Helen Zipora “Zippi” Spitzer and David Wisnia knew that each moment they survived in Auschwitz-Birkenau, Nazi Germany’s most notorious death camp, could be their last. Both had seen their share of death; both had experienced close calls. Zippi, a 23-year-old Slovakian with a passion for graphic design, was among the first Jews transported to Auschwitz in March 1942. David arrived nine months later, a 16-year-old Polish Jew who loved to sing. Both had lost their families and homes, and now they were imprisoned in squalid conditions for the “crime” of being Jewish.
A new book, Lovers in Auschwitz: A True Story, chronicles the unlikely romance born within a world that cultivated human ashes. When she first arrived, Zippi was charged with lifting heavy stones. David was forced to carry emaciated bodies of dead prisoners. With grit, persistence and some luck, they survived. David sang to his captors, while Zippi drew them diagrams with camp statistics. Each became a “privileged prisoner,” awarded extra rations and safer jobs. While the camp death toll rose, Zippi found ways to resist the Nazis, ways to be in places where she shouldn’t have been. This is how it began, how Zippi found David and how two prisoners found a love that transcended the terror around them.
David knew that Zippi was no regular inmate. He’d caught glimpses of her, heard the rumors. Nicknamed “Zippi of the office,” she was the “graphic designer” at the Auschwitz women’s camp, charged with creating statistical diagrams for the Nazis. She came by frequently, finding excuses to be there—to see him, he suspected. When she appeared, he found reasons to brush past her. She was clean and neat. But it was her scent that was the most tantalizing. It was like nothing he could describe. Perhaps it was just that she was a woman, a rarity in his world; either way, she was new, refreshing.
For weeks after their first encounter, likely in early 1943, Zippi and David stole glances at each other, trying not to be obvious. Around them, the guards circled, eager to torture and destroy any inmates who stepped out of line. David would graze her sleeve; she’d murmur a soft hello.
She was pursuing him, he thought, elated. Imagine that: a woman. The very idea was outrageous—and yet … No doubt she’d noticed his tailored striped uniform. No doubt she saw that he was in good shape, healthy. She must have heard about him, the attractive, healthy young man who worked at the Sauna, the building where clothing was disinfected. Yes, David was certain of it. Someone had told Zippi about him, and now she had come to see for herself. She must’ve liked what she saw; she kept coming back.
After what felt like months, someone made an introduction. She was dressed better than any other woman there. She even wore a nice jacket. No one else seemed to be looking at them. David understood some Slovak and could say a few words—it was close enough to Polish. They both also spoke Hebrew, and David understood some German, so perhaps their exchange was peppered with a bit of each language. But that first exchange was so brief—really just long enough to agree to speak again. Zippi would return to see him at the Sauna.
David was all nerves. This was taboo! How was it that he speaking to a woman? In here? She knew people—he had heard, of course, but he hadn’t realized the extent of her connections. She knew officials, she knew male inmates and she knew how to get the guards to look the other way. She was important, and she was experienced at getting what she wanted. She could’ve had anyone, but she’d chosen him. Out of every inmate in the camp, she’d chosen him.
David swooned at the thought. At 16, he’d already experienced so much, and yet nothing at all. When he was 14, he’d had one romantic liaison in Warsaw—a rite of passage. An initiation. He was ready for more. But could it really happen here, of all places?
The first time they spoke, David had felt it was just the two of them. Later, replaying the moment in his head, he would wonder about the other inmates, where they’d gone. In his memory, it felt as though they’d left the room—disappeared. But that couldn’t be. He would try to remember what she’d said, what he’d said. But the words eluded him. A woman had been within his reach, her breath soft against his—that was all that mattered.
They began to send each other notes through messengers. Small scraps, nothing that might incriminate them. From time to time, by design, their paths would cross, their whispers hot against the fabric of their uniforms. In time, he’d forget the exact exchange, but her phantom breath against his cheek lingered, the light touch of a finger, a hidden smile, the hope for something more.
David was navigating Auschwitz with relative comfort—perhaps too much comfort. It began with the weather. You could never get warm enough during the wintertime, when the frigid Polish wind burned through thin layers of clothing. Given the opportunity, the Sauna was among the few places where inmates could warm up. David had learned to take these chances when he could, even when he probably shouldn’t.
One Sunday afternoon in March 1943, David woke in the Sauna with a start. He and the other workers had finished hanging the disinfected clothes by noon. Sunday’s afternoon roll call was at 1 p.m. With less than an hour to lie down on the concrete floor and enjoy the rare warmth emanating from around him, David shut his eyes to rest in his sanitized, poisonous cocoon.
By the time he’d blinked the sleep out of his eyes, he’d realized that he was alone. Everyone else was lined up outside. His so-called friends could have woken him up, but they’d left him there. And now David was missing the roll call.
He looked out the window. Column after column of pale prisoners, row after row, always in fives, stood at attention. Guards paced dirt roads, batons in hand, and spat out commands under the gnarled trees. They’d clearly been standing in the bitter cold for some time now.
They were looking for him, David realized in a panic. He knew he had grown to be important, but he must be more important than he’d thought to have all these people stop on his behalf.
He crept outside, trying to make himself invisible. His gaze turned to his cellblock. Men stood in their familiar positions, cramped rows of tired, vacant eyes. David ran past the ditch in the middle of the campground—the same one where he’d labored with the Leichenkommando, or corpse squad. He shuffled along the electric fence toward his barracks, trying to hide between inmates and slip in unnoticed. But no one would cover for him; the stakes were too high.
The guards spotted the latecomer. They pushed David to the front of the rows, sludge splattering underneath their feet. The ground was covered with the residue of the previous night’s mix of rain and snow. A guard dragged David past the ditch from which he’d once hauled out fresh corpses and deposited him in front of a syrup-brown puddle. This is it, David thought. They’re going to kill me—no doubt about it.
As David faced the lagerführer, the commander in charge of the warehouse, he felt the eyes of thousands of men—maybe even as many as 50,000—on him. Only one thing kept him from complete despair: If he had been an unknown newcomer, he thought, he’d be done for, executed on the spot. But he’d been there for almost five months. In Auschwitz, surviving this long should bode well—it suggested important connections. His ruby cheeks indicated he was healthy, useful. David, like Zippi, understood how much appearances mattered here.
“You make one move and dirty my boots and you’re dead,” an officer said, loud enough for his boss to hear. He poked at David’s ribs with a meat hook. “You’re dead right here.”
David’s shoes were covered in mud. Over the years, the earth below him had absorbed the blood of countless inmates. The infamous ditch had held bodies dead and alive. Now, staring at the sharp edge of a meat hook inches from his chest, he willed his body not to move.
The officer had winked at David—he was almost sure of it.
The man sent David back to his bunk.
Back in the barracks, David was sure his punishment wasn’t over. It couldn’t be. He’d seen the SS officer write down his number. His breathing was shallow. There was no way they’d let him off like that. His friend Szaja had missed roll call and for that had received 50 lashes on his backside and a permanent limp.
No, he thought, this wasn’t over.
The next day, David woke up covered in sweat, burning with fever. The muscles along his thin arms and legs throbbed, his head ached, his stomach was sore. He was visibly sick and couldn’t hide it. David had typhoid fever. He was sent off to the infirmary in Block 7.
Weak and dehydrated, all he got was a mysterious tea-coffee concoction. There’d be no medicine, no such frills. Most prisoners came here to die.
But once again, David was in luck. Inmates he’d befriended at the Sauna smuggled over food and water. Within days, he was healthy enough to return to his block and get back to work.
He was mystified. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he was in the eye of a storm. He was sure an example would be made of him: The SS would not pass up the chance to showcase its power, to demonstrate the consequences of not living by its rules. David awoke each morning in dread. The reason behind the delay finally hit him: He had to be healthy enough to suffer.
A few days later, a guard slashed a whip across David’s hands ten times. In the days that followed, his palms swelled, dripping with pus and burning with infection.
Next, an officer ordered David to follow him to a room. David saw a noose. Gallows had been set up. This is it, he thought; this is how it ends. A group of SS men stood by—an audience. One tightened the noose around David’s neck as his buddies watched with giddy anticipation. An officer kicked a plank out from under David’s feet.
His death would be a blur.
He dropped down into a hole that was at least six feet deep. The men around him guffawed at their joke: The noose around David’s neck hadn’t been tied.
Down on his knees, for better or for worse, David was very much alive.
David’s mock hanging was his initiation into the Strafkompanie, or penal colony, where he was admitted on March 19, 1943, and where he served for the next three months. Inmates who’d committed the most serious crimes but who’d been spared a public hanging landed here. The Strafkompanie was known for its brutal torture tactics. Earlier on, it had been housed inside Block 11, known as the “death block” in the main camp. The block contained a dungeon and “standing cells” in its basement, where prisoners suffering the most severe punishments were confined to sleep at night.
By the time David was incarcerated, the Strafkompanie had been relocated to Block 1 in Birkenau, a dark, dusty, overcrowded space where prisoners slept in bare beds made of wooden boards. Inmates were isolated from the other prisoners. They worked longer, more grueling hours, pushing wheelbarrows of gravel and digging the central drainage ditch. Their work was more strenuous, yet they received smaller rations. While prisoner functionaries known as kapos ran much of the camp, SS officers took a special interest in supervising the Strafkompanie, where they would give random beatings, carry out torture and enjoy shooting sprees. The kapos directly supervising the penal company were among the camp’s most unscrupulous criminals, depraved outcasts who were said to enjoy crushing Jewish men’s testicles with a wooden hammer on a board.
Day after day, David went out to dig ditches. He was whipped on the back when he moved too slowly, whipped again when he was too quick to pick up a shovel. He no longer received extra rations. He no longer sang. Supervisors smacked him across the face on a whim.
Six days passed—maybe more, maybe less. Days were no longer relevant. The warmth of the Sauna, the flicker of a connection with Zippi were unthinkable. Survival was minute by minute. David was losing weight and strength. He was sure he was never going to leave the penal colony alive.
And then one day, without warning, he was ordered not to go to work.
Without reason or explanations, David was ordered to stay inside. He was not to join the others at the Strafkompanie, not today, not tomorrow. From then on, David was relegated to simple indoor chores: no more beatings, no more backbreaking work.
Someone must have been looking out for him, he thought. Someone must have known that he was on the brink, that he wouldn’t survive another day of hard labor. Perhaps Georg, his Sauna supervisor, was looking out for him. Georg liked him. He was kind. “Yes,” thought David, “Georg probably found a way to bribe the SS.”
David would spend what was left of his three-month sentence in the penal ward cleaning the barracks and enjoying the extra rations that had suddenly begun finding their way to him.
By June 1943, he was back at work at the Sauna. David felt as though he’d become even more important, having survived the penal ward—no small feat.
It likely didn’t take long before Zippi made an appearance at the Sauna, supposedly for a shower. He soon realized she was taking showers almost every day. Their glances and brief exchanges continued, as though they’d never stopped. A note from Zippi made its way to him; he wrote her back.
Either now or in months to come, he would tell her about his prewar visits to the opera with his father. They would share their love for music, memories of better times.
He would have never thought he’d be in a relationship with a woman here. Never. It was inconceivable. And yet here they were.
Excerpted from Lovers in Auschwitz: A True Story by Keren Blankfeld. Copyright © 2024 by Keren Blankfeld. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group Inc., New York, USA. All rights reserved.
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