With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

For Child Survivors of Auschwitz, "Who Am I" was the Most Difficult Question

232,000 infants, children and juveniles, aged from 1 day old to 17 years, were deported to Auschwitz from Spring 1940 until January 1945, including 216,300 Jews and 11,000 Roma and Sinti. At least 3,120 were non-Jewish Poles, 1,140 Byelorussians, Russians and Ukrainians, and a number from other nations. On January 27, 1945, only 750 children and youths aged under 18 years were liberated; 521 were girls and boys aged 14 and under.

More than 80,000 children, women and men were transported from Auschwitz to camps in the west between mid-August 1944 and mid-January 1945. The SS drove tens of thousands of inmates back and forth on long marches or crammed them into railway wagons and sent them, sometimes for weeks, on random journeys. Those who were too weak or sick to continue were shot immediately. Many died of cold, starvation or thirst. As a result, the camp became more and more empty. However, children, twins, the old and sick had to stay in Auschwitz and continue to fear for their lives there. The fact that around 7,000 of the children, women and men left behind in Auschwitz survived was mainly due to the rapid advance of the Red Army. Later, however, after the withdrawal of the SS, about 600 more inmates were found shot dead in the camp.

A significantly reduced number of SS men and women remained behind to guard the inmates who had been left behind. The Polish civilian population living in the wider surroundings of the camp learned of this. Some of them found the courage to enter the camp. Through them, the news spread that children had been left in the camp without care and food. Emilia and Adam Klimczyk, who lived 13 kilometers away from the camp in Jawiszowice, heard about it. Since they themselves remained childless, they decided to rescue one of the children from the camp if possible. But they also learned that people who had entered the camp had been shot.

Nevertheless, the Klimczyks set out for Auschwitz-Birkenau three days before the camp was liberated. “We went through a hole in the fence onto the actual camp grounds,” Emilia Klimczyk reported. “There were bodies of murdered inmates all over the grounds,” Adam Klimczyk said. Emilia wanted to take a small child who would not later remember the horrors of Auschwitz. At least that's what she hoped.

Emilia Klimczyk later recalled:

I went to that barrack where there was a group of children - boys. In the barrack I spoke with the Polish women imprisoned there. Through the coaxing of the women, I decided to take a child who was shown to me. From the women's stories it was clear that the child I took was called “Kola.” He stretched out his little hands and said to me: “I want to go to mother.” How could I not take him from the camp?

She wrapped the little boy in a cloth and took him out of the camp with her husband.

A few days after Auschwitz was liberated, a boy by the name Stanisław Krcz set off for the former Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. Like the Klimczyk family, he had heard that children were still there. “I thought,” said Stanisław, years later, “that a child might help my mother with her depression, a girl to replace my dead sister Genia.” That was why he went to the former Auschwitz-Birkenau camp.

He found a barracks with around sixty small children. He met a woman and told her directly what he was looking for. She pointed to a little girl called Éva, saying that she had arrived at the camp with her parents and a younger brother in a transport from Hungary. On their arrival, her mother had refused to be separated from her, whereupon an SS man had beaten her to death with a rifle butt. All of the members of Éva’s family were dead.

“Here’s a child for you to make you stop despairing about Genia.” These are the words Stanisław used when he handed over the girl to his mother. The family lived in Oświęcim. And from the very first day, Ewa – like every small Auschwitz child, she spoke a mishmash of Yiddish, German, Polish, Russian, Czech and Hungarian – called Karolina Krcz “mama” and Stanisław “tatinek,” the Czech for “dad.”

Karolina feared that it would be impossible to keep the little Ewa alive. She was undernourished, had an over-large head and a bloated stomach. Her forehead was covered in scabs and her entire body with small ulcers, and her hair was full of lice. Her eyes were bloodshot and festering. The inmate number A5116 could be seen clearly on her left forearm. Ewa required intensive care and effort before the color returned to her face.

While Ewa’s physical condition gradually improved, the psychological consequences of camp life proved more difficult to overcome. For a long time, she would wake up in the morning crying. For years afterwards, she was terrified of dogs and ran away whenever she saw one. And she was extremely nervous. She was incapable of playing. “With other children she was strangely serious; she never enjoyed herself and was very withdrawn,” said her new brother Stanisław, who tried repeatedly to arouse her interest. When he gave her a toy, she didn’t know what to do with it and would just stare at it or throw it away. But Ewa developed a feeling of security. “My mother was everything to me. I was treated like her own child, perhaps even better.”

Kola was two years old when the Klimczyk family rescued him from the camp. He was one of the youngest inmates of Auschwitz. His adoptive parents also feared that he would not survive. It took a considerable time to delouse Kola and clean him up. His feet were badly frostbitten. He looked like a skeleton, his little body was almost transparent and his stomach bloated from under-nourishment. He had been bitten by dogs, was covered with ulcers with a layer of scabs on his head, his eyes were gummed together with pus and they ran continuously for a long time. For a long time the little boy could not digest the food, it literally ran through him.

One of Kola's life lessons from Auschwitz-Birkenau was that people do not die, they are killed. When a relative died, his adoptive family took him to see the deceased. They showed him the body and said, “He died.” The little boy then looked at the dead body more closely, looking for traces of blood, bruises and bullet wounds. However, he did not find them and then said again, “who beat him to death?” His adoptive mother tried to convince him again, “He died, not was beaten to death.” Kola was not convinced and said, “Died! What is that?” He could not understand. Adults for Kola were like children who had no idea about real life. For many years the boy could not be convinced otherwise.

As they grew older, the children of Auschwitz, who did not know their names or where they came from, were increasingly concerned with the question of their origins. The inmate number often helped in the search for the parents, because in Auschwitz this was tattooed first on the mother in the case of girls and first on the father in the case of boys, then the number immediately following was tattooed on the child.

Kola, too, wanted to know “who am I?” By the age of 14, he was visiting the former camp more and more frequently. He went into the barracks, looked in every nook and cranny, and searched every corner. He looked for a clue, a scrap of paper with his mother's name and address on it - but found nothing.

Later, he contacted international organizations such as the Red Cross, asking for help in finding his biological family. Kola found his putative biological mother Marusya Kozlova again in 1962 in White Russian Vitebsk. Marusya had half-remembered his number tattooed on his left forearm in Auschwitz. “And she knew that I had two distinctive moles on my back and the sole of my foot.” This convinced him that she was his mother and that, after seventeen years, they had found each other again.

Kola faced this dilemma soon after his first visit to Vitebsk: Who is my real mother? The biological mother, who had to abandon him in Auschwitz when he was 2, or the Polish mother, who rescued him? For Kola, now 21 years old, the answer was clear. He returned to Poland, to the country that had become his home, whose language he spoke, and where he had spent most of his life, where his adoptive parents had helped him to get on with his life. “This was a bitter disappointment for my mother Marusya Kozlova. She cried when I left for Poland. She had lost me now for a second time.”

Moreover, Kola admitted, decades later, that he wasn’t sure that Marusya Kozlova really was his mother. A maternity test was never carried out to resolve this unanswered question. Kola Klimcyzk died in November 2001. Because Kola had no emotional attachment to his putative biological mother and was not even certain whether they were related, he remained distant from her after the first visit to Vitebsk and often waited a considerable time before answering letters from her or her daughter Gala.

After Kola’s return to Poland, for example, Marusya wrote to him:

Hello, the son I gave birth to. We are all well. We wish you all the best for your life and good luck at university. Study hard and stay healthy. Kola, the son I gave birth to. Please answer this letter. Why don’t you write? Are you angry about something? Have I done something wrong? I don’t feel as if I have.

A short time later, Kola received a letter from his presumed sister Gala:

Dear Mikołaj, I’m sorry to bother you and to write so directly. But as you don’t want to write back to us, I feel obliged to remind you that it is your duty to reply. Your family is waiting to hear from you. And please let us know if you need anything … We were so sad after you left.… Kola, please write back.

Kola had written in the meantime. Gala replied on 18 December 1962:

Dear Kola, no we weren’t at all angry with you for not writing for so long.… Tell us something about yourself. How is your family? Your [step]sister has got married. We were at the wedding but we were sad that you weren’t there. If you have a [recent] photo, please send it to us. Your sister Gala.

In a second undated letter in which she describes a second wedding, she writes:

Thank you very much for your letter. It’s true that we were very angry with you for writing so little. But only until your letter arrived. We thought you didn’t have time for us.… The wedding was very nice. It’s a shame that you weren’t there. My son Sasha listens to Polish radio all the time. He thinks it’s Uncle Kola speaking … Live where you want, … but give a sign of life from time to time. It’s your duty.

Kola was unable to fulfill the expectations of his Byelorussian family, and would not have been able to do so even if he had been certain that Marusya Kozlova was his biological mother. He wrote around once a month – at least at the outset. He travelled several times to Vitebsk and stayed for a long time there. The Kozlovs also visited him in Kraków.

“In every letter, at every meeting, there was the subtext,” as Kola intimated on several occasions: “My Byelorussian ‘mother’ always hoped, without saying it, that I would live with her in Vitebsk or at least spend more time with her than I could or wanted to. From her point of view that was quite understandable, because as far as she was concerned I was her son.”

She had finally found her son, but he continued to live over 1,000 kilometers away, spoke another language, had other habits and was completely different. In spite of all his doubts, Kola remained in regular contact with the Kozlov family in Vitebsk as long as he lived. He felt he owed it to them. But he could never give “Mama Kozlova,” as he called her, the lost time after Auschwitz.

As a young woman, Ewa, who had been adopted by the Polish Krcz family, also began to make inquiries about her biological parents. Based on the original documents available at the Auschwitz Memorial and her camp number A 5116, it turned out beyond doubt that the Jewish girl had been deported from Hungary to Auschwitz on May 20, 1944.

In the fall of 1962, the Hungarian daily newspaper Népszabadság’ published the article “Who is Ewa Krcz?” Many publications in Hungary took over the information, including photos of Ewa. The result: hundreds of letters to the editor. And many wrote: “This is my child, for sure!” They were full of hope that they had found the girl they had thought dead. Some merely recalled that “a sweet, almond-eyed, black-haired girl was deported from the neighboring apartment.” One woman wrote that her Ewa had pierced ears and that perhaps that could be verified.

One person objected:

What’s the point of reopening old wounds, because there is no single family that hasn’t lost members. I think it a great sin on your part to raise false hopes in these people, who believe that this former inmate A 5116, Ewa Krcz … is their child. What is it but an illusion to think that after eighteen years this adult woman will bear any resemblance to their four- or five-year-old girl?

The newspaper responded: “What we are doing in the name of humanity is not to raise false hopes but to arouse a sense of humanitarian solidarity. We don’t think it is an illusion for Ewa to want to find her parents and relatives again.”

In July 1963 Ewa travelled to Budapest. She remembers the discussion with her Polish brother Stanisław, who had collected her shortly after the camp was liberated and spoken to a woman who said that her parents were no longer living. “I didn’t think so much about the parents for that reason. But I thought it possible that there might be someone from the family. The fact that so many people claimed to be my parents caused problems.”

Without exception, the families who thought Ewa was their lost child wanted Ewa to recognize them as her true family. All of them wanted to convince Ewa: “you are our child!”

Each family had prepared as if for a great celebration. Every apartment, every house was decorated, the tables festively laid. She was shown photos that were supposed to prove that she looked like the people on them – countless pictures of a smiling little girl crawling on all fours, who a few months later was to be deported to Auschwitz.

I remember the first visit. The husband knew I was coming. He was a tailor by the name of Goldfinder. He had made everything ready. We rang the doorbell. He opened the door. He was holding a huge bunch of roses. When he saw me, he fainted. When he came to, he said again and again: “I knew the child was alive. I’ve always known it.” His wife tried to calm him. “Don’t get so fixated. We’re not even sure that she’s our daughter. What will you do if she isn’t?”

Another time, they visited an old woman. Old photos were shown, letters from long-dead aunts and uncles. “Look at the high forehead, the bushy eyebrows, and the arch of the upper lip. It’s clear, isn’t it?” And with trembling fingers, she traced the contours of the little girl’s oval face, hopefully seeking similarities between the faded photographs and the woman from Poland sitting in front of her.

In the end, twelve families remained. It could not be ruled out that these people were Ewa's parents. As a result, Ewa's blood type and fingerprints were compared with those of the possible parents at the Forensic Institute in Budapest. The results of these examinations at the time were that none of the twelve couples who had been searching for their child could be her parents.

Ewa has never forgotten the discussions, meetings and people she met in Hungary. Looking back, she said once, “there was a tragedy in every home. Their child Ewa had been deported. And then someone came to visit – and it wasn’t their child. All of my encounters in Hungary were more difficult for me than the most difficult exams I ever had to sit.”

© 2021 Alwin Meyer