Margrit Wreschner-Rustow was born Marguerite Wreschner in Frankfurt/Main in 1925. She grew up in a Jewish Orthodox family, with her mother from a Jewish background in Hungary while her father had been raised in Germany. He was the part-owner of a metal and ore company. Both parents brought children from divorced previous marriages into the family: Margrit had three half-siblings and a sister named Charlotte. She was the youngest of five children. Her parents saw education and the help for weaker members of society as essential parts of her upbringing.
After the Nazi seizure of power and their Jewish pogroms, the family emigrated to Amsterdam in 1935, where her father died two years later. Some family members managed to flee further abroad, but Margrit stayed with her sister Charlotte and her mother Frederike at the family of a brother in the Netherlands.
The schools there were notably better than in Germany, and in order to attend school, Margrit had to learn the Dutch language. The dean of her school, through his openness and readiness to help others, became an important figure of affection for Margrit.
„My school dean was a very special man, and an important person in my life!“
With the occupation by the Nazis, the Jewish Nuremburg Laws became law in the Netherlands too. For Margrit this also meant that she was not allowed to attend school anymore. The dean and other Jewish teachers were dismissed. Margrit only heard of the extermination of Jewish people through the radio programs of the BBC, which she listened to despite the legal ban on radios. Her former dean was arrested and put into a concentration camp.
In 1942 the Nazis ordered all Jewish men to be renamed Israel and all Jewish women were given the name Miriam. Ultimately all German Jews had their citizenship revoked and were now stateless persons. From now on they had to wear the Yellow Star.
Margrit’s brother was also put into a KZ. He was incarcerated in Bergen-Belsen.
She and her sisters could first evade deportation. At nighttime they peeled potatoes and prepared sandwiches, which were given by the Nazis to captives before their deportation to transit camps, a work officially recognized by the German occupiers. This modicum of protection did not last long and the three women – Margrit, Charlotte and their mother Frederike – had to hide out in a forest area near a small town sometime later. After one or two weeks, they left their hide-out to return home and send a package to her brother in Bergen-Belsen.
On a Saturday morning, all three were arrested and taken to the transit camp at Westerbork.
„It was our first experience of being imprisoned and having to leave everything behind. We were still doing comparatively well though, as our family had not been torn apart and we had not been exposed to great hunger as yet. After we had left the Netherlands, the country had been nearly “judenrein” (meaning “clean of Jews”,TN).>>judenrein<<.“
In the transit camp Westerbork, Margrit had a number of tasks including working as a nurse and helping children. As she, her mother and her sister, had Hungarian passports, they knew that they could not be deported to Auschwitz for bureaucratic reasons.
Beginning of her life at Ravensbruck
In January/February 1944, the small family was put with other women and their children into a group of about 60 people, to be deported by train to the women’s concentration camp at Ravensbruck.
„During our transit we were in normal train carriages with benches, but there were no toilets and we were given no food. Our arrival at night was traumatic: children were wailing and SS-men were yelling >>Out with your clothes! <<.
I knew that we were taken to Ravensbrueck.“
Margrit, her sister Charlotte and her mother Frederike arrived in Ravensbruck after three grueling days of transport. Unlike the other women, their hair was not sheared off. All the women were showered and given the same, blue and grey-striped inmates garb. They also received their prisoner numbers and their stars to wear, made of a Yellow Star and a Red Star which they had to sew onto their jackets.
„We were treated less strictly, I was for example able to smuggle some items into the camp. At the time of our arrival, Ravensbruck was almost totally>>”clean” of Jews<< as many had been gassed before. In the camp there were various groups: religious groups, political groups, social delinquents and half-breeds (half-Jews).“
The first four weeks we had to spend in quarantine in a separate barrack. Margrit later volunteered for work at Siemens, but her sister initially refused to do any labor. Charlotte was made to yield and put to work in a SS-factory. Unlike Margrit, she had a quota to fill there. To increase the pressure, dogs were set on the women. Margrit was not subjected to this, as Siemens was not entitled to punish the women. Later her sister managed to secretly follow Margrit to her work at Siemens, and from then on continued to work in this somewhat more protected environment.
„And so, >a life < in a KZ was possible.“
Her labor at Siemens
Margrit wanted to work for Siemens because she knew the work would be done in enclosed rooms. For this she had to pass a test at which you had to fold paper and wire into certain shapes. Additionally, this test of dexterity also included an eye test. Margret passed both and was given a place in hall 12 under the supervision of a Herr Stoeber. Her work consisted of coiling wire onto spools and afterwards dip them in lacquer. This made them conductive. Then they needed to be baked in an oven for a day. Margrit found this work extremely boring, and once even fell asleep during it.
Later she worked as a forewoman, making resistors from carbon dust, which were used for example in pressing irons. Since Margrit knew several languages, she was able to hold this elevated position as a forewoman, especially since her native language was German,it was greatly appreciated. It also earned her the privilege of being allowed to talk to the civilians working for Siemens, who were sources of information for her from time to time. While the women did their work for Siemens, female SS-overseers were in charge at the factories. Unlike the wardens in the SS-camps, these had no dogs at least. Some of them were even friendly.
Margrit’s mother Frederike did not pass the aptitude test and continued to be exposed to the much harsher working conditions for jobs in and around the main camp.
Her sister was able to pass the test and was allowed to work in the workshops of Siemens . However, it was not possible for the sisters to work together. Charlotte always had to work the day shift from 6am to 6pm, while Margrit worked in alternating shifts of a week of nights followed by a week of day shifts. In order to keep contact, they would leave letters for one another, which was forbidden. The letters were one day found by female overseers, and after this the sisters were thought to be in a homosexual relationship.
„As we were captives, we were not believed to be sisters. The overseer said to me >>you will be punished<<. I was afraid, but it never happened.“
In the course of time, Siemens wanted better working conditions for the laborers. The women were malnourished and often too weak, so they regularly passed out at their workplaces. Therefore a production facility of Siemens was set up next to the main camp towards the end of 1944. Margrit and her sister were from then on able to sleep and stay in the Siemens facility. Her mother was left on her own in the SS-camp. The conditions at Siemens were better insofar as they had better beds and more food. There were also work-related bonuses.
„In the mornings we got malt coffee, more like>>black water<<, and a piece of coarse army loaf bread. Everyone also received one weekly ration of a piece of margarine and some artificial honey. At lunch there was a very thin but warm soup made from rutabaga and water, occasionally you could find a tiny piece of meat in it. In the evenings we would get the same as in the mornings, a piece of army bread and coffee.“
Life as an inmate
There were no closets. You kept your things in your bed, including the food you managed to save up, you hid it in there. As the inmates were envious of it, they stole it from each other.
„Many would lose their identities in these conditions. A girl I remember for instance, she forgot her name. I had the advantage that my sister and I were always together and so could support one another. Often during the night, when I was working, there were air raids – we first thought we would all be released from our torture in the camp through that, but it never happened.“ „Some other women were envious that we had more to eat and said something bad about me. In consequence, a package and all clothes were taken from me. I did not have any underpants anymore, which I could have exchanged the following week. At the end, another woman sewed me some underpants from Siemens rags, I even wrote down the details >>FKZ Ravensbruck – Come with me, you are getting a beating now! To be continued tomorrow! <<.“
Every prisoner was allowed to write one letter per week. Margrit wrote to her siblings, but had to hide her true condition because of the strict German censorship. Parcels send to her were confiscated. One such was supposed to reach her, at a time when her mother was already sick and near starvation. It was a food parcel, but it would have come too late for her mother. She died on 8th January 1944. Before she passed, Margrit and Charlotte were allowed to see their mother one last time.
>>We even managed to feed her one last time.<<
At a roll call, about three weeks after the death of their mother, the names of Margrit and her sister were called out. The prisoners were told that they would be deported to Theresienstadt in order to receive a >>Himmelfahrtsspritze( “Ascension injection”, TN)<<. Both were terribly afraid. Their fate though, was not quite clear from the viewpoint of the SS. It was possible that prisoners deported to Theresienstadt might survive. With German defeat looming at this time, no-one was supposed to “get out” who showed signs of having been treated neglectfully or even tortured. After all, such evidence could after a lost war be used to document the atrocities committed by the SS. The prisoners to be deported therefore had to undergo a medical examination. Many inmates had scabies, which is why dermatological examinations were also performed. The doctor told Margrit and her sister that their skin showed no signs of scratching or scarring. After the examination, the siblings were not allowed to return to the sleeping quarters. On the next day, Margrit and Charlotte and three other prisoners were transported to Theresienstadt. To Berlin, they traveled in normal passenger trains, but there they were put onto a train of the Wehrmacht and continued on via Prague to Theresienstadt. On the way there they were told that they should not be afraid, that the war would be over soon. But they continued to live in fear. For four weeks they were imprisoned in a small cellar room in Theresienstadt. They were interrogated by SS-Obersturmbannführer (Lieutenant Colonel, TN) Adolf Eichmann and four of his SS-officers. Released from interrogations, they had to hold out for liberation in the ghetto for the elderly in Theresienstadt., fearing for their lives. They were forbidden to speak about their experience in Ravensbrueck and the persecution of Jews.
The liberation and the return home
About three months later, on 9 May 1945, Margrit and Charlotte were liberated by the Russian army. The soldiers looked more like partisans, as they were wearing no uniforms. The SS withdrew and the Red Cross took over the camp. Margrit and her sister decided to run away. The driver of a truck gave them a lift to Prague. There were no trains from Prague. After three weeks, they were able to return, via Pilsen, to the south of the Netherlands. This journey back home took them ten days. At home they found out that their brother and his family had all died of typhoid on the way or after arriving at Theresienstadt. In the Netherlands they first found shelter in a pension, until they heard from friends that their house had not been destroyed and was still in a sound condition.
„It was an unbelievable feeling to arrive back home and find everything the way we had left it all that time ago. We took some people in and there ended up being about ten in the house. We had to learn to live a normal life again, and I kept on asking myself >>What now? <<“
Margrit’s new life
Margrit and Charlotte managed to get started with their new life fairly quickly though. They tried to live a normal life and involve themselves in the new social order. They formed youth groups, and their house became a venue and meeting point for relatives who were able to return from the concentration camps. But not all survived, and Margrit suffered terribly from the loss of her school friends.
She applied for a scholarship in Geneva, obtained it and went for a one-year course. Margrit worked with Jewish children who had lost their parents in the war. In 1947, her elder sister visited the other siblings in America, which led Margrit and Charlotte to emigrate to the United States. Here, Margrit continued her work with children and with her studies.
The foundation of the state of Israel prompted Margrit and Charlotte to move there in 1949, where Margrit lived and worked until 1956. During that time, Margrit decided to become a psychoanalyst. Her sister stayed in Israel and became the vice-mayor of Jerusalem, while Margrit went to the US as a student. She successfully finished her studies there and started to work as a therapist and psychoanalyst. Her studies helped her to come to terms with the past.
She married a native Berliner in the US, who had four children from previous marriages. They had no offspring together. Margrit Wreschner-Rustow died in the United States on 19 December 2014.
„Despite everything, I had had a very nice childhood and a safe home. I think that this fact helped me later on. While I was of the opinion that I did not want to stay in Germany, I never said that I would not return for a visit some day.
In the camp I often dreamed of fresh linen and of sleeping in a proper bed. I wanted to be free and be able to talk about it. I wanted to not suffer hunger anymore, to live without fear, and not have to ask myself anymore if it was worth to fight every day or if it was better to give up.“