Finding Bela

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Jarad A. Denton
  • 501st Combat Support Wing
A tension hung in the air like a thick, dampening fog as a man in worn clothes nervously pushed an old broom through the streets of Berlin, Feb. 27, 1943. No one spoke to him, or even seemed to notice anything beyond his cloth badge, marked with a single word, written in German and set into the center of the yellow star: "Jude."

People hurried past doctors and nurses who sat on street corners with medical supplies, oblivious to what was brewing - knowing only it was a "matter of the Gestapo only."

Suddenly, Siegfried Rosenthal, was seized by men and forcibly thrown into back of a truck - his broom clattering loudly against the street he had just swept. All throughout Berlin, Jews were rounded up, arrested and primarily deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp in what became known as the "Fabrikaktion," or Factory Action.

"'First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a Socialist,'" said Joanna Millan, as she quoted a poem by Pastor Martin Niemöller. "'Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out - because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak for me.'"

Speaking to a group of Service members during the 2015 Holocaust Remembrance Luncheon at RAF Alconbury, England, April 14, 2015, Millan said the Holocaust was an entirely preventable atrocity.

"At every stage during this process it could have been stopped," she said. "It was possible, even in Berlin, to say 'we didn't believe in this.' But, it was always someone else's problem."

Not everyone remained silent, Millan said. Almost immediately after the Fabrikaktion began, a group of nearly 200 non-Jewish Germans staged a demonstration outside the local Jewish community building at Rosenstraße 2-4. Inside, the police were holding roughly 2,000 Jews, mostly men who were married to non-Jewish women, as well as male children of these mixed marriages. For five days their wives protested this incarceration - believing if no one spoke up, their husbands and sons would soon be deported to their death at Auschwitz.

Surprisingly, Millan said their voices were heard. At the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, the Nazis, worried their deportation would inspire civil unrest, deferred action against this small group of "mixed-marriage Jews" until after the German victory. Unfortunately, for Siegfried and nearly 11,000 other Jews taken during the Fabrikaktion, the train to Auschwitz had already arrived.

"One day he just didn't come home," Millan said. "The trains that took him, and so many others, to Auschwitz were the same ones used to transport animals."

Siegfried and roughly 100 others were crammed into a 10 meter-long cattle freight wagon and linked with 49 other, equally-packed, cars before departing on the 344-mile journey to the largest, and most infamous, concentration camp established by the Nazi regime. As the trains arrived, soldiers at the camp were already warming the ovens - preparing for a new batch of victims to be exterminated. Forced from the train, Siegfried was examined by SS doctors who determined if Jews were fit enough to manage the strenuous workload that lay ahead of them.

"He was selected for death," Millan said. "They stood outside the chambers and were told to hang their clothes neatly on rows with numbered pegs. The Nazis did this to trick the Jews into thinking these chambers were actually showers."

Once inside, panic began to grip the Jews as the doors behind them were sealed shut and an official wearing an oxygen mask would release poison into the chamber. As with so many who came before, Siegfried and the other victims would have screamed for their lives as Zyklon B, a cyanide-based pesticide, was dropped into the room. Initially, a faint smell of almonds would permeate the chamber, as the gas swirled with the air in the sealed room. Soon after noticing the smell, Siegfried would have felt his eyes begin to burn as the chemical entered his system. The panicked screams would slowly subside as the Zyklon interfered with the cellular respiration of the victims. They would drop to their knees, try to rush the door and even claw the walls with their fingernails - all in a vain attempt to live.

"It took about 20 minutes to kill all the Jews in a shower," Millan said. "The Nazis took all the clothing, personal effects and gold teeth from the victims and sold them. They say the profits from the showers at Auschwitz financed the war for six months."

After Siegfried took his final breath, his body was collected and taken outside by one of the Jewish work camp inmates. His lifeless shell was thrown on a pyre with roughly 2,000 other corpses and alternating layers of kindling. The pyre itself was a ditch, 50 yards long, six yards wide and three yards deep. SS soldiers lined the trench and watched as the corpses were tossed in. When it was full, if the soldiers looked hard enough they might have seen Siegfried - his entire life, his hopes, dreams and aspirations to grow old with his wife Else and raise their infant daughter Bela, were incinerated in a bonfire that lit the skies above Auschwitz, March 4, 1943.

"It wasn't just the soldiers at the camps," Millan said. "Everybody was involved. Everybody knew. Teachers taught students that Jews weren't human beings and it was good to kill a Jew. In Berlin, friends turned on each other and neighbors betrayed neighbors. Jews were dragged from their homes day and night."

With no word on Siegfried's fate, Else was left to work in the local factory and raise Bela by herself. By early June 1943, Bela was 10-months-old and one of fewer than 6,800 Jews left in Berlin. In a final push to declare the capital of the Third Reich "Judenrein," or cleansed of Jews, the Nazis rounded up the remaining few. While Bela was taken from her kindergarten class, Else was home when the arrests began.

"They broke the lock of her apartment door and took her for deportation," Millan said. "Else had to sign away all her possessions to the Nazis, pay for the repair of the lock, settle all her bills - including legal fees, and even pay the train fare to the camp."

Including Else and Bela, 428 Jews were packed into a train bound for Theresienstadt, a camp-ghetto located in the modern-day Czech Republic. The camp itself served three distinct functions: first, it was a transit camp for Czech Jews bound for deportation to killing centers, concentration and forced-labor camps. Second, Theresienstadt became a propaganda front designed to mislead the world and conceal the physical annihilation of the Jews. The camp was fictionally featured as a productive labor center, which hid the true nature of the deportations. Third, it served as a holding pen for Jews. The Nazis expected the poor conditions of the camp would hasten the deaths of many incarcerated there.

"Theresienstadt cremated 190 bodies every day," Millan said. "Even that couldn't keep up with how many were dying. You had to step over bodies just to get to work. Everyone was sick."

Of the more than 140,000 Jews sent to Theresienstadt, approximately 90,000 were deported to one of thousands of camps all over Europe. Those who stayed behind, including Else, were left with endless work, little-to-no food and often-fatal diseases. She contracted tuberculosis and died May 31, 1944, leaving Bela, who was not quite 2 years old, to fend for herself.

"They cremated Else at the camp," Millan said. "Her ashes were placed in a numbered cardboard box and stacked neatly with thousands of others."

Toward the end of the war, Else's box became one of nearly 33,000, which served as a true example of the camp built to be a model to the world of the Nazis' "humane" treatment of the Jews. However, that side of the camp was never publically shown. After announcing an intention to tour the camp, the Red Cross visited Theresienstadt, June 23, 1944.

"The camp commander, Karl Rahm, wanted to disguise what was really going on," Millan said. "He made the workers plant trees and flowers. They built a fake shop and passed out fake money. They even built a playground. Of course, the children weren't allowed to play on it. It was all for show."

Right before the visit, Rahm ordered the disposal of all the cardboard boxes the Nazis had accumulated to that point. To this day, the final resting place for 17,000 murdered Jews, including Else, is the nearby Ohre River. The day the Red Cross came, Rahm ordered the Jews attend and "enjoy" a concert, design to further embellish the conditions at the camp. He also had the children cleaned up and presented as an additional layer of deception to the visitors. Bela was not among them. The malnutrition had left her bed-ridden with hepatitis and scarlet fever. As the music from the concert played throughout the night, Bela slept and fought to stay alive.

"Fifteen thousand children came through Theresienstadt," Millan said. "Fewer than 100 of them survived, and six were orphaned."

Millan explained the orphans banded together and looked after one another. With anyone over the age of 10 put to work as an adult, there was no one to care for the children. They became a family of their own, surviving as best they could - eating only when food was sneaked to them by one of the kitchen or garden workers.

"There was a woman, Litska Schallinger," Millan said. "She smuggled food from the vegetable garden. The Nazis never noticed her going to work thin and coming home fat."

Even with the occasional assistance of adults, the orphans still struggled to survive - especially after the embellishment project convinced the Red Cross that conditions were favorable. Once the visitors left and the camera crews sent to document the conditions stopped recording, Rahm ordered normal operations to resume. The camp slipped back into its routine of cruelty and starvation.

However, the war was not going well for Germany. In the face of the advancing Russian forces, the Nazis began liquidating camps in the East and transferring prisoners - primarily to the gas chambers at Auschwitz. The last stages of Germany's Endlösung, or Final Solution, had begun.

"Rahm was worried the world would find out about the horrible conditions at Theresienstadt," Millan said. "In February 1945 he began construction on an underground gas chamber that would massacre the remaining Jews at the camp."

The chamber was never completed. The Jewish Council at Theresienstadt successfully smuggled a warning of Rahm's plans to the Red Cross in Prague. On May 2, 1945, the International Red Cross took control of the camp, forcing the Nazis to flee.

"Rahm and the rest of the Nazis left May 5th," Millan said. "They threw hand grenades back into the camp as they left. It was a final act of inhumanity."

Red Cross control of the camp was only meant as a temporary solution to combat a sudden outbreak of typhus. Three days after the Nazis left, the Russian Army appeared and quarantined the entire area until June - when the outbreak was over and the prisoners were allowed to leave.

"My earliest memory was of leaving the camp," Millan said. "I have no memory before that. Every day was the same, until the Russians came. It was very frightening. One uniform was replaced with another. It went that way until we were told it was time to leave."

Millan, one of the few children to survive Theresienstadt, was taken to an airport bound for the United Kingdom.

"We didn't know where we were going. It was very scary," she said. "All we knew was that leaving the camp meant death, and now they were putting us on these loud planes."

Once in the UK, the orphans - including Millan, were taken to a home west of London where they were cared for as officials looked for families willing to adopt them.

"It took us a long time to settle down," Millan said. "We still supported each other, but things were different. We were introduced to toys for the first time in our lives."

Eventually, an older Jewish couple living in London took Millan in as their own daughter. However, even with the war over, there were still a lot of anti-Semitic feelings throughout Europe. Millan was told she was not to mention her Jewish faith, her birthplace in Germany or even contact the other children from the camp. There was no way to know who had survived.

"I had to cut all ties to my past and live as their daughter," she said. "It was like having a double identity and everyone - their friends and family members, all went along with it."

Her adopted parents were so frightened of being discovered they forced her to change her name to Joanna - because it sounded more British.

"Growing up wasn't easy," Millan said. "I felt like I was hiding myself. I wanted to bring Bela Rosenthal back, but I didn't know how."

Millan smiled, as if peeling away a mask worn for so many years.

"But I am definitely her," she said. "I am Bela."

The hunger to recapture her lost identity has spurred Millan to spend countless hours reconnecting with lost friends and relatives and piecing together a shattered family history that should never have been broken.

"The Holocaust was very complex," she said. "It's hard to simplify it as an illustration of man's inhumanity to other men. But it happened, and it is not unique. In every part of the world there are examples of unbelievable cruelty."

Millan said cruelty and inhumanity are not absolute powers. They can be overcome.

"I feel sick when I think the world hasn't learned from what happened to us," she said. "Today, what are people doing to make themselves aware of the undercurrent of what is going on? It's not someone else's problem. It's everybody's problem."

With the gift of humanity comes a responsibility to speak out and step up when something is wrong, Millan said.

"It was possible," she said. "We could have stopped the Holocaust and every other genocide since. All it would take is one person to stand up and say, 'no more!'"

Editor's Note | Content for this article was gathered from The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Jewish Museum Berlin.