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BORN IN AUSCHWITZ: A woman’s miraculous birth in the death camp of Auschwitz

A woman’s miraculous birth in the death camp of Auschwitz.



Honor thy mother. That’s the motto Angela Polgar has tried to live by all her life – a life that began in a death camp. The place was Auschwitz-Birkenau, in southern Poland. Her parents, Hungarian Jews, arrived there on a Nazi transport on May 25, 1944.

Polgar’s mother, Vera Bein, nee Otvos, was 25 years old at the time and almost two months pregnant.

On the infamous railway platform where “selections” were made, Bein, as Polgar respectfully calls her, was not sent to the gas chambers. Instead, she was assigned to a variety of gruelling work details before becoming a guinea pig for sterilization experiments by a camp doctor.

By the horrific standards of the Holocaust, it’s an ordinary story, perhaps – except for one thing. The patient survived, and so did her child.
On Dec. 21 Bein felt labour pains. She climbed to the top bunk in her barrack, and there, aided by two other inmates, gave birth in secret to a baby girl.

The infant was tiny, weighing only one kilogram; she was too weak to cry but strong enough to drink the meagre offering from her mother’s breast, and somehow survived the next few weeks in hiding.

The only other infant survivor, according to Auschwitz museum records, was a Hungarian boy, Gyorgy Faludi, born the day of liberation with the help of a Russian doctor.

Soviet Red Army troops liberated the camp on Jan. 27, 1945. Baby and mother were among the survivors, and they were an unusual sight – indeed, almost unique.

The only other infant survivor, according to Auschwitz museum records, was a Hungarian boy, Gyorgy Faludi, born the day of liberation with the help of a Russian doctor.

Angela Polgar has decided now is the right time to tell Canadians her family’s remarkable story.

She isn’t doing it to shine light on herself; she even refuses to have her picture taken, for fear people would accuse her of self-aggrandizement.

Rather, she wants to honor her mother, a woman who never liked to talk about her experience because she thought it would be a burden to her daughter.

“She was a very, very special lady,” said Polgar, a former clothing store owner who lives in Montreal with her husband, Joseph.

“My mother felt so terrible for all the people who had lost their children. They lost their babies, and she brought one back,” Polgar said.

“And at the same time she didn’t want me to have the memories she had. So she didn’t talk about it.”

Telling it now is a release – and a duty. “It has nothing to do with me, this story. She did it. She’s the one who went through all this.”

And so Angela Polgar begins her story.

That both mother and daughter survived at all is a miracle in itself. About 1.1 million people, mostly Jews, were exterminated at Auschwitz between the start of the organized killing in March 1942 and its end in November 1944. The death machine was at its busiest the summer that Polgar’s parents and other Hungarian Jews arrived en masse to be liquidated – more than 132,000 a month, according to Canadian scholar Robert Jan van Pelt’s exhaustive study, Auschwitz: 1270 to the Present.

“By the end of June, in just two months, half of Hungary’s Jewry – 381,661 souls – had arrived at Auschwitz,” van Pelt wrote in the 1996 book he co-authored with U.S. scholar Deborah Dwork. “At no other time was Auschwitz more efficient as a killing center.”

They quote one survivor, Alexander Ehrmann, who arrived at Birkenau at night and was aghast at what he saw and heard – especially the piles of burning bracken and rubble he saw and smelled through the barbed wire.

From the pyres came the sounds of children. “I heard a baby crying. The baby was crying somewhere in the distance and I couldn’t stop and look. We moved, and it smelled, a horrible stench. I knew that things in the fire were moving; there were babies in the fire.”

At selection on the platform, most visibly pregnant women were sent to die; so were babies, children, the obviously sick and the elderly. Others were spared for use as slave labour or fodder for medical experimentation.

Some of the inmates in Camp C, Auschwitz’s barrack for Hungarian Jewish women and girls, were able to bring their pregnancies to term, but their babies were almost invariably taken from them right after and killed – “mercifully” strangled to death by Jewish inmate doctors forced to work for the Nazis.

Most pregnancies never got that far; the usual clandestine practice was to abort fetuses before they could be born – a life-saving measure for the mother, who was an easy target for liquidation if her pregnancy became too obvious.

One of the Jewish physicians who routinely performed this “service” at Auschwitz, a Hungarian gynecologist named Gisella Perl, described that and worse in her 1948 memoir I Was a Doctor in Auschwitz.

Walking by one of the crematoriums one day, she witnessed what happened to one group of women who, promised better treatment, had revealed to their Nazi overlords that they were pregnant. “They were surrounded by a group of SS men and women, who amused themselves by giving these helpless creatures a taste of hell, after which death was a welcome friend,” Perl recalled in her book.

“They were beaten with clubs and whips, torn by dogs, dragged around by their hair and kicked in the stomach with heavy German boots. Then, when they collapsed, they were thrown into the crematory – alive.”

Vera Bein escaped that fate. For the longest while, she kept her pregnancy secret, and was lucky her delivery came within weeks of liberation by the Soviets, unannounced, and not “helped” by any camp doctor.

Her survival – and that of her daughter – is a footnote of the Holocaust, but an important one.

“This does seem to be an unusual story,” said Estee Yaari, foreign media liaison for the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. “Although there are others,” she said, including one survivor born in Buchenwald in 1944, “it is a rather rare occurrence.”

Surviving Auschwitz was one thing. Little “Angi”, as her mother called her, was also lucky to have survived the war’s chaotic aftermath, overcoming a bad start


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