Remembering Lotte Weiss, a Holocaust Survivor Who Lived Two Remarkable Lives

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Lotte Weiss
Lotte WeissCredit: Sydney Jewish Museum

Lotte Weiss was a truly extraordinary individual.

Lotte was one of the first Jewish prisoners of Auschwitz.

At the age of 18, she was forcibly transported by cattle car to Auschwitz in March 1942, along with her two older sisters.

Her number, 2065 – indelibly embedded on her left arm by the tattooist of Auschwitz, Lale Sokolov – bore a lasting testament to her early internment at the death camp.

Miraculously, through a mix of luck and her sheer determination to survive, Lotte emerged from Auschwitz to find herself all alone in the world, a previously close and happy family life destroyed, her hopes and dreams shattered.

It is truly an amazing feature of Lotte Weiss that she was able to discuss a subject as painful as the Holocaust and her personal family tragedy, and leave everyone coming away feeling full of hope, purpose and believing in the goodness of life and people.

This is the gift Lotte Weiss gave to everyone she met, the multitude of visitors she spoke to around the world, children, politicians, celebrities, business moguls. From actress Nicole Kidman to former New Zealand Prime Minister Sir John Key, literally thousands of persons – many of them schoolchildren – listened, learned from and were inspired by the words of Lotte.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin acknowledged Lotte’s passing by citing her “dedication to Holocaust remembrance and [her] educating young people [as] a shining example to us all.”

Lotte died peacefully, surrounded by her family on February 12, 2021, aged 97, in Sydney, Australia. She had lived two lives, documenting them both in her memoir “My Two Lives,” published in 2003.

An Auschwitz Memorial tweet remembering Lotte Weiss. Credit: Screenshot

Numerical gift

Lotte (Charlotte Frankl) was born in Bratislava (then part of Czechoslovakia) on November 28, 1923. She was the third daughter born to Bertha and Ignatz. Lilly and Erika were four and two years older. A further sister, Renee, and brothers Karl and Morris followed.

This loving family were the first of Lotte’s two lives. Her father was an accountant with a fantastic memory for figures and dates. This was a gift Lotte was also blessed with, which enabled her to recount her time during the Holocaust with great detail, in time and place, facts and figures.

From her mother she inherited her love for movies, often being taken with her older sisters to sit in the dark at the local theater and disappear into the lives of the stories playing out before them. Only films with a happy ending were watched, often musicals, and Lotte dreamed of the coming weekend, Sunday, and her chance to escape. When her favorite teen heartthrob was starring in a film rated for 16 plus, Lotte “borrowed” her mother’s navy hat with matching high heel shoes and was able to purchase a ticket. However, the usher recognized her, knew she still had two years to go before being of age and turned her away at the door.

At 11.30 P.M. on Sunday March 22, 1942, Lotte’s life changed forever.

Hlinka Guard officers – Slovakia’s state police, active collaborators with the Nazis – knocked on the door of the family apartment. They produced a summons for Lilly, Erika and Lotte to appear at 7 A.M. the next morning at an old magazine factory 6 kilometers (nearly 4 miles) from the city.

The last night in her family home was the worst night of her life. Her mother filled rucksacks with food and clothing for the three girls. They stayed up all night, too upset to sleep. They left home at 6 A.M., heartbroken, leaving their parents and younger siblings in tears. Ignatz blessed his daughters with tears in his eyes, telling them to always believe in God, and to remember to stay decent and good. Bertha was so upset she could not say a word. This heartbreaking scene remained in Lotte’s memory forever, the pain indescribable. Three sisters were deported and would never see their parents and younger siblings again.

On March 27, the sisters jumped from their train wagon, seeing for the first time the notorious words “ARBEIT MACHT FREI” emblazoned over the gates as they entered Auschwitz concentration camp. Stripped, shaven, dressed in filthy Russian uniforms, Lilly, Erika and Lotte became prisoners 2063, 2064 and 2065.

The main entrance gate to Auschwitz concentration camp. Credit: AFP

Transferred to Birkenau in August 1942, Lilly and Erika were both stricken with typhus the following month. Taken to Block 26 (the hospital block), Lotte followed. Peering through a broken window she saw her sisters lying motionless, together on a bunk. Two days later, she returned to the broken window to see the bunk occupied by strangers. She asked the block leader where her sisters were, only to be chased away and threatened with punishment.

Desolate, crying Lotte remained nearby the hospital block. A friend from Bratislava walked past with another girl pulling a stretcher piled with dirty uniforms. They were to be disinfected and reissued, her friend told her. They warned Lotte she could not stay where she was, she needed to go to her place of work. While standing talking to the girls, Lotte looked at the pile of clothes and saw the shirt with her sister Lilly’s number, 2063, on it.

Pulling the clothes from the stretcher Lotte searched frantically, hoping she would not find a shirt with Erika’s number. Toward the bottom of the pile Lotte picked up a shirt with the number 2064. Both her sisters were dead. From documents Lotte obtained after liberation, she learned Lilly had died on September 27 and Erika on September 29. Unbeknownst to Lotte, the remaining members of her family had been brought to Auschwitz in June 1942. Documents show Ignatz was murdered on June 24, Karl on August 16. No documents exist regarding her mother Bertha, sister Renee and brother Morris. It is believed they were murdered on arrival.

Lotte survived Auschwitz-Birkenau through what she described as a series of miracles and luck. She was evacuated on January 18, 1945, and following transport to a series of camps, was liberated from Theresienstadt by the Red Army on May 9, 1945.

That was the day her second life began.

Poor but happy

Returning to Bratislava, Lotte connected with an uncle and aunt who had evaded deportation by living off forged papers, and with the very few friends returning to start their lives over. Two brothers, Leo and Alfred (Ali) Weiss, came into her life. They were also both survivors of the concentration camps, having been sent initially to Auschwitz before being transferred to Buchenwald to work as slave labourers. Lotte fell in love with Ali and they were married on August 3, 1947.

As Czechoslovakia fell under communist control, many of the young survivors made the decision to leave their country of birth. Leo and his wife, Gerti, were able to migrate to New Zealand. After a series of mishaps, stolen passports, outrageous bribes paid and stolen, Lotte remembered the words of her father as she begged authorities to grant Ali and her permits to leave: If you want something from a bad person, just tell him how good he is.

The strategy worked and on January 4, 1949, Lotte and Ali went by overnight train to Milan. A week later, they boarded the ship Ugolino Vivaldi for the five-week journey to Melbourne, Australia, where they remained for six months, awaiting their official visas to live in New Zealand.

Reunited with Leo and Gerti in Wellington, they shared a home – poor but happy. Once again it was the words of her father that Lotte remembered. You don’t have to be rich to laugh.

In Lotte’s words, she and Ali became the happiest couple in the whole world on August 25, 1951, as they held their newborn son, Johnny, in their arms for the first time. As Lotte looked at her newborn, the face of her brother Karl appeared. On May 25, 1953, Lotte and Ali welcomed a brother for Johnny, Gary, feeling the same happiness, joy and gratitude to God for the beautiful gift of life.

In February 1979, Lotte was approached by Radio New Zealand National to tell her story. This was the first time Lotte spoke publicly about surviving the Holocaust. It would not be the last. Television, radio and print media in New Zealand and elsewhere sought her out. The more she spoke, the more people wanted to listen.

The ground was swept from under her feet on June 27, 1982, when after many years of ill health, her beloved Ali died. The love of her life, the father of her two sons, the husband she could never undress in front of due to her traumatic experiences at Auschwitz, had gone.

"My Two Lives," by Lotte Weiss.Credit: Griffin Press

Shining light

Johnny and Gary had followed their careers from Wellington to Sydney. In March 1986, Lotte made the difficult decision to leave her family and friends, the country that had given her sanctuary, and moved to Sydney. She joined the Australian Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and, together with others, helped create the Sydney Jewish Museum, which opened on November 18, 1992.

Lotte’s life got a whole lot busier from this day on, as she became a volunteer guide at the museum. Talking at the museum helped her; she was talking for those so cruelly silenced who could not talk for themselves. Her parents, sisters and brothers, and the other 6 million innocent men, women and children who were sentenced to death solely because they were born Jewish.

The Australian media soon discovered this amazing woman called Lotte Weiss, who could hypnotize an audience, educate an audience about the Holocaust. Her energy and vibrancy radiated a love of life and gratitude for everything and everyone she met, despite the horrors she had encountered and overcome during her nearly three years in Auschwitz. Her eternal optimism and joy lifted whoever she touched. She was the rainbow in everyone else’s cloud, a shining light that emerged from the deepest of all darkness.

Lotte continued her weekly appearance at the museum for over 25 years, until she was 95 – only her own health issues tearing her away from her second home.

Lotte’s prisoner photos, taken at Auschwitz, are on permanent display at the Yad Vashem History Museum in Jerusalem.

Sense of humor

Lotte is remembered by her family for her love of sport, often getting up in the middle of the night to watch international sport overseas, munching her way through a block of chocolate, excited no matter who was playing, who was winning. She was a self-confessed coffee snob, seeking out and supporting the local cafés that made it to her liking. Her sense of humor got her through many sticky situations.

For her 80th birthday, Johnny, Gary and grandsons Daniel and Rami took Lotte back to her roots to visit Bratislava and the countries surrounding Slovakia. On a train trip from Vienna to Budapest, they were stopped at the border. Armed Hungarian troops boarded the train asking to see passports and visas. Gary, Daniel and Rami were cleared, traveling on their New Zealand passports. Lotte and Johnny had Australian passports, which did not give them automatic entry into Hungary. Arrested as illegals, Lotte and Johnny were removed from the train and frog-marched into a holding cell at the train station. Lotte spoke to the soldiers in Hungarian the whole time, telling them she was no threat to them. For a Holocaust survivor, this should have been a terrifying experience. Lotte found it hilarious.

Lotte inspired countless people with her spirit and lessons of losing life and rebuilding it. Everyone was uplifted by her love of life and gratitude for what she had, not what she lost. That is the gift she gave and will continue to give to us all.

The words of Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl reflect the life Lotte lived: “Everything can be taken from man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Lotte was determined to ensure that her story would be documented so that future generations would be aware of the lessons of the Holocaust. Having written “My Two Lives” at the age of 80, while her memory was still strong, she was delighted when her grandson Benjy had the book translated into German after refusing to accept the word no from publishers, in Vienna in 2010 and supported by the president of Austria. Her daughter-in-law Thea Weiss inspired by her book, paid tribute to Lotte through a series of art exhibitions, at which she was joined by Lotte in telling the story to hundreds of visitors.

A short film on both Thea and Lotte, “Creative Responses to the Holocaust,” has been screened at film festivals around the world. This combination of English- and German-language books and the creative arts will continue to ensure that Lotte’s story is seen and heard by many more people globally.

Dakujem, thank you Lotte for sharing your remarkable life, for the unconditional love you showered on your family, that in spite of all your suffering and great loss, you remained a person filled with hope and a belief that the majority of people are good and decent, for keeping alive the stories of the horrors of the Holocaust, that we may NEVER FORGET.

Lotte Weiss is survived by her sons Johnny and Gary, six grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren.

Heather Morris is the author of the international best-sellers “The Tattooist of Auschwitz” and “Cilka’s Journey,” both published in Hebrew by Schocken Publishing House.

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