When Susan Pollack thinks back to the person standing before her, scanning the lines of girls, stick in his hand, she remembers a tall, confident, charismatic man.
He was handsome, she said, and dashing in his military uniform. The girls all made sure to stand up straight, walk correctly, and pinch their cheeks to give themselves a healthy glow before taking their turn.
Because the man with the stick was Josef Mengele, the high-ranking Nazi known as the “angel of death”. Do tell how they would know in advance of this man's reputation, and how is it possible that every witness ever since the start claims to have been under his gaze.
Mengele used Auschwitz – where Mrs Pollack arrived in 1944 – as his own personal Petri dish, choosing prisoners at whim for his own perverted pseudo-medical experiments. Mrs Pollack is one of the few people to have come face too face with Mengele, and lived to tell the tale. Ditto above, except she is far from one of the few.
Susan Pollack talks about her experience of Auschwitz
Next month Mrs Pollack will be come face to face with another of Hitler’s henchmen. The Hungarian-born businesswoman, who lost 50 members of her family at Auschwitz, will travel to Germany to give evidence at the trial of Oskar Groening, almost certainly one of the last major Nazi cases. Dubbed “The bookkeeper of Auschwitz” for his role in logging the belongings of those herded into the camp, Groening, now 93, is facing charges of being an accessory to the murder of 300,000 Jews.
“I’ve never met a Nazi before,” she said, her eyes sparkling with curiosity. “It’s the first time since the war I will come face to face with a self-confessed Nazi.” Eh?
Despite enduring Auschwitz, a slave camp, and then a death march to Belsen – from where, hours away from death, she was liberated 70 years ago by the British – Mrs Pollack has never before been asked to give evidence at a trial. Yet we are all told how those devilish Nazis wanted to kill each and every jew. Why would they have marched anyone anywhere if they just wanted them dead?
“For the earlier trials, we weren’t called,” she said with a shrug. She is one of three Britons who will give evidence in the German town of Lueneburg.
“Without hesitation I said I will do it,” she said, describing how she was approached by German lawyer Thomas Walter six months ago. “I’m 83 years old. It won’t come again. I hold the view myself, very strongly, that all generations must remember what took place.”
But why does she think that Groening has come forward now, having hidden his role at Auschwitz for so many decades?
“I suppose towards the latter part one looks back and thinks: what have I done? As we move towards an eternal life, if you believe that.
“And you think what goodness have I done? Maybe not verbalise it, but think about it.
“I don’t know his reasons. I really don’t know. But he came forward.”
Prisoners were brought to Auschwitz by cattle trains and divided by young and old
Yet the decision by German courts to try Groening has been deeply divisive.
Some argue that there is no point bringing him before a judge, as given his age he is unlikely to serve time in prison. He has confessed that he is “morally responsible” for the murders at Auschwitz, although he maintains that he never played a direct part in the genocide. He also says he was but a small cog in a giant machine of murder.
But for Mrs Pollack, that is irrelevant.
“I think one of the lessons we have to take forward is that each and every person was responsible – irrespective of whether they were turning the gas on or shooting someone. You were there. When it was time to stand up,” she said.
“Why did you go along with it? You were educated. You could comprehend. Germany was educated, cultured. Was that knowledge that you were going to be ruling over everyone upmost utmost?
in your mind? To treat us and many others so brutally? In their minds we were worse than worms.”
Asked what she would like to see happen to Groening, she replied: “That’s for the court to decide.”
She added: “I am not vindictive. But what we hope, what I hope, is that he is tried. That’s the important thing. We live in a world today when justice – and I mean justice on morality, decency – prevails.Not if you are a Palestinian living under the constant death threat of Israel
And I hope all generations after that take note.
“That is the ultimate victory.” That and conning the world out of billions of dollars
Susan's father, centre, who was taken away before the family were sent to Auschwitz
For Mrs Pollack has made it her life’s work to keep alive the memory of those who died.
“I feel like I’m lucky; I survived,” she said. “All my family were murdered. Evidence please. If she never saw him again how does she know he was killed?
“I have a sacred duty to inform and to forewarn future generations about their behaviour and their role in life, and to stand up. Don’t be a bystander.”
The gates of Auschwitz, reading: "Work will set you free"
Her tale began in rural Hungary, in the town of Felsogod, 20 miles north of Budapest, on the banks of the Danube.
In 1944, aged 13, her father was taken away, and Mrs Pollack was put on a train destined for “resettlement”. Accompanied by her mother and brother, two years her senior, she travelled by cattle wagon through Hungary in an airless train, without water and food, to Poland.
“When the doors opened up we were kind of relieved,” she said. “So many people died on that train, and finally we had fresh air.
“But the terror just cut into our bodies immediately. The shouting: 'Out!’
“We knew it wasn’t going to be the settlement we were led to believe it was.”
A girl who spoke Hungarian told Mrs Pollack to lie about her age, as children under 15 were immediately taken away and killed. So, in faltering German, she said told the guards that she was 15, and was taken away.
“My mother was gassed on arrival,” Really? How does she know that? The litany of 'witnesses who claimed they never saw people again is equal to those who claim all their family were killed, yet present no evidence whatsoever
she said, the horror of her memories contrasting with the elegance and warmth of her north London home. On top of a glass cabinet sits a framed photograph of her meeting the Queen, amid photographs of her three daughters and six grandchildren. Birds sing in the little garden outside, as, surrounded by paintings and flowers, she talks of the hell she endured. Please pass the bucket I'm feeling faint
“Us girls, on arrival, after having our heads shaved, we were inspected by Dr Mengele,” she said,
of course you were dear after all he was the camp diversity and welfare officer and had time to inspect millions of inmates
composed and articulate in her pearl earrings. “And he looked at us naked to see who would be used as slave labour, and who gassed.
“We knew what was going on because others who had been there told us. Read twice and then think about what she has actually just said.
“I remember there were seven girls marching in front of him. He decided, stick in his hand, that way or that way. No emotion.”
She was paraded before Mengele many times. Auschwitz was, she said, a place of pure terror, and the “tall, confident, very handsome” Mengele was at its heart.
“We didn’t look at his face,” she said. And yet she knew it was him
“The whole year in the camps I just wanted to disappear and be unseen. There was no laughter or anything like that.”
The girls lived in a barrack with triple bunk beds, and would try to transport themselves away from reality by playing games. The strongest memory she has is of playing a game, during their depths of starvation, imagining what they would like to eat.
“It went from girl to girl; what would you have for breakfast? Maybe some bread, a little butter – you could taste it.
“There was no food. We were given a tiny piece of bread in the morning like sawdust, probably it was sawdust. And in the evening soup like dishwasher water.
“It helped us. Imagining home life helped us very much. That was normality, love. That was my home, where I belonged, familiarity. Away from all this terror and deprivation, and frightful, frightful life.”
One day, called before Mengele, she was chosen.
“It didn’t register with me, what it could mean,” she said. “Resignation set in; I didn’t contemplate being gassed.”
But instead of being sent to the gas chamber, she was sent to a slave labour camp, where Mrs Pollack worked testing electrical circuits. And of course she knew it was him because he introduced himself to her before sending her and her alone to another camp unlike the zillions of others who she said had been gassed on his command.
“It wasn’t too bad. It was an improvement to Auschwitz. You didn’t have to stand for hours being counted, or have the selection, as with Mengele.”
But there was more horror to come.
With the war coming to an end, she and the other girls were moved from the factory in what Mrs Pollack believes was an attempt to hide the slave labour from the advancing allies.
In the bitterly cold winter, wearing only flimsy clothes and shoes which were too small, she marched east, with thousands of other girls.
“We marched through fields, through farms. Occasionally we slept in barns. It was a long line. Nobody spoke to us. We were disposable. It was just us girls.
“Occasionally we got some boiled potatoes from farmers or stole some frozen turnip if we could. The guards beat us up. That’s what they were doing.
“Nobody ever spoke to us. The silence. Then occasional gunshots, when they couldn’t keep up, they were shot along the way. Many of us were shot, many of us couldn’t keep up.
The march ended when we got to somewhere – we didn’t know where. That place was Belsen.”
Auschwitz had been spotless, a place of pure terror, she said. But Belsen was “just death”.
Directed in to a barrack, she came across unimaginable horror: all dead people, no toilet facilities, some people moaning, some people still alive, lice and typhoid. Yet Auschwitz was spotless so she says with no typhus or disease and of course toilet and healthcare facilities
“I was getting weaker and weaker and wasn’t able to walk any more,” she said. “The conditions were so appalling.
“I crawled out of my barrack, looking for somewhere better, and for the first time somebody recognised me. Somebody from my village. She recognised me! I recognised her. Aha the old 'I met a friend from my village routine, not to be confused with the apple or girl at the fence routine or the I was to be gassed but water came out instead of gas routine.
“She was a big woman. She had children who I think were killed in Hungary.
“She said; 'Susan, are we going to survive this hell?’
“I don’t know how I found the words to say it. I said: 'Hold on a bit longer.’ Mrs Schwartz was her name.
“I crawled back to my barrack because there was no space.
“When I crawled back, there were lice all over her. She was dead. She was suffering from famine, all swollen, and she was sitting up dead. I think it was just before liberation.”
In the hours before the British arrived, Mrs Pollack crawled outside.
“I think I wanted to die outside,” she said, matter of fact. “It was quite common to do that.
“Fortunately for me, a small ambulance roving through saw my body had a twitch of life. So they saw me and picked me up. How fortunate it was. Among all the mountains of corpses.”
She tells how she was taken to a hospital; of the indescribable pleasure of a bed and clean sheets; of food. Six weeks after liberation, wracked by tuberculosis and unable to walk, she was taken to Sweden, where she met her husband, Abraham, and remained until 1947.
“The life spirit took hold of us,” she said. “Joy came in to our lives. We could walk, we had freedom. We didn’t talk about the suffering, apart from saying where were you? We didn’t go into detail, as we knew that everyone had the same suffering as we did.
“So that life force, the love for making plans – not that we made plans – but we didn’t care so much. You only speak Hungarian. You have no education. No skills, no money. You don’t want to go back to the country that persecuted you. So what do to do? Those were the new real concerns.
“But we weren’t too stressed about it. The world outside was like heaven. It was so wonderful, you realised. It didn’t happen to others.”
The couple then moved to Canada, had their three daughters, and remained until moving to Britain in 1962. Mr Pollack, a jeweller, felt there were more job opportunities in the UK; Mrs Pollack worked as an exporter of Sheffield steel, travelling around the world, and managing her husband’s business. For the past 25 years has spoken to primary school pupils about the war. Aged 60, she gained a degree in history, having worked during the day and studied by night. She worked as a librarian until the age of 72.
“But I don’t just want to be known as that lady who survived the Holocaust,” she said, laughing.
Her husband died in January this year, and now she spends her time visiting friends, drinking tea, in the garden, and spending time with her family. “Although I am a very independent woman,” she said firmly.
Her brother survived, and returned to Hungary, but was psychologically “very affected by it.” He had been given a job shovelling the bodies from the gas chambers.
Working as an electrician, a fire caused a building to be damaged, so the Soviets charged him with treason and he was castrated. Mrs Pollack tried to find help for him, and bring him to Canada or the UK, but he did not want to, and died.
On January 27, to mark the 70th anniversary of the Soviet liberation, she went back to Auschwitz for the first time. She was calm, she said, until she entered a replica gas chamber.
“My grandson was with me and he said: 'You don’t have to do this, you know.’ But I wanted to.
“Once inside, then I was furious. I wanted to scream and scream, and rip the place down.”
How does she feel about those who caused such suffering? She said she is angry that more of the 27,000 guards who worked at Auschwitz did not face trial. How does she feel about Groening?
“I don’t hate him,” she said. “But I don’t have it in my heart to forgive. That is not my role.”
She will travel to Germany with her daughter.
“In a way I am looking forward to it,” she said. “I am aware it’s not going to be easy.
“But to be there at all is miraculous.”