December 17, 2020
This month we introduce Holocaust survivor Yvonne Engelman. Yvonne was born in 1927 in Dovhe, Czechoslovakia; a beautiful place where her family lived for many generations. Yvonne was on only child and only grandchild.
When the war started, Yvonne’s schoolmates, who had sat next to her a week before, would not acknowledge who she was. Her father, taken to the police station, came back with his two front teeth knocked out. The Nazis came to Yvonne’s house, took whatever they wished, and they could not say a single word.
Taken to the ghetto, Yvonne’s family lived in fear in crowded circumstances with little food and poor hygiene. Selections took place. They were marched into cattle wagons like sardines in a can and taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
“My father said to me, ‘I don’t know where we are going, but I’m sure it’s not a holiday. You have to promise me one thing: that you will survive.’ I said, ‘Of course I will survive.’”
A doctor – Dr Mengele, Yvonne assumes – directed her parents to the left. Yvonne never saw her parents again.
Yvonne’s job was to search through all of the garments that the prisoners had been forced to discard at the camp, in case valuable items were sewn into them by their owners.
Surrounded by barbed wire and dogs, Yvonne was starving, lice-infected and had scurvy. She could not believe this was happening to her.
As the Allies came closer, they were sent on death marches. On 8 May 1945 they were liberated by the Russian Army. Yvonne travelled to Prague where a Jewish organization sponsored orphans to immigrate Australia.
Yvonne arrived in Sydney in 1948. She was penniless, but happy to walk the streets as a free person. Yvonne learned English and met her husband, who was also a survivor.
Yvonne and her husband were the first orphans to get married in Australia. It was a big occasion to see survivors getting married. Members of the Jewish welfare organisation came out to help them celebrate. The couple had nothing. People pooled together their resources to buy them presents.
Together they worked hard, bringing up their new family without support from any relatives, cousins or grandparents.
In this photograph, Yvonne holds a glass plate she received for her wedding. It is one of a set of plates from Woolworths. It is a point of pride for Yvonne that she never broke a plate.
To read more from our Survivor Portraits blog series, click here.
To explore the personal stories and anecdotes of Holocaust survivors, click here for our first online exhibition.
Photograph by Katherine Griffiths.