The Odyssey of the Women from Rhodes, testimony of sarah Benatar, Anne Cohen, Giovanna Hasson and Laura Hasson *

On 20 July 1944, at seven o'clock in the morning, the Germans who had occupied Rhodes ordered all male Jews to register at German headquarters. Although they were told that they were being called together for work, they were all arrested. Shortly afterwards the women received the same order. if even one of them had failed to register by 10 o'clock on 21 July, all Jews would be executed. First Lieutenant Costa - a Jew himself - let it be known that the Germans had issued an order that the Jews were to take all their valuables with them : they might enable them to buy whatever was necessary for survival later on.

On the island of Rhodes itself the inmates were all locked in the office rooms of the air force command, and they were given nothing to eat or drink. Afterwards they were taken to the port to be shipped out. During the journey they had to walk around with their heads lowered, and were on no account allowed to look up. Anybody who dared to do so would be executed on the spot. Then all of them (men, women and children) were locked in the coal storage room of the ship : they were so crammed together that they were not even able to sit down. Finally the women were allowed to sleep on deck. In spite of the rain they preferred this to near suffocation in the filthy storage room.

Shortly before their departure the inmates were helped by a group of Italian sisters, who tried to make them believe that soon things would turn for the better. The boat trip from Rhodes to Piraeus took ten days. During the first three days no food was handed out, but in Leros (Lero) the Wehrmacht commander had food from the stocks distributed, some of which had been confiscated in Piraeus.

On the way from Piraeus to Chaidari the women were forced to strip in front of the SS men : if they hesitated to follow the order, because they felt embarrassed, they were brutally beaten. A body search was conducted to see whether they had conceated gold or jewelry. (In the meantime they had been robbed of everything they had brought along from Rhodes : cigarettes, crockery and even their underwear.) Finally all of them - women and men separately - were locked into barracks. (The men were left standing outside in the bot July sun all day long to wait for the patrols.)

Some of the rooms in which the men were kept did not have running water, and the Germans did not even consider having water brought over to these rooms. The men were so thirsty that five of them died. In a gesture of solidarity those men who were kept in rooms with running water broke a hole through the wall and put a pipe through. Since they did not have a container, they proceded to fill their mouths with water and spit it into the pipe. Those on the other side sucked it up. The Germans took malicious joy in pouring gasoline into Laura Hasson's elderly father's face; the gasoline got into bis eyes and caused an infection, which lasted for several days.

As if they did not have to suffer enough as it were, their shoes were taken away from them if they were in good condition. They were beaten incessantly when they boarded the ship, then on the march and finally when they climbed up onto the truck. Even women and children - out of pure sadism were whipped in the face.

They had departed from Rhodes as a group of 1,800 people. Because the severely sick were also taken along, approximately ten people died on the trip, and another fifty, among them mothers with children, died in Piraeus or Chaidari on account ofthe constant beatings. No member of the entire Jewish community on Rhodes was left behind. When they were locked into the small rooms, Laura Hasson asked one of the SS whether she could get her father something to eat. The SS soldier answered that she could do what she wanted to if the girl 'was nice to him'. Laura was not the only one to receive such offers. The other girls received them as well and more than once.

In Chaidari, when everyone in the courtyard screamed and begged for water the SS told them that they could all go to a nearby well and get themselves some. All of them ran there, but when three or four persons were standing at the well, the SS began beating the others who came running towards the well on the head with clubs and leather belts - regardless of whether they were women or children - in order to hold them back. The SS considered it to be some kind of game and repeated it several times that day to entertain themselves.

The deportees had to spend a further three days in Athens. There they were fed by the Red Cross. Then they left by train for Auschwitz in Poland. They traveled in cattle cars which held 70 persons each, both men and women. The Red Cross had had food and water delivered to the individual cars. During the trip, which took more than fifteen days, the prisoners were allowed to leave the cattle cars only three or four times. They all had to defecate and urinate into tin cans - right in front of everybody else - which were then emptied out of the window.

When they arrived at Auschwitz they had to undergo a selection process by the SS doctors : the young men and women who were able to work were waved to one side; the elderly, children and mothers with small children in their arms to the other. This group of the so-called 'unworthy' were taken to another place and exterminated. All those young people who did not want to leave their parents alone, men who did not want to leave their young wives and babies behind, and mothers who did not want to be separated from their children also died in this manner.

Laura Hasson carried her young nephew in her arms. At Auschwitz railroad station a Greek from Saloniki whispered. into her ear, "Give the child to another woman, but make sure that it is an old one!" Laura did not understand what the Greek was trying to tell her, and instead gave the child back to its mother, her twenty-year-old sister-in-law . . .

The girls ended up being led into filthy barracks, which, in addition, were besmeared with excrement. Again they had to undress in front of the SS and the other inmates, and were allowed to take only a cake of soap and a toothbrush with them. Completely naked they were led into a different room, where female barbers shaved their entire body. In a room next door they were then disinfected with a rag soaked in kerosene, which heavily irritated the freshly shaved skin. They then had to take a shower, but received nothing to dry themselves with. They were each given a ragged dress without any regard paid to length or size. When they asked if they could exchange their dresses for ones which were better fitting, gypsy prisoners beat them. They did not receive any underwear. Thus the dresses they were wearing had to Serve both as undershirt and panties, both as handkerchief and towel. At four o' clock in the morning they were allowed to leave the disinfection rooms. Their fe were clad with wooden shoes, in which hey had to walk to the already overcrowded barracks. There were no beds in the barracks, only wooden boards. Twelve people had to make do with less than two square meters. The boards were set up in three stories and so poorly attached that they often fell on the boards beneath.

A Jewish inmate told them : 'You are suffering, but the elderly will not suffer'. An Italian Jew from Rome warned them: 'Never tell them that you are sick. Even if you have a fever of 104, never tell them'. They soon understood the meaning of these words.

They remained at Auschwitz for two and a half months. Every morning they had to kneel in the middle of the block road for hours. Of the block personnel one Polish Jewess by the narne of Magda, called 'The Wild One' was to be remembered for her cruelties. She would beat them on the head, in the face, and beat their fingers with a riding whip. (The personnel was made up of Polish and Hungarian women.) The young women's work consisted of carcarrying roofing tiles. A 15-kilogramm load had to be carried over a distance of two to three kilometers. Had it not been for the cold, the bad nutrition and the wet tiles, it would have been tolerable. At times they even had to move barrels or do other harassing jobs.

Any contact with other innmtes was prohibited. Even if they were neighbors, they were not allowed to help or console each other. One young Hungarian woman was executed on the spot when she was caught talking with her mother in a neighboring camp.

Food was as follows: in the morning there were two cans of so-called 'coffee' for 800 people, which meant that not everyone got some; at noon a roll call of sorts for the distribution of the soup took place; however, this could happen at any time of day, either at nineo'clock in the morning or at five in the afternoon, you never knew when th, soup was to be distributed. One liter of soup had to suffice for five people. Nobody had a spoon, so all of them had to drink out of the same bowl, sip by sip. So there were quarrels and some serious clashes. The soup was so disgusting that none of the women who have told this story felt able to eat it for the first three days. All the women who worked in the kitchen attested to the fact that an SS woman from the dispensary presumably a nurse added some chemical substance to the soup which was to be given to the deportees. It gave the soup a bitter taste and caused a burning feeling in the mouth, the stomach and in the intestines Moreover, it caused itching in their stmachs and manifested itself in swellings and red patches, which looked like long and straight scratches.

Every other day a female SS doctor came to see the women in the barracks, had them undress (they did not wear any underwear) and checked the swellings and patches. All the inmates had the same symptoms, though not all at the same time. In the case of all women, however, the chemical immediately stopped menstruation.

Furthermore, almost all of the women had actual holes in their mouths and deep cracks on their tongues. In some cases the effects were so bad that they no longer wanted to eat and died of starvation. This was the case with all those women who already had holes had in their throats thus preventing them from swallowing.

Those women in whom swellings and patches had developed, were transferred to the-dispensary, where they had to undergo tests. All of them enjoyed going there, because then they did not have to work for a few days. Only then, after they had not eaten the soup with the powder added for ten weeks, did menstruation return, as was the case of two of the women who tell their story here; however, this was not the case with the two others, in spite of the fact that they were twenty and thirty years old respectively. These two women believe that the SS orderlies' attempt to sterilize them without having to operate was unsuccessful simply because they were at Auschwitz-Birkenau for only two and a half months, and moreover, because they intentionally ate as little of the soup as possible. They tried to stick to the raw potatoes they stole from the supply cars. Giovanna Hasson explained that she ate potato peels when she was released from the dispensary that was how hungry she was. The others did th same : they gulped own unwashed potato peels. It was precisely because many ate raw potatoes and unwashed peels that the most widespread disease in the camp was dysentery. Its effects were so bad that it could sometimes not be cured and resulted in death.

During the whole time the women were under arrest their hair was cut off once only. Only when they were full of lice were their bodies entirely shaved and disinfected once again. They received underwear only once, on their departure from Poland for Germany. They received no more underwear. The SS-doctor Blanka, who had been sent by the camp dispensary, accompanied the women on their 'pilgrimage'. He conducted the selection process outdoors. The women had to stand barefoot and without coats in snow and ice, the temperature several degress below zero. In this way he could discover whether or not the women were still strong enough. If they turned pale and passed out they were put on the transfer list. This also happened to the four women reporting here. They had already reached a state of complete exhaustion.

They were taken to 'camp 2' in Kaufering, Germany. There they stayed for six weeks. Their job consisted of shoveling snow into a shed, pushing carts loaded with dying people, doing the dishes in the kitchen, at times assisting the SS or cleaning the toilets. If they were assigned work outside the camp they had to walk eight kilometers each way. At four o' clock in the morning.

they were woken up, and at six o' clock at night they returned to the barracks.

'Camp 2' was a real inferno. There was no 'break' (i.e. an interruption from work to eat the additional piece ofbread which was sometimes distributed to those who worked). The barracks were disgusting, half underground and without bunk beds. The women slept on some long boards on the floor, on which some hay was spread out. The ceiling of the room was so low that they were unable to sit up. At the same time, dueto the steeply slanted roof, there was no more than 10 cm room for their feet. These were not barracks but dog kennels, and they were absolutely filthy. Nevertheless, the women managed to stay more or less clean and free of lice by trading their bread for soap from the men. ThiS is why the men looked bedraggled and were full of lice. Here too the roll calls were conducted out in the open. Not all commandos were entitled to soup at noon, and unfortunately it was precisely those who had to work the hardest who were excluded from the rations. This occured in both the worse and better ork commandos, at rndom and not for reasons of punishment. The inmates owned neither shoes nor coats nor clothes. Thus they tried to protect themselves from the cold with rags from blankets. Anyone who was not assigned to a work commando received soup only a day. It was thanks to particularly favorable circumstances that some work commandos received soup twice a day.

At noon and in the evening and, in addition, a slice of bread and marmelade or salami or something else.

From camp 2' the women were transferred to camp 8'. In order to get there they had to walk approximately twenty kilometers. When they arrived at the camp they found that it had been completely vacated, and for two days they had nothing to eat. The group consisted of approximately 800 newly arrived prisoners. The uniform stores were also absolutely empty, so that they could not even get blankets for the night. As of the third day in the camp everybody received half a liter of soup, and nobody had to work. They stayed there for 14 days, when they had to move to 'camp 7', where they stayed for approximately four months. It was the best place of all. Due to typhus the camp had been placed under quarantine and so they were spared the tortures of forced labor. Moreover, for the firSt time everybody in this camp received a full liter of soup.

After that they were taken to 'camp 11', a really terrible camp: they had to get up at four in the morning and march eighteen kilometers to Oberigling, where they had to clear away rubble.They received absolutely nothing to eat through the entire work-filled day. The bread ration (one eighth of a loaf of bread, or a quarter, if the bread showed signs of mold) with the usual margarine (as big as a small piece of chalk) or a little of the weird salami from the camp was distributed during work in the morning, at approximately ten or eleven o' clock.

All day long they received nothing else to eat, despite the fact that shoveling rubble was extremely hard work, especially for women. At night, when they returned, they were given soup. This 'starvation camp' was the most terrible of all, and the death toll was particularly high. Fortunately, they stayed for only ten days, because the American troops were approaching. For this reason the camp was vacated and set on fire.This was done in order to prevent evidence of the terrible events in these barracks from falling into the hand of the Americans.

The women, already ill, were transferred to , camp 1', otherS were taken to a different place; no trace of them was left behind. In , camp l' they stayed for a total of three days. Then they were loaded onto open freight cars. During the night-trip it rained and sleeted. Suddenly it seemed as though the train was in the vicinity of the approaching American troops. The SS troops left the train and fled. The train, however, remained on the tracks next to a munitions transport. Duringthe trip the train was bombed and shot at several times. In air raids five women were killed and many were injured. In the cars in which the men had been transported the number of deaths and injuries was considerably higher. When the train had stopped the hail continued, but the women were so weak that they felt they were neither able to open the train car door nor c1imb over the car's side wall. But the men helped them.

They told them that the train right next to theirs had been set on fire by fleeing SS personnel, both to prevent it from falling into the hands of the approaching troops, and to exterminate the deportees in this way. The women, who were terrified, threw themselves under the train cars and decided either to flee across the meadows to the woods or to hide in the nearby dairy. It was still night. While they fled they heard the noise of an explosion : the munitions train had blown up. They saw the brilliantly lit sky above Landsberg, which was on fire because of the air raids.

In order not to fall into the hands of the Germans again Sara Benatar suggested walking in the direction of the cannon fire. Judging from the noise of the explosion, the front could not be far away. But while they were heading towards the front they met Germans retreating on foot or in vehicles. The German soldiers began firing at the fugitives in order to push them back in the direction of the railroad. Many women and men who had followed Sara Benatar's advice, collapsed in the face of the Germans' firing.

The road was also covered with dead bodies. Some people had been killed during the air raids, others no longer had the strength to leave the train cars or to move away from the train.They were killed either in the explosion of the other train parked nearby or in the flames of the train cars. Others, who had thrown themselves under the train, died on the tracks. They were run over the moment the train began to move. Still others, who had been pushed back by the Germans, fell to the ground while attempting to c1imb back into the cars and no longer had the strength to stand up again.

Some of the stronger men managed to avoid recapture because they had been hiding in the woods behind trees and bushes.

When some of the deportees had just gotten back into the car, the train was set in motion and crushed those who had dropped to the ground, because they could not hold on tightly enough, and those who had been left lying on the tracks.

The few surviving women reached Dachau on 28 April 1945.They were the firstdeported women to set foot in this camp for men. The next day, 29 April 1945, at five o' clock in the evening, the camp was liberated by American troops.

The Greek island of Rhodes, since 1921 de facto and since 1923 de jure part ofthe Italian Confederation of States, was the home of approximately 2.000 Jews. They were unmolested as long as Rhodes was under Italian rule. After the overthrow of Mussolini, however, the island was occupied by Germany in September 1943, and in July 1944 two SS officers arrived - together with the German commander of the East Aegean Islands, . lieutenant General Kleemann - in order to make arrangements for the deportation of the jews of Rhodes. Unrest among members of the German 'Wehrmacht' was suppressed on the General's order, which stated that the 'Jewish question' could not by any stretch ofthe imagination bejudged by the limited horizon ofa soldier. 'ln the interest ofthe measures initiated' any further discussion was to be refrained from (Nuremberg document NOKW 1801).

The death toll of Greek Jews and especially of those deported from the islands was extremely high. Not only did they suffer particularly from the climate, they also encountered greater difficulties with the language at Auschwitz than most other groups.

The fact that the Greek Jews were in bad condition upon their arrival (the percentage of those who were abletO work upon arrival at Auschwitz averaged only 1570) was later also confirmed by Rudolf Hoess (see 'Kommandant in Auschwitz, Autobiographische Aufzeichnungen von Rudolf HOB', with an introduction and comment by Martin Broszat, Stuttgart 1958, p. 159).

 

* text published in the Dachau Review and given to us br Dr Alan Goldschläger, Univeristy of Western Ontario

 

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