Article in The Mobile Press Register, February 11, 2008
Finding Words for Nazi Horror
By Roy Hoffman
Press Register Reporter

Agnes Tennenbaum, 85, speaks with eloquence of what became of her and her Hungarian Jewish family at the hands of the Nazis during World War II.

But for many years, she did not want to talk about the Holocaust at all.

Her husband, father, brother and mother were all taken from her, never to return.

"I asked myself, 'Why am I here?'"

She shared a common trait with many survivors of horrible circumstances that take the lives of so many around them: "It was guilt," ...

Before moving to Mobile in 2006 with her son and his family, she had lived in Phoenix, where people, learning of her history, began to ask for her story.

The loss, even after decades, was still "too fresh," but she felt her mission had become to keep the memories of so many loved ones--and millions of others--alive.

" I had to train myself not to get too emotional," she says.

In Mobile, she's already a popular speaker with area schools and religious groups.

Her father, Arnold, a prominent businessman, was the son of a Hungarian Jewish couple who had emigrated to New York but returned to Hungary when Arnold was a little boy. Her mother, Malvin, a hat designer, was of Italian Jewish background.

Tennenbaum had an idyllic childhood in Hungary, filled with days of mountain hiking, swimming and family vacations.

As the war spread across Europe, Tennenbaum's family heard stories about Nazi horrors from refugees.

After her wedding, her father and her new husband were drafted by the Hungarian army and sent to dig ditches. The men returned home after several months, and when Agnes's husband was diagnosed with tuberculosis, he was sent to a sanatorium but never returned.

Her older sister, Magdalene, was traveling by train to another town when she was taken off the train and sent with other Jews to the banks of the Danube River to be shot.

"They were told," Tennenbaum recalls, that "the Blue Danube will turn red."

Sister's escape

She would not learn of her sister's fate for over a decade. Magdalene jumped into the Danube before being shot and swam to the opposite bank, finding refuge with the Swedish Embassy.

Tennenbaum and the rest of her family were sent to a ghetto, an area cordoned off by authorities where Jews had to remain. Next, they were sent to sleep on the floor of a brick factory outside of town.

"In the middle of the night," she says, the Nazis "brought in the chief rabbi of the village. I heard the screaming. They beat him to death."

The family became separated. Tennenbaum's father and her older brother, Sandor, were sent to the now infamous death camp, Auschwitz.

Then Agnes, her mother, her aunt Anna and her cousin Edith were put on a cattle train, jammed in with other prisoners like "sardines in a box. There was no toilet, no water, no food to eat. People were standing like this," she says, and she presses her hands tightly together.

Agnes and her mother struggled to get close to a window for air.

But it was the lack of water that was the worst.

"Without water, you could lose your mind. The thirst it was so strong it was hard to think."

After two days and nights, she looked through the train window and got her first look at Auschwitz.

"I saw a tall, electrified fence and officers with German shepherds and whips. There was one tall, very good-looking soldier whistling a happy tune and with his thumb pointing to the left or to the right."

She and her mother clutched hands. They were torn apart, though, her mother sent left, Tennenbaum to the right.

Always, the thirst

The prisoners were stripped, paraded in front of the soldiers, shaved "of all our bodily hair. We looked like mannequins. Still, there was the thirst. I wished I were dead."

When Agnes and others asked about their family who had been sent to the left, a Czech woman, who had been in the camp for a while, answered:

"Look to the left, to the chimneys. Look at the smoke curling out of the chimneys. That's your family."

"I said it can't be happening," Agnes recalls.

As Tennenbaum tells her story, her voice does not break. Her eyes are dry. But her narrative takes on an urgency, as though she is reliving the pain.

"The German officers told us plainly: 'Jews, blacks, Gypsies and homosexuals are going to be killed, and the world will be free of Jews altogether. It will be an Aryan world a purer, Aryan world. It's just a matter of time.'"

In the mornings, the women were stripped bare and inspected by an officer. "If he saw a red spot, he sent the woman away to the gas chamber."

The food was abysmal, filled, Tennenbaum says, with sawdust or tranquilizers.

At first she prayed to God, "thinking that God would help. Then I gave up on help altogether. Where was the Red Cross? Did the world forget all about us? Don't they know about us? Do the Americans? Do the English?"

Tennenbaum decided to kill herself by grabbing the electrified fence.

"My cousin Edith said, ''You don't know what tomorrow will bring.'"

Edith's mother, Anna, was sent to work in the forest. The two cousins later learned that and was forced to dig her own grave and was then shot.

Packed bombs

Agnes and Edith were later selected to leave Auschwitz to go to Allendorf, a labor camp in Germany. They traveled on another cattle train.

From Allendorf, where they were imprisoned, they walked every morning three miles to a bomb-making plant. "My first job was to pack the bombs," she says of the labor. She also worked on an assembly line making mines.

It was winter. "The snow was up to our necks. The guards were brutal." One guard tried to rape her.

The munitions factory was owned by the German company Krupp, predecessor to ThyssenKrupp AG, the same company that's now building a huge steel processing plant in North Mobile County.

"When I found out that Krupp was moving here, it shocked me," Tennenbaum said. "It brought back so many bad memories."

When told about Tennenbaum's history, D. Scott Posey, director of communications for ThyssenKrupp Steel USA LLC, issued this statement:

"We continue to openly acknowledge this tragic historical chapter in our company's history. Today's ThyssenKrupp corporate family is made up of over 200,000 good and hard-working employees and their families living in 70 countries around the globe, who are building a reputation we are all very proud of."

After the war, Agnes and Edith were liberated from Allendorf, and Tennenbaum made her way to Munich, Germany, where she married Bernard Schwartzberg, who had lost family members in the death camps.

The couple had a son, Henry, and moved to America. Later, after they divorced, she married another refugee, David Tennenbaum, who died in 1985.

She has written an unpublished memoir, titled "The Survivors."

Tennenbaum attributes her resiliency as a young woman to the fact that "I grew up in a happy home. I had so much love, so much attention. I built up a resistance."

The trauma of the Holocaust, lucky as she was to avoid death, made her "stronger."

But it made her harder, too.

"I'm not so easily touched by so many things that would have touched me before."