Life

10 Questions for a Holocaust Survivor

"I want kids to know they always have a choice," says 94-year-old Batsheva Dagan, who survived both Auschwitz and Ravensbrück.
November 5, 2020, 12:37pm
Batsheva Dagan, has short brown hair and glasses. She's wearing a purple short-sleeved top, a watch and a pearl necklace. Her identification tattoo is clearly visible on her forearm.
Photo: Menahem Kahana / AFP via Getty Images

This article originally appeared on VICE Germany.

Batsheva Dagan, 94, is a Holocaust survivor and an author of children’s books. She was born in Poland, but in the early 1940s fled to Germany and worked as a maid for a prominent Nazi family. She was arrested in Schwerin, northeastern Germany, and transferred to six different prisons before ending up in Auschwitz in May of 1943. Later, she was moved to the women’s concentration camp in Ravensbrück.

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Batsheva's parents were murdered in the Treblinka extermination camp and her little sister was shot dead while fleeing the ghetto in Radom, Poland. Two of her brothers also died in the Holocaust. Batsheva survived. After the liberation, she moved to Israel and today she lives in Holon, near Tel Aviv. She continues to be outspoken about the Shoah – the Hebrew term for the Holocaust – especially at a time when the German far-right AfD party, accused of Holocaust denial, has been gaining support.

I had so many things to ask Batsheva, but kept it to ten questions.

VICE: Hi, Batsheva. Where is home for you?
Batsheva Dagan: Now, my home is Israel. My first home was Poland. I visit Poland from time to time because my work involves Warsaw and Auschwitz. I have a positive feeling when I go there, because I still speak the language. I haven’t forgotten anything.

You wrote children’s books about the Holocaust. Isn’t that a bit dark?
After the liberation, I worked as a kindergarten teacher. I have a number tattooed on my left forearm and the kids would ask me about it. Actually, I wrote the books because of them, because I was looking for an answer that children could understand.

Do you think children should learn about the Holocaust?
Children learn whether we want them to or not. They know more than we think. That’s why it is necessary to introduce the topic correctly and not just with horror stories. We should be honest about what happened, but it is important that children also know about the good things, like how prisoners helped each other in the camps. I want kids to know they always have a choice between good and bad. They make this choice every day, even with small problems.

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Were there good moments in Auschwitz? 
Yes, for example when people ate bread and shared it with each other. I can proudly say I used to distribute the bread to seven women, and I made sure the breadcrumbs were shared equally. I wrote a poem in my book about how we ate bread, about how everyone calculated their portion. During this dark period, I saw suffering as a natural part of life, but I always had hope.

Did you have friends who were Nazis?
No, no, no. None. Being a Jew was considered a plague. The family I used to work for [as a maid] had a large picture of Hitler in their guest bedroom that I had to dust every day. I went there after the liberation to tell them I was still alive. The old grandmother of the family replied: "The Führer betrayed us."

Did you want revenge?
No. Well, maybe on my supervisor. She was sentenced to death after the war. When they asked her if she was sorry, she said: "No, I did it for my motherland.” It's a morbid kind of patriotism. She didn't think for herself, she was a sheep.

Did you lose your fear of death when you were in the camps?
I lived with fear all the time. But I got a hold of it because I was always looking for something to do in Auschwitz. For example, I read what other inmates wrote. By learning things, I fed my soul with something positive. Since there were people from all over Europe, I learned French in the camps from a woman from Belgium.

Do you think Germans have learned from their history?
I have doubts, because there are still neo-Nazis in Germany today. That’s a sign some Germans haven’t learned, although Germans were victims too.

Do you think the Germans who didn’t oppose Hitler should automatically be considered perpetrators?
No, I think Germans were afraid to openly express their opinions because it was dangerous. I think many were indifferent and didn't care. There were Germans in the camps too, but they were treated better and didn't get a number tattooed on them. In the Auschwitz camp, German women were treated better than everyone else. You could tell right away – anyone who still had hair was German.

Are there still things that you don’t talk about?
Yes. Sometimes, in my dreams, I feel like I am back there. But I made it out. I'm still alive.