Pregnant in Auschwitz: Toronto Holocaust survivor recalls split-second decision that saved her and unborn son
Miriam Rosenthal was four-months pregnant, starving, bone-tired, cold, filthy and afraid when an SS officer in big black boots and a crisp uniform appeared before the barracks in Auschwitz with a loudspeaker in hand.
All pregnant women line up, he barked. Line up, line up — your food portions are being doubled.
“Can you imagine?” Miriam asks. “Even women who were not pregnant stepped forward. I was standing with my younger cousin, but I wouldn’t go. She says, ‘Miriam, what are you doing?’ ”
“Something was holding me back. Someone was watching over me. I feel maybe my mother, maybe God. Two hundred women stepped forward and 200 women went to the gas chamber. And I don’t know why I didn’t step forward.
“I have asked rabbis. I have asked some big people and no one can give me an answer. If you believe in God, then God did it. If you believe it was my parents, then it was my parents, which is what I believe.
“They were such good people, generous, kind. And maybe for their sake, maybe that’s why I didn’t step forward. I have asked myself this question so many times as I lay in bed upstairs.”
We are sitting in the dining room of a tidy home in north Toronto. Tears are welling in Miriam Rosenthal’s eyes. Talking about those long ago days “rips at her guts.” She remembers everything. “Every step.” Every horror. Her body might be shot through with arthritis, her legs barely work, her neck aches and she is turning 90 on Sunday, but Miriam remembers.
“I don’t have dementia yet,” she says, smiling.
Not stepping forward at Auschwitz was a beginning, not an end. There were other mysteries of fate that, in the dying months of the Second World War in the deadened landscape of Nazi Germany, brought seven pregnant Jewish women together in Kaufering I, a sub-camp of Dachau, where seven Jewish babies would be born.
The Germans murdered over a million Jewish children. Like the sick and the old, they were viewed as useless mouths to feed and often among the first killed. Some were used in medical experiments, but newborns were typically murdered at birth.
Almost seven decades after the war, the seven Jewish babies of Kaufering — three boys, four girls — are still alive, scattered about the globe, the youngest living survivors of the Holocaust.
“Here is my miracle baby now,” Miriam says, pausing mid-sentence, grinning at the appearance of her 67-year-old “baby,” Leslie.
“And here is my miracle mother,” Leslie Rosenthal chimes back.
Miriam Rosenthal was born Miriam Schwarcz in Komarno, Czechoslovakia, on Aug. 26, 1922, the youngest of 13 children. Jacob, her father, was a gentleman farmer.
“I was spoiled,” she says. “I had a beautiful life. I was always asking my mother when is it my turn to get married?”
A matchmaker from Miskolc, Hungary, met with Miriam and her mother, Laura. Flipping through the woman’s book of eligible bachelors, Miriam spotted her “Clark Gable,” a movie-star-handsome cattle broker’s son named Bela Rosenthal. They were married in Budapest on April 5, 1944. Miriam pinned a red rose on her lapel to cover the yellow Star of David.
The honeymoon was brief. Within a few short months, Bela was sent to a slave labour camp, Miriam to Auschwitz. She was later transferred to Augsberg Germany, to work in a Messerschmitt factory. All the while, her belly grew.
Two men from the SS appeared at the factory one day, with snarling German shepherds, demanding to know who the pregnant women were. They asked a second time.
“I had to raise my hand,” Miriam says. “I was showing, and if I didn’t put up my hand all those other women would be killed. How could I not put up my hand? The girls wept for me. The SS took me and put me on a passenger train, which was very unusual. There was a woman, a civilian, and she said: “Frau, what is with you? You don’t have hair. The clothes you are wearing. What are you, from a mental hospital?
“She didn’t have a dream, this German woman, of all the horrible things the Germans were doing. I told her I am not from a mental hospital, I am going to Auschwitz — I am going to the gas. She looked at me like I was crazy, opened her purse and gave me some bread. I ate it so fast. I was so hungry.”
The SS guards had been out smoking and returned, telling Miriam she was one “lucky Jew,” that the crematoriums at Auschwitz were “kaput.” Instead, she was taken to Kaufering I, a satellite camp near Dachau, hand delivered to the gates and identified by a number tattooed on her left forearm, still visible today.
“They said, ‘Adieu Frau, good luck to you.’ Can you imagine?” Miriam says. “I went into this camp and I was led to a basement and guess who was there?”
Six other pregnant women: crying, laughing, holding one another, chattering in Hungarian, bundling themselves in the hope that they might actually survive. One by one the babies came, delivered by another inmate, a Hungarian gynecologist whose only instrument was a pail of hot water.
A “Capo,” a Jewish woman charged with overseeing the women, smuggled a stove into the room, keeping the expecting mothers warm during the freezing winter months of 1945. The Germans discovered the stove and beat the Capo bloody, ripping into her flesh with their truncheons.
“I have looked for this woman since,” Miriam says. “After the beating she told us, ‘Don’t you worry girls, the stove will be back tomorrow.’ ”
Leslie Rosenthal was the last of the Kaufering babies, born Feb. 28, 1945.
“He was beautiful, blond hair, blue eyes,” Miriam says. “An SS came in and was surprised and said he looks Aryan and he asked me if the father was an SS man.
“I told him no, the father was my husband.”
I can’t describe that feeling of when he saw our baby, when he saw Leslie for the first time. We cried and cried and cried.”
American troops wept when they liberated Dachau in late April and discovered the babies — new life in a graveyard of bones. Miriam said goodbye to her “camp sisters” and headed home to Czechoslovakia. Bela had also survived and returned to Komarno, broken sandals on his feet, held there by a string.
“I could see him coming, running from afar, and I shouted, ‘Bela, Bela.’ I wasn’t sure it was him, and he was running and calling my name,” Miriam says.
“I can’t describe that feeling of when he saw our baby, when he saw Leslie for the first time. We cried and cried and cried.”
Bela said he is “so beautiful.” Miriam said he has “your ears.”
The young family moved to Canada in 1947. Bela found work in a mattress factory, but his real gift was talking. He was a man of words, and faith. The Rosenthals left the big city for Timmins and Sudbury, where Bela served as rabbi before their return to Toronto in 1956. They ran Miriam’s Fine Judaica, a gift shop, on Bathurst Street, for over four decades and raised three children, had grandchildren — and great children. Bela died a few years back. He was 97.
Life in Canada wasn’t always easy, Miriam says. There were up and downs and there was always the past, painful memories haunting the periphery, dark shadows amid the light.
Miriam has a recurring nightmare where the SS come and take Leslie away. But when she looks over at him now, sitting beside her on a warm August afternoon, her face brightens, because she knows how her war story ends.
“He is such a good boy,” Miriam says. “He visits me every single day. He knows what his mother went through.”