By Andrea Schnelzauer
“All education must be centered upon the idea that Auschwitz should never happen again.”
Theodor W. Adorno, Education after Auschwitz
Approximately 1.1 million people, about 1 million of which were Jews, were killed in Auschwitz I, Birkenau, and its dozens of subcamps, which were the epicenter of the Nazi enterprise to annihilate all of European Jewry and to kill and terrorize the people of the occupied countries. Of those who survived, approximately 200,000 people were sent to other camps from Auschwitz before the end of the war.
Some 7,000 prisoners who were liberated at Auschwitz in January 1945 tried to return home. Jewish survivors mostly had nowhere to go back to since their homes and communities had been completely destroyed or because they feared anti-Jewish sentiments in their hometowns. Eventually, most of them made their way overseas to Australia, South Africa, South America, Mandatory Palestine/Israel, and to the United States.
One of these survivors was Anna Warzecha Tenenbaum, a dressmaker from Tomaszów Marzowiecki, a midsize town in central Poland. After being ghettoized with her husband Joseph, who was a tailor, and their two daughters, Dorka and Freida, Anna and her family were deported to Blizyn concentration camp, about an hour north west of their home town.
In Blizyn, Dorka was taken from Anna’s arms during an Aktion and killed, and the family was separated when Joseph was sent off to the concentration camp in Plaszow, near Krakow. Later on, Anna and Freida were deported to Auschwitz where they managed to survive until being liberated by the Soviet Army in January 1945.
After liberation, Anna took a spoon and a can opener with Nazi insignia from an abandoned SS Barack in order to open and eat the food rations provided by the Red Cross. Besides these tools of survival, in a warehouse in the ‘Kanada’ section of Birkenau (where the robbed belongings of the deported and murdered Jews were collected before being sent to the Reich), she found a fine pair of white-, gray-, and maroon-striped men’s pajama bottoms. Perhaps she felt attracted to the high quality garment due to her former profession and knowledge of fabrics. She took them in the hope that if she had a gift for her husband, a segulah (an amulet), she would find him and reunite her family. With her surviving daughter Freida, Anna returned to Tomaszów Marzowiecki, to the town where she and Joseph had married and lived before the German occupation.
After not knowing his fate for two years, Anna was finally reunited with her husband in July 1945. Joseph, who had been in various camps throughout the war and was finally liberated by American soldiers in a sub camp of Mauthausen in Austria, made his way on foot over 500 miles back to Tomaszów in Poland. Anna and Joseph immigrated together with their daughter Freida to New York City, where they both picked up their work in the garment business and eventually settled in Forest Hills, New York.
Anna and Joseph Tenenbaum’s pajama bottoms are on view in Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away. alongside dozens of original artifacts from the Museum of Jewish Heritage collection. Although these remnants can never approach the whole of what was lost in the Shoah, this ordinary piece of clothing in its extraordinary historical context allows the Museum’s visitors to encounter Auschwitz through the personal history that it represents, so intimately linked with destruction and survival.
Andrea Schnelzauer is currently a graduate student at the Weiss-Livnat International MA Program in Holocaust Studies at the University of Haifa in Israel. In 2017 she received her undergraduate degree from the Philipps University of Marburg in Germany in Political Science with minors in Sociology and Law. She has worked on various research and educational projects at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and Yad Vashem.