Lotte Weiss: a remarkable woman who survived the Holocaust
Lotte Weiss: a remarkable woman who survived the Holocaust
Lotte Weiss was one of the few people who miraculously survived the World War II concentration camps, including Auschwitz. She experienced almost unimaginable horror and suffering, and the seven other members of her family all perished. Lotte died in 2021, aged 97 and her beloved sons John and Gary, both alumni of Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington, have created the Lotte Weiss Award in Holocaust and Genocide Studies in her honour.
Lotte Frankl was born in November 1923 into a loving Jewish family in Bratislava, the third largest city in what was then Czechoslovakia. She enjoyed a warm and affectionate family life with parents Ignatz and Bertha, her sisters Lilly, Erika and Renee, and brothers Karl Bernhard and Morris.
However, storm clouds were gathering. By 1933 they heard frightening reports about the ill treatment of Jews in Germany and Jewish refugees began arriving in Czechoslovakia. In 1939, Slovakia became an ‘independent state’ and they began to experience intimidation and the erosion of their freedoms. Anti-Jewish laws took effect: valuables were seized; bank accounts frozen; Jewish businesses were appropriated; books burned, and Jewish people were ostracised, excluded from many professions and non-Jewish schools, and banned from cinemas or public parks.
By September 1941, all Jews had to wear a yellow Star of David on their clothing and contact between Jews and non-Jews was strictly regulated. Lotte’s family had to move to a small one-bedroom flat in a Jewish area. By 1942, rumours were spreading about work camps for young Slovakian Jews. Lotte and her sisters considered escaping to Hungary, but the authorities threatened to take parents instead if their children couldn’t be found.
Entering into hell
Image: Entrance to Auschwitz camp.
On 22 March 1942, a knock on the door summoned 18-year-old Lotte and her two sisters to report to be deported. Around a thousand girls were marched to the railway station by guards with submachine guns and Alsatian dogs. They were put in cattle wagons—60 to a wagon. When they arrived at the gates of Auschwitz and saw the infamous sign ‘Arbeit macht frei’, Lotte suspected they had arrived in hell.
Their heads were shaved, all their possessions taken, and they were dressed in Russian uniforms. Lotte had the number 2065 tattooed on her left arm by a prisoner who was a former signwriter. The girls were housed in groups of 200 to a block. Lotte was next to the infamous Block 11, the ‘block of death’ where torture and executions took place, and she could smell burning flesh and see the black smoke.
The girls did 12-hour days of hard labour and had to endure twice-daily roll calls standing to attention for several hours. The sadistic guards set their dogs on girls for no reason and those who collapsed or otherwise drew their attention were often shot.
Daily rations were a watery ‘coffee’, turnip soup, and a piece of bread. Suffering from hunger, thirst, fatigue, and the freezing conditions, the girls became weak and ill. During the dreaded ‘Selections’, they had to stand naked in the street while SS officers decided who would live and die that day. Although their situation felt hopeless, at least Lotte and her sisters were still together.
She would later discover that her parents and younger siblings had arrived on another transport. Her mother and the two youngest children were sent immediately to the gas chambers. Her father and 16-year-old brother Karl Bernhard were sent to work, where within four days her father was beaten to death and her brother succumbed to typhus after six weeks.
Surviving thanks to miracles
On many occasions Lotte narrowly escaped death by turns of fate that she regarded as miracles. A guard singled her out when she helped her sisters with their digging, and she was told to report to the ‘punishment camp’, which they knew no-one ever returned from. Twenty girls were loaded into a black van but there was no room for Lotte as the twenty-first, so she was able to escape and return to her sisters.
In July 1942, Lotte collapsed with a severe headache and was admitted to the hospital. She was put on the truck to go to the gas chambers but a clerk she knew from Bratislava begged for her life saying she was a very hard worker. She was diagnosed with meningitis and made a very slow recovery without treatment, cared for by a Jewish nurse. When the SS guards visited and asked who could run, she told them she could although she was really too weak to walk. Only the girls who said this were transferred from Auschwitz to Birkenau, the others were sent for ‘sonderbehandlung’ or ‘special treatment’, which equated to the gas chambers.
Lotte was reunited with her sisters in her second escape from certain death. She also managed to avoid being sterilised by pleading for a toilet break and then hiding.
Image: Birkenau camp.
Thanks to the filthy conditions in Birkenau and lice infections, a typhus epidemic broke out. Those too sick to work were gassed. Of the thousand girls who had arrived with Lotte six months earlier, only around fifty remained. Both her sisters became ill with typhus and collapsed. They were taken from the hospital to the gas chamber, as Lotte realised when she saw their numbered uniforms being reissued.
Lotte’s father had once told her that a time might come when people would suffer so much they would envy those already dead—and she now found herself in this position. She was alone, hungry, ill, and wondered how she could continue.
An indoor job allowed Lotte to survive
The forewoman in charge of their block was Ulla, a German prisoner who was a former prostitute. Initially she was cruel to them, whipping Lotte for no reason just so the SS guards would see she was efficient. She claimed she had always been told that Jews weren’t really human, but revised her opinion when she saw that the girls looked and talked exactly like her and started treating them a little better. When Ulla was ill with typhus Lotte and her sisters waved to her in the hospital and she never forgot this.
Ulla was one of the people who made Lotte’s survival possible just when she felt like giving up. She assigned her to lighter duties and found her indoors jobs sorting clothes and then as a bookkeeper. As Lotte would have been unable to do this work without glasses, Ulla took her to select some from thousands of pairs stored in a large hall.
With five other girls, Lotte was then selected to work at the German Mineral and Stone Works, which meant the difference between life and death. She lived in the staff quarters and was able to have a daily shower. As the war progressed, air raids became more frequent and they were often moved between different camps.
When Auschwitz was evacuated, their civilian boss assumed responsibility for the girls, again assuring Lotte’s survival. The Germans did not have time to destroy all the records from Auschwitz as the Russians advanced, so years later Lotte was able to retrieve the photo of her taken on the way to the punishment camp—probably the only one claimed by a survivor.
Image: Lotte Weiss in 1942.
The girls were marched to Theresienstadt where they were finally liberated by the Russians in May 1945 ending 38 months of pain, misery, loss, and hopelessness.
Struggling to find her place
After liberation, Lotte returned to Bratislava to live with her uncle and aunt. At first, she was unable to eat more than a few spoonfuls as her stomach had shrunk so much. She was shocked to find that some people did not believe what she had experienced, and she even encountered anti-Semitism. It was hard for others to comprehend the full horror of the camps and she talked about it little apart from with other survivors.
Of the 80,000 Jews from Slovakia who were deported to camps in Poland only 236 had returned. Lotte had to deal with strong emotions at this time, which would now be considered post-traumatic stress disorder. She felt grief, depression, restlessness, and a crisis of faith. Having lost her whole family she felt she did not belong to anyone and that she was being punished for surviving.
She met her future husband Alfred (Ali) Weiss and his brother Leo when they came to stay with her relatives. They had worked in an airplane factory in Buchenwald. Leo was suffering from typhus and Ali was despondent as his wife had died of typhus just after the liberation of Bergen-Belsen. Eventually Lotte and Ali began going out and their mood lifted.
Lotte got a job in a law office and was able to witness the trial of Dr Anton Vasek, the ruthless director of the office for the Deportation of Jews, for his wartime crimes. As a survivor, Lotte was a valuable asset in documenting what had happened during the war. She began work in the Documentation Office investigating the deportations from Slovakia.
A second life with a loving family
Ali and Lotte were married in 1947—six other girls had used the same wedding dress. They were keen to make a new start overseas, as Leo and his wife Gerti had already emigrated to New Zealand. Getting the necessary documentation, however, proved extremely difficult. After the communists took over in 1948, they considered those wanting to leave as ‘enemies of the people’. Lotte and Ali had their passports stolen (or possibly sold) from a travel agency in Prague where they had been sent to obtain a visa. She had to use her contacts to appeal to the Minister of the Interior for new passports. They finally sailed from Genoa to Australia where they stayed with friends for six months before receiving entry permits for New Zealand.
When they arrived in Wellington, in 1949, they were reunited with family, learned English, and renovated a house on the Terrace. They were delighted when sons John and Gary were born. Lotte was proud and grateful to again be part of a big loving family, which she describes as “my life”, and which eventually grew to include six grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
Telling her story
Image: My Two Lives, Lotte Weiss’ autobiography.
In 2003 Lotte wrote her autobiography, My Two Lives, to mark the 61st anniversary of her arrival at Auschwitz. She had an incredible memory for details and related every shocking event in a matter-of-fact way.
Lotte was interviewed on the Spectrum programme on National Radio in preparation for the television series Holocaust in 1979. She found this harrowing as it was the first time she had told her full story. Her interview on the television show Credo on the 40th anniversary of the liberation of the camps was screened in the Michael Fowler Centre in front of 4,500 people.
After Ali’s death Lotte moved to Sydney where her sons and their families had settled.
At a gathering of survivors, she met some friends she had shared sleeping quarters with—they recognised each other by their tattooed numbers. She joined the Australian Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, which opened the Sydney Jewish Museum in 1992 through the financial support of survivor John Saunders. Lotte volunteered at the museum and found it helped to talk about her experiences.
In 2000 she finally returned to the house she grew up in in Bratislava and found it empty. She had felt unable to do so when she was there after the war. She also visited Theresienstadt and a grove for Ali and Leo at Bet Shemesh, in Israel.
Image: Lotte with her family singing her favourite song “You are my sunshine”.
Image: Lotte with late Wellington identity Kitty Hilton.
Supporting the continued relevance of Holocaust studies
Although Lotte barely survived physically and mentally, her story is ultimately one of optimism and hope, thanks to her incredible determination not to give up and her coming to the belief that most people are decent.
There are now whole generations who have had no personal experience of war or understanding of the magnitude of the Holocaust. Surveys among young people in the Western world have revealed alarming levels of ignorance about the Holocaust, with some believing it to be exaggerated or even a myth. Crimes against humanity perpetrated since the end of World War II tells us that we must never underestimate the risk of something similar happening again.
Lotte’s family have endowed the Lotte Weiss Award in Holocaust and Genocide Studies to recognise an excellent piece of work relating to the Holocaust, Jewish history, migration or refugee experiences, or Genocide Studies. The Raye Blumenthal Freedman Charitable Trust also funds scholarships for postgraduate students in any field relating to the Holocaust.
The 2022 recipient, Hannah Clark, is researching the children of Holocaust survivors in New Zealand for her PhD.
“It is an honour to play even a small part in keeping the memory of Lotte Weiss alive. These awards recognise the University’s leading role in developing Holocaust Studies curriculum in New Zealand and reinforce our collective commitment to combatting antisemitism, and the threat posed by the denial and falsification of history.”
Professor Giacomo Lichtner
Associate Professor of History and Film
School of History, Philosophy, Political Science, and International Relations.
Lotte’s sons John and Gary say:
“We are proud to support the University’s vital work in Holocaust and Genocide Studies. The magnitude of the tragic Jewish experience of the Holocaust is correctly described as a unique event in its scale and mobilisation of the political system to fulfil its evil vision. However, many minorities continue to face persecution and potential genocide and the dedication of the University and other educational institutes to identifying emerging dangers is vital work indeed.”
We are grateful to Lotte’s family for sharing their mother’s incredible story of survival and ensuring that through continued academic focus, these events are never forgotten.
Source: My Two Lives Lotte Weiss Sydney Jewish Museum 2003