Holocaust survivor shares mother’s story of resilience, survival in WWII concentration camps

  • Published
  • By Karen Abeyasekere
  • 100th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

Editor’s note: Eva Clarke was born at the end of the Holocaust to Jewish parents who were kept as prisoners-of-war in Terezin (called 'Theresienstadt' by the Germans), in former Czechoslovakia. During her third visit to RAF Mildenhall, she spoke to Airmen at a Holocaust Remembrance Week event and shared her mother's experiences throughout that time.

Born in Mauthausen concentration camp, Upper Austria, April 29, 1945, Eva Clarke – weighing just 3 pounds – made her way into the world on the back of a coal truck three days before the U.S. Army liberated the camp. 

Less than three weeks previously, her heavily-pregnant mother, along with other concentration camp prisoners, had been put on the coal truck (one of many carriages on a train) by German soldiers. They were being transferred from a slave labor camp in Frieberg, near Dresden, to Mauthausen, and during their nightmare trip were given no food and little water. 

Not all survived the journey; those who didn't had their bodies thrown off the coal truck along the way. 

Taken prisoner 

Eva, daughter of a Czech mother and German father, both of whom were Jewish, spoke at the Holocaust Remembrance event, hosted by the Holocaust Remembrance Committee, on Royal Air Force Mildenhall, April 25, 2022. She shared her parents' experiences of being kept prisoner for three years in the German concentration camps, adding her parents weren't the only family members who suffered at the hands of the Nazi soldiers. 

"During World War I, my (paternal) grandfather was in the German Army, and received the Iron Cross 1st Class (the Iron Cross was awarded for bravery in battle). In World War II, however, because he was Jewish, he was put into a concentration camp at Terezin," she said. 

"My parents spent three years at Terezin, until the end of September 1944, when my father was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The next day, my mother volunteered to go to be with him, but she never saw him again. She later found out that he'd been shot dead Jan. 18, 1945 - just one week before the Russian army liberated the concentration camp there." 

How it all began 

Eva's parents married in 1940. Her father, Bernd Nathan, was an architect and interior designer, and had a small workshop in Prague before the beginning of the war. Her mother, Anka, was a law student at university, but when all the Czech universities were forced to close, she became an apprentice to a milliner, making hats. When they were sent to their first concentration camp at the end of 1941, Eva's mother was 24; her father was 34. 

A short time before her parents became prisoners of war, the Germans made it illegal for Jews to do many things, one of which was as minor as going to the cinema.

"When someone forbids you to do something, it makes you more determined to do it anyway, and that's what my mother did - she went to watch a film," Eva said. "But it so happened that was the day the Gestapo came into the cinema, and immediately stopped it."

Eva explained that the German soldiers started going through every row of seats, inspecting everyone's papers.

"My mother was terrified what they would do to her if they saw her papers, which were marked with a big 'J' for 'Jew,'" she said. But miraculously, for some reason they stopped right at the row in front of where her mother was seated, and left the cinema without ever looking at her papers.

"To this day, I keep asking her, 'What was the name of the film you went to see that day?" Eva said, to a ripple of laughter from the crowd of people who had come to hear her speak at RAF Mildenhall. "But she still doesn't remember - the experience terrified her so much, she blocked it out of her mind."

"When we first came to live here when I was very young, for a long while my mother went to the cinema every day - just because she could."

The road to hell

As she grew up, Eva learned more of her mother's incredible story of what she'd endured just because she was Jewish.

"I asked my mother how she was taken prisoner, because I imagined that in the middle of the night, German soldiers with guns came banging on the door, dragging people from their beds. But she said it was nothing like that. She told me they had received a card in the post saying that on a certain day, at a certain time, they had to report to a warehouse in Prague, near one of the mainline railway stations. 

"When the Jews were sent to Terezin, they were also told to take a small suitcase, and advised to take warm clothing, and pots and pans. When my mother went to report to the Germans, not only was she carrying her handbag and a suitcase, she was also carrying a large cardboard box, held together by a piece of string," Eva recounted. "When I asked her what on earth she had in the box, she said she was carrying two to three dozen doughnuts, 'Because your father liked doughnuts.' For her, it was a very natural thing to do, as none of them had any idea where their next meal was coming from." 

Eva said her mother spent three days and three nights in the warehouse; she and the others had to sleep on the floor, weren't given much food or water, and at the end of the three days they were marched to the railway station by the German soldiers. 

"There was one young German soldier who knew he had a bit of power, and he wielded it. He didn't harm them physically; he was just a bit sarcastic. My mother was having great difficulty carrying her luggage and the box of doughnuts - the moisture from the doughnuts was making the cardboard soft, and the whole box was coming adrift. 

"The soldier said (in German), 'I couldn't give a (expletive deleted) if that box goes with you - or not ...' He implied that it wasn't going to do much good where she was going. He wouldn't have had any idea whatsoever what was going to happen to her, but it wasn't going to be good. He was just twisting the knife, metaphorically," Eva said. 

Life in a concentration camp

When the families arrived in Terezin, they were immediately split up. Men went to one part, women to another, and children to another. They were able to meet up sometimes during the day, but largely they led separate lives. 

"My mother was fortunate enough to be given a job. It didn't pay, but it did make her life a bit easier. Her job was working with the man who had the responsibility of (distributing) the food," she said. 

That meant her mother had access to food. 

"When I say 'access' to food, she would actually steal it - a potato, a carrot; anything to make a more substantial soup to feed the 15 members of her closest family. That was her main worry - how on earth was she going to find food for all those people, amongst whom were her parents." 

A dangerous secret 

Eva said it was during 1943 that her mother discovered she was pregnant with Eva’s older brother. 

"When the Germans discovered my mother was pregnant, they made my parents sign a document agreeing that when the baby was born, he or she would have to be handed over to be euthanized - but what they really meant, was murdered," she said. 

Eva's brother, George (his name in English), was born in February 1944. He wasn't taken away from her parents, but died of pneumonia just two months later. 

"When I was about 10 or 12, I asked her how come she'd got pregnant in the concentration camp, and she replied in a very clever way. She said, 'In the circumstances, your father and I found comfort where we could, and to hell with the consequences.'" 

But because the Germans were trying to annihilate every single member of the Jewish race, to become pregnant in a concentration camp was considered a crime punishable by death.

"But his death meant my life," said Eva. "Had my mother arrived at Auschwitz holding my brother in her arms, she would have been sent straight to the gas chamber. Because she'd arrived and wasn't holding a baby (although she was pregnant again with me, but hadn't told anybody else), she lived to see another day." 

Getting the message out

The rest of Eva's family, apart from her parents and grandfather, were all sent to Auschwitz long before her parents. When they got there, they were able to keep their clothes and luggage, they weren't shaven or tattooed, and they were sent to what was called a 'family camp,' which were one or two huts where families could be together, so they could be forced to write postcards home. 

"My aunt wrote a postcard to her cousin, who still lived in Prague at the time. It translated as follows: 

'My dear ones, I am here with my husband, my sister and my nephew. All are well and in good health. My husband received a parcel yesterday from our housekeeper, and I would ask you to confirm this to her. I hope you are well and happy. Your parents were very well at the time of our departure. Write soon. Peter (Eva's cousin, who was 8 at the time) looks well and looks forward to receiving news from you. Greetings and kisses, yours ...' 

"At first glance, this looks like it says, 'All is well, having a wonderful time, wish you were here.' But my aunt was desperate to get a message out in code. She got the message out, it was understood, and it was acted upon. 

"On the top left of the postcard was her full name. Underneath that was her birthday, March 21, 1904 - but in the first line of the address was the Hebrew word for 'bread.'" 

Eva's aunt was sending the message that they were starving. Her cousin understood and sent a parcel. 

But even before the postcard was sent from Auschwitz to Prague, they were all dead. 

The Allies are coming!

Her mother was sent out of Auschwitz to a slave labor camp near Dresden, Germany. She was put to work on the VI unmanned flying bomb (also known as the Doodlebug), riveting on the tail fin. 

"My mother spent the next six months there, becoming more obviously pregnant, which became very dangerous for her," said Eva. "My (future) father-in-law was from South Wales, and was a navigator in the British Royal Air Force at the time, on bomber command taking part in the raids." 

The raids started when her mother was in the slave labor camp. She said the Germans locked all the prisoners away during the raids, but the prisoners were pleased because they knew it was the Allies coming for them - even though they knew the next bomb could fall on them. 

"When my father-in-law first met my mother after the war, when my husband and I first became engaged, he was absolutely devastated that he could have killed my mother," Eva said. 

At the end of March and the beginning of April 1945, the Germans started evacuating the camps. According to Eva, they wanted to leave as few living witnesses as possible as to what actually happened inside those camps. That's when the notorious death marches took place. 

"My mother was on a coal truck for three solid weeks. It only stopped to throw off the dead bodies. One time when it stopped, my mother happened to be standing by the door, when a farmer walked up to the truck," she said. "My mother was a scarcely-living, pregnant skeleton – she weighed about five stone (70 pounds). 

"The farmer brought her a glass of milk, but a Nazi officer standing next to her raised his whip, ready to beat her if she accepted it. But for some reason, he changed his mind, lowered his whip and let her drink the milk. To this day, she maintains that's what saved her life." 

As the coal truck arrived in Mauthausen, Eva's mother saw the town's sign and became very frightened, because this time she realized what was going to happen to her there. It was at that moment when she started giving birth to Eva. 

Somehow, they both survived the experience, and lived to tell the tale. 

Unimaginable horrors end in freedom

Eva explained there were three reasons for that. Firstly, they ran out of gas, then April 28, 1945, the Germans blew up the gas chamber at Mauthausen - the day before she was born. The third reason was that three days after her birth, the U.S. Army liberated the camp. 

Later, newborn baby Eva went with her mother back to Prague, to live at her aunt's house. 

"My mother asked if we could stay for three weeks; we stayed for three years," Eva said.

In 1948, Eva's mother was ready to consider marriage once more, as she knew for a fact that her husband had been shot dead in Auschwitz. Her stepfather, who was also Czech and Jewish, had previously escaped from his home country to England, joined the RAF and later met her mother. The family then moved to South Wales, where they settled, and Eva later met her husband. 

Eva's perspective of her mother's life during the war tells of the strength and courage Anka possessed, which helped get her through those terrible atrocities.

And babies make three

Many years later, Eva was to make a discovery which was to change her life yet again.

"We always thought that I was the only baby born on that truck (on the train). But just over 12 years ago, I found out that four other women had also been pregnant at the same time as my mother.

"They all had to sign the papers to say their babies would be taken from them as soon as they were born, to be euthanized. But two of those other babies escaped that horror and survived -- they were also born on the same train I was, just a few days earlier ... "

Those babies were Hannah Berger-Moran, born April 12, 1945, and Mark Olsky, born April 20, 1945.

Against all the odds, Eva managed to track them down, and the three "babies of the Holocaust" met in Mauthausen in May 2010, at a Holocaust remembrance event. Together, they also met the surviving members of the 11th Armored Division - the U.S. Army unit which had liberated the concentration camp in 1945, saving the lives of Eva, Anka, Hannah, Mark, and countless others.

A happy ending

As she spoke of the liberation by the Americans, and of meeting the other two Holocaust babies years later, Eva became very emotional. She said she felt a special bond with the U.S. forces, because if it were not for them, she and her mother wouldn't have lived to be 96.

"The 11th Armored Division veterans were there to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the end of the war. The three of us were getting ready to celebrate our 65th birthdays - we spent almost the whole weekend in tears," she said, her obvious emotion filling the room, and bringing many a tearful eye to the audience.
Eva and her husband now live in Cambridge. Her mother lived with them until she passed away in July 2013. Hannah and Mark both live in the United States, but the three still meet when they can.

Many people at the event felt strong emotion from hearing Eva's story, one of whom was Chaplain (Maj.) Graham Baily, 100th Air Refueling Wing deputy wing chaplain.

“Eva shared her miracle story, which is a testament to human resilience, and God and his ability to preserve something beautiful in the midst of something utterly dark and awful,” he said. “It penetrates the core of every human story because we’re faced with not only the realities of human evil, but also the triumph of human beauty. It leaves anyone in awe of the mystery of life and the miracle of overcoming.”

The chaplain remarked that it’s important for everyone to hear stories like this.

“It puts a face to the evils of prejudice, discrimination and pre-judgement, as well as putting a face to the real power of thriving and flourishing – and what that really looks like,” explained Baily. “Hearing these stories gives them a very real and gritty kind of perspective that I think I can oftentimes counterbalance some of the despair that people feel in their own life story. Here we have a picture of triumphing and flourishing through despair, not by ignoring it, but by actually getting to life through despair, through difficulty and hardship. It didn’t disappear or end the possibility of thriving or flourishing for Eva. Her mother could have given up any number of times, but she didn’t.”

Baily added that when talking with people going through hard times, he often tells them, ‘the only way to it is through it’.

“The only way to the other side is through difficulty. There’s a necessary reminder that whatever we’re going through, however bad it is, it’s never the end of story – there’s always another act to the narrative of life. The final act of Eva’s mother’s story is Eva, and that is a triumph, and it’s flourishing,” the chaplain said.”