The babies born under the Nazi swastika - and who survived against the odds
‘It’s definitely my legacy title. If I never write another book, it will be OK.’ Suffolk writer Wendy Holden tells Steven Russell about the most harrowing story she’s ever told and why she’s never been more grateful to those who defeated the Nazis
Author Wendy Holden will be taking husband Chris to Istanbul for his birthday. He deserves it, after sharing the emotional “journey” of his wife’s latest book ? the incredible story of babies born during Nazi imprisonment but who beat the odds by surviving.
“He’s suffered almost as much as I have, actually,” says Wendy. “He reads the manuscripts first. He’d never had a nightmare in his life until he read this one. It genuinely gave him nightmares for about three weeks ? nightmares about being in gas chambers.”
It’s understandable, for Born Survivors takes us to places of death and inhumanity that we can barely imagine but where newborns took their first breaths.
One was Eva Clarke, who has spent much of her adult life in Cambridge.
Her mother, Czech Jew Anka Bergman, was in the early stages of pregnancy when she arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi concentration camp in occupied Poland in October, 1944. She was lucky in escaping the attention of sickening Nazi Dr Josef Mengele, whose decisions about the fate of new arrivals were the difference between life and death. Pregnant women suffered the latter.
Anka was sent to a labour camp at Freiberg, Germany, later that month, where many prisoners were worked to death. As the allies closed in, in April 1945, she and nearly 1,000 other women, and a few men, were loaded into open wagons on a train.
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Anka, who had been given baggy clothes that hid her pregnancy, was at full term but weighed less than five stones when they arrived at the notorious death camp of Mauthausen in Austria. She was thrown onto a farmer’s cart ? on top of the sick, diseased and dying. There, she gave birth to Eva.
When the cart stopped at an infirmary, a prisoner-doctor cut the umbilical cord, smacked the baby’s bottom and wrapped it in newspaper. Anka was helped to a stinking bunk, which she knew was far superior to the conditions the other prisoners faced.
She didn’t know that two other women on the train had also given birth. Their babies, each weighing less than three pounds, also survived. Their fathers had all been murdered by the Nazis.
Priska Lowenbeinova gave birth at Freiberg munitions factory to Hana, while Rachel Friedman had her son, Mark, on the disease-ridden train.
Amazingly, after the war, the three mothers went on to live long lives without much ill health, and enjoyed grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Then, at the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Mauthausen, Eva, Hana and Mark met for the first time, becoming “siblings of the heart”.
“That was pretty emotional,” Eva says. “Having found each other via the American Army Veterans website and the internet, then arranging to meet, we sat in a cafe the whole afternoon, either laughing or crying and just telling our mothers’ stories. We instantly had a kinship. We were all only-children, but we feel we have siblings now.”
Their story is told in heart-wrenching detail by author and journalist Wendy, who lives near Halesworth. The former war correspondent visited concentration camps and spoke to survivors to understand this appalling chapter of our history.
It came to her attention after reading an article online about a woman who’d had a baby in Auschwitz that had died. She didn’t think there had ever been a book written about children born during the holocaust, and couldn’t find one. But she did discover, on the web, mention of Eva.
“I read about her story and her mother’s story, and honestly, Steve, I think I’d have jumped on a plane and gone to Sydney, Australia, if that’s where she lived, because I really wanted to write her story. To my very great pleasure and delight I discovered she lived in Cambridge.”
This was in 2013. Wendy met her and learned about the other two babies. “I asked if she would do me the great honour of allowing me to write her mother’s story, and she reached out, touched my arm and said, ‘I’ve been waiting for you for 70 years’.
“I felt that I had to encompass all three stories into one volume, even though the mothers had never met or known about each other.”
Publication comes 70 years to the month after the liberation by the US Army of Mauthausen, “which is when they considered they were reborn”.
The camp, near Hitler’s birthplace, was one of only two grade three concentration camps, “grade three being the most serious. Nobody was ever intended to leave. Their papers were marked ‘Not to be returned’.”
Luck played a big part in the women’s survival, not least because the gas chambers were dismantled or the Zyklon B gas ran out (no-one is sure exactly) the day before the three women arrived.
“Rachel and Mark were herded into the gas chamber, nothing happened and they were herded out again,” says Wendy. “The one key word that comes out of this is luck. It was luck if you caught the attention of an SS guard as you were being marched to and from work. If you stumbled and fell, they might shoot or beat you. It was luck that the women were given large baggy clothes ? or their bellies would have shown sooner.”
Hana, now a biochemist in California, and Mark, a doctor in Wisconsin, have recently been reunited with Eva at Mauthausen, where the book was launched. It’s being published in 18 countries and translated into 14 languages. Eva says: “When we came to this country, I didn’t have aunts or uncles or cousins around so I began asking my mother about her family and her life. She would tell me in tiny snippets of her wartime experiences, as and when she felt I could cope with the details.”
Anka, whose first husband was a German Jew who fled Berlin for Prague when Hitler came to power but was shot by the Nazis, went on to marry Karel Bergman, a Czech interpreter.
They came to Cardiff as refugees, where Karel got a job supervising a glove factory and ended up buying it.
“I was about six or seven and noticed a handbag on the back of the door with the initials AN on it. My mother’s first married name was Nathan, so I asked her what the letters meant.”
Eva was told she had two daddies: one killed in the war. “As I grew older, the replies became more detailed, but it was a gradual process, always when she felt I could cope with it. It began to mean something when I was a teenager.”
Anka died two years ago, aged 96.
“Before the war, she was a happy young person with a secure family background, lived life to the full in Prague and fell madly in love with my father,” says Eva. “After her wartime experiences, she was very happy, despite all the death and tragedy, and in this country was a very happy wife, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother.
“She had a very optimistic nature and always thought she’d survive, despite seeing all the death around her. She had me to live for and she just had to get on with life. My mother never had time for survivors’ guilt. She was furious with anyone who expressed it. She said, ‘Just be bloody grateful you’re here’.”
The book, Eva says, is important, because people must not be allowed to forget. “We must try to prevent these things from happening again. That’s why you have to keep repeating it.”
n Born Survivors is published by Sphere at £18.99.
Born Survivors is the result of “a very intense 18 months” for Wendy Holden, pictured with Eva. “It’s almost certainly the toughest book I’ve had to write, but it’s also the book of which I’m most proud.”
Last weekend the writer was in Austria for a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Mauthausen camp. She flew back to London for a whistle-stop publicity tour, and this weekend is in the U.S.
Born Survivors was draining, “but I think to a certain extent I was destined to write it because of my own background. Having been a foreign correspondent, and having seen things that people don’t usually see, I think one does get slightly inured to it. Having said that, there were whole passages that I wept over as I was writing them.
“Certainly going to Auschwitz and Mauthausen and Freiburg, and interviewing umpteen aged, weeping holocaust survivors is not necessarily good for one’s spirit, but it is a humbling experience. It really is. It makes you count your blessings, and what I always loved about the story was it was it had a happy ending. The fact these women had defied the Nazis and had such optimism in spite of such unspeakable circumstances, that really was what kept me going. When you speak to the people who were there... my goodness. They cry, you cry. But the fact they got through it is what pulls you through.”
Of those souls born in pitiful circumstances, she says: “I call them ‘my babies’, although they’re all 70! You can’t help but be happy they’ve gone on to live full, productive and happy lives.
“Mark is an emergency doctor and has only just retired, though not fully. Hana has just retired from running a company that tests cancer drugs; and Eva is indefatigable. She works for the Holocaust Educational Trust and gives three or four talks a week.
“Their motto is ‘We’re still here’, and it’s a wonderful expression. They are still here.”
Wendy had never been to any concentration camp before working on the book, and is glad she didn’t visit Auschwitz until later ? when she knew the stories.
“The sheer scale of the camp is shocking. It’s industrial. Even though it looked clearly they were going to lose the war, they were still planning on the mass destruction not only of Jews but anyone they called enemies of the reich. To think there was a list of something like 350,000 people for when they invaded Britain ? people they planned on sending to Auschwitz. It’s absolutely chilling. I’ve never celebrated VE Day or D Day more.
“I met the Austrian president and the Polish president, and the work the Austrian government is doing in keeping the memory alive, and providing every assistance to survivors, is heartwarming and an example of how different things are. They presented ‘the babies’ with a cake and the Austrian president led the singing of Happy Birthday. What would Hitler have thought of the Austrian president doing that...”
As a journalist, Wendy Holden had a gun held to her head in Belfast, crash-landed in the Iraqi marshes, and took a brick in the back of her skull from Geordie rioters.
She even urged a fellow journalist to kill her, should they fall into the hands of rebels operating around Basra.
Wendy fell for Suffolk’s quiet charm many years ago when the national newspaper she was working for sent her here to cover a story – putting her up in Hintlesham Hall.
Ever see herself leaving? “No, never. Only in a box!”
Her first novel, written under the name Taylor Holden, was The Sense of Paper – out in 2006.
As a ghostwriter, she’s worked with celebrities such as actress Goldie Hawn and former Blue Peter presenter turned Perfect Housewife Anthea Turner.