Holocaust survivor Henia Bryer: Prisoner number A26188
- 26 January 2013
- From the section Europe
The German invasion of Poland in 1939 ended the happy childhood of Henia Bryer. Ahead of Holocaust Memorial Day she tells BBC One how she was sent to four concentration camps, but survived them all.
"They were wearing these black uniforms with a skull on top and they installed loud speakers all over the town spreading hate propaganda," says Henia Bryer of the German army's arrival in Radom, eight days after they crossed the border on 1 September.
"Hitler's speeches went on for hours and hours... he never made any secret of what he was going to do to the Jews."
At first, Bryer's family - including an older brother and a younger brother and sister - survived on the gold coins saved by her father, a shoe factory owner who continued working, but was not paid. Much worse was to come.
In 1941 they were among the 30,000 people confined to a ghetto, set up in the Jewish area. Conditions were very poor, with 10 people living in a single room.
Violence and shootings were commonplace, yet the family managed to stay together.
It did not last.
"My younger brother was taken to the armament factory. We never knew what happened to him during the war - and he never talked about it. His own family doesn't know where he was, what he did."
Her older brother, disabled since birth, was among those killed.
"My brother went to the hospital, but they shot all the people that were physically disabled.
"He knew exactly what was happening... he took off his winter coat and he gave it to my mother and he said: 'Give it to someone who will need it. I won't need it any more'. And she came home with a coat."
By March 1944 the ghetto population had fallen to just 300 people and it was closed.
Those who remained were marched to the railway station and, on packed "cattle trucks", taken to Majdanek, near Lublin, Bryer's first concentration camp.
After being ordered to strip and stand naked in the snow, she and the others were given "a striped uniform, a striped dress and a white handkerchief on the head - and that was all you had in this winter". She spent her 17th birthday in the camp.
After six weeks the family were moved again, with Bryer sent to Plaszow, near Krakow - the concentration camp portrayed in Schindler's List.
Life there was brutal, with the prisoners divided into work teams and forced to push wagons full of stones, laden from the quarry.
"It was a hell of a job, we could hardly manage. There were shootings and hangings and there was no crematorium there - only a hill where they used to burn the people and all the ashes used to fly over us."
Another danger was the demand for blood for German troops fighting in Russia, which was forcibly taken and difficult to recover from.
It was at Plaszow that her father, an "upright" man who no longer knew where his wife or children were, was beaten to death by a guard.
Life or death decision
In 1944 Bryer was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where she saw notorious camp doctor Josef Mengele.
"They took us off the train and we had to line up and strip. The men were separated from the women immediately. And there stood Dr Mengele and his cronies - fully dressed in uniforms and we had to parade in front of them. You can imagine what that felt like.
"He was just flicking his finger. If he flicked the finger to the left, the people were going straight to the crematorium. If to the right, they were going to the camp."
She also recalls music blaring over loudspeakers as children were separated from their parents. She did not see her sister, but has no doubt about what happened. "She was sent into the ovens."
During a freezing winter Bryer, now tattooed as Auschwitz prisoner A26188, struggled against starvation, reciting poems to keep her mind on other things.
And, as she turned 18 in mid-December, she thought of how she should have been going to university in Rome.
She remembers telling herself: "I am too young to die, I can't die. I haven't seen anything, I haven't done anything yet."
Three months after she arrived, and two days before it was reached by Russian troops, Bryer was moved again.
During a forced march she saw the bodies of those shot because they were too tired to walk.
Arriving at the last camp, Bergen-Belsen, she saw "a huge mountain of dead bodies... partly decomposing".
The camp was "the pits", she says, even compared to Auschwitz.
Visiting the camp after its liberation in April 1945, the broadcaster Richard Dimbleby described it as a "living nightmare".
And for the prisoners, freedom was not immediate. Suffering from diseases including typhus, they were locked inside with too few doctors to care for them and fatty foods their bodies could no longer digest.
"People were dying - there were 30,000 people that died after the liberation. I felt terrible, I lost the only friend I had right through the camps."
After the war, Bryer was reunited with her mother and lived in France and Israel before she met her husband Maurice and moved with him to South Africa.
Now in her 80s, she fears younger generations lack knowledge of the Holocaust.
"I had an operation once and the anaesthetist comes and looks at [the tattoo on] my arm and he says, 'What is this?' And I said, 'That's from Auschwitz.' And he said, 'Auschwitz, what was that?' And that was a young man, a qualified doctor," she says.
There was no time to explain: "I was unconscious the next minute!"
Bryer's memories of the camps and the scenes she witnessed, remain - and she is determined that what happened should never be forgotten.
"We had in history bloody wars and revolutions and every type of tragedies, but I think this is not comparable to anything in the world."