The teenage rebel who outwitted Dr Mengele and lived to tell her tale: First-hand accounts of life in Nazi death camps never lose their terrible power but few are as extraordinary as Franci’s
- ‘Your only duty to us is to stay alive,’ were her mother’s last words to her
- The idea of declaring herself an electrician helped to save her from death
- She said the inmates were too far gone to take in the arrival of the British
It was late at night when we stopped at a platform with a big sign that read ‘Auschwitz’.
The name meant nothing to me. Even before the train doors opened, I heard bellowing and cursing in German and Polish.
Outside, I could see, among the SS guards, a large number of strange creatures with shaved heads and dressed in striped blue-and-grey pyjamas.
We were pushed and jostled into a long column and ordered to march along a dirt road flanked by double walls of barbed wire.
At intervals there were signs in German that read: ‘Caution: High Voltage.’
The whole spooky scene was illuminated by light beams from watch-towers placed every few hundred yards.
Outwitted: She was determined to escape Dr. Josef Mengele, German SS officer and physician in 1942 and the rest of the SS guards
Survival tale: Franci Rabinek Epstein pictured with Kitty after liberation in Celle
There were dogs and SS men everywhere. A few striped figures flitted back and forth in the dark, carefully keeping out of the way of the SS.
About halfway through our trek, one of them appeared next to me. He was carrying a stretcher with a covered corpse. He said ‘Hi’ in Czech and I recognised him as Tommy, an old friend. He explained hurriedly that everything of value would be taken from us.
If I gave him whatever I wanted to keep, he would smuggle it into the camp for me. I had very little: two wristwatches, a fountain pen, a toothbrush, a comb and some stockings.
After pushing the items under the cloth with the corpse, Tommy disappeared back into the dark.
Polish prisoners in striped uniforms were registering our data.
After giving them my details, I acquired a tattoo on my left forearm: A-4116.
I was assigned to Block 12, which was occupied mainly by elderly women. After a period spent in quarantine, another face from my past appeared. ‘Why did you come here? Don’t you know we’re going to be burned? You should have run away! Nobody leaves here alive!’
It was Kitty, my second cousin and lifelong friend. I was convinced she had gone raving mad. What was this irrational nonsense she was blurting out? ‘Listen to me,’ said Kitty. ‘I can see by your face that you don’t believe me. Come out and I’ll show you.’ I followed her into the camp.
There, in the distance, Kitty showed me a group of chimneys spewing smoke into the sky. For the first time since my arrival, I became conscious of a peculiar smell in the air, like burning hair.
‘But all this is quite impossible,’ I said. ‘This is a big camp. And they might just be burning corpses of people who died a natural death.’
‘Oh yeah?’ said Kitty. ‘Then how do you explain that 3,750 people disappeared overnight?’
That night, I lay on my bunk, eyes wide open despite not having slept for 60 hours. Images were chasing each other as if in a crazy film montage.
Chimneys. Kitty. Barbed wire. My parents. Where were they?
Faintly, I seemed to hear my mother’s words to me just before she and my father were taken away: ‘Your only duty to us is to stay alive.’ ‘I will.’ I said out loud. ‘I will.’
Franci Rabinek was 19 when Hitler invaded her homeland of Czechoslovakia on March 15, 1939.
High-spirited, strong-willed and with an unquenchable zest for life, she had recently taken over the running of her mother’s haute couture business in Prague.
By her own admission, she was ‘carefree, slightly spoiled, and mainly interested in dancing, my business, flirting and skiing, in that order’.
Her idyllic existence was not to last. In 1942, she, her parents Emil and Josefa Rabinek, and her husband Joe Solar were rounded up with other Jewish families and taken to Terezin, a former military garrison 40 miles north of Prague.
Within days, Franci’s parents were selected for further deportation to an unknown destination.
She would never see them again. In May 1944, Franci was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Having survived against all the odds, her memoir was rejected for publication in the 1970s – but thanks to her daughter, Helen Epstein, it is now being published to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, another concentration camp she was held at.
The book paints a dramatic picture of her daring confrontation with the notorious Dr Josef Mengele, the Auschwitz physician who would come to be known as the Angel of Death.
As the weeks went on, the resourceful Franci began living inside her imagination to protect herself from the realities of life in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
I began to retreat into my own private world populated with people from the past, and nurtured wild fantasies of escape.
I spent the hours of the night before sleep working out meticulous plans for an escape. But with daylight came the terrible awareness of the impossibility of these pipe dreams.
Other nights I spun out endless fantasies about a platonic love affair I’d had at the age of 17.
Now I imagined the wildest love scenes that had never taken place, feeling his arms around me, even smelling the scent of his pipe.
May turned into June and the camp atmosphere grew ever more tense. The SS were stepping up their favourite entertainment, which was to have anywhere from 50 to a few hundred prisoners report for calisthenics.
They would order push-ups, knee-bends and running on the spot until at least half the people dropped from exhaustion.
Each prisoner who fell appeared to prove their theory of the inferiority of the Jewish race. Then, in the middle of June, we heard some startling news.
The treatment of Jews was to undergo a drastic change. An order had come directly from Berlin.
The new idea was not to kill Jews capable of work but to send them to places with acute labour shortages and let nature take its course.
There would be a selection in the next few days in which people between 15 and 40 years of age were chosen to be sent to work camps.
On June 20, 1944, the process duly began.
A thunderstorm was coming up as some 2,500 women massed in the children’s block for the selection. While we huddled at one end of the yard, Dr Josef Mengele stood at the other with his aides.
His arms were crossed over his chest, and he wore shiny black riding boots.
Someone barked an order for us to strip to the skin and to put our clothes over our left arm.
A parade began in single file.
On arrival in front of the doctor, each woman had to stand to attention and answer several questions.
Afterwards, Mengele indicated with a jerk of his thumb for people to move to the left or to the right. Very soon a pattern emerged.
The group on the left was clearly intended for the chimneys, since it included all the weak, the old looking, those wearing spectacles, or those scarred by operations.
Those people on the right were to be sent to work camps.
The storm was now directly above us.
The thunder and lightning made the scene, as a few thousand naked women stood in front of 20 booted Germans, feel like the fantasy of an insane surrealist painter.
As I watched, I made a mental note of the fact that even young and strong girls with appendectomy scars ended up on the wrong side.
I had one, too. I needed to think quickly. It was now my turn to be questioned by the doctor.
‘Number?’ ‘A-4116.’ ‘Age?’ ‘Twenty-four.’ ‘Married?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Profession?’ ‘Electrician.’ There was a pause.
‘What?’ said the doctor, repeating the word ‘electrician’. Is that true?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘You know how to pull wires and such?’ ‘Yes.’
‘To the right – and make a note of that,’ he ordered a scribe. I joined Kitty, who had also made it, and pulled on my clothes.
The other girls crowded round, and I explained that the idea of declaring myself an electrician had come to me on the spur of the moment, when I was frantically thinking of something original to distract the eyes of the doctor from the operation scar on my stomach.
It wasn’t an outright lie, since my father had been an electrical engineer and had always encouraged me to learn how to fix faulty wiring or an appliance at home.
The day then came for our departure, and we were loaded into cattle trucks. Slowly gathering speed, the train took at least 20 minutes to get out of the Auschwitz complex.
Only in daylight did one get a sense of the immensity of this death factory.
Then quite suddenly, the view changed. The train passed through flowering meadows with bubbling brooks – lush, green, totally unbelievable.
Someone started to sing. Soon we were running through a repertoire of Czech folk songs.
Empty stomachs were forgotten. We laughed and teased each other like an exuberant bunch of children intoxicated with the sheer joy of living.
Even the armed guards travelling with us could not suppress a smile. Franci’s next nine months were spent in a camp in Hamburg.
There, she impressed the commandant by successfully working as an electrician, as she had claimed she could. In March 1945, the city and its surroundings were heavily bombed, the result of an Allied push.
But even as the war entered its dying weeks, Franci was forced to undergo yet another horrific ordeal – incarceration in the Nazis’ extermination camp of BergenBelsen, in northern Germany.
The whole city of Hamburg was a sea of flames. On April 5, we were suddenly lined up in the morning and loaded into freight carriages to be evacuated.
The following day the train reached our destination: Bergen-Belsen.
The ghoulish sight that greeted us topped anything we had seen so far. In a quadrangle a mile long and about 400 yards wide were 40,000 people who looked liked corpses. Alongside them were 13,000 unburied corpses.
Some sort of death dance seemed to be in progress, with one of the living dragging a dead body by the feet towards the mass graves in slow motion, despite the shouts and kicks of the SS to hurry up.
The ground was crawling with lice. There was no food. Water was scarce.
Some people were eating dirty grass; most were just sitting or lying around, waiting to die. Some of the piled-up corpses still had a flicker of life in them.
One of the newly arrived girls found her cousin with her eyelids still moving. With the help of friends, she pulled her out and, incredibly, brought her back to life.
But it was hard to recognise anybody. These were skeletons covered only with a grey, parchment-like skin, and eyes sunk deep into their sockets.
Aside from wandering aimlessly in search of friends or relatives or for something edible, there was nothing for us to do each day but pick off each other’s lice.
Still, the obligatory roll call took place twice a day with German thoroughness, a pointless undertaking since no one could possibly produce an accurate count any more.
People who were alive in the morning would be dead by noon. The sleeping quarters were largely empty huts, with most of the bunks having been used up for firewood.
There were no pallets or blankets, and the rooms were so overcrowded that we slept on the bare floor with our heads on someone else’s body. A typhus epidemic had started two months before.
There was no need for gas chambers now that people were dying at a rate of 250 to 300 a day.
There was talk about cannibalism in the men’s section, and considering that we saw many of the corpses had a piece of their thighs chopped out, it was very probably true.
One day, there was a sudden distribution of bread rations, although food provision had come to a virtual standstill days before.
The starved inmates sank their teeth into the bread only to discover a strange grating sound while chewing: ground glass had been baked into the dough.
Nobody knows how many people died of intestinal bleeding that day because many ate it regardless of the danger. It was not easy to think rationally any more.
Being so hungry meant that objects and people began to double in front of one’s eyes.
On the morning of April 15, the door was open a crack when one of the girls remarked in a toneless voice that there was a tank coming down the road. ‘We’re probably going to be machine-gunned,’ someone replied. ‘There’s a white star on the side of it, the hatch is open, and the soldiers are wearing black berets,’ the girl insisted.
A white star – the sign of an Allied vehicle! ‘Go to hell with your fairy tales!’ somebody grumbled. But a few others, unable to resist their curiosity, crawled to the door to look.
The girl was right. The tank was no mirage. Nor the star on its side, nor the long convoy of vehicles that followed it. The British were here.
The Union Jack fluttered in the wind. But the inmates were too far gone to take in the reality of it or feel joy. Hesitantly, still expecting to be shot at, prisoners ventured.
The day came for us to depart – we were all loaded into cattle trucks out of the huts one by one.
As the truth became clearer, they began to walk, crawl and run to the fences to see their liberators close up.
One after another, the armoured vehicles came down the road, with the soldiers turning their pockets inside out and throwing the contents – chocolate bars, cigarettes, and other little things – over the fences and lifting their fingers in a V for victory salute.
Many of them were crying. By the afternoon, big lorries drove up to deliver food that the Britons had evidently found in the first German storehouse they took over: a 2lb can of meat from Czechoslovakia and a small can of condensed milk per person.
Kitty dug in with her fingers and ate her tin of pork in one sitting, washing it down with the milk.
In contrast, I was unable to force down even a mouthful.
The next day, the British opened the entire compound and threw open the doors to the German storehouses.
There were several buildings with huge red crosses painted on their roofs containing enough food and clothing for an entire army.
With suicidal greed, everybody who could still walk crowded in. In a state of mass hysteria, people literally drowned, their heads buried inside barrels of pickles, mustard and butter, while others tried to get in over them.
Kitty and I watched from outside, too weak to join the battle.
But later, when we noticed our skeleton-like comrades emerging from another, less-crowded storehouse, dressed up in German uniforms and boots, we ventured inside.
We helped ourselves to two magnificent military fur-lined coats, which reached all the way to the floor, and a tent.
Thus equipped, we occupied one of the deserted watchtowers to get away from the lice. It did not upset us that right in front of the tower was a heap of corpses that seemed to change facial expressions with the light of day or night.
Nor did it bother us that the tower was open on all sides to the elements.
After putting up the tent against the biting wind, we wrapped ourselves in our fur coats and, for the first time in years, we slept like princesses.
Franci’s promise to her mother had been kept.
She had survived two of the Nazis’ most brutal death camps, and to save her life had courageously outwitted Josef Mengele.
Upon returning to Prague, she learned that both her parents and her husband had died.
After later marrying her former swimming coach, she moved to America, where she once again ran a fashion salon.
Franci died in New York in 1989, aged 69.
Asked once about her experiences, Franci replied: ‘My greatest concern is the possibility that due to human nature, it could happen again in a different form, under different circumstances.’
Franci’s War, by Franci Rabinek Epstein, is published by Michael Joseph, priced £14.99.
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