Henriette Liebmann

Title: Death wore a Nazi uniform
Author: Henriette Liebmann
Publisher: Self Published
Place of publication: Melbourne
Year of Publication: 1988
Location of Book: Makor Jewish Community Library, Melbourne
Cities/town/camps: PolandLodzAuschwitzGermanyBergen-BelsenSalzwedel
Note: those cities/towns/camps underlined are those which are most central to the narrative

In was in 1988 that Henrietta Liebmann (nee Wonsowicz) assembled her modest, self-published book about her experiences during the war years. The content itself, however, is a “warts and all” (in her words) translation of a document that she wrote shortly after liberation, “while I had to stay in bed for six weeks and was forbidden to talk due to heart muscle trouble resulting in a heavy cough.” Her account totals 86 pages, and is preceded by some maps, introductions by the author and by Naomi Rosh White, and two published letters about the book. Pages 1-59 of Liebmann’s account describe life in Lodz from September 1939 until her deportation to Auschwitz in September 1944. Details of her time in Auschwitz are related on pages 60-70. On pages 71-85 Liebmann tells of the period that she spent in the labour camps at Bergen-Belsen and Salzwedel, until her liberation by the Americans. Finally, pages 85-86 tell details of her life immediately after World War II.

Liebmann was a young teacher in Lodz at the time when World War II broke out. She tells of the worsening conditions after the German invasion, the creation of the ghetto, the intense poverty and the chaotic masses. Her stories are vivid; not because they are related in descriptive language, but rather because she wrote her account relatively close to the time when the events themselves occurred, when she could still recall them clearly. Liebmann tells of her elderly parents – both of whom were tragically taken from her in the ghetto. She speaks about the head of the Lodz Jewish Council (responsible for carrying out German orders in the ghetto), Chaim Rumkowsi, and the public abhorrence of him. She describes the rapidly worsening conditions, the death and chaos that surrounded her, and the selfishness that took hold of previously normal people as they fought off starvation.

By the time Liebmann is deported to Auschwitz in September 1944, there are already few people left in the Lodz Ghetto. Rumours had run rife up till now about better times ahead or imminent liberation, and before her deportation, Bubov, a German official, had promised the departing Jews that they were being taken to a better equipped labour camp. Such was the desperate situation of the Jews of Lodz that some continued to believe him even after arriving at Auschwitz.

Liebmann was taken to Auschwitz together with her sister. The two repeatedly managed to be ‘selected’ for work and to avoid death. They were taken from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen, and from there to the nearby Salzwedel labour camp. After spending some weeks there (it is not clear exactly how long, as she does not state), the prisoners begin to notice a change in the behaviour of the Germans; some even pack suitcases and leave the camp. They hear bombings and feel that something is changing, but are reluctant to believe rumours after so many disappointments. Liebmann movingly describes her elation, when, finally, the camp is liberated by American troops.

Death Wore a Nazi Uniform is not written as one, continuous narrative. Rather, it is a chronological series of short ‘episodes’, some with headings such as ‘Halina goes to a Convalescent Home’ or ‘Evacuation of German and Czech Jew’, others without. She describes a large number of specific events that survivors who write decades later often cannot recall: Mothers’ Day and the year anniversary celebration of the kindergarten in the ghetto where she worked are two examples. One of the letters printed in the start of the book, written by Dr Hillary Rubinstein and published in the Australian Jewish News, summarises well the impact of this book. Rubinstein states: “The unpublished document by Mrs Henrietta Liebmann, Death Wore a Nazi Uniform, is one of the best survivors’ testimonies… It is such a compelling, human, well written account that I have read it twice, enthralled, and have regretted that it is not available to a wider audience.”