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Sunday, April 26, 2015

Miracle of the Mengele babies

Truly astounding story of how three women cheated demon doctor of death by hiding their pregnancies... and raised their newborns in the very cradle of Nazi horror

'Are you pregnant, pretty woman?' Dr Josef Mengele asked the 28-year-old Slovak language teacher as she stood on parade – naked, shaven-headed and shivering – within hours of arriving at Auschwitz II-Birkenau. 
It was October 1944, and the Nazis were accelerating the Final Solution, their murderous plan to exterminate the Jews and other 'enemies of the Reich' as the tide of war turned against them.

The man who later became known as The Angel of Death was dressed impeccably in his grey-green uniform with silver skulls on the collar as he inspected each new prisoner and – more specifically – asked if they were expecting a child, which could become a subject for his sickening human experiments.
Auschwitz survivor Anka Nathanova concealed her pregnancy and raised her baby Eva (pictured together) in the death camp

When it was her turn, Priska Lowenbeinova didn't hesitate. Shaking her head quickly, she replied 'Nein' in German, even though she was two months pregnant. She had no idea if telling the truth might save her or condemn them both.
None of the wide-eyed women knew then that Mengele's whim could consign them to the gas chambers, the agony of experimentation or pitiless hard labor.

It was an act of huge bravery, or maybe desperation. Yet unknown to Priska, who had conceived while living with her husband Tibor in Bratislava, two other pregnant women had also come face to face with Mengele at Auschwitz at the time. And they, too, had lied about their condition.
Rachel Friedman had been transported there from the Jewish ghetto in the Polish industrial city of Lodz; Anka Nathanova, the third of the women, was a former law student from Prague who had become pregnant while living with her husband Bernd in a 'model' internment camp in the Czech garrison town of Terezin. 

All three were passed as fit for work by Mengele and despatched to make components for the Luftwaffe at a labor camp.
Dr Josef Mengele conducted grotesque experiments at Auschwitz and sent thousands to the gas chambers
Dr Josef Mengele conducted grotesque experiments at Auschwitz and sent thousands to the gas chambers

Amid the almost unimaginable chaos that confronted them when they each arrived at Auschwitz, it is no surprise that the three mothers never met – or knew that others were also pregnant. Rachel never even told her three sisters she was pregnant even though they spent the rest of the war with her. Suffering from sudden and dangerous weight loss in such a murderous regime, they shrank inside the baggy clothing they'd been thrown by prisoner-guards so kept their pregnancies hidden until full term.

Incredibly, they and their tiny 3lb infants survived the horrors of the death camps, the brutality of slave labor and a final terrifying journey before being liberated. None believed that any other newborn could have survived such an ordeal and astonishingly these three 'miracle children' only learned of each others' existence five years ago when they were reunited at an event for camp survivors.

I have pieced together their remarkable stories from their mothers' memories, letters and stories, reinforced by the testimony of independent witnesses and archives.
By April 1945 all three women had been incarcerated in an old porcelain factory in Freiberg, Saxony, for up to seven months. Wearing their Auschwitz clothes, without underwear, plus horrid wooden clogs, these once-cultured women endured freezing conditions in Europe's worst winter for 15 years. They worked seven days a week using heavy machinery on little more than subsistence rations. Several of their fellow inmates died of starvation or disease, others had been returned to Auschwitz and certain deaths.

These three mothers may have passed the 'Mengele test' and avoided that fate but they now found themselves in a different sort of hell. 

Then one morning, during a cold-water wash, Priska once again found herself fearing for her life.
A Czech prisoner spotted her tiny swollen belly and became hysterical. 'You'll get us all killed!' she screamed as the camp guards came running. Priska froze, her heart pounding. 'Is it true?' a female SS guard asked Priska, who weighed just five stone. Priska, expecting to be shot on the spot, was forced to admit she was.

With the Allies closing in, the guards were not sure what they should do. Days passed before a guard quietly asked her: 'What do you need?' By that stage Priska's feet, swollen and oozing pus from the cold and the rough clogs, had become her worst torment. To her amazement, a bowl of hot water was brought for her to soak them in. She knew the sudden change of heart among the guards was almost certainly self-serving, but she welcomed it.

The other two women's pregnancies were exposed in the coming weeks. Rachel was so weak she could barely walk. Anka, not knowing that Auschwitz had been liberated by the Russian army three months earlier, expected to be sent back there to meet her death. All three were saved by the fact that the Nazi regime was collapsing.

SS guards watched when Priska Lowenbeinova gave birth on a wooden plank laid across a table in the factory and placed bets on whether the baby would be a boy or a girl, pictured with daughter Hana
SS guards watched when Priska Lowenbeinova gave birth on a wooden plank laid across a table in the factory and placed bets on whether the baby would be a boy or a girl, pictured with daughter Hana

By this time the women hardly worked and were mostly confined to lice-infested barracks, from where they witnessed the bombing of Dresden and heard frequent shelling. Many no longer cared.

On the morning of April 12, Priska went into labour and was helped on to a wooden plank laid across a table in the factory, watched by SS guards betting on whether the baby would be a boy or a girl. 'They said that if it was a girl the war would be over, and if it was a boy then it would go on for even longer,' she recalled.
At 3.50pm, according to a guard's watch, Priska gave birth. 'It's a girl!' the Germans cried happily. 'The war will soon be over!' The tiny, malnourished child came into the world with her little blood-smeared hands screwed up into fists held around her ears. Priska was overjoyed, but also broken-hearted that her husband Tibor wasn't there.

The couple, who had chosen the names for their unborn child in a cramped railway cattle wagon on route to Auschwitz, had been separated the moment they arrived.
She was also petrified. Her baby had been relatively safe inside her belly. Now she was a vulnerable Jewish child in a world run by Nazis.

Her little girl was too weak to cry and could barely move her puny limbs, but she had her father's big blue eyes. 'She was the most beautiful child I had ever seen,' Priska said. 'We had been through so much and yet here we were, alive!'
Neither would have survived without the kindness of another inmate, a Czech paediatrician named Edita Mautnerova, so Priska decided to call her baby Hana Edith Lowenbein. Her fellow prisoners pooled their precious supply of their one occasional treat – marmalade – and mixed it with a little water to make syrup for the baby. They also found some soft white cotton stamped with the name of the camp – KZ Freiberg – and stitched Hana a smock and a bonnet complete with blue edging and tiny red flowers.

Then, 36 hours after she'd given birth, Priska was shaken awake just after midnight and told the camp was being evacuated to escape the advancing Soviet army. They were to be loaded on to a train a sent south or west, possibly to Buchenwald, unless the Allies got to it first.
The Red Army and American troops, had already forced the Nazis to evacuate scores of camps in Eastern Europe from December 1944.

Pictures from the book - Born Survivors by Wendy Holden..F and Mark 1949..***IMAGES SUPPLIED BY THE PUBLISHERS***
Rachel Friedman was advised to lie and say her son Mark (pictured together) was born on Hitler's birthday – April 20th - and it saved him

Thousands of inmates were murdered, but others were allotted a different fate as the Nazi high command clung to the belief that they would still need slave labour to rebuild the Reich. Those given a chance to survive, like the women of KZ Freiberg, were transported by train. The less fortunate were forced on long 'death marches' in the middle of a brutally harsh winter.

Priska with her baby and 35 other sick women were among the last to leave. Initially they were ordered to march in the freezing rain with the others. When it became clear they couldn't keep up, the guards told the rest of the prisoners to move on.

'The others were convinced they were going to execute us,' Priska said. 'They were saying goodbye and crying.' But the women were loaded into a military truck and driven to the station. Baby Hana was so lethargic she hardly moved. Trying to keep her warm, Priska pressed her daughter against her heart, kissed her head and prayed.
'I told myself it is all in the hands of God. He knew where I gave birth, so that's why he helped me.'

The only wagons available for the 990 Jewish women were 15 open-topped trucks and a handful of closed cattle cars. They were herded in, at least 60 to a truck, as grisly rumours of their destination spread: were they to be buried alive or transported to an extermination camp in Bavaria? As the Allies bombed tracks and liberated more camps, the journey continued interminably.She didn't know it until many years later, but she was on the same train as Anka and Rachel, who were both heavily pregnant and still hiding their condition. Rachel, now so fragile she'd been placed on the floor of an open coal wagon with the dying 'like herrings in a tin', was a few cars further along.

On April 19, five days after they had left Freiberg, in the middle of a night air raid, Rachel's waters broke. Sprawled on the faeces-covered floor and sandwiched between the dead, she gripped the arm of her sister Bala as the contractions took hold. A guard called for help and someone found Dr Edita.

The boy was small. 'Another Jew for the Fuhrer!' one of the guards shouted. Too weak to be happy, Rachel felt numb. She had secretly decided to name him Max (later to be known as Mark). 'I was thinking, 'So I have a child, or I don't have a child.' We didn't know what was going to happen.'
With no sharp objects to sever the umbilical cord, someone suggested Rachel bite through it. Eventually an SS guard handed Edita a dirty razor blade. 'They also found a cardboard box and put the baby in,' Rachel recalled.
Incredibly, Rachel had a little breast milk and was able to feed the baby. Rachel asked the date, determined to remember her son's birthday whether he lived or died. An SS guard replied: 'Say the boy was born on Hitler's birthday – April 20th. It might save him.'

Dr Mengele inspected each new prisoner and – more specifically – asked if they were expecting a child, which could become a subject for his sickening human experiments
Dr Mengele inspected each new prisoner and – more specifically – asked if they were expecting a child, which could become a subject for his sickening human experiments

Meanwhile Anka, a 'walking skeleton in rags', was squeezed into an open-topped coal truck praying fervently that they weren't on their way back to Auschwitz. With Allied planes bombing tracks behind and ahead of them, there was mounting confusion among the guards as to where the convoy has heading. Finally, after 16 terrible days, Train 90124 ended its long journey on evening of Sunday, April 29, 1945.

The wild-looking creatures still alive were dragged from the wagons by guards and pushed into ragged columns. They were in the beautiful Danube valley, but all Anka could see were big black letters spelling out MAUTHAUSEN.
'As soon as I saw that, my birth pains started,' Anka said. 'I was so frightened.
'Mauthausen was in the same category as Auschwitz: an extermination camp.'
Gripping the wagon door as her contractions took hold, she tried not to let on that she was about to give birth. All she could think was that she was about to deliver a child that would be thrown straight into a gas chamber, along with its mother.

Dragged off with others too weak to move, she was thrown on top of a heap of the dying on a farm cart.
'The sun was shining and it was awfully cold – such a beautiful spring evening. We were going up the hill and I noticed the Danube below and the [fields] beginning to turn green… I thought I had never seen anything more beautiful in my life – maybe the last nice thing I would see on this earth.'
By the time the cart had climbed the two miles to the hilltop camp, her contractions had worsened.
'There were lice crawling all over the place and dying women lying across my legs. I had only one fear – that the baby wouldn't survive.'
In those hellish conditions, Anka gave birth on the cart. The tiny infant didn't breathe or move. 'For maybe seven to ten minutes it did not cry or stir,' she recalled.
At the so-called 'infirmary', a prisoner who had been an obstetrician in Belgrade was summoned. 'He came running out and he cut off the baby, smacked its bottom and everything was fine. It started to cry. He told me, 'It's a boy.' Somebody wrapped it in paper and suddenly I was terribly happy.'

In fact the doctor was wrong, deceived by the swollen genitalia common in malnourished newborns, and Anka had delivered a little girl she later named Eva. She asked someone the time and date. In the sick bay she was grateful to be given her own bunk, even though there was a stench of excrement.
Her shrunken infant with a full head of dark hair was laid flat upon her chest. 'I was as happy as I could be – under those circumstances,' she said. 'I was the happiest person in the world.'
The three 'miracle children', Eva, Mark, and Hana (pictured l-r together) only learned of each others' existence five years ago when they were reunited at an event for camp survivors
The three 'miracle children', Eva, Mark, and Hana (pictured l-r together) only learned of each others' existence five years ago when they were reunited at an event for camp survivors

There was no such joy for Rachel and baby Mark. They were loaded on to a similar cart and taken up the hill to the camp, which was in chaos. The population had doubled, food had virtually run out, disease was out of control and the German guards were eager to leave no trace of their crimes. Choking smoke filled the air as documents were thrown into incinerators, along with the corpses of 43 prisoners executed the previous day.

Even with the odds stacked hopelessly against them, the camp authorities seemed determined to continue their campaign of genocide. Rachel and her group were herded 50 at a time down a flight of steps to the showers. With baby Mark hidden under her grimy dress, she remembered enough from Auschwitz to know what having a shower could mean. Pushed into a large tiled chamber with sinister-looking pipes, she believed that they were meant to die. 'They took us some place to gas us,' she said afterwards, 'but the prisoners had dismantled the equipment so they couldn't do it.' In fact, the camp had run out of the deadly Zyklon B cyanide crystals.

Meanwhile, Priska was forced to march up the hill, her group beaten by the guards. When Hana stirred and moaned, a female kapo (the name given to trusted inmates who supervised prisoners) spotted the tiny bundle at Priska's breast and shrieked, 'Ein Baby!'

Another rushed forward to grab Hana, crying 'Keine Kinder hier!' (No children here!). Priska fought them both off, spitting and clawing at their faces as a deadly tug-of-war began.
Hana's life hung in the balance until an unlikely person intervened. An older female kapo placed one hand on Priska's shoulder and said quietly: 'I haven't seen a baby in six years. I should like to spend some time with her.'
Priska realised that this was a chance to save her child. She hesitated, then handed her over. 'Follow me,' the woman said, in a Polish accent. In a surreal sequence of events, Priska was ordered to wait outside the guards' barracks while the stranger took Hana inside, undressed her and stood over her smiling and cooing. After almost an hour, the guard wrapped Hana in her grimy smock and bonnet and carried her back outside. 'Here,' she said brusquely before ordering that they be taken to a vermin-ridden barracks.
Priska and Hana curled in exhaustion on the floor of a filthy hut as Anka and her infant lay in the infirmary and Rachel collapsed with Mark in a nearby barracks.
The following day, as Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin bunker, only Anka and her new baby, wrapped in newspaper, were shown any kind of care – although her infant stayed unwashed and surrounded by others dying of typhus or worse.

Dr Mengele conducted sickening experiments on more than 1,500 sets of twins including Miriam and Eva Kor
Dr Mengele conducted sickening experiments on more than 1,500 sets of twins including Miriam and Eva Kor
Anka said: 'By the time we arrived, the Germans were frightened out of their wits and started feeding us.'
She described their change of attitude as 'cloying and horrible', adding: 'I knew the day before they would have killed us.'

To her surprise, she was producing so much milk that she could have 'fed five babies'. 'I don't know where it came from. If I had faith I would say it was a miracle.'
Her baby, with arms the width of her little finger, guzzled greedily.

After weeks in which she had eaten not much more than a few mouthfuls of stale bread, Anka was given a bowl of macaroni swimming in fat. 'I was so hungry I ate it. I can't tell you how hungry I was… but it could have killed me on the spot. My intestines couldn't take it.' Almost immediately, she became incapacitated with diarrhoea and was extremely sick. 'How can you resist food when you are starving?'
In the early hours of May 3, SS commandant Frank Ziereis gave the order for his men to leave and handed over to a unit of police drafted in from Vienna, assisted by some older German soldiers. Two days later, a reconnaissance squad from the 'Thunderbolts', the 11th Armored Division, Third US Army, led by Polish-speaking Sergeant Albert J. Kosiek drove into the camp and found thousands of saucer-eyed prisoners, many on the verge of collapse. A huge number were naked, their skin covered in sores or eaten away by disease.
'It's a sight I'll never forget,' Sgt Kosiek said. 'They hardly resembled human beings. Some couldn't have weighed over 40lb… it made me wonder what kept them alive.'
Priska, who had been a language teacher, heard the voices of the soldiers and cried out for help in English. The medics rushed to the severely malnourished and dehydrated mother and baby. They took Hana away to operate on her abscesses and treated her with the new invention – penicillin. When a US Army nurse brought back the heavily bandaged bundle the following day, Priska thought she was dead. 'No, no! She's alive! She's healthy!' the nurse reassured her.
In the following weeks, as the three new mothers and their babies gradually regained strength and even began to gain a little weight, they were kept in quarantine in separate sections of the camp.
The three babies survived the horrors of the death camps, pictured is Auschwitz, the brutality of slave labour and a final terrifying journey before being liberated
The three babies survived the horrors of the death camps, pictured is Auschwitz, the brutality of slave labour and a final terrifying journey before being liberated

None of the women's husbands survived the camps and, with war over, the three mothers went home.
Priska remained in Bratislava for five years, and finally accepted that Tibor truly wasn't coming home. She never remarried and became a professor of languages. Priska died in Slovakia in 2006 aged 90. Hana emigrated to Israel after the 'Prague Spring' uprising was crushed in 1968. She now lives in California.
Rachel and her sisters found that in their village in Poland most of the Jews she'd grown up with had been erased from history, the survivors were unwelcome. She remarried, took Mark to American-occupied Munich for four years, then to Israel and, finally, to America. She died in Nashville, Tennessee, in 2003 at the age of 84.

Anka returned to Prague, where she learned that Bernd had been shot on a death march from Auschwitz. Three years later she married a Czech, Karel Bergman, who had been a wartime interpreter for Fighter Command in London. They settled in Cardiff after her husband was offered the chance to manage a factory in Wales, which he subsequently bought. Anka died in Cambridge in 2013 aged 96.

None of the mothers went on to have more children, none were aware of each others existence until their three 'babies' attended a commemoration event at Mauthausen in 2010.
Anka was the only mother who lived long enough to learn the truth and it was with high emotion that Eva introduced her to Hana and Mark. With her eyes glistening, Anka told them: 'You are my children too.'

Now all grandparents, the three 'miracle babies' have, they say, become siblings of the heart.

All three will travel from their homes in California, Wisconsin and Cambridge to meet again at Mauthausen next month to mark their 70th birthdays and to thank the descendants of their liberators. They are proud to be born survivors. 

Born Survivors by Wendy Holden is published on May 7 by Sphere, priced £18.99. Pre-order your copy at the special price of £15.19 from; p&p is free for a limited time only.

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