The Nazis took most of the money Jews had in bank accounts. Jews no longer were allowed to shop in regular stores. “There was a special store only for Jews.” After the British bombed Hamburg in 1939, Jews had their own air raid shelter “because we were not supposed to be together with the other Germans. They were crazy.”
“Things became progressively worse,” said Bauer.
She could only go to school until she was 15, then was forced to work in a factory.
Some of her Jewish classmates began to emigrate but her father would not leave. “My father said: ‘I have done nothing wrong, nothing will happen to me’. He was completely wrong.”
She said her father twice transported children to England, but she wasn’t allowed to go. He said: “You will take the place of another child. So I wound up in Auschwitz.”
People in the audience gasped -- the first of several times.
Around 1939, when she was 16, she had to start wearing the yellow star with the word “Jew” on it. She said the stars also were posted on doors of Jewish homes. The first morning she wore the yellow star on a subway, a man got up her and gave her his seat, saying: “Please sit down.”
Jews had to surrender their jewelry, their silverware, even their radios. One day a Nazi even took their apartment, forcing them to move into a Jewish apartment that had no heat or hot water.
The Nazis closed her father’s school, where her mother also worked as a doctor and teacher. “That must have been the worst day of his life.”
Into the camps
She was 18 when she went into the concentration camps and 21 when she was liberated. She said she spent the three best years of her life being a prisoner. “I don’t think I ever cried. I accepted. You know, the Germans are funny people. When you are told to do something, you do it.”
When Esther was 18, the family got a notice that they had to leave. Each person was allowed only one suitcase. They were taken by train to Terezin in what is now the Czech Republic – a concentration camp better known as Theresienstadt. “We walked in and, from one minute to the next, we were prisoners.” Their luggage was left in the courtyard. “Needless to say we never saw it again.” They had to sleep on a stone floor and men, women and children shared wooden slat latrines.
Her father has been told he would have a school at Terezin. But he had to shovel coal and died within six weeks of meningitis. “He just couldn’t do the work. But I always said he died more of a broken heart. They lied to him so much that he could not accept.”
She decided to marry Jan Leiner, an older Czech prisoner known as Honza. “You could get married but you couldn’t live together. But we found ways!” Only three days after they were married, he was taken from the camp. She was told she could follow him and decided to do so, even though it meant leaving her mother. “To say goodbye to your mother is very hard,” she said. “Unfortunately, I never saw her again.”
Rather than being reunited with her husband at a work camp, she was taken by train to Auschwitz in Poland, “the worst of all camps. We came in and there stood Dr. Mengele -- you may have heard of him. He said ‘you go right, you go left’.” Bauer was in a group sent to the showers. Because they already knew all about Auschwitz, they figured “this is the end. But water came out.”
Later she was transferred out of Auschwitz back to Germany, where she worked in an aircraft factory for 12 hours a day. “The only act of sabotage I could do was either make the rivets too short or too long. I say no airplane will ever fly that I worked on.”
As the war progressed, the factory ran out of materials to make airplanes, so in April 1945 she again was put on a train and taken to another camp—Mauthausen in Austria –“a horrible, horrible camp.” She said it had a stone quarry where the Nazis killed thousands by making them jump.
Bauer was very ill when the American troops liberated that camp in May 1945, but remembers thinking: “From one minute to the next, we were free. I will never forget that moment. I said to myself: ‘Now I want to live. Now I want to be happy’.” She was 21 years old. The Americans nursed her back to health.
She lived in an apartment in Linz, Austria, after being liberated and remembers one of the first things she did was buy herself “a non-kosher frankfurter on the street. That was the best bite I ever had.”
Not until after the war did she learn her mother and her husband had been killed at Auschwitz. She went back to Hamburg and found the same Nazi still living in her parents’ apartment. The British authorities would not evict him.
Bauer came to the United States in 1946 and married her second husband two years later. He died 19 years ago, after 46 years of marriage. “I have one son and two grandchildren.”
“Ten years ago, I met my boy toy Bill,” she said, drawing laughter and applause from the audience. She and William Engle live in Yonkers, N. Y.
Engel knows her story so well that he quietly prompted her whenever she paused.
About 150 people attended the free program, which was open to the public.