“Los, los. Alle heraus,” the SS soldiers yelled, whips in hand, as the train doors opened onto the Auschwitz-Birkenau platform. It was mid-June 1944. “Go, go. All out.” Sixteen-year-old Erika Jacoby, nee Engel, was shoved out of the car, and she stumbled into line. In the distance, she spied her mother, Malvina, talking to her grandmother, who was leaning on her cane. “I’ll see you later, Grandma,” she yelled, certain the family would be reunited that evening. Suddenly a whip swept across her face. She continued walking, passing inspection by a German officer she later learned was Dr. Josef Mengele. Her mother soon came running, joining her in line. “Grandma insisted that I not leave you alone, unsupervised, with so many soldiers around,” Malvina explained.
Erika was born May 1, 1928, in Miskolc, Hungary, to Jeno and Malvina Salamonovics Engel. Her brother Zoli (Zoltan) was born in 1925, and Moshu (Tibor) in 1929.
The family was middle class and observant and lived in a one-bedroom apartment, attached to the kosher restaurant Jeno and Malvina owned.
Erika spent summers with her maternal grandparents in Edeleny, a town about 15 miles north of Miskolc and a magical place for her. Her grandfather, the family patriarch, owned a coal mine, and Erika often accompanied him there, which was a special privilege.
By 1935, Erika sensed that “anti-Semitism was in the air.” By 1942, the situation had worsened, and Erika could no longer attend Jewish school. “That was very tragic for me,” she recalled.
Then, on March 19, 1944, as Erika stood just outside the family restaurant, she saw the German army march into Miskolc. Almost immediately, all Jews were ordered to move into the ghetto, a designated area that included the Engels’ apartment. Four families moved in to live with them.
Jeno was called up to join a labor battalion. Erika remembers how fragile he seemed as he was leaving. “I knew he wouldn’t make it,” she said.
Zoli, meanwhile, had left for Budapest the day the Germans invaded Hungary. They learned that he had been captured and taken to the Kistarcsa detention camp.
In early June, the ghetto residents were marched about 10 miles to a brick factory, a covered shelter with no walls, where they were given straw for bedding and had to dig trenches for a bathroom. Erika’s grandparents and other relatives also were transported there from Edeleny.
About 10 days later, Erika and her family, among others, were squeezed into cattle cars and shipped to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
After arriving, Erika and Malvina were marched with other women to a big hall, where they were ordered to undress. They remained there naked all night, under a single, dim light bulb, many crying out for their mothers or their children. In the morning, they were shaved, showered and given shapeless dresses, then moved to unfinished barracks, where they slept on a cement floor.
After 10 days, they were shipped to Plaszow, a camp south of Krakow. The atmosphere was more accommodating, with bunk beds and a table in the barracks, but they were forced to haul huge rocks and carry armloads of military uniforms across narrow planks spanning a ravine. “The work was unbearable,” Erika said.
After two months, in late August, the group was returned to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and again they went through selection and processing, and this time they were tattooed. Erika became A-18273, which she hoped meant they would be sent to work.
On their way to the showers one day, they passed a German officer’s home with a swimming pool. Impulsively, Erika sprang out of line, jumped in the pool and swam the length. “I was 16, and I was hot,” she said. Miraculously there were no repercussions.
On Sept. 17, 1944, Erika and her mother, in a group of 500 women, were transported to a labor camp in Wiesau, Germany. The commander, whom Erika described as “a gentle, fatherly man,” welcomed them and even gave them the next day off for Rosh Hashanah. The work, however, was backbreaking, digging trenches and laying sewer pipe seven days a week.
Erika sometimes scavenged in the garbage heap next to the kitchen until one day a truck dumped a load of trash on her and she nearly suffocated. “That scene stays with me for the rest of my life,” she said.
In mid-December, the women were relocated to Reichenbach, a subcamp of Gross-Rosen. There they slept on the concrete floor of their cement-block barracks, with snow and cold air blowing in through pane-less windows and with only a thin blanket for protection.
They worked long hours in a Farben aircraft factory in Langenbielau, marching there and back six miles over snow and ice. They ground, sanded and polished parts of airplane instruments.
Erika was later transferred to a group of all males, mostly older Polish men, where they were allowed to converse more freely. Erika often told the men that God would save them. They teased her, but, Erika said, “They needed to have a little hope from an innocent child.”
In early spring, the women were moved to a barracks in Langenbielau, but work ceased after Passover, and food was scarce. Weeks later, the guards led them outside and ordered them to dig their own graves. Despite whippings and cursing, they were too weak to finish and eventually were allowed to return to their barracks.
The next morning, there was no wake-up call. “I just knew the war was over,” Erika recalled. She, Malvina and a few others dug their way out beneath the locked gate and began walking into town. It was May 8, 1945.
That afternoon, however, the approaching Soviet army, many of the soldiers drunk, ordered them back to camp. That night, the soldiers broke into their barracks. Amid chaos and shouting, Erika jumped onto a top bunk and hid under a blanket, shaking and praying. When the soldiers left, there were girls in the middle of the room disheveled and crying.
The next day, Erika, Malvina and 13 other women ran from the camp and broke into an abandoned mansion. Some weeks later, they managed to leave. Erika and Malvina eventually reached Miskolc, where they found Zoli.
They also learned that Jeno had died in the labor battalion and Moshu had been shot one week before liberation.
Erika began attending meetings and summer camp sessions of Bnei Akiva, a religious Zionist youth movement. In 1947, while a counselor in the summer camp at Lake Balaton, about 85 miles southwest of Budapest, she met Emil (Uzi) Jakubovics, a Bnei Akiva leader.
Erika and Uzi became engaged on Nov. 29, 1947. The plan was for Erika to accompany her mother to Cuba for two years and then join Uzi in Palestine.
Instead, Uzi came to New York to attend the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Erika paid a U.S. Air Force pilot $1,000 to smuggle her out of Cuba.
On Oct. 22, 1949, Erika and Uzi reunited in New York. In November, however, the pilot was caught, and Erika became a fugitive, with the FBI searching for her. She sought help from an American cousin who was a lawyer, but she still faced deportation.
Erika and Uzi married on Sept. 20, 1950. Their first son, Ronald Yakov, was born in November 1952, but died two days later.
Uzi, meanwhile, gained permanent residency, and Erika, through a complicated process, became a legal resident on Dec. 24, 1952.
Erika and Uzi moved to North Hollywood in July 1953, when Uzi was offered a job at Valley Jewish Community Center (VJCC), which later became the synagogue Adat Ari El. Their son Jonathan was born in October 1953, Benjamin in April 1956 and Michael in July 1957.
Erika worked as a Hebrew teacher. She later received a master’s degree in clinical social work from USC and worked at Family Service of Los Angeles, an independent agency, for five years and then at Kaiser Psychiatry for 17 years, retiring in 1997. Her mother died in 1998.
Erika, now 86, is a grandmother of 10 and great-grandmother of 12.
Her memoir, “I Held the Sun in My Hands,” was published in 2004 and is available on Amazon. She is also featured in the documentary “Swimming in Auschwitz,” which was released in 2007.
When Erika speaks to groups, students often claim they couldn’t have survived as she did. “You never know what you can do,” she tells them. “You always have a neshamah yetarah, an extra soul.”