Auschwitz survivor Michael Rehfisch speaks of a life sustained by the faintest glimmer of hope
David Clensy meets the Auschwitz survivor from Saltford who has spoken in public for the first time about his wartime experiences
There is little in the cheery welcome, the firm handshake and the hospitable brewing of coffee that betrays the horrors seen by Michael Rehfisch.
But then, as he settles back into his sofa at his home and he rolls his sleeves up as we begin to talk – there, tattooed on his arm, is the permanent visual reminder that Michael is a Holocaust survivor.
Seventy years ago, an SS officer would have been able to look at the sinister combination of numbers and letters and understand immediately about Michael’s role at Auschwitz – his life was spared because he was fit enough to offer the Third Reich a source of slave labour.
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Those destined for immediate execution in the gas chambers were not given tattoos. To the Nazi regime he was just “B-11712”. But there is far more to Michael than a number on a Nazi clerk’s file.
Since moving to England 26 years ago, Michael, who lives in Saltford has made a conscious effort to put the trauma of his youth behind him – not to forget, but to overcome those times. “Closing the chapter”, as he says.
But now he is speaking for the first time in public about the horrors he witnessed, with a question and answer session at Yate Library to mark Holocaust Memorial Day.
“It was a long time ago now,” the 86-year-old says. “I try not to remember those times, so I can live my life now. But when I was asked to do the talk, it seemed like the right thing to do.”
Michael was born in Dresden. His father was an insurance broker and his mother was a housewife. He was a happy child until the age of 11, although he never thought of himself as a German. He was a “German Jew” – there was always a differentiation, he tells me, even before he became aware of the violent anti-semitism of the Nazis.
“In those days, children were children. We weren’t told about the things going on.”
But Michael’s world changed over night on November 9, 1938 – the so-called Kristallnacht (Crystal Night), named after the broken glass left in the streets after fascists had finished trashing Jewish-owned stores across Germany and Austria.
On November 10, Michael woke to a newly broken world.
“It quickly became clear that something was wrong, very wrong – that we were in some kind of danger,” he says. “I didn’t go to school again after that and my father quickly arranged for us to move. We fled over the border to Czechoslovakia, and settled in a suburb of Prague.
“It was a pretty little house and I made some friends there, though I never went to school because of the language barrier. My father couldn’t work for the same reason and he became very depressed.
“In 1940, he committed suicide. After that, it was just my mother and I. We carried on until one day in 1941, when the Germans arrived and we were told to collect our belongings. We were sent to a ghetto a few miles outside Prague called Theresienstadt.”
The ghetto at Theresienstadt (Terezin to the Czechoslovakians) stood beside a former military base that the Nazis were rapidly turning into a satellite concentration camp, from where countless thousands of Jews would be assessed and sent on to the infamous death camp of Auschwitz over the next few years.
“I was put to work in a joiner’s workshop and my mother became friends with a man in the ghetto police. He was able to get us additional food and my mother passed it on to me. It made a big difference because food was scarce.”
Michael’s mother tried to arrange for him to join a “kinder-transport” group being given sanctuary in Britain. He was all set to follow the little girl who lived next door to a new life in Stoke-on-Trent.
But Britain declared war on Germany shortly before he was due to leave, and the project was stopped. Michael would spend the next four years in the ghetto.
“Then one day in 1944 we were told to assemble by the railway station. I was separated from my mother at that point, before being put on board a cattle wagon, along with 1,000 other men. We were in those wagons for the next two days. When they opened the doors we were at Auschwitz.
“Our hair was shaved, then we were tattooed with these numbers, and put to work. At first, of course, we didn’t know about the gas chambers, or about the burning of bodies. But it quickly became obvious to us. There were the ever-burning fires, the smoke hanging constantly in the air, and the transportation trains that arrived at night, but its occupants had disappeared without trace by morning.”
Michael was at Auschwitz for three weeks before he was transferred to a satellite concentration camp a few miles away, Gleiwitz, where he was put to work fixing wagons.
“It was while working there that I found out the fate of my mother. One of the men, who had worked on the arrivals platform, told me he had seen her arriving at Auschwitz, getting off the train, and was led straight to the gas chambers.”
But Michael didn’t have the luxury of mourning – working almost around the clock, on very little food, in the engineering workshop.
“On one occasion I fell asleep at my work leaning against the wheel of a wagon,” he recalls. “I was rudely awoken by the butt of an SS guard’s rifle striking my head. I was badly wounded and fell into the inspection pit below the wagon.
“I was picked up and marched out of the building by two SS guards. That was the only moment that I thought my time had come.”
In fact, the guards were marching him to the spartan hospital wing, where a Jewish doctor treated him for the next three days.
“Then he told me there was to be an inspection, and however bad I felt, I should go back to work – if I seemed ill when they inspected...” Michael pauses and gives a shrug of his shoulders – there is no need for him to say what would have happened had he remained in the hospital.
Even during his darkest times at the concentration camp, Michael says he doesn’t remember feeling despair.
“I suppose there was always a hint of optimism,” he says. “There was always talk that the Russians were on their way. That’s what kept us going.”
Finally, the Russians began to close in on the concentration camp complex.
“At that point, we were moved to a smaller camp, closer to the Reich,” Michael says. “The Germans kept pulling back, but there were three of us who couldn’t keep up with the pace of the march and, in their panic, the Nazis didn’t seem to be keeping track of stragglers. So we got gradually further and further back from the march until we were able to lose them altogether. We walked around trying to find food, but then, shortly after, three SS guards pulled up on motorbikes with sidecars.”
The guards had the job of dealing with stragglers.
“They simply opened fire without even dismounting,” he says. “But I was lucky. I jumped into a latrine and managed to escape the bullets.”
A few days later, Michael heard the sound of advancing tanks.
“I wondered whether it was the Russians or the Germans,” he says. “Such relief. It was the Russians.”
Michael was taken to hospital for a couple of days to start his recovery.
“I was told I could not return to Prague because technically I was classed as a German citizen, ironically enough, so I went back to Theresienstadt where, months later, I met a British Jewish soldier who told me he was my cousin – my grandfather in Tel Aviv had sent him to find me.”
Michael settled in Palestine – Israel as it would soon become – where he spent the next 40 years working as a coach driver. He married and had a son and a daughter.
In 1980, his wife died of cancer and the following year he met his current wife, Patricia, during a visit to Germany – Patricia was on holiday and Michael was lobbying the German government for reparations.
“We just clicked straightaway,” Michael smiles. “She left her home in Bristol and came to live with me in Israel for three years until I could take retirement, then we moved here to Saltford. That’s when I stopped letting my past haunt me. I refused to let it dominate my whole life. That’s when I moved on and closed that chapter.”