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A survivor's tale

Rob Cameron, KosiceJanuary 23, 2013

Few survivors are still alive as Europe commemorates the liberation of Nazi concentration camps on January 27. In Kosice, Slovakia, for example, Edita Salamonova is thought to be one of four who survived deportation.

Edita Salomonova in her apartment in Kosice
Image: Alexis Rosenzweig

Edita Salamonova perched on the brown sofa in her modest 1970s apartment and rolled up her sleeve. A small, neat, soft-spoken woman who recently celebrated her 89th birthday, Edita lives alone on the 10th floor of a panelak - a Communist-era concrete tower block - on the edges of Kosice, Slovakia's gritty second city.

She struggled with her blue polka-dot pinafore to expose not - as expected - the row of tattooed numbers, a permanent reminder of her arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau in April 1944 - but a terrible scar high up on her right arm, the flesh torn and pinched and messily stitched together.

"They shot me here..." she pointed, "...and here."

It was at this point that her voice began to break. She was describing how one day in the closing weeks of the war she and her sister had escaped from one of the numerous work camps they'd been sent to in Germany, Latvia and Poland. The Red Army was closing in, and they'd seized their chance. Unfortunately they'd stumbled across an SS patrol, who had opened fire - injuring Edita and killing her sister.

"I thought I could protect her," she said, her eyes gazing at a spot on the wall. "But she was hit in the chest."

Edita's children and grandchildren are regular visitors, but mostly she's left alone with her books, photographs, and memories of life in Kosice before the war, and what happened afterwards.

"Life was good here," she said.

"We didn't differentiate by nationality. Things started changing in '38, when we became part of Hungary. Our young men were sent to work camps. Jewish people began losing their jobs. And there was this ... fear of what would happen next."

Until 1938, Kosice had been a thriving city in eastern Czechoslovakia. Hungarians, Germans, Slovaks and Jews - 12,000 of them, 20 percent of the population - lived alongside each other in relative harmony.

Then came the Munich Agreement, under which Czechoslovakia was dismembered, and the area around Kosice transferred to Hungary. For several years the country's fascist leader Admiral Horthy refused Berlin's demands for the deportation of Hungary's Jews. In March 1944, with Hitler's patience exhausted, Hungary was occupied by the Germans. At the age of just 19, life for Edita Salamonova was about to change forever.

A knock at the door

"On April 18th, 1944 - it was a Friday - there was a knock on the door. They said, 'Pack up your possessions, tomorrow we're coming to pick you up,'" said Edita, her voice quavering with emotion.

"We said, 'but where are we going?' They said, 'it's nothing, it's a work camp.' So we thought we were going off to work and were waiting outside the house the next morning," she continued.

"They took us to the Pushkin synagogue. You can't imagine the scenes there - people crying, shouting, children, the sick - all crammed into the synagogue. We survived the night, and the next day, Sunday morning, we were marched down to the brick factory."

Kosice's brick factory had been transformed into a concentration camp for 14,000 Jews from the city and surrounding villages. From there Edita, her sister, parents and several relatives were loaded onto cattle wagons bound for Auschwitz.

"We travelled for three days. The train kept stopping at various stations, and each time they would want something from us. First it was gold, then it was furs, then ladies' underwear. Each time something," she told DW.

"Finally, in the early hours of the morning, we arrived at Auschwitz. We were ordered out - men in one line, women another. That was the last time we ever saw our parents. And standing there was Mengele. And he sorted us into two groups, pointing with his stick, without a word. Left... right."

Plumes of smoke

The infamous Dr Josef Mengele was sorting the new arrivals according to whether they were fit to work. Those who were not - including Edita's parents - were sent to the gas chambers.

"They took us to a different part of the camp - Birkenau - because Auschwitz was full. There was a woman walking alongside us - a Czech woman, I don't know how she ended up with us Slovaks," Edita remembered.

"She pointed at this huge plume of smoke in the sky and said, 'That's where your parents have gone.' I said to her: 'For the love of God, what do you mean "that's where my parents have gone"?'. 'Well, that was the crematorium,'" she explained.

Edita - her head shaved, and dressed in prison uniform - experienced the horrors of Auschwitz for just three days. She was loaded into another train and sent to a work camp in Riga, Latvia, piling earth onto trucks. After several months there she was sent to a different camp, in Poland.

An abortive escape

There she remained until January 1945, when the Germans - panicked about the rapid Soviet advance - ordered the camp's evacuation. Somehow Edita, her sister and two friends managed to hide underneath bales of straw. The next day - the camp deserted - they made a run for it, heading across frozen fields to the next village. They had the misfortune of running into an SS unit; a struck of bad luck that left her sister dead and Edita badly wounded.

Delirious from fever and in urgent need of medical treatment, eventually Edita fell into the hands of Red Army soldiers, who found her a doctor. She spent several long months recuperating in hospital in Lubawa, Poland, before finally making a tortuous journey home to Kosice - sick, emaciated and with no news of her family - in September 1945.

The only other ones to survive were her cousin, and her brother - who had also been through the camps, and who burst into tears when he saw her. Everyone else was gone.

Today, Edita Salamonova is part of a dwindling Jewish community in Kosice, numbering a few hundred people, with a few dozen Holocaust survivors among them.

Interest in the fate of Kosice's Jews was reignited last summer when Britain's Sun newspaper tracked down Laszlo Csatary, the Hungarian police commander accused of setting up the ghetto and organizing the deportations, living peacefully in Budapest.

It's conceivable Edita might be called to testify against him if he's extradited to Slovakia. But it's not likely, as Csatary is now 97 and could die at any moment.

Edita herself is indifferent to his fate. As she says, nothing will bring back her parents. Or, most painfully of all, her sister.

Laszlo Csatary leaves a building in Budapest (Photo: Laszlo Balogh)
Csatary may never have to face justice for his role in deporting JewsImage: Reuters
The main entrance at the Auschwitz concentration camp
Salamonova's parents were killed in AuschwitzImage: AP
A "halt" sign in front of Auschwitz concentration camp
Salamonova's family was told they would be taken to a work campImage: picture-alliance/dpa
Havna, the main avenue in Kosice
Salamonova is one of the last survivors in KosiceImage: DW/S. Bartlick