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Courage Beyond Torture – Nathan

By: Mitzi J. Levin

Concentration camp prisoners experienced physical and emotional abuse on a daily basis. Inhumane living conditions, savage beatings, disease, and cruel medical experiments were a few of the ways the Nazis inflicted physical pain. Often, it seemed, they enjoyed the game of emotional abuse even more.

Sisters Ilse Nathan and Ruth Siegler had arrived at Praust early one morning by truck transport.

“Just outside the camp, SS guards motioned for some of us to climb onto a large mound of dirt at the top of a ditch,” remembers Ruth. “We were sure death awaited us. I was thinking, ‘Had it come to this after all we had been through? Is this how it would end?’

“We knew that standing at a ditch resulted in being shot. I expected to fall into it and be covered with other fallen bodies. Evidence of our lives would vanish, and the outside world would never know we had existed.”

Time passed slowly as Ruth prayed with her sister by her side. “I’m not sure how long we stood there, tired, sick, starving, lifeless bodies, facing the killers before us. After a while, the guards lowered their guns, turned, and walked away laughing. We climbed down to start another long day. Later, we learned the ditch had been dug not as a grave, but for Nazi protection from allied bombs.”

Ilse says she has emotionally blocked most of that horrible day from her mind. But another day often flashes in her memory.

“We were marching in our required rows of five-across at the end of a long work day when a young Austrian girl asked me to pick up a piece of paper that a French male prisoner had thrown to her. The guard must have noticed when I did; that night I was ordered into a room for punishment. A physically strong, female guard beat my bare flesh with a horse whip, requiring me to count the number of lashes. At the count of 15, I fainted, and when I came to, she continued striking me. Then she shaved my head and took me outside where I was forced at gunpoint to stand with my arms raised in front of the barbed-wire, electric fence.  I don’t know how long I stood there, but it seemed like an eternity.”

Ilse was taken back to the barrack where Ruth shared her small portion of bread with her.

“The next day I confided to Ruth that I was too weak to walk and could not go to work. She insisted that I go; people who were unable to work were sent to the infirmary and never returned. She and the other girls got me through that painful day by helping me when the guards weren’t looking. By begging me to go to work that day, Ruth saved my life.”