She was born in Hamburg, Germany, and was 9 years old when Hitler came to power in 1933. She was there during the boycott of Jewish stores, when it was decided that Jewish children could only attend Jewish schools and the sale and consumption of kosher meat was forbidden along with the right to vote or to have a passport. She was sent to her first concentration camp at the age of 18 in 1942.
Esther Bauer, however, did not die. She did not forget. And she did not keep silent. Instead, she became a Holocaust survivor with a voice. Today, thousands have listened to this remarkable woman lecture in colleges and universities across the country. At age 89, Bauer can not only recount her harrowing experiences in graphic detail, but she remains vigilant in reminding students that such a tragedy must never be forgotten so it can never be repeated.
After her lecture inside the George R. Johnson Cultural Heritage Center at Cleveland State Community College in March, Bauer stood among a group of students and visitors who wanted to get closer to her, embrace her and take photos with her. The energetic senior said she noticed some of them had tears in their eyes. Those tears of compassion, with every touch and embrace, made the 89-year-old’s journey from Yonkers, N.Y., worth it. She was reaching another generation. People listened and learned. It was another victory.
“I always say to the students that they have to see to it that this never happens again,” Bauer said in an email interview. “They are the future of this country.”
Reliving the horrors of the Holocaust may not be the easiest thing she has ever done, but sharing her story has made a difference that only history can truly measure. Again, she prepared to tell her true life story. The setting was in Hamburg, the second-largest city in Germany and the fourth-largest German Jewish Community during the early 1930s.
Bauer’s parents were well-respected, prominent people in their community. Her father, Dr. Alberto Jonas, was the principal of the Jewish Girls School. Her mother, Dr. Marie Anna Jonas, was a medical doctor. As early as World War I, however, Marie was confronted with anti-Semitism from soldiers.
“My mother, whose maiden name was Levinsohn, had been a Red Cross nurse in World War I in Germany and there were already German soldiers who did not want to get taken care of by a Jewish nurse,” she said.
Although in 1934 Marie had received the distinguished Honor Cross for her services in World War I, she was aware that the coming to power of the National Socialists was a threat to the Jews. But it was worse than anyone had imagined. The Fourth Decree of the Reich Citizen Act of July 25, 1938 was suddenly introduced, barring all Jewish doctors from medical practice, beginning Sept. 30, 1938. After that date, Jewish physicians could treat only Jews and had to call themselves medical orderlies or caretakers of the sick.
“They had to nurse old people instead,” Bauer recalled. In the meantime, her mother taught biology and health education in the Jewish community girls’ school. Her pupils were young participants in occupational training courses preparing for emigration, her daughter being among them. But then came a diabolical deception and deportation to Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia.
According to the Holocaust Encyclopedia, “Theresienstadt served as a settlement, an assembly camp, and a concentration camp, and thus had recognizable features of both ghettos and concentration camps. In its function as a tool of deception, Theresienstadt was a unique facility.”
During this time the Jewish victims of Hamburg gathered together prior to deportation and were attended to by members of the Jewish community. They were given two days’ food supplies for the trip, including water to drink and to wash with, towels, soap and medicine. Bauer said Terezin was a garrison town for the Czech military. Everyone was evacuated from Terezin. Then only Jews were deported there.
“My father had to close his school in May 1942 in Hamburg. I was 18 when we were deported to Theresienstadt (called Terezin in Czech). Of course we were worried not knowing what would happen there. We knew about Auschwitz. My father was assured by the Gestapo Nazi, to whom he had to report to every week, that he would have his school again in Terezin.”
But when they arrived in Terezin her father was held captive and forced to shovel coal. Not being a physically trained man, he died six weeks later of meningitis.
“I insist that he died of a broken heart because this Nazi, who was always very nice to him, had lied to him,” Bauer said. “By the way, this Nazi — his name was Goettsche — took his own life after the war. We walked into Theresienstadt (Terezin) from the railroad station in Bauschowitz and we were prisoners from that moment on. We had to leave our luggage in the courtyard of a barrack — needless to say, we never saw it again — and had to go up to the attic.”
On her way to the attic, Bauer said they passed the kitchen and there stood a young man who looked at her with a certain interest, “and I knew he would come after me,” she said.
“We went to the attic and there was only a dirty stone floor — no beds, no chairs, no tables, nothing at all — just a stone floor. We had to sleep there and sit on the floor, about 700 people from Hamburg. The only bathroom was a latrine. A wooden slat where men, women and children had to sit together! Horrible.”
Just as Bauer had predicted, the young man did come to her. His name was Jan Leiner, but he was called Honza. He did not speak German and she did not speak Czech.
“Well, right then and there I made up my mind to learn the language, which I did later,” she said. “There was a hierarchy in Terezin. The first Jews came from Czechoslovakia and they got the best rooms and the best jobs. A brother of Honza was one of them and made sure that Honza got a good job, namely as a cook.
“After my father died, I got very sick with double pneumonia. My new friend Honza ran through the whole town, which was not allowed at that time, and found a doctor. She came and gave me an injection and said, if she would have come two hours later, I probably would not be alive. I owe this man my life. He was able to get my mother and me into a smaller room with only five other women. My mother was made a doctor again, but had hardly any medicine. I also got a job through [Honza] to work in an office, not in the fields or cleaning toilets or other terrible jobs.”
Such small blessings were short lived, however, as terror rose among the Jewish prisoners once transports came to Terezin.
“One day Honza got the notice that he [would] be in a transport of 700 men to build a new ghetto near Dresden — a German town,” Bauer recalled. “So, after we had been friends for two years, we decided to get married. You could get married, but you could not live together! After three days of marriage, Honza left. Two weeks later the wives of these men were told they can go voluntarily after their husbands. Well, I was married only three days, so of course, I went. My mother was still alive and said ‘Stay here.’ But I said, ‘No, I have to go.’ I always do what my insides tell me. To say goodbye to your mother is, of course, very hard.
“In the train I see all of a sudden Polish names and knew we were going to Auschwitz and not to Dresden. Well, we landed in Auschwitz and there stood Dr. Mengele with his dog and said, ‘You go left — you go right. I went right and a good friend with whom I had worked in the office and who taught me Czech, went left. We go into the shower and thought, ‘Now comes the gas,’ but water came. My friend who went to the left was killed. We were 500 girls in one barrack. At night they took the people out of barracks and drove them in trucks to the gas chamber.”
Bauer’s husband was already dead. On Oct. 10, 1944, her mother was deported to Auschwitz and she too was murdered. In all, around 7,800 Hamburg Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. Bauer never knew if she would be next.
“We heard the screaming and I will never forget the smell of the burning flesh,” Bauer said. “After two weeks we were told that we ‘will be going into the shower.’ We were sure that is the end. But water came out and they gave us very thin clothing and drove us to Freiberg, (Sachsen, Germany) to build airplanes.”
Transported to a women’s labor camp where she was forced to construct aircraft, Bauer said she slaved there for nine months, “Then they packed us into open coal cars and drove us two weeks through Czechoslovakia into Mauthausen, Austria.”
Mauthausen was classified as a category three consentration camp, the fiercest category. For prisoners, it meant “return not desired” and “extermination by work.” As far as the Nazis were concerned, this was the end of the line for Bauer. But on May 5, 1945, the American 11th Armor Division invaded the area and U.S. troops liberated the camp, including Bauer. She said she remembers that day very well.
“It was in the morning. I was sick, but people around me said that the Nazis had all left. There was no bombing. The Americans came up the hill in tanks. I was inside in bed where the woman I had to share the bed with died. All the bedbugs, fleas and lice came to me. They don’t stay on a dead person. It was in a barrack and there were about 500 women in that barrack. The Americans came and nursed me back to health. I was 21 when I was liberated by the wonderful Americans. For my 21st birthday, one lady with whom I had to share a bed (there were always two women to one strawsack) gave me the weekly ration of margarine — one pat! That was the most valuable gift I ever got!”
It was reported that some 15,000 bodies were buried in mass graves and 3,000 prisoners died in the weeks after the liberation due to disease and malnourishment in Mauthausen. In all, an estimated 6 million Jews were murdered, 1.5 million being children, according to the Jewish Virtual Library. Now Bauer, a Holocaust survivor, had to decide how to move on with her life, having escaped death numerous times.
“I came to this country in 1946 and stayed with a girlfriend who had immigrated from Germany in 1938 to New York,” she said. “After dinner we went to an ice cream parlor on Broadway and two young men came in. One was her boyfriend and the other one was his buddy from the U.S. Army. His buddy asked me all kinds of questions. Two years later I married him.”
The couple had a son, Lawrence Albert Bauer, who is now 58 years old. Bauer also has two grandchildren, one 17 and one 21, whom she loves dearly. But Bauer has not limited her love to family.
“My husband died 20 years ago and 10 years ago I met my boy toy, Bill,” Bauer said. “We live together in a wonderful senior residence and we love it here! Our windows look at the Hudson River. We always hold hands and we tell each other every day, at least once — but mostly more than once — that we love each other.”
When asked what she learned about good and evil, Baurer wrote, “I say there are good people and there are bad people. I had wonderful German non-Jewish friends who stuck with me all through the bad times and after the war. Unfortunately they have all died. For my 85th birthday I gave a party for 55 people and 12 came from Germany just for my birthday.”
On Feb. 19, 2009, the Central Square on the corner of Eppendorfer Landstraße and Kümmellstraße in Hamburg was named “Marie-Jonas-Platz (Plaza)” in honor and in memory of Dr. Marie Anna Jonas. Bauer attended the ceremony honoring her mother.
“I was able to name a plaza after my mother and I was able to name the school building of my father’s school in Hamburg after him. It is now called Dr. Alberto Jonas Haus,” said Bauer, whose life has found laughter, liberation and love.
“I was asked once by a student what was the most valuable thing I lost. Without hesitation I answered my German teddy bear!” Bauer said. “One hundred pupils said, ‘Awwwwww.’ Now everybody gives me teddy bears! I say live each day, have fun and be a human being.”
Amazingly, Bauer has done more than survive the Holocaust. She is thriving. Her exuberance in the face of life’s adversities is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and a monument to the power of endurance, adaptability and love.
Sharing her firsthand account of survival with students everywhere from Watertown, N.Y., and Bethlehem, Pa., to Durham, N.H., and Cleveland, Tenn., Bauer has been a bundle of energy in delivering her terrifying experience as a young Jewish woman facing the most hideous evil of the 20th century. Now she enjoys a new life, interesting lectures and a new love in America.
“I came here with $5 and worked two jobs to make some money,” she said. “I worked until I was 73 and now I work harder than ever talking in universities and high schools. I am a proud citizen since 1950 and have never missed an election. I hope people will remember me.”
Her memories shared, her experiences felt, her warnings taken to heart, Bauer is living a purpose-driven life with a message for all: Never forget. Never give up. Never stop fighting evil. Never stop loving and pursuing peace.