"Travel for Peace takes young people with them out into the world to show them the brutality of war. At the same time, Travel for Peace also opens a door for peace and hope for the future. We now need this more than ever."
Blanche Major is Travel for Peaces’ patron. She was imprisoned in Auschwitz in 1944.
A Narrow Escape from the Gas Chamber.
Blanche Major was 19 years old when her mother and father and 31 other relatives were sent to the gas chamber in Aushwitz II – Birkenau. Blanche and her sister lost their whole family in the space of a quarter of an hour,
- ‘I was lucky’, says the strong little Jewish woman today.
Blanche was born in Hungary in 1925; she now lives in Oslo and is one of the advisers to Travel for Peace.
She visits schools regularly and recounts soberly, vividly and passionately her unpleasant tale.
- ‘In May 1944, the Jews in my hometown of Pecs were gathered together in a ghetto. We didn’t know what was going to happen. We listened to the radio, but never heard anything about gas chambers. They just spoke about how unemployment and all other misery would disappear if only the Jews were gone,’ she says.
Blanche married during that spring, with a yellow Star of David on her dress. A few days later, her husband was sent to a forced labour camp. – Two months later, the ghetto was emptied. ‘They cleared the whole of Pecs and the rest of the country outside Budapest of 600,000 Jews. We were ordered into cattle wagons on the train.’
Transport by Train was a Nightmare.
‘We numbered 3400 Jews on that train, about 70 in every wagon. Both of my grandmothers were with me, one aged 92 and the other 82. The youngest of my relatives was a niece of 5 or 6 years old. We were spread among different wagons. The thought that we were leaving the country never crossed our minds. We just thought that we would be isolated, maybe in a labour camp,’ says Blanche.
During their 3 day long transport, the prisoners received rotten food, no water and 70 people had to share one slop bucket. People cried, fainted and some died on the way to Auschwitz.
The 7th of July 1944 Blanche and her family arrived in Auschwitz II - Birkenau.
- ‘I remember the yellow smoke rising from the chimneys. There were barracks everywhere. We didn’t know where we were. I remember seeing my mother in all this chaos. And I remember the handsome tall man in riding boots who was in charge of selection. My sister and I were ordered to the left. That meant that we were regarded as being able to work. Most of the Jews had to go to the right – straight to the gas chambers. The children and the old, the sick and the pregnant.’ Of all the 33 family members of Blanche’s family, only she and her sister were ordered to the left.
- ‘We were told that they were going to rest. I have met mothers who blame themselves for having sent their children to their deaths all alone that day. But who would not have wanted the children to have a rest after the train journey?’ says Blanche.
- ‘A friend of mine went to her death with her one year old child that day. They went to the camp together. In the camp they were told to take off their clothes and go down to the showers. None of them knew that they would be dead within 15 minutes.’
Later Blanche was told who the man in riding boots was: Dr. Josef Mengele. He was the SS doctor who carried out the sinister experiments on humans.
Don’t know if I cried
Blanche was not told what really happened to those who were sent “to rest” while she herself was in the camp. In hindsight, she wonders why the yellow smoke did not make them suspicious. The smoke from the crematoria, where 8000 bodies were burned every day, hung over the camp. But Blanche and her sister had each other, and suppressed any thought of the rest of their family.
- ‘Those who had to work were first undressed and then our entire bodies were shaved. My sister and I slept in barracks with an earthen floor for seven weeks,’ says Blanche.
Then they were sent as slave labour to the largest ammunition factory in Europe. The factory was in Stadt Allendorf between Kassel and Marburg, and was an important supplier of weapons and ammunition to the Germans. Blanche and her sister were two of the 17,500 slaves who worked there.
In the seven months that followed, Blanche assembled bombs for 12 hours every day in the weapons factory. When they were evacuated on the 27th of March 1945, she, her sister and four friends escaped. They hid in the forest for two days until they met the American soldiers.
- ‘Just after we were liberated, we lived in a kind of state of euphoria because we were alive. One day, people came with lists of Jews who had survived the war. My husband, Georg, was on the list, and two of my cousins. No other family members. Don’t ask how I reacted then – I don’t remember. I don’t know if I cried.’ She says.
A number of coincidences led to Blanche, her husband and their little son, born in 1946, ending up in Norway. Norway had undertaken to accept a small number of Jews, and the small Major family was among those sent here in 1947.
- ‘The worst thing I experienced after the war is the claim that the gas chambers were a lie and just Jewish propaganda. When highly educated, academic people say such things, it sounds credible to those that don’t know. Even though sometimes I feel powerless and overwhelmed by rage and hopelessness, I can’t let the racists’ and revisionists’ allegations go unanswered. In a few years, all of us who survived the concentration camps will be gone. Therefore it is so important that those of us who can, recount exactly what happened,’ says Blanche.
- How do you experience being back in Auschwitz as a historical witness?
- ‘Strongly, painfully. But at the same time it gives hope. It is hurtful because this is the burial place of my family and my friends. It is hurtful because I can’t understand how this could happen. But it gives hope when I see the reaction among the young people. When they are there, they understand. They have read books and seen films, but it is firstly when they are there that they really understand. One thing that is very important to me is to witness for new generations and to urge them not to overlook world history’s most hideous crimes. Remember that Hitler came to power in what was the most cultured nation of that period. That teaches us that we should always and everywhere be on guard against totalitarian elements in our society,’ Blanche added.
- ‘We can’t do anything about the past. But I am convinced that we can do something about the future.’