My mother has dementia – but can still remember the Nazi doctor who gave her ‘medicine’ at Auschwitz

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A month after leaving Siberia, Alina and Olga reached Tallinn. The city was bedlam. Six months earlier, the Nazis had been bombing it. Now the Germans were in control and the Allies pummelled the city with their new allies, the Soviets. 

The Nazis had mined the harbour to make sure no one could get in or out but behind drawn curtains, deals were being struck with families desperate to escape. Stefan found a fisherman who agreed to help them get to Sweden. 

The fishing boat left at 2am. It wove in and out of sunken destroyers and from the sea, my mum watched the cathedral lit up by sudden flashes of Allied bombs exploding. Olga clutched Alina’s arm and smiled broadly. Alina never forgot that smile.

January 1942

Red Cross Hospital, southern Sweden

Alina could not get over the fact that her father wasn’t waiting for them in Sweden when they arrived. She blamed her mother and they stayed out of each other’s way – Olga turned her tarot cards alone, Alina played hide and seek with other children who had made it to Sweden from all over Europe. 

The Swedish hospital was one of her happiest times. She was allowed to build dens and explore, free of danger, but it did not last long.

One morning Olga woke bolt upright. ‘We’re leaving. Pack your clothes.’

Olga had no idea what had happened to her [other three] children. Her choice now was brutal: stay safe in Sweden, or risk both their lives to find Kazhik, Juta and Pavel.

I asked my mother how she felt about this. ‘We had safety for the first time in Sweden and I was happy. She decided to go to Warsaw because she felt guilty about leaving my brothers and sister behind… Well, what about me?’

Olga had no trouble finding a smuggler. The plan was to go from Sandhammaren in southern Sweden and cross to the Danish island of Bornholm, where they would be handed to another guide. There was one problem. The sea had frozen over and they would need dogs to pull them across. Some areas were thick with ice but others were too thin for a sled; they could fall through and drown.

23 January 1942

Bornholm, Denmark

The first half of the journey was uneventful but as the sled approached Bornholm, Olga became anxious. It was not the deserted stop-off point that their smuggler Orhan had led them to believe but a heavily fortified Nazi stronghold. Searchlights criss-crossed the ice. 

Orhan told Olga to remain calm. But Orhan had miscalculated their route. They were on the south side, near the Luftwaffe runway, the most heavily defended part of Bornholm. It was a massive cock-up.

Orhan pulled a white bed sheet out of a rucksack and they began tracking by foot across the ice. It was so cold, Alina could no longer feel her limbs. When the wind dropped there was silence. Then they heard the plane. 

It was a distant, tinny sound at first, but as it approached, its engine grew louder. It was a Luftwaffe reconnaissance light aircraft, out on a scout. Its searchlight shone directly on to the ice, which acted like a mirror, the single light becoming a thousand searchlights, each refracting off the surface. It was the most terrifying moment of Alina’s life.

As the plane approached the searchlight became impossible to hide from; my mum urinated in her pants. In a single balletic flourish, Orhan threw the white sheet over all three of them, so fast, my mum didn’t know it had even happened. 

One moment they were exposed on the ice waiting to be shot at, the next lying flat on the ground with a sheet over them.

The reconnaissance plane was firing uncreatively in regular 10-second bursts. As it flew overhead, it was so fast and low that the sheet lifted. But the moment they were revealed, the pilot climbed steeply away.

February 1942

Kołobrzeg to Warsaw, Poland

When they reached Poland, Olga and Alina crossed a country they scarcely recognised. My mum had seen mutilated bodies in Siberia, but not on this scale. 

They lay piled against the side of the road of towns mixed in with the black, oily snow or stood against crucifixes in fields. Murdered by the Gestapo for collaborating with the resistance, or the other way round.

On a bright February morning, Olga and Alina finally arrived in Warsaw. Alina had not seen her brothers and sister for three years.

‘What if they’re not here?’ she whispered nervously.

‘They are,’ Olga said. The tarot cards had foretold it.

She pressed the ivory doorbell of their second-floor apartment.

‘Klo to jest? [Who is it?]’ said a voice – it was Kazhik.

‘Matka [Mother],’ Olga replied.

In the kitchen they all embraced. Olga sat on the chair, weeping. Pavel put his arm around her. Kazhik told Alina a joke and pinched her cheek. She was just happy they were back together.

19 April 1943

Warsaw

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