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Jewish Journal

Eva Klein David — Clandestine Crafts That Saved Lives

by Rachel Heller

April 1, 2009 | 7:50 pm

Eva Klein David holding the belt and comb she made while imprisoned in German labor camps. Photo by Dan Kacvinski

Eva Klein David holding the belt and comb she made while imprisoned in German labor camps. Photo by Dan Kacvinski

Working in a factory at the Reichenbach labor camp, Eva Klein David manned a soldering iron, fusing wires together to make parts for radios. The dexterous teenager was good at what she did. That, she believes, is why the Nazi soldiers didn’t kill her when she began fainting at work due to hunger and stress.

Living quarters were filthy and cramped. There was no soap. The girls only had time to wash themselves on Sundays, with ice-cold water and a dish of chemical bleach.

The girls’ heads had been shaved back at Auschwitz. David missed her curly tresses, but at least there were no lice. Now the prisoners’ hair was beginning to grow back, and with it came the threat of disease. “If people got lice, then there would be an outbreak of typhoid fever,” David, 82, said recently. “Then we would probably die.”

When the factory foremen weren’t looking, David put down her radio parts. She soldered a comb with fine wire teeth so the girls could pick out the nits between washing days. She passed the comb to whomever needed it, helping women tease out and squash the tiny insects. In this way, the prisoners staved off sickness.

“It was a great service to the community,” said David, who still keeps her gray ringlets long. “You fight with whatever you can. We fought back.”

David was always skilled with her hands. Urged into seamstress school by her aunt at age 14 in Oradea, Romania, she quickly rose to the top of her class. David was so proud of her talent that she even stuffed her trade school certificate into her bag as she packed for Auschwitz.

Dressmaking turned out not to be a skill David needed in the concentration camps. But more than once, her manual deftness saved her life — and aided countless others.

Forced to move to a Jewish ghetto with her parents and two sisters in 1942, David slept on the kitchen floor of an apartment shared by dozens of other Jews. When the order came to prepare for Auschwitz, everyone was allowed one bag — but few people had bags to pack. David sewed a backpack from a square tablecloth, folded over many times so she wouldn’t have to cut off the excess material.

“I didn’t want to cut, because in the old country, everything was expensive. A tablecloth was treasure,” she recalled. “Even then I was optimistic that this would not be forever. I thought we would come back, and then I could open up the stitches and we’d have a tablecloth again.”

David made backpacks for the rest of her family, and then for her father’s cousins and anyone else who could bring her a bed sheet or a length of cloth. She was still sewing bags when Nazi officials ordered the family to line up in the courtyard to board the train to Auschwitz.

David’s mother and younger sister were killed in the gas chambers immediately. Her father died in the camps later on. She managed to stay together with her older sister, Lily, and a former schoolmate she recognized and adopted as an honorary sister.

The three girls were selected for labor at Reichenbach. David learned to solder while Lily prepared the wires. The factory was in the city, but the prisoners were stationed to sleep in the outskirts of town. They trudged through deep snow and wind to get to work each day. David had a woolen coat that she was given at Auschwitz, but it was cut too full for her thin frame, and the back billowed up over her head.

“I was freezing cold. I thought, if I had a belt or a string to tie it, the wind wouldn’t blow it up on me,” she recalled. “My sister said, ‘You could make a belt for yourself.’”

David found some black plastic tubing, used in the factory to encase wires, in a garbage bin. She bundled strands of the tubing and wove a sturdy belt, soldering a buckle from scraps of wire in the factory. It kept her warm and was practice for the lice comb she would craft later.

That comb was eventually lost when someone didn’t return it. But David made another comb to wear as an accessory in her thick hair. One day, one of the forewomen at the factory noticed the luxury. “She said, ‘Eva, Eva.’ She couldn’t get over it,” David recalled. “She saw the wires and knew that I made it, but she did not report me.”

Soon after, Allied forces began bombing the city. The guards took David and the other prisoners on foot to the Parschnitz concentration camp in the Sudetenland, where she was liberated in 1945 at age 18. David brought the comb and belt with her when she and Lily immigrated to Israel in 1946, and later to the United States, where she came in 1966.

“God blessed me with handicraft,” said David, who still tears up when she looks at the pieces. “When I see them, it gives me the shivers. I’m still here. I can’t get over it, but I’m still here.”

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