Wednesday 26 January 2022

HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL DAY SPECIAL: To Hell and Back – My Mother’s Holocaust Journey

 A special personal Guest Post by Paul Lorber published on Holocaust and Genocide Memorial Day


My mother was a holocaust survivor. The full story of her experience was so awful that she only mentioned a few bits when pestered by me and my brother. I knew about Auschwitz and her work on an aircraft wing, but not much more. Then, about three years ago, a book was donated to Barham Community Library which set me off on a search, and helped me fill in the missing pieces. Now I can tell her story.


1.Auschwitz Concentration Camp, now a Holocaust Memorial site in Poland. (Image from the internet)


Berta Lowinger was born in March 1919 to (not very religious) Jewish parents, who had a shoe making business. She was the youngest of three children, with a brother and a sister. They lived in Czechoslovakia, newly created after the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of the First World War.

2.The Lowinger family in the mid-1920s, with Berta second from right.


Despite being born with arthritis in one leg, which meant that she walked with a slight limp, Berta had a happy childhood. In 1940, she married Adolf Lorber, a 27-year-old architect from a small village from the east of the country. They started married life in Bratislava, a city of 120,000 people where around 15% were Jews.


3.Berta and Adolf Lorber, on their wedding day in 1940.


The rise to power of Adolf Hitler in Germany led to the betrayal of Czechoslovakia by its British, French and Italian allies. The Sudetenland territories were handed over to Germany in 1938, and it took over the rest of the country in March 1939. The Czech lands were annexed, while a puppet regime controlled an “independent” Slovakia. 


4.Central Europe in 1939, after the German takeover of Austria and the Czech Republic.
(Image from the internet)


The new Slovakian leader was Josef Tiso. A fanatical Catholic priest, he was determined to get rid of all the Slovak Jews, referring to them as ‘parasites’ and ‘the eternal enemy’. His government passed a series of anti-Jewish laws, restricting what they could do, and confiscating Jewish-owned land and property, in a policy known as “Aryanization”.


5.Adolf Hitler greeting Slovakian President Josef Tiso. (Image from the internet)


In 1941, Slovakia became the first Axis partner to consent to the deportation of its Jewish residents. Under an agreement with the German government, 58,000 Jews were deported to the Auschwitz camp, in Nazi-occupied Poland, between March and October 1942. Only a few hundred of them survived. The Slovak authorities paid Germany 500 Reichsmark per Jew deported. In exchange, the Germans permitted Slovakia to retain all confiscated property. 


6.Extract from the Central Shoah database for Berta Lorber.


My parents were on the “deportation list” for 19 August 1942, and are recorded on the Shoah (holocaust) database as having been killed. But Tiso had introduced a “Presidential Exemption”, which allowed certain Jews to be recognised as “essential workers”, on payment of a substantial fee. According to my older brother, our parents were protected from deportation then, because my father managed to obtain one of these exemptions.


7.Jewish prisoners being loaded onto a deportation train. (Image from the internet)


The deportations were halted when the Vatican intervened, after reports that the “transports” were taking people straight to mass extermination camps, not to work. My mother said that two thirds of the family perished at that time. She and my father managed to carry on living, under very tight restrictions, but in August 1944 things changed for the worse. Germany invaded Slovakia to crush the anti-fascist Slovak National Uprising, and took control of the country. Deportation of the remaining 13,500 Jews began almost immediately.


My parents did talk about the way they were rounded up. It was the only thing my father ever mentioned about his experiences. During the chaos as the Jews were being lined up in the street, he had the good sense to cover up his Star of David, move aside onto the pavement and walk away. My mother was taken, forced into the waiting trucks and ended up on a transport to Auschwitz. My father was temporarily free, and was lucky, as none of the men on my mother’s transport survived.


8.Jewish prisoners arriving at Auschwitz. (Image from the internet)


Auschwitz-Birkenau was the largest of the Nazi death camps. Around one million Jews, and tens of thousands of Polish, Russian, Romany and other people were killed there. It was designed to carry out Hitler’s order ‘to solve the “Jewish Question” for good’. Extermination was carried out using Zyklon B gas, which had previously been tested on Russian prisoners of war, with the bodies of victims then cremated in large ovens.


9.Cremation ovens at a German concentration camp. (Image from the internet)


10.Jewish women being unloaded from a cattle truck at a concentration camp. (Image from the internet)


Holocaust records, and my mother’s release papers, confirm that she was taken to Auschwitz in October 1944. She told my brother once about her arrival and the selection. They were forced from the train, then marched off to stand in front of an SS Officer. My mother, 25 years old, was asked: “Kannst du arbeiten?”. Fortunately, despite her fear and confusion, she could speak German, so answered: “Ja” to the question “Can you work?”. She was pointed to a line for workers, rather than that for the gas chambers. 


For many years Auschwitz was the only place I knew of where my mother had been in German hands. But that camp was liberated by the Russians on 27 January 1945 (the anniversary chosen for Holocaust Memorial Day). My mother always talked of being freed by an American soldier. I put the pieces of my mother’s experience together while reading the amazing book by Wendy Holden, “Born Survivors”. 


11.Book cover of “Born Survivors” by Wendy Holden. (Image from the internet)


The book tells the stories of three young women, who like my mother were taken to Auschwitz in October 1944, and survived the holocaust.  After a bit more research, I’m confident that the experiences described in Wendy’s book are exactly what my mother went through, from the day she entered Auschwitz until she was liberated in May 1945.


The women considered fit to work were marched to the ‘Sauna’ building. Ordered to undress, or be shot if they disobeyed, any jewellery was torn away from them. Then they sat naked while male and female prisoners roughly shaved off their hair, before being pushed outside into the cold and rain for their first “Appell” (roll call) and another inspection. After another cold shower, they were disinfected with white powder, then thrown some left-over garments and clogs. 


The women’s accommodation was in enormous huts, with no windows and 3-tiered bunks which had to be shared by up to 12 women, with just one thin blanket per bunk. The food, a thin soup made from rotting vegetables and a small chunk of stale bread, was so disgusting that some new arrivals refused it. They soon learned that there was nothing else to be had. 


There were regular roll calls and inspections, again standing naked in the muddy open ground. Anyone looking unwell or unfit for work was pulled out of the ranks and marched to the gas chambers. “Lucky” ones were chosen to be sent as slave-labourers for the German war effort.


The three women in the book were sent to the Arado aircraft factory in Freiberg. Arado paid the SS 4 Reichmarks a day for each worker supplied – less 20 pfenning for their “catering needs”. They were part of a transport of 501 women workers sent there from Auschwitz, and allocated a range of prisoner numbers ending with 56803. According to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, number 56803 was Berta Lorber.


On 10 October 1944, this group of women were ordered to have a shower, then given more old clothing and some bread and salami. They were taken to the railway and forced into goods wagons. This is one of the few episodes that my mother told me about. As she was being loaded into a wagon, one of the guards noticed that she had a limp, and called her back as unfit to work. Fortunately, another prisoner had the good sense to pull her in quickly, and she was lost in the crowd. That fraction of second made the difference between life and death. 


The journey took three days and two nights. The women travelled in closed wagons, with little food or water and no clue where they were going. Freiberg was a “satellite” of Flossenburg concentration camp, but as the new camp for Jewish workers wasn’t ready, they were first housed in part of the factory. Sleeping and washing facilities were a bit better than in Auschwitz.


The women were put to work straight away, making parts for aircraft. They worked in two 12-hour shifts, with the early shift woken up at 3am. They had to stand all day and no talking was allowed. The prisoners were supervised by trained German workers who never spoke to them. It was hard and tedious work, and the women were always exhausted, very cold and very hungry. It was rare for anyone to show them any kindness – but occasionally a German secretary or a supervisor hid some extra food for them to find. 


My mother told us that she worked on a wing for weeks on end. They had to use machinery, but as they’d had no training, the quality of the work is doubtful. An SS Officer was in charge of each section, who often punished prisoners for minor matters. My mother said she was once slapped by a male SS Officer when she took her drinking cup into the washroom by mistake. 


In January 1945, new barracks were completed for the Jewish workers – some 2km from the factory. The prisoners were marched through the town, to and from their long day’s work. Local residents ignored or despised them, because they’d been told these women were whores or criminals. More of the women were falling ill, and we can only imagine the constant hunger and fear of death that they, including my mother, must have felt.

By now, they frequently heard allied aircraft, and saw the sky lit up when the city of Dresden, 20 miles away, was bombed in February. By the end of March, the bombing had cut off the supply of electricity and materials to the Freiberg factories, which stopped working. The women were confined to their barracks, and rations were cut even further.


On 14 April 1945 their camp was evacuated. Around 1,000 women were marched to the station and loaded into open wagons – up to 80 in each. The weather was awful, cold and wet, and there was hardly any food. For days the train zig-zagged across the railway system, avoiding areas falling under allied control. The women were now skeletons, with many dying every day.


12.Railway wagons on a prisoner “transport” train. (Image from the internet)


By 21 April the train reached the small Czech town of Horni Briza. It was delayed there for two days. The station master, a devout Catholic, arranged for the prisoners to be given a cooked meal, from a nearby factory canteen (after bribing their guards with food and drink). Thirty-eight more prisoners died while at his station, but on his insistence their bodies were properly buried, rather than just dumped by the track. 


13.The memorial at the prisoners’ grave in Horni Briza. (Image from the internet)


The train was ordered to head for Dachau concentration camp, but that changed as the Americans were there. It was then directed into Austria, and the women’s 17-day nightmare journey finally reached Mauthausen. SS guards dragged the weak prisoners off the train and marched them to the concentration camp, beating them as they went through the town. It was 29 April 1945, and the camp’s last gas had been used to kill prisoners on the 28th.


14.The entrance to Mauthausen Concentration Camp. (Image from the internet)


The following day, Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his bunker, and there was chaos in Mauthausen as the SS decided what to do with the remaining prisoners. Typhoid and other diseases had taken hold and hundreds were dying every day. On 3 May the SS guards ran away, and on 5 May 1945 my mother remembered looking up into the face of a very tall American soldier (she was 5 foot nothing), and knowing she’d been liberated.


15.An American soldier with prisoners at Mauthausen Camp, May 1945. (Image from the internet)


Of around a thousand women selected at Auschwitz and transported to Freiberg, less than 250 survived. Fewer than 50% of prisoners survived the train journey from Freiberg to Mauthausen. After weeks of recuperation, and sorting out essential identity paperwork, they were finally able to go home. My mother went back to Bratislava, uncertain of what the future would hold. 


Amazingly she found her husband, Adolf. He’d been captured, but survived his time in the Sachenhausen concentration camp. They decided to stay in Bratislava, and the reformed Czechoslovak Republic. My father resumed his work as an architect and the couple started to rebuild their lives. In August 1946 their first son Juraj (George) was born, followed by Pavel (Paul) nine years later. 


16.Berta with Juraj and baby Pavel, c.1955.


In 1948, the Communists took over, and Czechoslovakia fell under the influence of Stalin’s USSR. Twenty years later, Warsaw pact countries invaded, following a failed attempt to create “communism with a human face” (The Prague Spring). My parents decided to leave, and using documents falsified by my father we set off in September 1968, with the aim of going to the USA. Following a call from my mother’s sister (who’d emigrated to Argentina with her husband in 1938 to avoid growing Czech anti-semitism), we arrived at Brighton railway station instead.


My brother, who was 22 by this time, saw no prospects for him in the UK, and left for Canada within 4 weeks. The splitting of our small family was a major blow to my parents. After a year in Brighton, the Refugee Housing Association found us a 1-bedroom flat in Churchill Road, Willesden Green. Like many others from around the world, Brent became our home.


17.My parents, Berta and Adolf, outside our new home in Churchill Road, c.1970.


A few years later we moved to a slightly bigger flat in Harlesden Road, close to Willesden Hospital, and my parents loved Roundwood Park. Despite all the horrors and abuse she’d suffered, my mother was a very gentle and kind person. She brought us up to hate prejudice and show respect to others. Food was never wasted in our home – you will understand why. 


18.Berta and Adolf Lorber in Roundwood Park, 1988.


My mother died in June 1996. With permission from Brent’s Parks Manager, her ashes were buried in a shrub garden in Roundwood Park, with a laurel bush planted over them. Berta had a dignified end, unlike more than a million other victims of the holocaust, whose ashes were spread randomly over fields near Auschwitz.

Paul Lorber,
January 2022.


[With thanks to Francis Henry for his help in compiling my mother’s story, and Philip Grant for his help in editing it for this article.]

Anyone who would like a PDF document version of Paul’s article can request it by emailing him at


Anonymous said...

Thank you Paul. This needs to be known - and thank you for bravely making this available for people to learn.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Paul. Very moving. Lest we forget...