BBC Documentary- From her home in Cape Town, Henia Bryer recounts her life story – from 1939 in Radom, the daughter of a well-off shoe factory owner, to the end of the war where she was released from Bergen-Belsen. Surviving the large Radom ghetto and then four concentration camps, including the most well-known – Auschwitz-Birkenau. The 40 minute film was directed by her niece – Lisa Bryer – producer of The Last King of Scotland.
Henia was born on December 11th 1926 and lived happily in Radom, with her parents, her older brother and her younger brother and sister. On September 1st 1939, when she was 12 the war broke out and within the week the Nazis had arrived. With her blonde hair and blue eyes, she was like a ‘poster child of Goebbels’ but she was Jewish, often stopped in the street by soldiers who asked why she wore the white armband with a blue Star of David. Her father was no longer paid, but they survived due to his savings and he continued working.
In 1941, they were removed to the larger of the two Radom ghettos on Wałowa street. There were ten people to a room and shootings were regular occurrences. Her younger brother was taken to the armament factory to work – she wasn’t to see him again for another 6 years. The following year 20,000 of the 30,000 residents were removed from the ghetto and sent to Treblinka death camp and in the small ghetto everyone was shot.
Henia still had most of her family, she began working to avoid deportation. An abscess in her tooth was causing lots of pain so she was due to go to the hospital to have it lanced, her uncle was also with them and offered to take her. It was a cold winter and as he helped her into her coat, his hand pushed against her cheek and burst the abscess. Her mother decided to treat her at home, that day everyine in the hospital was shot. Her older brother had also been called to the hospital, he was disabled – unable to walk since birth. Their mother walked him to the hospital and before he went in he gave her his coat, saying “Give this to someone who needs it. I won’t be needing it any more.” Henia’s mother returned home with his coat. He was shot that day.
By 1944 17 year old Henia was one of only 300 Jews that remained in Radom ghetto, they were marched to the railway station and put into cattle trucks, bound for Majdanek near Lublin. In the snow, they had to strip naked, they were given wooden shoes, a striped dress and a handkerchief for their heads. The men were sent to a different part of the camp, she never saw her father again. Every morning, they stood for hours waiting to be counted. The head of the female SS there was Elsa Erich, a particularly brutal woman, she was looking for a new domestic servant. Of the thousands present, Henia was selected, possibly due to her Aryan appearance. One young SS woman, Meindl, took photos of Henia to take home, to show friends and family that not all Jews looked like the propaganda cartoons. Erich was hung in 1948.
After 6 weeks at Majdanek, Henia and her mother were put onto cattle trucks again and sent to Plaszow, the camp made famous by Schindler’s List. Henia says the film is the most accurate depiction of the camp she has seen. There were many shootings and hangings, and no crematorium – the bodies of the dead were burnt on a nearby hilltop – the ashes rained down upon the inmates every day. Her mother was sent to another camp, and Henia was sorted into a group of ten, their job was to push heavy wagons full of stones to the quarry. On Sundays, the women were allowed to rest, but there were often raids. Entire barracks were emptied and the women taken to the red cross section, there they were forced to donate several pints of blood for the injured Russian soldiers. Many died from blood loss. When Henia’s barrack was raided she realised there was no escape, two guards came with the red cross man and the barrack had only one entrance. She lay in her bunk, completely still, but was spotted by one of the SS men. He came over and demanded to know why she was still in her bunk, she told him that she had typhus although she did not. He placed a hand on her forehead, which was cool and asked – really? She insisted and he walked away. Possibly another case of her blonde hair and blue eyes saving her.
In October 1944, Henia was transferred to Auschwitz-Birkenau, there she met her mother and her best friend from home. She was relieved to be reunited with them but it wasn’t long before she was relocated to the Musterlager (the model camp where the population was kept at exactly 500), here she saw Dr Mengele – infamous for his medical experiments and fascination with identical twins. The children’s transport were led away to the ovens, her young sister was in one of these transports, lively music played over the loudspeakers and the children sang as they went. Henia was stripped and tattooed with the number A26188, which she still has as she refused to have it removed at the end of the war. The women’s heads were shaved, but as they got to Henia an SS woman called out “Stop!”. Her blonde hair was cut shorter rather than shaved off.
In this camp the women were given civilian clothes and here, Henia’s luck ran out – her parcel contained a tiny dress and shoes, small enough for a twelve year old girl. She was nearly eighteen and tall, she stood in the courtyard crying, as she realised she could not survive in them. She heard her name being called, by a man on the other side of the fence, she went over to him but did not recognise him. He revealed he used to work for her father, and told her to wait by the fence. He returned with a parcel, which he threw over to her, it contained leather shoes, a warm dress and a velvet coat. The winter was cold and they were always hungry, the women were ordered to move large stones for hours, although there never seemed to be any purpose for this. To keep out the cold and hunger, Henia used to recite poems that she had learnt by heart at school. She once saw identical twins that she had known from home at the window of the experimental block, she was jealous as they had warmth and food, but they called out to her “Do not envy us”.
On December 10th 1944, her eighteenth birthday she thought about how different her life would have been. She was supposed to be starting University in Rome soon, instead she was in Auschwitz. After 3 months in Auschwitz, the camp was evacuated as it was close to liberation, Henia along with thousands of others began the death march. They walked the 800km to Bergen-Belsen, many died along the way, their bodies lining the roads.
The greatest shock of the war for Henia, was arriving at Bergen-Belsen, a mountain of bodies was piled at the gates. The conditions were far worse than those at Auschwitz, very soon she caught typhus. She lived in a hall with hundreds of others, they stayed there all day and all night as there was no work, by liberation the hall was nearly empty. When the camp was liberated the camp gates were closed to prevent the spread of typhus to nearby villages, but the hospital was outside the gates, so the sick inmates had no access to medical care. 30,000 people died in the weeks following liberation.
Henia survived. She heard that most of the Jews from Radom who had also survived were in Stuttgart, so she made her way there by train. She was reunited with her mother and learnt that her father was beaten to death by a Kapow in Plaszow. An uncle living in France sent for her and her mother and they stayed with him for a while. Whilst there Henia found out that her younger brother had survived and made his way to Israel. After a couple of years, her uncle arranged for fake passports for Henia and her mother so they could travel to Palestine. They moved to the Jewish camp in Marseilles and boarded the boat ‘Exodus’ on July 11th 1947. This boat was packe d with 4515 passengers mostly holocaust survivors, many with no documentation, it had been designed to protect against the British Navy who were in charge of controlling entry into the country. The boat arrived in Palestine but was seized by the Royal Navy and sent back to Europe.
Henia and her mother eventually got across to Palestine on a Greek boat and arrived in Haifa. Her little brother was now 18 and 6 foot tall, she did not even recognise him. The war of Independence broke out the following year and Henia and her brother both fought. After the war, her mother opened a canteen in a police station in Haifa. Henia struggled to come to terms with what had happened during her time in the camps, they had a home rule to not discuss it. Then she met Maurice, he was quiet and had a mutual love of music, he was from South Africa but they spoke Hebrew together as Henia knew no English. It wasn’t long before he proposed and took a job in Haifa in order to stay with Henia . They courted for 3 months before they were married.
In winter 1952, Henia travelled with Maurice to Bloemfontein, South Africa, to meet his family for the first time. She was apprehensive and desperately wanted to go straight back home. She has stayed in South Africa ever since, eventually reaching the post of head teacher at a school. She had two sons, Alan and Danny. She is happy to answer any questions they ask about her time during the war, but will not have discussions about it. Maurice still cries when he recounts the time she told him she was a holocaust survivor, and says she often woke in the night screaming and had to console her.
Henia’s grandson spent his 17th birthday at Majdanek, the same place Henia spent hers as an inmate. He also travelled to Auschwitz and phoned her so she could direct him to the hut she lived in during her time there.
Henia appears a normal grandmother, and recounts her tales in a calm, matter of fact way. The love Maurice has for her, even after 60 years of marriage, is obvious and touching. You can’t help but feel glad she has found happiness after years of cruelty and struggle.
The documentary is available on BBC iPlayer until Sunday 3rd February.