“When we would come home from the factory, from working, we fell asleep easier if I told them a story, ” Agnes Tennenbaum shares in her small but bright apartment in Mobile. What she describes may seem like a sweet bedtime ritual, but the reality proves much darker. Tennenbaum’s stories were an escape for herself and her fellow prisoners forced to build bombs in Germany during World War II.
Tennenbaum was one of thousands of Jews imprisoned in Auschwitz and Allendorf, two concentration camps in Germany during the Holocaust.
Tennenbaum’s home feels light and cozy with a short blush-colored couch and plenty of family photos on the coffee table, on the desk, on a table off the kitchen. Her bird chirps from the bedroom, echoing the gloriously sunny day outside. “You hear my bird?” she asks with a smile. “He’s always so happy.”
I smile, too, because her joyous energy feels contagious. As we delve into her story that is so deeply intertwined with the history of an entire people, I lean in and hang on every word. It seems as if she could continue talking for years without pause, sharing the tales of hardship and fleeting moments of hope that filled the years she spent in Germany.
The Power of Words
Now a 93-year-old woman, Tennenbaum was born in Hungary in 1922. Her accent still shines through her impeccable English as she shares insights into her childhood. “We had a pretty good life while I was growing up, ” she says. At just 8 years old, her mother pushed her to read classic literature. Around the same time, Tennenbaum began to create her own stories. She laughs: “My mother used to tell me, ‘Agnes, you have two left hands, so I don’t know what you are good for, but you are going to make a good writer.’”
That early push toward literature paid off: Tennenbaum has penned two books about her memories of the camps. One, “Life is a Gamble, ” consists of several short stories and poems from her time at Aushwitz and Allendorf. Her first novel, “A Girl Named Rose, ” traces her journey from the weeks before occupation through her liberation and migration to the United States.
Early in the war, her father believed that Hungary might escape the occupation; Hungary had yet to be invaded, after all, after all, and there was a wider diversity of religion in the country due to mixed marriages. Tennenbaum recalls, “That’s what my father would say – ‘How can they separate people and send them to concentration camps if the mother is one religion, and the father is another, and the children another?’ I met some women in Auschwitz who were good Christian women who married Jewish men. They didn’t have to go to Auschwitz – they were just going with their children and husbands. They didn’t imagine that they could possibly be separated.”
But Hungary was occupied by late March 1944, one of the final countries to be invaded. Soon, Tennenbaum and her family were forced to don the Star of David. Their non-Jewish friends shunned them. Government officials herded the Jews to ghettos and stripped them of all belongings. Her father responded to a government deal for men to clear the debris from the bombs. Afterwards, the men, including her father, were executed. Finally, Tennenbaum and her mother were loaded onto a cattle train and taken to Auschwitz. She arrived on June 16, 1944. She was 22 years old.
For days, they rode with no food or drink in an overcrowded car with other Jews, all heading to Auschwitz. “Mother and I were separated from the rest of the family, and so everyone around us were total strangers, ” Tennenbaum writes in her book. “Yes, they were strangers, but in a way they all looked alike to me. The faces were like masks, wearing the same frightened and hopeless expressions.”
Within moments of arriving, Tennenbaum was directed to one gate and her mother to another. Her mother’s hand, which she had been gripping tightly, slipped from her own and was gone. Tennenbaum walked toward the barracks, while officers directed her mother to the crematorium, where she lost her life along with more than one million others at Aushwitz. “I didn’t really know what was coming when they pushed us into the cattle train, ” Tennenbaum admits now. “Maybe it was a blessing, I don’t know. It was just terrible when I was separated from my mom in one second. It was a shock.”
Months went by, and the camp inmates grappled with severe hunger, dehydration, filth and depression. She quickly found her cousin in the camp. A group of women, including Tennenbaum, were selected for transportation to Allendorf, a work camp specializing in munitions and chemical products. Only a piece of bread, a slice of cheese and tiny pieces of meat were doled out to last each woman the three-day trip.
It was here, in Allendorf, where Tennenbaum began to tell the women stories after each long night’s work, breathing in deadly chemicals and hammering together bombs. She relayed stories of love and life, of passion and excitement. “I was in a room with 50 women and girls, and I started to tell them stories, ” Tennenbaum says, her eyes looking straight into mine as she recounts those nighttime tales. “And they thought it was from my life – no, it wasn’t my life! I made up all kinds of sexy stories for them, ” Tennenbaum declares with a chuckle.
One day, as she passed by the infirmary window in Allendorf, Tennenbaum was summoned by a voice. It belonged to Rose, a young girl with tuberculosis sequestered from the other women when not working. As Tennenbaum relates the conversation, her voice softens.
“Through the window, she says to me, ‘I am dying, but you are going to survive. You are in good condition. Do me a favor – write a book and put me as a person in it. A person who never had anything in life.’” Tennenbaum continues, “She never even had a date – she was about 16 years old – never even saw a movie. She saw nothing of life, and I felt so sorry for her. I thought, ‘She’s right. I’m going to write [a book] and put her in it.’”
Building the Future
Liberation finally came on the last day of March in 1945. The American soldiers established a displaced persons camp where those left without home or country could search for family or await visas. After several months, Tennenbaum married and had a child before she, her husband and child finally received their visas for the United States in 1947. They arrived in New York later that year, meeting a group of Tennenbaum’s relatives who had relocated there before the start of the war. “Life was very good to us in New York, ” Tennenbaum says. “I never felt like a stranger. For me, it was coming home.”
When her young son, Henry Schwarzberg, started school in New York, so did Tennenbaum. She took classes to improve her English, where she also learned the art of public speaking. “There were many people from New York with the same background, ” she explains. “We had plenty of friends, plenty of entertainment. Life was good.”
Throughout her months in the concentration camps, several younger German soldiers had tried to help Tennenbaum, either giving her extra food or even offering to help her escape with them, though she refused to leave the other women and her cousin behind. Tennenbaum possesses a life force that draws others to her like a magnet, even during her time in the camps, and that energy continued to thrive in the States.
“I only went to work because my husband said that I was a ‘housewife, ’” she reveals with a smirk, “and as a housewife, I should sit home because nobody would give me a job. So I went out and got one! And after three months, I had a promotion and a raise.” Tennenbaum and her husband eventually moved to California, where they divorced three years later after 25 years of marriage. She spent another four decades in the arid west – in the San Fernando Valley and Phoenix, Arizona – before moving to Mobile to be with her son in 2006. (Though she says Mobile in general agrees with her, she clarifies that “the climate is a different story.”)
Throughout her time in the United States, Tennenbaum has been working toward one goal: writing that book for Rose. While living in Phoenix, one role model helped her get closer to that dream.
“We had a little old teacher with us [in Phoenix], and it’s unbelievable how much I learned from her about writing, ” Tennenbaum remembers. “Earlier in New York, I went to Brooklyn College to learn creative writing, but I didn’t learn as much as from this little old lady.”
With the help of a few Mobilians, Tennenbaum’s “A Girl Named Rose, ” was published in 2010. Her original 300-page epic manuscript was cut to just 180 and edited to reach middle school students. Educating the younger generation is another of Tennenbaum’s passions; she spends her time speaking about her experiences to students at local schools and universities, and she has even been invited to speak for the FBI and the U.S. Navy. One thing she loves about Mobile is its students.
“The children and teachers [in Phoenix] were not prepared for my story about the Holocaust. Here, it is another story. The children are ready to hear about that, and the teachers are prepared. And the behavior of the children!” Tennenbaum exclaims with a smile. “They are so warm, so interested. I just love them, and they love me.”
Tennenbaum tells me stories of speaking at local middle schools. Once the presentation has ended, students often raise their hands in earnest, eager to ask more questions about her story. Before she leaves, students line up to give her a hug or even have their photo taken. And more than once, students come to her with thanks, relating that her story has given them strength to face their own struggles, to conquer their own demons. “When I was sick, ” Tennenbaum mentions proudly, “I must have gotten 100 or more ‘get well’ cards from the students.”
Her mission to educate Mobile’s children doesn’t stop at her school speeches, however. With the help of local organizations dedicated to Holocaust education, including the Gulf Coast Holocaust Center, she donated the Agnes Tennenbaum Holocaust Library Collection to the University of South Alabama Marx Library. The collection boasts hundreds of books, papers, photos and other primary sources stemming from the Holocaust in Europe, and the collection is continually growing. Her own book, “A Girl Named Rose, ” is included in the collection.
But Tennenbaum’s humble optimism and her own mastery of the written and spoken word gives her a unique power to sway people, to hold their attention and to inspire them to their very core. Recalling how she and the women in the camps would recite literature and poetry from memory, she tells students now, “Other people, they can take away everything you have, but they can never take away your education.”
Healing from Within
Despite the decades Tennenbaum has spent in the United States, tears come to her eyes when she looks back on those months in Germany.
“We all changed, ” she starts. “Have you met soldiers coming back from the war? Because when they come back from the war, they are not the same, and it’s very hard to understand. I’m not the same. As a matter of fact, the war was over and I hated every German. I said to myself, ‘They are here and my parents are gone. There’s no justice.’ But I found out, the more I hated, the more I destroyed myself.”
Tennenbaum pauses, dabbing at her eyes with a tissue. “I don’t even know how I survived, because I didn’t do anything to survive. Some people stole somebody’s bread – all kinds of things. I didn’t do anything unethical – that’s how I was raised.
“You know how many times in Auschwitz I was tempted to touch the electric fence?” she continues quietly. “I didn’t see an end after that first month. I was so hungry and thirsty. And I thought, ‘I’m going to touch the electrified fence, ’ And my cousin said to me, ‘tomorrow is another day.’”
Although she’s now shared her journey through books, short stories and speeches, it took many years for her to open up about her experiences. In fact, she did not even tell her own son until he was in college. She explains, “Like soldiers, they will talk about the war, but only years later. That’s what happened to me. I did not talk about it, not with my friends, not with my family… People don’t think about it, that things like that can happen. It doesn’t seem real.”
Ultimately, Tennenbaum’s story illustrates the resilience and the determination of all survivors to continue on. By letting the world peek in on the hardships of her journey, she contributes to a library of Holocaust literature, joining the likes of Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel. Her story, alongside theirs and many others’, will ensure that the tragedy of this event will never be forgotten and, hopefully, never occur again.
Throughout our interview, Tennenbaum often says, “I have had a good life.” It comes up when she remembers the days before the war, and she repeats it often in reference to her life in America. And in those words, her true spirit shines. It’s the same spirit that countless others saw in her before the occupation, the spirit that convinced her mother and Rose that she would survive the camps, the spirit that never let her give up on her dream of sharing her story through her writing. “I’ve always been an honest, straightforward person, and I believe that people see that in me. I make friends very easily, ” Tennenbaum states with a matter-of-fact shrug.
“The United States was very good to me, ” she says toward the end of our meeting. “I wouldn’t live anywhere else. I wanted a peaceful, quiet life. Well, it wasn’t always peaceful, but I was just happy to be here.”
And we in Mobile are happy she’s here, too.
text by Chelsea Wallace • photos by Jennie Tewell