‘I grew up in death camp house’: Extraordinary story of women born in Auschwitz and who has lived there ever since
Since the day she was born, Anna Odi has lived behind the barbed wire that surrounds Auschwitz.
For 65 unbroken years she has lived in one of the characteristic red-brick blocks that have become synonymous with the largest documented mass murder in the history of humanity.
Now part of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, during the war it was an administration centre for the SS.
It was there that the Germans toiled in offices to ensure the smooth running of the operation that took the lives of more than 1.3 million people, mostly Jews, but also Poles, Soviet POWs, Roma and Sint and many other nationalities.
For Anna it has always been home. The main camp, Auschwitz I, was her playground, where she roamed with her friends and played on long summer days.
Her window looked onto the gallows from which camp commandant Rudolph Hoess was hanged in 1947, as well as the crematorium.
When Anna left school, she started to work in the museum. She has never had any other job and works there to this day.
Her life has been inextricably linked with Auschwitz because her parents Mira, a former prisoner of Pawiak, Majdanek, Ravensbrück and Buchenwald, and her father Józef, a former prisoner of Auschwitz, went to live there after the war to protect the site from theft and decay and to work in the museum, which opened in 1947.
The story of Anna and her family has now been told in a new book ‘The Last Prisoner of Auschwitz’ (Ostatnia Więźniarka Auschwitz) by best-selling author Nina Majewska-Brown, which is published today on the 76th anniversary of the camp’s liberation and International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust.
Anna told TFN: “Growing up on the grounds of the former Auschwitz camp, experiencing my first joys and sorrows, I have the strongest possible connection with this place. This has metaphorically made me its last prisoner”.
Anna’s early home life was carefree and happy but the shadow of Auschwitz was always present.
One time, as a homework assignment, she was asked to draw the view from her window. “I put the tip of the crayon to my lips and wondered what to draw, the crematorium or the gallows? I decided that it would be easier to draw the gallows. Just a few horizontal and vertical lines and you're done,” she said.
When she was just four, she started to follow her mother when she showed groups of tourists around the camp, and after a while started to point and tell them where things were.
“I didn’t know what it all meant at that age. My mum was speaking in French, which I didn’t understand at the time. When she pointed at something, I would point as well,” she said.
Anna grew up playing in and around the camp with the children of other former prisoners who had come back to work at the museum.
“We were the kids from the former SS block and this is where I spent my most joyful, carefree years. The camp became my second home. The former prisoners, with whom mum was friends, became my aunties, and the garden behind the crematorium became a playground,” she said.
Her best childhood friend was Ania, who lived in the neighbouring villa of former commandant Rudolph Hoess. Ania’s family had owned the villa before the war and had regained it after.
“We used to play in their garden, the same garden where the children of the camp commandant used to play,” she said.
She first became aware that her home was different to that of other children when she went to primary school in Oświęcim.
“I didn’t go to kindergarten. My mum looked after me at home so I only knew the people I was living among at that time. When I went to school I was invited to other children’s homes, so obviously I invited them to my home.
“But the children didn’t always want to come. They were scared. They had heard it was a bad place, there might be ghosts,” she said.
When she asked her parents about it, they revealed the truth about their lives and the place where they were living, dosing the information slowly over time and framing it in a way that was appropriate for her age.
Anna’s parents met in 1945, but before the war broke out, they lived in completely different worlds. Mireille, late known as Mira, grew up in a family of Polish immigrants in France. Her dream was to visit Warsaw and meet her extended family.
This came true in August 1939, just days before war broke out. She couldn’t return to France and had to adapt quickly to the German occupation. She became involved in the underground, which ended in 1941, when she was arrested and imprisoned for 18 months in the Gestapo prison Pawiak.
There, she was beaten, tortured and interrogated. Her uncle tried to buy her out, but due to constant visits to the Gestapo he was arrested himself and died later in Mauthausen.
After enduring Majdanek, Ravensbrück and Buchenwald, Mira and her friend Oleńka managed to escape from the SS during a death march near the end of the war.
The young woman found shelter with a German family, who hid them for a month. After that, they went to Upper Silesia, where Oleńka came from.
One of her neighbours was Józef, who had also just returned home after his ordeal in Auschwitz.
Typical for Upper Silesia, he came from a mixed family made up of a Polish mother and a German father. When the war broke out, he was 16 years old, so he lied about his age to join the Polish army. His two brothers joined the Wehrmacht. His father never forgave him for choosing to fight for Poland.
He was first taken prisoner by the Soviets, and later the Germans, who after torture and interrogation in Mysłowice sent him to Auschwitz.
Józef worked in various commandos, disinfecting camp striped uniforms and property left behind by those who had been sent to the gas chambers on arrival. He was constantly interrogated and often beaten.
He was eventually sent to the camp in Ebensee, where he was liberated six months later by the Allies.
Mira and Józef soon became a couple. However, finding a job and a place to live was a big problem immediately after the war.
“One day, my father met a friend from Auschwitz. He told him that volunteers were needed to protect the site of the camp. In exchange for the work, you could get a flat," Anna said.
Józef went first by himself and Mira joined him soon after. Their first accommodation was two rooms in the former guardhouse in Birkenau known as the Gate of Death. Their oldest daughter, Krystyna, was born there in 1946.
A few months later, the young family was given a larger apartment on the site of the main camp, Auschwitz I.
The couple began a new life in the camp administration building, first in the attic, then in larger quarters. In time, their family grew to include two more girls, Ilona and Anna.
They found themselves in a small group of former prisoners who decided to save the site from oblivion. They were the first to gather and protect what was left of Auschwitz I and Birkenau from being stolen or lost, including documents, piles of hair, shoes, glasses, other personal items of victims, the crematoria, barracks, and other buildings.
“It was these people, and with them my parents, who initiated the creation of the museum and memorial, Anna said.
Anna still lives in the same building, but in a smaller apartment. If she leaves to go into the town, she has to go through a security checkpoint and show her museum pass to get back in.
At one time, many former prisoners and their families lived there, but as they have moved on or passed away, the rooms have gradually been taken over to be used as museum offices.
Anna says that her own ‘job’ at the museum started when she was still a child. Because of a health problem, Anna didn’t go to kindergarten, so she would sit in her mother’s office.
“I had my chair, a set of crayons, books and colouring books and I sat politely in a corner, absorbing everything that was going on around me,” she said.
After high school in 1975, she wanted to go to law school, but she did not pass the entrance exams. While waiting for the resits, the first director of the museum, Kazimierz Smoleń, suggested that she work there.
She started in the archive, then in the secretariat, and finally in the collections department, where she has worked ever since.
When the Auschwitz Museum receives new objects related to the camp, such as striped garments, letters, drawings, before they find their way into the display cases, they are checked and catalogued by Anna.
She sees her work as a mission to safeguard the memory of those who were killed at Auschwitz and other German concentration and extermination camps and to make the stories of their lives available to future generations.
Anna reached retirement age recently and although her contract has been extended until the end of the year, she worries about retirement.
“Personally, I cannot imagine living, functioning somewhere else. I worry that I will miss my work very much. It has become the meaning of my life. Here is my home. I feel best here. I will never move away.”
Nina Majewska-Brown’s book ‘The Last Prisoner of Auschwitz’ (Ostatnia Więźniarka Auschwitz) is published today.