Laurence Rees: In 1944 Alice Lok Cahana was a fifteen year old Hungarian schoolgirl, part of a happy, well-off Jewish family. But her peaceful world was to change almost in an instant when the Germans invaded Hungary in the spring of 1944.
Words of Alice Lok Cahana: When Hitler came into Hungary the Jews were taken into ghettos. First time we ever heard that word ‘ghetto’, it was a strange word, but it meant separation. And grandfather, because I think he was so well known, was put into a small ghetto. Most of his immediate family were in this ghetto. And then when the Jews came from the neighbouring cities they took us to the city factory for two nights, and from there we were taken to the railroad station and put in cattle trains. When we saw the cattle trains I told my sister, ‘It's a mistake, they have cattle trains here, they don't mean we should go in cattle trains, grandfather cannot sit on the floor in a cattle train.’ The railroad station was a wonderful memory always, because father had a business office in Budapest and he would go every week to his business office and we would always accompany him and always wait for him Thursday night coming home. He would go Monday and come back Thursday, and he would always bring us something; and it was so wonderful to go to the railroad station expecting father to come. Then going there and seeing cattle trains. Cattle trains! ‘They don't mean to put us in the cattle trains,’ I said to my sister, Edith. Edith was seventeen, I was fifteen, and Edith and I were very close together. I admired her so much; she was very intelligent, very beautiful, she wrote poetry, she helped in the office, she did already everything I couldn't yet do, I always admired her. We shared dreams and hopes always, as two girls would. And so we found ourselves in the cattle train. They closed the door on us and they left a bucket for sanitary use, and a bucket for water. And I told Edith I will never use this sanitary use bucket in front of these people no matter what happens to me. I see grandfather on the floor, all our baggage sitting very uncomfortably. And from time to time mother would want to give us something to eat and it was starting to be smelly and sweaty and hot in the June day. And I didn't want to eat anything or drink anything. We were pushed into a corner, Edith and I, and we couldn't move, we couldn't go anywhere. And around four days later we arrived to Auschwitz. When we arrived I told Edith, ‘Nothing can be so bad like this cattle train. I'm sure they will want us to work, let’s go and we will work.’ And she said, ‘Yes.’
Laurence Rees: On arrival at Auschwitz, the SS separated the Hungarian Jews into various groups. One contained only women with children – and it was here that Alice was placed. She did not know it, but she was now in immediate and tremendous danger.
Words of Alice Lok Cahana: I went to that group with the children and I was very tall for my age and suddenly a German soldier, that I found out was Mengele later, because so many times he would come and select us, he asked me, 'Haben sie kinder?' - ‘Do you have children?’ And I said, ‘No, I am just fifteen,’ in German. And then he put me to another group. And now I was very far away from Edith. I didn't see mother, I didn't see grandfather.
Laurence Rees: Alice had, unknowingly, escaped the group that had been selected by the SS for immediate death – mothers, children and others thought unfit for hard labour. Alice was now selected for work, along with her sister Edith. But she was still at constant risk. At any moment a member of the SS could decide that an Auschwitz prisoner was no longer useful to the Nazis.
Words of Alice Lok Cahana: Every day there were selections. Every day. And the selections were so severe and so scary. By then we were infested with lice. And it felt so horrible, horrible. Nothing, nothing can be so humiliating as when you feel your whole body is infested. Your head, your clothes, everywhere you look on your body there's an animal crawling. And you can do nothing about it. You cannot wash it off. There's no water. You can't change your clothes. We didn't even have underwear. We just had clothes that we got that were not our size. I got clothes that were three times my size and just hanged on me. One day they said it’s selection again. But this time we had to be naked and go in front of the SS woman, very fast. I was very skinny and I was afraid I would be selected. So as I passed by a thought came to my mind. And I stopped for one second, looked in the SS woman's eye and I said to her, ‘It's my fifteenth birthday today,’ in German. And she looked at me for one second, she stopped, and her hand went the other direction. And I was selected where Edith went. And so we were together.
Laurence Rees: One day in October, Alice was selected to go for what she thought was a shower with a group of young women. She did not know it, but she had just been selected to die in one of Auschwitz’s gas chambers.
Words of Alice Lok Cahana: We came to a building and it looked a very nice little building with flowers out in the windows. Two or three windows, with red flowers. I remember the flowers, the red flowers - geraniums. You couldn't see flowers in Auschwitz. And we went in and the SS woman said, ‘Everybody put their shoes nicely together, your clothes on the floor. Make sure that your shoes are together.’ And we were taken into a room. They told us that we would go in and get a shower. So we all looked around and there was no showerhead. But there was a pipe. It was a large room and grey colour. I remember the dark grey colour. And very sober because when they closed it it was almost dark there. There were no windows in that room. I thought water would come. And when they send you for a certain thing, you expect that certain thing happened and you don't think. Your mind wanders and you stand there naked and you wait. And you see, when I say naked it wasn't that you had room between two people - you had to be like a sardine, close. And just waiting there. And you barely could move right or left. Because they put in as many as they could wherever we went. If we went to the latrine, you think that everybody could sit on the toilet? There wasn't room. So you had to share, on the latrine. Can you imagine anything more humiliating? And so you were waiting there, shivering actually. Waiting and waiting and waiting. Suddenly the door opened and the SS woman was screaming, yelling: ‘Hurry, get out from there. Get out fast.’ And started to throw anybody's clothes, not your clothes, anybody's shoes, not your shoes - back to you. ‘And go, and run, run as fast as you can.’ We couldn't understand what happened. We went back to the barrack and I went straight to the Kapo. And she looked at me and she said, ‘Stupid child. Don't you know where you were? Don't you know?’ And then I realised what happened.
Laurence Rees: What seems to have happened is that, by pure chance, Alice had been selected to go into one of the gas chambers on the same day in October as the revolt of the Sonderkommando prisoners at another Auschwitz crematorium and gas chamber nearby. The SS now had to suddenly deal with this emergency, and so Alice and the rest of the prisoners waiting to die were released in the chaos. Alice survived simply because of that one piece of luck. It was just one more terrible aspect of Auschwitz that was hard for her to comprehend. Indeed, at the time, she found it hard to believe that such a place could even exist.
Words of Alice Lok Cahana: How could a fifteen year old from a normal environment comprehend that they will put you in a gas chamber? It's, after all, the twentieth century. We’re modern people - I go to the movies - modern people. Father is in an office in Budapest and I have never heard of such thing. You didn't want to let it enter your brain, it was so foul. I mean, you see in our house you could not utter an ugly word. That was not permitted. So how could you imagine something so foul that they kill people this way? And we were always taught that Germans are civilized people. They have Beethoven, they have Schiller. Poetry is written, operas are written. Elegant people live there. I speak very seldom about the gas chamber. For me, this is the most foulest, the most horrendous sin ever a nation, a people, a human being can commit. The fact that I remembered flowers just shows that some senses were awakened. That I see flowers in a window. Reminding you of home, reminding you of family. Reminding you that your mother went out when the Germans came. Instead of being scared and crying or hysterical, she went to the market and bought violets. And it made me so calm. If mother buys flowers, it can't be so bad. They will not hurt us. They are civilised people. I learnt German, I love the language. I learnt it in school. They couldn't be so bad. And then you are de-humanised daily, daily. First in the cattle train that you have to go to the bathroom in front of people - grown up people - and I'm fifteen years old. And I will go on the bucket? Even if I die, I will not do that. Because when you are fifteen you are so private. Your body just starts to bud. You will not undress in front of others. And here they come and say to you, not only that, but we cut your hair. Not only that, but we cut your pubic hair. How do you feel? You're already not human. And that de-humanisation for a civilised people is unacceptable. Your brain cannot take it in. You say that's a mistake. They will apologise. They will come and say no, we'll take you home. You don't belong here. This is not where you belong. You can't take grandfather to this place, you cannot. It's my grandfather, he's so wonderful. He is so beloved by everybody. He's so generous to the whole community.
Laurence Rees: After some months, Alice and her sister Edith were transferred to the concentration camp of Bergen Belsen in Germany. They were both there when the Allies arrived to free them at last.
Words of Alice Lok Cahana: When liberation came we were in Bergen Belsen. There's no vocabulary that can tell what was Bergen Belsen. They cried day and night. ‘Mother. Water. Water. Mother.’ All that you heard chanted, day and night. Then one day, somebody came into the barrack and says, ‘We are liberated.’ And I said, ‘I have to go out. I have to find liberation before it melts away. What is liberation? Tell me what is liberation?’ So I walked out and sure enough Allies are here with white flags and jeeps. And I told Edith, ‘We are liberated. Let me go out and find a clean place where there are no lice, where there are clean clothes. Let me find somewhere where I can take you.’
Laurence Rees: But Alice, who had managed to keep her sister with her throughout the horrors of Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen, now lost sight of her as the Allies took her away for medical treatment. Alice never found her sister, though she spent the next fifty years looking for her. Eventually she discovered that she had died just days after liberation.