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How I survived the Holocaust

Marion Camrass, 81, reveals her childhood experience of escaping from Poland to Kazakhstan after war broke out.

Marion Camrass (on right) aged 12, with a friend.

I was born in Krakow, Poland, in January 1932, an only child. My father was a lawyer and the son of a wealthy factory owner and landowner. We only spoke Polish at home but a governess taught me Hebrew.

We were in our holiday house in the country when war broke out, and never went home. We went east to where my aunt had a big estate. We travelled by train, and horse and cart, and were bombed on the way by German planes. We didn’t realise that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had already carved Poland up.

After a week, the Russians ordered the landowners out. We went to live in Brody, which is now in Ukraine. We were in a little rented room. Circumstances were very difficult. Eventually, all the Poles who had registered to go back home were transported to Siberia in big cattle trucks. I was just eight at the time. There were 50 or 60 people in the cattle truck. Once a day the Russian soldiers would bring a sort of bucket with some soup and some bread, if you were lucky. It was just dreadful. The sanitary arrangements were horrendous. We ended up at a camp for political prisoners, where we spent the winter.

In June 1941 Germany attacked Russia and, instead of being enemies, the Polish prisoners became friends and allies, so were allowed to leave. But my family decided to stay because we felt, as Jews, they might be safer there. They never believed Hitler would get as far as Siberia.

But as autumn approached we decided we had to go. We didn’t think we would survive another winter. A raft was built and we floated 200 kilometres down the River Chulym. My mother managed to get some oats but they were really oats that you feed to horses. She used water to make little cakes with it, but I couldn’t swallow it. It was very rough.

We kept travelling and ended up in the Asian republics. After a long train journey we got to Kazakhstan, and eventually Bukhara. The family rented a tiny room. My father got work in a communal farm, but he died of typhus. My mother had it, too, but she survived, though she later contracted dysentery and malaria. She wasn’t able to feed me, and I was put into  an orphanage.

After many vicissitudes we were repatriated to Poland in May 1946. But the place had changed for the worse – 26 Jews died in the Kielce Pogrom in July, so my mother decided to send me to Britain to my father’s sister.

My aunt was Regina Schoental, a respected academic. She had got her BSc and PhD in chemistry from Krakow University and had come to England in 1938, where she was working on penicillin, and later on cancer research. When I arrived she was working in Glasgow. I went to Laurel Bank School, did very well, and later studied medicine at Glasgow University. I married an older man, Henry, a GP, when I was 20. We had two children, Nina and Peter.

I visited Krakow a few years ago but I did not feel at home. The Jewish quarter used to teem with life but it was now empty. I had the feeling that if my mother hadn’t taken me and run, east and away, we would both be dead and my eight grandchildren would not exist. My grandparents died in the gas chambers, which is just horrendous.

Edited by Russell Leadbetter. The full transcript of this interview can be found on gatheringthevoices.com. Gathering The Voices, which received £45,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund, is led by Angela Shapiro, an academic at Glasgow  Caledonian University.

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