Remembering the Unforgettable| January 31, 2023
There are no words to describe the nightmare of Toruń
Mrs. Sarah Jakobovits (née Kuntslinger), as dictated to her granddaughter, Rayle Rubenstein
January 26 marked the 78th anniversary of the liberation of the Toruń concentration camp, where I was during the war. I have never found mention of the camp anywhere. I share my story in memory of the more than 1,000 women who perished there.
I was born in 1928, the youngest of six children. I had three older brothers and two older sisters.
My father was a native of Sanz, and my mother was born in a tiny town near Krakow called Uście Ruskie. They married only a few years before World War I. When the war broke out, they fled Poland with my eldest brother, who was then very young. They first settled in Satmar, and then moved to Sighet, where my father got a job as a melamed. Word of my father’s beautiful tenor voice spread, and soon after he was invited to Hermannstadt to serve as chazzan. Ultimately, my parents settled in Bistritz, where my father served as the chazzan of its large and beautiful shul.
My father was a chazzan, shochet, and mohel. There were two other shochtim in Bistritz, and our families all lived next to each other, sharing a large courtyard in which the shechitah was performed. The line of people waiting to have their chickens shechted before Yom Kippur stretched across the entire courtyard. Policemen were posted there to maintain order.
My sister and I went to the local Jewish school, and my brothers learned in yeshivah. There was not much entertainment for children in those days, but we found some fun in the winter months sliding along patches of ice during recess.
My oldest brother, an outstanding bochur, got married when I was five. His kallah was from Klausenberg. When they got married, we traveled to Klausenberg in a horse and carriage. It was a big treat to travel like that, and all the neighbors came out to watch.
We were on good terms with our non-Jewish neighbors, who were always friendly and polite. A woman who lived across the road used to invite all of us children to come pick apples from her tree. Another neighbor had four boys, and I played with the youngest one. I used to bring them a cup filled with all the eggs that had blood spots, and their mother would give me a penny in exchange.
But in 1939, everything changed. Our gentile neighbors were no longer friendly. The four boys across the street joined the army. I remember another neighbor coming home in a Nazi uniform. The woman across the street would sit outside her home and chant when we walked by: “Eintz, zwei, drei, vier, funf, sechs, seiben. Alle Juden sollten krapiren” [a slang word for die].
Jews were beaten in the street. Many were evicted from their homes, which were owned by Germans.
In 1940, the Hungarian army marched into Bistritz.
The first thing they did was close our Jewish school. After some time, they allowed us to return to school three afternoons a week. By the time we got out it was dark, and we ran all the way home because we were afraid. My brother used to lie in waiting with a big stick to chase away anyone making trouble for us.
Soon the Hungarians began arresting prominent Yidden.
Every window of our house was covered in dark paper, and the streets were dark. One night, my mother sat at her sewing machine with a small lamp next to her. Suddenly, our four big French windows shattered as a flood of large stones flew into the house. No one was hurt, but the glass was everywhere. We were petrified. The next morning, we called a Jewish glazier to fix the windows. We had no idea who had thrown the stones, but we knew it must have been one of our neighbors.
In 1941, my father had a stroke. Not long after, those who couldn’t prove they were Hungarian citizens were deported to Kamenets-Podolsk in the Ukraine, where they were exterminated by Hungarian soldiers. My family did not join them because my father was paralyzed and unable to be transported. (My brothers had false papers, and the younger children were allowed to remain with my parents.) We got a letter from the city coroner explaining the situation, and every week we had to go to the police station to sign papers proving that we had not run away.
The Hungarians rounded up all the approximately 3,000 able-bodied Hungarian Jewish men in the region. There was a lot of pain and chaos as the women and children were left behind. We found out later that the men were sent to the Russian border to fight the Russians. (They returned to Bistritz in September 1944, before we were liberated.) No one from my family went, and my brothers remained inside because the police were arresting people at random.
My father regained some of his mobility after his stroke. But one October night in 1942, my father collapsed and had a second stroke. He was niftar on Shabbos. Not a single bochur went to yeshivah on the day of his levayah; everyone in the community had been connected to my father in some way, and they all went to the levayah.
The Bistritz kehillah invited my brother to take over my father’s positions as chazzan and shochet. He managed to find two rooms to rent for his family; this was not easy because no one would rent to Jews. There was not enough room for all of his children in his apartment, so each night two of them slept in our house.
There was very little food to be found. The Hungarians put a blackboard in the market that listed all the prices for every item so the peasants couldn’t overcharge. The farmers rebelled and refused to bring their wares to the market. Instead, they peddled their wares on the black market for enormous amounts of money. At one point, my mother managed to get ahold of a sack of potatoes. They were frozen and watery, but she cleaned them, grated them, mixed them with flour, formed them into balls, and cooked them in milk so we had something to eat.
IN 1944, we had to sew yellow stars onto our clothing.
That Pesach, two German soldiers knocked on our door. My mother opened the door, and they politely asked for accommodations for the night. My mother let them in, apologizing because the table was still set for the Seder. They set up their radio on our spotless Pesachdig counters. We let them sleep in the master bedroom. One of the soldiers wanted to take my sister for a walk, but she said that she couldn’t because she wore a yellow star. They stayed with us for two days, and they were quiet, polite guests. Before they left, they warned us that all the Jews would be taken away and liquidated.
My mother sewed rucksacks for each of us, and she began baking cookies — some with earrings baked inside. My brothers dug a hole under our sofa and we hid some of our valuables inside. I hid my report card in there.
After Shavuos, the Hungarians confiscated our homes. They went door to door posting the announcement. We put bedding and mattresses into open wagons that were parked outside, and then we took our rucksacks and walked alongside the wagons toward the outskirts of the city. We walked for about half a day until we finally reached the ghettoes.
As soon as we arrived, everyone tried to find a corner to settle in. We slept in open storehouses, and we tried to create some privacy by hanging up sheets. It was very crowded. We only had whatever food we brought with us.
At first there was no water, but then they brought in water tanks from the firehouse, and we lined up with buckets to get some water. There was no way to bathe, so we’d dip a shmatteh in the water to scrub ourselves to try to stay clean.
The community set up a tent for the rav, Rav Meir Spitz. He would sit on a little chair outside the tent. One day the Hungarians took him into their office, where they demanded that he give them all the jewelry. He had none, so they beat him. When he was returned to us, his face was full of black bruises. My mother tried to hold up sheets so we shouldn’t see how he looked after the beating. Another man, a meshumad (someone who had assimilated), wore a white armband. He was given six lashes in front of everyone.
We spent four weeks in the ghetto. Not everyone survived.
One day, I developed a fever and a terrible sore throat. My mother brought me to the makeshift “hospital,” but the doctor told her to take me “home” because it would not end well if she left me there.
The ghetto was liquidated in June 1944, when the Jews were deported to Auschwitz.
We were told to pack our things. We took our rucksacks and whatever food was left. For the first time, they gave us food — hot pea soup. I couldn’t eat it as it hurt to swallow. For months afterward, when we had nothing to eat, I dreamed of that soup and wished I could have had some.
We were led to a series of rooms where we were told to deposit our money in one box, our jewelry in another.
Then we were marched out of the ghetto.
We reached the trains, where we crowded together on the floor. At the end of the car was a large pot that was meant as a toilet. We held up blankets for privacy every time someone used it.
I don’t know how long we sat in that train, but my brother saw through the cracks in the car that we had reached Poland. My mother hoped she’d be able to go back to her childhood home.
We arrived at Auschwitz in the middle of the night. It was dark, and there was lots of shouting. We saw a high pillar of fire over the pine trees from afar, but we didn’t know what it was. Eli Wiesel writes in Night about a woman in his train who kept shouting “Fire!” as they approached the camp. From the way he describes it, I believe we must have been in the same transport.
Men in striped clothes came and took our suitcases. They told us, “Zokef kefufim” (as a hint that we should stand straight), “Somech noflim,” and “Zug az di bist yinger — say that you are younger.”
My mother, my married sister, and my sister-in-law all held babies. They were sent to one side with me. My older sister was sent to the other side, and my mother told me to go with her. I started walking, and a guard put his cane around my neck and shoved me toward my sister.
We were brought to a large auditorium. Our hair was shaven. We were wearing nothing, and when we tried to cover ourselves with our hands, the Germans shoved our hands away.
After a while, a men’s group was brought in, and we saw my brother. It was hard to walk because there were so many people, but I stepped carefully between them until I reached him. He asked me right away where his wife was, and I told him that I didn’t know. We had been separated; it was too dark to see much.
We found out later from another survivor of Auschwitz that my brother came to the gate every single day asking if anyone had seen us.
We stayed in that auditorium that night, and the next day we were brought to a barrack. The morning after that we were put on a train. We had not had any food or drink in three days. People ask how that’s possible; I don’t know. The trauma was so great we didn’t even want food then.
IT was a long ride to Riga — it must have been about two weeks. A soldier gave a bucket of soup to one person and said to pass it around. Each person got one spoonful.
We arrived in Riga, where we remained for a few days. We were housed in a makeshift factory. There was a stack of large stones, and we had to carry one stone at a time from one place to another.
From Riga we were taken to the Dondangen concentration camp. We slept in tents, and our “beds” were made of thin saplings. It was impossible to get comfortable. It never got dark in Dondangen; it stayed light the entire night.
In Dondangen we dug narrow cable lines with shovels. The men placed the cables inside, and we covered them with earth. The whole place was flat land and open fields. Once we saw patches of red mushrooms with white dots growing in the forest, like I had seen in picture books as a child.
Every morning we got a bowl of soup and a piece of bread — our food for the day. There was a fountain in the camp where we could get water, and we managed to wash ourselves and some of our clothing with it. Dondangen was not a very large camp, and the prisoners were mostly Hungarian. I was there for about two months, and then we were taken to a camp called Stutthof.
In Stutthof we slept in wooden barracks and got a ration of bread every day. We stood for tzeil appell every morning, and there were occasional selections. One morning, I was selected. The way the camp was set up, there were barracks on one side and an infirmary and some other buildings on the other side. They were separated by a wire fence.
The other girls and I who were selected were taken through a door in the fence and brought to a room with an open window. I was able to see my sister through the window, and as I looked out, a kapo named Max reached in and grabbed me through the window. He threw me across the room, and I was left with a gash in my arm that took a long time to heal. Max was known in the camp for being particularly vicious, and after liberation, rumors circulated about his being hanged.
When I stood up, I watched as a group of girls marched in through the door in the fence toward the infirmary. They entered the infirmary a few at a time, and when they exited, they formed single file lines. Once several lines had been formed, I silently exited the room and slipped into a line. Two sisters who had been selected with me saw, and they followed me. None of the guards noticed.
We marched back through the fence, and I went straight to our barrack. My sister and I were both astonished at my audacity.
That night, there was no ration for me. My sister gave me from hers. The next morning we had the same problem, and again my sister gave me from her ration. Then we stood for tzeil appell and the guards realized there were three extra girls. They said they would not let us go until the three extra girls stepped forward. After a few hours, the sisters stepped forward. I remained frozen in my place, petrified. I couldn’t move. We stood there for hours — from the morning until the late afternoon. Finally, they let us go.
I was together with a group of ten girls from Bistritz. That night, we tried to make a plan. I wasn’t getting a ration; I couldn’t stand at tzeil appell. Was there a place for me to hide?
Stutthof had a huge open area, about the size of a football field. From across it we were able to see black trucks going back and forth all day to and from the crematoria. Behind them we were able to see trains pulling in.
As we walked back and forth trying to decide what to do, we saw people lining up in front of a train. We thought that maybe it would be a good idea for us to board the train.
As we approached the platform, we saw a group of girls and asked if they wanted to switch places with us. The girls were happy to stay at Stutthof because they were scared they would be taken to a place of hard labor. We quickly switched clothing, trading our gray dresses for their civilian clothes with yellow stars on the back. It took about a minute — we were very fast — and then we got on the train.
They took us to Danzig, where we stayed for a day in an open field. We sat in the grass, and they gave us some food.
From there we went to Toruń. That’s where the nightmare started. There are no words to describe that place.
I will start with our daily schedule. Every morning we were awoken at dawn. We dressed quickly, got our coffee and a piece of bread with a pat of margarine, and lined up. Then we marched to work. Tzeil appell lasted between 30 minutes and an hour. We received vile black “coffee,” which we used to wash our hands and faces.
We walked many, many miles through forests of pine trees to the working place, where we spent the day digging trenches, approximately three meters wide by one-and-a-half meters high. I am 5’2”. I’d fling my shovel toward the top of the trench, and all the earth would shower down on me because I could barely reach the top. I was happy they had shaved our heads because I had no hair in which the dirt could lodge.
We worked the entire day without food. At the end of the day, we got a bowl of “soup.”
I was housed in Block 42 together with about 1,500 women, including the group I came with.
Our barrack was similar to a tent, made of circular plywood, with no windows and no beds. We slept on the floor, lined up like sardines, sharing our blankets. There was a lot of moss growing around so we cut big pieces of it — like bricks — and two very geshikt women climbed up to put them on top of our tent for insulation.
Each block was assigned a “block eltiste,” an inmate who was like a manager. Our eltiste, Renya, was from Lithuania. She was a good woman who did what she could for us. She made sure that we got up in the morning and lined up. Renya once stole a potato from the kitchen and hollowed it out to make a cup. She filled it with margarine from people’s rations and she made a wick out of clothing fibers to create a candle that gave us a little light.
One day the oberscharfuhrer announced that everyone under the age of 17 should come to the office. These girls all got a piece of jam. That was before winter set in.
The camp had an infirmary, where horrible things happened. I don’t know what happened to the people in there at the end of the war, but someone told us that the Germans burned it down with everyone inside.
There was no latrine in the camp, so we used the forest instead. Instead of paper, we used branches from the pine trees that surrounded us. There was never any privacy.
We never knew what day it was. We did try to keep track at first. One girl didn’t want to carry her shovel on Shabbos, and one Friday she left it at the ditch where we worked. The next morning, when we left for work, a soldier asked her where her shovel was. When he saw she didn’t have it, he beat her with his rifle.
We barely had anything to wear. Everyone had a blanket, and we used that to cover ourselves. We took pieces of our undershirts and made them into a sort of sock because we had nothing with which to cover our lower body. Eventually, we all got body lice. Before we went to sleep each night, Renya made us check the seams of our clothing for lice so they would not spread further.
My shoes had fallen apart by that time, so I got wooden clogs like the Dutch wear. They were too big on me, so I stuffed them with straw.
When winter set in, it became unbearably cold, and the work became increasingly difficult. We trudged through deep snow to get to the work site. We were split into groups, and each of us had to dig an ever-growing number of trenches.
On December 25, we were marched out of the camp to a train track. There was a train car fitted with a disinfecting machine that was used for soldiers. We took off our clothes, bundled them, and gave them in to be disinfected. When the clothes were cleaned, we walked back into the camp. It was the only time that our clothes were disinfected.
One day, the ground was too frozen to dig. We shook our limbs and moved around to keep warm. One woman said, “I can’t anymore. I’ll die here.” She sat down with her arms wrapped around herself, and she froze to death right there on the ground.
One day a woman from the kitchen told me that people were needed to dig a grave for a woman who died in the middle of the camp. She said that if I helped, I’d get a bucket of hot water.
Three of us dug that grave in the snow; the ground was completely frozen. After a while we just couldn’t dig anymore. The girl’s body was wrapped in a blanket. We unrolled the blanket into the grave and buried her.
The woman from the kitchen gave me a bucket of hot water. I undressed and dipped my clothes into the water. I washed my body. I was like a new person.
One girl in our group was engaged. She kept saying, “If only I could see Kalman [her chassan] again.” I kept thinking, If only I could see my mother again.
My sister was always with me. Once she got sick, burning with such high fever that no one could lie next to her. We assumed she had typhus, but we didn’t want to put her in the infirmary because we knew that no one came out of there alive. We supported her on the way to the work site, and her friends did her work.
My sister got better. It’s unexplainable. Other people who were sick like my sister but didn’t have anyone to take care of them had no choice — they went to the infirmary, and they did not come back.
We were in the forest, but we figured we were not far from a city. We knew we couldn’t be too far from civilization because one officer used to walk through the forest to get to the camp; we knew he must have a house nearby.
Most of the German men were at the front, so our guards were Lithuanian. We were afraid of them and had no common language so we could not communicate. It was better that way.
Toward the end, a woman in Block 36 had a baby. It did not survive. That week we started pulling out of the camp toward the death march. The other women surrounded the new mother and held her up. That’s how she survived.
Before we left the camp, they made a selection — the only one we had while I was there. Anyone who didn’t look well was left behind.
We had arrived at Toruń in August, and the death march began in January. Most of the women who made it to the march gradually died along the way.
We walked for at least a week. We left the forest and marched in the snow through villages, where people lived. The snow accumulated on my wooden shoes until they became like stilts. I’d scrape off the snow and run forward, afraid to be last because then I’d get shot by the soldiers walking behind us. One of our group disappeared in the forest to use the bathroom and never came back.
One night we stopped in a big village. They threw all the cows out of a barn, and they put us in there with all the dirt. In the morning, they woke us up, and we continued. Some people tried to run away and hide behind houses or buildings. I don’t know what happened to them.
We continued our march without stopping to sleep until we arrived in a village called Krona. They put us in a big jail there, and we slept in bunk beds, one on top of another. It was Shabbos. We woke up Shabbos morning, and we heard a lot of bombardment and shooting. All the soldiers had disappeared. We knew something was going on, but we didn’t know what. But the Russians were there. They attacked the town in the middle of the night.
By morning a captain opened the gates of the jail. He came in and said, “You are free. You can go.”
It was January 26, 1945.
IF I could write a book about my experiences during the war, I could write a second book on my experiences following liberation. Our immediate focus was to find something to eat and a place to sleep, neither of which was easy. But my focus the entire time was to return home, where I was sure I would reunite with my mother and family.
My sister and I traveled for months, from one train to the next, until we finally arrived back in Bistritz in April 1945. But there was no one left.
My sister and I were the only ones to survive from my family.
My eldest brother was shot during the death march in the winter. After he was shot, his friend ran over and rescued the tefillin he had carried with him in the camps.
We don’t know what happened to my second brother. At the time we were taken to the ghetto, he was in Klausenberg with his wife, who had just given birth. She was in the hospital, and he was hiding when the Jews were taken away. That’s the last we heard.
My third brother was in Mauthausen, a subcamp of Ebensee. He survived the war, but his body could not tolerate the rich food given to him by the Americans at liberation. A friend who was with him told us he died about two weeks after liberation.
My mother, my married sister, my sister-in-law, and all five of my nieces were sent to the other side when we arrived at Auschwitz.
Almost 80 years have passed. Today I live in the United States with my children and grandchildren close by.
My granddaughter recently tried to find information about the Toruń concentration camp online, but there was almost nothing written about it.
Despite the passage of time, my memories of the people and places I knew are clear. Sometimes it’s hard for me to think about anything else.
If there are any other survivors from Toruń, I would like to ask that they contact me.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 829)
Oops! We could not locate your form.