Ethel Birenbaum, 82, survived Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen camps

April 29, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Ethel Birenbaum, a homemaker and Holocaust survivor whose determination helped her endure the horrors of the Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps, died of heart failure Monday at Northwest Hospital Center. She was 82.

"Her experiences during the war were always a presence in her life, but she felt that she had to move on. She dearly loved her adopted country and life in the United States," said a son, Irving Birenbaum of Pikesville.

She was born and raised Ethel Speisman in Radom, an important railroad junction and industrial center in central Poland. She was 17 years old when Adolf Hitler's forces invaded Poland and swept through her hometown Sept. 1, 1939, the first day of World War II.

Mrs. Birenbaum and her family were later caught in the Warsaw ghetto, a section of the city sealed off by German occupiers to warehouse its Jewish population.

"They hid in an attic while she worked as a conscript laborer for the Germans. She was able to survive by switching identities as often as possible, and by doing this was able to get new ration cards to help keep her family alive," said her son.

Mrs. Birenbaum's father was shot to death by German soldiers in Warsaw, while her mother and two sisters were sent to the Treblinka concentration camp in 1942. They later perished.

Mrs. Birenbaum, separated from her family, was transported to Auschwitz. There, her wrist was tattooed with the number A16969. She never had it removed.

"While at Auschwitz, she worked in the nearby IG Farben plant," her son said.

The plant manufactured the Zyklon-B gas that was used for gas chambers in the Nazi death camps.

In January 1945, Mrs. Birenbaum was shipped to Bergen-Belsen - a period when Anne Frank was imprisoned and died there.

"Some 18,000 died en route. They had to abandon the train because the tracks were destroyed and it took them three weeks to reach the camp," the son said.

When British troops liberated the camp that April, Mrs. Birenbaum weighed 68 pounds, he said. "She was unconscious when the troops arrived and she later woke up in a field hospital. She always had a soft spot in her heart for the British army."

While recovering in a displaced persons camp where stateless Jews were gathered after the German surrender, Melvin Birenbaum, a friend from her hometown, noticed her name on a list.

"My father had known her from back home in Radom and when he saw the list in Munich, he traveled to Frankfurt to find her," the son said.

The couple married in 1946, the same year Mr. Birenbaum relocated to Baltimore, where he had relatives. The next year he brought his wife here.

The couple settled in Northwest Baltimore, where Mr. Birenbaum owned and operated a dry cleaning establishment. He died in 1993.

"She spoke of the Holocaust but never dwelled on it. Occasionally, she would go and speak to groups about her experiences. And, obviously, she wasn't a big fan of armed conflict," the son said.

"When she visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, she did not weep. She said it was accurate and moving, and she was so proud of the way they told the story of what happened during those years," he said.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Mrs. Birenbaum was a March of Dimes volunteer. She was a member of the Suburban Orthodox Congregation and the Pioneer Women Jewish organization.

She was accomplished at needlepoint and enjoyed watching television and movies.

Services were held yesterday.

Survivors also include another son, Jerry M. Birenbaum of Pikesville, and two grandchildren.

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