Title: God Cried at Auschwitz
Author: Betty Lissing
Publisher: LMN Systems
Place of publication: Adelaide
Year of Publication: 2003
Location of Book: Rare Books Collection, Sir Louis Matheson Library, Monash University Clayton Campus
Cities/town/camps: Holland: Amsterdam, Lage-Mierde, Castle Eerde, Belgium: Weelde, Brussels, Malines Transit Camp, Poland: Auschwitz, Furstengrube, Buna-Monowitz, Gross Rosen, Germany: Ravensbruck, Neustadt-Glewe, Dora Camp, Ricklimgen
Note: those cities/towns/camps underlined are those which are most central to the narrative
Betty Lissing’s memoir tells of the horrific experiences of a young couple tragically separated under the most horrendous of circumstances, and then reunited once again after much pain and suffering. 159 pages long, God Cried at Auschwitz was published late in Lissing’s life, but she did, however, begin writing down her experiences in the years following the war. The first 32 pages of the book introduce Betty’s intentions in writing the book, and tell of her experiences from the German invasion of her native Holland until her decision to flee. Pages 33-56 describe Betty and Herman Lissing’s dangerous journey across the border into Belgium, their separation, and Betty’s time in Auschwitz. The following pages (57-64) describe Betty being taken on a death march via several camps until her liberation in May, 1945, and her reunification with her husband in Holland. On pages 65-98, Herman Lessing tells of his own experiences during the years that he and Betty were separated. Finally, on pages 99-159 Betty tells of their experiences after the war, culminating in their building of new lives in Australia. An epilogue is written by the Lessings’ son, Jerry. The book is interspersed with family photos, some of which are from before the war. These were preserved by a non-Jewish aunt by marriage of Herman’s.
Betty’s account begins with the invasion of Holland by the Nazis on May 10, 1940. She describes the creeping progression of anti-Semitic measures: a Jewish ‘mark’ in ID cards, the requirement to wear a star in public, prohibitions on Jews attending cinemas or riding trams, bicycles or cars. Even her wedding was affected; she and her husband had to wait months to get married in a ceremony with 25 Jewish couples. Betty describes her family’s despondence as the situation grew worse and worse, and her mother’s indignation. On one occasion, they had to physically prevent her mother from yelling out the window at a Nazi parade, lest they all be punished. Betty describes the feeling in Holland as anti-Nazi; though the Nazis tried to convince the Dutch to support them voluntarily, they ultimately had to use violence in order to sedate them.
Soon after the Lessings’ wedding, the situation for Jews in Holland worsened further. Curfews were instituted and deportations began. Betty describes the day in November 1942 on which her parents and brothers were deported to Auschwitz as the worst day of her life. After nearly all their family had been deported, Betty and Herman decided to attempt to escape Holland. With the help of underground activists and false papers, they made their way by land to Belgium, which they thought would be safer than Holland, despite also being under Nazi occupation. Upon arrival, Herman found work as a musician and volunteered for the underground resistance as a messenger. Soon, he was arrested and sent to Poland, leaving Betty on her own. She subsisted on what little she had, but was also arrested not long after, and taken to Malines transit camp for three months, on her way to Auschwitz.
Betty describes the awful conditions at Auschwitz, and the death and suffering that she witnessed every day. As the Russians approached the camp, it was evacuated, and Betty found herself on a ‘death march’ that took her to Ravensbruck and then to Neustadt-Glewe, where she was liberated by the Americans on May 2, 1945. She was soon repatriated to Holland and taken to hospital, where she was sure she would die. Having given up all hope of seeing her husband again, she reacted angrily when a matron told her that he was alive. He had survived too, and had come to the hospital to find her.
In a five-chapter section of the book, Herman relates his own experiences during the Lessings’ two years of separation. From Auschwitz, Herman was taken to Fustengrube to do hard labour. There, he was saved by his musical abilities – he was given extra food in return for performing for the guards. From there, he was moved in April, 1944 to Buna-Monowitz, the camp supplying labour to I.G. Farben Industries. Herman’s closest brush with death took place at this camp. On one occasion, he fell asleep on the job, and the Meister in charge of him wrote down his name for punishment, which invariably meant death. Before the punishment could be carried out, the first bombing raid in the area took place. The Meister was one of the few casualties, and Herman was saved. As the Americans approached, the camp was evacuated, and Herman was taken on a ‘death march’ that passed through the camps at Gross Rosen, Dora, and Ricklimgen. Liberated by the Americans on April 13, 1945, Herman returned to Holland, searched for his family, and finally found his wife in a hospital in Castle Eerle.
God Cried at Auschwitz is a gripping book. Both Betty and Herman write eloquently and descriptively, and Betty also devotes considerable space to her reflections, emotional and theological, on her experiences. The book is incredibly moving. The reader is exposed to horrific tragedy and desperate hopelessness, as well as to truly stirring moments of redemption – liberation, and the reunion of Betty and Herman Lessing after years of despair.