November 29, 2011
The train pulled up to the platform at Auschwitz. Men and women were immediately separated. Rosalie Schwartz had only a couple of minutes to say goodbye to her 69-year-old father, a hearty man who now appeared weary and old to the 21-year-old. “A happy man is one who can die in his own bed,” he told her.
Rosalie then traded overcoats with her mother, both hoping the more stylish brown one would make her mother appear younger. But the ruse didn’t work. Under the scrutinizing eye of Josef Mengele, Rosalie was ordered to the right and her mother, 49, to the left. As they parted, her mother handed her a blanket. “Don’t catch a cold,” she cautioned.
Rosalie never saw her parents again.
Born on March 21, 1923, in a small town in the Carpathian Mountains of Czechoslovakia, Rosalie grew up on a 40-acre farm. Her father, Binyamin Schwartz, planted crops, and he and her mother, Ethel Blum Schwartz, also ran a small store.
Rosalie was one of five children in a religious family. After elementary school, she attended a trade school in the nearby town of Munkacs, becoming a professional seamstress at 13.
In November 1938, part of Czechoslovakia was annexed to Hungary, which, on March 19, 1944, was invaded by the Germans. In April 1944, Rosalie’s brother Peter was taken to a forced labor camp, and Rosalie and her parents moved to the Munkacs ghetto.
Rosalie worked peeling potatoes in the ghetto. Many evenings, she walked to the nearby train station and ladled water to the Jews who were packed in sweltering cattle cars, waiting, unknowingly, to be transported to Auschwitz. In May, Rosalie and her parents were on the last transport out of Munkacs.
After being processed at Auschwitz, her head shaved and her arm tattooed, she volunteered to work. Again, she was assigned a job peeling potatoes as well as unloading bags of potatoes and flour, often weighing 100 pounds, from the trucks. Additionally, she shoveled potatoes against the kitchen wall. She dug a small hole in the wooden wall, which bordered the yard, and pushed the potatoes out, a few at a time, for prisoners to pick up.
One day, from a distance, she spied her sister Bracha, 16 years older and married with three children, working at the transport station, sorting clothing. She remembers the day when Bracha found the clothing that had belonged to her three children. After that, Bracha was ill and wept continually.
Rosalie spent as much time as possible with Bracha. Together they were transported to Katowitz and Breslau. Then, in January 1945, they were sent on a forced march, in the bitter cold and snow, to Gross-Rosen. Only 50 of the original 2,000 survived, among them the two sisters.
More transports followed, including a forced march to Mauthausen, during which Bracha was so sick she asked a Nazi guard to kill her. Rosalie intervened and carried her sister on her back the rest of the way. From Mauthausen, they were transported by train to Bergen-Belsen.
There, with no bunks in the barracks, prisoners slept crowded together on the floor, which brought on constant shoving and arguing. One night, Rosalie inadvertently raised her head just as a guard entered. The guard dragged her out of the room and beat her repeatedly on her back with a thick wooden stick. “It was incredible pain,” she said, later learning her back had been broken. Fellow prisoners were astonished she was still alive the next morning.
Conditions worsened. Bracha contracted typhus and died; just a few weeks later, on April 15, 1945, Allied forces liberated the camp.
Rosalie remained in the Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons Camp for several months, trying to regain her health. At the end of 1945, in Prague, she found both brothers and learned her sister Maria was in Budapest.
Later, Rosalie went to a DP camp in Leipheim, Germany, where she also worked as a sewing instructor for ORT. There, her brother Willie introduced her to Bela Greenfield, a Zionist in his early 30s who had been in forced labor camps. But they became separated after almost two years. Rosalie’s back needed treatment, and Bela immigrated to Palestine, where he joined the Haganah.
After spending several months in a body cast in a nearby hospital, Rosalie went to a sanatorium in Davos, Switzerland, where, with fresh air and special treatment, her condition improved. She stayed four years, eventually trading her bulky cast for a corset.
Finally, in 1955, Rosalie traveled to Israel and married Bela on March 24. In 1957, they moved to Los Angeles, where their daughter Esther was born and where Bela worked in construction.
Bela died of cancer last January. Rosalie still lives in their Fairfax-area duplex with her grandson and his wife. She receives reparations of about $1,400 a month, which, she believes, is not enough.
Rosalie’s back is still painful, and she uses a cane or wheelchair. During the day, she often goes outside with her part-time caregiver and also reads her siddur.
“We have to keep the religion and pray to God,” she said.