Excerpt from: Cheating Dr. Mengele: A Story of Triumph
Taking her first deep breath since being removed from the morning’s roll call, Gustava rested her head on her cot and was jolted from her moment’s peace when a colorless, bony hand followed by a pair of vacant, bulging eyes reached toward her from the opposite side of the hanging sheet that separated their cots.
In Polish, the woman whispered to Gustava, “Please, take my hand. Tell me that death is a relief from this hell we are in.”
For the next many hours, Gustava held the woman’s hand. Through Roza’s coughing fits, Gustava listened to how the Catholic Pole ended up in Auschwitz with an evidently terminal bout of tuberculosis. Because she was a gentile prisoner, Dr. Mengele gave the order that Roza was not to be burned alive or sent to the gas chambers. But in his ‘generosity,’ he instead condemned her to a very slow and painful death in the medieval-quality infirmary.
In Roza’s final hours of life, Gustava was able to provide comfort, only in the form of a listening ear, but a comfort nonetheless. Roza rested one hand atop Gustava’s while her other hand rubbed the medallion around her own neck. Dangling from an old silver chain hung the ovular shape of the Lady of Czestochowa, the Catholic queen and protector of Poland. Roza’s delicate fingers never left the touch of the necklace. Each time she had to raise herself to expel the fluid from her lungs, Roza tugged at the necklace, as if to raise herself from the pull of the chain.
As the coughing grew weaker and the whispers inaudible above the cacophony of the other prisoners, Roza pulled her arm above her head with the necklace in tow. Removing the beloved jewelry from her neck, she transferred it to the hand that had been holding Gustava’s and laid the amulet into her palm. Wrapping Gustava’s fingers around the necklace and her own fingers around Gustava’s, Roza whispered her final words, “Wear this, Dear. The Lady of Czestochowa will save your life.”
After snatching several minutes or hours of desperately needed sleep, Gustava shifted in her cot and awoke. She realized that the hand on her own was cold. Returning Roza’s stiff arm back onto her dead body, Gustava blessed her with peace, hoping Roza had found the relief she desperately desired from the hell of Auschwitz.
Opening her palm and finding her new friend’s beloved necklace, Gustava tucked her chin to her chest and slid the Lady of Czestochowa over her head and around her neck. The saintly portrait of the Black Madonna was heavily worn and faded, but the Lady’s angelic halo still shimmered with its golden glow of protection.
Gustava would honor Roza’s last request, and later, it really would save her life.