The train carrying about 1,600 Jews from the island of Rhodes pulled up to the Auschwitz platform in mid-August, 1944. Ezra Hanan, along with all the other men, was corralled into one line. His wife and six children were pushed into another.
Amid the chaos, Miriam Hanan went looking for her husband, handing the baby to 15-year-old Sara. Sara remained in line with her older sister, who was holding their toddler brother and their two younger sisters, 8 and 4. People were frantically asking questions. Sara turned to a prisoner standing nearby. “What about the children?” she asked. “They will be killed right away,” he told her. The younger girls understood and began to cry. Sara started screaming. Her mother returned and took the baby from Sara’s arms. But as Sara and her sisters hysterically tried to explain, Sara’s mother and siblings were directed to the left. Sara was sent to the right. “Sara, come this way,” her mother yelled. Sara halted. A German soldier slapped her face and pointed her to the right.
“That night we saw the fire, and it smelled horrible,” Sara said.
Sara Gilmore, née Hanan, was born on May 26, 1929, on the island of Rhodes, the second of six children in a comfortable, observant Sephardic family. But things began to change in 1938 when anti-Jewish laws were enacted, and about half of Rhodes’ 4,000 Jews departed the island, which was under Italian control. In September 1943, when Italy surrendered to the Allies, the Germans took full command of Rhodes.
During that time, Sara’s family spent many nights in their bomb shelter. Then, on the first day of Passover 1944, bombs began falling in the morning and continued relentlessly. Their house and Sara’s father’s businesses were destroyed. The family moved to a farmhouse they owned in the countryside.
On July 18, 1944, Sara’s father and all the male Jews of Rhodes age 18 and older were ordered to report to the Air Force Command Center. They believed they were being sent to a work camp but instead were detained there.
The next day, the women and children were ordered to report and to bring all their valuables, as well as food and a few personal items. Along the way, Sara saw a close friend of her father’s, who had attempted to run away, hanged outside his house. When they arrived at the Command Center, they were told to wait outside. They sat on the cement in the rain the entire night.
The next day, they were herded into the building — “like sardines,” Sara said — where they were stripped of all their money and jewelry. When Sara told a soldier she needed to write down what she was giving him, expecting to get it back, he smacked her across the face. “You had nothing left,” Sara said.
Three days later, the group was marched to the harbor and packed tightly into three old cargo vessels. They endured an eight-day voyage to Greece, then were immediately taken to the Haidari concentration Camp, outside Athens.
At Haidari, the Jews from Rhodes were contained in a large outside area, with no shade from the blazing sun and no water. Eventually, the guards brought out buckets of water, calling up people individually. Sara’s turn came, but as she approached the buckets, a German guard swung a billy club, hitting her hard on the back. Still she managed to bring some water to her younger siblings.
The next day, everyone was brought inside the building, where the women and teenage girls were subjected to a vaginal search to make certain they weren’t hiding any jewelry. “It was humiliating. The girls were all hysterical,” Sara recalled. A day or two later, the entire group was crammed into cattle cars and taken on a suffocating 13-day journey to Auschwitz, where only about 400 escaped the initial selection.
After Sara was separated from her family at Auschwitz, she was taken with the remaining women for processing. She was forced to undress, and her head, underarms and groin area were shaved. She was ordered to pick one dress from a pile of clothes, without regard to size, and was given no underwear or shoes. Finally, at about 3 a.m. she was taken to a bloc with three tiers of wooden bunks, with no mattresses or blankets and barely an available spot.
Sara became very sick at Auschwitz, spending much of her time in the hospital, where she was left for almost dead at one point. She was eventually sent back to the bloc and to hard labor, digging trenches in the snow, with no shoes and frostbitten feet. She became sick again and was sent back to the hospital, where she lay for three weeks, weighing less than 70 pounds when the Soviet army liberated the camp on Jan. 27, 1945.
Sara, considered an Italian citizen, became one of 25 women forced to work for the Russian soldiers, traveling with them, scrubbing houses in villages they appropriated, cooking their meals, washing their lice-ridden uniforms and enduring their verbal abuse. “They treated us just like the Germans,” she said.
Finally, at the end of May 1945, she was freed from the Russians and eventually sent to Italy, where she lived with one of her mother’s friends for two years. A cousin living in Los Angeles, seeing her name on a list of surviving Jews of Rhodes, which numbered just 150, sent for her.
Sara was married and divorced twice; she raised her son, Jeff, born in 1963, and daughter, Maureen, born in 1966, in the San Fernando Valley. For 28 years she worked at Tarzana Pharmacy.
Today she describes being 82 as “a hard age.” She’s not well, and many of her friends are gone. But she enjoys her four grandchildren and says she feels fortunate.
“The biggest lesson I learned was to survive on my own,” she said.
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