Into the heart of darkness

  • Memory: At Auschwitz, the line to the left meant death

Not long ago, Frank Rothman, a retired salesman who lives in Citrus Heights, got a letter from the German government.

Rothman, 76, who made it out of four concentration camps by “luck, luck, and more luck,” lost 37 family members, including his grandmother, his parents, and two sisters, to the Nazis. Suddenly, after nearly 50 years, he was elegible for reparations.

“They offered me a small pension, something like $280 a month,” said Rothman, whom the Third Reich reduced to “A-2543,” the tattoo they burned into his left arm when he was 19.

“I told them it was blood money,” Rothman said, “and that no amount of gold can repay us for the tragic things that happened to us Jews.”

Helen Navi, who, like Rothman, spent time in the Nazis’ Auschwitz death camp, can barely bring herself to talk about the $300 she was sent a few years ago: a dollar for every day she spent as a slave laborer working for German munitions manufacturers.


Rothman and Navi plan to meet for the first time Tuesday at a commemoration at Beth Shalom Temple for Yom Ha-Shoah — Holocaust Remembrance Day.

They will be reflecting on the unspeakable horrors that have lived inside their hearts and minds since the Nazis set out to erase European Jews from the face of the Earth.

”This is cruelty a sane person cannot grasp,” Rothman said.


[…] Jews were forced from their homes and ordered to report to a large, fenced-in plot of land. They wore the yellow Star of David on their clothing and slept on the ground.


The town’s Jews were jammed into cattle cars where they spent three terrifying days and nights on their journey to the death camp. They had barely a sip of water, a crust of bread; 80 people in a rail car shared a bucket to relieve themselves.

When they were finally let out, they encountered Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor who gained infamy for performing tortuous medical experiments on Jews and other prisoners. He decided which Jew should line up to the left, which meant an immediate trip to the gas chamber, and which should go right, which meant slave labor for the Nazi war effort.

Mengele actually saved her life, Navi said, when she tried to sneak behind him to follow her mother, Esther, in the line to the gas chambers. […]


”People were taken away and told they were getting showers,” Navi said. ”There were hundreds of people marching into a big building and no one ever came out the other side. Day after day, week after week, month after month. You saw the smoke from the chimneys, but you didn’t want to believe it could be happening. How could you believe they were gassing and burning thousands of people every day?”

Eventually she was sent to a German factory where she stood on her feet for 12 hours a day for about a year splicing tiny wires together for bombs.

I did quite a bit of sabotage, I can tell you. When I knew the head of the Gestapo wasn’t there, I managed to slip quite a few parts in the wastebasket. I was terrified, but I felt worse helping to make weapons for the murderers.”


To this day, Rothman wishes his father, a modest shoemaker, could have had it in him to lie.

The night he and his family got off the train at Auschwitz, Mengele looked Bernhart Rothman up and down and asked his age. Sixty-one, he answered truthfully. Too old for work, Mengele decided. Off to the left.

Rothman’s mother, two sisters, his 90-year-old grandmother and some 30 other family members followed. In a matter of hours, smoke from their cremated corpses was flowing out of the camp’s giant chimney.

Eighteen months ago, Rothman went back to his home town and took the same train route to Auschwitz, where he had spent a year. […]


[…] ”There are still ashes on the ground there because tens of thousands of people were burned. The gas chambers could accommodate only 7,000 corpses a day, so they had pits in the fields with fires and they threw the bodies in them to burn. Babies and children were thrown in alive.”

”You cannot exaggerate what the Nazis invented.”

Rothman said he is blessed — or cursed — with a powerful memory. He has nightmares about some of the worst of what he endured. Nothing matched the terror of the Nazis’ “Selektion,” the weeding out of those too weak to work.

”Every month, every fourth Sunday, a Nazi officer came to our camp. We had to line up completely naked. He looked at us and if we looked too skinned or weak, he would make a mark on the body.”

”The first time, I stood there and saw him mark someone to the left of me and then mark someone to the right of me. They were taken out and put on a truck to go to the gas chambers. I wanted to live, so I was relieved I had made it. Then four weeks later, the same thing. This happened seven times to me.” […]


Source: Gary Delsohn, The Sacramento Bee, pg. A-1, A-19