'An incredible survivor'

11 May 2020 by Claire Hunter

Henryka Shaw

This identification book was issued to Henryka Shaw (née Schermant) in Linz, Austria, in May 1947, before she was sent to Enns Displaced Persons Camp.

When Henryka Shaw saw white figures walking towards her, surrounded by beautiful white clouds, she thought she had died and was in heaven.

Her angels turned out to be American soldiers in white suits spraying clouds of DDT.

It was 9 May 1945, and American forces liberating Mauthausen concentration camp were using insecticide to deal with infestations of lice and typhus.

Henryka had survived five concentration camps ­– Krakau-Plaszow, Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Venusberg, and finally Mauthausen – and was gravely ill, with only a bed sheet to cover her.

Her daughter, Naomi Shaw, said her friends begged her not to die, and banded together to scrounge material to make her a dress so that she would have something to wear when she walked to freedom.

"Her friends went to the SS barracks and they found fabric — we believe it was the curtains — and they decided to make her a dress so she had some clothes," Naomi said.

“The dress was something that my mother hung onto for the rest of her life … it would sit in the cupboard with her silk blouses and her beautiful shoes.

"For many years, she wouldn't tell any stories … she couldn't ever bring herself to talk about it … but when she was writing her book in 2005, she showed me the dress and said, 'Please look after it — this is the dress I walked out of the camps in.’”

Naomi with her mother's dress at the Memorial

Naomi Shaw with her mother's dress, which is now on display at the Australian War Memorial.

Today, Henryka’s dress is on display alongside her wartime papers and photographs as part of the Holocaust display at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. Six million Jewish men, women and children had been exterminated by the Nazis during the war.

"The dress is emotional because it represents survival, resilience and hope for the future," Naomi said. "That no matter what happens to you … no matter how hard it is … there is an opportunity.

“If you have faith and you have courage and you look towards the beauty of the world, you can make a life. She was eternally grateful to Australia.”

Henryka Shaw was born in Krakow, Poland, in 1925. Weeks before the Second World War broke out, Henryka had stood up to her history teacher, who had attacked Jews in class, and was kicked out of school, but this was only the beginning of the nightmare that was to come.

When the Germans invaded on 1 September 1939, her family attempted to flee the city. They walked for days, Henryka carrying a tiny suitcase packed with chocolate from her uncle’s sweet shop. Polish soldiers rode past on horseback, shouting to them that the Germans were coming. It was only after the war that Henryka realised the soldiers were running away as well.

Henryka's family

The Schermant in pre-war Poland: Henryka, centre, with her brother Szymon, her mother Mina, her father Ignatz and her sister Franciszka. Mina, Franciszka, and Henryka survived the war. Ignatz died in Plaszow concentration camp in 1944, and Szymon died of disease while incarcerated in Siberia at the age of 17.

With little to eat and no chance of escape, Henryka contracted cholera and her family was forced to return to Krakow, never imagining the brutality that was to follow.  

They were interned in the Krakow Ghetto because of their Jewish heritage. Henryka would sneak onto the tram, bribing guards as she went so that she could escape to find food for her family.

When the Germans started transporting Jews to concentration camps, Henryka was hidden with a woman her mother had known before the war, but she feared she would be betrayed and ran to find her father. 

When they could hide no longer, her family was herded onto trucks like cattle and transported to Plaszow.

On Henryka’s first day at Plaszow, she encountered the notoriously sadistic SS officer, camp commandant Amon Goeth, who beat her with his whip. She soon learnt that when he donned a white silk scarf, the sort that people wore to the opera, he was going to shoot people.

Henryka lived in constant fear of him. She was flogged as Goeth watched, but was saved when a tall, elegant man entered the room and told Goeth to come downstairs with him. The man was Oskar Schindler; he saved the lives of 100 people that day, including Henryka.

When Henryka’s mother was taken away, her father was devastated and became dangerously ill. He was given a lethal injection by the doctor Henryka had begged to save him.

Alone, and afraid, Henryka was loaded onto a cattle truck and taken to the notorious death camp, Auschwitz.

Forced to strip and line up in front of the SS guards, Henryka stood tall, confidently telling the officers that she was 18 so that she wouldn’t be taken away with the other children. As she did so, a little photo montage of her family that she had hidden under her tongue flew out.

Furious, the officer beat and kicked her, telling her to go to the left. Realising that she was now standing amongst the elderly and the extremely frail, Henryka feared the worst. She took her chance and crawled out from behind the guards to rejoin the original line, hoping that she wouldn’t be recognised. Her gamble paid off, and this time she was told to go right.

She was branded with the number A-26538, and within days, an older woman, Helcia Siegal, took Henryka under her wing and shared food with her, saying Henryka needed it more than she did.

As the Russians approached in January 1945, Henryka and Helcia were herded onto cattle trucks and taken to Bergen-Belsen. Everywhere they turned, they saw people who looked like walking corpses.

Within weeks, Henryka and Helcia were moved to Venusberg, where they were forced to work in a nearby factory, manufacturing aeroplane components.

Henryka became gravely ill with typhus while nursing the sick. She suffered hallucinations, and saw visions of her mother, who told her that she had been bombed, but was alive. After the war, Henryka learnt that her mother had been bombed in much the same way as she had pictured in her hallucinations. The visions of her mother gave her strength when she needed it most.

As the Allies approached, Henryka and Helcia were forced to march to Mauthausen.  The weakest were shot along the way.

One night, Henryka noticed a German soldier had taken off his leather shoes while he slept. With nothing left to lose, she grabbed them and put them on her bloodied and blistered feet, wrapping them in the rags she had used to bind her feet. The next morning, she heard the soldier looking for his shoes, but he eventually gave up, and she kept her newfound treasure.

At Mauthausen, Henryka was close to death; Helcia whispered in her ear, begging her not to die.

After the war, Henryka searched for her family. Her sister had escaped Poland and was living in Budapest. Her brother had been sent to L’vov to stay with their aunt when they went into the ghetto; when the Russians entered eastern Poland, he was sent to Siberia, where he died of typhus at the age of 17. Her maternal grandparents and their family had been rounded up by the SS and forced to dig their own graves before they were shot.

Henryka

This immigration registration document was issued to Henryka Shaw (née Schermant) upon her arrival in Sydney in November 1953. Henryka’s nationality is recorded as “stateless”.

Henryka made her way to a displaced persons camp in Austria and later moved to England to become a nurse. Despite everything that had happened to her, she wanted to go back to school so that she could do some good and give back to humanity.

She followed her mother to Australia in 1953 and met the love of her life, Rudy Shaw, in Sydney. They were married for 17 years and had three young daughters, Tamara, Naomi and Yvette. Sadly, Rudy died from cancer in 1970.

“My father was instrumental in helping her survive,” Naomi said.

“She could not have survived the years after the war without his support, his quiet gentle manner, and his understanding of the moments of her life that were so devastating.

“Everything in life that she cherished and that she loved had gone so she had nothing more to lose …

Henryka and Rudy

Henryka and Rudy on their engagement. He was the love of her life.

“She used to say, ‘What can they say to me, they’ve already done the worst that could happen.”

Henryka could never forget the horrors of the camps; they were with her day and night.

“We lived with it our whole lives,” Naomi said.

“If she saw a man in a uniform talking harshly … if she saw an Alsatian dog, if she was on the tram and somebody started yelling, if somebody said to her stand in a queue in a harsh voice, or get back in the queue… she knew what that meant … and it would all come back.”

Henryka and Rudy

Rudy and Henryka Shaw on holiday in Canberra, c. 1960s.

Naomi remembers being at a Watson’s Bay pub in Sydney, when her mother saw a big, burly man covered in tattoos. Henryka, in her eighties by then, walked straight up to him.

“Hmmm,” she said. “You think they’re tattoos, they’re not tattoos.”

Rolling up her sleeve, she showed him her arm and the tattoo from Auschwitz. “You want to see a tattoo,” she said. “That’s a tattoo.”

He looked up from his beer, and asked if it hurt.

“It still does.”

Henryka with her mother and children

Henryka with her mother, Mina, and three daughters, Tamara, Naomi, and Yvette, on holidays in Australia. c. 1960s.

Having survived the horrors of the Holocaust, Henryka gave her testimony to Steven Speilberg’s USC Shoah Foundation in 1996, and wrote her book, Standing Tall, in 2005 so that her grandchildren would know her story.

“Despite all of the absolute horror it brought back for her … she felt people needed to never forget it, never deny it, and never ever let it happen again,” Naomi said.

“She was never bitter and that is a testament to my father and the love he gave her.

“My mum’s story is about survival, it’s about resilience, and it is about a positive attitude when all else has failed you… When there is nothing left in life, there is still something worth living for …

“She made me promise that on her gravestone I would not put that she was a survivor, but that she was an incredible survivor …

“And she was.”

The Memorial is temporarily closed to the public, but the Memorial is still telling stories about the Australian experience of war. To learn more, visit here.