(ran SS edition of TAMPA & STATE)
Rene Hammond tries to recount her story of unfathomable loss, torture and daring escape.
Tears flow now and again, but she must continue. She must speak of those who suffered and died. It is her responsibility as a witness of the Holocaust.
Hers, like others who survived, is a bittersweet life. Her heart aches when she thinks of the parents she lost so long ago. While telling the story of her loss, she pauses to accept a kiss from a grandson leaving for work.
This is her life today. She and her husband, Ralph, have five children, 10 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. They live in an immaculate home on Coquina Key, where the classical music she enjoys is lovingly tolerated by a husband with different tastes.
Yet, it is difficult to forget the changes that came to her Hungarian town of Uzhorod in 1944. The Nazis had taken control and begun their reign of terror among Jewish residents
First, they demanded money and other valuables from the town's Jewish organization.
"Then the law came that we had to wear the yellow stars and then the curfew came in that we could not leave our houses," Hammond said.
They were informed that they would be sent to labor camps.
"They made it sound as though we would be staying in Hungary and work in labor camps, like farms," she added. "That is how we understood it."
Before that they were moved to a holding camp in an old lumberyard, where they were forced to live in tents.
There, the persecution began with full force.
"My mother was taken out of the camp and was tortured to reveal what we did with the jewelry and gold that we had," she recalled. "They didn't think that they got enough."
At the same time, some kindness was offered through the barbed wire fence that enclosed them.
"One girl I remember brought us some food. She was a real good friend of mine. She was not Jewish," said Hammond, who was 18 at the time. "She was a real nice and good person."
The family was not kept in the holding camp for long. Her voice cracking, Hammond spoke of the journey in the cramped boxcar that followed.
"There was hardly any room. They could not have put in another person," she recalled. "They just jammed as many people in as they could. The journey was three days and three nights of hell. They didn't let us out, even to use a bathroom."
Through tiny slats in the dark, unventilated wooden cars, the prisoners surmised that they were being taken to Poland.
"Sure enough, after three days and three nights we arrived in Auschwitz," Hammond said, weeping at the memory of her family's arrival at the largest Nazi death camp.
Once the doors of the boxcars were opened, the Nazis ordered men to stand on one side and women on another. The able-bodied were separated from the frail.
"My mother, who was only 46 years old, they put on the other side. They told us, "We are separating you so that we can take your parents who can't walk that far to the shower and you younger people can walk over there,' " Hammond said. "Well, this made sense, you know. It sounded like they were very kind."
After a long pause, she continued: "My sister tried to go on my mother's side, and the man in the German uniform pushed her back to where she was. We never saw our mother again. Or my father."
Hammond and her sister, Agnes, 16, were marched with others to a large building, where they were told to undress for a shower. On their way, they saw elderly people lying in ditches, some dead and others close to death.
"It was a nightmare," Hammond said.
And it continued.
"First they shaved our heads. After we were shaved, they let us take a shower and they gave us these gray, sack-looking dresses and wooden shoes and wouldn't let us take anything we had," she said.
"Before we left home, my father gave us money and we wore these shoes, like hiking boots that had a lining in it. He said, "When you are in the camp, money may help to make life easier.' "
In addition, said Hammond, her father gave them documents for his Swiss bank accounts.
"Of course, when we got undressed, that was the last time we saw our shoes and everything," she said.
For six weeks the sisters lived in the cramped barracks. They were forced to rise before dawn each morning and stand in the cold to be counted with their fellow deportees. Their only food was a dark liquid and a piece of bread.
"When we first got it," said Hammond of the bread, "'we couldn't figure out what it was. It was like a piece of brick. After being there for a while, we appreciated that very much because that is all we would get."
It also was not long before the girls were told that their parents were dead.
And so, believed another deportee, was her daughter.
"We saw these big flames," Hammond said of the fires that came from the crematoria used to burn the bodies of those who had been killed.
"I remember one woman, she started crying when an ash fell on her. She says, "That must be my little girl's ash.' "
Meanwhile, the Nazis continued their selection, killing the sickly and moving those they thought were stronger to labor camps. Hammond and her sister were among those chosen to work in a weapons factory in Essen, Germany. It was here that the sisters and their friends were given a chance to survive.
"There was one man that helped us," said Hammond. "He had a garden and he would bring carrots and give it to the girls. He would bring what little food that he could afford to give because food was not that plentiful in Germany, and if he would have been caught he would have been punished badly. He was really a nice man, which shows you that not all Germans were bad."
He promised that if they managed to escape, he would try to help. The girls devised a plan. They knew their guards retreated to shelters during bombing raids.
"So we figured that the best time to escape was during the bombing," Hammond said.
This is exactly what they did.
"We just walked out," she said. "We had an idea of where to go. There was a bombed-out Jewish cemetery."
Two of the six girls went to find their benefactor, hoping he would fulfill his promise to assist. He did.
Each night he took six boiled potatoes and water to the cemetery for the girls' only meal. This lasted for about two to three weeks until a German guard found them. In answer to his questions, they pretended to be Germans fleeing the advancing Russians.
Unsure whether the guard had believed them, their German friend found them a new hiding place. They stayed in a small home outside the city before moving again into the homes of a couple of his friends.
The war ended soon after. Hammond and her sister were reunited with their brother, Adolf Koenigsberg, who now lives in Dunedin. Her sister, Agnes Grant, testified at the Nuremberg war crimes trials.
Hammond is grateful that her siblings survived, but the pain of her parents' death remains.
"You never get over it," she said.
SCHEDULE OF EVENTS
+ 6 p.m., Ecumenical Prayer Service.
+ 7:30 p.m. to 8 a.m., overnight vigil for peace and tolerance.
+ 9 to 10 a.m., procession of boxcar, Holocaust survivors and dignitaries, followed by candelight program with John Wilson, WTVT-Ch. 13, as master of ceremonies. Congressman C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Rocks Beach, St. Petersburg Mayor David Fischer and Dr. Peter Armacost, president of Eckerd College, are scheduled to be keynote speakers.