December 13, 2013
On Oct. 1, 1942, the passenger train carrying 1,000 Jews from Berlin and 250 young Jewish women from Frankfurt-am-Main halted next to a large empty field in Estonia. “Raus, raus” (“Out, out”), SS yelled as they herded the Jews into one line. But they held back 15-year-old Engelina Billauer (née Lowenberg), her older sister, Freidel, and other young women to clean the tracks. When the sisters saw their parents dispatched to a waiting bus, however, they ran and boarded the bus. An SS quickly appeared. “Get off the bus,” he ordered. “You will see them later.” But they never did. Engelina subsequently learned that the entire trainload of Jews, except for 200 young women, had been driven to another site and executed by Estonian Nazi collaborators. “I always hoped when they were killed they were together,” she said.
Engelina was born in Berlin, Germany, on July 29, 1927, to George and Taube Lowenberg. Her older brother, Wilhelm, was born in 1919 and her sister Freidel in 1921.
George worked as a tailor, and the family, which was poor, lived in a one-bedroom apartment. Their parents could neither her nor speak, communicating with their hearing children in sign language. Engelina remembers a happy childhood. “I was very spoiled,” she said.
Engelina started German public school at age 5, in 1932. Four years later, as conditions worsened, she transferred to a Jewish girls school, walking 45 minutes each way because Jews were forbidden to use public transportation.
In October 1938, Engelina’s 19-year-old brother killed himself. Her parents didn’t talk to her about his death, and Engelina didn’t ask many questions. “I didn’t want to hurt their feelings,” she said.
A month later, on Nov. 9, 1938, the night that came to be known as Kristallnacht, Engelina heard breaking glass and smelled smoke. But it wasn’t until the next morning, when she walked to school along a street lined with Jewish-owned jewelry stores, that she saw the smashed windows and the word “Jude” scrawled on the buildings.
By 1940, all Jewish schools had been closed down, and Engelina’s father could no longer find work. Deportations began.
On Sept. 24, 1942, at 11 p.m., two Gestapo banged on the Lowenbergs’ door. “Take your winter coats and a few things,” they ordered. They escorted them by subway to the Levetzowstrasse Synagogue, where, along with 1,000 Jews arrested that night, they were held in the sanctuary. Three days later, they were marched to the train station.
After cleaning the tracks in Estonia, Engelina and her sister, in a group of 200 girls, were marched an hour and a half to the Jägala labor camp. There the sisters became friendly with three girls from Frankfurt. The five stuck together through the war, becoming lifelong friends. “That saved us,” Engelina said.
At Jägala, Engelina worked seven days a week, from morning to evening, unpacking and sorting luggage. “I was crying a lot. I was crying for my parents,” she said.
In spring 1943, 100 girls who had survived Jägala’s frequent selections were transported by bus to Tallinn, Estonia’s capital. They arrived in the middle of the night and were taken to a medieval-like stone-walled prison with long, dark passageways where, in groups of 10, they were thrown into cells.
During the day, they were taken outside in the cold and wind, surrounded by Polish men with rifles and walked to a shipyard to clean up rubble.
Later, Engelina was assigned to a bricklaying group where she unloaded 100-pound bags of cement and rebuilt walls. The German bricklaying foreman was, Engelina said, “the only good guy.” He gave Engelina, Freidel and the three Frankfurt girls extra soup and showed them kindness.
Around July 1943, the prisoners were taken in open cattle cars to Ereda, another labor camp. They worked for the Todt Organization, and Engelina’s jobs included cutting trees, loading machinery and carrying sections of new railroad tracks.
In fall 1943, they were marched several hours in the snow to Goldfilz, a labor camp with only barracks. They built brick chimneys to heat the barracks, and soon Polish, Latvian and Lithuanian prisoners arrived.
The Goldfilz lagerführer, or camp commander, was from Frankfurt and arranged for Engelina and the other four girls to work in the kitchen, where it was warm. “Otherwise he was not nice,” Engelina said, recalling how he drank and hit people. “We were always scared,” she said.
One day, as part of a large selection, a German soldier picked Engelina. The other four girls, not knowing it was a death selection, promptly volunteered. The lagerführer stood behind them, shaking his head, but he later found five girls to take their places. “That’s how lucky we were,” Engelina said.
In July 1944, as the Russians closed in, the prisoners were returned to Tallinn to be shipped to Germany. But the ships were in use and the prisoners were confined to a large field in Lagedi, outside of Tallinn. There, with bombs occasionally dropping, they slept outside.
After three weeks, they were taken by ship to Stuffhof concentration camp, where they stood at appel, or roll call, all day. At night they slept crammed together and sitting up on a barracks floor. Slovak kapos came in, announcing, “Here is your shower,” and threw pails of water on them.
After a month, Engelina and the other four girls, in a group of 50 young women, were taken by cattle car to Ochsenzoll, a subcamp of Neuengamme, near Hamburg.
In Ochsenzoll, Engelina worked 12-hour shifts in a munitions factory making hand grenades. “I remember my arms were all with black spots from the oil,” she said. The camp commander was brutal. Engelina and others were forced to stand in appel after their shift, sometimes standing all night in the cold and freezing rain and afterward returning straight to work.
Around January 1945, Allied bombs began falling. Despite the danger, Engelina said, “We were happy that they were bombing.”
In March, the prisoners were sent to Bergen-Belsen. “That was the worst,” Engelina recalled. As they walked from the train station to the camp, they asked a female SS about the horrible smell. “The smoke?” she answered. “That’s where you’re going to end up.”
Sometimes during the day, Engelina was ordered to collect dead and half-dead bodies and, she said, to “put them in a pile like wood for a fire.”
In the early morning of April 15, 1945, tanks entered the camp. Engelina was too weak to go outside, but over the loudspeaker, in multiple languages, she heard, “We are the British army. We are here to liberate you.” This was the liberation she had dreamed of.
Engelina eventually went to Lübeck, near Hamburg, where her sister had married and settled. She met Richard Billauer, who had returned from the Soviet Union and was visiting his father. They became engaged in 1946 and married in Israel, where Richard’s father had immigrated, on Feb. 4, 1950.
Engelina and Richard returned to Lübeck. Their son George was born on April 27, 1951, and three months later they arrived in the United States, settling in New York. Their son Michael was born on May 11, 1957.
In 1983, Engelina and Richard moved to Los Angeles, where George was living.
Engelina, 86, is a member of The “1939” Club and California Association of Child Survivors of the Holocaust. She is also an occasional speaker at Chapman University.
She and her husband work at their son’s chiropractic office. She feels lucky to have such a good family, which now includes four grandsons and two great-granddaughters.
When asked how she survived, Engelina answers, “I was young. Luck. And I think my parents were watching over me.”