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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 January, 2005, 13:50 GMT
Forced to take part in experiments
Auschwitz survivor, 80-year-old Ima Spanjaard, remembers how her youth was interrupted when she was taken to the concentration camp in 1942, and forced to assist in some horrific experiments on other women prisoners.

The BBC's Vesna Maric spoke to her about her experiences. Some readers may find some of this material shocking.

Barbed wire surrounding Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp
Prisoners were forced to assist in experiments or be put to death
There are things I will never forget: the soup, that lukewarm water of brownish colour that we had to eat every day at noon.

In the evening you got a piece of bread, just enough to make four very thin slices.

We ate two and saved two for the morning. They gave camphor to the prisoners to suppress their libido, but if you are that hungry you have no libido anyway. The hunger was unbearable.

Auschwitz was an enormous terrain, 40km on the ground, so you had to work there, building roads or barracks.

To do that for 10 hours a day and stand up for an hour in the morning and in the evening, especially with the kind of food we ate, made it impossible to survive for longer than a few weeks.

Forty women were injected in the heart, killed, and put in formaldehyde. Their bodies were used for medical experiments
As I had some experience working as a dentist's assistant, they asked me to work as a nurse.

One day a Gestapo officer came to the camp and wanted to take 40 different women to Heidelberg in Germany.

I had been chosen to go, too, but a woman who liked me and knew what was going to happen to these women, crossed me off the list.

Those 40 women were injected in the heart, killed, and put in formaldehyde. Their bodies were used for medical experiments, for students to study on.

Horrible burns

There was a young Polish man in the camp who tattooed the numbers on our arms. He did it with a pen and some ink, dot after dot, like a child doing his homework.

So when he made a mistake, he would cross it out and start anew. A lot of people had this kind of mess on their arms.

Women prisoners line up for a hard labour assignment at the Auschwitz concentration camp
Some women prisoners were subjected to gruesome medical experiments
When it was my turn I demanded: "Pay attention and do it perfectly!" And then he began to laugh at my own absurdity, because he knew that we would be gassed and when you are being gassed, it doesn't matter if it looks good or not.

My number is still visible, 42646, and beside it, a triangle, which meant 'to be gassed'.

All experiments conducted on women were about sterilisation. There were beautiful young Greek girls, virgins, whose ovaries were x-rayed.

Ovaries can normally only be exposed to x-rays for a few seconds, but they did it for half a minute or longer.

The girls ended up with horrible burns. I had to look after them, but we had nothing but toilet paper and Hydrogen Peroxide to clean the wounds.

Two of them died, and six of them we managed to save. This went on for half a year.

Then they were operated on by a Polish prisoner, a gynaecologist. Another two girls died because he only used one set of instruments, which he never sterilised.

Fear and shame

Those who survived had their ovaries injected with a white liquid. After two months they came back to have a look again and see if they had completely destroyed the ovaries, as they had intended.

When you are in a situation like that, survival is your only engine, it is the most basic of instincts
They also caused cancer in some of the women by tipping the cervix with iodine. Then they would remove the cervix and the womb. The doctor who did this had a brother who worked in a cancer institute in Berlin.

Around 80 women were operated on like this. I remember them well because I was told to administer their anaesthetic.

At that moment I was not so afraid to do this, but later on, after the war ended, I thought to myself: "What have I done?"

But there was no choice for me. I knew the moment I refused I would be sent to the gas chambers. And when you are in a situation like that, survival is your only engine, it is the most basic of instincts.

I still feel so very ashamed for taking part, even if it was not my choice.


In 1945, the Germans took those who could walk to another camp. The ill were left behind. We walked for days in the coldest of Polish winters, in rugged shoes.

Ima's memory of seeing roses after gaining freedom has remained
I got hypothermia in my feet and the sores still hurt when it gets cold in the winter. We were taken to three different camps in Germany and I could not walk anymore.

So my five friends and I decided to try to hide and stay behind. We hid in the dormitory beds, at the very back, knowing that the German soldiers never checked these beds.

I was afraid but my feet were so bad I couldn't carry on. They came, looked at the front, and left. And in spring time, we were finally free.

We were found by some American soldiers near Leipzig. They looked for somewhere for us to live, and we stayed with peasant families, and slept in their room, all six of us.

We did nothing but eat for the first month. I remember my first meal: two hard boiled eggs. Nothing had any taste, the food was bland, but it did not matter to us, we ate relentlessly.

I will never forget the way bed sheets felt on my skin. It was as if I had never slept on sheets before.

I remember seeing the lovely gardens in front of the houses in the village, and how beautiful the roses were.

I love working in my own garden today. Sometimes, when I can't bring myself to do anything else, I dedicate myself to gardening.

It is like a therapy to me. Soon, my garden will be in bloom and my roses will shine with beauty.


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