Holocaust 'babies' honor their liberator with suburban connection
By Burt Constable
As the three youngest Holocaust survivors pay tribute at the grave of the American soldier who saved them, a train whistle pierces the tranquillity of a glorious Monday in the St. Joseph Cemetery of River Grove.
"My mother told me I was born on a train," says Dr. Mark Olsky, 70, a Wisconsin emergency room physician who once lived in Prospect Heights and worked at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge. Olsky was born on Adolf Hitler's birthday in a boxcar where his mother Rachel and other prisoners were en route to the Mauthausen concentration camp that the Nazis had established in Austria.
"She was ready to bite through the umbilical cord, but someone found a rusty razor," says Wendy Holden, a British author whose new book tells the remarkable story of how the mothers of these three mourners, born in death camps during the last days of World War II, survived the atrocities and now enjoy life with their own children and grandkids.
U.S. Army Sgt. Albert Kosiek, a 28-year-old son of Polish immigrants living in Chicago, led the platoon of 23 men who liberated 40,000 prisoners from Mauthausen and other nearby camps in Gusen. He also handled the surrender of 1,800 German soldiers,
"He really didn't talk much about it," says his oldest son, Larry Kosiek, 67, of Mount Prospect. "When we were studying World War II in school, I said, 'Well, you were in the Army. Tell me about it.' And he gave me this: a letter he had written to his mother."
As platoon leader, Sgt. Kosiek was moving his troops through the foothills of the Austrian Alps in the waning days of World War II when Red Cross workers told him about the camp and the Nazi guards' plan to abandon the site after killing all the prisoners so as to leave no witnesses to tell about the gas chambers and mass executions.
"I truly believe he was inspired by the Holy Spirit," says Frank DePaul, Kosiek's brother-in-law and a Korean War veteran from Park Ridge, who has helped keep the story alive since Kosiek's death in 1982. Disobeying orders to abandon that rescue quest, Kosiek led his soldiers into the camp on May 5, 1945.
"It's a sight I'll never forget," he wrote in that letter home to his mother. "Some had just blankets covering them and others were completely nude, men and women combined, making the most emaciated looking mob I have ever had the displeasure to look upon. … They hardly resembled human beings. Some couldn't have weighed over 40 pounds."
In addition to Olsky and her newborn son, Slovak teacher Priska Lowenbeinova and her newborn daughter, Hana, and Anka Bergman, and her newborn daughter, Eva, were found. All the women had hidden their pregnancies from infamous SS inquisitor Dr. Josef Mengele, who sent them to Auschwitz instead of having them killed. They all ended up at Mauthausen, the final concentration camp to be liberated.
Bergman, whose husband and baby boy died in the camp at Auschwitz, went into labor at the shock of arriving at Mauthausen. Her daughter, Eva Clarke, who now lives in England, said her mother told her there was an order to kill all babies, but one guard intervened. "I haven't seen a baby in years," said the guard, who wanted to hold and play with the infant. When the Americans arrived, the malnourished baby was sick and near death, until a U.S. medic gave her a dose of a new drug called penicillin.
The three moms all infused their babies with the importance of living lives in defiance of Hitler's plan to extinguish them all.
"Nobody can identify with 6 million people. Everybody can identify with one family," says Clarke, who lives in England and tells her story to schools and charities.
"My mother said, 'It was horrible. I was starved. I was beaten. But we came home. And now, fill those shoes,'" remembers Hana Bergen Moran, who retired as a chemist for a pharmaceutical company and lives in Orinda, California.
A plaque in Mauthausen honors Kosiek as the "first liberator." He came back to Chicago and worked as a barber and in the electrical business. He and his wife, Gloria, who died in 2012, are survived by son Larry; daughter Verna, 64, who lives in California; Jim, 56, of Hoffman Estates; and twins Peter and Paul, 54, who live in Chicago and Wheeling, respectively.
"It's an honor to bring you three together here," Peter Kosiek tells the Holocaust "babies," as the trio, following a Jewish custom, place stones on his father's grave marker.
The survivors and Kosiek's relatives will gather from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. today before a sold-out crowd at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie to present the North American launch of Holden's book, "Born Survivors: Three Young Mothers and Their Extraordinary Story of Courage, Defiance, and Hope." CBS news anchor Regine Schlessinger will lead the discussion. Phone (847) 967-4850 for information.
"I love finding the humanity among the inhumanity," says Holden, who was a war correspondent for London's Daily Telegraph and has covered wars in Iraq, Syria and Romania and throughout the Middle East.
Celebrating lives that blossomed from such a cruel beginning would have pleased their father, Kosiek's sons agree. When the story was told at an anniversary gathering of the survivors in Mauthausen, many of them mailed thank-you letters to Kosiek and his family, in many different languages.
The good to come from the story is such a contrast to the evil Kosiek witnessed.
"I never thought that human beings could treat other human beings in this manner," the soldier wrote, describing the ovens and gas chambers and the piles of thousands of bodies. "The people that were alive made me wonder what kept them alive."
For the three "Born Survivors," the answer starts with the story of three strong mothers.