Sara Birensztok (née Sala Flum) was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1919. Sara was twenty years old when Poland was invaded by Germany. In early 1940, she and her family were forced to live in the Lodz ghetto.
While living in the Lodz ghetto, Sara married Mietek. When the ghetto was liquidated in 1944, they were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where they were separated; it was the last time Sara saw Mietek. Sara spent six weeks in Auschwitz-Birkenau before being sent for forced labour at a munitions factory in Chemnitz, Germany. After about seven months, she was sent to Theresienstadt, where she was liberated by the Soviets on May 9, 1945. Living in Lodz again after the war, she met her second husband, Moishe. Sara and Moishe moved to Israel in 1957, and then to Montreal, Canada, in 1959. They eventually moved to Toronto, where they ran their own retail business until retirement.
Life in the ghetto was indescribably terrible, with people dying from hunger and cold. In the ghetto, work meant staying alive. If you did not work, you were as good as dead. Everyone had a ration card, and every ten days we got sugar, flour and bread — no meat, cheese, eggs, butter or milk. During all those years, I did not see cheese, milk or butter, and now I have osteoporosis and my bones are brittle. My father worked in a factory as a tailor. My mother, who had no training, worked separating schmattas (clothing). I worked in a factory making clothes, jackets and pants for the German soldiers. My sister Esther made straw boots, a very difficult job.
In 1942 there was the so-called Gehsperre, a time when everyone had to stay indoors at home for five days while people were chosen for deportation to a death camp. Each day the Germans came to take another section of people out of the ghetto. Because they said they wanted only old or very young people, we were not afraid; we had no old people or young children. My parents were not old — they were in their fifties!
My boyfriend, Mietek, came over during the Gehsperre. I was surprised to see him, because no one was allowed to be out on the streets. But he came wearing a white armband on his sleeve, one that a sanitary worker would have worn. This armband meant he could go about the streets without being threatened. He told us, “It’s no good. They are taking everybody. Children are being put on the wagons and taken away. It is murder. Don’t worry, because I am going to take all of you out of here to a safe place.” He had found a place whose occupants had already been removed, so it was now empty. He took me first. He should have taken my mother, but he took me first. He put me into this quiet, safe place before returning for my mother, father and sister. When he went back to get the others, he saw the wagons were already taking them away. He told me, “I saw your parents on the wagon and could do nothing. I wanted to take your mother down off the wagon but someone told me to go away, or else I would be put onto the wagon as well.”
I asked about Esther, if she was on the wagon. He said he did not see her. After a while, I went back to our place and found her there. When I asked her to tell me what had happened on that wagon, she told me that our mother told her to get off the wagon and to go back to our place, because she was worried that I did not have the key to our apartment. The foreman supervising the deportation saw how young a girl Esther was and saw her mother pushing her off the wagon. He knew me from the ghetto, and he encouraged my sister to get down and hide. The Jewish policemen could be terrible; they acted just like the Germans —they had power and did everything they could to save their own lives. But this foreman was kind and saved my sister’s life.
My parents and my boyfriend’s father were taken away on that wagon in 1942. I was crying. My sister and I could not believe that our parents were gone. We didn’t know where they were being taken. Shortly after, Mietek and his mother moved into our place, and we all lived together in one room. I wasn’t too happy they moved in with us, but she took over the cooking, and this made me happy. I never liked to cook; even when I was alone with my sister, it was she who did the cooking, since I was never good with it.
When they deported Mietek’s father to Auschwitz, his mother found a job for her son in a bakery. Before the war, the family had owned a bakery, and now as a favour, and because the bakers in the ghetto needed another helper, they gave Mietek the job. This meant we were not as hungry and that we had extra bread, which we could sell on the black market. Mietek bought some słonina, a type of pork fat, with the extra money. This saved my life. I had been very sick with tuberculosis, spitting up blood, and this little bit of fat spread onto bread helped to save me. I stopped spitting blood. I had had no medicine, no doctor, and no hospital. I had refused to go to the hospital for treatment because I knew it would mean deportation to Auschwitz if they knew I was sick. The hospital was the first place the Germans looked to deport people.
After a year Mietek wanted to get married. My older sister, Malca, who was still in the ghetto, said, “What’s the rush? Wait until after the war when our parents will be there!” We had been living together, me with my sister Esther and Mietek with his mother for a year. We had no time alone, other than going for walks. This bothered him, and he wanted to be together as a married couple. So in 1943, I agreed to marry Mietek.
He loved me too much. We met when we were sixteen and seventeen; he was my first love. He was very good-looking and a great dancer; I loved to dance and flirt with him. We had to go to the city to register and list our names with the janitor of our building. The wedding was performed by Rumkowski, the head of the ghetto, and the most powerful man there. Eighteen couples were married that day. I was wearing something on my head for a veil, and we had a ring. The wedding was neither happy nor sad. The circumstances were what they were, and how can you be happy getting married in a ghetto without your parents? We went back to our home and had a small party with my sister Malca and her husband and two children, my uncle Yankel, his wife, Gucia, and their sons, Moishe and Shmulek, Mietek’s sister, Genia, his mother, and my youngest sister, Esther, and a few friends. We did what we could, and that was that. We took pictures. I took all of my pictures from the ghetto to Auschwitz and have only one picture left, one picture from before the war, but nothing of my childhood. Maybe they are all in a museum.
Rumkowski asked Mietek and me what we wished for as a wedding gift. I asked for a Chaim for my present. This was a week’s holiday in a resort where the big shots would go for drinks and food and to relax. He gave me my wish, and it was wonderful. My husband’s wish was to go to the factory where the Passover matzahs were baked. Rumkowski said, “No. You work in a bakery every day.”
My parents and my boyfriend’s father were taken away on that wagon in 1942. I was crying. My sister and I could not believe that our parents were gone.
In 1944, when the Germans liquidated the ghetto, we all went to Auschwitz. We travelled to Auschwitz in a train, crowded with so many people. It was just terrible. It was summer and hot, but there was no food or water. We travelled all day and all night, with a bucket to pee in, and parcels, suitcases, even bread. I was saving it until we got there, thinking we could eat then. But no, we were told to leave everything we had brought with us. My husband must have known about Auschwitz, because when we got there, he put his hands to his head and said, “This is not good.” Maybe he knew and did not tell me. We didn’t know there were ovens in Auschwitz. If we knew, we wouldn’t have gone — an oven where they burned people? Who would go? We had no radio, no papers, no connection with the outside world, so I knew nothing of Auschwitz. My sister Malca and her husband and children had been sent there before us.
When we got to Auschwitz, we were told to get off the train and leave everything but the clothes on our backs in the train. I had brought some things with me, some bread and some nylons. My husband grabbed the nylons, stuffed them in his pocket and left the train. He went in one direction, and I went in the other. He ran back to me and gave me the nylons. That was the last time I ever saw him.
They took us — me and my sister and Mietek’s sister, Genia — to the washroom for a shower, shaved our heads and made us look like men. They gave each of us one torn dress — no shoes, no panties. My sister and I looked at each other, and we started laughing and crying at the same time. We did not recognize each other.
I spent six weeks in Auschwitz, six murderous weeks. We would stand all day for an Appell, a counting of people, in the burning August sun with nothing on our heads, feeling like we were going to die. My sister was in front of me and Mietek’s sister, Genia, behind, each holding me up between them. Every day there was a selection, every single morning. I was happy to have my sister and Genia as comfort to me. One day the guards picked us out and told us to go to a small room. They said, “Go to the shower.” I was terrified and started crying and screaming. A female guard said, “Don’t cry! You are going to work. I wish I was in your place.”
We were taken by train to a camp in Chemnitz, Germany, to work in a munitions factory. I remember on the train a passenger who opened the door to our car, looked at us, and quickly closed the door. He ran off shouting that there were crazy people on the train! The Germans took us to work each day and brought us back to the camp at the end of each day. I had a bed, a straw mattress, and did not have to sleep on the floor. We had soup and bread, and a shower once a week. Here, we came to work and were no longer worried about going to the ovens.