Weak, starved, battered in body and mind, they still chose to risk their lives to save others
By Yoel Yaari, HAARETZ
Alexander Hermann, Ruth Elias and Bela Hazan. National Archives in Prague
“We took the sick from the beds, dressed them and moved them to the forest, and covered them there with branches. We waited until it was dark. Then we set out on a march by the light of the moon to the Americans. We carried the seriously ill in our arms. For hours we worked on this, because we were tired and weak… The old German [who showed us the way] gave us a piece of white cloth. My friend and I waved it and shouted to the soldiers. One of the soldiers came down and walked toward us. He was obviously taken aback by the sight of us – we looked like a group of Musselmänner [a slang term for prisoners near death from starvation]. He gestured for us to sit down on the grass…”
This excerpt from the testimony of Bela Hazan, which she gave upon arriving in Palestine in December 1945, and which is stored in the archives of Kibbutz Lohamei Hageta’ot (Ghetto Fighters Kibbutz), is the climax of an otherwise unknown story of Jews – concentration camp inmates – thanks to whom more than 100 sick prisoners were spared the fate of being burned alive. Two others joined Hazan in carrying out this heroic rescue: Ruth Elias and Alexander Hermann. These events occurred 75 years ago, on April 18, 1945, about three weeks before Germany surrendered to the Allies.
“Birds of the ghetto’
During World War II, the city of Leipzig, in eastern Germany, was an important center for the Nazis’ military industry. The factories in and around the city manufactured weapons and aircraft parts, with the aid of about 60,000 forced laborers, men and women. In the early part of the war, these workers were mainly people who had been captured from Nazi-occupied countries, as well as Russian POWs. Their living quarters were makeshift work camps and prisoners’ barracks.
Beginning in March 1943, as the demand for laborers grew, inmates, mostly Jews, from concentration camps and death camps were also dispatched to the factories. They were housed in six newly built concentration camps near the industrial plants. Administratively, these were sub-camps of Buchenwald and thus under the supervision of the SS.
Each camp housed about 2,000 prisoners, who were forced to carry out the most difficult and dangerous tasks in the factories. Men and women toiled in 12-hour shifts, seven days a week. Living conditions, food and hygiene were horrific, and SS personnel took advantage of every opportunity to abuse the inmates. The frailest among them, if they were no longer capable of working, were sent to their death in the main camp at Buchenwald.
From December 1943 until the end of the war, the American and British air forces regularly bombed Leipzig, focusing their fire on the factories and railway lines. The carpet bombing and the huge fires they ignited reduced entire quarters of the magnificent city to heaps of rubble. Many prisoners were also killed in the aerial raids.
Taucha, one of the six camps around Leipzig, about 11 kilometers (nearly 7 miles) from the city center, was located close to one of the factories of the Hugo Schneider armaments corporation (HASAG), which manufactured antitank rocket launchers. It was a small camp, consisting of about 20 barracks, surrounded by watchtowers and a high barbed-wire fence, which also divided the camp into two sections, one for women, the other for men.
Ruth Elias was an inmate in the women’s camp. Born in 1922 in Ostrava, Czechoslovakia, she was deported with her family in April 1942 to the Theresienstadt Ghetto, north of Prague, where the incarcerated included many Czech Jews. Ostensibly, it was a model ghetto that served Nazi propaganda aims. In reality it was a satanic concentration camp: About 125,000 Jews perished there or were deported from it to death camps between January 1942 and October 1944.
Elias was married in the camp, and shortly afterward, in December 1943, she and her husband were sent to the “family camp” at Auschwitz-Birkenau, most of whose inmates were murdered in the gas chambers six months after their arrival. Elias was two months pregnant at the time, but hid that fact from the SS and was sent to do forced labor in Germany.
When her pregnancy was discovered she was sent back to Birkenau, where Dr. Josef Mengele subjected her to the monstrous experiments he conducted on pregnant women and newborns. Only years later was Elias able to bring herself to describe the atrocities that she and her infant daughter underwent at the hands of the “Angel of Death.” Following a few days of unspeakable suffering, she secretly put her baby out of her misery. Having no more use for her, Mengele reassigned Elias to forced labor, and she arrived at the Taucha camp in early October 1944.
At this time Alexander Hermann, a Jewish physician from Prague, also arrived in Taucha. Born in 1913, he was deported first to Theresienstadt, with his wife, Margarete, and their families, and afterward to Auschwitz. From there he was sent to Taucha, where he was posted to the hospital barracks serving both the male and female inmates. This gave him access to both sections of the camp, something denied to other inmates – a situation he exploited to convey messages and scraps of food in both directions.
Bela Hazan, who arrived in Taucha in early April 1945, was born in 1922 in the Polish town of Rozyszcze (today in Ukraine). As an adolescent, she became active in the socialist-Zionist youth movement Dror (Freiheit). When the war broke out, she was attending a seminar in Bendin, from where she fled to Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, which was later occupied by the Soviets. When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Hazan adopted the identity of a Polish friend, a Catholic woman named Bronislawa Limanowska. Her assumed identity of an Aryan and fair complexion enabled her to operate in the movement’s underground as a courier between the Jews of the Vilna, Grodno and Bialystok ghettos and the surrounding towns. She smuggled information, money, newspapers, ammunition, pistols and even infants. She and her comrades were known by their fellow Jews as the “birds of the ghetto.”
In June 1942, while on a mission to Warsaw, Hazan was captured by the Gestapo. She was interrogated, severely tortured and then imprisoned in the city’s notorious Pawiak prison. For half a year she awaited her execution there, but in the end was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau as a Polish political prisoner. Her prisoner card stated: “Her return is not desirable.” She was sent out on a hard-labor detail every day, until she fell ill with typhus and was confined to the hospital in the women’s camp.
The SS “physicians,” Dr. Mengele and other doctors, occasionally carried out selections in the hospital, sending patients in serious condition to the gas chambers. Hazan managed to evade these, recovered, and was appointed to work as a practical nurse in the hospital. She also participated in the camp’s underground activities – for which she was awarded the Jewish Rescuers Citation by B’nai B’rith International in 2019 (similar to the Righteous Among the Nations honorific title awarded to non-Jews by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial).
The fast advance of the Red Army in mid-January 1945 prompted the evacuation of Auschwitz on January 18. Hazan was part of a death march to Germany. She survived the Ravensbrück and Malchow women’s concentration camps, where she also worked as a nurse. Early that April, she was sent to the crowded barracks in Taucha, where she joined thousands of other female prisoners arriving in evacuation transports from the camps in eastern Germany. By then the factories around Leipzig had been severely damaged, and work in them had ceased.
There were alarms and air raids most every day, during which the prisoners of Taucha confined to their barracks, while the SS personnel took shelter in subterranean bunkers. In between raids, the inmates were forced to line up in formation outside the barracks or to march while singing German songs.
Because Hazan had experience as a nurse, she was posted to the barracks housing the female patients, where she met Dr. Alexander Hermann. She soon came to trust him implicitly, and he was the first person since her initial arrest to whom she revealed the secret of her Jewishness.
White circles, red crosses
With the approach of Allied forces to Leipzig, the Nazi authorities decided to evacuate the concentration camps and destroy evidence of their existence. But what was to be done with the prisoners? The areas still under German control continued to shrink. At the same time, by order of Hitler, it was absolutely forbidden to allow prisoners to fall into the Allies’ hands. As was usually the case, the Fuehrer did not specify how that directive was to be carried out, but the SS always found ways to do his will.
The concentration camps in the Leipzig area were evacuated from April 13 to April 15, 1945. Their thousands of prisoners were now force-marched eastward, because the U.S. Army, which was advancing on the city from the west and the south, was much closer to the city than the Red Army, which was approaching from the east.
To avoid resistance, the Germans told the inmates they were being moved someplace where they would be out of the line of the hostilities. In practice, these were death marches, intended to kill off as many people as possible. In each camp, several hundred sick patients who could not walk stayed behind with and a small group of inmates who volunteered to look after them.
Since the SS guards were to accompany the prisoners on the marches, the camps’ entrances were placed under the control of the Volkssturm (a newly formed “civil guard,” consisting of relatively elderly civilians or members of the Hitler Youth), who had little to do with what went on inside.
On April 15, 1945, the Taucha inmates were ordered to leave, but Hermann asked Bela Hazan to stay behind, to help him look after the 140 patients unable to embark on the march. Years later she related, “I was happy that it fell to me in the last days just to live among Jews, and if I died, to die among Jews.” Ruth Elias and a few other relatively healthy inmates also volunteered to help out.
The sick male inmates were transferred to the two female hospital barracks, and the most seriously ill were housed in the abandoned bunkers. Food was not in short supply, as the SS left behind full storerooms.
The doctor and his staff spread sheets and white towels outside the hospital barracks, and painted white circles and red crosses on the roofs and walls of the structures, to indicate to the Allied pilots that these were hospitals. Indeed, the markings can be clearly seen in an aerial photograph taken by an American pilot during an April 17 raid. This is perhaps the reason that the hail of bombs falling in the vicinity did not strike the camp itself.
A few days later, the 69th Infantry Division of the U.S. First Army encircled Leipzig. The guards at the gate of Taucha camp abandoned their positions, while the medical team within continued to treat the sick.
At midday on April 18, Hazan and Hermann were standing next to the gate, when they suddenly saw two people running toward them on the road, their bodies badly burned. Their tattered, singed clothing revealed that they were prisoners. They shouted in Polish, “Run away, run away – the Germans will burn you, too,” explaining they had just escaped from the Thekla camp, about five kilometers from Taucha. The SS, the two said, had set the camp aflame, but they had managed to escape. Dr. Hermann treated them for their burns.
‘I’m a Jew, too’
Thekla, one of the six concentration camps in the area, housed men who worked at a factory owned by the Erla-Maschinenwerke corporation, which manufactured parts for Messerschmidt aircraft. About 1,200 of its inmates were forced to join a death march, and the Germans intended to murder the 307 people who remained in the hospital barracks.
Thus, on the morning of April 18, an SS liquidation unit arrived at Thekla, backed by the Gestapo, police officers and collaborators. They rounded up the prisoners who remained, herded them into one of the wooden barracks, sealed the doors and set the structure ablaze. Some prisoners escaped through the windows – but were then cut down by machine-gun fire. Only eight of those 307 inmates succeeded in escaping the massacre, surviving under cover of the black smoke. Two of them managed to reach Taucha.
The prisoners in Taucha, hearing the cries of the Poles and seeing the smoke rising above Thekla in the distance, were stricken with fear at the fate that awaited them. Alexander Hermann and his group decided they needed to try to reach the American forces. But what was to be done about the patients who could not even walk?
As the testimonies of Elias and Hazan show, there was no hesitation: Together with the doctor and remaining inmates who were capable of helping, the group took the patients out of bed, dressed them and took them to a nearby forest, where they camouflaged them with branches. An elderly German who passed by informed them that American troops were only kilometers away. He even agreed to show them the way to the soldiers in the evening. Knowing him as a decent foreman who had worked in the HASAG factory, the inmates decided to trust him.
When darkness fell, the convoy of some 140 weak and ill prisoners and caregivers, led by the German, began to hop and drag themselves toward the Americans, aided by the light of a half-moon shining above. The healthier patients carried the seriously ill in their arms.
The journey lasted many long hours, the sick groaned with pain. Some despaired and begged to be left behind, but Dr. Hermann insisted that they not give up. Toward morning, after climbing yet another hill, they spotted the American forces. Elias and Hazan waved a piece of white cloth. According to Hazan, a soldier approached them, a submachine gun at the ready. He was taken aback by the walking human skeletons. Elias tried to hug and kiss him, but he recoiled in fright. He told her and Hazan to wait until he could summon his commanding officer.
A few minutes later the soldier returned with an officer. To their surprise, he addressed them in Yiddish: “My name is Captain Winter, sholem aleikhem, I am also a Jew.” In short order, paramedics and physicians started to treat the sick.
“At last someone displayed humane feelings toward us,” Bela Hazan wrote in her memoirs. “There was no sound place on my body, it was all sores, bruises and full of lice. The Red Cross people helped us wash and dressed our injuries. When they saw us naked they cried together with us.”
On that day, April 19, 1945, the U.S. forces triumphantly finished taking Leipzig. The Americans gave the ragged group from Taucha food and drink, and bivouacked them in a barn. Ruth Elias recalled in her memoir, “Triumph of Hope: From Theresienstadt and Auschwitz to Israel” (in English, 1999): “I woke up several times at night to make sure that I wasn’t dreaming. When I opened the barn door, I found a black soldier standing guard outside.… As a smile spread across his face, his white teeth gleamed. I was overcome by a feeling of indescribable happiness.”
The seriously ill patients were moved to the U.S. military hospital in Leipzig, while Capt. Winter led the remaining survivors to a large camp in the city, where they joined survivors from other local concentration camps. Their fate was better than that of several thousand inmates sent from the Leipzig camps to the death marches. The latter were forced by the brutal SS to march, without food or drink, in circles in a small area that had not yet been taken by the Allies. Anyone who faltered or tried to escape was shot. Only a third of them survived the ordeal. When the SS officers realized they had been defeated, they threw down their weapons, removed their uniforms and dressed as refugees. On May 8 Germany surrendered unconditionally to the Allied forces.
Alexander Hermann, Ruth Elias, Bela Hazan and the other unknown inmates with whom they carried or led the patients to freedom – were all survivors of satanic camps, went through hell on earth and lost family members. They were frail, starved, tormented and battered in body and mind. Nevertheless, they chose to risk their lives in order to rescue others.
This rescue of Jews by Jews was not unique in that horrific time. Holocaust history contains many stories about Jews who even in the Nazi hell did not remain aloof to the plight of their brethren, and even paid for it with their life.
“We who lived in the concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread,” the Jewish psychiatrist and thinker Viktor Frankl wrote in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning.” They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way.”
Ruth Elias and Bela Hazan settled in Israel after the war and raised families that were blessed with children and grandchildren, and both also wrote memoirs. Hazan died in 2004, and Elias in 2008. Dr. Alexander Hermann returned to Czechoslovakia and served as chief physician in an institution for tuberculosis patients in the city of Liberec. No information about him dating after 1962 has been found.
Prof. Yoel Yaari, of the Hebrew University, is Bela Hazan’s son. This article is based on a study Yaari is conducting about the concentration camps in Leipzig in conjunction with Anja Kruse, an educator at the Nazi Forced Labor Memorial there. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org