Leitner, Isabella

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Isabella Leitner

Excerpt from The Big Lie: A True Story

    Written by Isabella Leitner

    Published in 1992

Holocaust refers to the Nazi Germany genocide of between six and seven million Jewish men, women, and children. Overall eleven million people were killed including Jews, Slavs, Roma (gypsies), political prisoners, prisoners of war, the disabled, and homosexuals. The mass killings of Jews had the classic characteristics of genocide: an organized killing plan developed by the government and carried out by the military; long-standing prejudice against the targeted group; scapegoating (blaming all difficulties on the targeted groups); and characterizing the group as unworthy to live.

The National Socialist German Workers' Party, called Nazis, came to power in Germany in January 1933 under the leadership of Adolf Hitler. Hitler and his Nazi army carried out the planned roundup and killing of European Jews between 1933 and 1945. The greatest activity, from 1942 to 1944, occurred as World War II raged.

"Many people fell ill. Mrs. Klein went crazy. She screamed hour after hour. Mrs. Fred's little girl, Sarah, died in her arms. Mrs. Hirsch's aged father died shortly after our journey began. But the train did not stop."

Long-standing prejudice against Jews dating back centuries allowed Germany to pursue the genocide. Strife between Jews and Christians began after the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth around the year 29. Jesus Christ, a Jew, was believed by Christians to be the son of God. Jews did not accept him as the son of God. Christians blamed Jews for allowing his death.

Jews were commonly the scapegoats of the societies in which they lived. They were blamed for all the ills that befell not only their society, but their country. In the fourteenth century, they were blamed for the plague that killed millions of people in Europe. In the late Middle Ages, many hardworking Jewish businessmen prospered in trade, banking, and financing. Jews prospered because of experience and knowledge handed down to them from one generation to the next. This success brought resentment from non-Jews along with greater prejudice and discrimination. Jews were blamed for countries' economic woes. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Jews struggled to maintain their families and livelihoods.

When the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, they preached extreme nationalism, the belief that a particular nation and its culture, people, and values are superior to those of other nations. Many Germans suffered from poverty and hunger and were angry over their nation's plight. The German economy was devastated by the harsh penalties imposed on it by other European nations resulting from its defeat in World War I. This was compounded by the effects of the Great Depression, a global economic downturn in business during the 1930s that led to much unemployment and hunger. Nazis tried to pull Germans together to overcome severe economic conditions of the time. Through emotional public speeches and propaganda (information that is spread for the purpose of promoting a cause), they planted among German society strong racist ideas of purifying the German population. Such a purification would require ridding the country of all Jews, the population considered the chief enemy of the state.

After having lived with hopelessness for years, German citizens were ready for nearly anything or anyone who might be able to lift them from their desperation. Hitler, a gifted and motivating speaker, gave Germany an enemy to hate as he reviled the Jews and laid the blame for the nation's problem at their feet. The German public violently protested against Jews living in Germany. Laws were passed placing severe restrictions on Jews in the country. Jews were fired from government jobs, and those who worked for themselves had their businesses vandalized. Jewish students at all grade levels were banned from schools. Synagogues (places of worship) were damaged or burned to the ground, and books written by Jews were burned in huge bonfires held in the centers of towns. Marriage between Jews and non-Jews was prohibited. Jews were required to register any property they owned with government authorities.

Jews were characterized as not worthy to live. They were commanded to wear yellow stars representing the Jewish Star of David on their clothing, were forced from their homes into packed, filthy housing areas known as ghettos, and then, beginning about 1941, were loaded onto cattle cars bound for death camps. The genocide began, first in Germany, and spread during World War II. Jews living in twenty-one European countries, most in Central and Eastern Europe, were affected by the mass killings.

Germany invaded Hungary in March 1944. Until that time, Hungary's government, where anti-Semitism was less, had refused to transport its Jews to German camps. However, when Nazis took over, 440,000 Hungarian Jews were rounded up for transportation. The following is from The Big Lie: A True Story by Isabella Leitner. Isabella was living in Hungary when her family was caught up in the genocide.

Things to remember while reading an excerpt from The Big Lie: A True Story:

  • Although Jews had a long history of persecution, they had never formed a nation or army. Jewish religion discouraged fighting against an enemy. Any form of resistance was essentially suicide, and the Jewish faith prohibited suicide. Jews traditionally believed whatever occurred was God's will.
  • The Jewish population found it impossible to defend themselves against the well-armed German military forces. They did not anticipate the German plan of extermination.
  • The rapid expansion of the German Nazi army into Eastern Europe caught the world by surprise. Countries affected were not prepared to adequately defend theselves.

Excerpt from The Big Lie: A True Story

My name is Isabella, and I was born in a small town called Kisvarda.

Kisvarda is located in the northeastern part of Hungary. Today, about nineteen thousand people live there. Of these, only a handful are Jews.

When I lived there, in the 1940s, almost four thousand Jews called Kisvarda home. I was one of them.

I first opened my eyes to the world in Hungary, as did my four sisters and one brother, our parents, their parents, and their parents before them. No one can remember how far back in time our family tree was planted in Hungary, but it is certain that it was a very long time ago.

Today, the date March 20, 1944…. [Isabella begins her story of what happened to her family in 1944]

My sister, Potyo, is the "baby" of the family. She has just become a teenager. Then come Regina, Philip, myself, Chicha, and Cipi. All of us are bright, active young people.

We all know that war is raging in Europe, but the fighting is far away from Kisvarda. We know that Nazi Germany has invaded the countries around us. We hear rumors that terrible things have happened—and are still happening—to Jews in those countries….

My father left for the United States in 1939. He left shortly after a band of Hungarian Jew-haters roamed through the streets of Kisvarda looking for Jews to attack. They smashed the windows of Jewish-owned shops. They beat up the shopkeepers and threatened their customers.

"Things will only get worse," my father said. "The Nazis are not yet in Hungary, and already the local Jew-haters are at work."

"We must leave Kisvarda. In America we will be safe. I will send for you when I get immigration papers…."

For two years my father tried to get papers for us in America, but all his efforts were in vain….

Overnight, life in Kisvarda changed. What we had previously believed to be only talk now became fact.

The town crier strode into the public square….

"Attention! Attention!" the short man cried.

"Here are the orders from Budapest. Listen carefully. The orders must be obeyed."

"1. Starting tomorrow, all Jews must wear a yellow star on their clothes to mark them as Jews."

"2. Starting tonight, no Jew can walk the streets after 7:00 p.m."

"3. Starting tomorrow, no Jewish children can go to public school."

We could not believe our ears. How could the town crier be saying such things? There must be some mistake.

But there was no mistake. Mama sewed yellow stars on our clothes that afternoon. She kept us indoors after 7:00 P.M. And she kept Regina and Potyo home from school the following morning.

Rat-a-ta-tat! Rat-a-ta-tat! Rat-a-ta-tat!

The town crier was back in the square.

"Attention! Attention!" he cried as we gathered around him. "Today's orders are as follows:"

"1. No Jew can own a radio. All Jews must turn in their radios at Town Hall. Refusal will bring punishment."

"2. No Jew can ride a bicycle. All Jews must turn in their bicycles at the police station. Refusal will bring punishment."

"3. No Jews can talk to non-Jews in public. These orders will be strictly obeyed!"

As each day passed, new rules were announced. Jews cannot do this. Jews cannot do that….

We all felt like prisoners in our own homes in Kisvarda.

The day after Passover, two Hungarian gendarmes came to our home. Unlike our regular police, who carried only sidearms, they carried rifles with fixed bayonets and wore feathered hats.

"Get your family together. Take food and clothing," one of them shouted at Mama. "Take enough, but be outside in ten minutes!"…

We all marched in a ragged line under the gendarmes' watchful eyes….

Several blocks away, in a vacant rundown area, we met groups of Jews from other neighborhoods. They were already gathered and waiting. For what? We didn't know….

At long last, each family was given quarters in the rundown area. A ghetto was to be formed. In spaces where four or five people once lived, thirty or forty of us were now crowded….

May twenty-eighth was my birthday, but we had no celebration. That day, a young German soldier came to the ghetto with a gleaming pistol and a barking dog.

"You will all be ready at 4:00 A.M. for deportation, " he announced. "Each of you can take along 50 kilos of belongings. Be ready on time, or you will be shot!"…

In the dark hour of 4:00 A.M., May 29, 1944, hundreds of families throughout the ghetto began appearing in their courtyards. Each man, woman, and child was carrying a bundle, package, backpack, or suitcase. Each was taking along the best possessions of a lifetime.

A feeling of terror was in the air. There were Nazis with guns and dogs, watching our every move….

We were herded to the railroad station—our family and all the other Jewish families of Kisvarda….

At the station, I wondered why the train had no passenger coaches, only old cattle cars without windows. The answer was not long in coming. The Nazis began to force us into the cattle cars.

The Nazis shouted at us in German, a language we did not understand. It sounded like Los! Los! Los! It sounded like dogs barking.

They packed seventy-five to eighty people in each cattle car. Old men and women. Children clinging to their mothers. Infants in their mothers' arms.

Mama held Potyo close to her body. Philip piled our belongings around them as a wall of protection. Cipi, Chicha, Regina, and I held hands to keep from being separated. When the cattle car was stuffed to its limit, the door was sealed.

There were so many people and so little space, no one was able to sit. We could hardly breathe. With a squeal and a rumble, the train began to roll away from Kisvarda.

For two days, we were given no food to eat, no water to drink. We ate only what we had brought for the journey—the bread, jam, and boiled potatoes. The food was not enough, but we made it last by nibbling.

Many people fell ill. Mrs. Klein went crazy. She screamed hour after hour. Mrs. Fred's little girl, Sarah, died in her arms. Mrs. Hirsch's aged father died shortly after our journey began. But the train did not stop. When it did, on May thirty-first, we were in Poland, at a place called Auschwitz, a place none of us had ever heard of….

When the cattle car doors were opened, more Nazis with guns and dogs waited for us. Strange-looking men shouted us out of the train. All personal belongings were left behind….

"Out! Out! Los! Los! Fast! Fast!"

The shouting men were dressed in dirty striped suits, and they carried clubs. They beat anyone who moved too slowly. Later, we found out that they, too, were prisoners of the Nazis. Some were criminals who were working for the Germans.

"Stay with me! Stay together!" Mama shouted at us.

A handsome German officer with a silver pistol was in charge. He wore white gloves, and kept pointing his right thumb either to the left or to the right as each person passed before him. This inspection, we learned, was called "selection." The German officer was Dr. Josef Mengele.

Dr. Mengele sent Mama and my sister Portyo to the left.

"Be strong," Mama cried as she left us. "I love you."

Dr. Mengele sent the rest of us to the right.

"Portyo, I love you!" I shouted, but I don't know whether she heard me.

Philip was led away with the other men who had been sent to the right.

Cipi, Chicha, Regina, and I were taken with the other women to a large, wet room. There, in front of laughing German soldiers, we were forced to take off our clothes for what they called "disinfection."

Standing naked, we were embarrassed, ashamed, and frightened. Then, while we stood there, some women with clippers began to cut off all our hair. Regina and I were crying. Cipi and Chicha were sobbing and trying to hide their nakedness. But the Germans didn't care.

Soon we were totally without hair.

I stared at my sisters. They stared at me. I could hardly recognize them. They no longer looked like Cipi, Chicha, or Regina. They looked like strange two-legged animals that I had never seen before. I was sure that I looked the same to them.

A woman prisoner now threw ragged dresses at us, and we covered ourselves….

As the days passed, we learned what Auschwitz was. It was a huge Nazi death camp surrounded by barbed wire fences. The wire was electrified to keep prisoners from escaping. At Auschwitz, between ten and twenty thousand people were killed every day in the summer of 1944.

Much of the killing was done right after the cattle cars arrived with their loads of weary prisoners. Those sent to the left by Dr. Mengele, like Mama and Potyo, were led directly to their deaths.

The killing was done mainly in poison gas chambers that were disguised as shower rooms. The people who were "selected" to die were each given a bar of soap.

"You are going to take a nice hot shower. Remove all your clothes, and leave them where you are. You will find them when you return."

The unsuspecting prisoners, eager to cleanse themselves after their long cattle car journey, obeyed. They did not know they were going to their deaths. For once they were locked in the "shower" rooms, the Nazis released poison gas, not water, into the chambers.

Immediately after the gassing, the dead bodies were hauled to nearby ovens called crematoriums. There, they were burned as fast as possible.

The skies darkened with thick black smoke for miles around, and the smell was awful.

Almost all the prisoners in Auschwitz at this time were Jews. We were kept in barracks called Blocks. Each Block held one thousand prisoners and one Kapo, a prisoner who was in charge. There were thirty-two Blocks in my part of Auschwitz. My part was called Lager C.

The prisoners in my Block had no true beds. Instead, we slept on triple-deck wood shelves called Pritsches. I slept on a top shelf, with my three sisters and ten other girls.

The shelf under us also held fourteen girls, and the bottom shelf another fourteen. The shelves often broke, and those on top came tumbling down on the girls below. Screams and shouts filled the night when the Pritsches broke. And nobody slept.

Even when the Pritsches did not break we could not sleep, because the Germans held roll calls to count us. A roll call was called Zahlappell, and they were held twice a day.

During Zahlappell, everyone had to line up outdoors, outsides the Block. We stood in rows of five, and there were hundreds and hundreds of rows.

Counting us took hours, and during this time, we had to stand without moving. The Kapos, who were prisoners themselves, helped the Germans. They beat us if we moved out of line.

The food the Nazis gave us was mostly soup and bread. The soup looked like dirty water and was foul-smelling. The bread, we believed, was made from flour mixed with sawdust. At first, Cipi and Chicha had to hold my nose and force the soup down my throat. Later, because of my hunger, I was glad to get it.

Dr. Mengele decided who was to live and who was to die. If you were sick, old, or frail, you had no chance to live. Young children or mothers with babies were selected to die immediately. Only the strong and healthy could hope to survive.

Everybody was afraid of Dr. Mengele. Whenever he came to make a selection, Cipi, Chicha, Regina, and I ran from Block to Block to escape him. One night, he shot at us with his silver pistol. Fortunately, he missed in the dark.

Other times, Dr. Mengele made selections during Zahlappell. It was impossible to run away then, because we were all standing in rows of five. We stood straight and tall. We pinched Regina's cheeks to make them rosy and healthy-looking. We told her to stand on tiptoe. That way she looked taller than she really was. And Dr. Mengele passed us by.

A few days after we were brought to Auschwitz, some prisoners brought us a piece of wood that had instructions and a message carved into it.

The instructions said: "My four sisters are in Lager C. Their name is Katz. Whoever finds this piece of wood, please toss it over the fences until it reaches them."

The message was shorter: "You must live. You simply must. I love you."

Philip had found a way to reach us. His message was brief, but it kept our spirits alive for a long time.

During the six months we spent in Auschwitz, we saw many prisoners starve to death. They starved not because they could not eat the terrible food, but because there was never enough, bad as it was.

The starving prisoners looked like walking skeletons. They were called Muselmans. When Dr. Mengele saw a Muselman, he sent her off to the ovens.

We saw other prisoners beaten or shot by the Nazis. Once during Zahlappell, Irma Greza, a woman Nazi offer, made Chicha kneel and hold two rocks in the air until roll call was over.

"You will be very sorry if you drop them," Greza said.

To us this meant that Chicha would be shot.

But Chicha was very brave. She held the rocks high for hours and did not drop them. It was a small victory, but still a victory. Chicha had stayed alive, and that gave all who saw her the courage to carry on….

What happened next …

Cipi, Chicha, Regina, and Isabella were moved from Auschwitz to another camp in eastern Germany called Birnbaumel in late 1944. There they were forced to dig holes in the cold ground meant as traps for Russian tanks and trucks that were advancing toward Germany. The third week of January 1945, the four girls and other prisoners at Birnhaumel began what was to be a forced three-week death march to the Bergen-Belsen camp deeper inside Germany. Those who could not go fast enough were beaten and when they fell, they were shot. On the third day, as a blizzard engulfed the marchers, Isabella, Chicha, and Regina escaped by running to a deserted house and hiding in the dog house. Cipi tried also to escape but was caught, beaten, and later died at Bergen-Belsen.

The same day the three girls escaped, the Russian Army marched into the village immediately behind the Germans. The girls were freed, well cared for, and sent on a two-week comfortable train ride to Odessa, a severely damaged Russian city on the Black Sea. The girls' father was in America, so on April 6, Isabella, Chicha, and Regina sailed on the SS Brand Whitlock for the United States. They settled in Brooklyn, New York. Philip, their brother, had been shot by the Nazis, but was recovering in a U.S. hospital in Germany. He soon joined the family for their new life in America. The family had lost their mother and two sisters.

The Nazis, while suffering defeat after defeat on the battlefield, still wanted to kill every Jew. Mass killing continued even as Russian troops began reaching a few camps as early as summer 1944. They reached Auschwitz in January 1945. The Germans were staggeringly successful in the Jewish genocide. Between six and seven million Jews were killed, 64 percent of the Jews in Europe. This was 35 percent of the world's Jewish population.

For the millions of displaced Jews who had nowhere to return to, displaced person camps were created in Europe. Some remained in the camps for years. The camps did not finally close until 1952. More and more people looked to the British-controlled Palestine on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea to establish a Jewish homeland. The independent nation of Israel emerged in 1948.

In December 1948, member nations of the United Nations signed the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Each nation that signed the treaty declared it would cooperate with other nations to ensure genocide never happened again. The articles of the treaty defined genocide, listed punishable acts, stated that private individuals as well as rulers and officials could be tried in a court of law, and declared that trials would be held within the country where the genocide took place or in an international court.

Did you know …

  • The German leaders referred to the genocide of Jews as "the final solution of the Jewish question."
  • The term holocaust derives from the Greek word holokauston, which refers to a sacrifice, burned in whole, to God. The word was used since the late nineteenth century to describe major disasters. Since World War II, it has been used solely to refer to Nazi Germany's genocide of Jews, whose whole bodies were burned in buildings called crematoriums and in open fire pits.
  • At great risk to themselves, a few individuals sought to save Jews from death camps. One was Oskar Schindler (1908–1974), a businessman who used slave labor in Poland. In reality for a Jew to be on Schindler's list of workers meant that he or she would most likely escape the Nazi terror. A 1993 movie, Schindler's List, told a fictionalized version of the story.
  • For survivors, the Holocaust was never to be forgotten. Memories of prisoners being humiliated, tortured, and killed were horrific. Memorials and museums continue to be built. The United States Holocaust Museum on the Mall of Washington, D.C., realistically walks visitors through the unspeakable experience of a Nazi death camp.

Consider the following …

  • Imagine you are a German who does not share your nation's hatred of the Jews. How could you help Jews in your community?
  • You are a Jew in the Holocaust who has been selected by the Nazis to maintain order of Jewish prisoners in one of the death camps. How would you react when given the choice to persecute your fellow Jews or die yourself, and what would you do to help their plight?
  • Based on literature written over the decades since the end of the war, what are the reasons identified about why Nazis were able to carry on with the Jewish genocide?
  • The surviving Jewish population has untiringly and extensively educated the world on genocide. Their continuing slogan is "Never Again." The United Nations adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948. Consider what has occurred in the second half of the twentieth century and early twenty-first century. Has genocide of targeted peoples stopped? Explain.
  • By the late 1990s and early twenty-first century, some Europeans and others say the Holocaust never occurred. What was causing people to make such claims?

For More Information


Gilbert, Martin. The Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe during the Second World War. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1986.

Leitner, Isabella. The Big Lie: A True Story New York: Scholastic Inc., 1992.

Rogasky, Barbara. Smoke and Ashes: The Story of the Holocaust. New York: Holiday House, Inc., 2002.

Wiesel, Elie. Night. New York: Hill and Wang, 1960.


United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. http://www.ushmm.org/ (accessed on December 12, 2006).

Town crier: Person who makes public announcements.

Passover: A Jewish holiday.

Gendarmes: Policemen.

Ghetto: Impoverished, overcrowded neighborhood.

Deportation: Lawful expulsion from a country.