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“We’re in the gas chamber, aren’t we?” my cousin, Edith, asked, petrified.
“Oh no,” I answered. “We’re going to get a hot shower.” What else was I to say? My heart galloped in my chest. Cold perspiration oozed from my pores. I imagined that soon after we were given the gas, the floorboard would open to swallow our dead bodies.
We stood under the shower heads. Edith and I locked eyes. Then I closed mine. Soon a torrent of hot water splashed my body. I wanted to yell; I wanted to scream; but no sound escaped my throat.
“Lucky you,” a Polish woman who worked in the shower room whispered to me. “You’ll be leaving this hellhole soon.”
So writes Agnes Tennenbaum in When the Magic was Gone, her first-hand account of the Holocaust. A few days after her arrival at Auschwitz II (Birkenau), she was told she was being sent to the showers. A tremendous fear gripped her. In her brief stay, Agnes had learned that a shower could mean a way of cleaning yourself, or instead of water pouring through the shower head, lethal cyanide fumes from the pesticide Zyklon-B could fill the room and death would occur.
Auschwitz II (Birkenau) was one of the killing centers designed to carry out genocide. More than three million Jews were gassed in extermination camps. In its entirety, the Nazi “Final Solution” consisted of gassings, shootings, random acts of terror, disease, and starvation that accounted for the deaths of about six million Jews – two-thirds of European Jewry.
Agnes did not become part of the “Final Solution.” In March 1945, hunger, degradation, slave labor, and physical and mental punishment were over, she writes. On a cold day under a fine drizzle, she came face to face with the victorious American Army.
“Although I realize that every day is like a present from G-d, I also realize that the Germans and their Hungarian collaborators stole from me one of the most precious things in life: the magic of youth. It was gone, gone forever.”
On the train ride to Auschwitz, Agnes Tennenbaum was unable to move.
“We were jammed in like sardines in a box,” she recalls. “There was no toilet, no water, no food.” In the stifling hot car, Agnes, her mother, sister, and cousin struggled to get close to a window for air. But it was the lack of water that was the worst.
“Without water, you could lose your mind. The thirst – it was so strong it was hard to think.”
Under mild conditions, a fairly healthy individual can survive perhaps a week without water. But if people are subjected to high temperatures, it’s impossible for the human body to survive more than a few days. After two days and two nights, they arrived at Auschwitz, barely alive.
The possibility of death, and the different ways that might happen, were quickly explained to Agnes by the other prisoners.
“Even though I was terrified of dying in the showers, I also knew that would be an opportunity to have water. After slow, torturous seconds passed, and death didn’t claim me, I would stand there with precious water falling around me and drink as much as I could before I was forced to move away,” she says.
Agnes was chosen by Dr. Joseph Mengele to move from Auschwitz to Allendorf to learn the art of making bombs and mines to kill the Allies. In March 1945, she was liberated from Allendorf by the American Army. She was 22 years old.
After liberation, Agnes learned that every member of her family except her cousin, Edith, had been exterminated in Auschwitz. A gifted writer, Agnes pays tribute to her family and other victims in the following poem:
To the Memory of Six Million Jews and Others
Ashes blown by the wind.
Green grass over unmarked
We carry the torch of
We, who survived.
Our lives marked forever
By the tragic memories of the
We can’t forgive or forget
The stolen youth we never had.
The grandparents our children
Never knew, never met.
Hunger, thirst, and torture of
Body and soul
That never ends,
Watch. Be sure it never