Radom (Poland), Pionki, Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Hindenburg, Bergen-Belsen
Salinger was born in Radom, Poland, to Orthodox Jewish parents. She had an older sister and a younger brother and her father owned a shoe factory. The family lived in an apartment building in the center of the city in an area which was predominately occupied by Polish Gentiles. Salinger states that her family had a good relationship with the non-Jewish neighbors. Radom had a total population of about 130,000 people of which 33,000 were Jewish. Salinger attended a Catholic high school and graduated in 1939. In high school she learned German and typing which later on became important for her survival. She does not recall any eminent anti-Semitism during her childhood although she states that pre-war Poland was an anti-Semitic country. During her youth, Salinger joined a Zionist youth group which became like a second family to her.
In November, 1938, the family learned of anti-Jewish riots taking place in Germany, the “Kristallnacht.” Salinger mentions that the family had the opportunity to immigrate to Palestine via Romania, but her father did not want to leave his home and his factory.
In September, 1939, Germany attacked Poland and after a few weeks the Polish army was forced to surrender. The Nazis confiscated Salinger’s father’s factory and their apartment and the family was given thirty minutes to pack their belongings. They were forced to move into the ghetto which the Nazis had erected for the Jews in Radom. Food was a scarce commodity in the ghetto but some of their neighbors from the apartment building smuggled food into the ghetto for Salinger’s family.
During the day most of the ghetto’s inmates were taken for work to sites outside of the ghetto. Because Salinger was fluent in German and an excellent typist, she worked together with about thirty other girls in an office of the German army. Salinger states that the German officer in charge of the girls, Mr. Baecker, (Salinger is not sure about the spelling), was a wonderful man who helped them whenever he could. One day Salinger showed him false papers that she received from a friend and that declared her as a Christian. Instead of reporting her to the Nazis, Mr. Baecker advised her to leave Radom using these papers and to move to a remote village where she could find work and shelter. Salinger decided to stay because she did not want to leave her family behind. Salinger tells of another incident when Mr. Baecker ordered the girls to stay overnight at the work site. He locked them in and guarded the room. This particular night many Jews were deported from the ghetto to Treblinka, the extermination camp, where they were killed. Among those were Salinger’s mother and her younger brother. Mr. Baecker probably saved the girls from deportation.
A few weeks later, Mr. Baecker sent the girls to work on a huge farm in a little village because he believed they would be safe there. On this farm Salinger met a boy she knew. This boy had escaped the train that took thousands of ghetto inmates from Radom to Treblinka. He told Salinger that all deportees, including her mother and her brother, were gassed. Salinger did not believe him and was convinced he was crazy. She did not tell anybody about this incident.
After a while Mr. Baecker sent the same group of girls to the Pionki labor camp that served an ammunition factory. There Salinger worked in the office of the administration of the labor camp. Salinger was able to arrange a transfer for her father from the ghetto in Radom to this camp. Salinger states that the living conditions for her were tolerable, but many prisoners who were not able to perform hard labor anymore were killed. She was afraid that her father was not fit for hard work and thus, she took her chances and asked the head of the camp, Obersturmbannfuehrer Brandt, to give her father an easier assignment in the factory. None of the prisoners could believe it but this attempt was successful.
After a year and a half, the ammunition factory was closed down because the Russian army was approaching. The camp was evacuated and many inmates, among them Salinger and her sister who were shipped on cattlecars via the Theresienstadt ghetto to the Auschwitz concentration camp. The journey took place without food, water or sanitary conditions. Salinger states that while being locked into this train she felt she would not survive the war.
Arriving in Auschwitz women and men were separated. All new prisoners had to take their clothes off and had an identification number tatooed on their arms. Salinger says that she felt ashamed and inhuman especially after her head was shaved. Sinking into despair, she started running towards the electrical fence that surrounded the camp but some of her friends hindered her from committing suicide.
After five or six days, a selection took place and Salinger was separated from her sister and sent to work in a factory in Hindenburg. Since Salinger was already experienced in office work, she became the private secretary of a purchasing agent. Sometimes her German boss gave her a sandwich by throwing it into the garbage bin and exiting the office. Salinger recalls that she felt guilty because she worked in a warm office during the winter months while other prisoners had to unload trains in the cold. She describes the conditions in Hindenburg as survivable and, because most prisoners were in contact with German co-workers, they received clean prison uniforms all the time and had the possibility to wash themselves.
As the Russian army was approaching, the Nazis liquidated the camp and shipped all prisoners on cattlecars to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. There prisoners were dying by the thousands due to the horrible conditions in the camp. Salinger worked in the camp’s kitchen peeling potatoes and was able to survive by eating potato skins. One morning, Salinger realized that the watchtowers surrounding the camp were empty and that the German soldiers had left. Soon after, the camp was liberated by the British army. By this time Salinger was very sick. She was taken to a hospital run by the British army. Two months later, recovered, she left the hospital and began to search for family members. She found out that her father was shot in Pionki two months before liberation and that her mother and brother were gassed in Auschwitz.
During her time in Germany, Salinger met her future husband, an Jewish American soldier. They were married in Bad Nauheim, Germany. There she also found her sister who had also survived the Holocaust. In 1946, Salinger, her husband, and her sister came to the United States.
Date: August 1, 2000
Interviewer: Donna Sklar
Length: 2 hours 18 minutes
Format: Video recording