Survivors memoir reveals role humor played in the camps

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"Mad as it may sound, there was a funny side even in Auschwitz, " writes Eva Salier.

In fact, Salier credits her sense of humor with helping her survive the death camps.

The New Jersey mother wrote about laughter in hell 37 years ago in her memoir, so her then-10-year-old son would know what concentration camps had been like.

This Tuesday, Salier will share those memories at a Hadassah meeting in Berkeley and discuss how she came to write "Survival of The Spirit," a Holocaust memoir for teen and pre-teen readers.

Not long after she wrote the memoir for her son, Salier put it in a drawer and forgot about it for more than three decades. Last year, it was issued by Shengold Publishers of New York.

The story reflects on Hitler's rise, Germany's betrayal of the Jews and the post-war public's indifference and ignorance of what happened to the Jews, Salier said.

When she addresses the Hadassah meeting, "I want to say that the good friends you have one day can the next day be your enemies."

The book itself, however, highlights the therapeutic role comedy played amid the Holocaust. Salier fondly recalls those whose senses of humor made life bearable — her friend Floortje, the camp clown, and even one of her camp commanders, Reinecke.

In the camps, laughing usually invited punishment or death. But having a sense of humor was critical, she said.

It literally saved her life. In 1940, in Germany, she was first rounded up to be shipped to a concentration camp. But she giggled while her papers were being processed. The officers sent her to a corner behind a door and then forgot about her. As a result, she did not go with 499 other teens to their extermination at Mauthausen and Ravensbruck.

She didn't land in the camps until 1943, when she was useful enough to be kept alive as slave labor.

Salier was born in Germany in 1923 and passed a reasonably pleasant childhood in the suburb of Horchheim, near Koblenz on the Rhine.

The Nazis came to power when she was 12. Biology classes at her school were replaced by classes in "race science." Teachers and students referred to all the Jewish children in school as "the weeds."

After her father died, Salier escaped the Nazis by moving in with relatives in Amsterdam. Her mother joined her two years later.

Her mother "really wanted to get out of Europe but our Dutch family persuaded her to settle there," Salier said. "`Why not?' they asked. Nothing was going to happen there."

But in 1943, when the Nazis were rounding up the Jews in Amsterdam, her luck ran out. Salier was sent to Vught, the concentration camp of the Netherlands, 33 miles from the German border. She and other prisoners were shuttled around from camp to camp, including Auschwitz, working at a series of factories.

She was liberated at Hamburg in 1945. A year later, she moved to New Jersey, where she got married and had two sons.

But she found that people in America either didn't believe her stories about the camps, or they simply didn't want to hear them.

"There was no Eli Wiesel, no Holocaust museum," Salier said. "I came into a vacuum there, and I wanted to say, `Look, this has happened.'"

She also wanted to tell her sons how to survive with inner strength, self-reliance and an ability to laugh during the worst of times.

"I felt strongly that my sons should, in time, come to know and understand as fully as possible those years which interrupted my life and why I, their mother, was sometimes different from other mothers."