70 Years Later
Babies During the Holocaust, They Were Born Survivors
BY WENDY HOLDEN
On Sunday May 10th, two exceptional 70-year-old American citizens–one from Wisconsin and one from California–stood side by side on the grounds of the Mauthausen Concentration Camp in Upper Austria, not far from Hitler’s hometown of Linz. Holding their hands was a diminutive grey-haired Englishwoman with a unique connection to them both.
The granite fortress camp where they met was on the top of a hill in an otherwise beautiful setting overlooking the River Danube and across from Salzburg and the Alps. Mauthausen was home to one of the most brutal extermination complexes, known as “The Bone Grinder.”
No prisoner was expected to emerge from Mauthausen alive. But somehow thousands did, including these three remarkable survivors–born within weeks of each other in unimaginable circumstances during the closing days of the war.
Hana Berger-Moran was born April 12, 1945 on a table in an SS slave labor camp in Freiberg, Germany, as the Russian and American forces closed in. Seven months earlier her mother Priska had been stripped and shaved and faced “selection” by Dr Josef Mengele at Auschwitz; she denied being pregnant there, before being sent away to be worked and starved to death, keeping her pregnancy secret to the end.
When her water broke, the Nazis laughingly took bets on the gender of her baby before pushing her onto a train to be sent to her death with almost one thousand other women. They had no food or water and all she could give the naked three-pound Hana was what little breast milk she had, as she tucked her inside her filthy dress.
Mark Olsky also weighed three pounds when his mother Rachel, close to death and weighing less than 70 pounds, gave birth to him in an open coal wagon during a storm. Rachel, too, had faced Mengele and denied her condition, and then kept it secret from her Nazi guards for seven months. It was halfway through their hellish 17-day journey (on the same train as Priska and Hana) when she went into labor. No one knew what the date was so, as she sawed through the umbilical cord with a dirty razor, someone suggested she claim he was born on Hitler’s birthday, April 20, in the hope of saving the child. “Another Jew for the Führer!” the SS guards joked.
Eva Clarke was born into the world on the back of a wooden cart laden with dead or dying women, as they were pulled towards the gates of Mauthausen. Her appearance shocked the Nazis who had no idea her mother Anka was pregnant after she, too, had told Mengele “Nein” when he asked her, “Are you pregnant, pretty lady?” By the time she gave birth she was a walking pregnant skeleton, given no comfort and little medical assistance before being abandoned in a so-called infirmary with her newborn.
The Nazis who were responsible for the deaths of at least 100,000 prisoners in the hilltop camp were hurriedly preparing to leave at the time of Eva, Mark and Hana’s births. Unconcerned about the latest arrivals, they herded some of them into the gas chambers only to discover that they’d run out of the lethal Zyklon B. Instead, they shoved them into barracks infested with lice to starve or be eaten to death. Then they fled.
Within a week, the U.S. Thunderbolts arrived and liberated them. Part of General Patton’s Third Army, the battle-weary serviceman could hardly believe what they found. Having witnessed the brutality of warfare and lost men in the Battle of the Bulge, they broke down at the sight of the starving thousands so cruelly treated in the camp–and tried to save those they could. The food and medical attention they provided preserved the lives of these three vulnerable babies and their widowed mothers. Many more perished.
Few, if any, of those soldiers are still alive to recount what they witnessed as World War II ended. Neither are the three courageous mothers–Priska, Rachel and Anka–from Slovakia, Poland and Czechoslovakia respectively, who had each defied death to give life. They’d returned to their homes after the war only to learn that the Nazis had killed their husbands and that they had virtually nothing and no one left. Somehow, they managed to keep going for the sakes of their infants and–eventually–find happiness.
On May 10, the Austrian authorities marked the 70th anniversary of the camp’s liberation with a series of huge parades for the relatives of the liberators and survivors; thousands from around the globe journeyed there, including Hana, Mark, and Eva, who are destined to be among the last voices to be silenced.
They have each gone on to lead full and productive lives with children and grandchildren who continue their proud legacy, and have now agreed that their mothers’ stories be told in their entirety to mark their 70th birthdays, and the day they were set free when the Americans arrived.
Hana, who has a PhD and works in the pharmaceutical industry testing cancer drugs, lives near San Francisco with her husband. She moved to the U.S. from Israel in the 1970s. Her only child Tommy lives in Brooklyn, New York and works in IT. She has two adored grandchildren. Mark is an ER doctor in Madison, Wisconsin, and has a second home in Arizona. He and his mother and stepfather moved to the United States in 1958. Mark is married and has four children and four grandchildren. Eva works for the Holocaust Educational Trust speaking to schoolchildren about her experiences and lives in Cambridge, England with her husband, a law professor. She has two sons and three grandchildren.
Theirs is an incredible account of courage, defiance and hope, which traverses the ghettos and occupied cities of Europe, via Auschwitz, to one of the most notorious camps of all. While most of their loved ones were reduced to smoke and ash, they somehow survived and believed their survival to be unique until they chanced upon each other at the 65th anniversary of the liberation in 2010. Each of them is an only child, and yet they’ve since become “siblings of the heart.”
This is the first time that the powerful testimonies of these miracle babies who survived the camps have been told in full. Never before have such young, healthy and eloquent survivors been able to bear witness in this way. It is also the first time in several years that these remarkable siblings were reunited in the place where they were meant to die but were instead “reborn.”
Mark said, “It’s amazing to have people who share the same story. There are so many who didn’t make it or who were killed or tortured. We made it.”
Hana added, “We all try to live our lives as best we can and to fill those shoes that are so empty. In memory of their memories, each new day is a promise.”
Wendy Holden goes into much more depth about this amazing story in her new book, Born Survivors: Three Young Mothers and Their Extraordinary Story of Courage, Defiance and Hope, now on sale. A former journalist, she’s written more than 30 books, including the New York Times best sellers A Lotus Grows in the Mud (the memoir of actress Goldie Hawn), Lady Blue Eyes (the autobiography of Frank Sinatra’s widow Barbara), and Memories Are Made of This (a biography of Dean Martin as seen through his daughter’s eyes). Holden’s first book, Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, the true story of a controversial Irish abortion case, was banned in Ireland. And Shell Shock, her history of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, has been reissued as an e-book for the 100th anniversary of World War I. She lives in Suffolk, England, with her husband and two dogs and divides her time between the UK and the U.S.
The North American book launch for Born Survivors: Three Young Mothers and Their Extraordinary Story of Courage, Defiance and Hope was held at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie, Illinois on May 19th. For more information contact Jerry Huffman at email@example.com.
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