A documentary titled Prisoner Number A26188 – Henia Bryer was shown on BBC1 on Sunday 27 January 2012. It told the story of Henia Bryer, a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust and now lives in Cape Town, South Africa. It was made by her niece Lisa Bryer, who was one of the producers of The Last King of Scotland. A26188 was the number tattooed on Henia’s arm in Auschwitz; she refused to have it removed after the war.
Most of the 45 minutes programme consisted of Henia speaking to camera, interspersed with still photographs of the Holocaust. The only archive film was the British one about the liberation of Belsen, which was narrated by Richard Dimbleby. Henia’s husband, two sons and grandson also spoke.
In 1939 Henia lived in Radom in Poland with her parents, an older brother, a younger brother and a sister who was the youngest of the four children. The older brother was physically, but not mentally, disabled as a result of problems with his birth. Henia’s father owned a shoe factory, so the family had a comfortable life before the war.
The Germans entered Radom on 9 September 1939, eight days after they invaded Poland. They immediately installed loudspeakers, which spewed out hate propaganda, leaving nobody with any doubts about their attitude towards the Jews.
The Jews had to wear white armbands with a blue Star of David on them. Some people were puzzled to see Henia wearing one, as she was fair haired and did not conform to the Nazi stereotype of the Jew.
Henia’s family were initially able to survive because her father had a store of gold coins. He was forced to continue working, but was no longer paid.
In 1941 the Radom Ghetto was established, with about 30,000 inhabitants. There were actually two ghettos; Henia and her family lived in the larger of the two, where there were 10 people to a room. Her younger brother was taken away to work in an armament factory. He survived, but never told her about his experiences.
In 1942 20,000 of the people in the Ghetto were shot or sent to death camps.
Henia had a lucky escape when she was suffering from an abscess. There were no dentists, so she was to go to the hospital to have it lanced. It burst on the day that she was due to go, so she stayed at home. Everybody at the hospital was killed that day.
Her older brother was not so lucky. Because of his disability he had to go to the hospital, which he knew meant his death. Henias said that:
He knew exactly what was happening… he took off his winter coat and he gave it to my mother and he said: ‘Give it to someone who will need it. I won’t need it any more’. And she came home with a coat.
In March 1944 the ghetto was closed and the last 300 Jews were loaded onto cattle trucks, with no ventilation, toilets, water or light, and taken to the Majdanek concentration camp. There, they were stripped and given thin, striped uniforms. The women were separated from the men. This was Henia’s first encounter with female SS guards; she commented that they were even crueller than the SS men.
After 6 weeks she was sent to Plaszow, which she said was well portrayed in the film Schindler’s List. Most of its inmates came from Krakow. She was employed as one of a team of 10 women who had to push wagons loaded with stones along rails from a quarry. The camp did not have a crematorium, so the bodies of the victims of hangings, shootings and disease were burnt on a nearby hill, with the ashes flying over the camp.
Henia’s younger sister was taken away with many other children. Loud music was played in the camp as the children were sent to their deaths.
The Jews were allowed to rest on Sundays. The Germans would surround a barrack, and take its inmates away to donate blood to be given to wounded German soldiers. The amount of blood that was taken and the poor diet meant that those forced to donate would not survive long. When Henia’s barracks was chosen there appeared to be no escape. She stayed in her bunk and managed to convince an SS man that she had typhus, so was not taken away.
Her father was beaten to death by a Kapo, one of the prisoners who oversaw other inmates in return for better conditions.
In October 1944 Henia was sent to Auschwitz, where she encountered her mother and her best friend. Like all Jews arriving at Auschwitz, she had to undergo a selection for slave labour of death. It was conducted by Josef Mengele, who sent her for slave labour.
As at Majdanek, she was stripped and then issued with clothes. In this case, they were civilian ones, but they were too smal for her. Expecting to die because of the intense cold, she started crying. She heard somebody calling her name, but could not see him through her tears. The voice told her to approach a nearby fence. On the other side was one of her father’s former employees. He worked in the part of the camp that sorted out the possessions of the dead, and he provided her with warm clothes that fitted.
Henia met two identical twins from Radom, who were being used for Mengele’s human experiments. she said that they were lucky to be warm in the experimental block, whilst she was cold, hungry and carrying out hard labour. They told her not to envy them.
She was evacuated from Auschwitz just before the Red Army arrived, and took part in a death march. Many prisoners were shot because they could not keep up; their corpses were all along both sides of the road. She ended up at Bergen-Belsen.
Henia had seen people dying and being shot, hanged, punished and tortured, but Belsen was the biggest shock. She had never seen anything like the huge mountain of corpses, which were partly decomposing. She said that ‘even by the standards of Auschwitz, this was the pits.’
She caught typhus at Belsen, where people just sat around waiting to die. 13,000 prisoners, including the only friend that she had in the camp, died even after if was liberated by the British. There were not enough doctors, and many inmates could not cope with the better food that they were now given.
Some survivors from Radom were in Stuttgart, so Henia went there and met her mother. It was difficult to re-build their lives, and they had not psychiatric help. They stayed with an uncle in Paris for two years, before using false passports to go to Palestine in 1947 on a Greek ship.
They found Henia’s brother in Israel. He and she both served in the army. They underwent a healing process in Israel, but had a rule that they did not talk about the camps at home, so Henia does not know how her brother and mother survived. She met Maurice, her South African husband in 1952, and moved first to Bloemfontein and later to Cape Town.
For UK viewers, the programme is available on the I-Player until Saturday 2 February. It was made by an independent production company, which will no doubt have sold it to other countries.