Yvette Newman was born in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia (now Slovakia), in 1930. In 1939, Bratislava became the new capital of independent Slovakia, which was allied to Nazi Germany as a protectorate.
Yvette and her family lived under increasing persecution, subject to anti-Jewish laws. When deportations from Slovakia to Auschwitz and other Nazi camps began in March 1942, Yvette and her family were protected because of her father’s exemption as a medical practitioner. In September 1944, after the Slovak National Uprising, German troops occupied Slovakia, and Yvette and her family went into hiding. In December 1944, she, her parents and brother were found and arrested by a Nazi collaborator, who lived nearby. They were taken to the Sered’ forced labour and transit camp, and then Yvette and her mother were deported to Ravensbrück concentration camp; her father and brother were sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where they were killed. In February 1945, Yvette and her mother were sent on a weeks-long transport to a subcamp of Dachau concentration camp, a forced labour camp called Burgau, in Bavaria. In the spring they were sent to other Dachau subcamps, first near the town of Türkheim and then Landsberg am Lech. They were liberated by American troops on April 27, 1945. In June 1945, Yvette and her mother returned to Bratislava. Less than a year later, her mother passed away. Yvette immigrated to Canada in 1949, where she first lived in Winnipeg and attended business college, then took courses at McGill University in Montreal and eventually settled in Toronto, where she completed nursing school in 1953. In the late 1950s, Yvette married; she raised a family while working, until she retired in 1998.
When I was very small, most Jews felt completely comfortable in Czechoslovakia and were loyal to the Czechoslovak Republic, but the September 1938 Munich Agreement, also known as the Munich Pact, changed conditions in our country. In an attempt to deter Hitler from a threatened invasion of Czechoslovakia and prevent wider war, powerful European nations — England, France and Italy — allowed Germany to take over what was known as the Sudetenland, an area of Czechoslovakia bordering Germany where most of the population were of German descent, ethnic Germans. Czechoslovakia was not even present at the negotiations and both our democratic leaders and the Czechoslovakian public felt betrayed. Worst of all, it would soon become clear that this attempt to appease Hitler hadn’t worked.
Fearing assassination after the signing of the Munich Agreement, Dr. Edvard Beneš, the second president of Czechoslovakia, went into exile in 1938 and, together with other party members in Paris, organized the Czechoslovak government-in-exile, which was moved to London, England, in 1940, and was there granted diplomatic status.
My father became very concerned over what was happening politically. He found a doctor practising in San Francisco who spelled his last name the same way we did — Neumann — and wrote to him, explaining his concern for our family’s future in Czechoslovakia and asking him to sign an affidavit and help him get a job in his hospital. My parents had talked this over and at the time my mother had agreed to the plan. Dr. Neumann from San Francisco responded positively, signing the affidavit inviting my father to come and practise as a gynecologist and obstetrician at the hospital in which he worked. I remember my father taking his papers with the affidavit and going to Prague, which at that time was the capital of Czechoslovakia and the site of the United States embassy, to get a visa. His plan was to go the United States and send for us after he was settled.
Once my father had the visa and was ready to go, my mother changed her mind. She was an only child and didn’t want to leave her mother behind. My father said my grandmother should just come with us when we came to join him in San Francisco, but my grandmother told him he was being irresponsible. She said, “You have such a good life here. Why do you want to leave this good existence and start all over again in an unknown country? Jews never had it so good.” Both she and other family members accused my father of being a pessimist. I loved my grandmother very much and she was like a second mother to me, but when I reflect back now on the woman I knew, I’m puzzled that she did not encourage my parents to go. She was highly intelligent and knowledgeable about life. She ran her own extremely successful business, hiring family members who needed work. I’d have expected her to have some foresight in view of the news from Germany, Hitler’s speeches and his ravings against the Jews. But she did not, and as she wouldn’t leave, my mother wouldn’t leave either. Needless to say, my father and our family remained in Czechoslovakia. It was a fatal mistake.
German troops occupied Slovakia. Our exemptions no longer meant anything, and we went into hiding.
In the summer of 1941, when I was eleven years old, Tomi and I were staying with our grandmother in Sered’. She had a relative from Budapest staying with her as well, a young man named Imre Schulhof, who also worked for her. He was Hungarian, and his Slovak language skills were not very good.
One night, we were suddenly woken by a commotion around the house. The guard dog was barking, and when my brother looked out the window to see what was happening he said we were completely surrounded by Guardists, members of the paramilitary and antisemitic Slovak Hlinka Guard, and that it looked like they were trying to rob the house. We couldn’t go anywhere. After some time, my grandmother came from the other end of the house and told us that the Guardists had beaten up Imre. When the soldiers had moved on, we found Imre lying on the floor. I thought he was dead because he was unconscious and there was blood all over his body. These Slovak Guardists went around from house to house assaulting Jewish men, frequently beating them until they were unconscious. They made a few exceptions: if a young man was a contemporary of theirs or if he spoke good Slovak, they let him be.
My grandmother phoned the police, but they were not answering. They seemed to be in cahoots with the Guardists. She tried to reach the authorities again in the morning, still without success.
My father drove up that morning, tried to take care of Imre’s wounds and took us all back to Bratislava, where Imre stayed with us until he recovered. Afterward, he returned to Budapest but was deported in 1944 with most other Hungarian Jews. He didn’t come back. We learned many years later that he died in a camp in Germany.
Deportations of Jews from Slovakia began in March 1942. Twenty-two members of my family were deported at this time. We never saw them again. The first transport took young Jewish women who had first been sent to a Slovak transit camp to Auschwitz, and subsequent transports took others to Auschwitz or to other camps in Nazi-occupied Europe, where some became slave labourers, forced to help run the camps or do other work. Others were gassed on arrival in death camps. I have a friend, now living in Toronto, who managed to survive three years in a camp. It was just luck, she said, who the Nazis chose to help. Some women might have been made a Blockälteste or a Stubenälteste, which meant they were put in charge of a block, a barracks or a room in the barracks, while others were chosen to do administrative work. If someone was lucky enough to hold onto a specific job, their chance of survival was improved.
My beloved cousin Lydi Muller, who was eight years older than me, was on one of the early transports in May 1942. I don’t know when or how she died and am still trying to find out what happened to her. Two of my good friends, Liese and Kitty, were also deported and didn’t return.
Various transports took other family members, including my grandmother Anyuci, to the Lublin area of Poland to the ghetto in a town called Lubartów. My grandmother sent us postcards from there and my mother sent her packages of basic supplies and letters that were limited and censored by the government. My grandmother told us how much she weighed, which indicated, without saying it directly, the scarcity of food. She lived with a Polish Jewish family and wrote, “I live with poor Polish people. They are as poor as church mice. But whatever they have they share with us.” The parcels my mother sent consisted of sugar, cocoa, stockings, used clothing and shoes. I still have three of the packing slips. My grandmother was a religious person, and one time she wrote, “When the need is greatest, God’s help is nearest.” I am sure there are some people who would question her statement. In the last postcard we received she wrote, “If you don’t hear from me again, don’t worry. We are going to a better place.” I don’t know where she was sent. That was the last we heard from any of our relatives who were taken. Through the Red Cross, I searched for years. They all disappeared without a trace.
My father had two brothers, one an engineer, the other a lawyer. My uncle Leo Neumann, the engineer, had a certificate of exemption like my father’s for himself and his family. Their brother Rudolf, the lawyer, was deported with his family in 1942.
My father continued working. My brother and I continued going to the high school, which was called the Gymnasium. I felt okay at this school, like an oasis in a sea of hatred.
My father had quite a number of non-Jewish patients, many of whom had become our friends and helped us out when conditions deteriorated further. From October 1942 to the fall of 1944 there were no deportations. Some believe they stopped because of “The Working Group,” a Jewish resistance group in Slovakia led by Gisi Fleischmann and Rabbi Dov Weissmandl, who negotiated with the Nazis, offering bribes to save Jews, and because of the Vatican’s concern about the fate of the deported Jews and the involvement of one of their own priests, the president of Slovakia. The Vatican is believed to have put some pressure on President Tiso and Prime Minister Tuka.
At the end of August 1944, there was an uprising led by the Slovak resistance movement to overthrow Tiso’s collaborationist regime ahead of the approaching German army. The resistance fighters were helped by some Soviet soldiers and various other national groups, including French partisans and the Czechoslovak government-in-exile supporters. The Slovak state was not strong enough to suppress the uprising, so they called on the Germans for assistance. Although fighting against the resistance didn’t end until into October, in September 1944, German troops occupied Slovakia.
Our exemptions no longer meant anything, and we went into hiding.
We arrived at the Ravensbrück concentration camp on Christmas Eve 1944, five days after leaving the Sered’ forced labour and transit camp. The first action the officials took was to look through our hair. If they thought we had lice, they shaved our heads completely. If there were no lice, they gave us a short haircut similar to a brush cut. In some ways this was good since there was no hygiene in the camp; in other ways, it was detrimental because we lost a lot of heat through our scalp. But this lack of hair would make it easy for us to delouse ourselves or for someone to delouse us, a major pastime in the camp.
After our hair was shaved, we were sent to the showers. We had to take off all our clothes and go into a big shower room. We’d heard in Bratislava from people who had managed to escape from the camps that the Jews were being murdered by gas administered through the showers. Fortunately, this time the showers were actually showers.
After the showers, we were given clothing that was atrocious. I had a long coat and looked like a beggar, but we were allowed to keep our footwear. We were also given a number and a yellow star. Different types of prisoners had different coloured stars. The camp was originally for political prisoners. There were German political prisoners, French political prisoners, Yugoslav Partisans, homosexuals and thieves, as well as women who bore children for Soviet prisoners and had to have abortions — quite a mixture.
My mother and I were first assigned to block 23. This was a quarantine barracks where we were not required to work immediately, and it housed mainly Hungarian Jews who’d been deported in the summer of 1944. They looked emaciated, like skeletons, and suffered from diarrhea.
The latrines had toilets but no doors. Sometimes while you were relieving yourself, another inmate might approach you and beg you to share the seat with them. They would say in Hungarian, “Little mother, please let me share your toilet.” If they could not hold it, the stool would just run down their legs and soil their meagre clothing. We had no way of cleaning ourselves or our clothes. It was terrible.
During the night, those who died were taken out of the barracks on a stretcher and dumped in the area outside the latrine to be picked up later by the corpse wagon. The bodies were stripped of clothing and a big number was written on their chest. Just to go to the latrine was a terrifying experience. I could not go alone. My mother had to come with me.
In the barracks, our bunks were three levels high, and three women slept on each level. The bunks abutted one another. Sometimes people had to crawl over other bunks to reach their own. We chose to sleep with Mrs. Laszlo, the mother of Zuzi, whom we’d met when we had been imprisoned in the Gestapo House.
Prisoners who’d been in the camp some time offered advice to the new internees. We were told that if anyone offered you a job you should take it, because ordinary prisoners without special jobs had the worst work and fate. Ordinary prisoners might have different jobs every day, and if you worked outside you would be very cold, your feet might freeze and that would be your end.
One day someone came to ask if anyone would like to volunteer for the “public house.” I didn’t know what the public house was. I thought it was a job. I said to my mother, “Let us volunteer.” She whispered back, “No, no, no.” I said, “Yeah — remember what they said. We have to volunteer to get a good job so we won’t be ordinary prisoners.” Everyone was looking at us. My mother still refused. I later found out the “public house” was a brothel for the German soldiers. So that was out.
About the third day we were in Ravensbrück, the Blockälteste approached my mother, complimented her beautiful custom-made boots with high heels and told her that she wanted them. “These boots don’t make any sense here. I will give you in return boots that will be better for you. You will be sent out to work. I will give you warm material to wrap around your feet so your feet won’t freeze. I will also give you a few rations — extra bread.”
This Blockälteste seemed to be nice. Many were not. These block leaders could just take items from prisoners and not offer anything in return. There was no higher authority to which anyone could complain. The Blockälteste told my mother to think about it and she’d come back the next day for her decision. My mother spoke to some other women who had been in the camp for a while and they recommended that she take the Blockälteste’s advice. “Do what she says. She is right. These boots are not good for a camp. She can just pull them off your feet and leave you nothing in return. You’ll be lucky if she gives you these extra rations she’s talking about.”
Reluctantly, my mother gave the Blockälteste her boots. In return, she got some very ugly grey boots that were too big for her and some strips of flannel. But, the Blockälteste gave her everything she had promised, including the bread. She kept her word. My mother, with her shaved head, needed a hat to keep her warm, and with the extra ration we were able to trade for a hat and get spoons for eating.
One day, we moved up a level in our bunk to the third tier. Now we were among Yugoslav Partisans, young women who’d been captured in the mountains and had fought with Tito’s resistance in Yugoslavia. They were very brave individuals who frequently sang Partisan songs. Slovak is somewhat similar to the Serbian language, one of the languages spoken in Yugoslavia, so I could understand them a little bit.
Every morning, we had to get up for Appell, roll call. I don’t know how long we were required to stand; our watches had been taken away from us when we’d arrived at the camp. I know it was dark with the stars still in the sky when we first lined up outside, and by the time they finished counting it was daylight. If they made a mistake in counting, they started over again and we had to wait until the new count was done. There were so many of us — ten people in each row after row after countless row. It was always freezing. We weren’t permitted to go to the latrine. If we had to go, we had to relieve ourselves where we were standing. It was pure torture.
One morning during roll call, they asked for volunteers for the corpse Kommando. As I mentioned before, the corpses were lined up outside the latrines every morning. The corpse Kommando was a unit of workers in the camp that went around with a wagon to retrieve all the bodies and take them to the crematorium. Zuzi, the medical student I’d met in the Gestapo House and whose mother, Mrs. Laszlo, had recently been our bunkmate, volunteered for this job. By having this steady work she had a better chance of getting more rations than if she had no special assignment.
Shortly after we’d arrived, around the end of January 1945, a gas chamber was completed and was being used to kill prisoners. There had not been one at this camp before. One morning, while we were standing in Appell, an announcement was made that everyone over a certain age should step out and they would be sent to a better place. Zuzi’s mother was one of the women who responded. Zuzi gave her a big hug and told her she was happy for her — she wouldn’t have to stand in Appell any longer and she’d be in a warmer place. She completed her remarks with, “See you in Bratislava after the war.” Needless to say, we never saw Zuzi’s mother again.
My mother was my lifeline in the camp. If I had not had her, I wouldn’t have been able to survive. People who were by themselves sometimes just gave up at the very beginning. They stopped eating. One girl, who was a little older than me, was there by herself. A woman tried to take care of her, tried to be a surrogate mother, but the girl just wouldn’t eat, and after a short time she just died. That wasn’t uncommon. Some people just lost the will to live.
To me, Ravensbrück was hell. I thought it was the worst place on earth. I used to say the Shema prayer every day. Then I prayed, “Please God, do something. I’m having a nightmare. Please let this nightmare stop.”