by Felicity Chang (Class of 2023)
This is part of a series of articles written by journalism students from Pine View School in Osprey, Fla., based on in-depth interviews the students conducted with Holocaust survivors.
Clutching her mother’s hand, a little girl — six and a half years old — watched as a woman cried in the bathroom. Although, the row of outdoor toilets, with no doors, no privacy, no way to flush, as it was practically an open ditch, could hardly be called a bathroom. “Why are you crying?” her mother asked. “I looked down, and my glasses fell into the toilet,” the woman answered. That moment stuck with the little girl, Rifka Glatz, as she realized just how difficult life would be for the woman who lost her only means of sight at Bergen-Belsen, a Nazi concentration camp.
Rifka was too young to truly think about it, to comprehend the concept of life or death, but she knew that she and her family were in a dangerous situation. She knew it as she stared at the crying woman, and she knew it back in their modest apartment in Kolozsvár, Hungary — modern-day Cluj-Napoca, Romania. After Germany invaded Poland in 1939, igniting the onset of World War II, the Nazi regime would begin to systemically segregate European Jews from their communities. At the age of five, Rifka’s mother would not let her leave the door without wearing a yellow star.
“We were not ashamed to be Jewish, but that was a hateful symbol to put on us, so that everybody who sees you in the street, if they don’t like you, they can spit on you. They can curse you. They can kick you,” Rifka said.
During the onset of World War II in Europe, many Jewish men lost their jobs, including Rifka’s father. With his older brother’s guidance, he brought his family to Kolozsvár, seeking a job and financial stability. Simultaneously, men in their forties and fifties were taken to forced labor camps in Germany, and Rifka’s father never returned from the camps. In 1944, Nazi Germany invaded Hungary, and restrictive laws encompassing all aspects of everyday life descended on Jewish residents. From doctors to lawyers to teachers, they were not allowed to be in various professions, solely due to their religion, which was perceived by the Nazis to be an inferior race.
Despite the circumstances, in her modest Kolozsvár home, Rifka had a “happy family, a very loving, happy family.” However, that happiness was short-lived. In the summer of 1944, her mother, who was — according to Rifka — a smart woman, knew instinctively that the Nazis would come for her family. Her mother instructed Rifka’s brother, who was around 13 years old at the time, to dress his younger sister in layered clothing, regardless of the scorching summer heat. She also packed a knapsack with the bare essentials, including nonperishable food and a winter coat, so her children would be less likely to starve or freeze to death.
Without Rifka’s knowledge, her mother also retrieved the scroll from the mezuzah case affixed to their doorpost. Upon the parchment scroll were Hebrew words of the Shema, or a daily declaration of faith, reminding those in the home of their connection to God. Her mother sewed the parchment into the lining of her own jacket — it was undiscovered by Nazi soldiers and, much later, given to Rifka as a gift on her wedding day.
“I was so touched, and I thought to myself, ‘How could she even think about it?’ Here she is with two children. She worries about us. She worries about her husband who hasn’t returned from forced labor camp,” Rifka said. “She doesn’t know what’s happening with him — she doesn’t know what will happen to us, and she is thinking of something like this. That’s real faith.”
Years later, Rifka would put the scroll in a new mezuzah case and hang it in her living room, in the fear that somebody might knock it off the front door. When her daughter was married, she transferred the mezuzah over, resituated in a new case from Israel. “This is a family inheritance that is very precious and very important,” Rifka said.
Aside from the mezuzah scroll, her mother also saved several stamp-sized photos of her family — memories of Rifka’s grandfather, aunt, father, brother and Rifka herself, with two braids framing her smiling face. Not long after these photos, along with several essential items like pillows and blankets, were packed away, Nazi soldiers knocked on the door. Rifka and her brother were at home, and their mother was coming back from the grocery store.
“I followed my mother. They took us out of the house, and I will never forget it. You see that door there?” Rifka said, pointing at the exit-door behind us. “They took a piece of wood this thick, and at an angle,” she said, as she gestured with her arms stretched in front of her, “They nailed the door shut … [In my mind], they said, ‘This was yours, but now it’s ours.’ ”
Bundled in layers of warm clothing, Rifka was shuffled onto a truck with her mother and brother. The truck arrived in a Kolozsvár brickyard factory — the bricks were stacked on a table to dry, with all four walls open to the outside air, and there, Rifka and her family stayed for several weeks. On a day that seemed like any other, yet proved to be anything but, they were brought to Budapest and shoved into a cattle car, or train wagon typically used to transport livestock. The cattle cars — used by Nazi Germany to transport large groups of Jewish people, regardless of age — each had a single window and not much else. There were no seats and no bathroom, as a bucket was used instead. People took off their jackets and shielded themselves the best they could. “It was horrendous. A lot of people cried. I was just taking it all in as a child,” Rifka said.
The cattle cars eventually arrived in Bergen-Belsen, a concentration camp in northwest Germany. When Rifka and her family got off the cattle cars and went through the gate to the camp, her mother wrapped her in a blanket and held her like a baby.
“They asked her, ‘Is the child sick?’ and she said, ‘No, the child is sleeping,’ and they let me through. She was afraid of them taking me away from her, but I stayed with her all along,” Rifka said.
According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Bergen-Belsen was built in 1940 as a prisoner-of-war camp for French and Belgium prisoners. It was converted into a concentration camp in 1943, serving mainly as a holding camp for Jewish prisoners. Every day, those held in the camp had to stand in a row. Nazi soldiers walked around with German shepherds at their heels and large rifles on their shoulders, counting each and every person, regardless of rain or snow. Rifka and her mother were separated from her older brother, who was 14 and old enough to stay in the men’s section, behind a vast barbed wire fence. Many of the young men were taken to forced labor camps, and they would not make it out alive.
“I was a young child. I wasn’t even seven years old,” Rifka said. “I looked at my mother, and if my mother smiled, I smiled. If my mother cried, I cried.”
While Bergen-Belsen had no gas chambers, the Jewish Virtual Library estimates that 50,000 people died of starvation, overwork, disease, brutality and sadistic medical experiments. Among those deceased were Jewish diarist Anne Frank and her sister, Margot.
“If I could have a conversation with [Anne Frank], I would say that I’m so sad of what has happened to her and to her family. Only her father survived. They were such a wonderful family. There was no reason to kill them,” Rifka said. “She left a big impression on the world, and her diary is really important to me. She was a remarkable young lady.”
In July 1944, under Hungarian-Israeli journalist Rezső Kasztner’s negotiations with Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann, an estimated 1,684 Hungarian Jews were allowed to immigrate to Switzerland, in exchange for imprisoned German nationals. By chance, Rifka and her family were amongst the 1,684 — “we were welcomed back to humanity,” she said. They arrived at a large vacant hotel and were greeted and fed by the Red Cross. Along with other children, Rifka was taken to the mountains for recuperation and education. “What did we learn? Nobody can remember,” she said. “We were so preoccupied with our existence.”
I asked Rifka if she’s ever thought about what would’ve happened if she wasn’t part of the 1,684 Hungarian Jews, and she said, “You most likely would not be talking to me. I would have been annihilated because Hungary had 800,000 Jews. They entered Hungary, within two months, they put people on a train and took them to Auschwitz Birkenau, into the gas chambers, and burned their bodies. They were piled up on top of each other or thrown into the ditch. It’s hard to believe, out of the six million people, there were one and a half million children. Tell me what animal has the heart to kill that many children.”
To put “six million Jews killed” into perspective, Rifka folded her hands in her lap and asked me to help her take out a book from her bag. It was a hefty volume, around seven pounds, with 1,250 pages, each page containing 4,800 instances of the same word: “Jew.” The cover has no title, only an image of a Jewish prayer shawl, at times used to wrap bodies for burial. The word “Jew,” printed in 5.5-point font, small enough to be covered with a single fingertip, represented a person with a conscience, with a vibrant, multi-faceted life, with family members that cared for them, with talents and aspirations waiting to be fulfilled.
After seeking refuge in Switzerland for nearly a year, the British allowed the Jews there to enter a section of Palestine now known as Israel. The children, including Rifka and her brother, were sent to kibbutz, or communal Israeli settlements. She was separated from her mother and brother, who were at different establishments, and stayed with a Polish widower and his daughter. When her mother married a survivor, who lost his wife and two daughters, Rifka was brought to their apartment in Haifa, a port city in Israel.
“In Israel, we learned to love. We’re never taught to hate in schools, or in youth organizations,” Rifka said. “They always taught us to be respectful. They always taught us to be kind.”
After elementary school, which went up to grade 8 in Israel, Rifka attended a vocational high school and studied children’s clothing design. She became an arts and crafts teacher after completing her seminary studies, and she would eventually use her skills to open a girls’ clothing store named “Design Patch.” At the time, however, Rifka did not anticipate ever moving to the U.S.
“[My future husband] told me that he’s going to America, and in a year’s time, he will come back for me, and I said, ‘That’s nice. I’ll go out to the ship. I’ll give you a kiss goodbye. And that night, I’m going out with somebody else because I’m young. I’m not sitting and waiting a year at home. I’m going to the army. I’ll meet so many people. There is no way I’m sitting at home for you,’” she said.
Rifka’s plan did not come to fruition, as she married her husband in 1957 and immigrated to New York the year after.
“I thank God, I have a beautiful family. I have two kids: a son and a daughter,” she said. “My brother is the grandfather to 16 grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren and another one on the way … He has the treasure of having a very large family.”
When asked about the significance of sharing her life experiences, Rifka said, “I feel a great obligation to tell my story — not because I love my story, but because people have to understand and learn from me to never, ever let this happen again. We need to educate the children. We need to educate the children to love, not to hate. We need to educate the children to be tolerant. Everybody has to live their lives the way they see fit, but we can’t live with hatred … I am 84 years old now. I was six and half years old when this happened to me, and it has never been forgotten. Never. I forget when somebody tells me their name — the next minute, I already forgot their name, but this, I cannot forget.”