History Stories

Mindu Hornick, 13, peered through a crack in the door of her stopped cattle car and read a name: Auschwitz.

“I spelt it out for my mother,” Hornick recalled recently. “She says, ‘I don't know where it is, I've never heard of the place.’ And then suddenly all this clatter of the doors opening, and when the doors opened I mean there was, just, all hell let loose.”

They had traveled for days in the dark, 70 women and children packed shoulder to shoulder in a cattle car, with little food and a single sanitation bucket to share. Now they saw piles of rotting bodies, barking dogs, Nazis shouting in German, thick gray ash clotting the air. An official scrambled into their car.

“I think that a kapo must have known that this train of mothers and children—that were no use to them for work—would end up in the gas chambers,” said Hornick. “And that's why he must have looked in that coach and thought to himself, ‘well perhaps I'll try and save a couple.’”

He advised Hornick’s mother to let her two older girls go ahead, while she stayed behind with her younger two sons. You’ll see them soon, he assured her in Yiddish. He told Mindu and her sister to lie about their age and skills. “You are a seamstress,” he told them.

“You better do as this man says,” her mother said. “We looked back and we saw our mother with her spotted scarf, and we waved to her and we went ahead,” Mindu said.

She never saw her mother or little brothers again.

READ MORE: Horrors of Auschwitz: The Numbers Behind WWII's Deadliest Concentration Camp

Holocaust Survivor Mindu Hornick

Mindu Hornick, Auschwitz survivor.

Auschwitz and the ‘Final Solution’

The Nazis established Auschwitz in 1940 in the Polish suburbs of Oswiecim, building a complex of camps that became central to Hitler’s pursuit of a “Final Solution to the Jewish question.” Nazis murdered between 1.1 million and 1.5 million people at Auschwitz, including more than one million Jews, but also Roma (gypsies), homosexuals, political dissidents and more.

As prisoners arrived, young children, the elderly and infirm were separated and immediately sent to take “showers,” which pumped deadly Zyklon-B poison gas into the chambers. Daily mass executions, starvation, disease and torture transformed Auschwitz into one of the most lethal and terrifying concentration camps and extermination centers of World War II.

Children, especially twins, could be selected at any time for barbaric medical experiments conducted without anesthesia by Nazi Josef Mengele. These included injecting serum directly into children’s eyeballs to study eye color and injecting chloroform into the hearts of twins to determine if the siblings would die at the same time and in the same way.

In January 1945, Soviet soldiers liberated the camp to find 7,600 emaciated prisoners left behind, heaps of corpses and seven tons of human hair that had been shaved off the prisoners.

Estimates suggest that Nazis murdered 85% of the people sent to Auschwitz. Here are the stories of three who survived. [Comments have been edited for clarity.]

Before the war

Edith Eger, born September 29, 1927

The town that I grew up in was part of Czechoslovakia until 1938, when it became part of Hungary. I spent a lot of time with my mom because my father played billiards, and so she took me to the opera and she introduced me to Gone with the Wind. I was told at a very young age that I am a very talented gymnast.

Mindu Hornick, born May 4, 1929

I grew up in this shtetl in the Carpathian Mountains. Life was good. We had a lovely home and an orchard and we had nice relations with our neighbors and our school friends, which were not always Jewish.

Billy Harvey, born May 20, 1924

My city was called Berehove, population was approximately 26,000. In the springtime I used to work in a vineyard, cultivate the growth of the grapes, in the fall we used to harvest the grapes. The whole city was like Napa Valley. [My father was injured in World War I] so my mother became the sole supporter of the family. She was a dressmaker, but what I know about her talent today, she was more like a dress designer. There was no indoor plumbing, there was no electricity, my mother had to go every day to the farmers’ market, purchase the food, prepare the food for six children, also make a living.

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The rise of anti-Semitism

Edith Eger

I wanted to be a gymnast and be competing in the Olympics. I was told by my trainer that ‘I have to train someone else who is not Jewish,’ and that was to me the biggest shock of my life because I spent at least five hours a day training, training, training. And then I said to my trainer, ‘I'm not Jewish.’ I denied it, and that's when I realized that when you had a child, you had to go to the City Hall and register the child and put the religion next to it.

Mindu Hornick

[Once we were forced to wear Jewish stars] that was terrible, suddenly we were singled out. We were different to school friends, we were different to our neighbors. My father was taken away from us. His businesses were confiscated, and honestly I don't know how our mother fed us.

Billy Harvey

I graduated age of 18 from a gymnasium [an advanced secondary school]. Unfortunately my graduation present became Birkenau Auschwitz.

Transport to Auschwitz

Mindu Hornick

We were suddenly told to pack our luggage and be ready to come to the station. We were taken to a ghetto first.

Billy Harvey

We were [in the ghetto] for six weeks under terrible sanitation conditions. We were freezing, we had very little food to eat. One day the train arrived...they pushed into one cattle car as many people they possibly can—so that we were crushed like sardines. There [were] no windows on the cattle car. When the sliding doors slammed closed on us, the only light came through the wooden cracks.

Edith Eger

I begged my father to look presentable, to look younger. We were all shmooshed up, you know, very small, little place, in the cattle car, on the floor, sitting down, and I am crawling to him and asking him to shave. He didn’t listen to me. My mom hugged me and said, ‘We don't know where we're going, we don't know what's going to happen, just remember no one can take away from you what you put here in your own mind.’

Mindu Hornick

It was not a long way from where we were to Auschwitz, but because of railway lines being bombed, [the train] was shunted forward and back...and suddenly we arrived at the place.

Holocaust Survivor Billy Harvey

Billy Harvey, Auschwitz survivor.

Arrival

Mindu Hornick

We were pushed through to the main gate, and once we entered there we thought we'd entered hell. There were bodies everywhere, and there were these watch towers with machine guns pointing at us...this terrible grey ash falling around us. There were the barking dogs, viciously walking around, there were loudspeakers always and these SS men walking around, with shiny boots and guns on their back. I mean, we were just frightened out of our wits.

Billy Harvey

When we first glanced out, it looked like a twilight zone, big chimneys going to the sky, smoke was going all over. We didn't know where the smoke was coming from, but we found out soon enough—the smoke was coming from the crematorium. They were burning—burning between 12,000 and 13,000 people a day.

Edith Eger

Men and women were immediately separated. I never saw my father again. After the war, I met someone who told me that he saw my father going to the gas chamber.

Billy Harvey

Who they wanted to stay alive, go to the right; who was condemned to die, go to the left. Most of the children were bitterly crying, didn't want to be separated from their mother, so the young mothers went to the left, to the gas chamber.

Edith Eger

We stood at the end of the line, with my mum in the middle, Magda [my sister] and I. And [Doctor Josef Mengele] asked, ‘Is this your mother or is this your sister?’ And I did not forgive myself [for] saying, ‘That's my mother.’ So Doctor Mengele points my mother to go this way, and my sister and I the other. I followed my mum, and...the very person who annihilates my family grabs me, and there is an eye contact, and tells me, ‘You're gonna see your mother very soon, she's just gonna take a shower.’

Billy Harvey

We were stripped from every inch of human dignity. They made us strip completely naked, shaved our hair, gave us a prisoner’s suit to wear.

Mindu Hornick

They marched us into shower rooms to be deloused. Our heads shaven and then we were going in to be tattooed with a number and, from then on, we had no name, that was it. For young girls like ourselves, possibly even our mother [hadn't seen] us undressed. We had to sit there naked for men shaving our heads.

Billy Harvey

We passed by where the [women were]...my mother, my aunt, my cousins and their children all were naked as we glanced in, and they looked like they were in a trance. [The Nazis] must have used a gas, a small amount, because they didn't look normal. We weren't allowed to say a word...we'd be murdered immediately.

Edith Eger

We were completely shaven, and then we were in our nakedness, and my sister asked me, ‘How do I look?’ You know, Hungarian women can be quite vain, and, and I had a choice...realizing that I became her mirror, and I said to her, ‘You know Magda, you have such beautiful eyes, and I didn't see it when you had your hair all over the place.’

Mindu Hornick

Once we got through all that routine, we were taken to block 14. It was night, and by that time there was no room for us. We had to sit all night on the stone floor.

READ MORE: The Jewish Men Forced to Help Run Auschwitz

Survivors of Auschwitz on the day of liberation.

Survivors of Auschwitz on the day of liberation.

Daily Survival

Edith Eger

In Auschwitz you couldn't fight, because if you touched the guard you were shot—right in front of me I saw that. You couldn't flee because if you touched the barbed wires, you were electrocuted. When we took a shower, we didn’t know whether gas is coming out of the water.

Billy Harvey

Every morning, four o'clock, they knocked on the door [for] roll call. I don't know what was the purpose of it because nobody could escape—the barracks were surrounded by barbed wire, the barbed wire was connected to electricity and every morning in front of the barracks was piled up naked dead people.

Mindu Hornick

Very often we would see Doctor Mengele walking along, looking very smart in shiny boots and always immaculately dressed, and he would wear a pair of white leather gloves. And if anybody didn't look well, he would wave and they would have to step out of line, and we never saw those people again. If you were feeling pale, or whatever, you weren't feeling right…you would prick your finger to draw some blood and make yourself rosy cheeks.

Billy Harvey

Once a day you got a bowl of soup—they called it soup, I don't know what it was, it wasn’t fit for an animal. No utensils. Five to six people have to share it, so we handed it [from] mouth to mouth, back and forth until the soup disappeared.

Edith Eger

I constantly was hallucinating about food. My mother kept Kosher, and she made her challah that was an art piece, and I visualized that in Auschwitz, my mother doing the challah, and mak[ing] her noodles.

Mindu Hornick

I remember a young boy. I think he picked up a potato skin or something. Whenever there was a hanging, we were all called out to watch it, and I remember us shouting, ‘For God's sake, where is God?’ A young boy hung because he picked some bit of food up.

Edith Eger

I danced for Doctor Mengele and he gave me a piece of bread. I shared it with everyone. We were a family of inmates, we had to care for each other. If you were just for the me, me, me, you never made it. [Later, during one of several death marches] when you stopped you were shot right away, and I was about to stop. I was getting weaker and weaker, and the girls that I shared the bread with...formed a chair with their arms, and they carried me so I wouldn't die.

Billy Harvey

When I wanted to give up, I said [to myself] what a great lady my mother was, who stood by all the hardship, raising six children, all by herself in such a primitive circumstances. That's what gave me the strength to want to survive—and also to tell the world what was happening.

Mindu Hornick

It's a notorious thing that people in the camps survived in pairs, or some other people that were taking care of them. My aunt, my mother's sister...heard that our transport came in, so she came to find us, Auntie Berthe. We were still crying for our mother. She did a secret exchange...and took us into her block to take care of us. When people say, how did you survive? We lived for each other.

READ MORE: This Midwife at Auschwitz Delivered 3,000 Babies in Unfathomable Conditions

Liberation

Edith Eger

All I could tell you [was] that it was quite dark, I saw just kind of darkness, and we didn't know who's alive and who's not alive. I was in a very bad state, I was already among the dead, and then I looked up. It was a man. I saw tears in the eyes, and M&Ms in [his] hand.

Billy Harvey

[As the Allies approached, the Nazis evacuated Harvey and other prisoners to Buchenwald by cattle car.] People [were] dying left and right from hunger. When they died, we took their clothes off to try to keep warmer. When we arrived back to Buchenwald, they came to collect all the dead people from the cattle car to transport them to the crematorium. I was frozen. I was put among the dead people. When I arrived to the crematorium, the prisoner who worked there discovered that I was still alive. He saved my life. I woke up in the barrack. When I opened my eyes, I thought I was in a five-star hotel. Nobody was hollering at me. Nobody was beating me. I was age of 21. I weighed 72 pounds. I could not stand up well on my feet. But I was so happy to be alive. Next day, I ask the people to carry me outside. I wanted to get some fresh air. They carried me outside. I hear a gentleman speak with the French accent.

Mindu Hornick

I really did not know what happened to us in those last hours [before] liberation. Suddenly the Germans got very, very impatient and they collected us all and put us on a train, and it was the first time we went on a passenger train and [at] either end of the train there were machine guns. The British saw a train moving with machine guns on either side, thinking they've got some valuable cargo, they shot our train up. About 60 or 70 of our girls were killed by the British Armada. We jumped out of the train and started waving. I think now it was a miracle that we weren't killed on that train, either by the British or the Germans, who tried to...kill us in the last moment.

READ MORE: How the Nazis Tried to Cover Up Their Crimes at Auschwitz

Living as a survivor

Edith Eger

When I was liberated, I got up in the morning, and I realized that my parents are not coming home, and reality hit me. I became very suicidal. I just wanted to die. But I'm glad I did not...because I was able to somehow turn all the tragedy into an opportunity for me to now, not only survive, but also to guide other people to be survivors as well.

Billy Harvey

I was the age of 22 and I came to [the United States] with one pair of shoes and shirt and slacks, and I was determined to make a success out of my life and that's what I did. I also discovered the best revenge in life is success. You can't hate your enemies, as I said, because when you hate you're not living.

Mindu Hornick

Have I ever found an explanation? No, I haven't. I haven't. But if you want to remain normal, and you want to not end up on psychiatrist couches, or something like that, you have to drift back into a life, join a community and be part of it because...when you were brought up in a community, you want to belong again. And that was the most important thing for me: to belong again.

Billy Harvey

I don't believe that the world learned the lessons from the Holocaust. This troubles me very deeply.

Edith Eger

When the children were separated at the border, I had very, very, very many nightmares, and I still do. So when people tell me I overcame, no, I never overcame, and I never forgot.

Billy Harvey

I know that I'm 95, I'm blind, I don't question why that happened to me. I wanna go forward, I wanna enjoy every day of my life. When I wake up in the morning, I says, “You're not gonna let me down, I have to get up, I have to proceed with my lecture because I help people.” There is nothing greater and there's nothing bigger.

Holocaust Survivor Edith Eger

Edith Eger, 92, earned her doctorate in psychology at the University of Texas, El Paso, and works as a clinical psychologist, helping survivors of trauma, including veterans. She is currently writing her second book The Gift and Twelve Lessons from Hell.

Auschwitz-Untold-Billy-Harvey-1

Billy Harvey, 95, established a successful career as a celebrity cosmetologist before opening his own beauty salon, working with actresses including Judy Garland, Mary Martin and Zsa Zsa Gabor. He currently speaks regularly at the Museum of Tolerance and other venues to share his experiences.

Auschwitz-Untold-Mindu-Hornick-1

Mindu Hornick, 90, was awarded an MBE in December 2019 for her two decades of work as a Holocaust educator teaching about the dangers of intolerance and hatred. She works with the Holocaust Memorial Trust and the Anne Frank Trust.

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Watch the HISTORY special, Auschwitz Untold, online or in the HISTORY App now.

Listen to HISTORY This Week Podcast: Episode 4: January 27, 1945 Surviving Auschwitz

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