Survivor: Edith Jacobs

“You are being relocated to a labor camp,” the Hungarian gendarmes, or police, announced to the Jews of Sopron, Hungary, who had spent the previous two weeks confined to a windowless tobacco factory. Edith Jacobs (née Rosenberger), her parents, three sisters and the other Jews were marched to the train station. There they were loaded into cattle cars where they were crammed together so tightly they couldn’t speak. Still, Edith and her family weren’t frightened. “We didn’t know,” Edith explained. But three days later the train pulled up to the Auschwitz platform, and the prisoners were unloaded and separated so quickly that Edith didn’t realize what was happening. “I never saw my mother again,” she said. “I never saw my father.” It was July 8, 1944; Edith was 18.

Edith was born on Feb. 16, 1926, to Zsigmond and Maria Rosenberger. She had an older brother, Jenö; two older sisters, Katalin and Piroska; and a younger sister, Olga. They lived in the village of Gyömöre, where Zsigmond was a bookkeeper.

Around 1932, the family moved back to Sopron, Edith’s parents’ hometown. There, Zsigmond owned a small grocery store, and Maria worked as a seamstress. Edith attended Jewish elementary school and then public high school.

The family was close-knit. They were Orthodox, and Friday nights were always special, celebrated with a white tablecloth and a challah. “You never can imagine how beautiful it used to be,” Edith said. And every Sunday, Zsigmond took the children on hikes in the mountains, a half-hour walk from Sopron.

In 1939, Edith was 13 and not allowed to perform office work because she was Jewish, so she apprenticed to a Jewish woman to learn dressmaking. She worked for three years with no pay and then a year or two with a small salary.

During this time, many Jews from Austria, which had been annexed by Nazi Germany in March 1938, escaped to Sopron, just across the border. But the Sopron Jews were not worried. “Everyone thought that it will never happen to us. We were Hungarians first and then Jews,” Edith said.

But things changed. 

In 1942, Edith’s brother was taken to a labor camp in Köszeg, Hungary, where he worked in aluminum mines. And in fall of 1943, the young Jewish women of Sopron were assigned to work details. “We heard they will let us live in peace if we do this,” Edith said. She and Olga were taken daily by bus to weed vegetable fields. “It was very hard work,” Edith said.

Then, on March 19, 1944, Germany invaded Hungary, and on April 7 the Rosenbergers celebrated their last seder. “It was very sad,” Edith recalled, as her brother was not with them. By the end of June, they and the remaining Sopron Jews were imprisoned in the tobacco factory.

At Auschwitz, Edith and her sisters were processed, shaved and each given a dress. Then they were taken to barracks, where they slept on the floor with no mattress or blanket. The first night their uneaten bread rations were stolen.

After two weeks, Kato, the oldest sister, became sick with scarlet fever. “They said they were taking her to the hospital,” Edith said, “but they took her naked in a truck and that was the last time we saw her.”

A week later, on July 30, Edith, her two remaining sisters and the other young women all were taken by train to Bremerhaven, arriving at a work camp on Aug. 2. Even though they slept on a barracks floor, Edith said, “it was not so bad,” as there was no roll call and they were given some food. 

Six days a week, Edith and the other prisoners were taken by open truck — “it was very cold in the morning,” into the city, where they cleaned up debris from Allied bombings. “We were always happy when the city was bombed, because the next day we had food,” Edith said. They ate what they found amid the debris, but had to do so surreptitiously, when the guards weren’t looking, and they couldn’t bring anything back to the barracks.

At some point Edith and her sisters were transported to Roden, Germany, along with 500 other Hungarian and Polish young women, where they worked in a cement factory.

There, they met two women working in the kitchen who had run a restaurant in Sopron. They gave Edith and her sisters food — “a little bread, a little margarine,” Edith remembered — and, in exchange, Edith sewed for them.

In late March 1945, with the Allies approaching, they all were taken to Bergen-Belsen. “It was terrible,” Edith said. As prisoners died in the yard, other prisoners came in groups of four to pull them away, each taking a hand or a foot. “Bodies were stacked up like a house,” she said. “There were so many dead people.”

One day the Germans disappeared, and the Hungarian army took over. The soldiers stood on the guard towers and fired randomly at the prisoners, hitting one woman who was standing next to Edith. “They loved killing. Life was very cheap,” Edith said. After a day or two, the Germans returned. 

The next day, April 15, 1945, the British liberated the camp. Edith and her sisters were so weak they couldn’t talk. The British cooked soup and set up showers for the freed prisoners.

Edith and her sisters were later moved to the Belsen displaced persons camp, a former German army barracks nearby, where, Edith said, they had a beautiful kitchen and beautiful rooms. Edith and Olga both were sick with typhus, but they didn’t tell anyone, as they didn’t want to be hospitalized. Their sister Piri took care of them. 

Then, on May 8, the day Germany surrendered, Piri arrived at their room with food. She announced that she was very tired, lay down on the bed and died. The doctor later said she had been suffering from dry typhus.

Piri was buried in a mass grave. Edith ordered a gravestone, paying the craftsman with sugar and flour. Two Englishwomen from the Jewish Brigade helped Edith and Olga install it. 

It wasn’t until December 1945, that Edith and Olga left the displaced persons camp. They didn’t go home, as they knew everyone was dead, so they headed to Palestine by ship in April 1946, with Aliyah Bet, as part of the first illegal immigration. They eventually settled in Tel Aviv, where Edith worked as a dressmaker.

In February 1947, Edith met Meir Jacobs, who had come to Palestine in 1938 and who had lost all his family, except one sister. Edith and Meir married on May 20, 1947, and settled in Holon, where their daughters were born — Miriam in 1948 and Esther in 1950.

Life in Israel was difficult, however, and in December 1958, the family immigrated to the United States. After a short stay in Florida, they moved to Los Angeles in May 1959.

Meir opened a furniture refinishing business, and Edith worked as a seamstress. Around 1965, Meir brought Brown’s Wilshire Bakery and, later, the J&T Bread Bin in the Farmer’s Market. He retired in 2009.

Although she’s 87 now, Edith still works as a seamstress. She also enjoys spending time with her family, including her two children, four grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

Edith never talked about the Holocaust, even to her family, until 1995, when she was among the survivors interviewed by the Shoah Foundation. And then she spoke only minimally because it was too painful. 

To this day, she said, “I sleep with it, and I wake up with it. You cannot even tell how horrible it is.”