March 29, 2012
“I don’t know where I am.” After three days and nights in a cramped cattle car, Miriam Rothstein — neé Farkas — was thrust onto the Auschwitz-Birkenau platform. Her sister Margaret and Margaret’s three children were sent to one side, her brother Baruch to another. Where was Rachel? Only a year and half older, Rachel was like her twin. Suddenly a man in a crisp SS uniform, wielding a whip and accompanied by a German shepherd — later she learned he was Dr. Josef Mengele — called, “Here, here, gypsy girl,” pointing her in yet another direction. She heard an orchestra playing and saw prisoners with shaved heads and striped uniforms. “They look like crazy people here,” she thought. At last Rachel caught up as they were pushed into a big hall. It was June 1, 1944; Miriam was 23.
Born in Satu Mare, Romania, Miriam was born ninth of the 11 children of Gershon, a businessman who never laid a hand on any of them, and Gittel, a homemaker who regularly brought food to the poor. The family was educated and observant.
When Miriam was 4, they moved to Yasinya, a village in the Carpathian Mountains, then part of Czechoslovakia, where her mother’s well-respected and wealthy family lived. But life changed after Hungary annexed Czechoslovakia in March 1939. Miriam’s studies were interrupted and the family business was shuttered.
Miriam lived in continual fear. Hungarian soldiers appeared everywhere; one even stalked her. Often, from a distance, she glimpsed other Jews running from the nearby Polish border toward Russia. Then, in August 1941, Jews lacking Hungarian citizenship were apprehended. “We heard that they were shot,” Miriam said.
In March 1944, with the Germans controlling Yasinya, Miriam’s family learned that all able-bodied Jews were to be rounded up. At their mother’s urging, Miriam and Rachel boarded a train for Uzhorod, a city in Transcarpathia, then part of Hungary, where older sister Margaret and brother Baruch lived.
But in April, the Jews in Uzhorod were ordered to report to the ghetto there. Miriam and Rachel instead hid in a shed for three days until Miriam feared they would be discovered and shot. She changed into a two-piece red silk dress, attaching her mother’s diamond ring to an inside button, and the sisters entered the ghetto. It was an old brick factory, overcrowded and unsanitary. “I wished we would leave,” Miriam said. Finally, at the end of May, they were lined up and squeezed into cattle cars, headed to Poland.
In the big hall at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Miriam’s clothes were ripped from her body, the red dress with its concealed diamond tossed into a huge pile. Her head and other areas were shaved, and her vaginal cavity was searched for hidden jewelry. She was handed another dress, with no regard for size.
The group was then moved to Lager (camp) C, a huge bloc that Miriam heard held 1,000 women. That evening they were given “soup,” one pot to be shared among five people. Miriam, however, spotting worms, refused her portion. Everyone slept on the floor. Miriam used her dress to fan Rachel, who was faint from the heat. From outside, they heard people screaming.
There was no work, only “appel,” or roll call, where they had to line up, again by fives. “Every day, people were taken out: one, two, three, four and out. They went straight to the crematorium,” Miriam said. They could see the flames and smell the burning flesh. Miriam was always afraid, but more afraid that she’d lose Rachel than for herself.
In September, Miriam was selected for work and directed to a different bloc. When Rachel was not called, Miriam began screaming. “My throat got infected,” she said. In the evening, however, Rachel sneaked in. The next morning, the group was taken by train to an area near Krakow, where they built a shelter for 50 girls, a bed of branches with a canvas covering. At night, Miriam and Rachel huddled together, with one sweater over the branches and another covering them.
Work consisted of digging anti-tank trenches and later laying cable. Miriam felt lucky to have two kind, high-ranking SS officers overseeing them. The accompanying Latvian guards, however, were harsh, twice gratuitously whacking Miriam with a rifle and constantly threatening to shoot the girls.
By January 1945, with the Russian army approaching, the SS officers dismissed the Latvian guards, gathered up food and escaped with the girls. After days of walking, they reached a large estate. The officers then departed, telling the girls to remain hidden.
But Miriam, Rachel and another girl ran away. In the bitter cold, with a full moon shining, they finally came to a farm where they slept in the barn until Russian soldiers liberated them.
Eventually Miriam and Rachel returned to Uzhorod. There Miriam learned her parents, sister Margaret and youngest brother Yehuda had been killed. Baruch had survived, as had her other siblings, many of whom had previously left for Palestine or America.
Later, living in Podmokly, Czechoslovakia, Miriam met Herman Rothstein, a guard for the Czech president. They married in 1946 and their daughter Vera was born in 1947. In 1949, they immigrated to Israel, where their son, David, was born in 1953. A year later, a challenging form of tuberculosis, which attacked Miriam’s bones, prompted a move to Chicago, where Herman had relatives. Their youngest daughter, Mindy, was born there in 1957.
Miriam and Herman moved to Los Angeles in 1992. Herman died in 2000, and Miriam currently lives at the Jewish Home for the Aging. Because of a bad eye, she can no longer read, which she misses, but she enjoys playing Bingo and attending the rabbi’s talks.
Miriam regrets never telling her story to the Shoah Foundation. She’s also sorry she never learned the names of the kind SS officers. But with three children, seven grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren, she says, “I had a wonderful life. All the best for the children.”
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