Martha Sternbach was a teenager in 1944 when she was forced to enter and work in the Nazi’s largest extermination camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau. But shockingly it was after the Holocaust that her nightmare began — when she first learned that her entire family (and almost everyone in her town in Hungary) had been killed. Now at 93, Martha looks back with a broken heart and a deep burden of guilt for surviving the Holocaust but grateful to be alive and to have survived.
Martha’s 93rd Birthday was on November 17 — marking 75 years since the Holocaust had ended for her. With reverence, we honor Martha by starting our podcast with her story, forever a bright candle to light our darkness.
Our Story: BellyStory.com
In our first season of life here at the podcast, David All guides you through a collection of extraordinary personal life stories told by folks of all ages. Collectively, these 13 stories illustrate the overall pattern of a ‘Belly Story,’ our personal transformation.
By listening to these stories, our hope is for you to remember that the change in your life that forced you into the dark, gooey stage of life -- wasn't all unicorns and rainbows, but that is where you found your pot of gold -- and climbed up a new person.
We all find: Wisdom for our Soul; But for you today: It's Courage for your Journey.
- Martha was at Auschwitz-Birkenau from June-October 1944
- She had no idea the camp was a death camp; would later learn her entire family had been killed there
- Surviving the Holocaust was a different kind of nightmare for Martha and led to a deep sense of ‘Survivors Guilt’
- For more than four decades, Martha hid her experience from her husband and family
- Still today, Martha has a deep sense of generosity in her heart, everyone must be kind to one another
This is a song that Martha sings for us:
“Hallelujah, I’m alive. Hallelujah, I’ve survived.
"But Dear God I’m broken hearted and very very sad because evil men murdered my whole family and my friends, But I know that their soul is up with you in heaven.
"So please Dear God take good care of them, and the day will come when my soul will be together with them, then I’m going to sing Hallelujah again.”
Learn more about Martha Sternbach
Martha’s recent testimony to the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust: https://youtu.be/L5-XR1leg8k
Martha’s 1994 testimony - her first time sharing the story:
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David All: For Belly of the Beast Life Stories, I'm David All.
Martha Sternbach: I guess the guilt comes back to me; Why am I alive, why? You know, it's just one of those things, you know, it just stays with you.
David All: This podcast is about the time we all get knocked down in life and climb up a new person. Listen for free wherever you get your podcasts.
David All: Let me introduce you to Martha Sternbach. Seventy five years ago Martha survived the Holocaust. And now today at 93, she looks back at the experience with a broken heart, but also a warm and kind soul. Martha Sternbach, welcome to Belly of the Beast Life Stories.
David All: Can you explain to us what it was like when you returned to Hungary after the Holocaust?
Martha Sternbach: Yes, it was very dramatic because the first time I find out what happened to my family, I had no idea. I thought they were all alive. But unfortunately, I had no idea. And that's when I heard, because the Russians liberated Auschwitz in January 1945, and then the American Army liberated all those death camps. And that's what I find that what happened in 1945, May... end of May.
David All: When was the last time you were with your family?
Martha Sternbach: In the train on the way to Auschwitz and I was separated, they separated the men from the women and then my sister and I was holding on to my mom and this Capo asked my mom in German how old she was. She spoke very good German. She was only 42 and I have no idea why she said 52. And then when she said that, he pushed her to the left before we even asked what was going on he [Capo] said, "don't worry, you're going to see her later." And now we were in Poland and the concentration camp called Auschwitz and they were rushing us to go in further, further. And it was getting louder. You can make out with very high wire fences behind that wooden barracks with brick chimneys. And they were rushing us to go in further. This area called Birkenau. We came to a very large building. There were two girls - the older girl's name was... They called her the [unclear]. And the younger was Gerdia. I hope I remember her name. And they taught us to go into it in the building. And you have to take all our clothes off. There were hooks on the wall. Just hold on to our shoes. And we had to stand in line. And I was looking ahead and I saw this Capo shaving the girl's hair off and everywhere we had hair. I thought maybe they were dirty.
David All: Can you explain for us what a Capo is?
Martha Sternbach: They were actually prisoners from Czechoslovakia from Poland. Jewish prisoners. They were wearing striped suits and they called them Capos. I don't know exactly why, but that's what they call them, Capos. You know, the Germans were very interesting, clever because they did their dirty work. You know, they made them do that work.
David All: And so you were at Auschwitz, which was the site of one of the most lethal extermination camps. And it was the largest center for Jewish extermination. They estimate 1.1 million Jews were killed at Auschwitz.
Martha Sternbach: Right. Well, you know why we were there we had no idea why it had wire fences electric wire fences, you know, and many times we were talking. If it gets very difficult, maybe just go and touch the wire and end our life. But of course, when you young, you know, you still have hope and you waited. And it was interesting because there was always some kind of rumors one day somebody said this Rabbi sent the message. You will have to wear a red ring. If somebody had something red we were pulling out the thread and putting that thread on our finger. So there was always I don't know who made up those rumors to just give us hope, you know? And until I was with my sister and with our friends, you know, it wasn't as difficult. But once I was separated, it just became very, very difficult. You know, I became like a zombie. Just follow orders and, you know. But emotionally, it was very, very difficult.
David All: How old were you?
Martha Sternbach: I became seven- 18 in 1944, November 17. I became 18 years old.
David All: And, you know, can you describe what Auschwitz was like?
Martha Sternbach: That you know, we were isolated, you know, over around or high wires and the barracks. I'm not sure exactly. Was at least thirty one barracks. You know, you were in the barracks 18, you know, and once in a while they took us to take a shower and then they disinfect our clothes while we were taking a shower. And, you know, sometimes you don't even get back your dress that that you had on before. So everybody was rushing to get something that fits right. You know. And in the beginning, it was warm, you know, so it wasn't that bad, but at the end in the beginning of October was very cold in the morning, especially when you had to stay outside. You know, they counted us three times a day.
David All: And Auschwitz it wasn't just one place, Right? It was a series of camps?
Martha Sternbach: Many you know, this was Birkenau where we were. I remember when we went back a couple of years ago, I saw in Auschwitz they had blankets and pillows, you know, but we didn't have anything. We just had the wooden beds, you know. So it was, it was really rough in Birkenau.
David All: So I should point out that there was Auschwitz 1 which was the main camp which is where prisoners were held from the war. There was Auschwitz 2, which was Birkenau, which is what you're talking about. Yes. This was the largest camp and it was quote unquote, the extermination camp.
Martha Sternbach: Yes. That's where the gas chamber and the crematorium was when we went back, you know, the Nazis really blew up the crematorium because they wanted to get rid of evidence, but the ovens were still on when we went back. You know, they showed the ovens, yes.
David All: How long were you there?
Martha Sternbach: In the beginning of June we arrived there. And in the beginning of October they already took us away.
David All: And you weren't aware of the exterminations while you were there?
Martha Sternbach: Nothing, you know. I don't know if I mentioned before, you know why we were already selected we were outside. I saw this open truck full of bruised naked bodies. I looked at it and I just hard to believe what I saw. But then if somebody was sick you know, everybody said don't say nothing because if they're going to take you away you never come back. So sometimes when you got up in the morning, you see a dead body wrapped in a grey, grey blanket, you know. So a lot of girls died.
David All: So how is it possible that you weren't aware of seeing this horrendous...
Martha Sternbach: Many time I think my sister must have protected me because I think she had... She must have known something. I remember every time we had selection's I could see that she was scared. It was very strange, you know. I think there were 10 in a line when they were counting us so, from my hometown there were two other girls my age and two 10 years older than my sister. Somehow they always pulled me out of the line when why were in the selection line, you know, you could change places with one another. I remember standing with a group and I saw the girls taking bread from my barracks. So I went to them and I took a bread. They were angry at me, but I wanted to go back, that's when my sister was. So for all these months, I managed to get back because we were separated many of times.
David All: You were separated from your sister?
Martha Sternbach: Yes. But while we were in the [unclear], I managed to get back to her again. But I don't remember the very last night we were together in the [unclear] No, I don't know if she had the feeling she was holding on to me that last night. And I remember when we had this selection again, we had to get on this. I could see her face. I never forget that she was so scared.
David All: Did you say anything to her?
Martha Sternbach: I said to her, "don't worry. Don't worry. You're going to be all right." It's almost like I was the older one you know, because, you know, I thought she was so scared because, you know, she was thin that we got there and after all these months, she was even thinner. You know? But when the [unclear] told me that cause I told her I would like to go with my sister. She said, "you're not being fed. They are going to take her someplace where there's going to be more food so she should gain weight." And I believed her. I don't know why I was so naive or just plain stupid that I believed her. I guess I wanted to believe her.
David All: And what was the last time you saw her?
Martha Sternbach: That was the last time I saw her. We were standing in line without clothes and they pushed her in that little booth. You know, like when you go to vote, you know, with the curtain. They were pushing the girls that were not selected for work in that little booth. And they pushed her in that little booth.
David All: What was in this little booth?
Martha Sternbach: You know, after I was wondering if this small little booth where can all these girls fit in. To me, it must have a trap door and probably I don't know, from the fall or I guess I don't know what happened after... I really don't know nobody. I don't think anybody knew.
David All: Is this when you saw Josef Mengele?
Martha Sternbach: Many times. You know, it used to come to select us and he had this kind of like a horse whip and he would touch you with that -- pulled you out of the line. That's how it was selecting the girls.
David All: Josef Mengele, he was also known as the 'Angel of Death,' he was a German SS officer and a physician...
Martha Sternbach: He was very friendly - was a good looking man, very friendly. And like I said, they were very clever. You know, they just know how to many people that arrived at day time, they had a whole orchestra playing, you know. We came middle of the night, you know, very early in the morning so we didn't see that we didn't have orchestra.
David All: Did he select your sister?
Martha Sternbach: No. By that time, I don't know who was selecting. No, I didn't see him the last time. No, he wasn't there.
David All: So thinking about life in the camp. In the concentration camp. What did you think about at night?
Martha Sternbach: You know, because we were all togetherI guess that's what's happening us and I could tell you something interesting. There were two girl sisters very good voices and they would sing to us. You know, Hebrew songs. And these two girls had grandparents in the town where I was born. And my two cousins from Budapest would come down in the summer so we would always spend the summer together. So these two girls had good voices and always sing to us to keep us quiet. Because other than that, when we were not they gave us something to eat that was three times a day. When they counted us. They call that [unclear]. Otherwise we would just stay inside. And, you know, talking between us many times we talk if you ever get out from there and the world is gonna find out -- it's going to be changed for the better.
David All: How did you maintain the will to live?
Martha Sternbach: Well, I never lost faith in God. And somehow always believed that probably I had parents, especially my mom was such a good person, you know, loving, caring, you know. And I don't know where she was, but I was told that she probably think of us. And that too helped me. Yes.
David All: Was there abuse happening all of the time around you?
Martha Sternbach: Only once I saw, you know. She was a doctor and she saw her husband through the wires and she was talking to her husband and this SS woman was beating her up. She was standing there. She didn't cry. She was standing. She did survive. That's the only time I saw beating. You know, because, you know, [unclear], you know, she was Jewish. She was from Czechoslovakia, so you know, we behave, you know, we weren't wild people, you know. And what we talked about, that if ever we get out from there, what we gonna eat because we would all be hungry, you know, whatever they gave us. It really wasn't enough. And you're young, you need more food at the time we sit and talk about what we gonna eat and if we get out of there. Yes.
David All: That's what kept you going.
Martha Sternbach: You know, hopeful. Yes.
David All: So how did you return to your hometown after the liberation?
Martha Sternbach: My aunt came with me, you know, and my neighbors were telling me that the mayor ran away and most of the homes were looted. And when I tell you when things started to happen, you had no idea what's going on that's the new laws started to happen. At night, we picked up the floorboard for one of the big bedrooms. And we dug a big hole there. And my father lined that with metal pieces that candy came in those. And we put the silver and very expensive fabric silk and, you know, filled up that bag and we covered it up. We put back the board and we covered that up with carpet. So when I came back they told us they find the big hole in the room and even the furniture was stolen, you know. So if you wanted to get back your property, you would have had to stay in Hungary and hired a lawyer. I couldn't care about things anymore. We had the whole store of merchandise, you know, but my neighbors were telling me that the police would always go and they used to come out fat. They probably stole things and they hide it under their uniform. Like I said, things didn't mean anything anymore. I just wanted to get out of the country. The Russians were occupying and I really didn't want to stay there anymore.
David All: So according to the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, five hundred and sixty nine thousand Hungarian Jews were killed, representing nearly three quarters of all Jews in Hungary. So your entire community was...
Martha Sternbach: Yes. From my hometown only I and two other girls survived that a couple men did survive. I really didn't meet them. You know, I think they went to Palestine. I didn't meet anybody else just these two friends. One was my age and one was 10 years older.
David All: Do you remember the day that you learned that your family had all been killed at Auschwitz?
Martha Sternbach: Well it was end of May when I got back to Hungary? I don't know exactly the date. You know, I just remember when after we came down from those hills was 1945, April 13 on a Saturday, and of course the war wasn't over yet, so we had to stay Germany. And I don't know exactly the date and I got back. And I don't remember. It was winter when I left Hungary, but I don't remember exactly what month it was... I know it was winter.
David All: Regardless of exact day, but do you remember like how you learned about the news and how it made you feel...
Martha Sternbach: You know, when we arrived at the station the young man -- most of them was survivors of the Holocaust -- he asked me my name and where I was from. And my mom had an older sister that lived in Budapest. Had two cousins. One were my age and one was two years younger. And my uncle and he said to me, "you know the whole family is back in their own apartment." And that's when I got there. That's when I find that they told me what happened. And it was difficult but no matter how much I cried, it didn't change anything. My aunt and uncle worry about me. You know, so I tried my best and someone asked me if I had any nightmares. I had no. But when I got back to Hungary, I used to dream that my whole family was alive. When I woke up, that was the nightmare. You know, the reality was a nightmare.
David All: Do you still dream about the things that happened to you?
Martha Sternbach: No, no. I think of my husband in life, you know, and I don't have nightmares really. And when you really do watch television sometimes you you dream about that. But I dream a lot. It's interesting. They made it with my husband because I think about, you know, it reminded me this song not long ago: A Dream is an issue before you go to sleep. Isn't that something? Because that's what you know, all of a sudden I remembered it. Once I watched the concert from Hungary and the piano player was an American, young men and the violin player was a famous Hungarian, which I have no idea who he was in this young lady, African-American young lady was singing 'Hallelujah.' I don't know the verse for it, but after that finished, I made up my own. I said,. [singing] "Hallelujah, I'm alive. Hallelujah. I have survived. But Dear God, I'm broken hearted and very, very sad because evil men murdered my whole family and my friends. But I know then their soul is up with you in heaven. So please, dear God, take care of them. And when the day will come that my soul will be together with all of them then I'm going to sing Hallelujah again."
David All: Hallelujah. Martha, let's take a break. We'll come right back.
Martha Sternbach: Okay.
David All: We're back with Martha Sternbach. Martha just told her powerful story of being a survivor of the Holocaust, of living through Auschwitz and the terror of that. And then after liberation, returning to Hungary to find out the news that in Auschwitz, her entire family had been killed. You've expressed before a lot of guilt.
Martha Sternbach: Yes.
David All: Around this time.
Martha Sternbach: Yes. I felt very guilty, especially for my sister. You know, if I would have known, I would have run with her. I would have never survived. But I had no idea. No idea what was going on. No, but of course then you see, young men wounded, became beggars on the street and then you met these young children that didn't even remember their parents. So, you know, you kind of tell yourself, you know, at least I'm in one piece and healthy. And I felt if I'm alive I'm a responsible person, I have to do something. That means... it's important. That's why when I heard about those young children, I told my aunt and uncle that I'm going to leave the country with those children. And there were organizations to arrange this, you know.
David All: So you were working an orphanage?
Martha Sternbach: Yes, I was getting to know during the day I spent time with those children. There was a young woman with a daughter with them, too. And then we were ready to leave the country we were already on the train so Hungary was called the Russian zone. And just before we went the train went over to the Americans on this Russian Soldiers came up on the train and they were looking what everybody was carrying. They looked in my knapsack. I had that two silver candleholders that was my mom's. And they took everything, you know, but this interesting how I couldn't care less about things, you know? You know, when you're young, you love nice clothes and you've... I felt safe. My family's always there... my home is always there.... But once you lose it everything changes: your values, your priorities. And it was very important that the children needed me. That was very important to me. So the first stop in the American zone was Vienna. We didn't stay there too long. They took us into Germany. I don't know if you know what a DP camp is. They called displaced persons camp. Thousand of us young girls and young men that was working in those factories lost our families and our homes. So there was a lot of these DP camps that one I went called [Name of camp]. And I'm sure the American Red Cross. Then there was other two organizations that hire us and [unclear] they had their community kitchen and [unclear]. And of course, we were trying to teach children to write and read. And one day the children put on the show. And we were watching the children. In front of me a girl turned around. I became friends with those four sisters. They were much older than I was. And then we became... when we went home to Hungary I stayed in Budapest and they went back to their home city. I didn't think I'm going to see them again. And seeing her, like, really finding your own sister. She told me we went to Budapest to look for you and your aunt and uncle, said Martha is some place in Germany maybe going to find her. So really I was so happy to see her and she told me that the older sister her name was Beena - she was about 12 years older than I was. She married a young man that his wife and children were killed in Auschwitz. She stayed in Hungary. And she said, you know, my sister Gladys, she also married a young man that his wife and children were killed in Auschwitz. Esther was the youngest. She was three years older. And I was - Hannah was about eight years old.
David All: So this is, in a way, your new family.
Martha Sternbach: This is what drive me because we kept up until they were alive. We called each other [Camp] sisters. We kept in touch with each other. I still Esther's daughter. She sent me a picture. My daughter has it on the telephone. She looks just like Esther, her daughter. It was important because like, we were like, well, you know, we never thought anybody anything. But between our self, sometimes we would remind ourselves... remember, you know, this and that.
David All: You know, in the displaced camps, were you able to practice your religion freely?
Martha Sternbach: Yes. You know, the kitchen that was set up was Kosher. We didn't eat ham or bacon. Yes, it was. Yes. And we observe, you know, we had a Rabbi and, you know, we studied and we observed the Sabbath.
David All: Did that start to feel like normal again?
Martha Sternbach: That's what, you know, the organization that I came up with the children. [Unclear] Religious, that's what made me also leave the children because they you know, the zionist they don't really believe in that, you know. And it's so interesting, those young children like two ballgame team, you know, how they hated each other for what you know? They just because they would one was this one with that, you know. And so when we had this in the DP camp Mizrachi, which was religious - incident happened. You know, I had relatives in New York and one of my cousins used to send me packages and I got the notice from the post office on Friday. It was too late for it to go the post office the next day, Saturday, so I could go, but I had to sign my name to get my package And I didn't want to sign my name. So there was a young man from Poland. They were not religious. So I said to him, if you come with me and sign for me, I will give you something from the package. And the Rabbi find out about it. And he told me, you know, that's the worse then to ask another Jew to do that for you. It was a big mistake, a big sin. Yes. And you you don't understand. You know, I don't know if you heard of the ritual bath before a Jewish girl gets married? They have to go to it and go in, like dunking there, like and you have to know how to swim. So one of my friend's sister had the key to that and said we could go swimming, you know. And then they find out about it. I mean, you know, girls have their period, so they have to bring some dry ice to clean that because it bright had to go there that night, you know? So this thing you learn about to me is nonsense. And I guess those days they didn't that everybody didn't have the bathroom or anything. So they had to maybe do this, you know, before the Stone Age. You have to have these special baths.
David All: Was there a moment after the war when you just accepted that this was the new normal?
Martha Sternbach: Well, like I said, when I put the puzzle together, I was the last one that saw my grandma and my cousin with the children. And my sister and I were my sister and my brother went away to school. And I spend all my time with my parents. I didn't want to go away. So all this and what if I would have gone with my friends I would never survived. So all this, you know, think about that. There is nothing that I could have done. And because I never lost faith in God. And I do believe that soul goes up to heaven. So I guess that. But of course, you still feel pain. You know, it's not so simple. Losing your whole family, but little things, you know. I remember I was so fortunate, the kind of parents and the family I had, you know. A boy was to Yeshiva, you know, to be a bar mitzvah, you know. I think my brother must have been like 10 years old, but he looked very young, you know. And my mom said, you gonna go to the yeshiva and he didn't go farther than my grandmother in the city. But he said, no, I was so attached to my mom, you know, he was poor, the youngest. And do I have to go? Why do I have to go? So my mom said to be a mensch. You know what a mensch is to be a man. So Okay. Once in awhile before he came home, he would send a postcard because he loved Coffeecake. But to make bake for him. And then my father was called into the army. All of a sudden he came home and my mom said to him. Remember why did you come home when daddy went to the army, so I came home. And so my mom said, remember we talked about it why you in school to be a mensch. He said, I'm already a mensch. You know, he looked so young. And my mom, I was watching my mom's face. And he smiled. He said, you right? You are a little mensch. These things I never forget, you know. And I always remember I was kind of like a tomboy. My sister was always was thin and was dressed like like a model and you know, I always remember that I looked up to my sister, you know, she was a young lady and I was kind of a tomboy. She used to tell me I took a permanent. What did you do with your hair? You know. So it was like, I have three children, three grandchildren, and so different, you know, each of them have their own personality.
David All: Did you develop any coping skills?
Martha Sternbach: Well, I'm going to tell you, when I was in Canada. That was probably difficult because all of a sudden I didn't have my friends with less than it was all over the family. I remember going up one night, looking up in the sky, said, please, dear God, I'm so lonely, help. You know, it came time because, you know, it was like a strange country, you know, and all of a sudden that was far from even my friends. So You know, I cried a lot. I'm not saying, you know, I cried a lot. It was difficult. And even when, I went to New York and I live with my aunt. And all of a sudden I said to her, you know, maybe I'm going to leave the country. I'm gonna go to Palestine. But then I think it was Israel already because they voted while I was still in the DP camp to become Israel. And she said to me, oh, you would hurt us so much we your family. Because I still felt, you know, like nobody needed me. You know, it was important that somebody should need you. You know, it was important. So I adjusted I mean, you know, there are moments that difficult. But I tried my best.
David All: Did you feel different than other people?
Martha Sternbach: You know, it's interesting. I always remember if you travel, then ask somebody for directions. They always talk to you very loud. I would have liked them to talk slower because I wasn't hard of hearing. [laugh] But there's certain things, you know, you know, many times. I was worried also when I had children. They shouldn't be embarrassed with me, with my accent. You know, I remember, you know, nobody know very few people unless you had relatives in Hungary. what was a country, Hungary. But there was a famous 10 little gypsy boy that played the violin, and they were very famous. They traveled all around the world. So one of my my daughter's friend, Linda's friend, her mother was a piano teacher. She must have heard about these gypsies, you know. So she told everybody this. Linda's mother is their Hungarian gypsy. You know, my daughter didn't tell me the story later on. And so my children did probably have problem because, you know, I didn't have my own sister or my family or luckily my husband had, you know, but it wasn't the same, you know.
David All: Were there any sounds or any experiences that you went through that triggered old memories? Like a train whistle, for example?
Martha Sternbach: It's interesting. I'm going to tell you something that you call deja vu. You know we were coming to the George Washington building one night and it was lit up in that time or the ticket takers used to wear a uniform. They became war for a second. It took me back with all those lights, you know. And this woman in uniform was walking through it just for a second. I didn't even want to say to my husband, you know, it was something. Another experience, we went to a [park] with my children. My grandsons were... one was five and one was two and a half. And it was very hot day. But there was a show with the dolphins so the big one wanted to see the show. So my daughter and my son in-law went into the show. And my husband and I went with my little grandson, Alex, inside there was entertainment. And you could buy food. And then I see these two older men and a young boy wearing shorts, leather shorts, with suspenders, you know. During the... When we were working in the factory. It was New Year's. And they would hear the Germans having a party and they would sing the polka. So these two older men and this young man came and reminded me, because in Germany, they dressed like that. Probably in Switzerland they dress like that. And they started to play the polka. And for a minute You know, I didn't know what to do. And then all of a sudden, I see everybody tapping their feet and clapping. And I took my grandson's hand and I was clapping. And I thought to myself, I'm free now - they entertaining me. I mean, you could make negative things about it or you could see look, I'm free now. It was a very hot day and they was sweating. And I said, my God, they entertaining, I'm a Jew and they entertaining me. You know, it's the way you interpret things the way you wanted. And I like to be more positive, you know, getting angry or hate doesn't....it's waste of energy, you know.
David All: Take us back to the first time you met your husband or first couple of times and you're dating... my question is very specifically, did you bring up your experience?
Martha Sternbach: Never. Never talked about it - he never knew about it. And he had a sister - an older sister that was in Auschwitz - lost a little girl there and she had numbers on her arms. We never talked about it. You know, when he find out the first time or what happened? In 1994 when I made that tape, he came with me, but he wasn't in the room. But I went home and I put on the tape. And then he know.
David All: And you made a video. A video testimonial. [Ed. Note: YouTube video link of Martha's testimony from 1994 included in the episode notes.]
Martha Sternbach: If you go to the YouTube probably think that I never talked about. And and then after we got a brochure about the trip to Poland and that's when he said, "we gonna go back two us" reading it at the same time and said we gonna go on that tour, yes.
David All: Was he from Hungary?
Martha Sternbach: He was from Romania. The are where Elie Wiesel came from, but they came before the war. Well, except that one sister was married and she went to Auschwitz. But her husband survived to.
David All: Your experience was very similar to Elie Wiesel.
Martha Sternbach: Yeah you know. You know, it's also... we met Elie Wiesel. I don't know who has the book that he signed. And he was saying that when he was a little boy, his mother took him to this Rabbi. And this Rabbi said to his mother. "One day he's going to be famous." Now, I don't know if he guessed... because when you see, he was younger than I was, a little skinny boy, and he survived. So things had to happen. He survived and he wrote these books and his experiences, you know. If you see, you could see the pain on his face, you know? Isn't that something? So I have this book with his speeches, everybody's speeches in in that book, you know, and we were in Washington for a couple of days.
David All: Elie Wiesel is the author of 'Night' very famously. And many other books.
Martha Sternbach: Yes, I have one that's a play. I don't if I put it back in the library. I have so many books.
David All: So can we talk about your storytelling? And you know, I want to start with the first time you went to a gathering of Holocaust survivors.
Martha Sternbach: Yeah, it was very important. You know, my daughters came with me to Washington. And, you know, they were shocked everywhere, you know, to talk about talk about certain things. And that was very important. And the speeches. You know, the speeches. Elie Wiesel and President Reagan. Mrs. Reagan, was there, too. I have pictures of them in all the speeches and the second generation, these young men were very involved. You know, he was he was born in the DP camp. And this couple, a Benjamin [unclear]. They were the ones also with Elie Wiesel that organized this. You know, the survivors. They were very active, you know, and they all passed away already, you know. I don't know if you ever heard of [Tova Felcher?]. So her parents were also survivors. You know, so one year we had a TV watching in the California, you know, in the hotel. And she was there with her parents.
David All: What was the first time he told you your story?
Martha Sternbach: In 1994 the [video testimonial]. And they approached me many a time. But, you know, I was always afraid because I was afraid they going to say, you know, you know, it's not true and all this. Or write the book, I don't like that either, because somebody told me somebody said, write the book with her. And he was putting in things that really wasn't true to be dramatic. I said, no, I wouldn't do that. No, I just want to say the way I lived - the way I remembered, you know, I wouldn't say anything that wasn't [true].
David All: How did you talk to your children about this?
Martha Sternbach: They heard about it when I made the tape, I made copies. They all have copies of that. Yes.
David All: Why did you keep silent all these years?
Martha Sternbach: Nobody ever talked about it. It's you know, if somebody asked me, how come you're alive? It's almost like it was your fault. You know, and I tell you another thing. What happened after the war went into the city where my mom came from, you know. Certain things Jewish people don't do, like on a Saturday you don't carry a package or things, you know. And I was in the city that my mom came from and I went for a walk with a girl. And it was a little chilly. So I put my blazer on my shoulder and she did the same thing. And we were coming back and her Mother was standing by the door, and said, do you know today is Saturday, you're not allowed to wear your jacket like that. You have to put it on. So she said -- she was younger than I was. She said, but Martha was wearing it like that. So she said to her, well Martha doesn't have a mother to tell her. I never said that to anybody. A couple of months ago, I was with my son. I said to him, I'm gonna ask you something and I tell him what happened. I said, How come, I said, You're a psychiatrist. Tell me why I never mentioned this was 75 years? Never mentioned. He said to me, Mom. It was hurting you so much that you just blocked it out of your mind. Because when she said that, he thought it was like my fault that I don't have a mother, you know. it's just I guess the guilt comes back. Why am I alive, why? You know, it's just one of those things. You know, it just. Stays with you.
David All: You've talked about this guilt before and I've been doing some research on it because I was just so surprised why you would feel guilty at all. But I found that it is a thing. It's called survivor's guilt.
Martha Sternbach: Yes. Yes.
David All: And I'll just read this: "survivor's guilt as the experience of feeling guilty for surviving a situation or experience that caused death or injury to others. The term was first applied in the 1960s to describe Holocaust survivors.".
Martha Sternbach: Yes.
David All: And it's a real thing.
Martha Sternbach: I tell you when we had the first gathering in Washington then people talked about it. That [inaudible] told me that other people feel like that, too, you know, that that was that we all had the experience. Yes.
David All: So you mentioned that you went back to Poland?
Martha Sternbach: Yes. We went back with Israeli tour. Yes. To Auschwitz birkenhau and other camps too. I forgot all that I had books. I don't know what happened. I forgot the names of, you know, everything in Poland. You know, it was very strange. One night, a driver was supposed to take us to a hotel. It was very late at night. And it was so eery, you know, sitting on the bus and the driver was a Polish driver. But our guide was an Israeli young man. I don't know why it was too late. We couldn't find a hotel. So he took us to an inn, you know. And it was such a hot night. Only had air condition in the lobby. And I remember having a room and open the door and the mosquitoes was coming in and dogs were barking. It was just.. it was such, you know, you when used to it at you know, I remember I said to my man, you know what? I'm not going to sleep, I'm going to go wash my hair. And, you know, and I never slept that night and early in the morning, even down to the lobby, because it was it was an eery feeling. It was almost like oh my God, I'm back in Poland, you know? You know, it was a strange feeling. But there is a museum in Warsaw, you know. And it was interesting, so the guide he was using Hebrew words. So somebody ask, are you Jewish? He said, well, according to the Jewish law, I'm not because my mother is not Jewish, my father is Jewish. And we met his father. He was he had the key for the cemetaries, you know, and he said, my grandson is studying in Israel. And it was interesting. They all want to know now about -- the young people -- want to know the history. You know, in Poland a lot of famous people, you know, came from Poland. There's a community there. You know, a Jewish community.
David All: So now you tell your story on a daily basis almost at the Museum of Tolerance here in Los Angeles...
Martha Sternbach: ...Yesterday and tomorrow, every Wednesday and Friday.
David All: Staying busy!
Martha Sternbach: You're waking up middle of the night I wish I could tell a happier story. But you know what? I have a sense of humor. And I don't know if you if you know, in Israel. They call the Wailing Wall? And, you know, so there is a room in the Holocaust survivor [museum]. They call it the wailing wall, six million little holes. And people make notes and put it in there. So there was a story in Israel, you know, this guy lived across the street from the Wailing Wall and he saw people from all over the world coming. But then he noticed this old man he came three times a day. For weeks he's watching. So it was so curious. He went out and he said to him, tell me, what are you praying for? He said, well, I'm praying for peace and health. And tell me, is your prayer being answered? Yes. Me, sometimes I think I'm just talking to the wall. [Laughing].
Martha Sternbach: So, you know, these are the jokes that I like to tell jokes. I like to see people smile, you know, because sometimes the children think it's disrespectful. But I want them to smile already, you know? And that's why I talk about my grandchildren. You know, I want them to smile, you know?
David All: Martha, let's take a break, then we'll come back for some closing thoughts.
David All: We're back with Martha for some closing thoughts. Martha has any good come out of this?
Martha Sternbach: Well that's what we were hoping while we were Auschwitz we were talking about it. If we ever get out from there and the world is going to hear about it is gonna turn for the better. Well one thing is we got our own country because the Nazis said we went to like the sheep to the slaughterhouse. Well, they had guns and dogs. How can you run away? You know, but I think from what I learned, because I've only remembered good people. How important is to be kind to one another because sooner or later we will all meet our makers and let God be the judge?
David All: When you made that decision in the 80s to go to that gathering of Holocaust survivors. It must have opened up just the whole dam of emotions for you.
Martha Sternbach: Yes.
David All: You've really never been able to put back in the box. So I wonder, do you feel. Are you happy that you made that decision?
Martha Sternbach: Of course. You know, and it's interesting that I made that tape I never forget that. And I said well, you have to remember, hate and prejudice is a disease, if you're not careful it could destroy the word. You know, it was the last thing, I think, at the end of the tape. That's the way I felt about it. And many times and people said, oh, I wouldn't go to Germany. I said, you know, I don't want to hear that. This is the third generation. We don't want you then to suffer for what their father or grandfather sins, you know, we want to mend the world we don't want to start all over again. You got to find solutions. You got to know each other and live in peace. You know, I wish they would show good things, you know? I have a cousin that in Israel and her children are friends with arab children, and go to their schools, universities. You know, I wish they would show some of that. And average people want to live in peace. I don't think there's one mother in this world that one that child to be killed or be a killer. You know, you have to remember that what we don't understand why this is couple of leaders that just make trouble. They don't learn from the past. What happened to Saddam Hussein. Bin Laden and this one that they caught. You know. You know, it's hard to understand evil. It's very hard. I don't know what the solution is, but I wouldn't give up. I still hope that one day they find the way to -- so we could live in peace in the world. You know, it would be very important.
David All: Martha, thank you so much for the story.
Martha Sternbach: Thank you for listening. I appreciate it.