even the prisoners, they were all jealous.  You had to watch out for everything.  He put it in the corner of the room, so every day I went to the corner and there was the sandwich.  I halved it, and one half was to Helle, and one to me.”

She has a strong accent, but I can’t tell whether it’s the Viennese German accent of her parents’ growing-up, or the Bratislava Slovakian of her own childhood.  “The Czechs are lovely people, but the Slovaks… I will never set foot in that country again.  They paid the Germans to take away their Jews.”  They took her away in 1942, along with her parents and her younger sister, her aunts and uncles and cousins.

“We didn’t know,” she says. “…we had suitcases, we thought we’d be staying.  We didn’t know about the gas chambers.  It was a secret.  When a government starts keeping secrets, I’m telling you, it’s ‘Goodbye, Charlie.’”

She was the only survivor of her immediate family.  “I was totally alone.  We had work groups, though, teams of five, and when we were liberated, the five of us girls in my group kept together.  Everyone wanted to be liberated by the Americans– we were afraid of being liberated by the Russians.”

In January of ’45, she says, it was chaotic, but the Nazis decided for some reason that the thing to do would be to send all the remaining prisoners away on a train, and then march them– somewhat randomly, it sounds like.  That was when she came closest to death– a forced march through Germany in winter.  But she had stolen a bunch of extra clothes and had them on under her striped uniform. At some point, the guards just gave up and took off, left them in the middle of what she thinks was a soccer field, near the Elbe river.

“On the far bank, the Americans were, but this side, it was the Russians.”  There were still Germans around, as well, and one officer noticed her when she was away from the others. She’d taken off her stripes and had on regular clothes under them, a couple of dresses, actually, that she’d stolen from the bundles of clothes confiscated from prisoners who were killed.  She looked…not like someone on a death march, particularly.   “I was blonde, you see, I looked the most Aryan of all of us– well, Helle was blonde, too, my friend Helle, she lives in Toronto, now…  He asked me ‘Where are you trying to get to?‘  I told him that I was trying to find my family.  ‘Go to the NSDAP headquarters, there, and they will help you.’ I thanked him and got out of there fast.”

Her little sister was killed right away, in ’42; I think Helle became a little sister for her, even though they were the same age.

“Helle… she had no common sense, she was always off in the clouds.  She found a group of intellectual women, you know, and they would always sit around and talk.  Right below where I was sleeping, in the bunk below me, which was Helle’s bunk.  I said, ‘Shakespeare won’t help you get out of here!‘  She never would have made it if it weren’t for me. So many times on the death march, she wanted to step out.  But I wouldn’t let her.  I said, ‘If you step out, I’ll step out.’ And she made it… Her husband was wonderful, took care of her.  He is gone now.  I got a special plan so that for me, calling Canada is not long distance, so I can talk to her.”

I miss Claire. And I miss the world that could have been. But also I miss her.

Susannah Black Roberts

Susannah Black Roberts is senior editor at Plough. She is a native Manhattanite. She and her husband, the theologian Alastair Roberts, split their time between Manhattan and the West Midlands of the UK.