The number that Nazi captors tattooed on Judy Baron's left arm has faded, making it harder to read. But her memories of Auschwitz and the family she lost there are as sharp as ever.
“It’s unbelievable, if I think back,” she said recently, during an interview at her home in Golden Valley.
Baron was 15 when police rounded up Jews in her small Hungarian town and shipped them by train to Poland. It was the spring of 1944. She rode for three days in a cattle car with her parents and two sisters. They had no idea where they were going until the train car doors slid open outside the camp gates.
“And when we arrived we could smell something really horrible. And that's when they were burning the bodies,” she said.
Grow the Future of Public Media
MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!
A Nazi officer with a stick separated the arrivals.
Not realizing what was happening, some of Baron’s family members were directed, she learned later, straight to awaiting gas chambers. Her mother convinced the guards to allow her to keep a younger daughter with her in the camp. Baron and her other sister were sent to different barracks.
“We were in the A barracks and then we went to the B barracks. So I could see my mother once in a while there. And after a while, I didn't see them anymore. So I knew that by then, they took them to kill them,” said Baron.
She and her remaining sister were eventually moved from the camp. They spent the winter replacing railroad ties, by hand, in the frozen ground, as part of an army of Jews forced to labor for the Nazi regime.
Baron and her sister wound up at Bergen-Belsen, another concentration camp, when spring came. British troops soon arrived to free them, but it was too late for her sister who had contracted typhus from the unsanitary camp conditions.
“She was so weak, she couldn’t even walk,” recalled Baron. “We were there, waiting for them to take us out. We were together all this time, and then she was gone. I was the only one [left].”
Eva Gross had a similar experience.
She was 16 when Hungarian police rounded up her family. Her father had already been sent away to work for the army and was killed there. Gross and her mother arrived at Auschwitz and watched from the train platform as her grandparents were taken away to the gas chambers.
She and her mother worked for months in a nearby textile factory, each running four machines. Her mom couldn't keep up, and Gross feared it might doom her.
“In order for her not to get in trouble, I used to run from one machine to the other, to make sure that all eight machines [were] working,” said Gross.
Later, they were forced at gunpoint to march to the Bergen-Belsen camp as Russian forces approached Auschwitz in the winter of 1945. Gross, dressed only in rags, recalled her fear as guards executed thousands of stragglers in the vast, shuffling column.
“All of a sudden my mother said, ‘OK, you have to survive. But I can't live any more. I can't walk any more. I have to let them shoot me. I want to die,’” said Gross during a recent interview at her home in Plymouth.
Unwilling to leave her mother behind, Gross sought help from three other women in the line.
“And then the four of us [were] dragging my mother,” she said.
She and her mother survived the march and later were freed. Recovering from the ordeal has taken Gross a lifetime.
She and Baron, now both in their 90s, relocated to the U.S. following the war. They settled in Minnesota, married and raised families.
Baron returned to Auschwitz 25 years ago, a trip she quickly regretted because it brought back so many bad memories.
Lately, the separation of migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border has weighed on her as she reflects on the moment her own family was torn away from her.
“You know, I cried every night when I went to bed and thought about those children. It was so much like what we went through. How can a beautiful country like this do that to people? I can't imagine,” she said.
Baron and Gross are also alarmed by the rise in anti-Semitic violence in the U.S., including the Pittsburgh synagogue shootings in 2018, the slayings last month at a Jewish market in New Jersey and a Hanukkah attack in New York.
“It started this way, in Europe,“ said Gross, referring to the hate that gave rise to Nazi concentration camps.
“This is the exact pattern we are going into. And I am very concerned what's going to be happening in many, many years to come,” she said.