Read the Inspiring Story of Rene Salt this International Women's Day07 Mar 2017
I was born in Poland on 8 August 1929 and lived, as part of a large, well-known, extended family, with my parents and younger sister. My father was a chief accountant and we enjoyed a comfortable, Orthodox lifestyle. I attended a Jewish school and had two sets of grandparents, with whom we spent our holidays.
The news of an imminent war came as we broke up for the summer vacation in 1939. My mother started storing food and coal. On 1st September the German army marched into Poland. Within 3 weeks, they had taken the whole country and immediately began a deliberate and escalating campaign to harass, humiliate and harm Jewish people. On the first day we were forced from our home and our possessions were sent to the families of the German army.
The family was split up and I was sent to my grandparents in Kalish. My mother found a small room in town and set up home. I returned and 8 family members managed to survive in this one room without clothes and other necessities. Shortly afterwards, the Ghetto was established and there we had to contend with overcrowding, starvation and no sanitation. In order to obtain a ration card, I worked very hard from the age of 10 in a factory making socks for the army. A gallows was erected and Jewish men were hanged, randomly and with no warning.
In 1942, my “hidden” grandparents were shot and orders were issued for all children up to 18 years to be handed over. My mother tried in vain to hide us – my sister was taken away and we never saw her again. We were moved to a Jewish cemetery, where we sat on gravestones for days on end. Finally, I, my parents and an aunt were taken to the railway station en route for the Lodz Ghetto. Of 30,000 Jews forced from the Ghetto only 1200 survived, and I was one of only 3 children.
On the way to the railway sidings, the cobbles turned as we walked over them and this was seen as a bad omen. A journey of 40 km. took 24 hours – over 100 people suffocated. 2 weeks later, a further “selection” took place, during which my grandmother was taken and an SS officer noticed a heavy gold ring worn by my father. It was too tight for him to remove. The officer was about to fetch an axe when the ring rolled off my father’s finger and landed at the officer’s feet.
Conditions at Lodz were appalling and I contracted typhus. I was in hospital when the SS came for all the patients, but they did not go the “contagious” ward I occupied. I recovered from the illness, but was very weak.
In 1944, the Russian army was advancing and the Germans attempted to conceal the horror of their campaign against Jews. We had heard rumours about what was happening in the concentration camps. We were herded onto cattle trucks and travelled overnight, arriving at dawn. Dogs were barking and the Gestapo were waiting for us. My father disappeared and was never seen again. This was Auschwitz-Birkenau.
As the selection process began, beautiful music was playing. I was with my mother as we were forced to strip, have our heads shaved, forfeit any remaining valuables and go to the showers. As we were needed for work, we were not gassed. We sat on the stone floor of our hut day and night. Soup was brought in a cauldron, transferred to a saucepan, and this had to be shared between 5 people – there were no bowls or spoons. Particularly traumatic were the twice daily roll-calls – numbers had to be correct and we froze for hours on end until the guards were satisfied. Black smoke and the stench of burning flesh rose every day from the chimneys. “Medical” experiments were carried out, particularly on twins.
Cattle trucks took us to work in the Hamburg docks, where a camp for 500 women had been established. The washrooms had no soap or towels, it was freezing cold – our clothes froze to our skin - and rations barely kept starvation at bay. The work involved the demolition of buildings – it was very hard, dangerous and exhausting. One day a bull “escaped” from a nearby slaughterhouse and attacked my mother, and her face was badly cut.
Although, by 1945, the Germans were aware that they were losing the war, the persecution showed no signs of abating. Dead bodies littered the roads on the way to Bergen Belsen, which was full of walking skeletons and a deathly stench. Lice and disease were rife and it was difficult to distinguish between the living and the dead. I could not find my mother and began searching for her. There was no organisation in the camp, no food or water and no roll call. I found her two days after my arrival and she was barely alive.
One day I heard a tank in the distance. It was British. I collapsed and was unconscious for several days. I was taken to a tank training centre, where there were clean beds, German medical staff and a gradual re-introduction to food. 14,000 died in the following two weeks, including my mother. They were buried in mass graves.
My father’s sister found me and took me to her camp. We decided to return to Poland to search for family survivors. It took us 3 weeks to reach Lodz. I was suffering from a skin disease and, in the absence of appropriate medication, rubbed in salt. I found another aunt, who shared everything she had with me. At the end of the year she remarried and we decided to leave Poland, where anti-Semitism was still rife.
We left Poland for Germany, but struggled to go further. Finally, in 1947 we arrived in Paris by train. Conditions were very difficult – we had no work permits, money or home and we did not speak the language. Eventually, my uncle found work. At Christmas 1948, I met my future husband in Paris with his mother. Although British born, he was present, along with Reverend Hardman, at the liberation of Bergen Belsen. We married in London in 1949 and had 2 children and 5 grandchildren.
For the last 18 years, I have been speaking in schools and at charity events – even at the Foreign Office! I participate in March of the Living and have accompanied other groups to Poland. I feel driven to undertake this work so that the world cannot deny that the horrors of the Holocaust actually took place.