Last night (2nd May 2019) the Melbourne Jewish Community joined those around the world commemorating Yom Hashoah – the highlight of the evening was a moving and powerful testimony given by survivor Vera Friedin.
SURVIVOR TESTIMONY – Vera Freidin
I stand here as a proud Australian, grateful for the opportunities and privileges my family and I have been given in this wonderful country. I happily acknowledge the traditional owners of this country and extend my respect to their Elders – past, present and emerging.
Nearly 90 years ago, to my very good fortune, I was born to two outstanding individuals: Armin Windholz and Iluš Pollak. Mother and Father were clever, progressive, forward‐thinking people many decades ahead of their time. Educated and cultured, they were good people: unselfish, community‐ and family‐minded. They instilled strong values and principles in me which I successfully passed onto my daughters and they to their children.
My brother, Peter, and I were well loved and we knew it. Mother and Father obviously enjoyed each other’s company and were not afraid to show it. I was born in and raised in Žilina, a town located close to both the Czech and Polish borders and only two hours from Auschwitz. Žilina’s pre‐war population was 20,000. 17% were Jewish. The Nazis murdered 84% of us. Žilina’s population is now 85,000, less than 50 of whom are Jewish.
I was 6 years old when I started school at a Jewish Primary School. I loved learning. I still do. Because the standard of my school was high, and because the German language was taught as an official subject, many non‐Jewish children also attended my school. But, being a Jewish school, we also learned to read Hebrew and we received a solid grounding in Jewish scripture and history.
As my primary school education came to an end, I had the option to attend one of Žilina’s four secondary schools: one offered a generalist education; another specialised in business and secretarial skills; and the other two, the girls’ and boys’ Gymnasiums catered for the more academic students. That was where I wanted to go.
Anti‐Semitism was already rife in Žilina. The Gymnasium had a quota known as Numerus Clausus which meant that only one Jew could be enrolled to every 50 gentile students. I had to pass an entrance examination to be accepted at the Gymnasium. The competition was tough with most of my peers also vying for the few Jewish spots on offer.
My parents were extremely proud when I successfully attained a place. I was thrilled and eagerly anticipated the next stage of my education. I got my new schoolbooks including a dictionary and an atlas which I cherished. I carefully wrapped my books in blue paper to protect them, ensuring the creases were sharp and crisp. I was happy.
Just as the new school year was about to start, the Slovak government, inspired by the Nuremberg Laws, legislated a series of extremely stringent anti‐ Jewish laws. We Jews were now subject to a strict six o’clock curfew. We were forbidden entry to parks. We weren’t allowed to attend sporting activities, movies or theatres. We were prohibited from participating in our country’s political, economic or cultural life; and we had to wear a prominent, yellow Magen David on our outer garment whenever we were in public.
For me, as a child, the worst of all the harsh restrictions was that Numerus Clausus was changed to Numerus Nullus. Not only could I not attend the school to which I had so eagerly anticipated but, as a Jew, I was no longer allowed to receive an education past Year 8. Žilina’s Jewish community refused to accept that edict and deliberately ‘kept students back’ in Year 8, year after year, to ‘repeat’ the year. Jewish academics volunteered to teach higher levels at our school. One even gave classes about atomic energy, a newly emerging science. As a result of the anti‐Jewish laws, Father’s considerable inventory as a civil engineer and builder was confiscated. However, because of his qualifications and reputation, he was appointed as Žilina’s City Engineer despite him being Jewish.
Notwithstanding Father’s professional expertise and standing, his wage was reduced to 1500 Krowns, the maximum any Jew was allowed to earn. This barely covered the rent we were now required to pay for living in our own home. Armed with the foreknowledge of what was happening in Germany, Father had constructed a secret cupboard: a cupboard within a cupboard, when he built our house several years earlier. That secret cupboard successfully hid and protected our extended family’s Judaica, jewellery and other precious items despite our home having been used by the Germans as a headquarters and then by the Russians as a brothel.
The transports from Žilina to Auschwitz started on 25 March 1942. Žilina, the largest of Slovakia’s five deportation camps, was the last stop enroute to Auschwitz. Father, extremely distressed by what was happening at the camp, the conditions of which were appalling, decided to make the suffering of our fellow Jews there just a little easier. Father bribed the Red Cross officials for their armbands. Having exchanged their yellow stars for Red Cross armbands, Father and his friends entered the camp, removed corpses, offered fresh water to those awaiting the final leg of their journey and emptied the toilet buckets on the cattle trucks.
The site of Žilina’s transit camp is now home to Žilina’s Holocaust memorial aptly named Road of No Return. A few weeks after the Žilina transports began, our doorbell awoke us. Father’s eldest sister stood on our doorstep with her husband and children. She had come to say goodbye: they had been rounded up and were on their way to the transports. An hour later, the same thing happened and another sister and her family were saying goodbye to us.
This happened over and over and over again that night and it was on that night when I first saw Father cry. My loving, good Father sobbed uncontrollably, unable to do anything to stop the terrible tragedy that was unfolding. The next morning, 17 of the 40 chairs in my classroom were empty. The Nazis murdered at least 38 of my family: 38 people I knew, loved and still remember. As a direct result of headlines in Der Grenzbote, the local German newspaper: ‘How is it possible that in 1943 the Jew Windholz is still Žilina’s Chief City Engineer?’, Father, Peter and I were arrested. I was 13 years old.
We were taken to the Nováky Labour Camp where, thank goodness, family groups were allowed to stay together and so I wasn’t separated from Father or Peter. Mother wasn’t arrested as she was in hospital at the time. Still very weak from her surgery and subsequent complications, Mother desperately searched for ways to have us released.
An unexpected opportunity arose when a newspaper article reported that President Tiso, the President of the Slovak Republic, was looking for a civil engineer to supervise his new building project. Mother successfully arranged for him to be informed that Father would be perfect for the job. And so, while still officially a camp inmate, Father was seconded as Tiso’s Project Manager. Peter and I were released and allowed to return home. Father was able to come home every Shabbat. The partisan actions against the German forces became increasingly more frequent and the official repercussions became increasingly devastating. And so the next phase of our Shoah experience started: we went into hiding.
Unknown to Peter and I, one of Father’s non‐Jewish colleagues, Herr Engineer David, had previously offered to hide us should the need arise.
At dusk, we walked separately so as not to appear to be a family group. We were each allowed just one small satchel with our basic essentials; we each wore three sets of clothing. What did I, a 13‐year old girl, consider to be my ‘essentials’? Photos, school reports and clean underwear!
The Davids had a secret wine cellar concealed behind a sliding door hidden behind a bookcase. The cellar, like all cellars, was underground and a skylight made of thick glass bricks formed part of the footpath. On our third day at the David’s, the Gestapo arrived. We could see their boots
through the glass tiles at footpath level. We could hear what was being said. Unsuccessful in discovering us, they pushed the David’s maid against a wall, put a gun to her stomach and yelled that they knew there were Jews in the house. The maid, who had no reason to be loyal to us, chose to protect her employers. Only one penalty would have been applied had she revealed the truth: death for us and death for the Davids. The Nazis didn’t shoot the maid but promised to return the next day with sniffer dogs.
Plan B came into instant action.
Separately, again, and under the cover of night, again, Mother, Father, Peter and I made our way to the home of another non‐Jew by the name of Paul Strba. Unlike the David family, the Strbas were poor, working class folk who lived in a small cottage on the outskirts of Žilina. A self‐educated man, Paul Strba was a labourer and a Communist. Mrs Strba, an illiterate but devout Catholic, was understandably distressed about the danger to which her husband was subjecting their family. Despite her fears, being a ‘good’ wife, she did as her husband expected. Her hostility, though, was always evident. The Strba’s straw‐filled, mouse‐ and flea‐infested roof space became our home for the next eight months. Only 50cm at its highest point, we spent our time in that roof lying down; or crawling if we really needed to move.
Once in the roof, we were isolated from everyone and everything. We were left to deal with our situation and fear as best we could. A pulley hauled up our breakfast, some sandwiches and fresh water every morning. A clean bucket was also provided, the purpose of which I leave to your imagination. Our only light came through the space created by removing two small bricks from the wall.
Paul Strba and his sons cleared the roof of snow each day so our breath, so very close to the roof, wouldn’t melt it and give us away. I was paid a wage for each hour I kept my little brother quietly occupied. Had Mother and Father paid me what they ‘owed’ me, I would now be a wealthy woman. A man of faith, Father became more religious and put our lives in God’s hands. Mother, on the other hand, was more practical and proactive, convinced that it was up to us to survive. While Father spent his days sleeping or praying; Mother planned and schemed.
One terrible afternoon, while the Strbas were not at home, deep German voices boomed from beneath us. We thought we had been discovered. We couldn’t move, not even a bit, lest we give ourselves away. Thank goodness none of us coughed or sneezed. The Germans remained oblivious to our presence barely a metre above their heads. Apparently they had not come to find and apprehend us but to inform the Strbas that their property was to be confiscated. There were many, many occasions when we thought the end had come.
Another instance that remains in the forefront of my mind was when we woke to the timber roof only inches from our faces sagging under a person’s weight. We thought, again, that we had been discovered. We were so scared that we could hardly breathe. The next morning we learnt that the footsteps had not belonged to the Gestapo but to a burglar who had been running from roof to roof. When I think of the eight months we spent in the Strba’s roof, I don’t just think of the constant and debilitating fear we experienced, but also of the miracles that occurred. The fact that we survived at all was a miracle. The fact that we survived without becoming permanent emotional cripples is another miracle. But there were many other miracles too.
I don’t underestimate the magnitude of the miracle that people like the Davids and Strbas took us in despite the risk to their own families. Another miracle is how Mother didn’t set us all alight with her smoking. Heavily addicted to cigarettes until her death, Mother smoked using straw in place of tobacco. Father was frequently angry wondering how she could possibly risk turning our roof space into our personal crematorium. After all, we were hiding there so that the Germans wouldn’t incinerate us at Auschwitz.
Towards the end of April 1945, there was a lot of shelling and bombing: one shell even pierced the roof where we were hiding. It was only days before we thought the war would end and it now looked like we would be killed by shrapnel in our hiding place. Paul Strba and one of his sons dug a grave‐like bunker into the frozen ground: two metres deep and a metre and a half wide. They carved three steps down into the bunker and a narrow bench along one wall on which we sat. It was terribly cold and dark in the frozen earth.
With the cannon fire getting louder and more frequent, and with shrapnel falling about them, the Strbas retreated into their home before completing a roof for our bunker: we were left open to the elements. While it was bitterly cold, thank God it didn’t rain or snow that night. Wearing every item of clothing we had and wrapped in our doonas, we were, literally, freezing to death. We sat in that narrow grave from 4 in the afternoon on 29 April 1945 until we were liberated 12 hours later.
The war was clearly very close. The cannon fire continued to become more and more frequent, getting louder and louder. It was very, very scary. Suddenly there was total silence. The German forces had retreated. The Red Army was just miles away. But we didn’t know that as we were still in our bunker. The Strbas set up tables with tea, coffee and food ready to provide a warm hospitable welcome to the Russian soldiers. But we didn’t know that either as we were still in our bunker. At four in the morning of Monday 30 April 1945, 74 years ago yesterday, Paul Strba, together with a soldier, came to tell us that we were free people.
I have no words to express how I felt. We were completely stiff and, almost literally, frozen. Mother and Father had to be helped out of the Bunker; a soldier carried Peter out. Our sense of relief was extraordinary. I can’t imagine how we must have looked to the soldiers. We were terribly bedraggled, disgustingly filthy, smelly and flea‐infested. But who cared? At that moment, we certainly didn’t.
The war was over. We were alive. We were free.
Hitler did not want me, or any Jew, to survive. But not only did I survive, I strove to thrive and thrive I did. I built a new life first in Slovakia, then in Israel and now here in Australia. I am proudly Australian. I am proudly Jewish. To hatred and bigotry anywhere and everywhere, I say we must each stand up to it whenever and where ever we see it.
At nearly 90, I lead a happy and active life. I am interested in my family, my friends and in world events. I am incredibly proud of my daughters, their achievements and their families. My body may be slowing down but my brain has not yet atrophied. I still have fire in my belly.
As my daughter says, ‘Up yours, Mr Hitler!’
Am Yisrael chai!