Meroslava “Slava” Bryn, survivor of a Nazi slave labor camp in Germany during World War II, gave seventh-graders at Princeton Middle School on May 27 a glimpse into the horrors of the Holocaust.
Bryn, 71, told the students she was a toddler when the German Gestapo took her and her parents from their home in the Ukraine to a slave labor camp in Germany. She was too young to work during the family’s three years in the camp until the British liberated the camp. But she learned of the lethal intimidation.
Prior to her family being brought to the slave labor camp, the family had been hiding a Jewish woman in her 20s in their house in the Ukraine. The Jewish woman had been a friend of Bryn’s mother since childhood, and because of the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jews, her mother’s friend was in danger.
When it was learned the German Gestapo was on their way to their home one day to look for any Jews in hiding, Bryn’s parents put the Jewish woman into a potato and onion storage area below the floor in the house. A trap door covered the storage place and a rug was placed atop the door and a table was set over the rug.
But the Germans located the Jewish girl in seconds, pulling back the table and rug and opening the door, Bryn said.
“It was absolutely horrible,” Bryn remembers, explaining that the Jewish woman was loaded onto a truck bound for the Auschwitz death camp.
Bryn’s mother and father were spared because of skills the Nazis found useful. She said her father spoke seven languages and the Germans decided to use him as a translator. Her mother was the “village weaver” and the Germans used her to sew uniforms in the slave camp factory where the family was taken to work in Germany.
Bryn said that when her father wasn’t being used as a translator, he was put to work in an ammunition and rifle factory for the German war machine.
Bryn said her father was first tested to see if he would be a suitable translator. He was placed in a room where a number of Germans sat around him watching as he translated a note he was handed. When he was done, everyone looked to an older man sitting in a corner to see if he approved of the translation, and the man nodded his approval.
If her father had not interpreted the note exactly, she and her parents could have been killed, she said.
But at the German arms factory, it “killed father’s heart” to be making things that would help the Germans, Bryn said.
Veteran slave workers warned newcomers to resist the temptation to make anything defective. The Germans would spot check the rifles and ammunition, and if they found something defective, they would exact revenge, according to Bryn. The men at the factory would be ordered to line up outside while the camp women were gathered to watch. Men’s identification numbers were called out and the Germans would shoot the men whose numbers were called.
“You could hear the cries of the women whose husbands were shot,” Bryn said.
Some of the factory workers were partisans who hated the Nazis, and among the new factory workers were teenagers. It was difficult getting the teens to heed the warnings, Bryn said.
Though the camp that Bryn and her family were in wasn’t a concentration camp where the Germans put prisoners to death, conditions were still bad, according to Bryn. She talked about barracks that were designed to hold 20 women being packed with 40 and how the prisoners were regularly given watered-down soup, sometimes with a piece of coarse bread for their meal.
There was only one thing the Nazi guards were scared of at the slave labor camp, and that was any barracks where the prisoners had tuberculosis, Bryn noted. Once someone in a barracks got TB, the rest inside there would get it, she said. By the time British soldiers liberated the camp, she and her mother had gotten TB and would have died if the liberation hadn’t happened when it did, she said.
Bryn and her mother were taken to a sanitorium for TB patients and her father was taken to a displaced persons camp. Bryn was in the sanitorium for one year and her mother for two.
Bryn, once released from the sanitorium, was placed in an orphanage. She remembers her father getting a pass once a month or every other month to leave his camp to go to the orphanage to visit her and how the two would take walks in the Black Forest.
Bryn and her husband Andrew live in the Twin Cities area, both having immigrated to the United States in 1949, when she was 7 and he was 6.
Bryn taught fourth and fifth grade and some middle school classes in Columbia Heights for 30 years and then was a long-term substitute teacher for a time in Fridley.
Bryn said she is not only thankful that she and her family didn’t end up in a death camp but that she was able to immigrate to the United States through what she called an act of kindness by an American Army doctor. The doctor was examining persons seeking to go America to see if they met the health rules.
Bryn said her mother warned her not to cough because it might signal that she had TB. The day of the medical checkup was a cold day in November, Bryn said. As she stood in a hospital gown in a room waiting for the exam, a gust of wind blew a door open and she coughed.
“I thought I would never get to America, and my mother almost fainted,” she said. “I was trembling.”
But the doctor approved of her going to America, she said.
Bryn told the students at Princeton Middle School that she learned from her experiences to “never underestimate your enemy.”
Bryn advised the Princeton students to try to give back to their country, such as by volunteering to help elderly people or mothers with little babies who might need help.
Princeton Middle School American history teacher John Borich invited Bryn to speak to the seventh-graders and said that Bryn’s talk fit into lessons he has been teaching about America’s Civil Rights Movement and the fight to end discrimination.