A Holocaust survivor’s tale – the importance of remembrance

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Auschwitz-survivor Frieda Menco-Brommet (92). Image: Fieke Snijder

Article originally published by WSI Magazine.

‘How many Jews were killed in the Holocaust?’ This question was asked in a poll on Twitter by the ScaramucciPost, a media company headed by former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci on the 17th of October. The possible answers were ‘less than a million’, ‘between one and two million’, ‘between two and three million’ and ‘more than five million’. It seems to be a ridiculous question that queries historical facts. You don’t ask how many presidents the United States has had so far either.

Frieda Menco-Brommet (92) is a Dutch Holocaust-survivor that sees it as her mission to tell as many people as possible what happened with the Jews during the Second World War. “Something like this should never happen again.”

Early war
“Together with my parents I lived in the South of Amsterdam. I was fourteen at the time and I had no idea of what was coming. In the early days of the war people thought everything would stay the same. But in 1941 things started to change: all the Jewish children had to go a different, separate school. I started at this school but never finished the year. My parents decided to go into hiding.”

Because the Nazi-regime wanted to kill all the Jews, about 25.000 Dutch Jews decide to hide in attics, cellars or other secret shelters. They were dependent on others for basic living necessities.

“On the first of July, 1942, we hid away in Warmond, about forty kilometers south of Amsterdam. My parents got the address via one of our relatives. We lived in a small room above a bike store. My father had to pay a lot of money for food vouchers, but we got almost nothing to eat. We were being milked out and starved. For two years we did not much more than sitting on a chair, waiting. My father wanted us to flee to Switzerland, because we just couldn’t handle the little room anymore. It never happened because we got betrayed by people who were earning their money by exposing Jews. Via a jail in Amsterdam we were transferred to Westerbork, a transit camp in the north of the Netherlands.”

Menco-Brommet is eighteen years old at the time she and her family arrive at Westerbork. It was an improvement: they had space to move around, they got decent food and Menco-Brommet spoke to people of her own age again. The family had high hopes for the war to be over soon.

Threat of the train
“Even though our lives were better in the transit camp than above the bike store, there was always the threat of the train. Every Tuesday a train would depart to the east. On the second of September 1944 we heard that we had to go on the train the next day. We had no idea where it would take us. The journey was horrible. They put us in a packed wagon and in the corner was a bucket in which you had to do your private business. I had no idea how long it would take or where we went. I knew we were driving through Germany because every now and then the train would stop at a station. When the doors opened, you could sometimes read the station’s name. After three days and two nights we arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland.”

I had no idea that Auschwitz existed,
let alone what happened there

Auschwitz is the most well-known and was the largest German concentration camp. The systematical detection and deportation of Jews started in 1942. In 1943 and 1944 the four big gas chambers and crematoria in Auschwitz were almost continuously in operation. Between March 1940 and the end of January 1945 over 1.1 million people were killed in the Polish city alone.

“I had no idea that Auschwitz existed, let alone what happened there. When we arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau we were sorted into four rows, two for men and two for women. They looked at who appeared to be strong. Those people could do labour. It was the last time I saw my father. Immediately upon arrival we all got a number tattooed on our arm. After the tattoo we were taken to a large room where we had to take off all our clothes. Everyone got shaved and then we had to shower. They told us to go outside where we were given clothes. I got a summer dress and two left shoes. Then we went to the barracks. During the day we had to work. Day after day I had to carry bricks. We had to put our hands together and have bricks stacked up to our chins. We had to walk four kilometers carrying this heavy load. To this day I still have back problems.”

Barrack for the sick
After a month in Auschwitz Menco-Brommet became sick. It started with scarlet fever, but after a while she also got typhus, diarrhea and problems with her lungs. She ended up in a barrack for the sick. Her bed was under Anne Frank’s, who Menco-Brommet vaguely knew from Amsterdam. Menco-Brommet was in bad condition. Her mother dug a hole under the wall of the barrack and was able to give her some food every now and then. January 1945 the Germans came into the barrack and told them they would be killed if they didn’t come with them.

When Nazi-Germany got more and more enclosed by the Allied troops at the end of the war, the Nazis wanted to erase the traces of the Holocaust as much as possible. Prisoners had to leave the camps. On January 18th, 1945, about 60.000 prisoners had to leave Auschwitz. At least 15.000 of them died or were killed during the deathly march.

I was still in the barrack but people just walked over me. It was impossible to see who was alive or dead

“I was way too weak to participate in the march. I weighed just 45 kilos and I was not able to walk anymore. My mother and I decided to stay in the barrack. My mother went out of the barrack to get us a piece of bread. When she came back she didn’t see me anymore. She panicked and lost the piece of bread. I was still in the barrack but people just walked over me. It was impossible to see who was alive or dead. A lot of people died during the marches. The fact that I was too weak to go may have been my rescue.”

Back to the Netherlands
Menco-Brommet and her mother lived for nine days by drinking the snow and rationing a piece of turnip that her mother found. After those nine days the Russians arrived.

“We stayed in the wooden barrack for another month. After that time we were transferred to another part of the Auschwitz concentration camp, where we stayed until the end of May. Eventually, we got transferred back to the Netherlands by train on July 3rd, 1945.”

The generally agreed-upon answer to ScaramucciPost’s question is six million. Frieda Menco-Brommet was lucky not be included in this number. As more time is put between now and the Holocaust, it becomes increasingly important to remember the atrocities committed at the time. “For the last years I have the feeling that the world is changing”, Menco-Brommet concludes. “It is all violence and war. The worst thing is that we are not able to do anything about it. I don’t have as much hope as I had before that something like the Holocaust will never happen again.”

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