The last Greek Jewish Holocaust survivor

From Trikala, Naki Matathia Bega recounts the horrors of the death camps for Remembrance Day

The last Greek Jewish Holocaust survivor

Eighty years after the first trains departed Greece on their way to the Nazi death camps in Germany and Poland, the last Holocaust survivor of Trikala’s Jewish community recounts the horrors of World War II. Esther (Naki) Matathia Bega, 96, talks to Kathimerini about the 14-month fight for survival at the Auschwitz II-Birkenau and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps, as well as the 22-day death march across a frozen Germany.

The persecution of the Matathia family began as soon as the Nazis invaded Greece. “My family fled [Trikala] for the village of Korbovo [a village nearby], but my father got sick and we had to return. Our home had been bombed so we moved close to my brother’s father in Volos. The house had so many rooms. All the villages around Mouzaki [near Trikala] had been burned at the time and accommodation had been commandeered for the displaced. We were all ordered to register. When the Germans came to get us, we hadn’t registered but it was those traitors, the informants, who gave us away,” remembers Bega.

The Germans started rounding up the area’s Jews on March 24, 1944. “They came for us once but didn’t catch us. They caught us the second time. My father managed to hide in a nearby room, with a very nice family, and he didn’t get caught,” she says.

“When they caught us, they had already caught everyone else in the area who was registered. They dragged us to the square, packed us into cars and took us to Larissa. It was a Friday and we left on the following Monday. The Red Cross came to the train station and gave us food. Then the Germans put us in the train cars, with one tiny window and box where we did our business, and 13 days later, we arrived at the camp.”

The camp was Auschwitz II-Birkenau, where Bega and her two sisters were separated from their mother. “The very young and the old were, unfortunately, taken away in cars and, as we later learned, to the crematorium. They told all of us that we’d see our parents later, but that didn’t happen,” she says.

‘They’d make us lift up our arms so they could see our bones. The ones that were too skinny would be written up’

“We were marched into Auschwitz. First, they stamped us with our number (77092), then they took us to the showers, cut off our hair and gave us some ratty clothes. After that, they led us to these sheds where they had bunk beds and a few days later assigned us various chores. My job was cutting up old clothing into strips, which we’d braid into gun cleaners,” says Bega.

The horrendous living conditions were not Bega’s only problem, as a few days after arriving at Auschwitz, the middle sister was taken to another part of the camp. “I’d see her sometimes when I was dropped off at the big gate near their side of the camp.

She had gone through a bad case of pleurisy and got sick. They took her to the hospital, where she died, according to a girl who was there with her. My other sister stayed at the same camp until the end. One day, though, she was looking for something to eat in the scrap pile of potato and radish peelings outside the kitchens, when a German hit her in the head with his stick and stabbed her. She was taken to hospital.”

Bega remembers the early morning wake-up and roll call and being made to “march to work with music.” “When anyone tried to escape, they were killed and their bodies were propped up with shovels along the road so we could see them. No one could leave.”

She also remembers the sight of a big chimney that was visible from the dormitory where she slept. “The sky would turn red from the flames at night and it would smell of meat. We didn’t know at first. We thought we’d be reunited with our parents. Some Thessalonians who had been there longer than us and had grown a tougher skin told us: ‘Don’t expect to see them again. They’re gone.’ With time, we understood what was going on. We saw the chimney and we knew.”

Bathing was another terrible ordeal. “They’d make us lift up our arms so they could see our bones. The ones that were too skinny would be written up – there were no names used there, just numbers – and when they had a certain number of people, they’d round them up and take them to the crematorium.”

After taking a shower, they were subjected to standing around naked in a big hall while their clothing was put through a sterilization furnace. There were no rays of hope at Auschwitz, no cause for optimism. The German model of incarceration and extermination was designed to wear down the inmates both physically and psychologically. “They fed us medicine that stopped our period and gave the men medicine too. We could not even practice our religious customs. Who could think of such things in there anyway? We were like animals.”

Among other problems, Bega also had to deal with the language barrier, as living with women from all over Europe and having no way of communicating with them proved to be one of her greatest challenges. “They were from all sorts of countries. It happened that I wasn’t placed with any Greeks; they were all foreign. The bed was a tiny square, top and bottom, and there’d be five or six of us sleeping on it.”

Esther ‘Naki’ Matathia Bega shows the tattoo of her number, 77092. ‘We shouldn’t hate,’ she says. ‘Not all the Germans are to blame.’

The long march to liberation

When the SS evacuated the camp in January 1945 as the Soviet army started approaching, Bega and the other inmates were taken briefly to Bergen-Belsen and then to a town whose name she no longer remembers. “They took us to a big building with many floors and they took my sister away and probably killed her. They’d wake us up every morning and take us to this place where there was a big wall and order us to throw rocks at each other. It was May and it was very cold, and they were making us throw rocks just to make us do something. In the meantime, the Germans had started retreating.”

She doesn’t remember the date when they left the town, but she remembers marching for 22 days in the cold. “We’d walk all day and at night they’d put us in some field so we could rest and then we’d start walking again in the morning. Those who weren’t scared would go to people’s houses and beg. I remember going to a house on the last day before we were let go. There was a German man there, but it seems that he was nice. He had some bread and cut us each a slice and also gave us sweets. We hid them so the others wouldn’t take them from us and then joined the line again and kept walking. If we didn’t walk, they’d kill us. One day it rained a lot and the Germans were calling to us to give us something, but none of us went. We felt like we’d just die then and there; we couldn’t take it anymore. We were also covered in lice.”

Bega remembers coming to a village where part of the group was released and then to another village where the other half was let go. “We didn’t know what to do or where to go. We found this big house; soldiers had probably been living in it. It had bunk beds and big heating stoves. We begged for clothing at the nearby houses and then lit the stoves with planks of wood pulled from the beds. Then we went down to the basement, where we threw out all our lice-ridden clothing.”

There were five Greek women in Bega’s group; three were from Ioannina (two were sisters) and the other from Corfu. “We decided it was best not to mention that we were Jews, so we didn’t. What happened as a result is that we were put in the same group as the workers who had gone to Germany, so we weren’t brought back to Greece immediately. We were liberated in May, but did not come back until August 15, 1945. I remember the date, because there were flags everywhere,” Bega reminisces, referring to the Greek Orthodox holiday celebrating the Mother of Christ.

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