Judith Nachum - The Holocaust Survivor

Mrs Judith Nachum, Sydney, Australia

Interview conducted by Katina Michael.

Biography

Mrs Judith Nachum (maiden name Lachowitz) was born in Czechoslovakia in Teplice-Sanov (figure 1). Judith was the daughter of Leopold and Hedwig Lachowitz who were born in Slovakia and Austria respectively. In the summer and fall of 1938, the majority of the Jewish community in Teplice-Sanov left due to Czech-German strife and Nazi agitation. At the age of ten, Judith had to move away to Prague. In 1939 Judith’s father Leopold tried to get out of Czechoslovakia to go to Palestine but he was unsuccessful and was killed by the Germans in an unknown location in Hungary.

Life was difficult and miserable during the years of Jewish persecution. The Jewish children could not go to school, could not go to the playground, could not listen to the radio, they could not even travel on public transport on the weekends. All the Jews had to wear a Star of David stitched to their coats. There was not enough to eat, and the rations the Jews received were always less than the rest of the population. In April 1942, when Judith was 13 years and 8 months, she was sent to Theresienstadt with her mother and older sister.

After 1945 Judith returned to Czechoslovakia. She found it very difficult to assimilate back into her homeland. She did not feel that she belonged. By that stage, she was too old to start her schooling again, and struggled with many complexes. All she knew is that she was a Jew. In 1948 at the age of twenty, Judith left for Israel while her mother and stepfather stayed behind in Czechoslovakia, along with her sister and brother-in-law. Judith’s brother-in-law who was a doctor was imprisoned not only by the Germans but also later by the Communist Party in 1952. In the same year, Judith’s mother and stepfather migrated to Australia. Judith met her husband Clement on a ship passenger liner where they worked together, and they married before migrating to Australia in 1961.

Coming to Australia was very strange for Judith as she learnt to get used to non-Jewish people. With only ten days of rest after her arrival in Australia, Judith started working and her nine year old son, Thomas, was cared for by others while she worked in the evenings. She later gave birth to her second son whom she named Robert. Both her children were educated at Double Bay Public School. Judith worked in restaurants and later she bought a milk bar with her husband Clement where she worked till her retirement in 1982. Afterward, Judith enrolled at Dover Heights Tafe to fulfill a life-long dream- she sat three HSC courses in Social Studies, English and History achieving an ‘A’ in her examinations.

She has six grandchildren and four great grandchildren and recently she celebrated her 80th birthday with all her family present. She attends her local synagogue every Saturday and every Monday she attends Bible lessons. She is a speaker at the Sydney Holocaust Museum where she has lectured about her experiences to schoolchildren for the last seventeen years. Judith notes that she has never experienced anti-Semiticism in Australia.

 

Interview

Katina Michael: Mrs Nachum, how old were you during the Holocaust, and where were you?

Judith Nachum: I was ten years old when we had to move from the city where I was born to Prague. So I can say that my childhood stopped when I was ten years old. When we were taken to camp, I was about thirteen and a half.

Katina Michael: Which camp Mrs Nachum?

Judith Nachum: First it was Theresienstadt, then Auschwitz, from Auschwitz to Oederan, and from Oederan back to Theresienstadt. And that was the end of the war in 1945.

Katina Michael: Mrs Nachum, I will now ask you a series of questions related to how identification was used to segregate people during the Holocaust. Could you please describe the Yellow Star to us? For instance, its symbolism, and why it was used?

Judith Nachum: First of all, the Star of David, in Hebrew it is Māḡēn Dāwīḏ, and the translation of it means the Shield of David. By David, I mean King David. It was his shield and so it stayed with the Hebrews. In 1948 when Israel came into being the symbol was used widely. But in Europe, the Germans, knew very well what the Māḡēn Dāwīḏ (pronounced ma’gen da’vid in modern Hebrew) meant and so therefore as a symbolism to show that we are Jews, we had to wear that Star of David (figure 2). And you know, I was at the Holocaust Museum on Monday because usually when there are young children, they call me because apparently I know how to talk with younger children and somebody asked me, one girl from a Catholic private school, whether it was difficult for me to be Jewish and to wear the Star of David. And I very quickly said “No”. That it really did not bother me, and that it never bothered me to be Jewish, and in general, I feel that we have to be comfortable in our own skin. And no matter what I went through in my life, I always felt comfortable in my own skin. And that was it, I was born Jewish, I stayed Jewish, and I had to go through the consequences.

Katina Michael: Mrs Nachum, do you recall how you received the badge?

Judith Nachum: All the Jewish populations received it, populations I say because wherever Germany occupied territory, the Jews had to wear it. In France they had written “Juif” in the French way. And in Holland with two “O’s” in Dutch they had written “Jood”. And so we had to pick them up from the Gestapo. As many members of the family, as many stars you got, and we had to put it on the left-hand side of every overcoat, on every jacket that we wore. And because we did not get enough, I remember my mother used to put a lining underneath the star, and put small buttons, so we could transfer the star from one coat to the other because we did not have enough stars to put on all our clothes. Even when we were already in the camp at Theresienstadt, we still had to wear the Star.

Katina Michael: What would happen if a Jewish person didn’t wear the Star and they were found out?

Judith Nachum: Oh, if as a child, nothing very much would happen to you, but your parents would have been taken away on the next transport to the “East” as they called it. We never knew where those transports were going.

Katina Michael: We have seen in many photographs that there were persons in the camps that were tattooed or branded. Can you tell me why all people were not tattooed? What was the motivation for this do you think?

Judith Nachum: I know what the motivation was… I wasn’t tattooed. It depended when you arrived at Auschwitz. When there was enough time you got a tattoo. We came in 1944 when the Germans nearly lost the war. Once they lost it in Russia, they lost it. And so the Nazi’s had one thing in their mind, to kill as many Jews as possible. And so there wasn’t really very much time to tattoo everyone at that point. Either you went to the gas chambers- which in our case there were 2,500 taken to Auschwitz and after the first selection there were 200 women and 50 men left alive. My mother, elder sister and I were not in Auschwitz very long, as we were sent to Germany to work … they shaved our heads, yes, took our hair off completely, and so you couldn’t run away because everyone would know. Yes, now it is a fashion, men shave their hair off but not in those days.

Katina Michael: Do you know if the tattoo itself had a code, was it a specific sequence for specific types of people- young, married, elderly, men and women?

Judith Nachum: That I really don’t know. You see there is a general term, Auschwitz, but Auschwitz was divided. I was in the camp which was called Birkenau, that is where the gas chambers were, and again there you had different groups divided with electric wire. We were in a camp that was called B2BLAGER, that means B2B. So most probably, and this is my guess, the code of the tattoo was made up of the first few letters of the name of the camp followed by the number of people in that camp. But believe you me, you didn’t ask very many questions.

Katina Michael: Did you have any friends or family in the camp that were tattooed?

Judith Nachum: Heaps… heaps… just not in the transport that I came to Auschwitz with. I didn’t have one [tattoo], my mother didn’t, my sister didn’t, and all the others because there were only 200 left and we were sent altogether to Germany. None of us was tattooed. But of course, in the other camps, the people that were in Auschwitz before me were all tattooed, but those people that came after me were not (figure 3). After I was at the camp there were only two more transports and that was the end.

Katina Michael: Could you describe how the mark, the tattoo, makes you feel as a Jewish person, having seen this mark tattooed on friends and family.

Judith Nachum: That is very very hard to answer. For me personally, if I would have been tattooed most probably, I would have been proud of it, and I would have said, “there look.” But other people, I cannot speak on their behalf. Most probably, it did hurt them, or they hated it. And I am sure that there would have been people after the war who tried to get rid of the tattoo, maybe they went to doctors and had it cut out (if that is possible, I don’t know). But for me, as I said in the beginning, for me it would not have mattered. This is who I am, this is who I was, and I was marked for it. See, I wasn’t the bad one. The one who did it, he was the bad one. You see there is a difference. Why should I be ashamed because somebody else is bad and does something- the sin is his, not mine. And very often people are asking me whether I can forgive. And I say, it is not for me to forgive, it is God who is forgiving… forget, I can never forget, but I can forgive every German who was born after me.

Katina Michael: May I ask how was the tattoo applied?

Judith Nachum: Like any other tattoo is applied nowadays.

Katina Michael: Here is a terribly powerful excerpt written by Michael Berenbaum with extensive connotations: could I ask you to reflect on this? Can you add to it? Explain it a little more? “And as they gave me my tattoo number, B-4990, the SS man came to me, and he says to me,| “Do you know what this number’s all about?”| I said, “No, sir.”| “Okay, let me tell you now. You are being dehumanized.”

Judith Nachum: Oh… I could talk about that for the next half an hour… that is so true because you tattoo animals, you tattoo cows, you tattoo whatever animal so that they are unable to run away. This tattoo is only one small thing in dehumanizing, there were so many other things- to shave your hair, to make you undress as a female in front of men, to have your whole body shaven… Why? This was all to make you not human… You lost your name, you were not called by name… You had a number here, on your clothes you had a number, and you were called by that number… it is just my number was not tattooed but it was still on my uniform.

My sister, after a few days in Auschwitz, went to my mother and said to her: “look, we cannot survive this, this is not possible, why should we go on to suffer. If we go to this electric wire and we just touch it (it was 240 volts), we will be dead in a second.” And my mum said: “Okay. And how about Yuci?” They called me Yuci at home [Judy]. And so my mum came to me and said Gerti wants to do so and so… And I said, “no”. And my mum said “You want to suffer all this, the dirt… and all?” And I said, “I am not going to commit suicide, I am not going to make the job easier for the Germans. If they want to kill me, they will have to try. I am not going to do their job for them.” And so my mother said to my sister, she is the younger one and we can’t leave her here by herself… So they did not go through with it, and the three of us survived. I am not a person who gives in very very easily…

And dehumanized? We definitely were. But I knew who I was. And just, for me, it was out of the question to crawl, not even to the SS. And I am telling you, somehow, and this is already my philosophy, because as you get older you are trying to understand or feel an excuse, how come that you are here, and there were 1.5 million children that went to the gas chambers… and so, you know, I just have to say that I was a toughy… and I think that even the Germans somehow felt that I was a strong person, that they would have to reckon with me… I mean, I did my work properly, I worked hard, and kept my head up… I would not have given them that satisfaction that I would kill myself for them.

Katina Michael: Did prisoners in the camp wear different colored clothing depending on why and when they were drafted into the camp?

Judith Nachum: In Auschwitz most prisoners had striped uniforms with different colored triangles so they could be easily identified, in terms of their reason for being there. Red was used for political prisoners, pink for homosexuals, yellow for the Jews, etc (figure 4). We in Birkenau wore only rags. That is we only had one outer garment, and they gave us no other apparel- no undergarments, no socks, nothing else.

Katina Michael: Edwin Black describes that IBM’s Hollerith machine which was used to collect census information was actually used in the Holocaust to identify Jewish persons?

Judith Nachum: I don’t know anything about that… I don’t think I had even heard the word “computer” until I came to Australia…

Katina Michael: Okay, but on reflection how do you feel about technology being used specifically in a context like this- for the purposes of segregation?

Judith Nachum: In this context, of course, it is dreadful. But you have got to understand that in Western Europe, for sure in Austria, for sure in Germany, and for sure in Czechoslovakia, we all had ID cards. You were born and you were registered by the police. You had to tell them that you were Jewish (figure 5). You went to the nearest board of deputies which every city and every state had. So you could not deny that you were Jewish or Catholic or Protestant because that went for everybody. So the Nazis just had to go to every police station and just have a look. Your religion was recorded on your birth certificate. So you know why they would have needed a machine, I have got no idea because it was very, very easy to access information. My father lost his life because they took his pants down and saw he was circumcised… we Jews make it easy for others to recognize us. So I really cannot tell you why the use of automatic technology was necessary. I just don’t know.

Katina Michael: Yes, the information existed already...

Judith Nachum: The information existed, from one country to the other. They found it all out so quickly. And we had to keep repeating it to them. We had to give up first the fur coats (and it was so, so cold), then it was jewelry besides the wedding ring, and then it was watches, then it was radios… and every time you went and you filled in forms you would give things away. So they knew fifty times over who you were and that you were Jewish and they could cross-check it. The Germans were so meticulous.

After the war, when I came to Australia, I tried very hard to get a pension from the Germans. There was an office I visited, and I saw a lady who had a book that was very thick, and there were all the concentration camps written down that existed. And she went through this book, and there came a camp which was called Niederhagen where I was… a lousy little camp, not thousands and thousands like Flossenbürg (the mother’s camp), and there it was in the book. My name was also in that book. They had the transport number, and with which number I went to Auschwitz, and under what number I went to Auschwitz to Germany. You know they had everything. It took them days and nights and weeks to burn all these papers, well as many as they could in Auschwitz and then they blew the chimneys, the gas chambers. So you know they were and they are perfectionists, the Germans. They were high culture, Beethoven etc., and they were absolutely perfect in killing.

I always thought that Zyklon B was the first, and that the gas chambers started in Auschwitz. Not so. First they killed “in” Germany all the crazies, all the “sub-normal” people, all the sick ones like mongoloids. And they had people like this in the camps, and in the beginning they would take them by train from the camp back to Germany and put them in a special building with cellars, which they called Sunshine House, and they killed them with carbon-monoxide. And then someone thought that carbon-monoxide would be a good way to kill the Jews, and they started by putting the Jews on trucks in Russia, already half-dead and they finished them off in the trucks. But you needed vehicles and so it was costly to them, and then only, they said in this one place in Auschwitz where they were holding Polish prisoners, political prisoners who they had killed (some of whom were hung)… One Nazi SS opened the door in one of these old buildings (Block 11), and found a whole heap of old clothing, hundreds of pieces, that were worn by the Polish prisoners. And on the door, was the sign of the skull and crossbones which represented poison and infection. So you had these little platelets that you would light up the gas with, and they were used to kill vermin, it killed all these things. And that gave them the idea- vermin here, and here you’ve got the vermin, the Jews. And that is how they made these gas chambers. That was the Zyklon B, and this is how they did it.

So first they killed the sick in Germany. An official SS man was interviewed. And he admitted to the killings. And the lady who interviewed him asked “what did you feel? What did you feel in taking hundreds of people and you let them dig a trench and you put them in the trench and then you shot them.” And he said, “I didn’t feel a thing.” She said “how is it possible”? And he said, “because I hate the Jews so much… I hate them even today”. She then asks, “what is the reason”? And he says, “I don’t know… when I was a kid everyone says it was because of the Jews that we lost World War One... because the Jews had all the money, and this is why we were starving, and this is why my parents did not have any money, and so I hated them all my life.” And the woman asks, “do you have any proof, any evidence”? And he says, “no, that was enough, I hate them even now.” You have got all kinds of people on this earth...

Katina Michael: I find it abhorrent that the sick were taken first to be killed, then those who they considered “not normal,” and that then they also began to kill the Jews.

Judith Nachum: Also the Slavs. The Russians were even considered on a lower level, they wanted them dead. The Germans planned the war into Russia, they hated communists. I do not think you will find this in any book. If they wanted to win the war against Russia, Russia had to feed the German Army. That meant that they were going to take away all their food… and that is what they did, they starved millions of Russians… they starved them to death.

Katina Michael: Can I digress slightly and ask you whether Stalin was any better than Hitler?

Judith Nachum: In this way not. But you know, no dictator is better. I ran away from Czechoslovakia, I just made it in 1948. In July of that year I was 20 years old, by August I was gone. My mother had to give me permission in the court because you had to be 21 years old to travel on your own. I said, I am not going to stay under the communist regime; I’d had enough brown, I did not want red. All my life I worked with my hands, but I cannot even say the word “labor” because “labor” equates to “communism”. My poor brother-in-law was locked up for 2 years because my mother and I exchanged letters with him because they were spying on us… definitely, they were not any better….

Katina Michael: Do you think automatic identification devices like biometrics or smart cards could—

Judith Nachum: I’m looking at it in a different way. I would feel quite happy to have an ID card. For instance, I am going to the post office to send a parcel, and they say “any ID, driver’s license?”. There you go. What do I do if I don’t drive, I would have to have a passport, I would have to have something with a photo on it. So what is it? I am asking you? That is identification. You have got your papers, your name is in the bank, everywhere. Supermarkets, department stores, they pay for your name and your address, that is why you get all that rubbish in the letterbox. So you know, it is a fallacy to say we don’t need ID. So as long as I don’t do anything bad, which 99 per cent I do not do, I really don’t care… I don’t care.

Katina Michael: Do you think it would make it easier to gather information however, to segregate persons in the future—

Judith Nachum: You know there may be thousands of Jews in Australia, who in a Census will not put down their religion for that exact reason. I know people who will not provide that information in the Census. All the other questions you must fill in, but this information they do not give. And I don’t blame them. It is in them, and to a degree it is in me to be wary.

Katina Michael: If I told you that today people can receive implants that contain ID chips and can be used for location tracking, how does that make you feel? For instance, today we have a digital brand, a high-tech brand that is currently being used for medical purposes so if someone has an allergic reaction to penicillin, emergency doctors can quickly find out about it if the patient is unconscious.

Judith Nachum: I don’t think this is a bad idea—

Katina Michael: You mean, for medical applications?

Judith Nachum: For medical, yes. Look, they do it for dogs and they do it for cats. A dog gets lost and it runs away and they reunite it with their owner. So I don’t feel that that is a bad idea. I would not want to be tattooed today, you know, that “no”. But if it is for medical reasons, and the person wants to do it, that is okay. They wouldn’t do it to me because I am too old for it- nobody would try to save my life in that context…

Katina Michael: But they are even tracking patients who have Alzheimer’s now, in case they wander, so they can be found by loved ones.

Judith Nachum: Yes, this is a positive application.

Katina Michael: What if I was to say to you… let me give you a scenario… tomorrow it is announced that implants are to become the defacto ID card. And they tell us we no longer require an ID card- what would you say to that?

Judith Nachum: No… No! Definitely NOT implant… we are not going to the moon or something, definitely no… no.

Katina Michael: Okay. Would your religion forbid the use of microchip implants in general?

Judith Nachum: I don’t know. That I would have to ask my Rabbi. We have very strict laws about things like Euthanasia… that is a no-no… for organ donations there are Rabbis who say we cannot do that. The more orthodox, the more they say no, as we are supposed to go in our grave in one piece so when the Messiah comes we can rise. There are orthodox rabbis that are more modern, who say that it is the first law in the Torah to save a life. You save one life, you save the world. So if you donate an organ that will save somebody’s life, like a heart, a lung, a kidney, you do a mitzva (a good deed), that is allowed. You want to give a retina or hair or something, no. Just to save a life. There are a lot of rabbis who say it is okay but they leave it up to your own conscience.

Katina Michael: You have mentioned previously to me that you have nothing to hide because you have not done anything bad—

Judith Nachum: Yes…

Katina Michael: And that Australia you are certain is a carefree country where our rights will always be preserved?

Judith Nachum: I am not so sure today anymore. I live here, my grandchildren were born here, and my great grandchildren… so there are already four generations here- but, Israel for me is extremely important. And most of the articles that you read in the newspapers today are very very anti-Israel. And to me anti-Israel is anti-Semitic. You cannot divide one from the other.

And I am now digressing… years ago the first Prime Minister, Ben Gurion always said we won’t be a nation till we are like any other nation. That means we have got to have thieves, and we have prostitution, etc. I don’t agree with him, there are a lot of things we should not do, according to our laws, there are things we should plainly just not do. For example, men should not hit their wives and women should not hit their husbands. If you had told me even three or four years ago that there are Jewish women bashers, I would have said, “no, just go, you must be crazy, Jews don’t do that”… Jews don’t harm children, you know there are certain things that we plainly don’t do. We are not drunk… but now… the kids take drugs and men hit their wives, and there are people in prison who murder… you know I have to change my opinion about Jews in Israel.

And a kid asked me yesterday what is going to happen- will people deny the Holocaust? And I said, yes, we won’t be here, there are so few of us who survived the Holocaust and are now volunteering our time to give talks at Jewish Museums. Once we are all gone, yes, they will deny- this is why I am lecturing to you, so that you look at this old Auntie and that you know “she was”… and then later on in a couple of years they can say, “I have seen one who was”. The Holocaust did exist, it does exist… There are plenty of those people who say the Holocaust never happened… plenty…

So to answer your question, I am unsure whether countries like Australia will have peace always, for good…

Katina Michael: You have told me that you find direct marketing very annoying. Is it because the companies have not given you a choice when they send you something?

Judith Nachum: Just before you came I ordered a dust buster. In fact, I ordered it three weeks ago. And so I rang them again today and told them I want this… and then it started. If you pay only thirty dollars more we will give you a second one free. And I said but I don’t need it. They said, you can give it to someone… I said, somebody else should buy their own. And then he said, how about a charger? I said I don’t need a charger, I can give you a charger- I’ve got so many chargers I can give you chargers to sell! I’ve thrown out half a dozen chargers recently, I don’t want a charger. He went on and on… and I in the end said, “listen, I have a sore throat, I can hardly talk, you take my number and you send me what I ordered. I don’t want anything else.” But there are people unlike me, who would buy things pushed on them… this is why we are all in such a financial mess and people are losing houses and taking mortgages out on their homes and they cannot make repayments. So I don’t like direct marketing to answer your question!

Katina Michael: I’ve learnt that some ways Jewish people survived during World War Two was because of the Resistance Movement. Where siblings were separated and assimilated into other families, for example with some Catholic families. And these individuals were constantly moved around so as not to muster suspicion by the local police. Today we have other technologies like location tracking techniques using the mobile phone that can find people, Internet email addresses, and a number of other digital footprints that can pinpoint where you are. Do you think that anyone can physically hide today?

Judith Nachum: This is a difficult question to answer because honest to God, I don’t know. I am computer illiterate…. I am so illiterate with regards to technology that I only know how to switch a television on and off… this is completely a foreign language… I know this is a physical footprint [pointing to her foot], nothing more or less, but you are using the term in a completely different context. You have you own linguae that I cannot understand. I feel awful if I have a letterbox full with advertisements or people who tell me I should shop and I should buy something that I don’t need. It should be prohibited.

Katina Michael: Do you hold any fears for the current national security climate, globally?

Judith Nachum: Plenty. Yes, I do. And that is surely natural. See, in my humble opinion as soon as religion becomes political it is dangerous. As long as you believe in God, and I believe in God and you will wear a cross and I will wear a ‘chai’, and I will honor your cross, and I will take it that you honor that which I have hanging around my neck- well this is perfectly alright… You know there will never be peace in Israel, no matter how much the Israeli’s try, as long as there is a political party who don’t do anything else but stir… that is their life, they make money through that. And they will send other people to die, usually children. So long as they misuse religion, we are in terrible danger.

Katina Michael: Are there any other comments you’d like to make about anything we’ve spoken about, or anything else you’d like to add?

Judith Nachum: I don’t know if I have much else to add, besides the fact that I like to live. I know that I am old and that I am not going to be here forever. I would like to add, that in 47 years of living in Australia, I personally have never encountered anti-Semitism and I think it is because other people knew I felt comfortable in my own skin. I always admitted, I never denied who I was, and it was always respected by everyone.

I’ve been working in the Holocaust Museum in Sydney for 15 years, I’m doing my best there and I’ve done upteen interviews and when my life finishes I hope I would’ve left something behind because otherwise I would not know why God left me here instead of taking me when I was thirteen years old like all the others. So I have to give myself a reason why I survived, and that would be the only reason. It is not because I had to have children, and grandchildren, and a family- everyone can have children. The reason for my survival was to bear witness to the events of the Holocaust…

Katina Michael: Thank you very much for your time.

 

Key Terms & Definitions

Anti-Semite: An individual hostile towards the Jews.

Auschwitz: A town in south-western Poland and site of the Nazi concentration camp during World War II.

Chai: In the Hebrew language, the word chai means “living” and is connected to the term for “life”, chaim. Characteristically it also appears in the cry “àm yisrael chai!”, that is, “The nation of Israel lives!”

Gestapo: The Secret State Police of Nazi Germany which acted to suppress all opposition to Hitler’s regime.

Holocaust: The genocidal murder of Jews by the Nazis in World War II.

Rabbi: The principal religious official of a synagogue and the spiritual leader of a Jewish community.

Resistance Movement: A secret organization in an enemy-occupied country working to maintain hostilities unofficially after a formal capitulation.

SS: An elite military unit of the Nazi party which served as Hitler’s bodyguard and as a special police force.

Star of David: Also known as Māḡēn Dāwīḏ. A star-shaped figure with six points, formed of two interlaced equilateral triangles, used as a symbol of Judaism.

Tattoo: The act of marking the skin with indelible patterns, etc., by making punctures in it and inserting pigments.

Zyklon B: Also spelled Cyclon B, was the tradename of a cyanide-based insecticide notable for its use by Nazi Germany against civilians in the gas chambers of the Extermination camps during the Holocaust.