Survivors' Stories

“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”
Elie Wiesel

Irene Buchman (Berkowicz)

  • From: Ukraine (Bilke)
  • Liberated from: Germany (Lubek -on a Death March)
  • Deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau from: Ukraine (Beregovo)
  • Current Location: USA (NJ-Engelwood)
  • Year of birth: 1926

Brief Bio

Irene Buchman (Berkowicz) was born December 12, 1926.

Irene and her family as well as everyone from her village of Bilke were taken to the Beregovo ghetto.  This was a town in the Ukraine. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0003_0_02614.html

Irene arrived from Beregovo to Birkenau at the end of June 1944.

The following is how Irene Berkowicz and her family when they arrived at Birkenau:

When the cattle cars(train) the men were taken off the cars first. This meant my father and two brothers were taken.  My mother and I got separated from my sister, as the woman walked in a single line to a very large building that had many stands.  We had to remove our clothes and you moved from one stand to the next where you got clothes, and your hair was cut. From here we were taken to an area that was called C – Lager. Lager C, the part of Birkenau occupied by Polish Jewish women, and later by Hungarianshttp://forum.axishistory.com/viewtopic.php?f=6&p=1490582  This is a photo of the actual C –Lager.  My sister stayed in barrack #18 for two days by herself.  On the third day in C-Lager my sister found us. We were in barrack #22.  She moved in with us. No one knew because each barrack held hundreds of women.  Every morning we lined up and were counted – no selecting was done. At the end of six weeks we got up for the morning count and word spread that the SS were selecting out the older women.  At that point mothers didn’t want to stand with their daughters because they didn’t want the SS to realize that they were a family and select out the mother or older daughters. My mother stood in a separate line from me and my sister.  As my mother was standing in her line some young girls ran up and stood near her. Needless to say, my mother was pulled out of the line and sent to stand with the other older women. A woman standing in my line told me, ‘Irene’, let’s go and get your mother and I will take her place and she can return to stand with you.  This woman wanted to be with her sister, who was apparently selected out. These women looked to be in their fifties and my mother was in her early forties. So, I went with the women over to my mother and told my mother to come back in line. My mother refused and decided to stay with her sister-in-law. They thought they were going to an area in the camp where they would take care of young children.  My mother turned to me and said, “Make sure you watch over Olga, she is still a young girl, take care of her.” That was the last time my sister and I saw our mother. We saw the smoke in the distance coming from the tall stacks but we had no idea what it was.    

 We went back to the barracks and stayed there for a few more weeks.  One day we were told to line up outside the barrack and march single file in front of the SS soldiers.  On the side of the barrack a large group of Kapos women formed a circle in which they interlocked their arms.  As we passed the SS soldiers you were told to either go back into the barrack or stand inside the circle formed by the Kapos women.  I was told to go back into the barrack and my sister was told to go stand inside the circle. I refused and said I want my sister to go with me.  The SS didn’t care and said go with your sister. As we are standing in the circle with other young girls, I realized that something is wrong, it didn’t feel right.  I managed to break the chained arms between two women, I grabbed my sister and yelled,” follow me and run.” As we ran to the back of barrack about 5 or 6 women followed us.  As we pried the back door of the barrack open a guard scratches me across my neck. Fortunately, we got into the barrack and the SS didn’t bother us. My quick thinking and bravery saved not only my sister but six other women.

We stayed in this barrack for a few more days after we were transported by cattle cars to a place called Huffcreek, Germany.  (Here is a list of all the slave labour camps, http://www.dpcamps.org/slavecamplist.pdf.   

At this place we were put to work in a munition’s factory making small bombs. My job was to clean the funnels used to place the liquid phosphor into the metal casing inside the bombs.  The funnels were reused after they were cleaned. My sister and I also served lunch, stale bread and watery soup, to the other women.

The following were some amusing (sixty-four years later we use the word amusing, but not at the time) stories.

On Yom Kippur my mother was sent to the area in the munitions factory to sort and pack the finished bombs in crates.  Somewhere in the factory someone determined the bombs that were good and those that wouldn’t detonate. The useless bombs had a large X mark made by chalk.  I decided out of respect and in honour of the day I very quickly and carefully removed the chalk mark and packed the useless bombs with the good ones. Maybe I would save a few lives.  Fortunately for me no one caught me doing this otherwise I would have been executed.

When the SS ran out of funds, we could no longer make the bombs.  They forced the women to go out in the snow and using chains we pulled the trucks that had crates filled with bombs.  We pulled the trucks to the storage area and unloaded the crates. The reason we pulled these huge trucks was to save fuel.  The SS didn’t want to waste gas driving the trucks. It was cheaper to use slave labour to pull the trucks and save the gas! Can you imagine in the snow and mud we women pulled huge trucks…..

January 1945, we stopped making bombs and were forced to dig ditches and pull trucks from bunk to bunk, move the ammunitions from bunk to bunk in case the allies started bombing us. 

April 1945 we were put on trucks and driven to a railroad station somewhere in Germany.  We were forced into the cattle cars once again. We had no idea where they were taking us.  We finally learned that we were taking us to Lubeck, Germany and putting us on a boat. Lubeck is a town in Northern Germany off the coast of the Baltic.   We reached Lubeck about 12 hours after we got on the train and we walked down a staircase to the bottom of a boat. We still had no idea what was going on. We just followed the orders of the Wehrmacht soldiers.  Later that night the soldiers order us off the boat. Once again, we didn’t know why. We walked back to the railroad station. This was the station we arrived by truck from the munition’s factory. Who knows what was going on?  From the rail station we walked to a school because the British Allies were bombing the rail station. We spent a few days in the school and then we went back to the rail station and boarded the cattle cars. The train left the station but once again we had no idea where we were going.  Each cattle car had a Wehrmacht soldier standing with us. The train was travelling for about 24 hours and all of a sudden, the Allies started bombing the train. The cattle car to the right and left of my car were bombed by some miracle my cattle car was untouched. We jumped off the train and the Wehrmacht soldiers rounded us up in field near the train tracks. We spent the night in the field.

Another one of my bittersweet memories:

At night the Wehrmacht soldiers brought sandwiches to the women.  My sister got a “big” loaf of bread that she kept hidden to savour for the next part of their unknown journey.  The next morning a woman (another concentration camp victim) walked past my sister and grabbed her loaf of bread.  My sister started to cry which evoked the sympathy of a Wehrmacht soldier to give her his sandwich. Even my sister, Olga was startled by this simple act of kindness…..

In the morning the Wehrmacht soldiers marched the women back to the train station and started to board the women on to the train.  There were a few German civilians standing around the train station and they shouted to the women that the war was over – don’t get on the train, runaway.  I happened to hear this and in my loudest voice she started to scream in Yiddish – “Don’t get on, Don’t listen to the soldiers”. One of the soldiers turned to me and said, “Irenka, you have a very big mouth – you have always been a troublemaker!”   I grabbed my sister hand and we started to run and the other girls started to follow. We notice the Wehrmacht soldiers ran as well and began to shed their uniforms. They didn’t want to be caught by the Allies. We ran back to the park not far from the train station.  Hundreds of girls milled about the park. We went begging for food from the German families that lived near the park. Needless to say, they chased us away with nothing. After 3 days the British soldiers came to the park and organized us.

Liberation:

The British soldiers sent us to some place that was a former German Resort.  They gave us food, clothing and medical attention. After a few weeks we were sent to Pressburg, Bratislava and within the town some of us found work and readjusted to real life.  We stayed in Pressburg for many weeks and then we went to Budapest. In Budapest the Joint-Hias organization provide shelter, food, clothing while we figured out what to do. I went to work in a factory that made spools of thread.  

After a few months my sister and I smuggled ourselves into Fuerst, Germany DP camp.  We hoped we could register in Fuerst to get out of Europe. There was a quota system and we could not register to come to America – the quota had been filled.  We then left Fuerst DP camp to the Bamberg DP camp where we could register to come to America. 

We stayed in the Bamberg DP camp from Pesach 1946 to 1949.  The Joint-Hias sent my sister and I to New York and then put us on a train to Atlanta, Georgia.  We weren’t given any choices, they were paying for us and caring for us.  

America:

I stayed in Atlanta for 9 months and then took a train back to New York.  My sister  

stayed in Atlanta, Georgia for a year and learned English by going to school and talking to people.

Atlanta didn’t have a very large group of survivors – it was more comfortable for us to be with our own kind in New York.  I went first and then my sister would follow a few months later.

I moved into a rooming house on the upper Westside with my sister.  

I learned how to sew before the war.  She took me to a factory and for two days I sat at a sewing machine and taught myself how to sew.  I immediately found a job in the garment district sewing the linings for the sleeves of men’s jackets.  I did this because it was the easiest thing to sew for a beginner.  From 1949 to 1955 my sister and I lived together and we both worked in the garment district.  

My sister got married in 1955. I continued to work and rent a room. In 1958, I decided to go to Israel to visit my cousins and I was set up on a blind date with my husband. We got married and came to the United States where we raised our two daughters.

Who will be accompanying you on this journey? 

My daughter Carol Buchman-Krutiansky.