Survivor triumphs over Mengele to create life in Israel

Ruth Elias gave birth to her first child lying on a concrete slab in the women's block of Auschwitz.

There was no warm water to wash the baby, no cotton, soap or towels. There was no comforting doctor to guide Elias through labor and announce the arrival of a beautiful baby girl. Only infamous SS physician Josef Mengele visited the young woman's bedside.

He looked at the child and then ordered one of the women doctors to cover Elias' breasts with bandages. As part of an experiment to see how long a newborn infant could live without being fed, she was not allowed to nurse her child.

The ashen baby, wailing from starvation and covered with bedsores, lived only eight days. To end the dying baby's suffering, Elias injected her with morphine obtained by a fellow Czech prisoner.

That a mother could not only survive such an aching trauma, but go on to create a new life and family seems nearly unfathomable.

Yet Elias, now 76 years old and living in Beit Yitzchak, Israel, exudes an almost contagious joy for living.

"I am aware of the beauty of life," she said in an interview last week. "I've got a garden, my children nearby. A flower, a bird, music, people…I enjoy everything."

Elias, whose gripping memoir "Triumph of Hope" was written a decade ago and translated into English last year, visited San Francisco to speak at a fund-raiser for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in San Francisco.

Proceeds from the March 2 event at the Clift Hotel will benefit the museum's Education and Remembrance Fund.

Though she enjoys a full and active life with her husband, two grown sons and six grandchildren, Elias is far from free of the ghosts of her Holocaust past.

In Israel, for example, every time she hears the national anthem "Hatikvah," she remembers prisoners singing the song on their way to the gas chambers.

Last week, on the afternoon of her Bulletin interview, she had eaten lunch in a restaurant whose decor includes a stack of suitcases. Seeing the luggage, she said, immediately evoked images of deportation and internment.

"There are moments," said Elias, a neatly coifed woman with sparkling eyes and a bright smile. "There are flashbacks. A little piece of bread reminds me. You have no influence over dreams."

Elias was born into a Jewish family in the small town of Ostravia, Czechoslovakia. She grew up surrounded by her sister, father and extended family, who ran a successful meat shop and a fast-food buffet.

In her memoir, Elias writes of stopping by the family shop every morning on her way to school. She would give a kiss and curtsy to each family member and they would look her over to make sure she was properly dressed. Then they would hand her a midmorning snack of bread, meat and fruit.

At school, a teacher recognized the young girl's talent for music and recommended piano lessons. Her father bought a piano and she practiced constantly. She liked to ski. Hers was a simple and relatively happy childhood.

But in 1942, three years after the German army invaded Czechoslovakia, Elias entered the Theresienstadt Ghetto and began the frightening journey that would destroy the secure world she had known.

Married in the ghetto to calm her father's anxiety that she would be alone if they were separated, she became pregnant. Three months along and not yet 20 years old, she was deported to Auschwitz, where the risk of death was high for pregnant women.

In her eighth month and unable to conceal her pregnancy, Elias was chosen by Mengele as a subject of his experiments. The period surrounding the birth of her child was the darkest of her life.

"Other prisoners gave me strength. They told me I have to go on," she said.

She did not give her daughter a name. Every name she could think of reminded her of someone in her family. Knowing her child's fate, she called her simply "my child."

Elias believes her desire to see her family again kept her alive in the camps. After being liberated, she searched for them. "I couldn't find them," she said. "No one was left. I was alone."

Her first husband, Koni, survived the war, but she did not return to him.

While pregnant in Auschwitz, where she saw him often, she had been hurt by what seemed to be his indifference to her pregnancy. She had longed for encouragement and consolation and felt he did not provide it. She knew deep down that if they both survived, she would separate from him.

Alone and deeply shaken after the war, she surrounded herself with a surrogate family — a group of fellow survivors who had met in Taucha, the German labor camp to which Elias was transferred after Auschwitz.

Kurt Elias, a survivor who lost his wife and child in the war, became her husband. Both educated in Zionist youth movements, they moved to Israel.

"There is no question that our place is in Israel," she said. "Despite the hard life, the fears, I am a very, very proud Israeli."

Her early days in Israel were happy ones. She and her husband built a new life and were thrilled that she could become pregnant despite all her body had endured during the war.

For years, Elias did not talk about her experiences. "I lied to my children," she said. "When they asked why I had a number on my arm, I said, 'So I won't get lost.'"

Though she started speaking publicly of her past before 1988, her children and grandchildren learned the whole truth when her memoir came out. She dedicates the book to "my beloved and wonderful little family," the family, she said, "which I never thought I would have."

Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is a former J. staff writer.