By JANE BECKERDITE
His mother was tattooed in Auschwitz with the alpha numeric “A-4813” on her forearm. John Singer’s mother,Marianne (Neumann) Singer, somehow managed to survive being shipped to four Nazi Germany concentration camps over a period of 28 months.
“My mother was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, which probably was the most notorious death camp. The Nazis would perform selections of who would be sent to work and live, and those who would be sent to the gas chambers. Well, my mother was selected to die. And while in the line of those selected to die she did a very brave and dangerous thing. She ran to the other line when she felt no one was watching. Had she been seen they would have executed her on the spot.”
Singer said his mother had very good intuition and knew that the line she was in was headed straight for the gas chamber.
“She knew intuitively that the people in the group that she was in were going to be killed. My mother had already been in Auschwitz for some time when they made her go through the selection process, unlike others who were selected upon arrival, so there was no mystery about what was happening in Auschwitz for her at that point. She could smell the bodies that were burned in the crematorium there and she said they constantly threatened them by being told three times a day that they were going to be gassed.”
More than six million Jews died during the Holocaust. United States military deaths during WWII alone are estimated at 406,000. These staggering statistics are why Monday’s federal holiday is so important. Marking the day is especially important to Singer.
“Memorial Day is a time to reflect on the sacrifices made by the people who served in every conflict and war. We are free today because of those sacrifices and that is something we must not take for granted. I am personally very grateful for what the USA did in World War II. It was the combined effort of the Allies that defeated Hitler and Nazism.”
Marianne Singer’s history with war is a long one. She first encountered the Gestapo when she was 15. Her parent’s villa was seized that first day of the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia.
“It happened on March 15, 1939. My mother was home alone with her brother while her parents were in Prague on business,” Singer said. “The Gestapo gave my mother just three hours to pack up the entire family’s most important things. That began their ordeal. They had to go live with her grandfather in another part of Czechoslovakia. The Gestapo seized their villa and used it as their regional command center.”
By the time Marianne Singer turned 18, she was deported to a concentration camp named Theresienstadt. From there she was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Next, she went to Gross-Rosen and from there she was sent on a death-march to Bergen-Belsen where she was ultimately liberated in April of 1945 by the British 11th Armored Division, Singer said. She weighed just 60 pounds and had typhoid fever. But she was alive.
Although she was physically free, the war raging in her mind was far from over.
Like many soldiers returning from war, Marianne Singer soon began suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. Singer said many years later when he was about five years old, his mother overshared her personal horror stories with him.
“I became my mother’s confidant. I would have preferred she waited until I was older, and that has had a profound impact on me and my life. But my mother was damaged by her experiences in the concentration camps. I know she had psychological scars and problems that affected her judgment. She had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder before there was a name for it. She had tremendous guilt for having survived when her parents and brother had not, and she was depressed and suicidal for many years. She made many suicide attempts as I was growing up, and in one I was able to save her life.”
Marianne Singer’s parents, Fritz and Valerie Neumann “were gassed in Auschwitz in October of 1944 and her brother, Jan, died as a result of having been starved to death,” he said.
Singer once found his mother unconscious after she overdosed on a powerful tranquilizer called Miltown. He was 13. “That was a very traumatic day for me. My mother was in a coma for several days and I saw her connected to machines and tubes. It was heart breaking.”
Given that the suicide attempt occurred in the 1960s, doctors at that time were ill-equipped to handle problems associated with PTSD. It wasn’t until the advent of Prozac, Singer said, that his mother’s suicidal feelings stopped. But nothing stopped his parents love for one another and the never-ending support his father, Gerson Singer, had for his wife.
“My parents stayed married for 56 years. My father gave my mother the support she needed – they were inseparable. My father was a good man but he was more there for my mother than for me and my brother. He loved us, but she came first for him.
An American citizen by birth, Singer now lives near Vienna, Austria. His mother repatriated to Czechoslovakia after the end of communism and spent the last years of her life in the family villa that was stolen by the Gestapo.
“Yes, my mother went to court to get it back and she was victorious! She moved back in the villa with my father, so that was a happy day for us. My mother and father were 68 and 78 when they packed up and moved back to Czechoslovakia in 1992. The villa had been used as a nursery school prior to getting it returned. They were previously living in a house in New York City,” he said.
“I came to Czechoslovakia in 1991 and it was a result of that visit that my parents decided to come back to Europe. It was destiny.”