At the outset of the World War I in 1914, Alma Weiss was in first grade in Munich, Germany. Her father, Moritz, was a businessman; her mother, Vilma, a homemaker. The Weisses were cultured, comfortably off, patriotically German. Moritz served the Kaiser in Vienna during the war.
“Eva Braun’s father was my first-grade teacher,” Alma said. “The Brauns lived around the comer from us, and Eva’s mother always said, ‘If you need anything, come.'”
Alma learned English, French, and Italian, and played piano, loving Chopin, Mozart, and Liszt. She hoped to attend Munich’s Academy of Music, but first secured a business degree at the insistence of her pragmatic father. Going on to the academy, she excelled and was invited to teach. She aspired to be a concert artist.
Like others in her circle of friends, Alma had not lost sight of Eva Braun. While working in a Munich photo shop in 1929 at age 17, plump, blonde Eva had been introduced, as she’d later recount, to “a man with a funny mustache,” who’d offered her “a lift in his Mercedes.” The suitor was the 40-year-old leader of Germany’s National Socialist Party, and she soon was meeting him in his Munich apartment. Eva Braun had become the mistress of Adolf Hitler.
“One day, my teacher came and said 1 had to write a letter to ask for my resignation on account of health problems. I would not have done it if my teacher, who I adored, and admired, would not have told me.” Alma added dryly: “He turned out to be a pretty good Nazi.”
Alma became engaged to a young, non-Jewish airman, but Hitler’s 1935 Nuremberg Laws deemed it unlawful for Jews and non-Jews to wed. So, they rendezvoused in secret, depending on friends to provide cover for them. But the war was pulling them apart.
Alma was in Munich on September 1, 1939, when Hitler’s army invaded Poland. That same night, the mother and brother of her fiancé came to take her to their rural estate. She stayed with them for several months – the family was soon harboring other Jews – until she sensed problems. “Somehow the people around must have found out they were hiding people,” Alma said. Not wanting to cause problems, Alma moved back to a Munich boarding house.
Thousands of German Jews were trying to emigrate. Alma put money down to secure her own passage, but the world’s doors were open only to so many. Her sister had married an Italian in 1932 and moved to Italy. Her father had passed away in 1936. Her mother went to live in Yugoslavia with Alma’s great-uncle and grandmother, planning to join Alma in America or France.
Witnessing the possibility of deportation, Alma turned to Eva Braun’s mother. “When it looked dangerous, that we would all be shipped from Munich, I went to her and asked her if there was anything she could do for me. The answer from Eva’s mother came back soon enough: “Unfortunately, there’s absolutely nothing she can do for anybody Jewish.”
Alma was eventually seized and taken to a compound that had been a cloister. She became a “forced labor” in a telephone factory. She kept her head down and did what she was told.
One day “a transport” was readied to carry Jews to the East. She missed that transport that went to Riga. “Nobody returned from there.” It was in 1942 when Alma was put on the second transport deep into Poland, to Auschwitz.
There were 300 others on her transport — only 50 of them entered the camp with her. She was told later that the others had gone up the chimneys. Alma was one of only three from her transport who would survive.
“When we arrived in Auschwitz, they took everything away, clothes, shoes. We were naked. They shaved your hair, put a tattoo on your arm. You didn’t feel anything because you’re so numb. Completely paralyzed. You didn’t realize it can be true.” They were given cast-off pants, shirts and dresses: “Clothes that didn’t fit and shoes that ruined your feet – that had belonged to the dead.”
For months, “sleeping on wooden planks, in stalls,” she’d rise in the bitter cold, and tramp out past a German “oom pah” band playing patriotic songs. Her labor was mindless — “cutting grass, working in fields. “The food? Horrible! Potato peel boiled in water.”
Not knowing the fate of her mother, or her fiancé, Alma nursed the hope she would be reunited with both if she could only endure. Little did she know that, even after months of hard labor, the war still had three years to go.
By freakish luck, Alma was placed in a camp job that could save her. Her lifeline was the business degree from Munich, the one her father had insisted upon. An SS guard, she believes, had seen her paperwork and knew that she could work with records and files. She lived like the other prisoners, only she reported every day to the Auschwitz office. She joined a staff of other women prisoners whose job it was to chronicle the gruesome facts of the Auschwitz killing machine. Under penalty of death, Alma was not allowed to divulge anything of what she saw.
The depth of misery in the camp was so great that the tiniest gesture of kindness was seen by Alma as “a miracle” — a German soldier, who’d been transferred to the Auschwitz office after suffering a war wound, handed Alma a gift from his wife one day. “It was,” she remembers as though speaking of a treasure, “a piece of apple.”
Some days later, she took a risk. She asked the soldier to send a message to the family of her fiancé, telling of her whereabouts. Remarkably, he did, bringing word back of their acknowledgment.
By January 1945, Russia was pushing deeper into Poland, beating back Hitler’s forces. The Nazis began to abandon the camp, taking with them the 58,000 victims who were still alive. “For seven days and seven nights we were running from the Russians. Anyone who could not walk anymore, or was sitting down, was shot.”
“I was close to giving up,” she said. Then another prisoner, a stranger beside her — “somebody I never knew before, and never saw afterward” — picked her up and carried her on his back.
Those who survived the march arrived at another camp, this one deep inside Germany, just north of Berlin — Ravensbrück. Here, in April, Alma heard that President Franklin Roosevelt had died. “We thought that was the end of the world,” she says. “All we had hoped for was that Roosevelt would save us, then he was dead.”
Within days, Alma was sent on a second death march; Ravensbrück was being evacuated. On this march, chaos ensued. The SS guards, fearing their own capture now, abandoned the prisoners, threw away their uniforms and fled. “We went into houses that were left alone, opened the doors, went in, slept, and tried to feed ourselves. We dug potatoes out of the earth and ate those raw. The Russians came and left, fortunately.
“Then the Americans came.” With the Allied forces victorious, Alma made her way back to Munich. But there was nobody for her there anymore. She soon learned that in the spring of 1941, when the Germans occupied Yugoslavia, her mother and grandmother were deported. She went to see her fiancé’s family in the countryside but learned that he had been killed in action. Alma was now 38 years old.
Alma was given a government job in Munich right after the war. Soon, as a “displaced person” under the Truman Act, she boarded a ship to New York.
On Alma’s forearm there was a scar where the tattoo of her concentration camp serial number used to be. She had it removed at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York after coming to America. “Everybody around me stood there crying. They had never seen anything like it.”
Like the tattoo long gone but forever marking her – her experiences left an indelible scar.
In New York, she was invited for coffee by friends from Munich on the same evening as a Yugoslavian named Tony Fisher, also scarred by the Holocaust. He was working in the lumber business in North Carolina. Tony kept calling on her, and soon asked her to marry him. They moved to Mobile, where he had connections.
“It was easy to get the home feeling here,” she says. “We want to live, and we want to forget.”
One day, when she was practicing piano in her new home, a stranger passed by, heard her and told educators at Barton Academy about her. One thing led to another and Alma became a performer with the Mobile Symphony Orchestra and a piano teacher at Murphy High, Spring Hill College, and the University of South Alabama.
Alma and Tony were active in social and civic affairs. Tony was president of the local theater company, the Joe Jefferson Players; Alma was Mrs. Frank in the play “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
“Life made it up to me,” she whispered, exhausted from her tale, yet unburdened of it now. “God made it up to me.”
The girl who lived around the corner from Alma in childhood — and once coldly denied her help — of course found a husband, too. On April 29, 1945, in a wedding ceremony in the fuehrer’s bunker beneath Berlin, Eva Braun finally became Eva Hitler. One day later, as the world would cheer, the bride put poison into her mouth, and the groom a bullet into his head.
-Edited from “Out of Auschwitz,” by Roy Hoffman, Mobile Press Register, July 19, 1998