Holocaust Survivor Shares Her Story (EXCERPT)

Madeleine Crum, The Huffington Post: The following is an excerpt from from "Two Rings: A Story of Love and War," by Millie Werber and Eve Keller [PublicAffairs, $24.00]. The book details Millie's time in Auschwitz and the Radom Ghetto, and her memories of the man to whom she was married for a short time before he was killed, leaving behind no record of his existence aside from a photo and two wedding rings. The below excerpt reveals the kindness of a German guard who riskily shares his food with Millie:

After three weeks, when we were finally released were taken to the factory in Lippstadt, where for the next ten weeks I worked again making munitions for the Germans. Not much remains with me from this time: I don’t remember the exact nature of my work, though I know I got to sit at a machine to do it and that my aunt Mima and I were on alternate shifts; she worked nights and I worked days. I don’t think I saw Mima even once.

What I remember most clearly from my time in Lippstadt is the remarkable kindness of a German, a man whose name I never knew, whose face I never saw—a man who belonged to the people who sought to destroy me but who, in defiance of his people, offered instead generosity and solace.

He gave me a piece of sandwich.

I always took a little rest when we were given our break between shifts. Just two or three minutes to lay my head down and close my eyes after I had gotten my small portion of soup. This was better to me than trying to get extra soup. When the women would run up and fight each other for the repeta—seconds—if it was offered, I would rest instead, lay my head down and sleep, even just for a moment.

One evening, when I picked up my head, I saw a little package wrapped in brown paper lying beside me. I looked at it, but I didn’t touch it, because I was worried that someone was testing me, trying to find out if I would take it, only to accuse me of stealing. So I ignored it and went back to my work. The next evening, the same thing happened—a package was left, and I refused to touch it. On the third evening, as I was resting, I suddenly felt a callused hand on my mouth; another hand covered my eyes. A man spoke to me, quietly but urgently. “Don’t scream. Don’t scream,” he said. “I am the one who puts down this package for you. It’s me that’s leaving you this package.”

He was speaking to me in simple German, simple enough for me to understand. He said, “I just want to ask a few questions.”

I didn’t move, terrified at what this German might want from me.

“Is it true what I am hearing in the underground? Is it true that they are killing Jews? That in Auschwitz they are gassing Jews to death?”

Who was this man assaulting me with his hands on my face? Why was he asking about what the Germans were doing to the Jews?

I didn’t trust his tone; I didn’t know what to make of the sound of disbelief in his voice. He was a German; he was my enemy. Yet his voice was full of horror as he asked his questions. And he had left something for me, or so he said; he had left me some kind of gift.

He took his hands from my face. I sat motionless, afraid of whatever it was that was happening. I wanted to open the package, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I couldn’t look at him; in all the years of the war—and for years after it, decades—I never looked a German in the eyes.

He tried to calm me; he could see I was terrified. He spoke gently now, still quietly, more plaintive than insistent, trying to convince me that he was on my side. He said, “You can answer me. I am here working in this factory just as you are. I am not out fighting for Hitler. I am against Hitler. Don’t be afraid of me. I have been watching you, and I see that you never go for seconds. I thought you might need this more than the others. Here, look, I left this for you from my sandwich.”

And he unwrapped the little package himself and showed me what was there: a third of a sandwich, maybe. A piece of salami between slices of brown bread. A feast, this was—meat and bread to bite and chew, meat and bread to be rolled on my tongue, the salt and the fat of it. Two bites, three bites—it was a banquet.

I don’t think I had much to tell him. I confirmed, eyes down, lips barely moving, yes, they are gassing people in Auschwitz. But what else did I have to say?

He came every night and gave me a portion of his sandwich. And he came with news, too: that the war would soon be over, that the Americans and the English were on their way, and that the Russians, too, were coming from the other side.

I did believe him about this, because for some weeks already, we could hear the bombs falling not far off. We figured the Allies knew that there were slave-laborers at the factory, because the bombs landed all around, but never in, the factory complex itself. The German civilians must have known, too, because people from the town came to the factory during the raids to hide in the bomb shelters there. The Jews and Russian prisoners, of course, had to stay in the factory as the bombs fell. I told my friend Fela that I wouldn’t mind dying in a bomb blast; it would be quick at least, and I suspected it wouldn’t hurt too much.

Every night, I took the piece of sandwich and shared it with Fela; she was the girl who some months later would discourage me from spending time with Jack when we were in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Fela had a little gold ring that she asked me to offer to the German; she wanted to give him something to thank him for the piece of sandwich he was giving me. When I offered it to him, I explained that I was sharing the piece of sandwich with my friend; she and I were partners and shared everything we had. I could tell that he was impressed by this—that I was sharing what little he was able to give me. I know he wished he could have brought more for us to eat, but he said he couldn’t bring another sandwich with him to the factory; he was checked by the guards every morning. He wouldn’t take the ring. He said we should keep it, in case we might have need of it in the future.

The following evening, when I opened the package, I saw that this man had given me a full half of his sandwich, so there would be more to share. He was now taking less for himself—he was giving up even more—so that I could share his gift with another Jew.

This was astonishing to me, the kindness of this German, the good-heartedness of this man who wanted to do what he could to help two Jews eat. I have thought about this man many times over the years. I am sorry that I was too scared to look at his face; I am sorry that I never asked his name. This man risked his own well-being for my sake—for surely he would have been punished had he been caught giving food to a Jew. Zwirek had extended such goodness two years before; Katz had done so as well. Now, yet another. A Pole, a Jew, and a German: men with kindness harbored in their hearts.

I know that I did not deserve their kindness, any more than I deserved the miseries I was made to suffer. Nothing that happened in the war made sense like that. The world I inhabited was not one in which rewards and punishments were handed out according to reason, according to any standard of justice I could discern. Life and death were the result of happenstance, of luck, of fortune—random events that never added up to anything I could count on.

From "Two Rings: A Story of Love and War," by Millie Werber and Eve Keller, published in March 2012. Reprinted by permission from PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group.