December 10, 2018

Memories of Ravensbrück

By the time she turned 8 and arrived in a cattle car at the Ravensbrück concentration camp for women and children, Eva Katz had survived forced labor in a brick factory and heard the rifle shots that killed her mother.

At the camp, Eva, along with several other women, was put in a room and ordered to undress. Having been raised in an Orthodox home, Eva tried to cover her nakedness with her hands, but an SS woman flicked her whip, forcing the child to drop her hands. Then her head was shaved, and she was sprayed with disinfectant.

As Soviet armies approached in March 1945, the Ravensbrück women were loaded onto open cattle cars and shipped to Bergen-Belsen.

What Eva remembers most of this last phase of her ordeal is the mound of corpses she saw and the cold, bug-infested concrete floors on which she slept.

One month later, Bergen-Belsen fell to British troops. In the following years, Eva was sent to Sweden to live with a Jewish family and discovered that her father had survived the Holocaust; she moved with him and his new wife to Budapest.

With the advent of the Hungarian Revolution in late 1956, Eva and her family made their way to Vienna and arrived in Los Angeles in January 1957.

A few months later, she was introduced to Marten Brettler, also a survivor, and they were soon married. In 1958, Marten and Eva Brettler welcomed Rodney, their first-born child, now a rabbi, followed by three more children and, ultimately, nine grandchildren. Marten Brettler died in 1987.

Besides raising her children, Eva Brettler caught up on her missed education, earned a degree in psychology from UCLA, and then worked as a social worker for Jewish Family Service from 1983 to 1996.

During her husband’s lifetime, Eva Brettler talked rarely about her wartime experiences. “Marten always said that we shouldn’t talk about what happened to us during the war so that we won’t raise our children on these stories,” she said.

Now, however, the 77-year-old Brettler speaks frequently at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, leads tour groups, and is active in the Child Survivors of the Holocaust support group and in Café Europa, a social center for survivors.

She recalls how, during her long months in concentration camps, young and without her parents, she was adopted by older women prisoners who, in effect, became her foster mothers.

Looking back,” Eva Brettler says, “I survived through the compassion of these women.”

Shari and Sam (Zoltan) Selman are more reticent than Brettler to talk about the war years, and at 90 and 93, respectively, they tend to forget some of the details.

Shari Selman, née Sari Grünberger, was born in a small town in what was then Czechoslovakia, which was taken by Hungarian forces in 1938 and which quickly instituted anti-Semitic laws.

In 1944, the family moved to Budapest, which was occupied by German armies. Initially, Sari was put to work digging trenches, then transferred to a brick factory, and after some forced marches was put on a cattle car bound for Ravensbrück.

She does not recall how long she stayed there but remembers the SS women “with their big dogs to scare us.” For other details, she refers to a questionnaire she filled out some years ago.

 “I was taken to a clinic for experimental checkups,” she read. “The SS guards were brutal and mistreated us. They threatened us all the time. We used to walk for miles to work on a boat, where we unloaded vegetables.

“We worked in the snow in wooden boots, and the snow would be heavy on the boots, making it difficult to walk. The SS guards would hit us because we didn’t move fast enough for them.”

The young girl escaped during one of the death marches, hid for days in a pigsty and then walked until she encountered a detachment of American soldiers.

Returning to Czechoslovakia in 1945, she met Zoltan Selman, and the two survivors married in October 1945. “[This] October, we’ll be married 69 years,” she said.

Sam Selman declined to talk about the war years. He cited his labor camp number — 143122 — and said that his father, mother and brother had been killed by Hungarian fascists. He and two sisters survived.

Selman is adamant that he won’t go to memorial museums or give talks about his experiences. He and his wife refused to record their testimonies for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation archives.

However, the couple was recently in the public eye, featured in a May 16 full-page ad in the Jewish Journal under the heading “We Are The Federation,” urging support of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

The walls of the couple’s Tarzana apartment are covered with photos of their two children, five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Pointing to the framed photos, Sam Selman said, “That’s what keeps me alive.”