August 15, 2012
The cattle car doors opened onto the Auschwitz platform and Hedy Markowitz, abruptly separated from her mother and younger brothers, was pushed along a walkway. She was first detained at a building where two Jewish prisoners shaved her head, and was then ushered into another building and ordered to undress. She took off the pink and blue plaid suit that her mother’s friend had sewn for her 16th birthday. She then carefully removed the tiny photo of her father that she kept hidden under the yellow star and tucked it inside her blue shoes, which her mother had bought to match the suit. Minutes later, she emerged from the shower to find the clothes gone and the photo missing from her shoes. Hedy was 17; she had not seen her father since she was 9.
Hedy was born on Feb. 11, 1927 on her grandparents’ farm in Lipca, a small town in Subcarpathian Czechoslovakia. Soon after, her parents, Moishe and Pearl Yosowitz Markowitz, moved to Venif (Vonyhove), where her three younger brothers were born. Growing up, Hedy loved to watch her mother bake. She also loved to visit her maternal grandparents on their farm.
In 1936, Hedy’s father, struggling to make a living with his general store, moved to Belgium to start a new business. He later tried to return to Venif, but German troops had already invaded Belgium. (Decades afterward, Hedy learned that her father had joined the Belgium underground but was captured and sent to Auschwitz.)
In summer 1941, having traveled to the grandparents’ farm, Hedy’s family, along with all the Jews of Lipca, were rounded up and transported by cattle car to Jasina. But the Hungarian government, which had taken control of Subcarpathian Czechoslovakia, ordered the train to turn back. Hedy, her mother and brothers returned to Venif, where, during this time, almost all Venif’s Jews had been sent to Ukraine.
“It was like a cemetery. You didn’t see anyone outside,” Hedy said.
After Germany invaded Hungary on March 19, 1944, persecution of the Jews intensified. In early April, Hedy’s grandparents and the other Jews of Lipca were taken to Auschwitz and killed. Days later, during Passover, Hungarian soldiers ordered Hedy’s family to leave their house. Hedy’s mother sent Hedy to the attic for food. A soldier followed her, frisking her for concealed valuables. Hedy, her mother and brothers and the town’s few remaining Jews were marched to nearby Bustino, loaded on cattle cars and taken to the Mateszalka ghetto in eastern Hungary, where 17,000 Jews were crammed together. Hedy’s family, along with two other families, shared a windowless attic. They remained there for six weeks, with Hedy rarely leaving the attic.
In May, Hedy’s family was shipped to Auschwitz. She was processed and taken to a barrack. Her Aunt Muncie, her mother’s younger sister, however, recognized her and moved her to her barrack. “She took care of me like I was her daughter,” Hedy recalled. At roll call every morning, Muncie put Hedy in the middle of the five-person row, where she was better protected.
During the days, Hedy mostly stayed in her bunk or walked around outside. Sometimes she wandered near the train platform where she saw cattle cars being unloaded and babies torn from their mothers’ arms. “I was so scared while I was there. God closed my eyes so I wouldn’t see, because it was hell,” she said.
Seven weeks later, Hedy and Muncie were transported to Bergen-Belsen in northwestern Germany and, a short time later, taken to separate labor camps.
Hedy’s labor camp was near the Landsberg-Lech Air Base in Bavaria. During the days she was sent with a group of women to dig up potatoes, supervised by an elderly German soldier with a gun. But he told the women he was worried about his own son, also a soldier, and did not work them very hard. He also led them to safe places during bombing raids on the air base.
Six months later, in January 1945, Hedy, wearing only a thin dress and cardboard shoes, was put on a forced march to Bergen-Belsen. She walked 17 miles a day, subsisting only on black coffee, and arrived at Bergen-Belsen six weeks later, her toes frostbitten and her body barely able to move. “It was such a mess there. I was walking over dead people to go to the bathroom,” she said. Then, on April 15, women prisoners rushed into Hedy’s barracks, bringing coffee and tea and shouting, “We’re liberated.”
Hedy was taken to a hospital, where she had surgery on her right shoulder. Three weeks later, feeling better, she walked down the hospital corridor and looked out the window. “I wonder if there is a world out there,” she said to herself. She saw women sitting on the grass talking and was reassured. She looked again, saw her Aunt Muncie and cousin Gizi and screamed. “They came running because they had given up on me,” Hedy said.
In fall 1945, Hedy, Muncie and Gizi left for Sweden. Hedy was hospitalized for additional recuperation and was then sent to a Jewish school for girls. About a year later, a great-uncle brought all three to the United States and they settled in Cleveland, where American cousins lived and where Hedy worked as a dressmaker.
Hedy met Jack Fingerman a few months later. He had come from Poland in 1939, the only surviving member of his immediate family and, Hedy said, “the most wonderful man.” They married on Sept. 13, 1947.
Their daughter Pearl was born on July 10, 1949, and a month later they moved to Los Angeles to be with Jack’s aunt and uncle. Their daughter Evie was born on Feb. 25, 1952.
Hedy and Jack moved to the San Fernando Valley in 1953, raising their daughters and becoming active members of Valley Beth Shalom. Jack died in November 2002. Today Hedy, 85, enjoys spending time with her daughters, son-in-law and two grandsons, and baking her much-requested rugalach.
Hedy always wanted to write a book. “What they did to the Jews, it should never happen,” she said.