“Schnell, schnell,” the SS soldiers, with dogs and guns, yelled at the newly arrived Auschwitz prisoners. “Hurry, hurry.” Twins Rita and Serena Siegelstein, then 17, were suddenly separated from their parents and two brothers and rushed into a large building. Female guards appeared. The group of young girls was forced to undress, everything but their shoes, and their hair was shorn. They were then marched down a long hallway. The twins looked at their reflection in the windows, not recognizing themselves. “We weren’t even human anymore,” Serena said.
The group, which also included the twins’ two sisters, was given shapeless gray dresses and marched to a barracks. For two weeks, they endured roll calls three times a day, ate only one meal daily, at noon, of only soup and bread, and slept together shivering on the floor. One day, SS guards ordered them outside. They were told to undress and run single-file past the gate, where 2,000 were selected for a labor camp in Latvia. The twins didn’t dare look back, only later discovering that their sisters had been pulled from the line. “We cried most of the trip,” Rita said.
Originally named Razi and Suri, Rita and Serena were two of seven children born to Isadore and Elena Siegelstein in Transylvania, Romania. They were a modern Jewish family. Isadore ran a general store, and the family lived comfortably. The twins loved school. They also loved visiting their grandparents’ nearby estate.
In 1940, however, Transylvania came under Hungarian rule, and on March 19, 1944, the Nazis invaded Hungary. The twins’ older brother, Bill, originally Bela, was taken to a labor camp. And in early May, soldiers transported the family to the ghetto Bistrita at the Stamboli farm, where nurses searched all the females vaginally for hidden jewelry. On June 6, they were loaded on cattle cars and taken to Auschwitz. “Children were crying. Everyone was crying,” Rita said.
After Auschwitz, the twins were transported to Riga. Serena, sick with a fever, was hospitalized, while Rita was taken to the nearby Kaiserwald concentration camp. For two weeks, she lined up for endless roll calls, never knowing if there would be a tomorrow. One morning, after volunteering for work in a labor camp, she found herself reunited with Serena in Riga. “It was a miracle,” said Serena, who narrowly missed being taken to the crematorium.
Next were two short stays in labor camps. Then, in August 1944, loaded into a stifling boxcar, they traveled four days and nights to Stuffhof, a concentration camp in Poland. “It was even worse than Auschwitz,” Serena said. One night, noticing that Serena’s hospital dress was different from the gray dresses the others wore, an SS guard beat her up. Another guard took pleasure in pouring buckets of water on the sleeping prisoners. Mostly the prisoners waited for roll calls and endured numerous selections.
After a week, the twins, along with some 500 other girls, were transported to Glowen, a forced labor camp near Sachsenhausen. For eight months, they slept in barracks, with each girl assigned a bunk bed with a blanket. They received three meals a day and weekly showers, and worked digging building foundations and carrying bricks.
But then, as Allied paratroopers descended from the sky, they were evacuated on a death march. They walked days and nights with no food or water, with SS and their guns and dogs at their backs and with bombs raining down. During the walk, Serena became very weak and was carried by Rita and some friends.
On May 5, after three weeks, they finally arrived at Ravensbruck concentration camp. They entered the barracks late at night, climbing over bodies crammed together on the floor. The next morning, hearing a huge commotion, they ran outside. When the other girls didn’t join them, they realized they were dead. They saw SS soldiers fleeing. The gate was open, and they were free. Of the 2,000 girls who had left Auschwitz together less than a year earlier, only 18 survived.
On their own, with Serena sick, they stayed in the area, discovering an empty house and cooking potatoes. They also found three broken mezuzahs, which Rita owns to this day, and a white tablecloth with colored stripes, which Serena sewed into a dress. “I was very proud. That was my only dress for a long time,” she said.
After a week, they started walking, and finally reached a transit camp, which they believe was named Molchow, where they registered as displaced persons. They soon left by train, learning at one stop that their parents and younger brother had been killed.
They finally arrived at their home in August 1945 and saw that almost everything, including the windows and furnace, was gone. Rita went inside and gathered whatever photographs she could find. “That was the saddest day of my life,” she said.
They continued traveling, meeting some cousins and reuniting with Bill, who was then working in Baru Mare, Romania. He supported the twins until October 1946, when they all left Romania. They spent two years in Austria, where they attended the ORT school in Salzburg, and then traveled to Montreal. In 1950, Rita moved to Los Angeles, where her aunt and uncle lived, and Serena followed in 1953.
Rita met Tom Kahane, an engineer who was born in Vienna and sent to England at age 11. They married on Dec. 27, 1957, and had two daughters — Cindy, born in 1960, and Tammy, born in 1964. Both are married with two children. Tom died in 1999.
Serena met Dick Rubin, and they married on March 3, 1963. Daughter Claudia was born in 1964 and son Jeffrey in 1966. Both are married with two children.
Rita, Serena and Dick live in a house in Woodland Hills. Family is most important to them. The twins also do international dancing three times a week. They are active in ORT and Café Europa, and for the past three years have participated in UCLA’s Bearing Witness program.
Every Friday night, Rita lights Shabbat candles. “I had a dream after the war that my mother came home and asked me to put candles on Friday nights and holidays,” she said. She has followed that wish ever since.
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