Gloria’s heart began to pound as she sat on the barber shop’s swivel chair. She shut her eyes tightly when she caught a glimpse of the reflection of her new hairdresser. The hairdresser was a tall, long-legged woman with a pretty face; she had plump, rosy cheeks and a simple smile. Her eyes sparkled in the mirror. But Gloria could not bear to look at her. The hairdresser had her own head shaved. The stubble on her scalp seemed to prick the air. Her empty head shone in the light and sent a shiver down Gloria’s spine. Gloria could not understand why the woman had chopped off all of her beautiful hair. Hair is a woman’s pride and glory. It distinguishes one from another, gives people individuality. Gloria forced herself to open her eyes to watch as the scissors came closer and closer to her own hair. Just as the cold metal began to sever the ends of her hair, Gloria closed her eyes again.
Gloria turned violently in circles. Her eyes searched frantically for her mother and her 12-year-old sister, Anna. All she could see were the shaved heads of thousands of prisoners dressed in striped uniforms. She began looking for her mother’s beautiful, long hair, but felt a sharp jab in her heart when she realized her mother’s hair was gone. It was now sharp stubble that was identical to every other prisoner’s in a striped uniform. Gloria reached up to touch her long, luscious auburn hair, but felt only her bald head. She was one of them. They were one of her. They were all the same. Where was her mother? She couldn’t even recognize her own family. Their identity was gone.
Gloria thought back to when her hair wove down her back everyday. She had lived in Czechoslovakia with her mother and father, Hele¢n Gelb and Dezider Hollander, along with her grandmother, Roza Roth, and five siblings: Josef, Michael, Sándor, Victor, and Anna. Those were the good times. It was 1941, and Gloria lived about five miles away from Berehovo, the provincial capital of Czechoslovakia. Dezider and two of his non-Jewish friends made a living by bringing a thrashing machine from farm to farm. It separated the straw from the grain. The family also owned a store. Roza and Hele¢n worked in it, and Gloria always tried to help them. Finally, after much begging, Gloria’s grandmother agreed to show Gloria how to make change. After learning, Gloria attempted to serve customers who came in looking for essentials like jam, rice, pickles, butter, flour, bread, spices, matzo, and other little goodies.
She was 11 years old and full of life. Her older brother, Josef, was an engineer. He had just installed electricity in their newly built barn. At night, Gloria loved to go and sit with the animals under the new bright light. Cords wrapped around every corner of the ceiling, a side effect of the light that bothered Hele¢n. She felt that the cords ruined the look of the barn, but the whole family agreed that it was worth it. After all, they were, other than the police department, the first in the town to have electricity. Although Czechoslovakia had been turned over to Hungary as a part of the Munich Agreement a few years before, Gloria and her family had tried to continue their lives as if everything were normal. However, it was hard to ignore the introduction she had to the Hungarians.
It was a day in1938, and 8-year-old Gloria sat looking out of the window of her house. She lived on a hill, on a path that led to downtown, so everyone passed by her house. On that day, the Czechs had packed up and marched out of town. There she sat, staring out her window and suddenly, about two hours after the Czechs were gone, some men appeared at the top of the hill riding beautiful white horses. They were the Hungarians. Gloria’s head popped up higher in the window to get a better look as the men dismounted and turned the crank of the breaks so that the howitzers they were pulling would not roll down the hill. However, some of the men did not break in time, and Gloria winced as the massive machines crashed into the horses that were pulling them. The men continued on their path towards downtown, and suddenly they stopped right in front of Gloria’s house. One of the majestic horses had a broken leg and could not continue. The men halted and Gloria froze in horror as the men brought out a gun and pointed it at the beautiful creature. She wanted to look away, but could not. There, right in front of her house, the gun sounded, and the horse lay dead. This was Gloria’s introduction to Hungary.
Later that day, after finding out which of the citizens in the town were Jews, the Hungarians knocked on the door. They asked for the Czech flag in order to burn it. Gloria’s father was loyal to Czechoslovakia and told the men that they did not have a flag. They demanded entrance and searched the house. Gloria knew that the flag was hidden upstairs in the attic in a huge pile of grain. She followed them around, praying that the Hungarians would not find it. Her heart pumped faster as they climbed up the stairs and searched through the many bags of grain that were kept up there. They looked and looked, but luckily were not able to find anything. Even as a child, Gloria knew that the Hungarians did not like her family.
Life changed quickly. Gloria changed from a Czech to a Hungarian school, which was far away from home. She had to travel more than two hours to get there. During the summer, she would ride a bicycle; during the winter, she would take a train. It wasn’t only at school where things changed. In her town, Jews were expected to wear the Star of David badge sewn into their clothing wherever they went. Fortunately, for Gloria and her family, Dezider had served in the German army and was a hero during World War I, so the family was exempt from wearing the star.
After the Nuremberg Laws were passed in Germany in 1935, one of Dezider’s business partners opted out of the thrashing business. He was a nice man, but he was not brave. He was afraid, and rightly so, that the Nuremberg Laws were only the beginning, so he decided he needed to get out of a business with a Jew before anything worse happened. Although this hurt her father, Gloria knew that the man had a good heart. He was just too afraid. Happily, Dezieder’s other business partner did not run, but stayed loyal to his friend until the very end. In 1939, Gloria’s family was forced to close its store and became isolated from the rest of the community.
The Hungarians and Germans also took from Gloria’s family many things to help them with the war effort. Among them was an enormous copper kettle, one of her mother’s prized possessions. It had been hard to get because of its size and value at the time. When the Hungarians saw it, however, they took it because bullets were made out of copper—and they needed as much of it as they could get. The Hungarians also collected the radios from every house to keep the people of the town in the dark about the war. The government ran the newspapers, so they could not be counted on for news. They were only propaganda. Hence, most families depended on word-of-mouth to get information. Gloria and her family had managed to hide one small radio. They listened to it as much as they could in the basement so that no one would hear it from outside.
Even with all the changes that affected Gloria’s life, she and her family continued to live on somewhat normally. By 1941, they had learned to use the little they had from their farm to make cheese and jam for themselves and the town. They drank their cattle’s milk and grew fruits and vegetables in the field. The vegetables that were not used up during the spring were saved in cans for the winter. They hid the cans from the soldiers whenever they showed up at the house. The new lights in the barn allowed her family to work past sundown, enabling them to get more milk.
Years passed this way. During Passover in 1944, Gloria walked to a pasture a few blocks away from her house with a flock of geese following her as if she were the mother goose. They were her family’s geese, and she was bringing them to a place down the road with grass to eat. She smiled as she walked in the cool air. The sun was setting. When she walked a little farther, however, Gloria noticed a group of German soldiers standing and cackling on the street. She was terrified and crossed the street to the other side, hoping they would not notice her. She quickly turned around and went home to tell her parents what she had seen. Everyone was surprised. The Germans must have come in overnight, they said.
After that, everything happened quickly. In the middle of the night, the mayor of the town, Dezider’s close friend, knocked on their door to warn them that the Germans were coming for them in the morning. Quickly, her father gathered the family and told everyone to get a few things together to prepare for the Germans’ arrival. They rushed around the house collecting the family valuables. They hid the jewelry under the floorboards and the silverware and the candelabras in the utility room at the end of the seven-room house. Her mother, meanwhile, headed to the kitchen to make bread. It was Passover, so they had no bread in the house.
At five in the morning, when there was a pounding on the door, the bread had not finished rising. So they had to leave it there for the Germans to eat after they were gone. A booming voice said to be ready in half an hour.
After half an hour, Gloria was told to go out to the barn to get her father. She walked into the barn, and stood quietly to watch her father as he hugged the animals one at a time. He fed them each, paying special attention to the pregnant horse. Gloria knew that her father had no idea when they would be back and that he was afraid for the animals. She didn’t want to interrupt him, but finally told him they were ready to go. He got up slowly and followed her back to the family.
The Jews were rounded up at City Hall and then ordered to get on the military trucks. Gloria and her family were driven to the beautiful synagogue in Berehovo while the Germans prepared a ghetto there. After they finished and situated many other Jews, Gloria and her family were transferred to the ghetto.
On May 15, 1944, Gloria and her family were ordered onto cattle cars. They had no idea where they were going. When they were being loaded onto the cattle cars, Gloria’s father stood in the station. At first, he did not realize that his family was boarding, because he had been asked by an SS officer to help translate. His status as a hero from World War I helped him get this job. He was always asked to wear his six military medals. When Gloria saw her father standing outside, she leaned over and said, “Aren’t you coming with us, Dad?” As soon as he realized that his family was on the cattle car, however, Dezider ripped off his military badges and jumped on the cattle car to join his family.
They arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and the men and women were separated. Old people and children were separated from the rest. Gloria assumed that the old people would take care of the children while everyone else worked. Anna was put into the group of young children, since she was only 12 at the time. But Anna had other plans. Hopping onto a wagon full of luggage, she headed toward Gloria and her mother. She declared that she refused to be separated from them. Hele¢n was furious.
“You could have been taken care of by the elderly, Anna. Now you will have to work instead. This is going to be very hard work.”
Gloria’s sister promised she would work hard. What she didn’t know at the time was that she had just saved her own life. Had she stayed in the biggest line—the line she had been placed in—Anna would have been marched right into the gas chambers.
The next day, after Cza’l Appell (head count), Gloria was tattooed number A-6374 and shaved. As her long, thick hair fell to the floor, Gloria shut her eyes to keep the tears from coming. They did a horrible job. It was rough and sharp. She did not want to touch her head. She knew she looked like a scarecrow. As they shaved her head, Gloria remembered trying on her mother’s wig as a child. She had felt so grown up, so beautiful, so individual, like the most special woman in the world.
Then she began work. Luckily, Hele¢n, Anna, and Gloria were all assigned to the same job: working behind Gas Chamber number 4, sorting the clothes worn by Jews before their arrival to Auschwitz and checking for valuables hidden in the clothing. As they worked, they watched people being marched into the gas chamber.
Gloria opened her eyes and looked at the woman cutting her hair. Just a few weeks ago, she had received a letter with a picture of Dr. Mengele on it. She did not need to look twice. As soon as she saw his eyes, she recognized him: the man who played God. Gloria shut her eyes tight again, trying to forget the picture.
One day, there was a selection. Everyone lined up, and Dr. Mengele chose who was to live and who was to die. Gloria had a rash, so he declared her unhealthy. He pointed at her and sent her to the side for people headed to the gas chambers. Instead of making it all the way to being gassed, however, Gloria was sent to an infirmary. There, she was treated by a female doctor from Hungary. In the middle of the night, the doctor sent Gloria back to her mother. She warned Gloria that there was to be that night at the infirmary a rounding up of Jews for the gas chambers, so she had better leave quickly.
In December 1944, Gloria was again sent to the other side during a selection. She and a group of 31 other women were placed on the back of a truck to be taken to the gas chamber. A guard, who had befriended Hele¢n in the past, was driving the truck. Before he started to drive, Gloria asked to see a picture of his granddaughter. He had shown her the picture once before. She loved the picture because his granddaughter’s gorgeous hair reminded her of her own before she had arrived. As the guard stood watching Gloria, his eyes softened. Suddenly, he leaned in and whispered that if anyone wanted to jump off the truck, they could.
“If anyone catches you, don’t say it was me who let you jump. I am trying to save lives. If you tell them, they will kill us both, and you will be the last people I save.”
That was all Gloria needed. She was going to jump. She was going to live. She looked around and asked who would come with her, and no one volunteered. They tried to convince her to give up. They believed it would come to an end this way, one way or another. One girl explained that her family was gone, so she had no reason to live. Even if freedom came, she said, she did not want to live it alone.
Gloria jumped alone. She was completely naked. It was snowing outside, so when she hit the road, her body stuck to the ice. When she managed to get up, she saw an icy creek running down the road. Following it led to an open pipe. She stayed there for hours, full of adrenaline. She felt better than she had in a long time, full of hope and triumph.
After a while, Gloria heard male voices. She was suddenly sure that they were searching for her. She quickly said a prayer. She asked God not to let a dog rip her apart. That would have been the worst end for her: to have animals, which she loved, kill her. Soon, the voices passed by her. She stayed in the pipe for about 24 hours without food or clothing. She did not remember the cold, however—only the excitement.
Finally, she decided she needed to leave the pipe because she was sure she would be discovered if she stayed there. Gloria would walk as far as she could. When night fell, Gloria emerged from the pipe. When she popped her head out, she was struck by the number of stars in the sky. She stood there, looking up at the sky and realized that there was one light that was not a star. She decided to walk to it. Gloria had no idea what the light was, but she had no other place to go, so she began her trek.
She walked the whole way, completely naked. When she arrived, she was afraid to go in. She had no idea what the building was. After all, it could end up being full of SS officers. Gloria took a deep breath and entered. The barrack was full of bunk beds, and Gloria hopped into one. A woman in the bed started to scream, but Gloria quickly motioned to her to be quiet. She explained to the woman what was happening, and the woman protected Gloria and gave her a warm jacket.
Even now, sitting in the swivel chair in the barber shop, Gloria shivered as she thought back to that day. Her body began to feel like jelly. She suddenly felt the need to hug herself all over, to wrap herself in her warm arms and keep herself safe.
Until she received the big jacket, Gloria had been numb. The woman explained that she and the others had just arrived in the barrack that day and were supposed to leave the next day. They had been on their way out of Auschwitz when the tracks of the cattle cars had been bombed, so they had stopped here. The next day, there was another Czál Appell before the group was to be loaded on the cattle cars again. Out of sheer luck, no one noticed Gloria.
Gloria and the rest of the women marched onto the cattle cars. Gloria did not drag her feet. She thought of her mother, whom she knew would be mourning for her. Gloria knew that once anyone began to mourn, they would die quickly. In the concentration camps, the only way to survive was to keep hope. She was determined to make it for her mother.
After a long ride, the cattle cars arrived at Bergen-Belsen. When she arrived, Gloria and the women had to walk from the train to the camp. It was very different from Auschwitz: Bergen-Belsen was about one quarter of Auschwitz’s size and did not have gas chambers. But that did not stop the death. People were dying of malnutrition, mistreatment, starvation, and terrible illnesses. There was so much illness that when Gloria arrived, she was not allowed to go into certain areas. She was only there for about three or four weeks, so she was able to avoid the sickness.
Gloria was taken to Braunschweig, which was open only for about six to seven weeks to complete a job. The prisoners were being used as slave labor to clear the roads of the debris caused by bombs. The Germans needed the roads cleared so their artillery could pass through. The prisoners were housed in a barn, and there was barely enough padding to cover the floor. Even so, Gloria was thankful for the roof over her head.
It was freezing. Gloria had a pair of wooden clogs to protect her feet from the cold, but they caused painful, infected blisters that she could not clean because she had no opportunity to wash herself. Gloria knew that if she complained, she would be killed. The Germans would assume she could no longer work and be of use to them. So Gloria continued on.
Once she and the rest of the prisoners at Braunschweig had finished clearing the debris, Gloria was moved to Hanover. There was a bunch of little buildings on the outskirts of a factory called Continental Gummiwerke in which Gloria and the prisoners worked. They made gas masks on an assembly line. There were three levels of speed that the Germans used on the assembly line: three was the fastest. When they felt the need to weed the “bad seeds” out of the group, the Germans would turn the machine up to level three and watch who fell behind. As soon as someone messed up—and someone always did—they would beat the prisoners.
Each day, the prisoners would march through the small town to get to the factory in the mornings. One day, there was a little old lady who had a large loaf of bread under her arm. She stood on the other side of a fence that marked the entrance to her house. The prisoners made sure to keep their heads down to keep the Germans from noticing anything strange. Gloria was aware that if the woman were to get caught, she would also be sent to the concentration camps. She had met many inmates who were there only because they had reached out to help a Jew. But when no one was looking, this old woman threw the bread to Gloria and the prisoners.
After being in Hanover, Gloria was transferred to Hambourg. Gloria thought that it must have been a beautiful city before it had been bombed to smithereens. After all, it was right next to a canal. But when Gloria was there, the city was in ruins. Ever morning, she and the prisoners crossed a bridge to get to work. They were told not to look to their right as they passed by, but Gloria was too curious. She looked out of the corner of her eyes and saw huge military ships. She wondered why the Germans cared if she saw them. There was no one to talk to about them. Whom could she tell?
One day, there was an extra head count. Everyone was ordered to put their hands above their heads, and civilians with suits and ties came in to examine each prisoner’s hands closely. Some prisoners were told to step forward. When it was Gloria’s turn, she closed her eyes as they approached. She was told to step forward. After everyone had been checked, those who had been ordered to step forward were loaded on trucks and driven to a nearby town next to a mountain.
The mountain was white. Gloria wondered what it could possibly be, and found that it was made entirely of salt. The trucks took Gloria to a building by the mountain. When they got off, they were told to get in an elevator that brought them underground. Civilians were hired to train the prisoners in their new job. She was to use her small fingers to help make rockets for the war.
The prisoner who was to train Gloria was a very kind man who gave her lunch. Every day, he left her his lunch. Although he never told her to eat it, he made eye contact with her so that she knew to eat it. After a few days, he began to bring her an extra lunch. Gloria was given hope from this little act of kindness, and it helped her to keep going even though the work was difficult and painful.
After a few months, Gloria was taken to Ravensbrück. This camp was different from all the other camps she had been in. Here, most of the prisoners were non-Jews. In fact, Himmler’s sister, who had a Jewish lover, had been placed in Ravensbrück. The Jews were treated differently from the non-Jews. The non-Jews were given extra coupons and treated better. But, the non-Jews refused to use them because they felt it was a betrayal to the rest of the prisoners. When the SS found out that they were not using the coupons, they beat the non-Jews.
Eventually, the nephew of the King of Sweden came to plead with Himmler for the release of the Scandinavian prisoners. The Swedish Red Cross entered, and after much convincing, Himmler finally allowed a certain number of prisoners to leave the camp. Gloria was one of them.
They were loaded onto a train and taken to freedom. On May 3, 1945, the train arrived in Malmö, Sweden. By the time they had arrived, many people had died from suffering on the train ride. But Gloria had made it. She had survived.
The barber swung Gloria around in her swivel chair. She lined the chair up so that Gloria could look at the back of her head in the reflection of a small mirror she held up for her.
“So? What do you think? Do you like it?”
Gloria could not answer. She did not like it. The woman’s bald head shone in the bright light of the shop. Gloria wondered if the woman’s mother had ever tried to search for her, finding that she was impossible to distinguish from the rest.
Finally, Gloria got up from the chair and went to pay. She thought about all the kindness she had encountered in the world, even during the most terrifying years of her life. She remembered her father’s business partner who had not left the business. In fact, he kept the thrashing machine running during the entire time her father was in Auschwitz. When Dezider had returned, the man gave him a portion of the money that would have been his had he been there during that time. She thought about the woman who gave her a warm coat when she had escaped. Gloria remembered the old lady who threw bread to the prisoners and the man who brought her a lunch every day.
She needed to remember that not every German was evil. Not every German supported the Nazis. Times were hard, and situations change people. Even in the hardest of times, there were Germans willing to help, to reach a hand out to the Jews. Conflict was never as simple as German vs. Jews, blacks vs. white, good vs. bad. This knowledge kept her going, and it keeps her going. She is a strong, vibrant woman who tells her story to all who want to hear, and we must now share it with the next generation. Never again can we permit this history to repeat itself.
Gloria Hollander Lyon, interview by Emma Brenner-Bryant, San Francisco. California, January 30, 2011.
Gutman, Yisrael and Michael Berenbaum, eds. Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp. Washington D.C.: Indiana University Press, 1994.
Halevy, Jehoshua. Yahadut Berehovo-Beregsas bi-temonot. Tel-Aviv-Netanyah : Irgun yots’e Berehovo-Beregsas veha-seviah, 1989. Accessed March 12, 2011. yizkor.nypl.org/index.php?id=1792
The Next Chapter Project. San Francisco: Holocaust Center: Jewish Family and Children’s Services, 2011.