Régine Beer (Non-Conform! #3)

Non Conform! was done by 3 active SxE lads from the Aalst-area that visited most of our Smurfpunx concerts: Wim Van Belle (R.I.P.), Simon Guy and Jo (with some help of a bunch of friends).

Régine Beer was (she died in 2014, at the age of 93) a woman who was held captive in and survived the nazi concentration-camp of Auschwitz, and spent almost her entire life telling the story about the atrocities there, the holocaust; and trying to warn the younger generations for the danger of fascism and racism.

[Translation below]

Regine Beer (Non-Conform #3) aRegine Beer (Non-Conform #3) bRegine Beer (Non-Conform #3) c

This interview with Régine Beer, a lady who has lived through the horror of the concentration-camps and the nazi-terror, and now wants to warn young people about what racism and fascism can lead to… That’s why we decided to go pay her a visit in Antwerp on a sunny morning. We went to see her, armed with a cassette-recorder and here is the precipitation of that.

 

WHY DID YOU START DOING PRESENTATIONS IN SCHOOLS; WASN’T IT EASIER TO KEEP QUIET ABOUT IT?

Well, I’ve remained silent about it for some 30-odd years. But at one point, Jan Materne of the BRT [former name for Belgian broadcasting association] was looking for people who had a number on their arm and had been in Auschwitz, to play a leading role in ‘Beschuldigde Sta Op’ [TV court-case drama]. Then he visited every day for 14 days and I had to tell him everything. Finally I felt that someone was listening because before people always said “Shut up about that, start a new life.” but at night I always dreamed of it and was constantly confronted with it. Since then I became aware that it was different. At the school where I thaught French, one day 3 Moroccan children and a little Jewish guy came to me: “Madam, they call me dirty Moroccan, dirty Jew…” and then I thought “Is this starting all over again?! Then it’s my duty, I must speak up and tell young people that such things can’t be allowed, that this is the beginning of racism and fascism…”

SO WHAT DID YOU DREAM ABOUT THEN AT NIGHT?

That actually happened a lot: I dreamed that I was picked up again, we were questioned again. Anyway… And then by talking about it, 14 days in a row, I was aware that it diminished…

IN A BOOK ABOUT ANNE FRANK THERE WAS A PICTURE OF NEO-NAZIS… THEY WERE WEARING ‘DONKEY MASKS’ AND THEY HELD A POSTER WITH THE TEXT: ‘ME, DONKEY, I BELIEVE THAT THE CONCENTRATION-CAMPS HAVE REALLY EXISTED!’

That’s very insulting! It’s also the reason why we talk now: because while we are still alive, they try to distort history. There’s this ill-famed professor Fourisson from the University of Bordeaux [France] – who’s no longer allowed to teach because he told his students that all this is not true. I have a booklet about it: “There were six million…etc.”. We have seen and experienced it. And what we have experienced, you can not invent… I myself have 18 family-members that never returned. Of which there were 2 nephews who probably fell into the hands of that dreaded Dr. Mengele over there; he performed experiments on children and when they were ill enough, he gassed them. It’s for this reason that we want to testify until the last moment, so that young people would know what racism and fascism can lead to…

HAVE YOU SEEN MENGELE YOURSELF THEN?

That would be possible of course: when we arrived there, on the one side there was the camp-doctor and on the other side the camp-commander, but he didn’t carry a note saying “I’m doctor Mengele.”… It may be that he was Mengele because he was indeed at Auschwitz at that time that we were there and so we’ve probably seen him there…

IS IT A COSTOM FOR THE JEWS TO PUT THE LIGHTS ON AT SOMEONE’S HOUSE?

Well, listen, I’ve been educated like all the other children at school, I went to public school here in Antwerp. There were lessons in ethics [as opposed to the lessons ‘religion’], I took those. At one point, on a Friday evening, I came outside and an old man asked if I wanted to come help him to put on the light by turning on the gas… I did that and coming home I told my father about it; he said I did well doing that. Because it was Sabat-night for Jewish people, they weren’t supposed to do certain things and there’s others that they actually should do. They shouldn’t touch light and fire, which is why the man had asked me to help with that… Then my father said: “Do you know that I am actually also a Jew?”.

HE’D NEVER SAID THAT BEFORE THEN?

We never talked about that, I got the same education as everyone else. There wasn’t any problem with that… Perhaps it was mentioned once but no attention was paid to it. But in 1933, of course, that changed…

HOW WAS THE TRANSPORT TO AUSCHWITZ?… WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST IMPRESSION WHEN YOU GOT THERE?

We were transported there in closed cattle-waggons; in a space that can normally only hold about 30 people, we were packed with 80 to 100 people. We sticked to each other. There had already happened several dramas: people praying, crying, kids screaming… There was a bucket in a corner where you had to ‘go to the bathroom’… When we got there at night, it was very dark but there were very bright lights on the camp-grounds. The first thing we saw was a kind of ‘shit-car’. This ‘shit-convoy’ were prisoners with that had to cope with nothing else but crap. To me it looked as if everything was about poop, very unreal; until it turned day: then they pushed the waggon-doors open and it was all “Fast, assemble!” and then at the end of the road, the camp-commander and – probably – the notorious doctor Mengele… It went with the movement of the hand from left to right, from one side to the other… You didn’t know what that meant. But the one side was for those who were gonna get killed and another who had to go to work…

DID YOU KNOW THEN WHERE YOU WERE GOING TO?

No, the best proof that I was unaware, was that we had to leave our clothes behind and then a number got tattooed on our arm. I got enrolled by a girl from Antwerp. I asked: “It smells so odd here and there’s flames and smoke coming out of those pipes…” and then they said: “Don’t ask anything, tomorrow you will know.”. And indeed, we got to know that the people who went to the other side, were no longer among us…

THOSE SOCALLED ‘KAPOS’ WERE PRISONERS THEMSELVES, THAT MALTREATED THEIR FELLOW PRISONERS AS IF THEY WERE BEASTS… DID THEY GET SOMETHING AS A REWARD THEN?

First they had to prove that they were bad enough to be able to come down on their fellow prisoners and in that way keep that system going. The SS did conceive this whole criminal system themselves but the execution was carried out by the kapos. The SS just effused the Zyklon-B gas in the rooms. They wanted that this happened the right way but they let the other prisoners – who were already there for a longer time – do all the other work… Most of them were ‘green triangles’. These were real thugs, thieves, murderers… who had been there for years and were already behaving like animals. And therefore they were the ones who dealt with us the most. Below that you had the ‘red triangles’, people who’d been arrested because of their ‘thinking’ – communists, socialists, catholics, protestants, etc. – and hence didn’t agree with the regime. From the ‘red triangles’ there were also people chosen to be kapo; they just had to prove they were bad enough. Then you had the ‘purple triangles’, which were people who were arrested because of their faith. There was a priest in Auschwitz, father Kolbe, who was canonized later, I believe because he let himself get killed in the place of a father of 6 children. The ‘purple triangles’ included: jehovah’s witnesses, bible-researchers – people who were detained because they kept to the bible’s saying “You will not take up the sword.” and that wasn’t allowed under Hitler’s reign… Then there were the ‘pink triangles’: the homosexuals… The ‘black triangles’ were the antisocials. E.g. a person who didn’t get along with the one or the other in a factory in Germany, was blabbed to the SS and deported to Auschwitz as an antisocial. And at the bottom you had the ‘brown triangles’: the gypsies, and the ‘yellow triangles’: the Jews. The other ‘triangles’ had the privilege to occasionally be allowed to write home, occasionally got a card, or a parcel from the Red Cross. While the ‘brown’ and ‘yellow triangles’ were written off. They told us: “You’ll never get out of here, unless in the form of a cloud!”. They did succeed for the biggest part because the war had lasted so long. I weighed 62 kg when I was arrested and 31 kg when I came out; I was what they called a “Muzelman”…

HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN IN AUSCHWITZ, IN THE CAMP, YOURSELF?

I was arrested on September 3rd 1943 and came home on May 26th 1945. So a little less than 2 years.

HOW WAS THE DAILY SCHEDULE IN THE CAMP? YOU HAD TO WORK THERE, WHAT KIND OF WORK DID YOU DO THERE?

They called us the ‘labour-Jews’. The only thing that interested them was make us work real hard because that was profitable. Everything was calculated: how much you costed per day and how much you yielded per day. The return had to be higher. So we really had to do slave-labour. We needed at least work 12 hours per day or night, if we weren’t punished. The work I had to do was ‘toten-kommando’ [death-squad] which was nothing else than dealing with the dead. From the moment they got there, the waggons were opened. The dead people who fell out, had to be taken away by the ‘toten-kommando’ so that they could be burned. We had to ensure that the people didn’t panic, because they didn’t want panic: they actually didn’t want it to be known; that’s why they can maintain: “Wir haben es nicht gewust.” [We didn’t know about it.]. It was all kept secret. So we had to line up in rows – “Schnell, schnell!” – guarded by the SS with dogs, and the people who were sent to the other side had to undress and stay where they were – ourselves too by the way – but they went to the gas-chambers while we went to the showers. But the appearance was the same, in order to avoid panic they always kept everything the same. And then it could happen that a son had to push his parents, brothers, sisters, grandfather…into the gas-chambers. Only a few people in that camp knew about that – most did not, they really believed they were going to the showers. And then the SS had to apply the Zyklon-B gas. That gas comes in cans with pearls. They had ‘scientifically’ calculated how many minutes it took for people to die… The people of the ‘toten-kommando’ had to move the dead or near-dead away from there, others had to shave off the hair, which meant more profits. You can see that if you ever come to Auschwitz: you can see rolls of gray-blue fabric made from hair of millions of people who disappeared. When they thought that still wasn’t enough, the dentists of the ‘toten-kommando’ had to pull out the gold teeth; again more capital for them… If the neo-nazis are so powerful in South-America and South-Africa nowadays, it’s because of the many many things that they have stolen from the people who have disappeared or have returned. Because there were wealthy people who were arrested but also poor people – but they took the very last thing of everybody. At that time there was also a terrible shortage of soap. So they invented that they could make soap from the fat of the burned people. You can find that in Breendonk [fortress near Antwerp, used by the nazis as a concentration-camp]: small pieces of gray soap made from the fat of gassed people… And that still wasn’t enough… There was also e.g. the infamous SS-woman Ilse Koch: she was proud that the skin of her favourite prisoner – after he was killed – was made into a lampshade. But also that wasn’t enough: the people of the ‘toten-kommando’ had to take the gassed people into the incinerators; they had to work day and night. The people of the ‘toten-kommando’ also had to bring in coal. The people were burned and then at the very end they invented to make fertiliser to grow for flowers, plants and trees from the ashes of the burned people… Never forget that! That’s how far fascism goes!!!

THE ALLIED FORCES KNEW WHERE THE STRATEGIC SITES OF THE ENEMY WERE. ISN’T IT STRANGE THAT THEY DIDN’T ATTACK THE CAMPS? ONLY AT THE END OF THE WAR…

They probably also knew where they were but you know how war is like: the arms-manufacturers have an interest in the war lasting as long as possible. They tried to make it last as long as possible, until finally the Allied Forces put their heads together and said: “There must come an end to this because it seems to be very bad.”. But that it was that bad!? The Canadians, Russians, British, Americans took pictures of it: they couldn’t imagine that it was so bad…

DO YOU THINK WALDHEIM WAS REALLY A NAZI?

I don’t dare to pass a judgment on that. I haven’t seen him at work during the war itself. Perhaps he was just an ‘ordinary’ guy who simply carried out orders, as there were hundreds. He may have commited crimes but there’s been no real proof so far…

IS IT OK THAT HE BECAME PRESIDENT?

No, to me it’s not: that goes against everything, any form of democracy I think… If such a person is a candidate for elections, then I believe they should check his past first!

HOW DID YOU GET BACK HOME AFTER THE LIBERATION?

Well, when we were liberated, we were very ill, you can imagine, I weighed only 31 kg. Everyone thought that the Red Cross would be there to help us because we were so sick. But don’t forget: that was in Germany, that was a world of…as the Americans said: ‘Displaced Persons’. There weren’t just the people who came out of the concentration-camps, but also from the prisoner of war camps, civilians employed on voluntary basis or forcefully, and the Germans themselves who were on the run, because they were afraid that they would be occupied by the Russians and hoped that they would fall into the hands of the Americans. We haven’t been helped, we had to get home on our own…

HEVEN’T YOU ALSO BEEN LODGED IN THE HOME OF A CONCENTRATION-CAMP GUARDIAN FROM AUSCHWITZ?

Yes, May 1st, we got out of the camp. Then we marched for 3 days and 3 nights under the guard of the SS and the Wehrmacht. A few hours of rest at night, in a wet meadow and then moving on again. May 3rd was “Schnell, schnell!” again: we were hit on the head but we couldn’t go any faster because we were too ill. And then suddenly they were gone and we just marched on in rows of five or six, but we were so mentally exhausted that we didn’t realise they were gone. We, who had dreamed so much of that liberation. Until one noon, when we saw a bunch of helmets and guns lying around, white flags on the walls; we thought: “Are we liberated now? Yes, we are free!”. And still we kept stupidly walking in rows. Until one went this way and the next another way… Then I hooked up with a Dutch woman, Aleida Vanhelder, who had been in the experimental block. There was a block in Auschwitz surrounded by electric barbed wire… There was where they experimented on women to make them infertile and did some other testing. We stayed together. By the end of the day there were dead horses all along the road, decaying or not. It was the end of May, it was extremely hot already, lucky for us. Some people started eating the dead horses. We didn’t do that, we went to sit on little hill. A jeep with Canadians then took us to the next village. They knocked at a house and tthe people there had to lodge us. But we discovered that the daughter of the house was an SS guard à la Ilse Koch. We didn’t wanna stay there, but I was too ill, I had very severe bloody diarrhea and high fever. Aleida was a bit better and and she went seraching in the neighbourhood, and she found a prisoner of war camp. She ended up with a group of Belgian officers but they also didn’t have it easy. And then we ended up with a group of French prisoner of war who took us along…

AND WHAT KIND OF WORK DID YOU HAVE TO DO IN THE CAMP?

Oh yes, I’d forgotten to tell you… I’ve had to do outside work. They called it ‘ausser-kommando’… We had to dig trenches, uproot trees – always under guard of the SS with trained dogs. We had to do shifts of 12 hours in a stretch of that slave labour; if we were punished that could up being 24 hours, plus other punishments. Then I had to act as masonry-help for a while. If we had to do go to the toliet, we had to go to the barracks, but you couldn’t always get inside. So having that heavy bleeding diarrhea, we had to let it go on the spot. We went to sit behind a pile of rocks but then these got smeared with shit, and we had to carry these around all day. We suffered from hunger and thirst, but the muck that we had to do live in, was the worst. I never thought I could become a clean person again. And then I was lucky that there was a Belgian Jewish woman – Mala Szimmerbaum, who was there already longer than me – who was appointed as an interpreter. She spoke Flemish, French, English, German but also a little Polish and Russian. She was an interesting one for the SS. She could go outside of the camp with the SS, to the factories, ministries, etc. And there she had to do the talking. And whenever new ‘transports’ arrived, she tried to find out the names of Belgian women. She also had gotten to know my number and at some point there were some who were picked out to go work in the ‘Union’, the arms factory. It was equally hard and bad work, but you were sheltered from the rain, snow, wind and intense sun… On January 18th when we got back to the camp – where normally order and discipline are required – from the ‘night-shift’, suddenly everybody ran to everyone and everywhere; and then we heard: “The Russians are coming!”. But they had always told us: “You’ll never get out of here, only in the form of a little cloud …”. They still wanted to gas all of us… The war lasted so long but for them it had still gone too fast, because they haven’t been able to bring all their criminal work to an end. We are now the “troublesome witnesses” of what happened…

DIDN’T YOU GET A ‘STRANGE TELEPHONE-CALLS’ FROM PEOPLE AND WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT THE PRESENCE OF THE VLAAMS BLOK [extreme righ party; renamed Vlaams Belang after they’d been condemned for racism in 2004; some members are negationists of the Holocaust] IN THE ANTWERP COMMUNITY-COUNCIL?

Never had any. I just go on. When I was at the installation of the Vlaams Blok in the Antwerp community-council, I went to listen to what they had to say in the town-hall. They had e.g. to pledge allegiance to the king and the Belgian laws and they started: “Well yeah, if there’s no way around it…” We’re very unhappy with it. Us, survivors can’t do anything more than that what we’re doing now. We invest our whole lives so that young people would know, because it would happen to you…

ISN’T IT DISCOURAGING THEN TO SEE THAT SO MANY YOUNG PEOPLE CHOOSE FOR THE VLAAMS BLOK?

Yes, the Vlaams Blok is a thorn in the eye for us. Last year I went to the Atheneum in Keerbergen. Brigitte Raskin [Belgian author] had asked me…

WASN’T FILIP DEWINTER [at that time leader of the party] OF THE VLAAMS BLOK ALSO PRESENT?

Yeah, they wanted a confrontation between someone of the Vlaams Blok and an anti-fascist, and Filip Dewinter was there. I’d said to Brigitte that I didn’t want to be in a debate with that guy: “I’m not here to do politics…”. I thought that there had to be a historian.

AND THAT WAS ETIENNE VERHOEVEN?

Yes, he was brought in; but I wouldn’t have been happy about having to sit at one table with Filip Dewinter, because he’s a dangerous ‘type’, he’s good with words…

YES THAT IS STRONG POINT OF THOSE MEN.

But I did get good responses from the teachers and the students… And I think: if young people are motivated, that we as older people have to give them the opportunity to do work around subjects like this.

DO YOU FIND THAT THERE ARE MANY YOUNG PEOPLE WHO ARE MOTIVATED ABOUT IT OR IS IT THAT THEY JUST AGREE WITH YOU IN THEORY, BUT IN FACT ARE SOMETIMES RACIST IN PRACTICE?

I have the impression that there are many – certainly those that are very much in favour for ‘extreme right’ – that are difficult to reach. But at the nearly 500 schools that I visited, I had adverse reactions only 3 times; that’s not that much.

BUT DO YOU REALLY THINK THAT THEY ALSO DO IT IN PRACTICE?

I hope so! That’s of course my intention because otherwise I wouldn’t go through all that trouble to go to schools. It’s easier to have a cup of coffee like a ‘lady’ on the Keizerlei [posh shopping-street in Antwerp] -laughter- but I make that effort hoping that it brings some information to the young people, that they know what racism and fascism can lead to, because soon I won’t be able to do it any longer…

 

And that’s where we decided to end the interview. We talked some more about related things. For us it was a very instructive morning. We’ld like to thank that dear Ms. Régine Beer here for receiving us … Régine: the whole Non-Conform! team wishes you many more years of health and we think it’s really wonderful what you do for today’s youth! Thank you and bye.

Wimpie, Bart Van Belle, Pieter ‘Wolfken’ B., Bart De Pauw, Jo, Simon.

cover:

Non-Conform #3 cover

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One Response to Régine Beer (Non-Conform! #3)

  1. Bart Van Belle says:

    Hi Brob!

    Nice to read this post again. I remember this visit to Régine Beer in her small appartment in Antwerp like it was yesterday. My brother (Wim), myself and the rest of the ‘interview’ crew were about 16 to 17 years old at that time. Régine was very glad to see that such young guys paid interest in what happened during the 2nd world war. I still have the tape at my mother’s house. We promised Régine that we would never delete the tape as a “living reminder” of what happened during the nazi regime.

    Keep posting, wish that those days and especially the good spirit of those days were still here.

    Bart (no longer that SxE anymore 🙂

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