A eulogy for Lotte Weiss

February 15, 2021 by J-Wire Newsdesk
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Rabbi Levi Wolff delivered the eulogy at the funeral of Auschwitz survivor and a luminary of the Sydney and Wellington Jewish communities Lotte Weiss, who passed away in Sydney on Friday.

Josh Frydenberg and Auschwitz survivor Lotte Weiss Photo: Ben Apfelbaum (2015)

There are no words to describe this moment other than to simply say: today we say goodbye to one of the great Jewish legends of our times! Today we say Shalom to a woman who has been rightfully regarded as a real communal treasure – if not a national one.

An Eshet Chayil who lived through the horrors of not one, but five concentration camps, and yet Lotte’s life was dedicated to bringing light back to G-d’s frail world…

Her energy and her vibrancy radiated a love of life and gratitude for everything and everyone she met. Lotte’s eternal optimism and joy lifted whoever she touched. Indeed, Lotte was a shining light that emerged from the deepest of all darkness and because of her attitude and her life lessons… our community, our country, our world is a brighter and better place for it.

Lotte would often say she had two lives. In fact, “My Two Lives” became the title of her autobiography. Her first life began in November 1923 and ended in March 1942 – the date she entered hell when, according to the Nazis, she ceased to be a person with a name. Instead, she became a number — 2065 — one of the millions sentenced by Hitler to years of humiliation, deprivation, degradation and all-too-commonly, death.

For three long years, Lotte barely survived physically. Mentally, she already felt as though she was dead. And yet in May 1945, with the war ending, Lotte felt she had been born again. As she writes, “This time, though, I had to fend for myself all alone. All traces of my immediate family had been lost in the horrors of Auschwitz.”

Lotte came from a warm and loving family. Her parents, Bertha and Ignatz Frankl, her dear sisters and brothers, Lilly, Erika, Renée, Karl and Morris. They lived in a modest flat which consisted of two large rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom. She remembers the day electricity was first installed and the magical moment when they flicked the switch – and then there was light. She wrote: “What a difference electricity made to our lives!” In typical Lotte fashion, this was something she never took for granted even decades later.

She recalled, “Friday nights were a special time for us. After lighting the eight candles and making the blessing of Sabbath, my darling mother welcomed this night every week with the same words: ‘I am so happy it is Friday night. The whole family is together, and we always enjoy these peaceful evenings’. When father returned home from the synagogue, he blessed us all before we sat down to dinner. On many occasions, he brought with him a stranger who had nowhere to go. At first, these lonely people were Polish immigrants. Later, more and more non-Germans who were thrown out of Germany, and then from Austria, who went to the synagogues to make contact with us local Jews.”

“After dinner came story-telling time. Father always started with a story from 30 or 35 years ago. We children would kick each other under the table; we felt sorry for him for being so old and could not understand how someone could remember what happened such a long time ago.” (Yet she commented that as she was writing her book, she could clearly remember what had occurred sixty or even seventy years prior.)

That gift of recollection definitely came from her father. When you read her book – and if you haven’t it’s a must – the reader can’t help but be astonished by her attention to detail, to names, to people she remembered at the precise events so many decades before.

I love how she describes Shabbes afternoons. “On summer Saturdays, when my father and brothers had returned from the synagogue services and we had had our lunch, the family would set off for the outskirts of the city on one of our favourite outings. We loved to pass by the beautiful villas, especially when the lilac (my favourite flower) was in full bloom. We always stopped at the Soko-lovña outdoor coffee house. My parents had coffee and we children had gelato ice-cream. As we did not handle money on Saturdays, my father would settle the bill at the city branch during the week.”

Lotte and her family continued on their outdoor adventure until they arrived at the Mur-mansk Lookout, a vista that overlooked all of Bratislava including the well-known castle.

Life radically changed. On 12th March 1938, Hitler’s troops marched into Austria and annexed it to the German Reich. Although they continued with everyday life, dark clouds were gathering on the horizon and the news was very disturbing. There was a new wave of Jewish immigrants coming into Czechoslovakia and most had unsuccessfully tried to obtain a visa to a country outside Europe. There were long queues outside consulates, standing and waiting for hours and hours to get an entry visa to any country that would take them. However, most of them were unsuccessful.

Lotte recalled, “On the first day of Rosh Hashanah in 1941 when my dear father was in the synagogue praying, a truckload of Slovak’s and Germans burst into the synagogue and ordered all the men out and onto a truck. Amongst the intruders were two sons of my father’s old friend Kesselbauer, who was the owner of a large rusk factory in Bratislava. When Georg and Fritz Kesselbauer saw my father, they told him to go home and stay indoors. The truckload of men was taken to the Jewish Community Centre and ordered to throw all the Centre’s books onto the street, where they were burned. Then the Jewish men were ordered to wash the street.

“Shortly after, all Jews who lived in non-Jewish suburbs were evicted and given 48 hours to move to the designated Jewish quarters of the city. We had to leave our apartment at 47A Dunajska Street, where my father had lived since 1910. We were allocated a small flat of one bedroom and a small kitchen. The water facilities and toilet were outside. We were devastated. My mother, a very practical person, made up curtains to hang between our beds so that my brothers and sisters could have some privacy. We children cried and complained, but our dear mother told us that being all together was the main thing. That was the only happiness my parents felt during those sad times, a happiness that was suddenly and tragically ended.

Gary, Lotte and John Weiss

“It ended on a Sunday night, 22nd March 1942, at about 11.30 pm., there was a knock on our door. When my father opened it, three guards stood there with the summons for the three eldest girls in the family. Lilly, Erika and I were in the age group they wanted, between 18 and 25 years. We were ordered to make our appearance at 7 am the next morning in an old magazine factory, situated about six kilometres from the city. Everything was happening so quickly. It was like a series of explosions.

“We stayed up all night, too upset to think of sleeping. We left home at 6 am., heartbroken, leaving our parents and our younger siblings in tears and heartache. My father blessed us with tears in his eyes and told us always to believe in G-d, and remember to stay decent and good people. My mother was so upset that she couldn’t say one word. This was the last time we ever saw or heard from the family we were leaving. Our goodbyes were the last for us. This sad, heartbreaking scene will remain in my memory, forever and ever. The terrible pain we felt in leaving our dear ones was indescribable. Three young girls were torn away from loving parents, their brothers and sister, never to see them again.

“What terrible feelings of shock and shame — thrown out of our environment, our city of birth, the place where our ancestors had lived for over 300 years and, suddenly, to have become enemies of the state to be punished solely for the ‘crime’ of being born Jewish.

“Not long after we arrived at the factory we were told to leave all our belongings behind and march towards the train station. My two sisters and I held hands so as not to lose each other, and we climbed into a wagon which already had a number of girls inside. We were herded in, sixty girls into a wagon, and the door was bolted, locked behind us. We had two buckets for our toilet needs.

“There was a small opening at the top of the wagon through which we could tell whether it was day or night. Towards dawn, the train stopped, and we wanted to see where we were. One girl lifted me up and I could see that we had stopped at a railway station, called Zwardon, which was on the border between Slovakia and Poland. I saw the Slovakian guards giving some documents to the SS, who took charge of us from thereon.

“We continued our sad and fateful journey for many hours and when we stopped again the bolted doors were unlocked. We were driven out by SS men with submachine guns and dogs. We did not move fast enough for them and they shouted at us, ‘Raus, raus, (out, out) you Jewish pigs. Quicker, quicker. Hurry up or you will be shot’. Eventually, we were all out and assembled for our march to the Auschwitz concentration camp. Little did we suspect what was waiting for us.

“Stripped bare, shaving of any hair left us feeling less than even a number! One evening in May 1942, a girl from our Commando called me over to her bunk. She was very upset because while she was digging that day she had heard the SS guards talking amongst themselves, saying that gas chambers would soon start operating for gassing the Jews. I told her this could only be a terrible rumour and could not be true. I told her not to upset the other girls by telling them. I told only Lilly and Erika. We were shocked. It was incomprehensible to us, but the rumours, unfortunately, became reality.

“A few days later, whilst we were digging in the fields, we noticed a terrible smell of burning flesh. We looked up to heaven and saw the black smoke. My sisters said, ‘Today is the end of the world’.”

In the midst of hell, Lotte often felt that she was a recipient of miracles. Each day they would be woken up at 3.30am to line up for an extensive headcount, they would have to stand still, with no movement, yet this could often take two to three hours, then they would be off to do a twelve-hour work shift, digging out trees and creating roads in a forest.

“One day, after I had finished digging my allotted section, I went to help my sisters with their digging. However, one of our SS guards noticed and came over to ask me what I was doing. I stood to attention and told him that I had finished my task and wanted to help my sisters finish theirs. He screamed at me, kicked me with his heavy boots and shouted that we were in a concentration camp, not a sanatorium. He said he would report my misbehaviour to the camp authorities on our return to camp. I was terrified because, as we all knew, to be singled out was very dangerous.

“On our return from work, he handed in a report and one evening, at the end of roll call, my number was called by the block senior. I was told not to go to work the next morning but wait in the camp street for instructions. After roll call I asked the block senior why I could not go to work, and she told me that I was to be sent to the punishment camp for my disobedience. I was devastated by this terrible news and told Lilly and Erika that I would never see them again. None of us could sleep that night because we knew no-one ever returned from the punishment camp.

“It was 20th June 1942. In the morning, we cried bitterly as we said our goodbyes and then Lilly and Erika marched out to work. I stayed at the camp gate and waited for instructions. Eventually, more girls joined me until there were quite a few of us. A couple of hours later, an SS officer came into the camp. He called out my number from a piece of paper in his hand and made me march to the men’s camp about 500 metres away to have my photograph taken.

“He marched behind with his gun pointed at me. Three photos were taken for the camp records, then he marched me back to the women’s camp where the girls were still standing, waiting.

“Soon after the gate opened, and a black van arrived with two SS men in it. They called us to come closer and ordered us into the van. One SS man stood by the van while the other counted the girls as they got into the van. He counted up to twenty — sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty. He pushed the twentieth girl in and held out his arm. I was the twenty-first. He shouted at me. ‘Get lost. I don’t have room for you.’ I stared at him in total disbelief, not sure I understood. He shouted again, ‘Get lost’. I ran. It was a miraculous escape! I hid under my bunk in the barrack, trembling like a leaf, so frightened that he would come after me. When my sisters Lilly and Erika returned to the camp that evening and found I had escaped certain death, their happiness was so wonderful. The twenty girls who were taken to the punishment camp were never seen again.

“It was now September 1942, Lilly and Erika were struck down with typhus. New transports were arriving daily from all occupied countries in Europe. The camp population was growing, and selections were carried out constantly. On Sundays, even when there were no selections, we had to stand on the camp street all day as ‘punishment’.

“On one of these days of punishment, 27th September 1942, both my sisters collapsed. First Erika started to call out for our dear mother and then fell down unconscious. About ten minutes later, Lilly fell unconscious. I was standing next to them and begged them to wake up. But my cries went unheard.

“They were taken sometime later to Block 26, which was the prisoners’ hospital. I ran there and through a broken window, I saw my dear sisters lying on a bunk. They were both unconscious. The next morning, I ran to the hospital hoping to see them, but they were not there.

“I stood in front of the hospital crying, desperate, not knowing what to do. Suddenly, I heard my name being called by two girls on the camp street. When I approached them, I recognised them as friends from my hometown, Bratislava. One of them was Magda Rosenberger. They were carrying a stretcher piled with dirty uniforms to be disinfected and reissued to incoming unfortunate inmates. I looked down at the pile of clothes and saw the number of one of my sisters on a uniform. I started to search and found another with my second sister’s number. When I asked the girls where the uniforms came from, they told me they had collected them from Block 25. I knew instantly that Lilly and Erika were no longer alive, and I envied them that they were not suffering anymore.

“Having learned accidentally of my dear sisters’ deaths, I felt there was no point in going on. I wanted to finish my life of misery and thought of using the high-voltage fence to end it. I was totally without hope, alone in this world, hungry, ill and desperate. We were taunted by the SS women at every roll call. Their eyes were filled with such hatred. They said, while laughing and with contempt, ‘Do not think that any of you will ever get out of here alive. There is only one way out’. And they pointed to the chimney. Unfortunately, for so many their prediction was right.

“Suddenly, while in deep thought and considering my next step, I heard my name called. I looked around and saw my former Kapo, Ulla. She had recently been promoted and already knew that my sisters had died she wanted to find me and help me.

“Ulla was horrified when I told her that I had lost all hope and no longer wanted to live. She took me to her barrack, which, compared to ours, was lavish. The barracks for the non-Jewish prisoners were in another part of Birkenau. They had water and washing facilities. The Jewish prisoners had none of these luxuries. Ulla gave me a drink of water and a piece of bread, white bread. I hadn’t seen white bread since I had come to Auschwitz. She promised to help me find an indoor job where I would be protected from the harsh climate and have a better chance to recover from my terrible loss. She left me in her barrack and returned an hour later to tell me that I could start working on the night shift of the Commando nicknamed ‘Canada’. This Commando sorted clothing taken from all the people brought to Auschwitz and Birkenau. The clothes were searched for money or gold sewn into corners, then bailed and sent to Germany for distribution to the German people.

“Ulla instructed the Kapo of ‘Canada’ to look after me. I’m sure I couldn’t have lived another day working outside. It was a big advantage to be working indoors and I became a little bit stronger.

“In early December 1942, I managed to escape from a frightening situation once again at the last minute. We were lined up for roll call on the camp street. When the roll call was finished, two SS women took out thirty girls at random from the assembled rows. I was amongst the thirty. We were taken to the medical block on the other side of the camp and told to sit down in the waiting room.

“After the first girl was called into the treatment room it took another twenty minutes before the next girl was called in, and another twenty minutes before the third girl was called in. None of the girls came back to the waiting room. After a while, I became very uneasy and wanted to get out. I asked the SS woman who was guarding us to allow me, prisoner 2065, to relieve myself. She refused to let me go. However, I persevered, telling her that I had diarrhoea, and insisting that I could not wait any longer. I said to her again, ‘Please excuse me. Prisoner 2065 must relieve herself urgently’. She said, ‘Go, but come back immediately, otherwise we will drag you back’. I disappeared and ran. The next day I heard that the rest of the thirty girls were all sterilised.”

Dear friends, this was December ’42 there was still, 1943, ’44, and ’45.

There is truly so much to say: Four more camps, changes of labour, death marches, near-death misses. But I want to now take you to the 9th of May, 1945.

For as Lotte writes, “This was when the unbelievable happened — we were being liberated! I ran out on the street and saw my first Russian soldier. I kissed his hands and thanked him a million times. We were delirious and could not believe that the moment of our release into freedom had really come. After thirty-eight months of pain, misery, hopelessness and grievous loss I was free! We were all free.

“The end of our sufferings had arrived at last. Our innermost feelings were in turmoil. Was this really true? Were we really happy to be free? Were we free to be happy? My dear parents, sisters and brothers, and millions of other innocent people were never to be liberated. They had been deprived of life, of love and happiness — gone forever. The memory of them is impregnated in my heart and body.”

We cannot imagine the pain and suffering Lotte must have endured throughout and also after she survived the camps.

We also cannot begin to contemplate how she could rebuild a life with no family left – except for some relations. But as we all know – rebuild she did.

Her Family

I have not yet shared that before the war, she had met a wonderful young man by the name of Laci; they had fallen in love. A few days before Lotte and her sisters were forcibly taken away; Laci chose to leave and had asked her to come with him to Budapest; at the time she had felt it was wrong to abandon her family. Laci survived by hiding in a righteous gentile’s home. After the war when she returned to Bratislava, they bump into each other. He asked her to marry him right there and then. But Lotte just could not… she felt that with all that she had endured and lived through – she had changed – she felt that someone like him who had not experienced the same horrors would never be able to relate to her as a life partner. Instead, with time, she built a special bond with Ali, also a survivor, who was twenty years her senior and who had lost his wife during the Shoah.

They married. Ali was broken in spirit and body, yet Lotte nursed him back to life and aided him for many years through his severe diabetes. Often she would not sleep at night in order to assist and protect him.

Together, Ali and Lotte were miraculously blessed with two sons – Johnny and Gary and today, six grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren as a testimony to rebuilding the family life that had been ripped away from her as a young woman.

Lotte and Ali moved to Wellington, New Zealand, after the war to start a new life with the remnants of their family. There, Lotte enriched the local Jewish community and commenced telling her story on both television and radio.  She was immensely grateful that after many years of silence, people were open to listening and learning about what had happened to her during those horrific war years.

Her Inspiration

Lotte inspired a countless number of people with her spirit and lessons of losing life and rebuilding it – students, teachers, communal leaders, politicians, business people, media personalities and more. Thousands upon thousands of people heard, read and listened to Lotte Weiss, including visitors to the Sydney Jewish Museum and also via many communication channels in addition to the beautiful artwork of her daughter-in-law Thea.

Everyone was uplifted by her love of life and gratitude for what she had – not what she lost. That was one of her gifts to us. Over the years, she received hundreds of cards from people of all walks of life – whose lives were transformed just meeting her.

Her most precious stage was as a guide at the Sydney Jewish Museum where she could be found every Sunday morning – sharing her story with thousands of visitors – many of whom came back years later because of her.

Why did she survive and her family didn’t? The only answer she could give was that she was spared to tell their story and those of others who could no longer speak.

Lotte Weiss, you were one of a kind – you were an angel of G-d to so many of whom counted you – and will always count you – as their biggest inspiration; people who (truth be told) wanted you as their mother!

Dear Lotte, may you be reunited now with your precious family that you tragically lost seventy-eight years ago: your dear sisters, your dear brothers and your dear parents. They are about to welcome you home in G-d’s Garden of Eden.

There is no doubt that G-d himself is about to welcome one of his greatest angels back in heaven, He will be thanking you for helping bring belief and strength to His children of all faiths and of all colours who reside here in His world below.

To: Johnny, Thea, Gary, Chrissie,

Rami, Amy, and Daniel along with Benjy (in Israel), Keren and Joel and all your beloved children.

Lotte loved each of you so much. Her legacy now continues with how you will choose to live your lives. I know she will have so much ongoing nachas from each of you!
Thank you for sharing mum with all of us!

We are here to say thank you.

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