Chana Kuhnreich was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1924. She was the youngest of five children in an Orthodox Jewish family. After Germany occupied Poland, Chana and her family were forced to live in the Lodz ghetto when it was established in 1940, and she was there until the ghetto was liquidated in August 1944, when she was deported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.
Chana was only in Auschwitz for forty-eight hours before being sent with her sister to a forced labour camp and eventually to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where she was liberated in April 1945 by the British Army. After the war, she lived in the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp in Germany. There she was reunited with her brother — the only other surviving member of her family — met and married her husband, Moshe Kuhnreich, and gave birth to a daughter in 1947. They immigrated first to Israel in 1949 and then to Canada in 1952, settling and raising a family in Toronto.
I was the tender age of fifteen when World War II began. I was a sheltered girl, unlike girls my age today who often know what is happening in the world. Newspapers were seldom obtained by my family, and so we didn’t know much of what was going on in the world. Radios and telephones were very rare. (Even if someone had a telephone, whom would they call, since no one else had one!)
The horror of what I went through after the Germans invaded is hard to describe. It felt as though we had no night and no day — every moment seemed to be the same, with nothing to eat. We stood in lines in the middle of the night for a piece of bread. When we were almost at the front of the line to receive the long-awaited bread, the Germans would schlep us out of the line and scream, “Juden Raus!” (Jews out!) when they noticed that we were Jewish. Jews were forced to do hard labour; the Nazis took people from the streets to clean the public washrooms and to clean the streets. We all had to wear an armband with a Magen David on it.
One Friday afternoon in February 1940, the Germans announced that we had to leave our home or we would be killed. We wanted to take some of our belongings with us, but there was no transportation. We didn’t know what to take, where we were going or how we would get there. It was a cold winter day, and it was snowing. My father said, “Take whatever you can,” and we started to walk. The ghetto was a small area in the northeastern part of the city. Shabbos had already started, and my father was crying. It was horrible. We had no place in the ghetto but were forced there just in time for Shabbos, for lecht tzinden, the candle lighting. My aunt, my mother’s sister, Malka, was there a little before us and had arranged a room where we could stay, two families in one room. It was freezing cold, no heat, no food.
My maternal grandmother was with us in the ghetto. One day she tripped and fell and broke her hip. There was no way to help her. She needed an operation, which could not be done because of her age. My mother and her sister tried to take care of her as best as they possibly could, until my aunt got a hernia from turning her over. My aunt had to be admitted to the hospital for an operation. A hospital was right next door to us, but while my aunt was there recuperating, the Nazis came one night and took away everyone being treated in that hospital. Malka was never seen again. My grandmother died in the summer of 1940.
In the ghetto, I had to work folding clothes the whole day. There was no food to eat. I used to try to get a little bit of sugar and sometimes salt from people who had some to bring it to sick people who were unable to help themselves. But this was not the worst. We were often called for Aussiedlung, which meant “evacuation,” when the Nazis told us to get out of our homes and gather in the street. They checked all the houses to make sure that no one was left; if they found anyone, they would kill them.
In the Hebrew month of Av, 1942, my mother, Rochel, died of starvation in the ghetto. She was about sixty years old. She didn’t want to eat any of the soup she was brought because she knew it was treif, not kosher. The first Friday after she died, before Shabbos, my father said, “The light from the house went out.” Later, we were thankful to Hashem that she was spared from living through the terrible things that happened during the Sperre, a mass deportation of the Lodz ghetto.
The head of the Jewish Council in the Lodz ghetto, appointed by the Nazis, was a Jewish fellow named Chaim Rumkowski. One of his secretaries, Estusha Ayebeshitz, was the niece of my older sister’s best friend. With her connections, my sister’s friend and her niece tried everything possible to make our situation in the ghetto a little better. Whenever she knew that something was going to happen, she tried to warn us. My sister Esther had a son, Tzvi Shmiel Chaim, who was seven years old. We tried to hide him whenever there was an Aktion, a roundup and deportation,because the Nazis always took the children away first. One time, we hid him in a mattress. He understood the situation. He knew he was going to die.
Before one of the Aktionen, my sister’s friend warned us about it and helped us hide. Our hiding place was in the basement of a bakery, the area where the coals from the oven fell. She locked the door from outside, and every morning she slipped in food for us. I was there with my father, my two sisters and my nephew. The burning coals caused my nephew to become asthmatic, and there was no medication to get for him. He died shortly after. Esther’s husband had already been taken away by the Nazis. The Germans offered young people a special pension for their wives and food for their families if they would go away to work. My sister’s husband was worried because there was no food for his family to eat, so he volunteered to go. At first, I think some cheques did come, but then they stopped, and we never saw him again.
In September of 1942, there was the major Aktion called the Sperre. Rumkowski’s secretary warned us about it. We were told to hide. Before the Sperre, we were not allowed to be on the street — we had to stay indoors, and the Nazis went from house to house calling all the Jews to come out to the courtyard. They made a selection; they sent some people to the left and some to the right. Those who were sent to the left were taken away in wagons. My sister Leja, who was three years older than me, was sent to the left. Can you imagine how we felt, not knowing if we would ever see her again? Hours later, she walked into the house, telling us that she had jumped from the wagon. She hurt herself but somehow managed to walk back to the house. She was very sick from what she went through and never recovered. She died in the ghetto a few months later at the age of twenty-one.
My sister tried to save me. She gave away her last drop of food to me. She felt I had a better chance of surviving because I was young.
In August 1944, the Nazis announced that we had to leave the ghetto because it was going to be liquidated. We had to put our names on a list, which meant we were going to leave. We were among the last ones to register. We didn’t want to register until we absolutely had to because we didn’t know where they would be taking us. We had no choice because, if we tried to hide, there would be no one to bring us food, and if they caught us hiding they would kill us.
We took all our belongings and whatever valuables and food we still had left. We left the ghetto on a cattle train, packed so tightly with people that we couldn’t move. There was no window and no air. There was one pail for water and one pail used for a toilet. We travelled this way without knowing our destination. Then we arrived at Auschwitz.
As soon as we got off the train, the Nazis started barking, “Men to the right, women to the left! If you touch the barbed wire, you will be dead.” They grabbed children away from their parents. The children were never seen again. If a mother held on to her child, both were killed together.
On the other side of a wire fence, we saw people who looked meshuganer, crazy, with no hair and all wearing the same striped shirts. They screamed to us, “Throw us your bags because they will take it away from you anyway and soon you will look just like we do!” And they were right. We all looked crazy. They shaved our hair, took our clothing and checked everyone very carefully to see if we were hiding valuables. They checked inside mouths to see if someone was hiding jewellery or had any gold teeth. I tried to save my sister’s diamond ring by putting it in my mouth. We had taken the diamond out of the setting, and I held it in my mouth under my tongue, and luckily it wasn’t noticed. I kept this diamond with me until a couple of days before the end of the war, when I traded it for one piece of bread.
That whole first night we lay naked in a field on a cold night without anything with which to cover ourselves. We were trying to warm our bodies by squeezing next to one another. Early in the morning, we had to stand with our hands over our heads without moving. Anyone who moved was killed.
Then there was a selection. We were hoping that my sister and I would go to the right. Hashem helped us, and my sister and I were both sent to the right. We had been in Auschwitz for only forty-eight hours; it felt like it was forty-eight years. We were sent to a forced labour camp. When we arrived in the camp, which I think was called Hambieren, my sister told me that she thought I had jaundice. She didn’t tell me until she felt I was in a relatively safe place, so that I wouldn’t panic. Before the selection, my sister had pinched my cheeks so that I would have some healthy colour and not look sick. She felt that in this camp, which had a Jewish woman in charge of the prisoners, it would be safe to go into the special sick room to recuperate.
I was taken care of and I was able to do some easy work because of the young Jewish woman in charge of us. We became close friends. When she knew the German soldiers were coming, she gave me work to do so they would not realize I was sick. The Germans took away anyone who was sick. But my sister’s health got worse, and with no food or proper clothing she couldn’t work hard in the fields.
At the camp, we had to work in a field the whole day. It was November and very cold. We had no coat, no underwear, nothing. There were bags of cement in our barracks, and people tried to take the paper bags and put them under whatever they were wearing to keep them warm. But if the guards saw this, they would kill the person. We had terrible shoes, no socks, and had to walk long distances. We had to work from morning until night digging holes. When we didn’t see any guards, we would try to go into the holes to warm ourselves, but if they saw us they would kill us.
One time, the Germans came and asked who of us wanted to go where we didn’t have to work. We were afraid of where they might send us, but my sister didn’t feel good at all, and so we decided to take a chance. They sent us to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. True, we didn’t have to work there, but it was a terrible place where people were being killed through starvation. We got weaker as each and every day passed. I couldn’t walk anymore and was crawling on the floor. My sister tried to save me. She gave away her last drop of food to me. She felt I had a better chance of surviving because I was young.
We were liberated by the British in April 1945. But for my sister it was too late. She died before they were able to save her. She was buried in Bergen-Belsen in a mass grave with thousands and thousands of people, one on top of the other.