Hermine Berner, 91, seems to have little to complain about, looking back to 2010, and looking ahead to the new year. She survived Auschwitz because she was physically strong, she says. But it was also a miracle.
Every new year is a great year, says Auschwitz survivor, local resident
While many this time of year recall personal ups and downs in 2010, and hold renewed hopes for 2011, West Seattle's Hermine Berner, 91, believes her life is a miracle and, in recent history, each of her years has passed with much optimism.
"People ask me, 'What's your secret?' " said Berner, referring to her sharp and active mind and body. "Why do they ask? You think I look young? You think that's a secret?" she said with a sample of her sarcastic wit.
Berner, who lives near Alki, does have secret of another sort, one she speaks about when gently persuaded. She is a Holocaust survivor who was shipped to Auschwitz, the notorious concentration camp in German-occupied Poland, while visiting Budapest, Hungary with her father. Their home was in Prague, Czechoslovakia.
"My dad every year used to go to Budapest where there was a Jewish hospital, one of the best in Europe," said Berner. "He had leg problems. I used to go with him. The last time we went we were there a couple of weeks and were ready to go home. My cousins lived in Budapest, and all the family was there to see us off at the train station. But guards took us right across from the station to a large prison. I was separated from my dad and never saw him again."
She believes her father was returned to the hospital and was not sent away, but died there peacefully.
One side of that prison contained thousands of former Spanish Civil War volunteers, Berner recalled.
"Things were very bad in Europe in the 1930's," she said. "Young people, doctors, lawyers, couldn't get a job, and all these young men went to Spain to fight Franco in the Spanish Civil War. When they came back they were punished and put in that jail.Of course many were not Jewish. They emptied that prison out by shipping thousands of them to Auschwitz. But that's where they were taking me, along with the former soldiers. I had never heard of Auschwitz. "
She was quick to point out that perhaps the Swedish humanitarian, Raoul Wallenberg, may have heard of the brutal camp. She is proud that, while she was taken away from Budapest, he saved the lives of many Jews in that city by issuing them "protective" passports that hid their ancestry from the Nazis.
Berner recalled twice meeting Josef Mengele, the Nazi SS officer and physician at Auschwitz known as the "Angel of Death." He performed sadistic medical experiments on camp prisoners, particularly twins, without the use of anesthesia, and decided in many cases who would be allowed to live, and who would die.
"He was very good looking," she said. "He looked like Robert Taylor."
His good looks did not deceive Berner. She said she was in a group of 200 other women forced to stand naked outdoors starting at 5:00 a.m. for two hours during the cold winter as Mengele would slowly walk up and down with his girlfriend, also a doctor, and a german shepherd to scrutinize their physique. He would spare some who were young and strong. Luckily, she was very strong.
"If he didn't like your body he called you out of line to the gas chamber and that was the end of you," she said. "Many gypsies were killed in the camp, too, first the parents. Then the guards had their children singing and marching in the morning and afternoon. Then in the evening they killed them, too. A lot of prisoners were brainwashed and thought they were only baking bread. It smelled. It was so stinky. I'll tell you I'll never forget it. Never."
Berner's strength was her passport to live, as she and other strong, healthy women were shipped out of Auschwitz to work in different German munitions factories.
Berner remembered, "We were put on an animal train, and a guard said to me, 'You don't know how lucky you are. You are the first ones to leave Auschwitz alive.'
"You know, there is that well-known sign at the entrance to Auschwitz," Berner said, "'Arbeit macht frei', which is German for 'Work sets you free'. For me that is just what it did.
"During the war I tasted a little bit of everything all over Europe, so when I returned to Prague I just wanted out out out," said Berner.
"Some villages like in Holland, the people were very helpful, very good," she said. "In other villages, especially in Hungary and Poland, they made up stories that Jews were killing gentiles and using their blood in (religious) bread.
After the war it was not safe for most Holocaust survivors to return to their villages. My sister lived in Chicago, and I was able to move there through the quota system. I met my husband on the South Side. He proposed a week after I met him."
She and her husband, Emanuel, 96, are still married.
"I call him Bernie. I don't like the name 'Emanuel'," she said.
In 2011 she and Bernie plan to spend time with their daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter, who live on Alki, and continue to keep in touch with longtime friends from Chicago."
Hermine Berner was recently interviewed on video with other Holocaust survivors by the Washington State Holocaust Education Resource Center (WSHERC) in downtown Seattle for a future project. The Center is open to the public, with advanced notice.