By VALERIE MYERS, Erie Times-News
ALBION — In 1944 at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Irene Csillag stood outdoors in the cold and rain twice a day, every day, for roll call.
Then a young dressmaker, Csillag, her sister and their mother were the lone survivors of an extended family of Romanian Jews sent to the notorious Nazi concentration camp near Krakow, Poland. With other prisoners of Nazi Germany, they lined up to be counted by their SS captors twice each day.
Sixty-seven years later, Csillag vividly recalled the particular horror of one of those roll calls for Northwestern High School students during an assembly at the school Thursday.
Now 86 and living in Toronto, Csillag was invited to the school by freshman Jessie King, who contacted her through the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., for a class project.
Just taller than the podium on Northwestern’s stage, Csillag told of the nightmare roll call when a woman standing with the others, and that no one knew was pregnant, suddenly gave birth to a tiny, premature child.
“Right there, we made a hole with our feet in the sandy ground and buried that tiny baby,” Csillag said.
The baby would not have survived camp conditions or the SS guards, and the baby’s mother and unknown others would have been killed if the infant was discovered, Csillag said.
Very old prisoners, very young prisoners and pregnant women judged unable to do productive work were sent to the Auschwitz gas chambers as they arrived.
Csillag’s family had been unloaded at the camp from cattle cars in May 1944. Csillag, her sister Olga and their widowed mother were sent in one direction, toward a communal shower and barracks.
Her grandparents, young cousins and pregnant aunt were herded the other way.
“None of them came back, not one. We never saw them again,” Csillag said.
The devastated, diminished family in time was sent to Stutthof, a concentration camp near Danzig, Poland. Csillag was determined to survive.
“I had a will for living. I thought, if everybody dies, I am going to live. It’s not a nice thing to say, but it was how I felt,” she said.
She cleaned toilets to occupy her mind and her time, and later won a prized job in the camp kitchen, where she could sometimes get food scraps, “coffee grounds, even, that I could take to my mother and sister as extra food,” she said.
Csillag’s mother died in their barracks one cold night. Camp authorities put her body outside, where it remained in the snow and mud until it was loaded onto a wheelbarrow and taken away with other dead days later.
In the spring of 1945, Csillag, her sister and other prisoners were marched away from Stutthof, and away from the advancing Allies. With their SS guards deserting one by one to avoid being captured with the evidence of their crimes, the starving survivors walked on — and into the safety of a British army camp.