Auschwitz burned inside my body and soul, says inmate who was two at liberation

Eva Umlauf said there was an emptiness growing up after Auschwitz.

Auschwitz burned inside my body and soul, says inmate who was two at liberation

A woman who was one of the youngest prisoners to be freed from Auschwitz has spoken about how her early childhood in the Nazi death camp was to cast a dark shadow over her entire life.

Eva Umlauf was two years old when Auschwitz was freed by the Soviet Red Army, and although she has no conscious memories stretching so far back, she said “Auschwitz is deeply burned inside my body and soul”.

A petite woman with a pageboy haircut and eyes as blue as the camp tattoo on her arm, the 77-year-old doctor reminisced about her post-war childhood.

“There was an emptiness growing up after Auschwitz, so many of our family members were gone,” she said on a January day almost 75 years after Auschwitz was liberated.

Germany Auschwitz Survivor
Eva Umlauf now lives in Munich, Germany (Matthias Schrader/AP)

“We saw my father for the last time at the ramp at Auschwitz when we were taken off the train.”

It is a miracle that Ms Umlauf survived the death camp.

More than 1.1 million people, mostly Jews, were murdered there by the Nazis and their henchmen.

In all, about six million European Jews died during the Holocaust.

When families from across Europe reached Auschwitz in cramped windowless cattle trains, the Nazis selected those whom they could still use as forced labourers.

The others, old people, many women and especially children and babies, were gassed to death soon after arrival.

But the gassing stopped two or three days before little Eva, her pregnant mother and father arrived in November 1944 from the labour camp Novaky in Slovakia.

Germany was losing the Second World War and the Red Army was drawing ever closer to the camp.

“Our transport was the first one that didn’t go straight to the gas,” Ms Umlauf said.

She was still tattooed on arrival — and promptly fainted. The blue number on the inside of her lower left arm remains visible today: A-26959.

The trained paediatrician and psychotherapist still works in her own practice a few times per week.

While many other remaining Auschwitz survivors are frail and ailing, Ms Umlauf is energetic and active even though she has also suffered several severe illnesses — likely effects of her months in Auschwitz.

Germany Auschwitz Survivor
Eva Umlauf (Matthias Schrader/AP)

A fellow prisoner and paediatrician who looked after her at the hospital ward, told Ms Umlauf’s mother Agnes Hecht: “Forget your child, she won’t survive.”

But Ms Hecht, who had lost her entire family in the Holocaust, was unwilling to give up on her daughter.

She stayed on at Auschwitz for several weeks after liberation because Eva was too weak to even walk.

She also gave birth to Eva’s younger sister Leonore there, and finally, one summer day in 1945 when Eva was a bit healthier, she took the two little girls back to her home in Trencin, western Slovakia.

“We lived a seemingly normal life,” Ms Umlauf remembered as she looked through old black-and-white family photos that are the only tangible reminders of those missing.

Auschwitz Portraits of Survivors
Survivor Eva Umlauf shows her tattoed arm (Mattias Schrader/AP)

Nevertheless, the loss was unmistakable.

When other children went to visit their grandparents during summer vacations, Eva and her sister stayed at home with their mother as they did not have any grandparents.

When a young Christian mother in Trencin died in childbirth, Ms Umlauf’s mother stood on the curb watching the funeral procession and muttered: “They should also know what it’s like when you lose somebody, I’m glad they also get to experience what that’s like.”

And once the mother told her daughters: “I’d give an entire closet if only one of my relatives would come back.”

Agnes Hecht had been born into an affluent Jewish-Slovakian family, but their fortune was lost in the war and she was very poor.

For her, a closet was her most precious possession.

Despite growing up in poverty and often falling ill, Ms Umlauf did well at school and was able to study medicine at university in Bratislava.

In 1967, she moved to Germany to join her husband, a Polish Holocaust survivor who had settled in Munich.

At that time, the memories of Auschwitz were mostly subdued by daily routine — building a home, raising her children and working in the hospital.

But off and on the horror would force its way to the surface.

When Ms Umlauf was pregnant with her third child, she had nightmares of babies being thrown into fire alive and gas chambers full of dead babies.

Still, it was only after her three boys had grown up and she had semi-retired that she finally turned her full attention to the silenced past.

Ms Umlauf travelled to archives across Europe and Israel to seek glimpses of the fates of the family members she was never able to meet.

In the end, she wrote her autobiography, which includes stories about relatives who perished in the Shoah.

It was published in 2016 in Germany under the title The Number On Your Lower Arm Is As Blue As Your Eyes — a line from a poem a fellow survivor and friend wrote about her.

“There are a lot of dead I have to live with,” she said. “It made me fall terribly ill when I was writing.”

However, the project also brought closure.

“The book was healing, not just for me but for my entire family,” she said.

As Holocaust survivors from around the world prepare to travel back to Auschwitz for Monday’s commemorations of the camp’s liberation, Ms Umlauf has decided to also return for one last visit, together with her three adult sons.

“You can feel the emptiness there,” she said.

“You feel the dead. You feel the burned earth. You feel that something atrocious has happened there.”

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