MONTREAL -- Honour thy mother.
That's the motto
Montrealer Angela Polgar has tried to live by all her
life - a life that began in a death camp. The place was
Auschwitz-Birkenau, in southern Poland. Her parents,
Hungarian Jews, arrived there on a Nazi transport on May
Vera Bein, nee Otvos, was 25 years old at the time and
almost two months pregnant.
On the infamous
railway platform where "selections" were made, Bein, as
Polgar respectfully calls her, was not sent to the gas
chambers. Instead, she was assigned to a variety of
grueling work details before becoming a guinea pig for
sterilization experiments by a camp doctor.
By the horrific
standards of the Holocaust, it's an ordinary story,
perhaps - except for one thing. The patient survived, and
so did her child.
On Dec. 21 Bein
felt labour pains. She climbed to the top bunk in her
barrack, and there, aided by two other inmates, gave
birth in secret to a baby girl.
The infant was
tiny, weighing only one kilogram; she was too weak to cry
but strong enough to drink the meagre offering from her
mother's breast, and somehow survived the next few weeks
Soviet Red Army
troops liberated the camp on Jan. 27, 1945. Baby and
mother were among the survivors, and they were an unusual
sight - indeed, almost unique.
The only other
infant survivor, according to Auschwitz museum records,
was a Hungarian boy, Gyorgy Faludi, born the day of
liberation with the help of a Russian doctor.
This week 18,000
people, including more than 1,000 Canadians, are
gathering in Poland for the annual March of the Living, a
symbolic tour of the Holocaust killing grounds whose
centrepiece is Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Holocaust Remembrance Day (in Hebrew, Yom Hashoah) on
Thursday, the Jewish-funded event will be the largest
such gathering since the march was inaugurated in
isn't going. Instead, she has decided now is the right
time to tell Canadians her family's remarkable
She isn't doing
it to shine light on herself; she even refuses to have
her picture taken, for fear people would accuse her of
wants to honour her mother, a woman who never liked to
talk about her experience because she thought it would be
a burden to her daughter.
"She was a very,
very special lady," said Polgar, a former clothing store
owner who lives in the Cote des Neiges district of
Montreal with her husband, Joseph.
"My mother felt
so terrible for all the people who had lost their
children. They lost their babies, and she brought one
back," Polgar said.
"And at the same
time she didn't want me to have the memories she had. So
she didn't talk about it."
Telling it now
is a release - and a duty. "It has nothing to do with me,
this story. She did it. She's the one who went through
And so Angela
Polgar begins her story.
That both mother
and daughter survived at all is a miracle in itself.
About 1.1 million people, mostly Jews, were exterminated
at Auschwitz between the start of the organized killing
in March 1942 and its end in November 1944. The death
machine was at its busiest the summer that Polgar's
parents and other Hungarian Jews arrived en masse to be
liquidated - more than 132,000 a month, according to
Canadian scholar Robert Jan van Pelt's exhaustive study,
Auschwitz: 1270 to the Present.
"By the end of
June, in just two months, half of Hungary's Jewry -
381,661 souls - had arrived at Auschwitz," van Pelt wrote
in the 1996 book he co-authored with U.S. scholar Deborah
Dwork. "At no other time was Auschwitz more efficient as
a killing center."
They quote one
survivor, Alexander Ehrmann, who arrived at Birkenau at
night and was aghast at what he saw and heard -
especially the piles of burning bracken and rubble he saw
and smelled through the barbed wire.
From the pyres
came the sounds of children. "I heard a baby crying. The
baby was crying somewhere in the distance and I couldn't
stop and look. We moved, and it smelled, a horrible
stench. I knew that things in the fire were moving, there
were babies in the fire."
At selection on
the platform, most visibly pregnant women were sent to
die; so were babies, children, the obviously sick and the
elderly. Others were spared for use as slave labour or
fodder for medical experimentation.
Some of the
inmates in Camp C, Auschwitz's barrack for Hungarian
Jewish women and girls, were able to bring their
pregnancies to term, but their babies were almost
invariably taken from them right after and killed -
"mercifully" strangled to death by Jewish inmate doctors
forced to work for the Nazis.
never got that far; the usual clandestine practice was to
abort fetuses before they could be born - a life-saving
measure for the mother, who was an easy target for
liquidation if her pregnancy became too
One of the
Jewish physicians who routinely performed this "service"
at Auschwitz, a Hungarian gynecologist named Gisella
Perl, described that and worse in her 1948 memoir I Was a
Doctor in Auschwitz.
Walking by one
of the crematoriums one day, she witnessed what happened
to one group of women who, promised better treatment, had
revealed to their Nazi overlords that they were pregnant.
"They were surrounded by a group of SS men and women, who
amused themselves by giving these helpless creatures a
taste of hell, after which death was a welcome friend,"
Perl recalled in her book.
beaten with clubs and whips, torn by dogs, dragged around
by their hair and kicked in the stomach with heavy German
boots. Then, when they collapsed, they were thrown into
the crematory - alive."
escaped that fate. For the longest while, she kept her
pregnancy secret, and was lucky her delivery came within
weeks of liberation by the Soviets, unannounced, and not
"helped" by any camp doctor.
Her survival -
and that of her daughter - is a footnote of the
Holocaust, but an important one.
"This does seem
to be an unusual story," said Estee Yaari, foreign media
liaison for the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem.
"Although there are others," she said, including one
survivor born in Buchenwald in 1944, "it is a rather rare
Auschwitz was one thing. Little "Angi", as her mother
called her, was also lucky to have survived the war's
chaotic aftermath, overcoming a bad start from poor
nutrition that made her bones weak.
She was even
lucky to get official proof of her arrival in this world:
a birth certificate that her adoptive father got for her
before the family left Poland.
Prepared in 1945
in Oswiecim, the Polish name for Auschwitz, the
certificate gave her name as "Angela Bein." The surname
was that of her biological father, Tibor Bein, a lawyer,
who died of maltreatment in the camp.
listed as her place of birth - a place that has ceased to
exist by the German name, except as an expression
synonymous with mechanized murder. Auschwitz today exists
only as a museum, and Angela Polgar has never been
She has a copy
of her birth certificate, issued in 1989 by the Communist
authorities in her hometown, Sarospatak, in eastern
proof, she has her original 1966 Hungarian teacher's
diploma, which also lists Auschwitz as her
liberation in 1945, Polgar's mother trekked across parts
of Poland, Romania and Byelorussia in a circuitous route
leading back to safety in Hungary. There, Vera remarried,
and it was that second husband - Sandor Polgar, also an
Auschwitz survivor, owner of a textile shop and a
generation older than Vera - who adopted Polgar and
become her "real" father, the only one she ever
later, however, he, too, died, and mother and child were
once again set adrift. Coming on the heels of the
crushing of their country's revolution by the Soviets in
1956, and with a relative now in Canada to sponsor them,
they started plotting their flight from Hungary. Vera
left in 1966, Angela followed in 1973 with her own
daughter, Katy. They settled in Toronto, where Vera
worked as a kindergarten teacher and bookkeeper. Katy
moved to Montreal and started a family, and in 1996 Vera
moved here to be with them.
For the longest
time, the family saga - especially the Auschwitz part -
was kept private. The only public recounting came in the
form of a short memoir, written in Angela Polgar's voice
by her sister-in-law, a retired Montreal high
schoolteacher named Marianne Bolgar. It was published in
a small Zionist journal in New York in 2000.
January, after a barrage of coverage in the media about
the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz,
Polgar decided the time had come to let the whole story
be told. Polgar also unearthed a precious resource: an
old audio tape of her mother recounting her time at
Auschwitz. It was an "interview" Vera gave her
granddaughter, Katy, in 1984 for a high-school project.
The tape - her final word on the subject - will soon be
registered as part of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum's
archives in Poland.
go, it's a poignant one: words spoken over the telephone
more than 25 years ago, a 30-minute inter-generational
dialogue in which the subject sounds like she'd rather
not be telling the innocent teenager just how horrible
history can be.
"It's so painful
to talk about this," Vera says at one point, as Katy
prods her for details. "I was so curious to hear what she
had to say," Katy, now doing her doctorate in cancer
research at McGill University, recalled last
"My mother was
so protective; she wouldn't let me read any Holocaust
books, so this was my one-time shot to see what my
grandmother could give me. The amazing thing was that she
was never bitter about what happened to her. She just
went on with life."
On the tape,
Vera begins by describing the confusion of her arrival at
Auschwitz in May, 1944. She remembers the infamous Dr.
Josef Mengele sending her to the left after inspection on
the platform while others were sent to the right, to
their deaths. Worried she was being separated from the
others and unaware of her good fortune to be spared, she
remembers telling Mengele she was pregnant, hoping he'd
be compassionate and let her stay with the
goose!" she recalled Mengele snapping at her, ordering
her to do as she was told. Healthy and strong, Vera was
good stock for the camp's labour force. Mengele wasn't
going to send her to her death, not yet.
She was sent to
have her left arm tattooed with a registration number:
A-6075. Then she was assigned the night shift in the
ample storeroom in Camp A that contained mounds of
confiscated belongings of other Auschwitz victims and
Because it was
so rich in stock, the depot was dubbed "Kanada," like the
land of plenty. Vera's job was to sort clothing, shoes,
bedding - anything the Germans wanted to keep for
Later, she was
assigned kitchen duty, where she ate potato peels, a
slight but vital source of nutrition for her and the
child inside her. The rest of her daily diet consisted of
ersatz coffee in the morning," something warm, a soup
made of grass" for lunch, and for supper a slice of bread
with a smear of jam or margarine on it.
Then came hard
labour outside the camp, building a road and working in
afield. Vera was transferred to Camp B2, then Camp C,
where she got to know children, especially twins, who
were used for medical experiments by Mengele and fellow
doctors before being liquidated.
It was only a
matter of time before she became a guinea pig
In October, now
seven months pregnant, she was selected by Prof. Carl
Clauberg's medical team for sterilization experiments.
They injected some kind of burning, caustic substance
into her cervix.
Right behind, in
the uterus, was the fetus.
"That was me in
there," Polgar now marvels. "The needles went in, I went
to the right side, then the left side. Who knows what he
fetus survived. After the experiment was over, the
patient went back to her barracks - and then disappeared
from the doctors' radar.
forgot her," Polgar said. "I was so small, the pregnancy
didn't really show. That was her luck. Otherwise, they
would have finished her off, and me, too."
A month later,
Vera was approached in her barracks by "a Jewish woman
doctor"- possibly the gynecologist Gisella
The doctor had a
warning and an offer. She told her that new mothers
usually "disappeared" along with their offspring after
the birth - sent to the gas chambers. She offered to give
Vera an abortion.
"I promised her
to think it over, because she really insisted on it,"
Vera recalled on the tape. "She said I was too young to
be gassed, and she wanted to save me. "But that night,
Vera dreamt of her mother. "She told me, 'Veruska, you
are eight months pregnant, and you don't do this, because
(the fetus is) alive already and ready to leave. Believe
in God and Hashem will be with you. Maybe a miracle will
happen. But don't do it.'
"The next day,
Vera gave the doctor her answer: she was going ahead with
the birth. It happened on Dec. 21, in the barracks of
Camp C. "I felt the pain and told the Block altester
(the barrack's inmate supervisor) that I feel cramps
and pain. She asked me to climb on the top of the bunk,
and she came with me and she helped me to give birth to
your mummy," Vera tells her granddaughter on the tape.
"She knew how to do it, because she was the daughter of a
doctor, so she had an idea about cleanliness and how to
help a woman in labour. She brought hot water and clean
sheets. She cooked a pair of scissors in hot water to
sterilize them" before cutting the umbilical cord, she
said. "So everything went quite easily. "The infant
weighed one kilogram, a little over two pounds "Mummy was
so weak and so tiny, she didn't cry. So nobody knew she
after giving birth, Vera had to leave her baby in the
bunk and go outside in the cold for roll call - what the
Germans called the Appell.
Her daughter is
still amazed she was able to do it. "What courage, what
incredible strength she had to do that," Polgar said.
"Remember, it was December. It was freezing, and they
didn't have any coats or proper shoes, just wooden clogs
that made them slip on the ice."
Just before the
liberation, a final scare. Yelling "Schnell!
Schnell!"(Quick! Quick!) the German guards herded
surviving inmates like Vera into a tunnel beneath the
camp and told them they would be exterminated. (It didn't
happen, but to her dying day Vera retained a mortal fear
of tunnels; once, trapped between stations in a stalled
Toronto subway car, she lost her senses, screaming to be
After the scare,
there was another miracle.
On the day of
liberation another child was born at Auschwitz, Gyorgy
His mother had
helped Vera with her delivery; now Vera returned the
The woman didn't
have enough milk to suckle her son, so Vera did it. It
was the beginning of a long friendship. The two families
- Faludi with her son, Bein with her daughter - stuck
together for the next few months of wandering back to
Hungary. Vera nursed the two children and helped Faludi
find her husband and return to their hometown, Miskolc.
The war was over. Now the recovery began. After the
liberation, no-one except Vera held up much hope that
little Angelawould live long.
Vera's mother's advice was to let the baby die. So, too,
saidthe local doctors they consulted - until one of them
did a closer examination."(He) held me up like a chicken,
by the legs with my head down. He wanted to see if I'd
try to pull my head up. And I did. And then he said 'We
can let that baby live.' "Her biggest problem in those
first few years were her bones. "They were very weak, and
I wasn't allowed to walk. So they put me in a carriage,
and my father took me back and forth to school that way,"
In the street,
strangers used to stare." Everybody looked at me ... and
said 'That's a doll, not a baby.' They called my mother
the crazy lady, because they thought she was only
pretending to have a baby." Over time, though, with
better nutrition and care, the child's bones got
stronger, and at six she could finally walk unaided. The
legacy of Angela's early years never disappeared
completely. She's still tiny of stature, under five feet
tall, and walks with a shuffling gait. But that doesn't
seem to faze her. These days, she bustles back and forth
to a computer class she takes in Montreal and doesn't
seem handicapped by her physique - or her
after her birth she's been thinking a lot about her
mother. She remembers her on her death bed, 13 years ago
in a Toronto hospital. It was a sad, cruel end to a
remarkable life. Vera's body was ridden with cancer of
the spine and lung. While she lay dying, paralyzed, she
had visions of Auschwitz. "She would say 'Mengele is at
the door,' " Polgar said. "It was horrible. There was not
enough morphine to take the nightmare away even from her
previously Vera Bein, born Veronika Otvos, died at age 73
on Jan. 28, 1992 - a day after the anniversary of the
liberation of Auschwitz. "She did not want to die on Jan.
27," Polgar said. "She pulled the suffering through to
the next day to die."
her mother for many things: the odds she overcame, the
perseverance she embodied, the pain she concealed for so
many years under a mask of optimism and a survivor's
dream of renewal.
"She was very
charming, never depressed," Polgar said. "But deep down,
it was always there."
Like the ink in
the number tattooed on her arm, the mark that Auschwitz
left on Vera's psyche was indelible. Now, thanks to her
daughter, so is her story.
Original title "Canadian" rather than