With this phrase, Ilse Nathan’s family would begin the observance of Shabbat each Friday at sunset.
The observance of the Jewish Sabbath was one of the traditions Ilse and her family enjoyed before the Holocaust.
Tensions were high in Ilse’s village because of antisemitism, and often she was afraid to go outside. But Shabbat dinner brought feelings of safety and togetherness.
“I have such happy memories of this time,” Ilse says. “Mother prepared delicious, special dishes for our Friday night dinner. Matzo ball soup and potato kugel were two of my favorites.
“With her head covered, she began with lighting the candles and praying. Next, Father recited the Kiddush prayer: ‘Blessed is the Lord our G-d, King of the universe, for creating the fruit of the vine.’ Then he would circle the table, laying his hands on each child’s forehead and blessing us. It was such a gentle, loving gesture.”
“Fly, fly away. That’s what I felt we were doing when Papa and I went on our afternoon adventures. I loved our car! On those afternoon drives, Papa was all mine, and he could dote on just me!”
On some Friday afternoons, Ruth Siegler and her father made the 30-minute drive to her aunt and uncle’s house to deliver meat for Shabbat dinner. Other days, they picked up Ruth’s cousin, Helga, and brought her home to play.
“The car that took us on adventures also brought us home to even more fun. We ran through cherry orchards, waded in our brook, and chased farm animals.
“Life was good.”
Ilse Nathan was 20, and her sister, Ruth Siegler, was 17 when they, along with almost 1,000 others, were loaded into a cattle car.
“We had no idea where the Germans were taking us. They only told us we were going to a better place,” remembers Ilse.
Facing railroad tracks leading to the unknown, Jews suffered a complete break with their pre-Holocaust lives and lost the basic sense of security, belonging, and identity their communities had provided. Victims had no notion of their impending doom. Orders for deportation came suddenly and swiftly, and many boarded trains to what they thought would be relocation centers somewhere in Eastern Europe.
“We boarded a train with our parents and brother early one morning, not knowing where we were going,” describes Ruth. “The train came to a stop at the concentration camp Terezin (Theresienstadt).
“Ilse and I were the only ones in our family to survive the camps. Fortunately, we remained together through the Holocaust. We looked out for each other and took care of each other. We owe each other our lives.”
“I think that’s how we lived,” adds Ilse. “We always had each other.”
They remain together today, living less than a mile apart, spending time with each other almost daily. Both are active in their synagogue and donate their time to a variety of community organizations.
Sisters. Survivors. Together.
Concentration camp prisoners experienced physical and emotional abuse on a daily basis. Inhumane living conditions, savage beatings, disease, and cruel medical experiments were a few of the ways the Nazis inflicted physical pain. Often, it seemed, they enjoyed the game of emotional abuse even more.
Sisters Ilse Nathan and Ruth Siegler had arrived at Praust early one morning by truck transport.
“Just outside the camp, SS guards motioned for some of us to climb onto a large mound of dirt at the top of a ditch,” remembers Ruth. “We were sure death awaited us. I was thinking, ‘Had it come to this after all we had been through? Is this how it would end?’
“We knew that standing at a ditch resulted in being shot. I expected to fall into it and be covered with other fallen bodies. Evidence of our lives would vanish, and the outside world would never know we had existed.”
Time passed slowly as Ruth prayed with her sister by her side. “I’m not sure how long we stood there, tired, sick, starving, lifeless bodies, facing the killers before us. After a while, the guards lowered their guns, turned, and walked away laughing. We climbed down to start another long day. Later, we learned the ditch had been dug not as a grave, but for Nazi protection from allied bombs.”
Ilse says she has emotionally blocked most of that horrible day from her mind. But another day often flashes in her memory.
At 11 years old, Ruth Siegler had many favorite toys, a warm and safe home, and a loving family in Sinzenich, Germany.
Her life began to change on November 9, 1938, the Night of Broken Glass, or Kristallnacht. That night, Jewish homes, including Ruth’s, and stores were ransacked in hundreds of German cities, towns, and villages. German mobs destroyed buildings, leaving the streets covered in broken glass. Hundreds of Jews were beaten to death. Ninety-one Jews were killed and 30,000 Jewish men were arrested, many taken to concentration camps.
Shortly thereafter, Ruth’s family was interred in a refugee/transit camp. From there, they were sent to Terezin (Theresienstadt), a concentration camp in northwest Czechoslovakia.
“I was a frightened teenager who lost everything: my parents, brother, home, toys, all the things that made me feel safe,” she recalls.
“Suddenly, my most prized possession was the bowl I was issued upon entering the camp. Every prisoner was given a bowl, one bowl. It was so important to survival that you kept it with you at all times. If you lost it, or it was stolen, you were not given another. Prisoners then had two choices: steal someone else’s bowl, or wait for someone to die and take their bowl.”
“Concentration camp sleeping conditions were their own separate form of torture,” Ruth Siegler recalls.
Barracks housing the prisoners were lined with wooden beds stacked four to five high. Units designed to sleep 15 prisoners often held 45, with four or more people crowded into one unit. Stone barrack sleeping berths were covered with a thin layer of straw; wooden barracks had straw mattresses filled with wood-wool, wrapped in paper. Beds were infested with mice, bedbugs, and lice, and everyone soon learned that it was best to occupy a top bunk to prevent being covered with disease-carrying rodents and bugs that rained from the upper bunks. Prisoners were given one blanket each, which was never enough to provide warmth during the freezing winters. People huddled together for warmth and died together.
“The Nazis made us sleep like animals. It was another way to strip us of our humanity,” says Ruth. “Yet it was one more experience that made me always appreciate the little things in life.
“Clean sheets. Every time I change linens, I’m comforted by the fresh smell and soft fabric. I’ll never take that for granted.”
“Of 800 girls who were taken on a death march to the Baltic Sea, only 50 survived. In March 1945, we escaped.
“As we ran through a cornfield, we saw a farmhouse in the distance. We were very sick and starving, but we had survived this horrible experience together. The last time we saw our father, he told us that we were young and maybe G-d would let us live.”
Ilse was 21 years old and Ruth was 18 years old.
“What’s that on your arm?”
It’s a question Ilse Nathan has been asked many times, especially by children. The numbers are somewhat faded now, not as bright and sharp as they once were, but Ilse’s desire to share her story with future generations has not faded.
The Auschwitz Concentration Camp Complex, including Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II (Birkenau), and Auschwitz III (Monowitz), was the only location in which prisoners were tattooed during the Holocaust. Despite the perception that all prisoners were given tattoos, prisoners of Auschwitz after 1941 were most likely to be branded this way.
Ilse’s mother, Helene, Ilse’s sister, Ruth, and Ilse entered Auschwitz together and became prisoners A2791, A2792, and A2793. Months later, during a routine selection process, Ilse and Ruth slipped from the line, thinking their mother was with them. Unfortunately, she was transported to another camp where she later died.
“We made a conscious decision after liberation,” Ilse says. “We could live in the past and be bitter, or we could pursue a life of happiness. We chose happiness. Otherwise, Hitler would have won.
Ilse is pictured with her mother, Helene, and Grant Siegel.
Knitting has been a part of Ilse Nathan’s life as long as she can remember. When she retired from Penny Palmer, the successful Homewood clothing store she owned with her husband, Walter, she picked up her knitting needles intending to use her craft to help others. Since then, she has helped bundle the young, warm the desperately ill, and teach hundreds throughout Birmingham how to knit one and purl two.
Every Tuesday, Ilse can be found at the Levite Jewish Community Center, knitting with the Circle of Life Knitting Society. They meet to knit blankets for newborns and scarves for cancer patients at UAB, Cooper Green, and the Comprehensive Cancer Center.
With each scarf she creates, Ilse remembers a time when she used needles and yarn to help her sister, Ruth, just after their liberation.
“Ruth was taken to the hospital and was so very ill. I was afraid to leave her and slept outside her room, in the hallway. The medicine she was taking for typhoid tasted so horrible that she could hardly swallow it. I knitted a scarf and offered it to one of the nurses in exchange for something to help Ruth. The nurse sneaked sugar to me to mix with Ruth’s medicine, and soon she was doing much better.”
Ilse is pictured with the Circle of Life Knitting Society.