Susan Pollack holds a picture of her with her parents, who were killed in the Holocaust. Photograph: Graeme Robertson
An 84-year-old British woman who lost her parents and 50 other members of her extended family during the Holocaust has recalled her experiences of the Nazi death camps at the trial of a former SS guard charged with complicity in the murder of 300,000 Jews.
Susan Pollack, who lives in London, stared directly at judge Franz Kompisch as she answered questions about her time in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen and ignored 93-year-old defendant Oskar Gröning, who watched impassively.
The last survivor of Auschwitz scheduled to give evidence at the four-month trial, Pollack recalled being taken from Hungary to ghettoes and internment camps in the eastern European country and then on to Auschwitz in Poland.
“I was carrying a sewing machine, believing that it might be useful and that I might be able to sustain my family … and I was still carrying the sewing machine to the cattle trains. Somehow we were still hopeful. We couldn’t imagine what was to come,” she told the court.
After what Pollack estimates was a five-day journey, the doors of the train were opened. But the relief she felt at the surge of fresh air that filled the carriage for the first time in days quickly turned to terror, she said.
“The terror stills my soul. On arrival it was like the terror that stops faculties of thinking,” she told the court. Immediately separated from her mother and her brother, she was told by a Hungarian-speaking “former victim” to tell the Nazi guards that she was older.
As we were losing weight, we weren’t able to use our minds anymore
“So when a Nazi came to me, I said: ‘Ich bin 15 Jahre alt [I am 15 years old]’,” she told the judges. “I couldn’t think. This was a world that was unrecognisable. The terror just seized me up.”
She later found out that her mother had been murdered in the camp’s gas chambers.
The elderly woman told the court that, following the separation from her family, she was taken with hundreds of other girls and young women to be stripped and to have their heads shaved. But, unlike many of the other Jewish prisoners held at Auschwitz, she said she wasn’t given a number.
“We were disposable. I was in a barrack with about 800 other girls,” she said. “What did we do? Nothing. At first there were Hungarian-speaking girls and there was no food … we pretended, had a fantasy game from girl to girl about what we would have for breakfast in the morning – a piece of bread, maybe an egg. But as we were losing weight, we weren’t able to use our minds anymore.”
It was during this time that the notorious Nazi doctor Josef Mengele examined the group every day, making selections of some girls for his experiments while leaving the others, Pollack told the court.
“We were regularly marched in front of him, naked … We were dehumanised completely. It was a world I haven’t got the words to describe. The fear, the anguish, I haven’t got the words to describe. I just wanted to recoil into myself,” she said.
One day Pollack was selected and sent away to a town to test instruments, an experience she described as slave labour. While the girls there received better food and more of it than in the camps, they were soon forced to move on in one of the many “death marches” towards the end of 1944.
Pollack and those with her walked for what she said felt like forever, afraid to even look up at the guards accompanying them or the people that watched them walk by. Conditions were “treacherous” and freezing, she said. They slept in barns and ate boiled potatoes when they were lucky. Then they arrived at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany.
“Bergen-Belsen was indescribable,” she told the court. “There were mountains of corpses everywhere and no hygiene – nobody cleaned up. There were infectious diseases. It was worse than death.”
On 15 April 1945, the camp was liberated by British troops, but Pollack said that by that point she was numb and that for her it was not a happy occasion.
“For me, it wasn’t a joyous experience because I wasn’t able to recognise what it means,” she said. “That feeling of dehumanisation and total despair – it invaded my whole being.”
After being treated for tuberculosis, typhoid and countless other diseases, Pollack said she didn’t know what to do, “a little girl with no education, no skills and no support system”. She was taken to Sweden, where she recovered physically, but psychological recovery evaded her.
From there she moved to Canada, where she met her husband, also a Holocaust survivor. But it was difficult being isolated from mainstream society by her experiences, she said.
“We worked non-stop,” she said. “I wanted to create a foundation for our children … I lost my youth – those carefree years where there’s food on the table and a roof over your head. We were grateful that we could have a new beginning somewhere, but it was difficult.”
After not seeing her brother for more than 20 years, she told the court she had found out he had survived as a Sonderkommando – made to shovel the bodies of gas-chamber victims into the crematorium.
In 1962, Pollack moved to the UK, where she studied for a degree in history, and taught about the Holocaust for 25 years. She told the court that her experiences had given her a mission and that it was important not only for Jews to eradicate anti-semitism, but also for racism and persecution to be stopped.
“I’m grateful that I’m here. I’m very, very satisfied,” she said. “It’s a new world.”
Pollack was the second victim from the UK this week to speak at the trial of Gröning, the so-called “bookkeeper of Auschwitz” who volunteered for the SS, the Nazi party’s “protection squadron”, at the age of 19 or 20.
On Tuesday it was the turn of Ivor Perl, a Holocaust survivor who lives in Buckhurst Hill, Essex, to give evidence. Perl was just 12 years old when he arrived at Auschwitz, and lost his parents and seven siblings. Only he and one of his brothers survived.
Speaking to the Guardian, the 83-year-old said the trial had been “emotionally stressful”, but that it was also a “relief and release”. But he said that it had been difficult travelling to the site of the trial, Lüneburg, and finding it “beautiful”.
“People are too nice to me. I feel like it’s taking away part of my hate I should have,” he said. “I feel like I should come here and that it should be pouring with rain and with everybody miserable.”
However, he was unconcerned at having had to wait 70 years for the trial. “As far as I’m concerned, I think the important thing was the trial and his admission. But when I look at that 90-year-old man I feel disgusted with myself because I feel pity for him.”
It was a sentiment echoed by Pollack as she walked out of the court. Speaking about Gröning, she said: “He is a broken man, an elderly man. Forgiveness? Who am I to forgive? I’m lucky I survived. It’s not for me to forgive.”
The trial continues.
- This article was amended on 14 May 2015. An earlier version gave the date of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen as 15 April 1944, rather than 1945.