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HolocaustOctober 1941

German Jewish deportee

Lucille Eichengreen
In October 1941, Lucille Eichengreen, her sister and her mother were forcibly deported east to the Lodz ghetto from their home in Hamburg. She movingly describes their struggle for survival.

Lucille Eichengreen’s words are read by Annie Gray.

Testimony Transcript

Laurence Rees: Lucille Eichengreen was born in 1925 into a Jewish family living in Hamburg. 

Words of Lucille Eichengreen: Until 1933 it was very easy, it was very careless, carefree. We travelled a great deal, we were in Denmark, we were in Poland frequently. It was a very nice, comfortable life. We had tennis lessons, we had riding lessons, private English lessons before it was taught in school.  

Laurence Rees: But that life was to change abruptly with the appointment of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany.

Words of Lucille Eichengreen: Hitler came into power in January 1933. The children that lived in the same building, the other five families, no longer spoke to us. They wore the Hitler youth uniform. They threw stones at us, they called us names. And we couldn't understand what we had done to deserve this. So the question always was ‘why?’ And when we asked at home the answer pretty much was, ‘Oh, it's a passing phase, it won't matter, it will normalise.’ What that actually meant we did not know. But we couldn't understand the change.

And the first thing they told us was on the way home, in the bus or in the street car, don't draw attention to yourself, stand in the back, don't talk loudly and don't laugh, just sort of disappear. And we couldn't understand, it didn't make sense to us. It made us afraid because when we walked to school it was a 45 minute walk. And we were shouted at, people were spitting at us or other children were. The adults were looking away. Although we had no markings we felt marked.

In the mid 1930s – ‘36, ’37 – we were informed that Jews were no longer permitted to live in their house. They had to sell their apartments and we were assigned to buildings that were called Jewish houses. Evidently these were owned partly by Jewish landlords and we had to move into those apartments. At first it was an apartment somewhat smaller, and then in succeeding years it became smaller and smaller until we had just one furnished room for an entire family. And we had to share a kitchen with five other families, we had to share the bathroom. And orders to move were received at random. And I think we moved about five or six times during that period, between ‘36 and ‘41. I think we more or less accepted this. This was the law, those were the rules, you could do nothing about it. I lost my own personal room, I couldn't understand why. I did not like the subsequent accommodations, they were crowded, they were old fashioned. But you gradually accept circumstances for what they are, not for what you want them to be. And you accept a furnished room in the end. And the adults still maintained as late as ‘39 that things might change. Whether they really believed it I will never know. Some, of course, left the country. But by ‘39 everyone should have known that change was impossible. Things would go downhill rather than improve.

Laurence Rees: At the start of the war, in 1939, her father, Benjamin Landau, was arrested by the Gestapo. 18 months later his family discovered what had happened to him.

Words of Lucille Eichengreen: At the beginning of February 1941 the Gestapo came to our house with hats, leather coats, and boots. Their typical uniform. They threw a cigar box on the kitchen table and all they said: ‘Here are the ashes of Benjamin Landau.’ Whether these are just the ashes of my father or just a handful of ashes from the crematorium at Dachau we will never know. The ashes were buried in the Jewish cemetery in Hamburg and I've only been there once, it's too difficult. We took the death of my father very hard, all of us, especially my mother and my youngest sister – she was very much traumatised by it. She was somewhat quieter than she used to be and just the fact that we would never see him again was very difficult to accept.

Laurence Rees: But the persecution was to increase still further in 1941.

Words of Lucille Eichengreen: The first sign really was that we had to wear a yellow star, which was September 1941, which made you a very marked human being on the street. We got special food ration cards with a ‘J’ on it. And there were rumours – there were always rumours.

Laurence Rees: Just a few weeks later the rumours about the deportation of the Jews of Hamburg came true. And Lucille, her sister and her mother found themselves in a column of Jews being led to Hamburg station, past the non-Jewish population of the city. 

Words of Lucille Eichengreen: They didn't react, they looked away. I mean they saw us walking, they saw the yellow star on our clothing, they knew we were Jews. No reaction, no words, no nothing. It was either an ugly word or they looked away. There was no, I wouldn't even say compassion, there was no recognition of what was happening, nothing. They were just stony faced, and didn't react. They eventually knew that the apartment had been deserted, the furniture was there but the people had disappeared. They were bidding in auctions on our belongings, but there were no questions asked – whatever happened to the people?

Laurence Rees: Lucille and her family were transported to the Lodz ghetto in Poland – a place already overcrowded with Polish Jews. They were shocked at what they saw. 

Words of Lucille Eichengreen: We couldn't understand why they looked the way they did. Not decently dressed – their shoes were torn, they wore caps, they didn't wear hats. We saw no streetcars, we saw no buses, we saw no bicycles. We didn't know what kind of a place this was. It just didn't make any sense at all. We couldn't understand why. We, we did not comprehend the reason for looking the way they did, for looking emaciated, for looking hungry, for looking really disinterested, but it didn't take long to understand why because we looked the same before long.

Laurence Rees: The terrible conditions in the ghetto soon affected Lucille’s mother.

Words of Lucille Eichengreen: We stayed in the ghetto and my mother really lost all interest, she didn't do much any more, she was blown up from hunger, which meant all the water accumulated. She couldn't walk properly and she died on July 13th 1942 in the ghetto. The ghetto had a little black wagon with a grey horse that came through the ghetto every morning and picked up the dead, and they picked up my mother and I had hoped that somebody at the cemetery would let us know when they would have somebody for the burial. And more than a week passed, which is not Jewish custom because you bury the next day, and my sister and I walked out in July and we found a vacant spot and we dug a grave and we carried her out, there were no coffins there were just two boards and a string around them. And we had to find them in a big house adjacent to the cemetery that had nothing but dead bodies, unburied bodies. My sister didn't talk any more, she had lost both her parents and she had become a very quiet child, I could not reach her.

Laurence Rees: Then came news, in the autumn of 1942, that seemed to do the impossible – and make the already terrible situation inside the ghetto still worse.

Words of Lucille Eichengreen: In September 1942 there were notices on the ghetto walls and Rumkowski, the head of the Jewish ghetto administration, made a speech: ‘The Germans have ordered that we hand over all the children and all the elderly and empty out the hospital. Hand over your children so the rest of us may live.’ I was 17 when I heard that speech. I could not comprehend how somebody could ask parents for their children. I still can't comprehend that. People were crying out, ‘How can you ask this, how can we do this?’ But he said, ‘If we don't it'll be worse.’ Well it didn't happen. People stalled for time which is very understandable and the Germans declared a curfew for one week in September 1942, and they came into the ghetto with uniforms, with guns, with horse drawn wagons and with trucks. And they went from house to house from street to street and we had to assemble in the courtyard and they picked people at random, not just the old and not just the very young, but whomever they deemed too old to work. I put some make-up on my sister and we stood in the courtyard and they took my sister, they were not supposed to – she was 12 and the cut-off was 11. And I tried to go up on the truck with her and the end of a gun hit my arms and I couldn't go on the truck, and those people disappeared.

Laurence Rees: Lucille didn’t know it at the time, but her sister and almost all the other Jews deported from the ghetto had been taken away to be murdered – either at Chelmno or another place of extermination. Meantime Lucille tried to earn money to get more food in the ghetto, but she’d known from the beginning that this was a hard task to accomplish.

Words of Lucille Eichengreen: You had to have connections to accomplish anything, to change a job, to get a better job, to get employment. I tried – when I first tried to get my sister into the hat factory – it was almost impossible. Because the answer I got from the directors of those factories was, ‘What will I get in return?’ In the ghetto everything was paid for one way or another and payment was high, it was not cheap. But that was ghetto life, this is what life had done to human beings. Whether they were the same before the war I doubt it very much. I was 17, I was absolutely shocked.

Laurence Rees: Eventually, Lucille managed to get a job working in a soup kitchen in the ghetto – a place controlled by the Jewish head of the ghetto, Mordechai Rumkowski. 

Words of Lucille Eichengreen: I had heard rumours, and I knew that he had a vile temper - if he got angry he would take his cane and hit you. He would get very angry if his directions weren't followed, there were very few people he listened to or he respected. He was an absolute dictator, within limits, which came from the German side. I think most people were afraid of him.

He came into the office almost every evening. He was drawn, I mean you could hear him arrive with a horse drawn carriage. He would go into the kitchen and look at the waitress and if an apron wasn't tied correctly he would hit them with a cane. He looked at the food but he wouldn’t eat it, this was below his dignity and below his taste. And then he would come into the office and you could hear his uneven steps, sort of a slight limp, in the hallway. And I was alone in the office and he would pull up a chair and we had a couple of conversations. He talked, I would listen, and he molested me. And this went on for as long as the kitchen existed, which was three to five months, I'm not sure of the exact date. I kept moving away and he kept moving close and it was... it was a frightening relationship. It was.

If I would have ran away he would have had me deported. I mean that was very clear, there were rumours of other instances, there were names mentioned. I felt disgusted and I felt angry and I felt abused, although I didn't really know the true sense of abuse, and I couldn't understand why anyone would want to do that or why the head of the ghetto would sink so low, but sex in the ghetto was a very valuable commodity. It was traded like you would trade anything else and there were the haves and the have-nots.

Laurence Rees: Lucille was deported to Auschwitz after the Lodz ghetto was closed in 1944. And from Auschwitz she was sent to another German labour camp. After liberation she made a new life for herself in America.  

Words of Lucille Eichengreen: The ghetto left a permanent mark, it left a permanent mark because I spent more than three years there. It showed humanity at its best and at its worst. It left a decided mark. It made me what I am today. We all sustained damage during those years. Some more, some less.