When British troops rammed their trucks into the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and offered cans of food to starving prisoners, Elizabeth Meller felt numbness instead of joy.
“I always imagined that we will be screaming and hugging and dancing, and none of that really happened,” she once said. “We were just stricken.”
She had lost her parents and younger brother and survived for years in some of the most harrowing places on earth, including Auschwitz, where more than 1 million Nazi victims died, and Bergen-Belsen, where liberators found 13,000 unburied corpses.
Happiness would return, in increments. She got married in a displaced persons camp in Austria.
“We had nothing in the world,” she told the USC Shoah Foundation. “I had one dress and one shoe” — and those were borrowed.
Out of that one-shoed beginning came a new life in an American suburb. She and her husband of 66 years, Dr. Armin Meller, raised a son and daughter in Skokie and lived to see their six grandchildren.
They encouraged their children to study hard and excel. They took driving vacations to Door County, Mackinac Island and Miami Beach. The Mellers went dancing and to the theater, opera and symphony.
Mrs. Meller sewed her children’s clothes. She liked listening to the husband-and-wife team of Bob and Betty Sanders on WBBM-AM. And she constructed an extended family from other Holocaust survivors, including two “aunts” who withstood torture under Dr. Josef Mengele, a destroyer of worlds. He presided over monstrous experiments on twins at Auschwitz.
Mrs. Meller mothered other children as well as her own. When her son, Steven, was a young boy, he was hospitalized for asthma. She stayed with him all night.
“She would sit in that chair next to the bed,” he said. “I was in a ward with seven other boys, and as the other boys would wake up and cry, she would go to them and comfort them.”
Mrs. Meller downplayed any talk of her personal strength, saying she wasn’t sure why she lived when others died.
She retained a radiance that increased logarithmically as she spoke of her children. If she was sick, she took care of her family instead of taking to bed.
“She was so strong,” said her daughter, Janet Meller. ”She always put everybody before herself.”
Life was often very sweet, but what she had endured remained with her. When her family was out of sight, she worried. ”If my dad didn’t get home from work on time — and this was before cellphones — she would stand outside and cry,” Janet Meller said. If her children weren’t able to call when they said they would, Mrs. Meller grew anxious; sometimes, even inconsolable.
She didn’t like to talk about the Holocaust but decided to tell her story to the USC Shoah Foundation, created by filmmaker Steven Spielberg after he made the movie “Schindler’s List.”
“Never hate anybody, no matter what,” she said in her testimony. “That’s my message.”
Mrs. Meller, born in 1922, died Feb. 14 at 92 at home in Amarillo, Texas, where she and her husband moved in 2010.
She grew up Elizabeth Kroh in the city of Uzhgorod in Czechoslovakia. Her father, Herman, was a jeweler, but in 1940, as Nazi persecution of Jews grew, the authorities closed his business. “All he was left, is with some of his tools to fix watches,” she said.
Young Elizabeth trained as a seamstress.
“After a while, we couldn’t go to the public swimming pools,” she said. “We couldn’t go to the movies. We couldn’t go to the dancing halls.”
She was transported to Auschwitz by cattle car, along with her father; her mother, Luiza; her older brother, Lazlo, and her younger brother, Andor. “After we got out, we saw people in the ditches, crying and moaning, and lots of guards . . . barbed wire,” she said. “May 19th, I’ll never forget it. That was my little brother’s birthday.” He would perish at the camp.
“As we were going, they divided people,” she recalled. Her mother had squirreled away a loaf of bread. When she and Elizabeth were separated, “She broke the bread in half,” and handed a portion to her daughter. Mrs. Meller said it was the last time she saw her mother.
“They shaved us, shaved our heads,” she said. “They gave us a gray short-sleeved dress. That’s all, nothing else . . . The first day, they give us a blanket. One blanket to the 10 girls.”
Polish Jewish women known as “kapos” managed her group of female prisoners. When SS officers did head counts, the kapos “used to tell us to pinch our faces so we should look a little ‘pinky,’ because otherwise, they will think you are sick or something, and they’ll take you and burn you,” she recalled.
Pointing to camp chimneys, the kapos told the women, ” ‘You see that smoke on top? That’s your parents; that’s where they went.’ They were merciless, really, those girls. But they said that’s the only way to survive. . . . Mealtimes consisted of one dish for five people, no spoons.”
Later in the war, she was relocated to Bergen-Belsen. “But we also heard gunshots, you see, and so we all had this hope” of liberation, she said. “Seeing all these dying people next to you, and they just took them out and they put them on a pile outside.”
After the war, she was introduced to her future husband by her best friend, Shirley Herskovic, and her husband, Morris. Armin Meller, a Jewish doctor who survived the war in a labor camp, eventually landed a job in Chicago at Weiss Memorial Hospital.
Mrs. Meller used to pick up her grandchildren from school, take them to the YMCA for swimming lessons and swing by the Sears Tower to show them the view.
Her chicken soup and meatballs were so scrumptious, a grandchild declared: “There isn’t any better restaurant than Grandma’s.”
Once, as her daughter, a pediatric surgeon, prepared to operate on a Polish-speaking child in Chicago, a translator was nowhere to be found. “I called my mother,” Janet Meller said, “and she interpreted for me with the Polish family.”
“She taught me how to sew,” she said. “I am a surgeon, so I guess the sewing took to me, too.”
Services have been held.
“It’s important to know that those evil people who wanted you wiped out, they can’t succeed,” her daughter said, “as long as there are people so resilient of spirit, like my mom.”