“Leave your possessions. We will bring them to you,” a Jewish commando greeted the trainload of Jews arriving at Auschwitz. He pointed to Regina Landowicz’s mother: “Too old.” And to her sister Lillie: “Too young.” Sally, another sister, took scissors from her rucksack and quickly trimmed their mother’s hair and lopped off Lillie’s braids as German soldiers shouted, “Raus, raus!” (Out, out!) On the platform, a German soldier tried to grab Lillie from their mother’s arms, but their mother clutched her tightly, even as he beat her. “Ma, ma,” Regina, Sally and another sister, Ruthie, screamed. A soldier whipped the girls, separating them from their mother and Lillie. “Where you’re going you don’t need a mother,” he told 16-year-old Regina.
Regina, Sally and Ruthie were processed and taken to Block 25, which housed 1,000 women. “We lay on the floor like animals,” Regina said. From the open door, they saw the entire sky glow red from fire and later learned their mother and Lillie had been gassed and cremated.
Regina was born on June 29, 1928, in Lodz, Poland, to Ajzyk and Esther Landowicz, the third-to-last child in an observant family of eight girls and one boy. Only Regina and three sisters survived the Holocaust.
Regina’s father had been a wealthy businessman. The family lived in a large apartment and spent summers in the country. Regina remembers that every Shabbat her father brought an oyrech — an impoverished guest — to dinner. In the early 1930s, Regina’s father lost his money and opened a small grocery store.
On Sept. 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, occupying Lodz seven days later. The Germans immediately cut off food supplies to the city’s approximately 230,000 Jews, instituted curfews and confiscated property. Jewish men were carted off to labor camps. In December, all Jews were ordered to wear yellow stars. Regina’s five older siblings fled to Warsaw and points east. (Of those five, only Judy, who escaped to Siberia, survived.)
“Everybody was scared,” Regina said. She and Ruthie often stood in line all night in the snow and cold for a loaf of bread. One time, in the early morning darkness, a German soldier approached Regina and yelled, “Jude, raus” (Jew, out). He beat her up. Ruthie later returned home with bread.
As rumors of a ghetto began circulating, Regina’s parents, with $50 from an American uncle, purchased a room from a Polish family. Regina and Ruthie dragged a sled carrying household items, including a wooden bathtub and their father’s Hebrew books, there, making several trips. By February 1940, all Jews were ordered into the ghetto.
On April 1, Regina, who had contracted typhoid, was taken to a small ghetto hospital. She awoke the next morning semi-conscious in a bathtub of ice. “You’re the luckiest kid in the world,” a woman told her. The previous day the Gestapo had rounded up all the doctors, nurses and patients and shot them.
In spring 1940, the Jews began working in exchange for food. Regina wove shawls by hand on a loom. Later she made boots out of straw for the German soldiers. “My hands were full of pus from that work,” Regina said. Her last job was making wooden cribs. Regina stopped working toward the end of 1943, as deportations to Auschwitz increased.
One day, Regina and her family hid in the attic of a burned-out factory. German soldiers with dogs later searched the building but didn’t discover them.
Another time, in June 1944, their mother took Regina and Lillie (Sally and Ruthie were still working) to a field, where they hid in a tepee-shaped bundle of hay. They lay there all day, until Regina lost a boot and her mother decided to leave. German soldiers later machine-gunned everyone hiding there.
“Miracles. Unbelievable miracles. I myself don’t believe them,” Regina said.
For the next two months, Regina and her family spent their days hiding in the large Jewish cemetery and their nights in a nearby shack. One day they heard gunfire ring out for hours. The next day Regina, her three sisters and her mother were captured and shipped to Auschwitz. Regina never learned her father’s fate.
After two months in Auschwitz’s Block 25, 250 girls from the Lodz ghetto, including Regina, Sally and Ruthie, were transferred to A Lager. During the night, German soldiers burst in and took out 50 girls. Regina and her sisters lay huddled on a top bunk, hearing the others’ screams.
“If I live to be 100 years, I cannot describe Auschwitz. Unbelievable. Hell on earth,” she said.
From Auschwitz, the girls were taken to a munitions factory in Oederan, Saxony. Upon arrival, they were led into a dining room, where bowls of soup awaited them. “A spoon. They gave us a spoon,” Regina recalled. Subsequent meals were less lavish, but they had food, slept five to a bunk and were given hot water every week to wash up.
In the factory, Regina worked 12 hours a day drilling holes, one at a time, into German bullets. “I tried to make the hole on the side, but the foreman was measuring constantly,” she said.
In late April 1945, the girls were sent to Theresienstadt. There, with “unbelievable hunger and not a drop of water,” Regina said, they lived outdoors.
On May 8, Soviet troops liberated the camp.
After several months, Regina and her sisters found themselves at a DP camp in Landsberg am Lech, Germany, where Regina studied design and pattern making through ORT. More than four years later, in 1949, Sally and Ruthie were each married and had immigrated to the United States. Regina followed, arriving in Los Angeles in August 1949.
In early 1950, Regina met Phillip Hirsch, a landsman from Lodz and a Bergen-Belsen survivor. They married on March 11, 1951. Their son, Mark, was born on Jan. 4, 1952, and daughter, Laurene, on Sept. 28, 1956. Phillip died on June 1, 2008.
Today, Regina, now 84, lives in Westwood. She enjoys spending time with her family, including her son, daughter, son-in-law, two grandsons and sisters Ruthie and Sally.
Regina began speaking out about the Holocaust in 1949, a time when “nobody wanted to listen,” she said. She was one of the first speakers at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and continues to speak there every Thursday. She also talks to college students and the U.S. military.
“While we’re here, we have to talk, we have to teach. What else is there to do?” she said.