They slept like two herring in one bed, a bunk no more than three feet wide.
When one turned over, the other had to move, too.
“I don't like going back to that tragic life,” said Sara Weich, one of the two Holocaust survivors who found themselves bound by the horrors of a concentration camp.
That was more than 60 years ago. Now Weich, 90, and Gisella Simon, 88, sleep in separate beds, one floor apart at the Revitz House, an apartment complex for seniors and people with physical disabilities, in Rockville.
Last month, as the world remembered the tragedies of the Holocaust, Weich and Simon, and Simon’s sister, Anna Grosz, 86, remembered their own personal nightmare in Auschwitz and later Praust, Poland.
Simon and Grosz, who are from Hungary, spent four days crammed into a train, traveling from a ghetto to Auschwitz in 1944. They were a family of six girls, unknowing of their fate.
“It was a terrible thing,” Grosz said, recalling the train ride. “Some people were praying. Some people were crying. Some people were cursing.”
When the family, separated from their father but still with their mother, arrived at Auschwitz, they were divided. Simon, who was 20, and Grosz, who was 18, were pushed to one side with two of their sisters. An older sister who had a toddler and their mother were taken to the left. Simon and Grosz never saw them again.
The four girls were stripped, disinfected with powder and shaved. A medicine was put in their coffee to stop menstruation.
Grosz and Simon did not believe their mother and sister had died — not until a group of Polish girls pointed to the crematorium.
“We thought they were crazy, but unfortunately, it was true,” Grosz said. “It’s unbelievable. I have my times when I just cry. But I am still here. I don’t know, miracles happen.”
About five weeks later, the four sisters were taken to a concentration camp near Proust. And that’s where they met Weich.
Soldiers at the concentration camp counted people off in fives in the morning and evening; the sisters needed one more person to complete the group.
“I said, ‘We are four and you are alone,’” Simon said. “Come be our sister.”
And so Weich did.Sitting on a couch this past week, the three jostled each other and joked. Loving jabs of “Hey, old lady,” and laughter rang through the room.
Weich does not speak of the time in the concentration camp. Grosz and Simon speak for her.
But Grosz struggled with the whys behind sharing her story. Why now? Why so long after the tragedies?
Esther Schwartz-McKinzie, the interim associate dean at Montgomery College who organized Holocaust commemoration days at the college from 2005 to 2010, said hearing stories from survivors brings history alive.
“When [young people] actually have the opportunity to learn about and speak with people who experienced that particular piece of history, it’s very profound for them,” Schwartz-McKinzie said. “They begin to understand the world is much larger and so much more complicated ethically and morally than they previously realized.”
Commemoration also raises the question of what it takes to survive. Schwartz-McKinzie asked, what does it mean in terms of courage, hope and healing?
“Regardless of what background you are from, it brings you to the question of, ‘How am I living my life?’” she said. “‘What kind of person do I aspire to be? What kind of role am I playing to shape the world around me?’”
The five girls experienced survival at its most basic level. They worked in the concentration camp, eating a bit of bread with margarine in the morning and a drink of beets and carrots in the evening. No bathing. No breaks.
When Russian liberators arrived at the camp, Grosz and Simon had been separated. Grosz broke her leg and a soldier who enjoyed her singing voice during her time at the concentration camp kept her safe. Simon said one of her sisters was forced to march to a new location. The march began with 800 girls and ended with 200.
A half-hour before liberation, Grosz’s sister, Clara, died on the march.
“I couldn’t help her,” Simon said. “There is no day in my life I don’t think of her. I feel guilty, but I couldn’t save her life.”
Simon did not know, at that point, that Grosz was alive.
The two wound up at the same hospital in Poland. An attendant saw Simon and said, “Hi, Anna,” thinking she was her sister.
And so there they were, Grosz, Simon and Weich.
“Three naive girls,” Grosz said. “And we didn’t know where to start with our lives.”
Grosz said it was the saddest day of her life, realizing they were just three.
The girls married off and traveled separately to new homes, ending up in the United States at different times.
After long and well-lived lives — Grosz in New York, Simon in Columbia and New York and Weich in Florida — the three find themselves (not by coincidence) in the same community in Rockville. The three “sisters” see one another every day.