Native of Auschwitz, survivor of Nazi camp, dies at 85

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

Frieda Reinstein, a native of the Polish town of Oswiecim, which the Nazis renamed Auschwitz after they occupied Poland in 1939, and who was a survivor of the infamous death camp there, died in St. Louis, on Monday, Dec. 8, 2008. Mrs. Reinstein was 85 years of age and had resided in St. Louis since 1949.

She was born Frieda Awend in Oswiecim. Her late husband, Alex F. Reinstein, died in 1988.

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An extensive article about Mrs. Reinstein’s experiences in her native Poland, including her Holocasut ordeal and survival, by Chris Lepper, appeared in the May 5, 1989 edition of the Intermountain Jewish News of Denver, where her three sons then resided.

The article is headlined, “Return to Auschwitz was return to ‘home,’ and told the story of Mrs. Reinstein and her sons visiting her native city of Oswiecim in Poland, which had a Jewish population of 20,000 in 1939, and was considered a “thriving” town before the Nazis invaded Poland on Sept. 1 of that year.

“Auschwitz has been called many things by many people over the years, but few use the same term as Frieda Reinstein in describing it. She calls it home,” begins Lepper’s article based on his interview of Mrs. Reinstein after her return visit there.

“Mrs. Reinstein is one of the very few living Jews who once called Oswiecin home, and one of the fewer still to have ever returned to walk its streets again,” he continues. “A few weeks ago, along with her sons I. Barry and Solomon, Mrs. Reinstein visited the place of her birth and youth, as well as a far more painful visit to the nearby concentration camp where she also resided for a period.”

The trip had been arranged by the Allied Jewish Federation of Denver mission to Poland and Israel. In the interview, Mrs. Reinstein, who had been recently widowed, told Lepper, that Oswiecim “was not a little town. It was a Jewish town, a nice town before the Nazis occupied it.”

Her father worked in a fish hatchery in what she called a thriving city about 75 miles from the Czech border. The Germans had been attracted to the town “by its healthy economy, its location, and the fact that a large Polish military camp was situated there.” Part of that Polish Army camp was converted into one segment of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, where over 2 million people, most of them Jews, were systematically murdered by the Nazis.

Mrs. Reinstein recalled that many of the town’s 20,000 Jews before the Nazi occupation were “very religious Hasidic families,” and that her own family, which included Frieda and her brothers, the late Berick, the late Israel and the late Solomon Awend, “was itself very religious,” Lepper writes.

With typical Nazi cruelty, the occupiers passed word to the townspeople that they intended to convert the Polish military camp into a gigantic bakery facility.

Mrs. Reinstein recalled to Lepper, “They said to us that we were going to be so well off in Oscwiecim. they said we were going to bake bread for the whole German Reich.” Construction began immediately.

Mrs. Reinstein recalled that at first the Nazis hardly touched the Jews of Oswiecim, other than making careful records of all their names and addresses, according to Lepper.

“There was little forewarning of the terrors which would await millions of Jews so close to the town. Once, however, a brick mason who was working at the new facility gave a warning to to Mrs. Reinstein’s father. ‘He said to run away,’ she recalls. ‘He said this isn’t going to be a bakery. They’re going to kill you.’ The advice was not heeded.”

Lepper’s chilling account of his interview with Mrs. Reinstein deals with how she and her family were eventually imprisoned at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, in the infamous Barracks 6, right in front of the camp. The gassing facilities and crematoria had not yet been built, so gallows and gunshots were used to murder the Jews and others in the death factory. Very few of the Oswiecim residents who ended up in the camp survived. Mrs. Reinstein’s parents and one of her brothers died there. A second brother survived, but died at age 33, a few years after the war, of injuries suffered at the hands of the Nazis, according to Lepper’s reporting.

Mrs. Reinstein herself, who was 15 at the time, managed to survive by volunteering to work in a sewing plant in the camp. Even though she had never sewn before, she worked long hours repairing damaged German Army uniforms. She also witnessed Auschwitz expansion to the annexed area called Birkenau, where the gas chambers and crematoria were installed. “We saw how the trucks came and came,” she said to Lepper. “We knew about the showers over there. We saw what happened. We saw people today, and then we didn’t see them anymore.”

Mrs. Reinstein’s harrowing journey through the Nazi-created hell did not end at Auschwitz. She was transferred first to another slave camp at Neusalz, Germany, where she did forced farm work, and then to Dachau, where she endured an infamous “death march,” which she managed to survive until finally being sent to another infamous camp, Bergen-Belsen, from which she was liberated. It was at Bergen-Belsen, in 1945, just before liberation, that Anne Frank and her sister Margo died, reportedly of typhus.

After liberation, Mrs. Reinstein was sent to a Displaced Persons (DP) camp, where she met her husband, Alex Reinstein, who was also a survivor. They had their first child in the DP camp, which was near Munich, and by 1949 made it to St. Louis. She returned to her home town and the site of the Auschwitz death camp in 1989. On that trip, which took place after her husband died, Mrs. Reinstein found barely a trace of the 20,000 Jews who had once lived there. All that remained besides her memories of them, were “tombstones and artifacts.” When she visited the camps, and saw the display cases of luggage, hair, shoes, spectacles, etc. which the Nazis confiscated from Jews and others, she became shaken and tearfully left the organized tour of the site. Barry Schein, one of her sons, told the Jewish Light. “Mom did walk to the site of her bunk in the barracks before we left the camp facility.”

Despite the trauma of the visit to the camp, Mrs. Reinstein said she did not regret going to her home town for a return visit. “I just wanted to see my little town again,” she said.

Mrs. Reinstein was a member of Tpheris Israel-Chevra Kadisha Congregation, and was an active member of the survivor community associated with the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Memorial Center.

Mrs. Reinstein was the mother and mother-in-law of Israel Barry (Debra Feldman) Rein, Solomon (the late Randee) Rein and Jacob B. Rein; grandmother of Gabrielle and Nicole Rein, Michael A. Rein, Melissa and Alexander Rein; sister of the late Berick Awend, the late Israel Awend and the late Solomon Awend; aunt of Sue (Sol) Awend and cousin of Lisa (Joe) Reinstein.

Chapel services for Mrs. Reinstein were held on Thursday, Dec. 11 at the Berger Memorial Chapel. Burial was at the Chesed Shel Emeth-White Road Cemetery.

Memorial contributions preferred to Thperis Israel-Chevra Kadisha Congregation, 14550 Ladue Road, 63017, the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center, 12 Millstone Campus Drive, 63146, or the Covenant/CHAI Apartments Chapel, c/o Janet Weinberg, Covenant/CHAI, 6 Millstone Campus Drive, 63146.