We are pleased to present here an excerpt of Death and Love in the Holocaust: The Story of Sonja and Kurt Messerschmidt, accompanied by a short personal introduction from author Steve Hochstadt. The book tells the story of Kurt and Sonja Messerschmidt, who met in Nazi Berlin, married in the Theresienstadt ghetto, and survived Auschwitz. They witnessed the death of Jews every day for two years, but never stopped building their own life together. The words of these survivors, which are contextualized with historical explanations from the author each chapter, create a direct relationship with the reader, as if they were telling the story in their living room.
Death and Love in the Holocaust is out March 1, 2022 and is available for preorder wherever books are sold. The excerpt published here is from the chapter “Slave Labor.”
Personal Introduction to the Excerpt by Steve Hochstadt
I taught the Holocaust for 25 years. Although I worked hard to create absorbing lectures, I think the most important teaching tools were books by survivors, giving readers first-hand encounters with the Holocaust. Each personal story presents a tiny fraction of the whole Holocaust history, so those survivor narratives need to be surrounded with a broad historical outline. Death and Love in the Holocaust puts these two pieces together.
The Messerschmidts’ story covers the entire period of Nazi persecution from 1933 to 1945. They experienced and survived each stage of the process which brought death to so many. Sonja and Kurt tell us how they survived and how many others died. Their remarkable accounts of the fate of individuals are surrounded in this book by my attempt to explain what was happening all around them. The Messerschmidts tell us what they think is most important to know about their lives. I outline what I believe every reader should know about the Holocaust. Neither piece alone is enough.
I intend this book to be useful as the only book that a reader might study about the Holocaust or as one piece in a wider encounter with many readings. I was lucky to know Sonja and Kurt, and to hear their stories in person. I wish to pass on my good fortune to readers, who will also be lucky to learn about their love and sad to learn about the deaths all around them.
Excerpt from “Slave Labor”
Even before the Nazis began to murder Jews, they forced them to do hard manual labor. In Germany and Austria as early as 1938, Jews without jobs were rounded up and forced to work in segregated columns. Sometimes the “work” was simply a form of public humiliation. Soon after the Anschluss, Viennese Nazis forced Jewish men and women to scrub political slogans off the pavement.
Eventually forced labor became a national policy designed to save money and replace the labor of the vastly increased number of men in the armed forces. For the six years from the invasion of Poland in September 1939 to surrender in May 1945, Germans forced Jews, and millions of other Europeans, to labor for the good of the Third Reich. Jews worked in construction, agriculture, forestry, and industry in more than a thousand ghettos and forced labor camps scattered across the continent. They collected garbage in Vienna, planted trees in Czechoslovakia, built the Autobahn in the eastern Reich, and sewed uniforms for soldiers.
They built the concentration camps in which they and their families were imprisoned, tortured, and murdered. These camps were sometimes under the jurisdiction of the SS, but many labor camps were outside of the SS prison empire. Jews worked for civilian government agencies, the Army, municipalities, and private enterprises. At one point, one million Jews were working for the Germans in Europe.
During the Holocaust journey of many Jews, slave labor seemed to present an alternative to death. The infamous selections at Auschwitz and other killing camps separated young healthy-looking men and women from the elderly, the infirm, and mothers with young children, who went straight to the gas chambers.
The “work” which spared Jews immediate death might be a living hell. Men who were selected for the Sonderkommando units at the death camps gathered dead bodies from the gas chambers, extracted gold teeth, and burned corpses, in the specially designed crematoria or in open fields. Although they might receive slightly better rations and housing than other prisoners, the Sonderkommandos were routinely killed and replaced with new prisoners. Perhaps 20 Sonderkommando workers survived to offer the most intimate glimpse into the process of industrial mass murder.
As the war progressed, slave labor became a significant element of the Nazis’ economic system. Enterprises saved millions of German Marks by overworking and underfeeding Jewish prisoners, drawing on the seemingly endless supply of victims when their workers became too weak or too sick to continue. Although the six death camps in Poland were kept hidden from public knowledge, Jews, Soviet POWs, and other eastern Europeans were visible to Germans on a daily basis across the Third Reich as they labored in fields or factories, or marched in columns back to their barracks.
Sonja’s work on airplanes in Freiberg, a subcamp of Flossenbürg, was typical of the desperate use of Jewish slave labor later in the war. During the winter of 1944–45, 1,000 female prisoners from Auschwitz, starving and freezing, worked at the Arado Aircraft Factory, alongside German civilian workers. But conditions were far superior to Auschwitz and survival was possible.
Kurt was sent in October 1944 to the cement factory at Golleschau (Goleszów in Polish), which had become the first of 50 Auschwitz subcamps in July 1942. He worked there for three months, until the approach of the Red Army in January 1945 led the Germans to evacuate some of the prisoners by marching them north through the snow to Gleiwitz, a distance of 50 miles. Another group of 96 Hungarian Jews were sealed into two cattle cars and sent on an aimless rail journey without food or water for over a week, until they ended up being left on a siding at Zwittau (now Svitavy in the Czech Republic). Oskar Schindler found them and had the cars sent to his factory at Brünnlitz, where those who survived were freed with the rest of Schindler’s Jews in April by the Red Army.
From Gleiwitz, Kurt then passed through Sachsenhausen, north of Berlin, on his way to Ganacker in Bavaria, where prisoners also labored for the military. These constant movements were not unusual for slave laborers. Walter Ziffer went through at least seven different labor camps during the war, mainly doing construction, including helping to build the Autobahn .
Sonja: I don’t think I was there more than maybe ten days when there was another roll call, and we did not go back to our barracks. We were again put on a train, this time it was cattle cars, and we were taken out of Auschwitz into Freiberg, which is [Saxony].
It was another camp, it was just really a work unit. We were guarded by SS. There our group was working on airplane wings. I have always said that no plane ever took off that we worked on. We didn’t know what we were doing and we were doing a terrible job. It was such a last-minute war effort that I don’t know whether they really thought this would ever work.
It was winter, and I still had the same things on that I was given in Auschwitz, just a dress and those wooden clogs. We had to march from the barracks to the factory through snow. We may have been a couple of hundred at the most. We were forever hungry, because the food we got consisted of watery soups and a little piece of bread and in the morning some black water that was supposed to be coffee, and that was all.
We could hear the Americans’ planes go over in broad daylight towards the end. All the Germans who were guarding us would go for shelter. We had to stay, of course, but to us this was music. There was no fear. We could have been killed by the bombs, but somehow that never entered our minds. We were just so delighted to know that, to us it was help on the way. And we could also tell by little things, for instance, again we had a German foreman. When we first got there, we watched him eat his lunch, which always looked very delicious, especially to us. He had salami and cheese and really nice-looking sandwiches. But towards the end there was no more salami, there was no cheese, he had a little jam on it. So little things like that. He didn’t talk to us ever. I guess he was not allowed to. But he also didn’t mistreat us in any way, he wasn’t mean. He left that to the SS.
Life was pretty much routine there. We were not abused in a physical way. I once was slapped by an SS man, because we had to march by him and it was cold, and this dress that I had had pockets, and I had my hands in my pockets. I wasn’t even aware that I had my hands, but that was the only physical abuse that I ever experienced. We just went back to work and starved, little by little.
Kurt: I stayed in Auschwitz maybe just one week. I was fortunate. Those who were not eligible for work somewhere else would immediately perish, because Auschwitz was just an annihilation camp, a liquidation camp. That’s what they called it proudly, that’s all it was. But as long as you were able to work, and were lucky, of course, there might have been a chance.
Then came the big decision day, who will live, who will die, who will stay, who will go to another camp. Both my brother and I were lucky to be selected to be shipped out. Where were we shipped? To a camp named Golleschau, an infamous death camp. It was a quarry. We were actually shipped out for work, and we were selected because we looked as if we would be able to work. There was a truckload of perhaps eighty or ninety people. We stopped in front of this camp, Golleschau. On the other side, across the street, was another truck facing out, and we saw the people. They looked like the people you saw in those horrible pictures. No face left, the eyes, deep holes where the eyes would be, dead already. It was all clear. We might be, a week from that day, in one of those trucks which went back to the chimneys.
So knowing this, we went into this more than ever determined to outlive it. We were given a chance to pick our work, and I picked the heaviest work, the work in the quarry. There was a cement factory. So I worked in the quarry. My brother was very, very fortunate. He is a carpenter, a very skilled one, and it so happened that at that particular day they needed a skilled carpenter. This was a factory that built, I don’t know, beer kegs or bigger kegs of some sort. He was assigned to this, which was a miracle, and I went into the quarry. It had one advantage. I was in fresh air. Of course it was in the winter, and the winters in Upper Silesia are horrible. Frequently, I worked night shift. Our clothing was nothing. But somehow we managed.
This was a horrible camp. You may have started in the quarry, work in fresh air, work very hard. The moment you failed, you were not killed, they gave you other work. Attached to this cement work was a coal mine. Those people who couldn’t do the heavy work anymore were sent to other heavy work into the coal mine, and the coal dust did the job on them. And it didn’t take very long. Whoever was through with the coal mine was then shipped back to keep the circulation going. There was a constant turnover in this camp, they used up so many human lives.
See interview with Walter Ziffer by Katy Beliveau and Paula Skolnick, Augusta, ME, April 14, 1987; transcribed by Steve Hochstadt, Nicci Leamon, and Cyrille White. Ziffer was born in 1927 and grew up in Cesky Tesin in Czechoslovakia on the Polish border. After the German Army invaded in 1939, his father became head of the Judenrat appointed by the Nazis. In June 1941 his family was deported. Ziffer went through seven camps, including Brande, Gross Rosen, and Waldenburg. He was liberated on May 8, 1945, and his parents and sister also survived. Ziffer left Czechoslovakia in 1947 for Paris, and arrived in Tennessee in 1948. He graduated from Vanderbilt University, where he converted to Christianity, and worked for General Motors for six years. Then he enrolled in the Graduate School of Theology at Oberlin College. He taught in France, Washington D.C., and Belgium. After returning to Judaism, Ziffer taught at the Bangor Theological Seminary
Steve Hochstadt taught history at Illinois College 2006-2016, after teaching at Bates College in Maine for 27 years. His research has focused on the Holocaust. Sources of the Holocaust is a documents collection widely used in Holocaust courses. Exodus to Shanghai: Stories of Escape from the Third Reich tells the story of the flight of Jewish refugees from Central Europe to China. He is a member of the International Advisory Board of the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum and treasurer of the Sino-Judaic Institute, a pioneer in education about Chinese-Jewish relations for the past 30 years. Many of his weekly columns for the Jacksonville (IL) Journal-Courier appear in Freedom of the Press in Small-Town America: My Opinions.
Death and Love in the Holocaust is available for preorder here and wherever books are sold.