The Deportation of the Hungarian Jews


Irene Zisblatt, a survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau

The photo above shows Irene Zisblatt, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor who now lives in Florida, as she addressed students from Fairland High School in 2009, telling them about her experience at Auschwitz-Birkenau and other Nazi concentration camps. She is pointing to the spot under her arm where her prison number tattoo was removed in an experiment by Dr. Josef Mengele at Birkenau.

Irene makes frequent talks to American students. A video tape of her talk to students at Huntington High School can be seen on this website.

Irene Zisblatt wrote a book, published in 2008, entitled "The Fifth Diamond" about her time in the Birkenau camp. The title refers to a necklace with four diamonds, set into a pendant, that she wears around her neck when she speaks to American school children who are studying the Holocaust. As a survivor, Irene is the Fifth Diamond. Gail Ann Webb, a school teacher, helped Irene write the book, which is concise and especially suitable for students who are studying the Holocaust in middle school.

For 50 years, Irene kept quiet about her ordeal in the Nazi concentration camps, but in 1994, after Steven Spielberg's movie "Schindler's List" came out, she decided to tell her story. In 1995, she was interviewed for 3 hours by Jennifer Resnick while her testimony was videotaped for Spielberg's Shoah Foundation. She was then chosen as one of five Hungarian survivors to be featured in Spielberg's Academy Award winning documentary entitled "The Last Days," which was released in 1998. A book, also entitled "The Last Days," was published in 1999.

In the documentary "The Last Days," Irene tells about how her mother gave her the diamonds before the family was sent to the Auschwitz death camp. She managed to keep them through all the time that she was in the concentrations camps, and on a death march out of a camp, by swallowing them before being searched, excreting them, cleaning them and then swallowing them again. She sometimes cleaned her diamonds "in the soup we were going to get."

In "The Last Days," Irene said that she "was about 9 years old" when she was expelled from school in 1939. A curfew was established and "Jewish people were forbidden to leave their houses after six in the evening or before eight in the morning." Irene's father lost his business when it was given to a Gentile. Hungary was allies with Germany, and according to Irene: "We didn't see a Nazi in our home town until 1944; everything had been done by the Hungarian police and by local youths under Nazi orders."

Irene had lived with her family in the small resort town of Polena in the Carpathian mountains; at that time, Polena was in Hungary. There were 62 Jewish families in the town; her father owned a business, but they had no electricity in their house, according to Irene. This was not unusual in those days; many towns in Eastern Europe had no running water and no electricity.

After Germany invaded Hungary on March 19, 1944, Irene and her family were put into the Miskolc ghetto, which Irene said "consisted of a couple of streets around a brick factory." All the houses "were already crammed full" so Irene and her family "built a little tent from our tablecloths and sheets, whatever we had in our suitcases, and we lived under that."

Irene tells students that she was 13 years old when she was put on a train from the Miskolc ghetto to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp during the deportation of the Hungarian Jews in May 1944. She was immediately separated from her family and she was the only one of her 40 family members to survive the gas chambers. According to her story in the book entitled "The Last Days," Irene's father was born in 1908, so he was 36 years old in 1944, young enough to be selected for work at Birkenau. In the selections upon arrival at Birkenau, everyone older than 45 or younger than 15 was sent immediately to the gas chamber. Irene says that her entire family was gassed in Gas Chamber #2 on the day that they arrived, including her parents who were of working age.

Irene says that the Jews in the Miskolc ghetto were tricked into getting on the train to Birkenau. "The train came in the night and it was announced that everybody who wanted to go to Tokaj to work in the vineyards should get on the train."

In the book "The Last Days," Irene tells how her mother gave her advice, before the train left the ghetto, that saved her from being immediately selected for the gas chamber at Birkenau.

The following quote is from the book entitled "The Last Days":

And she told me to say I was twenty years old - I was only thirteen - because then I would be sent to work in a factory where I would get food and I would survive.

The following quote is from a newspaper article written by Nate Hubbard after Zisblatt gave a talk to students in Bland County, Virginia on March 9, 2009:

But the most gripping part of Zisblatt's account came when she told of narrowly escaping the gas chamber. She said she was selected along with approximately 1,500 other women to be killed. When the prisoners were herded into the gas chamber, though, there wasn't room for them all. Zisblatt said she wound up right in the doorway, clinging to a piece of wood as her fingernails were ripped off causing blood to gush from the tips of her fingers. When the door couldn't be closed with Zisblatt blocking the way, she was flung out of the chamber.

With the help of another prisoner, she said she was able to escape Auschwitz by getting on a train traveling across tracks running near the No. 3 gas chamber. The train took her to the Neuengamme labor camp in Germany where shortly after she was forced to go on a "death march" as the war wound down. After marching for days upon days in hellacious conditions, Zisblatt said she and a friend realized they had a chance to escape during a dark night as they stood between two forests. [...] Providence, though, finally smiled down on Zisblatt as she and her friend made a successful escape and were soon thereafter discovered by American soldiers.

Irene Zisblatt had been saved by a young Sonderkommando (Jewish crematorium worker) who rescued her after she was thrown out of the Krema III gas chamber because the room was too full. He wrapped her in a blanket and tossed her over the 10-foot-high barbed wire fence around Krema III; she landed in an open railroad car of a train that was bound for the Neuengamme concentration camp in Germany.

The photo below, from the Auschwitz Album, a series of photos taken by the Germans on May 26, 1944, shows a freight train on a side track on the right hand side. Krema III is on the right, about one inch from the edge of the photo; it is the building with a high chimney. On the left side of the photo, Krema II with its high chimney can be seen.

Transport trains brought Hungarian Jews very close to the gas chambers

Crematorium III at Birkenau, as it looked in 1943

In May 1944, the railroad tracks at Auschwitz had been extended from the Auschwitz station into the Birkenau camp so that the trains carrying the Hungarian Jews could be brought right up to the gas chambers. The old photo above shows the railroad tracks a few feet from the 10-foot-high barbed wire fence around Krema III.

Remarkably, Irene Zisblatt was not the only Holocaust survivor to escape from an Auschwitz gas chamber. The story of Gena Goldfinger Turgel is told in a 2005 news article on the web site of the Daily Mail in the UK. In December 1944, Gena arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau after having walked all the way from the Plaszow concentration camp near Cracow.

The following quote is from the story in the Daily Mail:

Gena Turgel entered the gas chamber at Auschwitz and lived to tell the tale.

In the winter of 1944, the 21-year-old was made to strip naked with her mother inside the concentration camp's extermination block and wait, but miraculously the deadly poison was never released.

Alice Lok Cahana, whose story was recounted by Laurence Rees in his book entitled "Auschwitz, a New History" was 15 years old when she was registered in the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp; months later she was sent to the gas chamber in Krema V and told that she would be given new clothes after taking a shower. Alice was inside the gas chamber in Krema V when the revolt by the Sonderkommando unit in Krema IV began on October 7, 1944. This was the occasion when the Sonderkommando blew up the Krema IV gas chamber building with dynamite that had been sneaked into Birkenau by some of the women prisoners who worked in factories outside the camp. Because of all the commotion, the women in the Krema V gas chamber were released unharmed.

Alice Lok Cahana is also featured in Steven Spielberg's documentary "The Last Days" and in the book that accompanies the film, which was published in 1999.

In a talk to a class of West Virginia high school students, Irene Zisblatt said that she was one of the prisoners chosen for Dr. Mengele's medical experiments. Zisblatt said "Mengele was trying to change the color of our eyes. So he injected our eyes and put us in a dungeon in the dark. And then when we come out 3 out of the 5 were blind. And in the dark we were there for about five days in the dungeon, we were standing in water."

According to a news story about the talk that Irene Zisblatt gave to students in West Virginia: "She would emerge with her eyesight, but she still had green eyes instead of the blue that Josef Mengele had hoped for."

Dr. Joseph Mengele also selected Zisblatt for another experiment in which he removed the tattoo from her arm without an anesthetic. Jews at Auschwitz were branded with a number tattooed on their arms which corresponded with their identification number on an IBM Hollerith punch card which was used to track them. According to Zisblatt, Dr. Mengele was experimenting on ways that the SS men could remove the blood type tattoos under their arms after the war, so that they could deny that they were ever in the SS. Dr. Mengele was in the SS, but he did not have this kind of tattoo. After the war, the Allies declared the SS to be a criminal organization which meant that every SS man was a war criminal.

In a video taped interview, Zisblatt told about the removal of her tattoo and about being selected for an inspection by Ilse Koch who was looking for "unblemished skin" in order to make leather lampshades. Ilse Koch was the infamous wife of Karl Otto Koch, the Commandant of Buchenwald. Zisblatt and several other girls were sent on a train to the Majdanek camp in Lublin where Ilse Koch was expected to arrive, but she never made it.

Some of the Buchenwald prisoners had told about Ilse making lampshades out of human skin and she was put on trial by Nazi judge Dr. Georg Konrad Morgen in December 1943. Although Ilse was acquitted of all charges, she was kept in prison in Weimar until December 1944, according to the book entitled "Die Hexe von Buchenwald." The next day, after Ilse Koch failed to show up, Zisblatt and the other girls returned to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Zisblatt works with the Holland & Knight Law Charitable Foundation as a judge in selecting the winning essays for their national Holocaust Remembrance Project's annual contest for High School students.

Another Hungarian Holocaust survivor is Ebi Gabor who was 17 years old when she was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Ebi wrote the story of her time in the camp in a book entitled "The Blood Tattoo." Her tattoo, which was similar to the tattoo that Irene Zisblatt had, and a photo of Ebi taken three months after her liberation can be seen on the web site of a Lutheran Church which adopted her in 1992.

Irene Zisblatt's Story - Fact or Fiction?

The Fifth Diamond - A Special Jewel in the Genre of Holocaust Horror

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This page was last updated on January 23, 2010