Skip to main content

Miriam Rosenthal is seen in a 1942 photograph. Her survival through the war was a testament to her strength and courage. It was also a rebuke to the Nazis, who designed concentration camps to strip prisoners of their humanity and force them to prey on one another. But during her journey in that twisted world, people repeatedly risked punishment to help her.Courtesy of Miriam Schwarcz Rosenthal

Miriam Rosenthal, who ran a store that was for decades a fixture of Toronto's Jewish community, was also one of the few women who gave birth in a Nazi concentration camp and survived with her child.

Ms. Rosenthal died on Feb. 10. She was 95.

Her survival through the war was a testament to her strength and courage. It was also a rebuke to the Nazis, who designed concentration camps to strip prisoners of their humanity and force them to prey on one another. But during her journey in that twisted world, people repeatedly risked punishment to help her.

Her pregnancy and the sight of her baby reconnected people with their humanity and their sense of altruism.

One fellow prisoner cut a piece of her blanket to keep Ms. Rosenthal warm. Others gave her extra food. A female overseer endured a beating to provide a stove. A guard helped carry her newborn.

Born in captivity in the final months of the war, her son, Leslie, who is now 72, is among the youngest survivors of the Holocaust.

"My mother said, 'I came up with a baby, so how could I not believe in God?'" Leslie said in a 2011 German documentary, Geboren im KZ.

She told her story in the documentary and in a video for the University of Southern California's Shoah Foundation.

"Her victory over the Nazis … was bringing life to this world at a time when millions of children and babies were being killed," Leslie said in his eulogy at her funeral.

The youngest of 14 children, Magdalena Miriam Schwarcz was born on Aug. 27, 1922. Her parents, Eugene and Leah Laura Schwarcz, had a farm outside the town of Komarno, in what was then Czechoslovakia.

In 1939, yielding to Germany's demands, Czechoslovakia was partitioned and the area where the family lived came under Hungarian control.

Amid the turmoil, she married Bela Rosenthal, whose family sold cattle and lumber in the city of Miskolc.

A client state of Germany, Hungary had anti-Semitic laws but refused to send its Jewish citizens to death camps. However, in early 1944, the Germans invaded Hungary and started the deportation of more than 400,000 Hungarians Jews.

Ms. Rosenthal was separated from her husband, who was sent to a forced labour camp.

She and the rest of her in-laws were deported to Auschwitz where they were divided into two groups. She had survived her first selection. The others went to the gas chambers.

The kapo, the prisoner in charge of the barracks, told the newcomers: "See the big smoke there? That's where your parents and all your family went."

The camp's filthy conditions – women suffering from dysentery squatted in crowded latrines with no privacy or toilet paper – worried Ms. Rosenthal because she now realized she was pregnant.

Fellow inmates told her to keep quiet because, at the time, Jewish newborns were usually killed right after birth.

Later that summer, she was sent to Plaszow, a concentration camp near Krakow.

She was assigned to a unit that sorted goods seized from incoming prisoners. Her kapo said he picked her because she reminded him of his wife, who had been killed by the Nazis.

In the fall, she was sent to Augsburg, in Bavaria, to work at an aircraft factory.

By now, her bulging belly started to show. She worked next to a political prisoner who gave her bread.

One day, in December, two SS officers showed up, looking for the pregnant woman. "You swine, what are you doing here?" they yelled.

They wanted to take her back to Auschwitz. But plans changed at the train station, likely because, by then, the Red Army was nearing Auschwitz. So they sent her elsewhere in Bavaria, to Kaufering I, a sub-camp of Dachau.

She was taken into the barracks and met six other women, all pregnant Hungarian Jews. "We started to cry and cry. It was like we were all sisters."

They were part of the Schwanger Kommando (pregnant unit), a rare case in the Nazi camps where expectant Jewish women could keep their children.

It wasn't clear why they were spared, whether through an administrative fluke or so that they could be used as bargaining chips.

The seven women worked in the laundry room, delousing clothes.

David, a prisoner working in the kitchens, made sure they got more food. He found them an inmate who had been a gynecologist.

Luba, a Latvian kapo, provided a stove and rags to wrap the babies. One day, an SS guard came, ripped out the stove and beat up Luba. "Don't feel sorry for me … this is only blood," she told the women before finding them another heater.

On Dec. 8, 1944, the first baby was born, on a wooden bunk, with no anesthetics, the doctor working with bare hands. Ms. Rosenthal was the last to give birth, on Feb. 28.

They had to go back to laundry duties, although they were allowed to take turns and leave one of them in the hut to look after the infants.

According to records unearthed by the German documentary filmmakers, on March 13, an order was signed to transfer the women and their babies to another camp to be executed.

But, in the confusion at war's end, the order wasn't carried out. Instead, on April 26, the SS evacuated the camp ahead of the advancing U.S. Army.

During the forced march, an SS officer asked Ms. Rosenthal if she spoke German, then offered to carry her son. "I couldn't believe it. … They were SS, but this man had a heart," she recalled tearfully in the documentary.

Despite being strafed by allied planes, the convoy eventually arrived at Dachau.

The next day, U.S. soldiers liberated the camp, finding the seven women and their babies in a lice-infested hut.

Ms. Rosenthal made her way to Komarno and waited to see if other relatives had survived.

One day, as she walked with her baby, she saw a man approach. Her husband.

She shouted "Bela! Bela!"

She showed him their baby.

"It's your son. He looks just like you," she said.

"He looks like my father," he replied.

They moved to Canada in 1947, where Bela found work as a rabbi and Hebrew teacher in Sudbury and Timmins, Ont.

In the mid-sixties, they moved to Toronto and opened a store, Miriam's Fine Judaica, which they ran for four decades until retiring in 2007.

Ms. Rosenthal leaves her three children, Leslie, Lilian and Murray; seven grandchildren; and 17 great-grandchildren. Her husband died in 2008.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe