My mother spent six months of her mid 20s in the Auschwitz concentration camp. As the Russian front advanced quickly, the German soldiers fled west to be captured by British or American forces. They were very afraid of the Russians. Auschwitz was evacuated and my mother was part of 1000 girls they took on a death march through the snow. They were the tail end of the German retreat and on a so-called rest break, they were to dig a ditches in the road. The idea was to slow the Russian tanks down.
It was January, bitter cold, they were hardly dressed and were starving. As they stopped to camp overnight my mother broke down and began to cry. A German soldier asked her what she was crying about and my mother said, “I can’t stand it anymore. I’m freezing, starving, and I’d rather you kill me.” He said, “Look at me.” She looked into his blue eyes, blue eyes she could see in her mind the rest of her life. He said, “The war will soon be over and it is us who will be dead and not you. You can make it just a little bit further a day at a time.” He then gave her a piece of his sandwich and ordered her to go guard one of the fires at the camp.
The next day my mother had renewed hope. She looked for an opportunity and noticed two things. When you went through deserted German towns and the road curved, there was a point when the guards couldn’t see you. There were about 1000 girls and only 100 guards. She also noticed when they stopped to camp for the night there were many moments when no guards were visible. At one of those moments she snuck away. Looking for a place to hide she went to a deserted house and scratched the frost off the window to reveal a wonderful scene inside. A Christmas tree with ornaments, but even better with fruit hanging from it. She broke into the house, devoured an apple, but before she could feel the joy of freedom she realized she had left her two sisters and friend back at the campsite. For sure they’ll think she’s dead and this could be “the straw that breaks the camel’s back” for them. She also knew they couldn’t continue the march much longer either. But what should she do? She’d already escaped! It was only a few seconds of deliberation before she thought, “I could not live the rest of my life knowing maybe I could’ve done something. If I can do this once I can do this twice. I’ll sneak back and we’ll get away together.”
So she hid some fruit on her person and tried to sneak back to the camp. But a guard caught her! “Where were you!”, he barked. She explained she just wandered off and got lost. He beat her a few times with his rifle. But even during the beating my mother knew that this would be the last time and tomorrow she would escape.
The next day when the road curved and the guards couldn’t see, she, her sisters and friend all scattered. This time my mother found a barrel and waited for hours until nightfall before she came out. The first thing she noticed was silence and that’s when she realized, “I’m free.” Just like that. All things pass. She, her sisters and friend had escaped and survived.
For the rest of her life when times were tough, when problems or upsets would occur, my mother would let her thoughts drift back to those days and put the present circumstances into perspective. Then in her words she would, “Spring into action and do something about it!”