Even in the Gas Chambers, Miracles Can Happen

A new documentary chronicles how a Holocaust survivor escaped the gas chambers, a lethal injection and a death camp, and lived to keep a promise to her father.

Olivier Fitoussi

Suzanna Braun (nee Weisz) was barely 16 when she walked into a gas chamber at Auschwitz, together with her mother and sister. A rare malfunction saved their lives.

“There were about 30 of us in there, and I remember thinking this was the end,” she recalls. “There was no water coming out of the shower, but there was a faint smell of gas. That was it though. Just a faint smell. And suddenly, after a few minutes, the doors were opened, and we were all herded out. We understood that something wasn’t working like it should be.”

That was in June 1944. About half a year later, in a different death camp, Braun stared down death again, surviving what should have been a lethal injection of strychnine. But this time it was her own ingenuity, not luck, that saved her. When her turn in line came, she rotated her wrist so that the needle only pricked her skin. “I watched as one inmate after another died instantly after getting the injection shot directly into a vein,” she recounts. “I had remembered learning at some point that when something gets injected directly into the vein it has a much more powerful effect, so instinctively I turned my arm around.”

After the injection, Braun lifted a bale of hay and used the baling wire to bore a hole completely through her forearm, in the hope of forcing out the poison. Somehow or other it worked, and using the same primitive technique she saved two other prisoners near her in the line and her beloved older sister, Agi. Braun shows a visitor the scar on her arm from her crude self-surgery of 70 years ago.

In July, Braun, who is now almost 87, retraced part of the horrific journey that began in April 1944 when the Nazis occupied their hometown of Kosice, the second largest city in Slovakia, and put an abrupt end to what had been a very privileged childhood. She insisted that her daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren accompany her.

This trip back in time is the subject of “A Story in Third Person,” a documentary set to have its premiere at Mishkenot Sha’ananim in Jerusalem on Holocaust Remembrance Day. The driving force behind the project is public relations professional Elisheva Braun-Lapidot, Braun’s only child.

“When my mother talks about what she went through, it’s so painful the only way she can do it is if she talks about it happening to someone else,” Braun-Lapidot says by way of explaining the title of the 75-minute documentary, which was directed and edited by Israeli filmmaker Yarden Karmin.

Suzanna and Agi grew up in a spacious home in Kosice, a Czechoslovakia town that had about 12,000 Jews before the war. The sisters were raised largely by au pairs. Their father was a jurist, their mother a scion of an aristocratic Hungarian Jewish family. In 1938 Kosice was ceded to Hungary. In April 1944, right after the Nazis occupied the city, the Jewish students were singled out, given their final report cards and told not to return to school. Two months later the family was transported to Auschwitz by cattle car.

“I remember getting off the train at Auschwitz, and the first thing I saw was the smoke coming of the chimneys and Dr. Mengele standing there wearing white gloves,” recalls Braun. “I also remember seeing three people who had been hanged. They were all hanging from their feet.”

The women and children were pushed into one line, the men into another. “That was the last time I saw my father,” says Braun. “I never got to say goodbye to him.”

She did, though, fulfill an important commitment she had made to him just before the family left Kosice. “My sister Agi, who was four years older than I, had been ill, and my father made me promise that I would look after her no matter what happened,” recounts Braun. “And I did.”

Auschwitz-Birkenau was the first of numerous stops for the two sisters before they eventually found their way back home in October 1945. But the trip Braun took with her family last summer ended at the infamous death camp.

“As strange as it sounds,” says Braun-Lapidot,” Auschwitz and Birkenau was kid’s stuff compared to the other things my mom went through, later on. She would not agree to go back to the other places.”

After surviving the gas chambers, Suzanna, Agi and their mother were tossed into a truck with several dozen other women and driven more than 1,000 kilometers, to Estonia, where they were ordered to begin marching south. On the road, their mother, Elizabeth (Elisheva’s namesake) was shot dead. Devastated by the loss, young Suzanna was unable to speak for a month.

Their next stops were a number of smaller, lesser-known concentration camps in Latvia and Poland, where Agi became progressively more ill. After they escaped from a camp near Danzig, Suzanna dragged her older sister around on a sled for days in the bitter cold, searching in vain for shelter. By the time Russian forces drove the Germans out of that part of Europe, Agi had developed gangrene in her legs. Suzanne got her to a hospital, where Agi’s feet were amputated in order to save her life.

“Through everything I went through until then, I never shed a tear,” recalls Braun. “The one and only time I broke down is when the orderly dropped Agi’s two feet into a tub and told me to take them down and discard them in a pile of limbs.” Concerned that Agi was not receiving proper medical care at the particular hospital, Braun removed her from the facility and the two sisters went by train to Russia. They stayed for eight months, until Agi was fully recuperated.

Suzanna and Agi eventually immigrated to Israel. They lived next door to each other for many years, until Agi’s death. Braun recently moved into a retirement home overlooking the hills of Jerusalem and her one regret, she says, is that her sister did not live to see how tastefully she decorated her apartment. “How I would have loved to show her around,” she says, sighing.

Because of the damage to her left arm from the strychnine injection, Braun was never able to resume piano playing, her great passion as a girl, but in recent years, after a long career teaching kindergarten, she has found a creative outlet in needlework and other crafts.

As she tells her story, Braun remains true to the title of the film, sharing the horrific details in a dry, matter-of-fact tone as if everything had happened to another person.

Until the very end. That is, until she gets to the part about the journey with her family last summer. “There I was walking again in Auschwitz-Birkenau, but this time with one grandchild on each side of me holding my hand,” she recounts.

And then Braun begins to cry.