There are few people alive today who can talk about the rise of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust in the first person.
Engelina Billauer, a 92-year-old Santa Monica resident, sees it as her responsibility to recount her life story to as many people as she can. Thousands of people have heard her account of growing up in a Jewish family in Berlin during the rise of the Third Reich and her journey through multiple concentration camps.
Billauer began telling her story at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and the Museum of Tolerance (LAMOTH) 70 years after she was liberated from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
“There are not many survivors left,” she said. “I think it’s our duty to tell our stories.”
LAMOTH CEO Beth Kean said youth who hear a survivor’s story in person have a better understanding of the Holocaust and how it happened.
“That’s why survivors do this — they witness the impact and influence they have on students,” Kean said. “And now, they see the end of their lives approaching, so they feel an urgency to just keep talking and get their message out about what can happen when hatred goes unchecked.”
Billauer was born Engelina Lowenberg in 1927 in Berlin, Germany to George Lowenberg, a tailor, and Taube Lowenberg. Her brother Wilhelm was born in 1919 and her sister Frieda in 1921.
Billauer’s childhood was defined by the Nazi regime’s campaign against Germany’s Jewish citizens.
“Germans all adored Hitler and he made no secret that he was going to take care of all the Jews,” she said.
In 1936, Billauer was expelled from public school and transferred to a private Jewish school. She had to walk 45 minutes to school because Jews were no longer allowed to use public transportation.
On a November night in 1938 that is now known as Kristallnacht, Billauer heard windows smash and saw fires across Berlin. Nazi paramilitary forces and civilians were destroying Jewish-owned stores, buildings and synagogues — including her own synagogue.
By 1940, the Nazis had closed all Jewish schools and Billauer’s father was unable to find work. Already living on the margins of society, the Lowenbergs were forced to register as Jews and wear yellow stars on their clothing in 1941.
In the fall of 1942, Gestapo officers came to the family’s apartment and ordered them to leave. They were held in a synagogue with 1,000 other Jews before the Gestapo marched them through Berlin to the train station.
“Germans were standing on the sidewalks, clapping,” Billauer said.
The train dropped the Lowenbergs off in Estonia. Billauer, who was 15, and her sister Freidel, who was 21, were separated from their parents. When they tried to run after them, an SS officer stopped them and told them they would be reunited soon.
Billauer and her sister never saw their parents again. They later learned they had been killed in a mass execution in the forest.
The Lowenberg sisters were marched to the Jägala concentration camp, where SS officers took their jewelry and other valuables. Billauer said they shot several women for refusing to give up their wedding rings. About 100 women were murdered during the several months Billauer spent working in the camp, she said.
The 100 women who survived were transferred to a prison in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, in spring 1943. A friendship the Lowenberg sisters had developed with three girls from Frankfurt helped Billauer withstand the trauma she was experiencing, she said.
Billauer slept on the floor of her cell and survived on old bread and water. She was forced to build brick walls in a Tallinn shipyard.
It was there that encountered the only German who was ever civil to her during the war. He was more lenient with Billauer, her sister and three friends and gave them extra soup, she said.
“The other German soldiers who were working there would sing every morning “we can’t wait for all the Jews to be killed,” Billauer said.
The prisoners were taken to another labor camp in Estonia near the Russian border in summer 1943 before being marched through the snow to the Goldfilz labor camp that fall.
One day at Goldfilz, a German officer selected her for a task and her sister and three friends volunteered to join her. But the camp commander — an alcoholic man who frequently hit prisoners with sticks — prevented them from going and found five girls to take their places. Billauer later learned the five girls were murdered.
“We were always lucky,” she said.
The prisoners were taken back to Tallinn in 1944 as the Russians moved closer to the border and shipped to the Stuffhof concentration camp in Germany.
At Stuffhof, Billauer said the barracks were so crowded that they slept standing up. They were not allowed to shower or use proper toilets. Instead, a guard came each morning and threw pails of water on them.
About a morning after they arrived, they were taken to the Neuengamme concentration camp, where Billauer worked 12-hour shifts making hand grenades. Guards would often keep the prisoners from sleeping at the end of the day, making them stand in the cold rain all night.
When the Allies started bombing Germany in early 1945, the prisoners were taken to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. They were marched through several small towns. She said Germans lined up on the street to watch them without saying a word.
Billauer said she could tell that Bergen-Belsen was a different kind of concentration camp when she smelled burning bodies upon approaching the complex.
She suffered the worst treatment there, she said. SS officers set their dogs on her, leaving her with scars on her legs and a lifelong fear of dogs. She was also ordered to collect bodies and put them in piles.
Billauer had only been imprisoned at Bergen-Belsen for a month when the British army liberated the camp in April 1945, discovering 60,000 prisoners and 13,000 unburied bodies. She was hospitalized for three weeks with typhus before joining her sister in a displaced persons camp.
She and Frieda, who had married another survivor in the displaced persons camp, moved to a small town in Germany, where she met her future husband, Richard Billauer. They became engaged in 1949 and married in Israel, where Billauer’s father had immigrated, in 1950.
Billauer took care of some unfinished business in Berlin before moving to New York City with her husband and six-week-old son. She had her parents’ names on her brother’s gravestone in her family’s cemetery. Then, she went back to her old apartment.
“The neighbor I had known since I was born was still living there, and she almost fainted when she saw me,” Billauer said. “I told her what her countrymen did, not only to my parents but to millions of other Jews. I got it off my chest.”
Billauer lived in the Bronx and Queens with her sister’s family during the 1950s and gave birth to her second son in 1957. Their children grew up together while Billauer’s husband worked as a watchmaker in Manhattan.
Their sons both pursued degrees in Los Angeles and Billauer and her husband moved across the country to join them in 1983. The family ran a chiropractic office together for almost 30 years, living in Santa Monica for most of that time, Billauer said. She now has grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Billauer moved into a retirement community in Santa Monica after her husband died and began telling her story at the Museum of Tolerance later that year. She now speaks at LAMOTH as well and has visited local schools.
“My sons said, “Somebody up there has plans for you. You survived the Holocaust and all kinds of diseases, including cancer. Somebody wants you to do something”,” she said. “So they brought me to the Museum of Tolerance.”
Zuzana Riemer Landres, a granddaughter of survivors who volunteers as a docent at LAMOTH, said it is crucial for youth to hear the stories of survivors like Billauer in an era when anti-Semitic hate crimes have surged in California and across the United States.
Nationally, the Anti-Defamation League recorded 1,879 attacks against Jews and Jewish institutions in 2018, the third-highest year on record since ADL started tracking such data in the 1970s.
Anti-Semitic incidents were also up 27% in California in 2018. This year, students at two Orange County high schools were recorded giving Nazi salutes. In Santa Monica, graffiti that denied the existence of the Holocaust was scrawled last month on a pedestrian bridge over the Pacific Coast Highway.
“Having a personal encounter with a survivor is much more transformative for students than learning from a textbook,” said Riemer Landres, who lives in Santa Monica and has two children in local public schools. “I tell our students that by hearing survivors, they become not just visitors, but witnesses.”
Students who meet a survivor are also able to connect his or her experiences with current issues like immigration or adversity in their own communities, she added.
“My goal in doing this work is to make sure there are more people growing up who will stand up for others, rather than be bystanders,” Riemer Landres said.