Birth amidst death: Toronto woman’s son born in Dachau

Certain things are expected in certain places. Graveyards are for the dead, and as we all know, between 1939 and 1945, Europe became a Jewish graveyard. More than six decades after the slaughter, it is hard to imagine anything can still surprise us.

Yet there is one astonishing story that has only recently come to light: a handful of births occurred in the centre of the Holocaust kingdom itself. On April 28, 1945, a group of American soldiers broke into Kaufering I, one of 11 satellites of Dachau. Dachau was one of the first concentration camps set up within weeks of Hitler’s appointment as German chancellor in January 1933. Several of the liberators were African-American, descendants of slaves.

“Everywhere lay the dead,” wrote one of these soldiers in a letter home. “But among the more than 30,000 prisoners who were liberated, to our great surprise, we came across seven Jewish mothers and their babies!” The men reached for their cameras, photographing what their eyes and minds could not accept: seven infants, all born between December 1944 and February 1945 had miraculously survived. In Dachau’s dozen years of existence, more than 200,000 European Jews were imprisoned there, of whom over 40,000 were murdered. Yet new life was discovered amidst the piles of dead, a kind of grotesque oxymoron.

There is a Canadian connection, captured in a new documentary that ran on German television in late April. One of the seven new mothers was Miriam Rosenthal, now 87, who has lived in Toronto with her husband and three children since the 1970s. She is one of only two of those pregnant Jews who are still alive. Her son, Leslie, born amidst the death, is a Toronto-based property manager.

Leslie Rosenthal and his wife, Annette, parents of four and grandparents of nine, were flown to Germany for the 65th commemoration of Dachau’s liberation, joined by four others of the seven original babies. They stayed in a Munich hotel, 40 kilometres from the infamous death camp, both weeping as they watched Geboren im KZ (Born in a Concentration Camp) on TV, the documentary featuring his mother and himself, along with nearly a million non-Jews across Germany and Switzerland. Births amidst death: the most hopeful event of that evil place and time.

Miriam Rosenthal’s youth, spent near the town of Komarno in southern Czechoslovakia, was deeply religious. She is youngest of 14 children born to a gentleman farmer and his wife. Her family fed many of the local yeshiva boys, married off poor girls lacking dowries, and secretly delivered chickens and schmaltz to impoverished neighbours. “The poor would always be invited to our Shabbas table,” Rosenthal recalls. Hungarian and German were spoken at home, so she laughs when recalling how, in Canada after the war, Jews would declare, “You don’t speak Yiddish? What kind of a Jew are you?”

Her father died shortly before Hitler destroyed her family’s world, but he had lived to see 12 of his 14 children married. All of Miriam’s brothers were shipped off to forced labour camps in Hungary, but she was determined to marry her fiancé, a young Jewish scholar named Bela, later William, Rosenthal.  A kindly Christian gave Miriam false papers and placed a cross over her neck so she could take a fast train to Miskolc, her beloved’s Hungarian town. After midnight on April 5, 1944, the two young Orthodox Jews were married, each wearing a Jewish star. Barely two months later, Miriam Rosenthal was sent to Auschwitz; two months later, she discovered that she was pregnant.

Like millions of others, she stood before Dr. Mengele, “in his white gloves, his hand waving left and right.” She watched her mother and sister arriving the same day, the latter only 25, clutching her year-old baby, as they were sent to the left and their deaths.

Miriam was sent to work in a nearby Messerschmitt airplane factory, where an SS man spotted her large abdomen. “You pig woman! What are you doing here? You are pregnant!” She was to be sent back to Auschwitz to die with her unborn child. The new documentary about the Schwangeren Kommando [Pregnancy Unit] quotes a little known speech that Heinrich Himmler gave on June 21, 1944, the same month that the young Jewish bride had been shipped to Auschwitz: “Yes, some of you ask, ‘I totally understand that we are killing the Jews, but [why] women and children?’I have to tell you something: one day, the children will be adults. These hateful Jewish avengers, who are now small but will be grown up later, will harm our children and grandchildren!”

But the Russians had bombed Auschwitz that week, so Rosenthal was sent by train to a penal camp named Kaufering I, near Dachau. There, unbelievably, she and a half dozen other pregnant Jewish women were housed together in a wooden barrack, attended to by Dr. Vadasz, a sickly, anemic Hungarian-Jewish gynecologist. “He started to cry like a child,” recalls Miriam in the film: “I have no instruments! I need hot water! Towels! Soap!”

Yet the babies were all born healthy, the first one a boy, on Dec. 8, 1944; the last, Rosenthal’s son, Leslie, born on Feb. 28, 1945, making him inarguably the youngest survivor of the Nazi era. “He was a beauty, with blond hair, big blue eyes, and the doctor cried. Everyone cried,” Miriam recalls. 

The joy was brief, as Rosenthal began to hemorrhage, with a retained placenta, infection and high fever. Dr. Vadasz told the other women that the newest mother would never survive. The mother of the oldest miracle baby, Elisabeth Legmann, declared, “When you are dead, Miriam, I shall raise Leslie.” On the other side of the electrified fence where the men were held, Jews were reciting Psalms, and one cried out, “It’s Purim!”

Rosenthal recovered, but lacked sufficient milk, so others of the seven “sisters” nursed her newborn son for her. Another woman imprisoned in Kaufering at the same time believes that “the SS wanted to save their own hides. I do not know if it was an order or an individual decision to look after the seven women and their babies.” Only recently discovered was an order by the head SS camp physician, signed on March 13, 1945, that all these new mothers and their babies were to be sent to Bergen-Belsen and immediately killed. It was never acted upon.

Miriam eventually made it back to her old home in Czechslovakia, where she was reunited with her husband, returned from a slave labour camp. After 10 months in Paris waiting for papers to the New World, followed by another 10 months in Cuba, they spent a year in Timmins, Ont., where William Rosenthal served as rabbi, followed by Sudbury, Ont., for 16 more years, and finally Toronto. She didn’t discuss her war experiences with anyone other than her husband and three children for decades.

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In 2009, two German gentiles, Eva Gruberova and Martina Gawaz, contacted Miriam Rosenthal, begging her to let them make a TV film about her and the other improbable survivors. While researching the history of  Dachau – her grandfather was a political prisoner murdered there in the mid-30s – Gruberova had come across an original photograph of five of the mothers and their babies, and was haunted by the image.

Rosenthal reluctantly agreed to be filmed, joined by one of the seven children of the Schwangeren Kommando, Marika Novakova of Slovakia – “my camp sister,” Leslie Rosenthal calls her – whose mother, Eva, had breast-fed him. Miriam Rosenthal was shocked to hear herself break into fluent German when requested to try; it was the first time since her year in the death camps she had spoken it.

But Rosenthal refused the filmmakers when they invited her to return to Dachau in April 2010 for the planned commemorations. “I could not make myself return to Kaufering. I had sleepless nights thinking about it.”

The ceremonies to mark the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Dachau took place on Sunday, May 2, 2010. Some 700 dignitaries were present. There was a ceremony in front of the former crematorium, various addresses by survivors, a wreath-laying ceremony. Horst Kohler, the federal president of the German parliament spoke, as did several other dignitaries. Five of the seven babies born in the concentration camp were present, from Canada, Brazil, Israel, Slovakia and Hungary.

Leslie Rosenthal was moved by the powerful, beautifully designed exhibition based on the documentary film, which is expected to travel to Holocaust memorials around the world, including Warsaw and New York. The documentary film on Miriam Rosenthal and the other mothers, bearing subtitles, will be shown internationally.

Rosenthal was invited to send a brief video of herself, to address the people attending the Munich gathering. In it, the articulate great-grandmother declares with strength: “I send this message to the people of Germany, especially the young people, but also politicians, educators, clergy. We must learn how to understand other suffering nations of the world. We must practise tolerance. Don’t be afraid to speak up, don’t be complacent.”

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Nearly three full decades ago, in 1981, Rosenthal honoured me with a lengthy interview for Toronto Life. As we finished, I asked a painful question: how could she remain a committed, Orthodox Jew after what she went through? She looked at me in shock at my query.

“I brought a son back from hell. How can I not believe in God?”

Allan Gould is a journalist, author, and lecturer who lives in Toronto.