by lyle e davis
You tend to cringe a lot when you hear 90 year-old Livia Szabo Krancberg describe the absolute horrors she survived before and during World War II.
Deported to Birchenau, the women’s unit of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, when she was only 24 years old, watching her mother and her nephew being led off to be gassed to death on the first day in camp, seeing Dr. Mengele every Friday and, on average, three times weekly . . . watching people being sent to their deaths . . . and somehow . . . she continued to elude death. But just barely.
Today she lives in a modest apartment in San Diego, close to San Diego State University. She is alone now, her husband of 60 years, Dr. Sigmund Krancberg, passed away one year ago, on October 21st, 2008. He had been a professor in political science but had been afflicted for the past 10 years with Parkinson’s Disease. “I was his nurse, his wife, his friend, his dietician, I was everything . . . for 10 years. And then he died.”
A daughter, Beth, also has a Phd, in Philosophy; her other daughter, Shelley Lewis, graduated from San Diego State and lives in Carlsbad.
Even today, at age 90 (she just celebrated her 90th on October 13th), Livia is on the go. She lectures to schools, churches, any number of venues where she can tell her story of surviving the Holocaust. The essence of her message deals with how hate can change a people, how it can destroy a people, how it can destroy not only the victims but the perpetrators of those hate crimes.
To understand Livia and her story it is important to begin at the beginning. She was raised in Sziget, Romania, in the northern part of Transylvania.
During the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, Franz Josef had allied with the Germans. Following the war, at the Treaty of Versailles, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire was given to different nations. All of Transylvnia which was part of Hungary was given to Romania following WWI. During World War II, Hungary once again allied itself with Germany. In 1940, the northern part of Transylvania was given to Hungary by Hitler, so in 1940, Livia became a Hungarian Jew.
Livia had been born a Romanian Jew. She spoke Romanian as her mother tongue but after the transfer of her part of the country to Hungary, she also had to learn to speak and read Hungarian.
Learning a new language was not difficult for Livia. She was an outstanding student; so outstanding that she eventually became a professional tutor for other students. She was such a strong student she earned a four year scholarship to high school Additionally, she became a paid tutor for other students. This career as a tutor was eventually to almost cost her her life.
The high school system in Romania was greatly different from what we know as a high school. There, you had to have eight years of high school and the progression began in the fifth grade. Further, you did not just matriculate into high school. You had to pass entrance exams just to get into high school. All teachers in high school had to have a doctorate. More often than not it was either students whose parents had money . . . or students who were exceptionally bright and earned scholarships. Livia was the latter.
If accepted into high school, the student was then presented with what we in America would judge to be university courses. Chemistry, physics, algebra, geometry, calculus, Latin, German, French, English, - a challenging curriculum. Livia would study for eight years in French, four years in German, four in Latin and two in English. Yiddish, of course, was her native tongue.
Livia was such a good student that she soon came into demand as a paid tutor for other students. She would even arrive a half-hour early so she could tutor the other students. Three of them were Gentiles.
All was going fairly well. It was still a rough life financially, but she managed, by rotating from relative to relative, to have one meal a day at each home. She would sleep at the homes of the children she tutored and would receive one glass of milk for breakfast. Often, one of the children she tutored would swipe a loaf of bread and give it to Livia. With this loaf she would cut thin slices and have a slice with her morning milk, with her only full meal of the day, and in the evening. Obesity was never a problem with Livia.
In spite of this Spartan type lifestyle, relatively speaking, Livia was better off than a lot of others who were not as academically bright as she was. Then, in 1937, a strongly anti-Semitic atmosphere quickly developed as a new political party assumed power. Suddenly, Livia’s life had changed for the worse. She was met at the schoolhouse door by her classmates, former friends, or so she thought. They would throw her books on the floor and demand, “pick your books up, Jew dog!”
Livia had been tutoring three Gentiles in the class and in the neighborhood. Even they turned on Livia and harassed her and insulted her. However, in only about six weeks the new politcal power suddenly lost power. Now, the chickens came home to roost. “Oh, Livia,” her classmates would say, “we were so wrong. Please forgive us.”
A reluctant accommodation was reached and, within her heart, Livia never forgot . . . though she tried to forgive. Things settled down for awhile but then, in 1940, the Hungarians came in and reoccupied Transylvania, with Germany’s support.
Livia’s father had emigrated to the United States in 1938. An older sister had sponsored his emigration. The father had worked hard to earn the money and prepare the necessary documents for the rest of this family to emigrate. He made the necessary arrangements and sent the paperwork to Romania for his wife and eight children to emigrate.
The Minister in charge of immigration soon posed a major problem. The mother’s papers were in order and she was free to emigrate along with one child who was under 21. The remaining children, all over 21, however, were not. They would have to remain behind, fill out all new papers, and, if and when approved, perhaps would then be able to follow the family.
Livia’s mother declined, not wanting to separate the family. An older brother had already emigrated to Israel, and an older sister was already in the United States. In declining the opportunity to emigrate, Livia’s mother had sealed her death warrant. In 1942 there came down an order to conduct a special pogrom that would require 400 Jews from Livia’s hometown to be scheduled for execution in three days.
To her great horror, Livia was one of the students selected to be included in this pogram by none other than one of the Gentile students she had tutored.
As it happened, there was a Gentile boy, the brother of the girl who had turned Livia in, who was in love with Livia. Livia, however, was in love with another boy. Nonetheless, the love-struck boy arranged for Livia to escape from the doomed 400. That Gentile boy would later die during the war. He did, however, save Livia’s life.
Her freedom was short-lived, however. On May 24, 1944, the Germans came and took Livia’s mother and all the remaining children out of their home and forced them onto prisoner trains headed for Auschwitz. They were shipped, along with many other Jews to Auschwitz.
The trains have since been compared to ‘cattle cars,’ with 100 to 110 people per car. There would be overflowing pails in each corner of the boxcars, serving as toilets. People would die on the trains so the cramped, huddled masses would be traveling with corpses. They traveled this way for four days and four nights to their destination, Auschwitz.
Upon approaching Auschwitz, the locomotive sounded its horn and the gates of the camp opened. The guards told the prisoners to detrain, bringing only their handbags, to leave their suitcases behind. Their suitcases! They carried anything and everything of value they had. They were to be abandoned!
Soldiers and vicious dogs greeted the prisoners upon arrival at Auschwitz. The prisoners were separated, men in one group, women and children in another. Couples were immediately separated. The SS guards told them to leave their belongings behind as they split up families sending the men in one direction and the women and children in another. The men would ask the women to take care of the children.
“I can still hear the children’s cries, to this day,” says Livia.
Then the mothers and children, the old, infirm, pregnant . . all were marched off to the gas chambers. 30,000 Jews were killed in two weeks time. On the first day in camp, Livia watched her mother and two and half year old nephew being led off to the gas chambers. Livia spoke about how the children were taken from their mothers to be put to death.
All had their hair cut to the scalp, were sent to the showers, instructed to leave their clothes and valuables on a numbered hook. All the clothes, cosmetics, and valuables then disappeared and were sent to Germany. The inmates were then sprayed with DDT, given a ragged dress, no underwear, mismatched shoes. They were assigned to three-tiered bunk beds with two blankets for each bunk. Eight people slept on each bunk.
Dr. Josef Mengele
One other sister, Toby, was sent to Germany to manufacture munitions for the German war machine while Livia and her older sister, Rose, remained at Auschwitz. Rose, seven years older, was 31 when they entered the camp. Rose would save Livia’s life countless times. She would steal food for her, she would fight for her, she would starve for her. Somehow, some way, they managed to survive, but just barely.
Their daily diet consisted of black ersatz (imitation) coffee, one slice of bread made of flour and sawdust. At lunch, they had potato peel soup, and the imitation coffee. They lived in barracks with dirt floors and stacked bunk beds. Each inmate was given a tin bowl. If the inmate lost the bowl, they were out of luck. No bowl? No food. Bowls became very jealously guarded possessions.
In the winter months the prisoners would freeze. They would line up for morning roll call and people would die. The rest of the inmates would hold the corpses up until roll call was complete. Then, they would let the corpses fall in the deep snow as they returned to their barracks.
Every week, Livia, Rose and the other inmates would see the infamous Dr. Mengele. Dr. Mengele would conduct horrible medical experiments on the inmate population. Many of the women he would immerse in ice cold water, later, immerse them in boiling water. If blemishes from their skin’s exposure to these extremes would appear, they were sent to the gas chambers.
Other times, Dr. Mengele would order limb amputations. Without anesthetic, to see how much pain women were able to endure.
Dr. Mengele was a regular visitor to the Lager (camp). Livia would see him in the camps, usually about three times a week, but always on Fridays. Friday was the primary selection day where Mengele would gather in the yard. Mengele, sitting in a chair, would separate the Auschwitz prisoners by blisters on their skin determining who would be gassed and who would be saved for another week Around him were German soldiers, with bayonets on their rifles. They formed a large circle, at the head of which, in the 12 o’clock position, was a truck. At the bottom of the circle would be the assembled women. All naked. All would have to meet Dr. Mengele.
“The women were ordered to approach Dr. Mengele and to stand before him," said Livia. "He would inspect the women, from the waist down only. If they had bruises on their legs or buttocks, or if they had no meat on their buttocks or thighs, they were consigned to the truck, which meant they were to be executed. Women who tried to run away would be bayoneted by the circle of guards. One day, a woman went crazy. She was ordered to the truck and she ran from point to point within the circle, screaming, ‘I don’t want to die! I don’t want to die!’ The guards bayoneted her again and again. Finally, she fell on the ground, blood gushing from the many bayonet wounds that had been inflicted upon her. The guards were so angry with her that one of them came up to her near lifeless body and bayoneted her again, and again, and again, and again. Her body and the ground surrounding her was covered with blood.”
Asked if sexual abuse was part of the routine at the camp, Livia said . . . “No. Not in our barracks. We looked like dirty starved monkeys wearing rags. And we were terribly weak. Who would want to have sex with ugly creatures such as us?”
In spite of the alleged hatred of the Jews, Livia thought it remarkable that all inmates donated blood every month . . . and the blood was used for transfusions into Germans! On the morning of January 19, 1945, the time came for the 1500 inmates to be moved from Birchenau-Auschwitz. They were going to a new camp located near Ravensbrook, Germany. On the morning they left is was terribly cold, terribly dreary, and with a snow storm approaching.
“At the end of roll call we were told the camp was closing and we are going to evacuate it. We started crying; we begged for blankets, for food; we were out there in tatters; we had no winter clothes; some of our girls had rags on their feet instead of shoes. The answer was, “Forward! Forward!”
Rose, Livia’s sister, had managed to steal a blanket with food and clothing. And they were off. This was the beginning of the infamous “death march.” The inmates would walk for four days through snow. One night they were pushed into a shack where they slept with corpses. 1500 prisoners left Birchenau. Only 150 survived. One night they slept in a barn, with cows. Several girls were trampled to death by the cows. In the cow barn, Rose saved 40 girls. As a reward, one of the girls she saved stole Rose’s blanket!
Further on, Livia’s shoes were gone and her feet were freezing. Rose ran over to the side of the road and stole some shoes from a corpse. Livia wore those shoes the rest of the march into the new camp. Upon arrival at the new camp, prison life didn’t change much. The new camp was Neustadt- Gleve, located just outside of - Ravensbrook. They would remain here for three weeks.
There were no functional bunk beds because there were no boards to form the foundation of the bunk beds; there were no blankets. The Gentiles in the camp had monopolized bunk boards, blankets, and food.
Unlike at Birchenau, at Neustadt-Gleve there was no delousing. With their dirty clothes, lice soon appeared. Rose and Livia would soon contract typhoid fever along with about 400 other women. 99% of them would die. They were confined to the death house. This would be where Rose and Livia would remain. Somehow, they survived. They were constantly weak, sick, cold, and hungry.
There then came a time when the Germans nailed the doors and windows in the camp shut. The women inmates finally broke open the doors and windows and escaped the barracks.
The Germans had fled.
The women realized the gates were open and went to the other barracks and helped the other women break out. There was great euphoria at the Germans having fled. All the inmates broke out of the camp and released Rose and Livia and other survivors from the “death shack” where the typhoid victims had been, and where most had died.
Afraid the Germans might return, the inmates did not sleep that night. “In the morning the American soldiers came in and liberated us, giving us cigarettes and canned food, chocolates.” This well meaning gesture actually caused other prisoners to die. Their stomachs had shrunk. They were not used to so much food. They ate and ate . . . and it killed them. The US soldiers had liberated the camp, but three days later, 300 of the inmates had died from overeating. Their systems simply couldn’t take all of that food. This was a hard learned, and costly lesson liberating forces acquired. Henceforth, they would feed newly liberated inmates small portions of soup and food until their systems could once again accomodate a near normal diet.
The Americans had to move on to do more battle. The Russians would come that afternoon. The Russians did not have food or cigarettes. They did, however, give the girls permission to go into town and enter German people’s homes. The other girls went into town and brought home from Germans food, chicken, preserved rabbit. All types of food. This time, they began to eat in moderation.
The liberation came on May 8th, 1945. Livia and Rose had been prisoners from May 24, 1944 until May 8th, 1945. They had survived unspeakable horrors and deprivation.
During the time from 1940 to 1945 the Germans had killed a minimum of 2.5 millions people in Auschwitz alone, an estimated six million throughout Europe. It is important to remember, however, the 2.5 million killed included only those who had numbers tattooed, and who had records established. Many others were killed immediately after getting off trains, with no tattoos, no records having been kept.
Livia’s sister, Rose, the one who had fought so hard and so often to save Livia, died in Jerusalem in 1984, at age 72, of lung cancer. “I knew she had lung cancer,” says Livia. “I wanted so badly to go see my beloved Rose . . . but I had no money. I could not afford to go. I would have loved to have been with her for her final days. She meant so much to me.”
Today, Ms. Krancberg does not look her 90 years. She eats sparingly, eats no meats, no sugar, no fruits, no coffee or tea. She eats salmon for breakfast, with vegetables. Chicken or turkey with vegetables for dinner. She goes for walks daily, usually around six blocks surrounding her apartment complex. She does use a walker to accomplish her exercise, but she does it regularly and is probably more fit than a lot of folks 30 years her junior.
She gives lectures at schools and churches about her survival of the holocaust. Her testimony is included in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's Archives and the Yale University Archives, among others, and she is participating in the oral history recording of "Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation," produced by Steven Spielberg.
She has lectured in many colleges and high schools in the New York City area and was honored by her community, Woodbridge, N.J., for her contributions to preserving Holocaust history.
She has also written a play about her "near-death experiences prior to her deportation to Auschwitz and takes place in Romania from 1937-42." The play, ‘Rendezvous with Fate,’ has been performed at a number of community theatres. A second play, “A Match Made in Heaven,” has also been produced. She has also written her memoirs and is looking for a publisher to publish the book.
“It is hate that divides us,” she says. “Hate. There are 103 known hate groups today, just within the United States. With hate you had Hitler and the Nazis and the concentration camps. Naziism is a disease and that disease is rooted in hatred. It must be eradicated wherever we find it so history doesn’t repeat itself. If it does repeat itself, it may be you next time and not the Jews. We must stay away from hate!”
Ms. Krancberg is available for speaking engagements. You may contact her at 619.583.4683 or 619.850.7027.