Trip to Auschwitz – Story of Steven Frank

Before our trip to Auschwitz, we heard a testimony directly from holocaust survivor Steven Frank.  He told us of his secular Jewish background and his life in the Netherlands before his family were torn apart by the Nazis.

Steven's father Leonard Frank was a lawyer who was helping other Jews to escape across the Alps to safety.  Because of the laws put in place, it was forbidden for a Jewish professional to help non-Jewish people. This meant that Steven’s father could help others without being questioned about his intentions and it also meant that this group of people found it slightly easier to pull together and make secret escape plans.

Steven’s mother was originally from England. The Frank family never saw themselves as religious or even attended the local synagogue, but just saw themselves as a normal Dutch family.  This however didn’t matter to the Nazis.  Once things began to get more serious, and the differential treatment of the Jews became more apparent, the family had the option to leave for Britain because of his mother’s English background.  Leonard saw his work in helping the other Jews as far more important, so they decided to stay.

Steven told us how his father had gone off to work one morning as usual, in December 1942, but then the police turned up and arrested him.  This was the last he saw of his father.  The way that Steven spoke of his mother to us still chokes me up now.  She was a complete hero in all of this, and much of Steven’s survival is owed to her selfless acts.  Once her husband had been arrested, she managed to find out what prison he'd been sent to, disguised herself as a man, and then snuck in pretending to be a cleaner so that she could say a final goodbye to him, before he was finally sent to Auschwitz to be killed.

Shortly after his father was arrested, his mother received notice that the rest of the family were to be sent away.  Originally they were sent to an old castle, in which people with connections, or in high up places etc. were to be kept.  It was only because of his father and his job that they were first sent to this place.  Steven believes that this event undoubtedly helped to save the rest of his immediate family.

Steven along with his two brothers and his mother were eventually rounded up, and sent to Westerbork (Netherlands) concentration camp, and were then transferred to Thereseinstadt (Czech Republic).  At both camps Steven's mother volunteered to work in the  camp hospital laundry as this provided her with extra rations, which she would keep in a saucepan until it was half full, then add hot water to it, to make a sort of `bread porridge`,  then sneak it into the children's home to try and keep them alive.  Not only that, but the hot water which she had access to, meant that she could try and keep her children's clothes as clean as possible to prevent disease and infection the best she could.

One of the things that even this day Steven can’t comprehend was the extent of suffering the Nazis would inflict on the prisoners.  Every Tuesday people would be transferred to other camps, and new inmates would arrive.  He said that when it came to siblings, usually the only family that a child would have left - the guards would purposely split them up in order to cause even more emotional pain and suffering on the vulnerable children.

Steven also told us of his own experiences in the camp.  He said that in his first barrack there was a couple in their late fifties, who would always talk highly of Britain, and how once the war was over they would move there and start their lives again properly.  He told us that the whole barrack thought of them as the `grandparents` of their hut, and people that gave the whole group hope.  One evening, the British Air Force mistakenly bombed this barrack in thinking it was a German military base.  Their hut was completely destroyed, but their `grandfather` had been killed in the process.  He loved Britain so much and saw it as a place for a happy new life, so it was heartbreaking to learn that this was the way he died.

It was important, Steven told us, to have a family-like unit in the camp.  Following the disaster which destroyed barrack eighty-five, they were all split up and moved to different huts within the camp, destroying all unity and sense of home they had.  In barrack seventy-one, where Steven was moved to, he told us the story which perhaps touched me the most.   He witnessed a gentleman growing a tomato plant in the corner of the wooden hut, in some soil in a crack in the floor.  The rations that they had been given one day happened to be rotten tomatoes, and this man decided to pick out all of the seeds in the middle and began to grow his own plants.  As a curious, innocent eight year old boy, Steven became this man's `helper` offering to aid in watering the plant every day, until one day the man had some news for Steven.  He told him that he was being sent to Poland (meaning Auschwitz, where most people who were sent there didn't survive) but he asked Steven if he would make sure to look after his tomato plant.  Now in England, Steven tells us that he has a greenhouse full of tomatoes and that every day when watering them, he can picture this man’s face vividly, but he can’t remember his name.

The camps had strict rules about where prisoners could and couldn’t go.  One day Steven was walking through camp and accidently took a wrong turn.  He then saw two guards laughing at him from the watch tower, knowing that they were to punish him for his mistake.  The guards then unleashed their dog and let it attack, bite and maul him up his arms and legs.  Whilst this was going on the guards were laughing at the scene going on before them.  In a way Steven told us that he was thankful for this event as it made him more ‘streetwise` in the camp, and really taught him how to hate people, namely Germans.

Another story that Steven told us was, when he was wandering around the camp, he discovered a trapdoor in the floor.  It happened to be unlocked, and when he opened it there was a pile of coats, shoes and toys in the middle of the floor.  In some camps, during the middle of winter, the temperature could get as low as minus 20 degrees.  Steven ran back to his mother and told her what he’d seen, and then she gathered another group of women who lowered themselves down into the room and collected these clothes for other camp members.  Everyone was impressed by what Steven had found, and told him to choose something from the toy pile - he chose a chess set, and showed it to us at the seminar.  He said that he still plays it today with his family, but looking back he realised what probably happened to the previous owners of all these belongings.

In May 1945, Thereseinstadt concentration camp was liberated by the allies.  Over 15,000 prisoners died in Thereseinstadt, but Steven, his mother, and his two brothers were part of the 93 that came out alive.  The allies flew them across to England, and dumped them on the runway of Croydon Airport, where other prisoners were also being left.  It was here that he managed to get away and start his life again.