Oldest Auschwitz survivor defies odds, living to tell her story

JERUSALEM — Pepi Schreier points to the faded blue numbers on her left forearm. For a moment the smile on her face vanishes as the memory comes flooding back.

"The Nazis did it," she recalls, stabbing at the number with her carefully manicured fingernails, her face contorted for a brief moment.

Her daughters Judith and Marlit, who were with her in Auschwitz as little girls and whose arms carry the two consecutive numbers after their mother's, soothe her and bring her back to the happier present.

At 100 years old, Pepi, known as "Omi" to her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, is the oldest living survivor of Auschwitz.

"We had suspected as much," says 72-year-old Judith Becker, Pepi's older daughter who was 12 when the family was liberated. "But we were able to confirm it when we made an application to the Claims Conference last year, for compensation from money set aside by the Swiss government."

Her granddaughter Rachel Goldsmith, who visits Pepi in Jerusalem as often as possible, speaks of her grandmother with awe and adoration. "No one I know has suffered more in her life but has contributed more to humanity," she says. "During the Holocaust her faith in God and her indomitable spirit pulled her through countless situations which might have seemed hopeless to someone with less faith.

"Even when she went into the gas chamber with her two daughters, she knew, somehow, that the Almighty would save them and they would come out alive."

Judith Becker takes up the story. "It was the spring of l944. We had been moved from one concentration camp to another and we found ourselves in Plaschow. Several hundred Hungarian women were brought to the camp. They had been in Auschwitz. They were frightened, sullen and stood with their shaven heads, unable to communicate with us, speaking only Hungarian.

"My mother went towards them. We had come into possession of a little extra bread and she went and stroked their cheeks and put pieces of bread in their mouths like a mother bird feeding her chicks. She found one woman who understood German and through her she told them not to worry, that they were going to survive. She changed the whole picture for these women."

Soon after, the two little girls and their mother were moved to Auschwitz and within 24 hours sent to the gas chamber. Pepi told her daughters to stand next to her and to say the Sh'ma. "We will get out of this alive," she said.

They were released when the mechanism of the gas chamber failed. "She seemed to have an almost personal relationship with God," says Goldsmith. "Her faith that they would survive never wavered. But she didn't just sit back and let things happen. She worked and planned and had many perilous escapades to save lives."

"She always insisted we keep our dignity," interjects Judith, who lives in Jerusalem. "The Nazis did everything to dehumanize us. They shaved our heads and stripped us naked, they starved us and beat us. But my mother always insisted we wash ourselves, and I was made to bring water to the barracks, even though this was a life-endangering activity.."

Pepi was born in Galicia and orphaned at the age of 8. She was taken to live in Germany with an older sister and worked in her brother-in-law's textile business. She married in 1922, and gave birth to four boys, one of whom later died, and two daughters.

The Nazis arrested and imprisoned her husband. Pepi, with her five children and seven nieces and nephews, was dumped on the Polish border.

She found a home and set about arranging what was to her the most important priority for the 12 children — getting them an education. She found them places in Jewish orphanages and then decided she must learn a trade in order to support them.

She studied at an ORT school to learn how to make corsets, a profession she practiced all her life.

After the German invasion, she was called upon time and again to use her ingenuity to save lives. Later, she even returned to Germany, smuggling herself onto a train with two of the children, who subsequently escaped to England and freedom.

In Berlin, she removed her yellow star and marched into Gestapo headquarters, demanding that they release her husband — but to no avail. Back in the ghetto in Poland, she was able to get a permit for herself, the two girls and another Jewish woman to carry on making corsets for the Germans and wealthy Poles. Even when she was taken with her four youngest children to a forced labor camp in l943, Pepi managed to get food and later to save the younger children from the selections.

After the war, she arrived in New York where her oldest son, Felix Berger, who had managed to escape Europe in l939 at the age of 16, had settled and become a prominent Jewish educator.

In l97l she was the first of her family to make aliyah, coming to Israel with her third husband, Siegmund Schreier.

She lives in Jerusalem with her surviving children and their offspring, the matriarch of a dynasty that survived against all odds.