Macha Rolnikas

Macha Rolnikas : Nazi Germany

Macha Rolnikas was born in Vilna in the Soviet Union in 1927. The family were Jewish and Macha's father was a lawyer and a well-known opponent of fascism. When the German Army captured Vilna in 1941 he left to join the partisan underground.

Soon after the Germans arrived all Jews were rounded up and forced to live in the Vilna Ghetto. Macha was moved to Stutthof where she was employed by the Germans as an undertaker in the crematory furnace. This involved removing the gold from the teeth of those who had died in the ghetto. As this was an important job Macha was not murdered and was one of the few Jews left alive when the Red Army liberated Stutthof in 1944.

After the war Macha graduated from the Gorky Literary Institute in Moscow. She then got married and moved to Leningrad.

During the Second World War Macha kept a diary. This was turned into a book, I Must Tell, and was published in the Soviet Union in 1964.

Primary Sources

(1) Macha Rolnikas, diary entry (June, 1941)

The Nazis have occupied the town. People are crying and talking about the Nazis' hatred of Jews and Communists. And we, we are both. And on top of it all, Papa has been working very actively for the Soviets.

New decrees have been posted in the town: all the Jews - adults and children - must wear insignias, a white piece of cloth, ten square centimeters, and in the middle the yellow letter "J". Is it possible that the invaders no longer regard us as human beings and brand us just like cattle? One can not accept such meanness. But who dares oppose them?

(2) Macha Rolnikas, undated entry in her diary.

I have been ill. The women were saying that in my fevers I was singing little songs and called the Nazis terrible names. They had never suspected that I knew so many swear words. Luckily my voice was weak and the Nazis don't come in here anymore. That kind of thing gets you shot on the spot.

(3) In 1941 the Germans ordered the fourteen year old Macha Rolnikas to work in the crematory furnace in Stutthof.

In our barrack forty or sixty women die every day. Near the door, stiff and blue bodies are piling up. A cart to which some prisoners are harnessed arrives. Two of them take the dried up and frozen bodies by the arms and feet, swing them and throw them on the heap of naked bodies. The crematory is working day and night. Next to it heaps of bodies are piling up. Every day nearly a thousand people die in the camp.

(4) Macha Rolnikas is eventually chosen to become an undertaker in the Stutthof camp.

The supervisor ordered all of us who had overcome the illness to line up. There were very few of us. The supervisor chose eight (including myself) and declared that we were the team of "undertakers". Up to now there has been so much chaos that the dead have remained in the barracks for several days. Now we were obliged to undress them at once, pull out their gold teeth and put them in front of the barracks door. I don't know how I can carry others when I can hardly stay on my feet myself.

We approach one of our companions who died today. I take her frozen foot, but I can't lift it up. The supervisor slaps me and puts a pair of scissors and pliers in my hands. I must undress the dead woman and take out her gold teeth. With shaking hand I cut the dress. I lift the body to undress it, but it won't stand up and falls backwards. The head knocks against the floorboards with a hollow sound. I hold her close to me. In her mouth gold teeth are shining. I cannot make myself pull them out. Having reassured myself that the supervisor isn't watching, I quickly close the mouth again with the pliers. Perhaps they won't open it to look for teeth.

"You silly fool, what are you doing?" the supervisor yells and then she hits me. I fall on the body. She was just waiting for me to do that and starts hitting me with a club. She always aims for my head. It seems as if my skull is splitting in two. And she doesn't stop. There is blood all over the floor. She beat me until she herself was out of breath.

(5) When the Red Army were approaching Stutthof the concentration camp guards lock the inmates in large barns in the village. Macha Rolnikas wrote about the rescue in her autobiography, I Must Tell (1964).

Behind the barn I can hear men's voices. Soldiers of the Red army? Is it them? I want to go out there! Toward them! How can I get up?

The Red Army soldiers rush into the barn. They come toward us, looking for the living ones, helping them to get up. They take off their caps to the ones who no longer need their help.

"Do you need any help, little sister?" I am lifted up, put on my feet, but I can no longer move forward my legs are shaking so. Two soldiers cross their arms and make a chair and carry me.

Ambulances arrive in the village. One soldier offers to carry me, the other gives me some bread, the third one gives me his gloves. And their kindness makes me feel so good that I feel like crying. The soldiers comfort me, calm me down. One of them takes out a dirty handkerchief and like with a little girl, he wipes away my tears. "Don't cry little sister, we won't allow anyone to harm you again." And on his cap shines the red star. It's been such a long time since I have seen it.