Dora Niederman (Zalmonovich) was born on May 16, 1927, in Bhuce, a town in the far eastern reaches of the (then) Czechoslovak Republic. Her region, then known as Carpatho-Ukraine, is presently located in Ukraine. Five hundred families, Jewish and Christian, lived in Bhuce. The Jews lived in the town, and the Slovaks and (mostly) Ukrainians on the outskirts. Dora says that her mother Chaya Pearl (Berkovich) was beloved among Jews and Christians. Her father David Zalmonovich died of tuberculosis several months before she was born. Her mother married Israel Schlomovich and moved to the nearby town of Nagaf (Yargof). He was in the import-export business (fruit and grain). Dora had a brother and three step-sisters. She remembers good relations between Jews and Christians before the war.
After the signing of the Munich pact in September 1938 and the abandonment of independent Czechoslovakia by England and France, Dora’s region was annexed by Hungary, an ardent and rapacious Nazi ally. Dora describes how her step-father (in 1944, she mistakenly says) was arrested by Hungarian police and beaten nearly to death: “We didn’t even know who the man was when he walked in the house. His voice we recognized, by his voice.”
For the next four years the Jews of Hungary (and the annexed region of Romania) remained untouched while the destruction of Jewish communities in Europe was furiously underway. In the documentary Dora tells us that nobody knew about the mass murder of Jews: “We were a small town, between the hills, and nobody came there to tell us how some things were.”
The ghettoization, deportation, and extermination of the Hungarian Jews took place with lightning speed and before the eyes of the world. The Holocaust was no longer a secret, except to the majority of Jews in Hungary.
The Germans occupied Dora’s town in March 1944. She was sixteen years old (in the documentary she says eleven). The Nazis and Hungarian collaborators ruled with unbridled terror. Dora’s teacher, a Christian, was murdered and his body left for public viewing as a warning to those who sympathized with Jews.
Jewish leaders in Budapest and Brno (Slovakia) received information about the gas chambers in Auschwitz (from two escaped prisoners) but kept this information to themselves. The highly respected Zionist leader Rudolph Katzner in Budapest negotiated with Adolf Eichmann. The SS officer wanted no Jewish resistance like the armed revolt in the Warsaw ghetto (April 1943). He wanted the machinery of destruction to run efficiently. Katzner agreed to keep quiet about the gas chambers in Auschwitz and in exchange Eichmann permitted 1,600 Jews in Budapest to travel by special train to neutral Switzerland (and safety). This privileged group included Katzner and his family as well as residents of his hometown. The information about gas chambers was not shared with the Jewish people in the provinces, which included Dora and her family. They did not have an opportunity to make a decision about hiding or resistance. After the war Katzner was assassinated in Israel by a survivor who accused him of collaboration with the Nazis.
Deportation of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz in 1944
Jews were ordered to wear the Star of David armband and systematically robbed of their possessions. In April 1944, with the assistance of the Hungarian police, the Germans concentrated the Jews in ghettos. Dora describes that night: “We was all sleeping, and they woke us up in the middle of the night and they made us get up and just leave the house just like we were, in night gowns. They let us finally put dress on, and our shoes.”
In May 1944, the Jews in the ghetto were ordered onto trains and transported to Nazi-occupied Poland. They clung to the hope that they were being “resettled” in order to work. Deception was a major part of the Nazi strategy and explains how the killers kept the victims oblivious of what lay ahead. One hundred and forty-seven trains departed fifty-five Nazi ghettos in Hungary and Romania between May 15 and July 9, 1944, transporting 434,351 Jews to Auschwitz. By early summer, 12,000 Jews were gassed daily at Birkenau, the main extermination center of the Auschwitz complex. Dora describes the tortuous three day journey to Auschwitz: “You couldn’t sleep. You couldn’t sit. You couldn’t use the bathroom. It was undescribable.”
Ramp at Birkenau
Dora was separated from her family during the “selection” on the “ramp” at Birkenau., the killing center of the vast Auschwitz camp. In German eyes she was young, healthy, and worthy of being worked to death; life expectancy was three months. Her family was sent directly to the gas chambers.
This included Dora’s grandmother who was a hundred years old. Dora and seven girls from home (in the documentary she says six girls) survived the initial “selection” and remained together for the rest of the war. They derived strength from one another. Two other girls later joined the group.
Only when she arrived in Auschwitz did Dora learn about the gas chambers (and crematoria): “It was a horrible smell. Like ashes. Like tar. Even today if I go someplace, I can’t smell tar. It makes me deathly sick.”
Dr. Josef Mengele (the so-called “Angel of Death”) conducted the “selections” on the “ramp.” He also conducted “selections” in front of the barracks during the twice daily roll-call (appel). He performed experiments on twins (with the goal of enlarging the “master race” in half the time). German doctors played leading roles in the camp’s operation, reflecting the appeal that Nazi racist theories enjoyed in the medical profession. Mengele described Auschwitz-Birkenau as “applied biology.” Dora had a close-up view of Dr. Mengele: “Every morning and every night he came. And he was as close to me and to all of us like you are, and he had a little stick [baton]. And you went this way or this way.”
During the transport of the Hungarian Jews in the summer of 1944, Jewish requests for the Allies to bomb the railroad lines in Slovakia leading to Auschwitz were rejected. The War Department (Pentagon) decided early in the war that it wouldn’t participate in rescue efforts. Bombing the railroad line would have “very doubtful efficacy,” wrote an American official (McCloy) on July 4, 1944, as the transports rolled. The diplomats argued that the best way to rescue the Jews was to win the war. Dora remembers when American bombers (not English as she says) flew over Auschwitz on their way to bomb nearby German factories: “And every night we used to hold each other to our hands and we pray, ‘Please God, throw a bomb on us. Please let us not be suffering no more.’”
Hungarian women at Birkenau
Dora gives us a vivid account of daily existence, including a description of her barracks: “We had about twenty-five girls sleeping in one bed. And when one turned, we all had to turn. One couldn’t turn without the other ‘cause it was like herrings pressed together.” During an inspection Mengele observed rashes on Dora’s barrack wasn’t a hospital but an ante-room to the gas chambers. Dora recalls, “So I got separated from the girls, and I really didn’t know what to do.” She slipped away from the hospital and rejoined her friends in the barracks. Her group was awoken that very night and taken by train to Stutthof, a concentration camp in northern Poland. “It was not my time to die,” Dora says.
Dora describes her arrival at Stutthof: “The same thing, the SS with the guns, with the dogs. Where we going to go? We didn’t even know where we were. Where we going to run away? But still they brought the dogs.” The Germans made elaborate preparations for a Red Cross inspection of Stutthof. In what was surreal theater, the Nazis attempted to convince the Red Cross that reports of “death camps” were untrue, and the Red Cross was willing to be duped, despite the knowledge since 1942 that spoke otherwise. Another act of deception occurred when a Red Cross delegation toured the “model ghetto” at Theresienstadt near Prague in June 1944, while the transports rolled daily from Hungary and Auschwitz.
In the autumn of 1944 Dora and nine friends (including the girls from home) were requisitioned to work on a German farm – to help bring in the harvest. As Dora tells us, the German farmer treated the girls humanely and brought them back to life: “He always fixed us nice food. He was the nicest person you ever wanted to be with…He was good to us. Thanks to him today I think the ones who have survived, today living because of that.”
Ahead of the approaching Russians, the Germans evacuated Stutthof in January 1945. Jews were shot on the shores of the Baltic Sea. Others trudged along on a “death march” in the direction of Germany – out of reach of the Russians. Dora and her friends escaped from the marching column and found refuge with a Polish family. The girls pretended to be Ukrainian (safer than being Jewish), but the Polish farmer wasn’t fooled. He knew they were Jewish and took them in, hiding them in the attic, not to be seen by the Germans or his neighbors.
Dora and her friends were liberated by the Russians – a painful chapter in itself. Dora tells us: “The Russians came in and they was raping everybody. They were first-line. They came in. They were horrible people.”
Five hundred and sixty-five thousand Hungarian and Romanian Jews were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators.
When the war ended Dora took a train to Budapest where she happened to walk by her step-brother on the street. Neither of them recognized the other: “We both start crying, that we passed each other on the street and we didn’t even know who we were. This what the Germans did to us. I had no hair, must have weighed maybe fifty pounds. He was still so skinny, too.”
Dora returned to her hometown and found her house destroyed. She met with kindness on the part of her Christian neighbors.
She next traveled (illegally) from Hungary to a “Displaced Persons” camp at Santa Maria del Lauca, a town in Italy located on the Adriatic coast.
Dora and Isaac Niederman’s wedding
Here she met Isaac Niederman, a Holocaust survivor from Satu-Mare, Romania (not far from her hometown). Isaac’s experiences are recounted in a separate documentary in this series. They attempted several times to reach Palestine but were turned back by British troops. The state of Israel was established in May 1948. By then Dora and Isaac had obtained visas for the United States.
They married on September 3, 1948, and arrived in New Orleans on May 17, 1950. Isaac worked as a silver polisher in a jewelry store for 57 years.
Dora operated a dry cleaning business. Because of her nightmarish experiences during the war, she was unable to bear children.
Dora didn’t speak about the past for many years but broke her silence in 1989 when David Duke was elected to the Louisiana legislature. He is a neo-Nazi, former Klansman, and Holocaust denier. He subsequently (and unsuccessfully) ran for the governor’s mansion and the U. S. Senate. For many years Dora spoke about her experiences in presentations at schools and in teacher education workshops. Her message to young people was poignant: “When they go home at night, to tell their parents how much they love them, and to hug them and kiss them. When they go to school or to work to tell them same thing again: ‘We love you.’”
Dora died on August 6, 2009. Isaac lived another five years. He died on January 19, 2015, seventy-one years after he was liberated by the Russians in Budapest.
Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account, by Dr. Miklos Nyiszli.
The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941-1945, by David Wyman.
I Escaped From Auschwitz, by Rudolf Vrba.