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Flickers of Light

Excerpt from Ella Lingens-Reiner’s testimony

in H.G. Adler, Hermann Langbein, Ella Lingens-Reiner (eds.) Auschwitz – Zeugnisse und Berichte.

Most of the time we could only look on helplessly as selections were conducted. But in one instance I was able to intervene. Several days earlier I had been called to the Political Department…..The patient was a Mrs. Lejman from Frankfurt am Main.

From the end of August 1943 to February 1944 selections were conducted every four weeks, not only in the sick bays but in the entire camp. 500 to 1000 women were selected each time, and I was certain that Mrs. Lejman would be among the victims. I went to see her and found that I was right. She was very distressed, trembling with fear and despair, clutching my hand. ‘Help me’, she blurted repeatedly…..
The camp doctor had told me shortly before that I should be very cautious not to take any wrong steps, since my release was expected in the coming weeks. An intervention on my part, as an Aryan German, on behalf of this woman was likely to irritate the Waffen-SS and endanger my release. Only someone who has been in a concentration camp without knowing how long the imprisonment will last can understand the significance of even the slightest hope of freedom. My only child was three years old when we were separated. Only those who have children can understand the depth and extent of the longing of a mother for her child. Lonely and pained, I walked up and down the camp road in the twilight of that winter day. Gray barracks, watch towers and electrified barbed wire stretched as far as the eye could see – a hopelessly ugly sight. I was to be allowed to leave this place, to leave behind this place and its tortures. And here I was being asked to risk everything and to make myself unpopular for the sake of a Mrs. Lejman, who was practically a stranger….

Time was pressing, and I had to make a decision if I wanted to do anything. In my mind’s eye I saw my little boy and heard his sweet voice when I was parted from him, as he put his little arms around my neck and pleaded ‘Mama, please stay with me’…. Then I saw the eyes of the young woman who looked at me pleadingly, as she said ‘I was so happy to speak to a German’. Inside me terrible longing for freedom and life was struggling with great compassion with this poor creature; the sense of duty to save a life, both as a physician and as a human being, was battling with the commitment of a mother to survive for the sake of her child, because every additional day in the camp constituted mortal danger. No one can tell me that the solution was an obvious one. I was tortured and couldn’t make up my mind. But I had an insight: I was perhaps entitled to claim that my life and that of my child were more important than the life of a stranger. But this was not the issue. If I were to fail, to turn away and thus permit the death of this person whom I could perhaps save, only because I was in danger myself, I would be committing the same error as the entire German people…The people who ordered and implemented these horrible deeds were not so many. But infinitely many others let it happen, because they lacked the courage to prevent them. They withdrew with a sigh claiming that ‘there is nothing we can do’, even in those cases when something could be done. If I had gone so far as to quietly turn away, out of fear of staying longer in the camp, I would be no different than all the others who were still outside, watching passively out of fear that they would be taken to a concentration camp. If so, the SS would have succeeded in ‘educating’ me, as the Gestapo man who had sent me to the camp liked to say. This would mean that everything I had sacrificed so far would have been in vain and that I could have stayed at home in the first place. What rose in me was not compassion or duty, but hatred of the system that wanted to repress me and to rob me of my dignity and honor. In my mind I said to my little son: ‘Child, you may have to wait a little longer for your mother, but when she returns she will be able to look you in the eye, and you will not have to be ashamed that your mother tongue is German.’

So I set out for the Political Department in the women’s camp….