The waitress at the beer garden in Munich where Theresa and I have just had lunch clears her plate with a baffled expression and mutters in German under her breath. Luckily, my brother Ludwig is happy to translate for the etiquette breeching foreigners. Apparently, Theresa has sweet mustard on her plate (which she was dipping her pretzel in) too close to her main course of the salad and goat cheese and the cheese and mustard had mixed together on the plate.
“Mustard and Cheese – THAT’s a first.” The waitress had observed in German before moving away to assist more Bavarian oriented customers.
Theresa and I had been enjoying a few days off from the steady stream of concentration camps and meetings. As of yesterday, we had driven over 2000 kilometers through Poland, Germany a
nd Austria aided by a temperamental GPS who seems incapable of guiding us to any hotel that does not involve obscure one way side streets and construction obstacles. In Dresden, Munich and Vienna, we had taken to simply parking the car and taking a taxi to avoid both the “Recalculating” and the swearing.
Our days as a tourist in Dresden and Munich come to an end with our arrival at Dachau and it is back to business as usual, if one can call spending time immersed in the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust business as usual. More than one friend has sent me an email saying “Have a good day at Auschwitz!” and then immediately realized the contradiction this work brings. We have a good day at Dachau though there are less historical sites intact than I originally thought, so our photography is limited to a few key areas. Since I spent a week here researching just two months ago, we focus entirely on the outdoor barracks and prison areas. At Dachau, the SS manage to combine cruelty and efficiency as evidenced by a sign in the crematorium, which hosts four large brick ovens.
“Hangings were conducted in this room from the beams in front of the ovens.”
That says it all.
Early Wednesday, after saying goodbye to my brother Ludwig and sister in law Anna, who spoiled us for our two days in Munich, Theresa and I set off on the last leg of the journey – Austria. First stop, Vienna. It is a long drive with an emotional evening ahead. I will be interviewing Ceija Stojka, a Roma (Gypsy) Holocaust survivor. To break up the over 4-hour drive, Theresa and I stop in Saltzburg for some Viennese pastries and schnapps. Apparently, my tasting schnapps at 11am in the oldest schnapps shop in the city is all it takes to finally break the local ice and one of the old men in there (and they started WELL before 11am) actually chats Theresa’s ear off, much to her delight. The old guy next to me doesn’t speak, but he gives me approving looks and smiles each time I sip a sample of the local brew.
We hit the road again. Theresa is happy because she got her apple strudel and I am happy because, well, I was drinking schnapps at 11am. Needless to say, Theresa is driving. We arrive in Vienna and congratulate ourselves on having an hour and a half before we are due to meet Ceija. Then our bitchy GPS takes us on a tour through the underside of every crane within 15 kilometers and a few round-abouts blocked with backhoes and horse drawn carriages. I am mindful of our time ticking away as we attempt to find parking. Our hotel is nicely situat
ed in the middle of the cobblestone square and the nearest parking is a couple blocks away. Now we are running, with our luggage, through the square and into the hotel, which boasts a rickety wood elevator operating on what appears to be an old belt system from 1940. Fantastic. We crammed in with our staircases and another man and it creaks its way slowly to the 4th floor. Theresa and I throw everything into the room, rip into our luggage and change as fast as possible. We grab our gear and hustle out the door to grab a cab. I try not to breathe on the way over to Ceija’s because the cab driver smells like HE has been drinking schnapps.
We get there with 10 minutes to spare and are met outside by Dr. Reiner Steinweg, a researcher for the Lintz Study Center For Peace. He is a friend of Ceija’s I met during my research and he has graciously agreed to act as translator for our interview. We head upstairs and I am filled with anticipation. The plight of the Roma and Sinti people strikes a personal chord with me and I am looking forward to meeting Ceija and hearing her story. A little dog greets us on the top of the 4th floor stairs and joyfully scampers in front of us showing the way. I enter the cozy apartment first and am greeted by Ceija, a tiny Roma woman in her late 70’s. Her face bears witness to both the sorrows and joys her life has seen. It also bears surprise. She thought I was going to be a guy. We’ve been exchanging emails and Heather is not a name common to the Romania people. She laughs and grasps my hands, chatting in German. We follow her into the main room stuffed with years of living. The walls are adorned with her paintings. Ceija started painting in 1989 with no formal training. But the images of both horror and beauty locked inside her could no longer be contained. She has become an artist of some renown with exhibits both in Europe and the United States. Her powerful images of life in the concentration camps leave one deeply moved. The recognition as an artist has not brought financial security however and Ceija lives a frugal life. I am drawn to one joyful painting of people in celebration dancing. She tells me it is a painting of the joy of the liberation from Bergin Belsen, the last camp she was held at.
She has prepared a traditional Roma meal for us. A spicy stewed beef and dumplings in a thin tomato sauce topped with soft-boiled egg slices and spicy pickles. Preparing food is both a tradition and a comfort for her and we are honored to be her guests. She tells me she is thankful that I want to tell her story and by extension, the stories of what happened to the Roma and Sinti people during the holocaust. But first, it is time to listen. Ceija steels herself with a cigarette and a quick kiss and embrace of her beloved dog. Then she settles in on the sofa and begins her story. For nearly four hours, Theresa and I are transfixed. I cannot possibly do justice to everything she said, but I want to share with you the some of the journey of a young gypsy girl and the strength of her mother as together they survived four concentration camps:
Ceija was 9 years old when the arrests of Roma first began. Her father moved her family to Vienna where a benevolent family helped to hide them. But her father was caught and arrested for being “work shy”, one of the reasons the SS gave for targeting Roma and Sinti. He was sent to Dachau and died there less than a year later. Shortly after his death, Ceija, her mother, her two sisters and her two brothers were all arrested and stuffed into a train bound for Auschwitz.
“The dead were stacked up in the corners and against the doors. For endless days, we stood. No food, no water. All the babies and pregnant women were dying.”
Ceija’s mother had sewn tiny bits of bread into the hem of her skirts in case of emergency. She was wearing 5 skirts on the journey, everything that she owned. They arrived at Auschwitz on a rainy afternoon.
“The door opened and the wall of dead and pregnant women fell out. People were trying to catch the rain drops in their mouth and were shot by the SS for not falling into line.”
Ceija’s mother saw that the younger children, the weak and elderly were being separated and taken away. She had trained Ceija and her younger brother to hide by walking under her skirts. They entered Auschwitz that way and her mother got her entire family to a work barracks rather than a gas chamber. Upon entering the barracks, everyone was tattooed. Ten-year-old Ceija received her Z and her number to mark her as a gypsy across her left forearm. Her mother lied and told the SS she was small for her age and was 16. They family worked the quarry. They grew weak from starvation and daily beatings. Her younger brother died of Typhus. One day, trucks arrived because fresh workers were needed at Ravensbruck concentration camp. Ceija, her mother and one of her sisters were taken and her two brothers and remaining sister were left behind. Another woman in their barracks was chosen to go to Ravensbruck, which was an all women’s camp, but she had a young son Ceija’s age.
“He was very beautiful in the face, so my mama and other woman disguised him as a girl, for years, they kept up this disguise.”
At Ravensbruck, winter set in. The women and girls were all without shoes or coats. The female guards were sadistic. Several had large, vicious dogs. At roll call in the morning, they would have the dogs randomly attack and kill prisoners. One guard in particular stood out for Ceija.
“Her name was Binz. She had a large dog she would have attack and kill. No warning. One day we were hanging sheets frozen in the cold and an old woman tripped. Binz stomped her head as she lay on the ground until her brains came out.”
Binz found out Ceija’s mother had been lying about Ceija’s age and planned to torture her by submerging her in icy water and leaving her outside. Another prisoner came running to the barracks to warn them. A truck from Bergin Belsen had arrived to transfer new workers. Ceija, her mother and sister raced for the trucks in a desperate attempt to escape Binz. Her sister reached the 1st truck and was taken away. They did not know where. Ceija and her mother got on the 2nd truck and were brought to the woods outside Bergin Belsen. Ceija was in despair at the separation from the last of her siblings. The SS guards forced them to walk 2 days through the woods to the Bergin Belsen camp. Ceija took a deep breath.
“It was here that the real misery began…”
“We finally arrived at the camp. There were two huge piles of dead bodies still warm. They had not been dead long. I touched them and felt their warmth. I asked their forgiveness and buried myself in the bodies to try and stay warm.”
11-year-old Ceija and the boy disguised as the girl spent the night buried together in the warmth of the newly deceased corpses. At Bergin, the prisoners were worked to death every day. Ceija’s mother kept them alive by having them eat dirt, little shoots of grass and leather belts from dead bodies. Other prisoners ate the dead, but little Ceija begged her mother to not ever make her eat the dead. They were her friends and those she did not know, she named with the names of her lost relatives. She would sneak to the dead body pile to close people’s eyes and mouths out of respect.
One day, an Allied plane flew overhead and dropped flyers. No one dared pick them up but a Russian woman who was forced to service the SS snuck one out of their headquarters hidden in her mouth. It said:
“We are coming. Try to survive.”
Ceija took a deep breath.
“Then, Binz arrived transferred from Ravensbruck…”
Ceija and her mother were sure they were dead with the arrival of this evil woman. One day, Ceija went to the pile of dead people to shut the eyes of a friend who had died.
“As I stood there, there was a loud BANG! The wall nearby me blew down. There were tanks. A young man stood there in an unfamiliar uniform. He came to me and said: I am your liberator!” The Austrian and British troops had arrived.
Ceija stopped to draw her hand across her neck.
“Binz was hung after the Nuremburg trials. It would have been better to leave her alive and forced to watch forever films that showed what she did to us.”
Freed from Bergin Belsen, Ceija’s mother rustled up a wheelbarrow, some blankets and food and wheeled Ceija 700 miles from Bergin to Linz, hoping to find any surviving children who might make their way there. For the Roma, Linz was a place once a year that extended family would come from all over. If there was a chance to find them, this was the best. And a miracle – nearly a year after being released, all five siblings found their way back and were reunited together with her mother. But they were Roma and poor and had no place to go but the streets once again. Ceija made little trinkets to sell. Nine years later, she had saved up enough to buy a small place to live. In 1989, a young Asian student asked her for something to remember her by after she had spoken to his class and she decided to paint a picture.
Today her art is a reflection of her past and present. Her hope and her despair. Her love for her mother and family and the nightmares she cannot shake.
I sit in my hotel with the painting of her mother, her sister and her two brothers dancing. She has put it in my hands with many kisses and a blessing.