Ella Baker

"Be inquisitive, aware, and challenge all unjust situations.  Try to make it just.  This is more but equally important then the hardships I went through.   Get involved and learn about things. You know, it was a time when I came to realization about America. I didn’t have any idea, any clue about America and American discrimination.  And then when the peace marches and things like that, and suddenly I became more aware.  I went to study groups, I went everywhere.   We must... (continued below)"

Name at birth
Ella Berkovic
Date of birth
Where were you born?
Where did you grow up?
Cop, Slovakia
Name of father, occupation
Yankiel Berkovic, adoptive father; Pesach Berkovic, natural father, Horse and wagon transportation
Maiden name of mother, occupation
Ethel Berkovic, adopted mother; Bruna Isakovic, natural mother, Homemaker
Immediate family (names, birth order)
I was the youngest of four; I was two years old when I was given up for adoption. They were looking for a place for me. My natural father was a salesman who went door to door; he came to visit me from time to time. I remember that one of my natural sister’s names was Marta. Interestingly, I was born a Berkovic and the family that raised me was a Berkovic.
How many in entire extended family?
Large extended family
Who survived the Holocaust?
Five members survived; one left for Palestine before the war
The Hungarians came to Slovakia; I have worse memories of the Hungarians than of the Germans.  Growing up, I had the experience of being hated as a Jew by the Hungarians.  
I remember as a girl, I had a non-Jewish friend who had to choose between belonging to a club and having me as a friend.  She told me that she chose to be in the club and told me that we could not see each other anymore.  We had celebrated New Year’s Eve together and I had brought a dish.  I had to go and pick up the dish; they wouldn’t allow me to come into their house. We had to meet on the street corner.

I remember after the war ended, a Hungarian man who didn’t know who I was, asked me where I came from before the war.  He said he was a Nazi and that he regretted that more Jews returned than he had hoped for.

I went to a Hungarian school.  We all left to go to the Czechoslovakian school because we couldn’t tolerate the harassment at the Hungarian school.  I still have a picture of Masaryk, the first president of Czechoslovakia.  He fought against anti-Semitism.

This is something that happened at my Czech school, and something you have never heard and never will.  There was a dedication of a new school.  All of the Jewish kids that were there had a good time, but we didn’t eat the food because it wasn’t kosher. 

We didn’t make anything out of it but the administrator of the school noticed that the Jewish kids were not eating.  They found out why we didn’t eat because it wasn’t kosher. Two days later catered kosher food came in just for the Jewish kids.  These are the Czechs, then and now. 

Then we were dragged out of our homes and taken to the ghetto in Uzhgorod.  This wasn’t really a ghetto; it was a very temporary thing.  It was a lumber yard with open sides.  It was March, 1944 and very cold.  We were there for a couple of months.
After that, we were taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau.  

I arrived at Auschwitz together with my mom and dad.  They separated us.  When they separated us, I rushed back to them; I wanted to be with them.  The Gestapo threw me back.  He could have said you stupid woman, if you want to, go and be burned up..  

I didn’t know what was happening, I just wanted to be with them.  So, it was Bashert (fate) that I survived.  I never heard or saw my parents again.

There were about 1,000 people in one barrack.  At night, we slept in bunk beds; we were packed in like sardines.  When one had to turn at night, everybody had to turn.

I was in what was called a Vernichtungslager camp, “the destruction” (a death camp).  
I wasn’t even tattooed, because I was prepared to go into a gas chamber.  

But what happened is a company came out that needed workers.  They lined us up and they took from the 1,000, about 200 of us.  I was one of those to work in a factory making parts for airplanes.

We walked the miles in the snow, beyond the electric barbed wires to work, but the guards walked with us on that same snow.  You have to see there is a balance to everything.

They call me a positive thinker, some people can’t see the sunshine when it’s there, but I am creating the sunshine where there is none.  This is a part of survivorship, you know. 

So what happened is that at that camp there was a big, big kettle for the irons.  What are we supposed to do there with hot water?  That bath was a gift, we risked our lives; we got into the kettle to have a bath.  

Because they saw how much we wanted to have a bath, they arranged that every Sunday we would have a regular shower.  They always called me “optimistic Ella” because I would always try to see the positive in things.  

Once when we were working in the sun, I was barefoot.  Some Germans slipped me a piece of rag that I could wrap around my feet.  You remember these things.

Also in that factory they had a bunch of frozen apples.  They brought it probably because they enjoyed watching the people who were starving.  Everybody was running for it except me.  I said, “I’m not going to get killed running for an apple.”  

There was a pretty sadistic factory manager.  He saw that I was sitting back and not running for the apples.  He stopped the whole thing and said to me, you with the blue eyes over there.  I wanted to take him out, you know.  He said everybody step aside and he told me to pick an apple.  And I hated it.  Oh that was a terrible experience for me. 

Some of the nicer German people, those workers slipped me a couple apples, an onion, or bread.  I shared it with others; I knew they were hungry too.

Then they took us on the death march because the Russians were getting closer.  We were walking, walking and walking and what do you know, we got bombarded.  You know what was Bashert?  Out of the hundreds of us, they took twenty of us and I was one of them, we went back on a wagon, not walking anymore.  

They took us back to the factory because it was bombarded and they needed somebody to clean up.  So I was one of them.  Then I was liberated right there by the Russians and hell broke loose right with them too. 

The Russians were terrible, they were taking our food away, everything was terrible.
So I got together with my friends and said let’s get out of here, let’s walk back home.

We’re walking to Czechoslovakia and there comes a covered wagon with horses.  The Czechs were organized to meet people like us.  They were organized on farms with food.  And the next day another horse and buggy comes and they took us all away home to Prague.  Then the residents of Prague were waiting on bridges and welcoming us.  This is the beautiful, beautiful history of the Czech people.  

I went to my hometown and I didn’t find that home was home.  I didn’t have any family or friends or anything.  There was a lot of harassment; it was a terrible time we had there, because all of the Nazi people there became good Communists to hide from their crimes.  

I forged the registration document, I had nothing to lose.  I went away up to the Sudetenland, up to the Czech Republic to the German border.

I have realized, learned about myself that what makes me tick is freedom.  I was free and I needed nothing else.  I was happy, I was happy with materialistically nothing, but I was free, I was breathing free. 

If not for the Communists, I wouldn’t be here in the United States today.  I was just running from one hell to another.  Then Israel became a state in 1948.  And a few months later I was there.  I really didn’t plan on it.

And then I discovered my true identity, I am not observant but I was so happy to be in Tel Aviv and go to Shabbat services.  This is all mine, it’s for me, I matter.

I lived in Israel for eight years.  The wars chased me away.  I always saw myself in an Arab Nazi camp, when there were wars.  Each time there was a two, three day war and the war ended I didn’t want to be there anymore.  I really didn’t want to leave.  I didn’t have an air conditioner or a refrigerator, this or that, but I didn’t want to go. 

But, then the last war was in the Suez in 1956.  People I never have met in the United States provided me an affidavit legally to come here, to sponsor me.  I said I cannot do this to them anymore.  The papers were ready and the Suez war, which I think was days or whatever.  And then it stopped, but then I said I was just going to go this time.  
My heart was breaking.
To learn more about this survivor, please visit
The Voice/Vision Holocaust Survivor Oral History Archive, University of Michigan-Dearborn

Name of Ghetto(s)
Name of Concentration / Labor Camp(s)
Where did you go after being liberated?
When did you come to the United States?
1956 from Israel
Where did you settle?
Detroit, MI
How is it that you came to Michigan?
I had an aunt who was also a survivor. She had a brother who brought her to the States. She heard that I was alive. I was adopted but I mattered, I was very much family. The family lived in Detroit, their last name was Sandler.
Joseph Salamon (married in Israel); Bill Baker (married in Detroit)
Esther Salamon, consultant
What do you think helped you to survive?
Don’t dwell on things what you cannot change. And you create your sunshine where there is none, based on facts, what’s there, not pretending. Try to see and build on what’s there.
What message would you like to leave for future generations?
Be inquisitive, aware, and challenge all unjust situations.  Try to make it just.  This is more but equally important then the hardships I went through.
Get involved and learn about things. You know, it was a time when I came to realization about America. I didn’t have any idea, any clue about America and American discrimination.  And then when the peace marches and things like that, and suddenly I became more aware.  I went to study groups, I went everywhere.
We must find dialogue with one another, that’s my message.
Be a troubleshooter for all people.  I want kids to know, not how many times they hit me on my head and how I lost my family, but to know how to recognize the danger.  That this might develop into something and know what to do about it, at least get involved and organized. 

Charles Silow
Interview date:

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