This poem offers insight into the experiences of a group of Hungarian Jewish women deported from Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen to work at the Junkers Aircraft and Engine Company factory in Markkleeberg between August and September of 1944.1 Women living in camps like Markkleeberg sometimes formed close support systems that are sometimes referred to as "camp families" to help them survive. This poem is a record of one such group.
As the Allied armies advanced toward Germany in the fall and winter of 1944, conditions within the Nazi concentration camp system became increasingly brutal and deadly. Nazi authorities evacuated concentration camps and killing centers as Allied forces approached the sites. They attempted to destroy evidence of their crimes and hastily deported the prisoners to camps in the interior of the Reich. Thousands of prisoners did not survive the harsh conditions of these so-called "death marches." The resulting overcrowding in the remaining camps made hunger, disease, and starvation even more severe among the neglected and abused prisoners.
Written by a young woman named Erzsébet Frank, this poem is illustrated with a pencil drawing of the group of women welders. The SS marched these women between the camp and the factory every day for months, subjecting them regularly to beatings, solitary confinement, and public humiliation. At the time the poem was written in February 1945, the swelling prisoner population at Markkleeberg was already straining the camp’s inadequate barracks and limited washing facilities.
Markkleeberg itself closed soon afterward. German authorities evacuated the camp in April 1945 and marched most of its prisoner population toward Theresienstadt. Some women managed to escape, but those who could not keep pace were killed along the way. More than 1,500 women left Markkleeberg, but less than half of them arrived at Theresienstadt.2
One of the women welders managed to preserve the poem during the forced march. Ten out of twelve of these welders survived the war, which speaks to the powerful role of support systems and "camp families." This document helps illuminate the variety of different contexts in which Jewish forced labor was utilized—as well as the prisoners' responses to their circumstances.3