Wendy Holden’s latest book, Born Survivors, tells the true stories of three young mothers who hid their pregnancies from the Nazis and gave birth in unspeakable conditions in concentration and slave labour camps. Here, she explains how reconnecting with Nature helped her get through the harrowing research.
Anyone watching us during those breezy Spring days would have assumed my husband and I were regular beachcombers – heads bowed, bodies curved to the earth as we stalked the Suffolk shore searched intently for white pebbles of roughly the same shape and size.
“I need three for each mother,” I reminded him as our eyes scanned the multi-coloured flints, shale and fragments of amber on the shore near Southwold. Our frequent pilgrimages to the beach became a kind of meditation – a chance to focus on the minutiae and forget the bigger story that crowded my head night and day and even gave my husband bad dreams.
“Do you have enough?” he asked the day we spread our horde across our kitchen table a few miles away and turned them reverentially in our hands. Mentally counting them and totting up their final resting places, I told him we still needed a few more. Once we had sufficient, they were placed in a soft cloth bag and packed in the bottom of my suitcase before we journeyed east across Europe.
Having selected the first three pebbles for something I wanted to do the second day of our tour, I found them a strangely comforting presence in my jacket pocket. My fingers closed tightly around them as the sheer scale of Auschwitz-II Birkenau robbed me of my breath. The ancient stones felt warm and smooth to the touch as I followed in the faltering footsteps of so many hapless souls disgorged into that camp’s dark heart.
After endless hours of wandering and staring I finally found the right place for them – a parade ground at the remote building known as ‘The Sauna’ where the three mothers I’d spent so long writing about had been stripped and shaved before being inspected by Dr Josef Mengele, the ‘Angel of Death’. At a simple memorial on the edge of that forbidding site, I laid my three pebbles side-by-side in the gesture I’d only recently discovered was traditional to the Jewish faith. Their pale purity was stark against the polished black granite.
I selected the next three pebbles for the town of Freiberg in Saxony in the former Eastern Bloc. They were not to be laid in its beautiful square or even at the steps of the slave labour factory where the mothers had been incarcerated for seven months as they hid their pregnancies from their SS guards. Instead, I laid them at the base of a harsh Communist-era granite headstone in the middle of a largely unnoticed cemetery. It marked the deaths of nine women like ‘my’ mothers who sadly didn’t survive the hard labour, starvation diet, or constant threat of murder, injury or infection during one of the bitterest winters in Europe’s history.
A little known town in the Czech Republic named Horní Bříza was where I placed the next three stones. Knowing how its brave inhabitants rallied to bake bread and make soup for my mothers and one thousand others on their interminable train journey south, I placed the pebbles on the sculpted memorial taking pride of place in the town’s cemetery for those who’d died in those wretched wagons.
At Mauthausen concentration camp overlooking the River Danube in Austria – the mothers’ final destination after all they’d been through – I placed three pebbles at the foot of the formidable granite gates that had seemed to them to represent the open mouth of Hell. By then two of the women had been delivered of malnourished 3lb babies that they’d hidden so long from their tormentors, and the third gave birth in the shadow of those gates. None believed they’d survive more than a few days spent in one of the worst of the camps, which had the nickname of The Bonegrinder. Had the Nazis not run out of gas, none would have.
My next cluster of stones was laid in a tree-lined cemetery in Bratislava in the Slovak Republic, whose name translates to Lark Valley. They were placed on the grave of Priska, my first mother, whose baby Hana had somehow survived even though her father and most of her family had perished. Priska not only made it through the war but lived until the age of ninety, surviving long enough to see her daughter thrive and present her with a beloved grandson.
I crossed the Atlantic to place the next three pebbles on a grave in Nashville, Tennessee – the resting place of Rachel, my second mother, who gave birth to Mark in an open coal wagon on that hellish train journey to Mauthausen. A father and grandfather, he accompanied me to pay our respects to her tireless eighty-four years of life, which only really began again when she moved to the United States.
The grave of Anka, the last of my mothers to give birth (to baby Eva at the gates) was the most difficult to find and in a moment of panic as the sun went down over the Czech countryside I thought we never would. Then we came upon it – an enchanted Jewish cemetery at the end of a grassy path in the middle of a copse where her ninety-six years on this earth were commemorated. I thought then that those three white stones laid there would be my last.
A few months later, however, I found myself standing with Eva, Hana and Mark at the Chicago headstone of a former American soldier named Albert Kosiek, who as a young sergeant had defied orders in May 1945 to liberate thousands of men and women from Mauthausen, including my mothers and babies, thereby saving their lives.
In my pocket were three final pebbles, scooped from the Southwold beach in the weeks before I flew to Illinois. In what seemed a fitting gesture and as two of Sgt Kosiek’s sons watched with glistening eyes, I handed the pale stones to the three children their father had saved and allowed my own tears to fall as they stepped forward and placed one for each of their mothers on the simple granite marker. It had taken them seventy years and me less than two but our journey was finally complete.
Ahead of Holocaust Memorial Day 2017 on 27th January, Wendy will be appearing with Eva Clarke, one of the surviving ‘infants’, at The Jewish Museum, London on Thursday 19th January. Details and tickets.
- Three of the pebbles collected by Wendy
- Priska, with her daughter Hana
- Rachel, with her son Mark
- Anka, with her daughter Eva
- Wendy with (L – R) ‘miracle babies’ Eva, Mark and Hana.