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Interviewee: Helen Tichauer
Interviewer: David P. Boder
Recordist: David P. Boder
Transcriber: Dagmar Platt
Translator: David P. Boder
Writer of added commentary: Donald Niewyk
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Interview Commentary

Much of what we know about the operation of Auschwitz comes from prisoners who worked in its offices and lived to tell their story. Helen Tichauer's skills as a commercial artist came in handy when the Germans were developing ways of identifying and numbering prisoners in the early days of Auschwitz II (Birkenau). This led to her appointment as a kind of unofficial draftsperson in the camp headquarters, which shielded her from selections and murderous work details to the very end of the camp.

Tichauer was a native of Bratislava, which in 1939 became the capital of Slovakia. Three years later, at the age of twenty-three, she was among the first Slovakian Jews deported to Auschwitz. (Jewish women from Slovakia, among the first women sent to Auschwitz and often fluent in German, were well represented among the Auschwitz office workers. Of the twenty-seven women included in Lore Shelley's Secretaries of Death, fifteen arrived from Slovakia in 1942.) At first she lived in the original camp, Auschwitz I, while helping to construct the new facilities at nearby Birkenau. Then, in August 1942 she was transferred to the women's camp there. Almost immediately she made herself indispensable to the SS by painting stripes and printing numbers on the prisoners' clothing. Later, installed in the camp offices, she kept records of deaths and workforce allocations for the administration. This position gave her an overall view of the camp available to few of its prisoners. Who else, for example, could have arranged a personal visit to the "little white cottage," a former farmhouse where the first gassings took place at Birkenau before the construction of four modern crematoria during the first half of 1943? Nor could she miss the boundless cynicism in the Nazi deception of Gypsies and Czech Jews in 1944, holding out false hopes of salvation to the very end. Although "Zippi" (as she became known in the camp and subsequently) was always conscious of being in hell, she took a certain pride in her efficiency and the recognition it won from her German bosses. Immersing oneself in work was one way of forgetting for a moment the flames just outside the door.

Evacuated to Ravensbrück and then to one of its many satellite camps in Mecklenberg, Tichauer slipped away from her guards during the last days of fighting and lay low, waiting for the Russians to liberate her. Upon her return to Bratislava, she found just one brother there. Everyone else in her family had perished. She might have stayed there—conditions for survivors in Bratislava were evidently quite different from those in rural areas—but for her decision to marry another survivor who planned to join relatives in South America. She and her new spouse lived at the DP camp at Feldafing, near Munich, where she was interviewed in September 1946.

From FRESH WOUNDS: EARLY NARRATIVES OF HOLOCAUST SURVIVAL by Donald L. Niewyk. Copyright (c) 1998 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.