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Saved at the Threshold of Hell

Read: Saved at the Gates of Hell (Part Two)

I am eighty-eight years old. I come from a very large and poor family. All my life, belief in God has been very important to me. I have always felt His presence; and although He has, at times, given me some very painful experiences, He has always seen me through them.

He showed me His mercy when I was a child: through my mother’s sister who had gone to work in Latvia. My aunt was a very beautiful and brave woman. While living in Latvia she married a German — a pharmacist. Sadly, they had no children. My aunt used to visit us in Poland and help us out financially; in the end she decided to adopt one of us. God directed her eyes toward me — an eight-year-old girl. Being a fearless and cheerful child, I gladly agreed to accompany my aunt to Latvia. There I finished elementary school. Later I went to Riga to attend high school. During that time I met many young Poles and joined the Polish scouting movement.

World War II broke out in my last year of high school. At Hitler’s invitation, people of German extraction could leave the Baltic States permanently and settle in Germany. Since my adoptive father was German, he also wanted to leave, especially since his brother and sister had already availed themselves of this offer. I was greatly opposed to leaving, for I considered myself a Pole. Nevertheless, out of love for my adoptive father I reluctantly consented to go. We ended up in Berlin, where I entered medical school. There again I was fortunate enough to meet a good number of young Poles. These contacts increased my patriotism and also my hatred for the Nazi regime. I kept up a correspondence with my fellow girl guides in Riga. Heedless of the censorship in force in Nazi Germany, I expressed my hatred of Hitler in my letters. And so it happened. The Gestapo arrested me. After undergoing a series of harrowing interrogations, I received my sentence. I was condemned to death. But once again at this critical time God intervened in my life. It turned out that the Gestapo officer conducting my case had Polish blood in his veins. (His grandmother was Polish.) He had my sentence commuted to internment in the concentration camp at Ravensbrück.

There, God would reveal to me the horrific consequences of the feelings I bore in my heart toward the Germans — as if my own hatred and desire for revenge had been turned back and directed against myself. For three years I endured beatings, hunger, hard labor, and bitter cold. In the evenings we received half a liter of soup consisting of whole meal boiled in plain water. Great was our joy when the soup happened to be a little thicker! For breakfast we had half a liter of bitter coffee, and then it was ten hours of hard labor before we had dinner.

Thus passed the days, weeks, and months. The worst day of the week was Sunday, since we did not work then. Some inmates would visit their relatives; but I was alone in the camp. And although I seemed to want to be alone during my evening strolls through the camp, subconsciously I was looking for someone. I longed for something — or Someone; and in that longing I found God. Gazing at the stars in the sky, I began to pray to Him: “Dear God! You see the terrible things I have to endure. Yes, I deserve them many times over. Forgive me for everything. Forgive me too for pleading for a free Poland. Bless my country and in your tender love put an end to her sufferings!”

My first job in the camp involved standing all night next to a wall on a spot marked by a partially driven nail. There I braided steamed straw into plaits from which my fellow inmates sewed uppers for the boots of SS troops who were preparing to go to war against the Russians. The work was inhuman. Hunger and the desire to sleep tormented us. All of us longed to doze off on our feet and lean our heads against the wall. But this was impossible, for apart from the female SS guard minding us in the barrack, there were also the SS soldiers constantly peering in through the windows. They had only to see one of us dozing off and they would burst into the barrack and beat her brutally. After a night of such work, they let us sleep in our barracks. But then the cold and hunger would continue to torment us as we waited for our half-liter of soup, consisting again of nothing more than turnip boiled in plain water. At five o’ clock every morning, the siren wailed out the reveille. In ten minutes we had to have our beds neatly made, breakfast eaten (some breakfast!) and be standing at attention outside the barrack for roll call. If the number of inmates did not tally, we had to remain standing there for several hours (sometimes the whole night through), hungry and shivering with cold, often in the pouring rain.

Somehow I endured it — at least for a while. I believed the war would come to a quick end and life would begin anew. But what kind of life? And where? Installed throughout the camp were loudspeakers from which they announced Hitler’s successive victories. I began to wonder what life would be like under this vile criminal. Where would I live? Many inmates became mentally unhinged. The SS euthanized them with a phenol injection then cremated them in the ovens. Many women took their lives by throwing themselves on the high-tension perimeter wire.

One day, utterly exhausted by the hard work, gnawing hunger, and bone-chilling cold, I too decided I would throw myself on the wires. I confided my intention to a sister prisoner — a German. She had been sent to the camp for having an affair with a Pole, a forced labor conscript. Her husband had been at the front. Youthful blood prevailed and she became pregnant. For this they gave her thirty lashes and sent her to Ravensbrück. As for the Pole, they hanged him in the village where they had caught the couple. They wasted no time in performing an abortion on the innocent child (it survived the procedure; they had to finish it off with a lethal injection). And so, from this German woman, I heard the following words, “Are you mad! Do you want to give your soul to Satan? Hitler will lose the war, and you will return to your Poland!” But the Satan’s voice was stronger, and from then on I often heard him whisper, “Throw yourself on the fence!” These diabolic promptings tormented me constantly, day and night.

At that time I was working in a barrack where they sewed sheepskin coats for the SS. Finally, one night, I decided to commit suicide. I remember picking up a batch of sleeves to take them to the other barrack where the coats were completed. As I walked out, I heard a voice, saying, “Get on with it! Hurry!” I thought it was my German friend making fun of me. So I answered her aloud, “You can laugh at me if you like, but I am going to throw myself on the fence anyway. There is no point in suffering like this.” As I advanced toward the fence, I heard the same voice again, “Get a move on!” A moment later I heard not one but several such voices, “Hurry! Hurry!” I began to run. Then I heard what seemed like a whole choir of male voices urging me on: “Faster! Faster!” And so I ran on. Exhausted and out of breath, I ran up to the fence. Just as I raised my arm to hurl myself against the wires, I suddenly saw before me the Madonna with the Child Jesus in her arm. She threatened me with her finger! Three times she wagged it at me, then disappeared. At that moment the choir of voices that had been urging me on broke out into a loud, drawn-out howl, something like “ho-ho-hooooo!” and then at once died away. Terrified, I fell on my knees. At that moment I felt seized by some great force, an enormous power of unimaginable strength! I began to pray the words of the Our Father and Hail Mary. And gazing at the spot where the Madonna and Child had stood, I called out: “Blessed Mother, I promise you that as long as I live I will never again contemplate suicide.” I leapt to my feet and tried to run back, but then I heard chains rattling around me. Something seemed to be holding me back. After a brief tugging match, I jerked myself free and sprinted back to the barrack. I burst inside, terrified, pale as a ghost. “What’s the matter? Where have you been?” called out my sister prisoners. I slumped to the floor and remained silent. Luckily, the female SS guard was asleep, so they covered me with a sheepskin coat, and I fell asleep. In the morning my sister prisoners asked me again, “Where were you last night? What did you see?” But I was still unable to tell them what had happened; and so I answered evasively, “Now I know there is a higher power. God exists, but so does Satan!”

It was a while before I could regain my composure and describe my experience. When I did, my German friend, who was a Lutheran and did not know the prayers to Our Lady, said,” How wonderful that Blessed Mother of yours must be. She saved you from Satan and hell! She must love you very much!” From then on, I often wondered why God had sent the Blessed Mother to wrest me from Satan’s claws. After all, so many women, just as worn out by camp life as I was, had cast themselves on the wires. Why should I have been shown such mercy? Perhaps my mission in life had not yet been carried out? Perhaps I had something very important to perform in my life? From then on these and similar questions gave me no peace.

After this incident, the hunger, cold, and beatings continued; nor was there any let-up in the hard labor. An outbreak of typhoid finally upset this daily tedium. The camp commandant told us the disease was caused by our lice-infested clothing. The situation was especially dangerous since the camp was short of medicine. Small wonder, then, that the camp hospital soon filled up with the sick and required extra help. With the little money my uncle had given me I bought some garlic, which was a good remedy against typhoid. Then I volunteered to nurse the patients. I did not have to do this, but something inside me told me, “Volunteer!” My friends tried to talk me out of it, saying I would contract the disease and die. But I was willing to take the risk and resigned myself to my fate.

My daily duties included keeping the premises clean and tidy, making beds, changing sheets, and sometimes bathing the patients and serving them their meals. The work was very hard, but thanks to the hospital kitchen, I no longer went hungry.

I was in charge of three rooms. In one these, on a low iron bed, there lay an older German woman, maybe fifty years of age. She was in advanced stages of sclerosis and constantly talking to herself. Other seriously ill patients sharing the room with her wanted peace and quiet. One of them complained to the SS nurse, Liza, a tall, thin, mercilessly cruel woman with a criminal bent. Liza ordered the German woman to be quiet. But when after a few days the situation did not improve, she ordered her to get up and follow her. Everyone knew Liza’s “methods.” The woman seized hold of the bed rail and began to scream, “Help! She wants to kill me. She is going to take me to room number three and give me an injection — to send me to heaven!” We watched the scene in terror. No one dared to defend the woman who clung desperately to her bed. Liza pulled at the patient, dragging the bed along with her. At last she gave the woman a sickening kick and, dragging her by the scruff of neck to room number three, locked her inside and went to her room. “I’ll show her,” she yelled. A moment later she came out, seething with rage. Meanwhile the woman had seized hold of the window grating and was tugging at it with such force that it seemed she would rip it out any minute. Enraged, Liza tore her frail hands from the grating, turned her over on the bed and, pressing down on her belly and arm with her knee, jabbed the vein of her other arm with a huge syringe needle. The cries for help fell silent and the jerking stopped. Thus Schwester Liza “released” another victim from her sufferings. The scene left me dumbstruck. I wondered if the struggle I had just witnessed had been between beasts or human beings who had become beasts. Liza, with blood on her hand and syringe, emerged from the room, exhausted but satisfied. Glaring at us, she yelled, “Get rid of her!”

When a patient died or was murdered, we had to put her naked body in a coffin and wait for the dentist. He had to make sure the corpse had no gold teeth. If it did, he pulled them out and then stamped a mark on the buttock. Only then could we take the body to the crematorium. There we would leave the full coffin and pick up an empty one. And so we exchanged boxes!

I would carry out this task with another young German woman. She tried to turn it into a farce by singing bawdy songs. Both the tunes and the words of these songs annoyed me terribly, so I said to her, “You shouldn’t joke this way. What if it were you in there?” “Then you’d sing for me,” replied my companion. “If it helps you, go ahead and cry!” she added. But I was no longer able to cry. I lived as though I were in a trance. Now and then, when I had the desire to pray, I would step out of the barrack, gaze up at the sky, and talk with the Almighty. At such times I did not feel like a prisoner in a concentration camp. I did not hear the guard dogs barking. I felt neither the hunger nor the cold. I was somewhere far away. Gazing up, whispering the words of the Our Father, I felt that Someone was close to me, that He loved me, would protect me from the surrounding evil, and make me invulnerable. Then the cruel siren would wail out and bring me back to that inhuman reality of hunger, cold, and death. Yet despite this, these joyful moments of prayer would fill me with hope that this state of affairs would not last much longer, that the end of my sufferings was near, and that God’s love was all-powerful. (To be continued) 

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The article was published with the permission from "Love One Another!" in May 2016.

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