PORTSMOUTH — When her mother stood up to some bullies who were tormenting a classmate at her Kraków, Poland high school in the 1930s, Lilliane Birch said she couldn’t possibly have known how that gesture would later save her from the gas chamber at Auschwitz.
Speaking to spellbound students at The Pennfield School last week as part of a unit on the Holocaust, Ms. Birch recounted the terrifying stories she heard from her Jewish mother Anca, who along with her sister Helen survived three years in the concentration camp after being arrested by the Nazis.
At Auschwitz, prisoners were gassed in the showers and their bodies thrown into ovens for cremation, she said. “They looked like Bertucci’s pizza ovens except there were rows of them.”
Ms. Birch’s mother, along with her aunt and uncle, were in the line for the showers when Anca saw a familiar face: Marika, the girl she had helped in high school, was taking the names of Jewish prisoners.
“Anca, is that you?” Ms. Birch quoted Marika as saying. “You were the only person who was kind to me in high school. I won’t let you die.”
All three family members were pulled from the line.
“That act of kindness in high school really paid off in a big way,” said Ms. Birch.
Rob Kelley, head of school, said the Holocaust unit was for grades 6, 7 and 8. Students have visited the Holocaust Education and Resource Center of R.I. in Providence and will also be visiting The Jewish Museum in New York City.
“It’s to have kids understand as much as they can about how man can be really cruel,” Mr. Kelley said. “But there’s a real positive part about it, too; people have stepped up to do the right thing.
Mom’s horror stories
Mattie Edwards Kemp, assistant head of school, arranged for last Thursday’s appearance by Ms. Birch, a speaker from the Holocaust Resource Center of Rhode Island. She was born in Paris in 1948 while her parents were waiting for their visas so they could come to the United States. Growing up, she heard her mother’s firsthand accounts of the horrors of Nazi rule.
It started in 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. The family had money, so they bought false identity papers identifing them as Christian. They also converted their money into diamonds and sewed them into their clothes for emergencies, Ms. Birch said.
After Anca’s uncle was arrested and shot at Auschwitz, the family separated. “There was a better chance to survival if they broke up,” said Ms. Birch.
But the violence didn’t stop, as both her grandmother and grandfather — the latter after he tried to deliver water to an orphanage — were killed. Later, after finding refuge in a Christian family’s home, a “friend” turned Anca in and she and Helen were put on a train to Auschwitz (Helen’s 4-year-old daughter was spared). It took three days to get to the death camp, with no food, water or bathrooms in the cattle cars.
“People died on those trips,” said Ms. Birch.
Once at Auschwitz, Anca made bombs for 12 hours a day in a munitions factory. She and others were routinely abused by guards; once, Ms. Birch said, a guard got angry at her mother, took off her clothes and tied her to a pole outside on a cold day for 24 hours. Some prisoners were so desperate they killed themselves by throwing themselves onto the electrified fencing surrounding the camp.
Saved by ‘miracles’
In addition to being rescued by her high school classmate in front of the gas chambers, Anca was saved by several other “miracles,” said Ms. Birch. One day the women in her building were ordered outside to dig a pit, then told to stand with their backs to it. The guards fired.
“Everyone is killed except one person, who was not even grazed by one bullet. That person was my mother. The guards were so stunned that they let her go,” she said.
Another time used the diamonds sewn into her clothes to buy bread from villagers outside the fencing to give to some Polish prisoners worse off than herself. The guards let the attack dogs loose on Anca, but they stopped dead in their tracks in front of her, Ms. Birch said. Again, the astonished guards let her go.
Auschwitz was liberated on Jan. 27, 1945 — Anca’s 27th birthday. When she entered the camp at 24 she weighed about 120 pounds. When she left, she was down to 85, Ms. Birch said.
Later, Anca met her future husband, a poor Jew who spent time in a Siberian labor camp and lost his parents in the war. They married in 1946 and Ms. Birch was born two years later in Paris while their parents were waiting for their visas to enter America. Her birth was a miracle in itself, Ms. Birch explained, because the notorious Dr. Josef Mengele, who wanted to sterilize Jewish women, experimented on Anca at Auschwitz.
The family’s move to America was no given due to Anca’s recent diagnosis of tuberculosis, but she used Helen’s lung X-ray to obtain her visa application. Eventually, she was cured of TB and moved to Connecticut, where Ms. Birch was raised. Her mother and father had “50 happy years” together, she said.
Although it was a happy ending for her parents, millions of other Jews weren’t as fortunate, Ms. Birch reminded students. Five years ago she took part in The March of the Living — an annual educational program which brings students from around the world to Poland to explore the remnants of the Holocaust — and shares her mother’s tale whenever she can. It’s important that the survivors’ stories are passed on through the generations, she said.
“One of the fears many of the survivors have is when they’ve passed, their story will be forgotten.”