Navigating A War-Ravaged World, Alone
As Hitler advanced, Rosie was still in Hungary, but she heard of what was happening to her family at home. German soldiers were entering homes, cutting the beards of the Jewish men with scissors, and then killing them.
In one situation Rosie's mother hid her father behind a refrigerator to keep him safe. But, that safety was short-lived.
Rosie's parents were still young when German forces separated her from them. Her mom was just 38 and her dad 43. They were sent immediately to a gas chamber while Rosie was imprisoned at a concentration camp — one that was referred to as a "death camp."
"They were kids," Rosie said of her parents.
“One day I had six siblings and the next day I never saw any of them again.”
Bergen-Belsen is one of the most notorious concentration camps of WWII, where an estimated 50,000 people died — including Anne Frank. Due to overcrowding, camp residents often went without food for days and fresh water was hard to come by. Sanitation was inadequate for that volume of people and disease was rampant. When the camp was liberated by the British in 1945, many of its remaining prisoners were seriously ill.
Life changed for her immediately. What had been a joyful childhood in Hungary, caring for her mom's cousin, was gone. Her head was shaved, she was put into a shower and then bounced between two notorious camps — Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.
Survival had suddenly become the first priority.
Living On Little More Than Hope
Inside the concentration camp, Rosie shared one bed with 13 other people, as was customary. She was given one loaf of bread once a week, and she had to make it last. Once a day, she and her fellow prisoners would receive a bowl of soup, containing one potato and one bean.
The bread, which Rosie described as “half flour, half sawdust,” was so coveted people would hide their loaves — in their beds, under their heads, in between their legs.
"When I think of it, I cringe,"
Since Rosie's cousin, who was in the camp with her, didn't like the soup, Rosie would give her bread to her.
Rosie survived in that camp for a year and a half.
— Rosie Guttman
A Job Only War Could Inspire
Rosie's survival in that camp depended on her ability to ration food, her willingness to stay in line, and her commitment to work — regardless of the circumstances. Her assignment, day after day, was one meant for no one, especially a teenage girl.
Rosie was required to observe a conveyor belt of prisoners who had died in the gas chamber, harvest any valuable dental work — such as gold or silver — and do it before their bodies reached the ovens of the crematorium.
Guards would send 350 prisoners through at a time, which meant the assembly line-style work Rosie was doing required 10 rows of conveyor belts. Workers rotated through the lines all day long and they were expected to remain emotionless, despite the unconscionable work they were being asked to do.
Rosie couldn't help but react when she saw the body of her pregnant and recently-married, 19-year-old cousin come down the line. She jumped and gasped.
That simple reaction inspired a brutal response from the German guards, who beat her so savagely with leather belts she carried visible scars with her for the rest of her life.
"I will never forget that beating as long as my eyes are open,” she said. “I saw that and I was 17 years old."