Born in 1926 to Piroska Weiss (1905–1945) and Hugo Rosenberger (1894–1944), she was transported by the Nazis to Auschwitz in 1944 and later, in February 1945, to Bergen-Belsen. She was the sole survivor of her family. Her sister, Judith (1925–1942) died in Auschwitz in 1942 after being one of the first Jews transported from Bratislava. Her father was transported to Auschwitz in 1944 and her mother died the day after Belsen was liberated by the British on 15 April 1945.
Horak was born in Czechoslovakia and lived in Bratislava with her family for her first 13 years. In 1939, the Nuremberg Laws were passed in Slovakia and the Second World War started. She and her older sister, Judith, were unable to continue their schooling at Zivnodom, a German high school. She was forced to wear the Star of David on her chest. She says, "I was not ashamed to wear the star ... I was endangered on the street where some people abused me with foul language and bodily harm."
On 21 March 1942, the Germans ordered all Bratislava's single Jews born before 1925 to report to the local train station to 'finally do some work'. Olga's sister Judith boarded a train with 994 other Jewish teenagers, and was taken to Auschwitz. She was killed two weeks before her 17th birthday.
After living under increasing hardship and with the constant fear of being deported, Horak's parents made the decision to escape Slovakia and go to Hungary.
Horak and her family left Bratislava with other relatives. Left with an overnight bag and no documents, Horak, 16 at the time, worried about looking fat in the numerous layers in which her mother had clothed her. These were the only clothes she would have for the next year and a half. They boarded the train in two groups and travelled to Hegyeshalom, a village on the Hungarian border. There, they met a guide who took them across the border. They would walk all night before finally reaching a small Hungarian village at dawn.
They sought rest at a small cottage before catching a train to Budapest. They found a small room to rent under the supervision of another Jewish family, the Königs. They never found out about Olga's true heritage, as the family always used the excuse that Horak's father needed medical treatment in Budapest. Horak slept on a stretcher bed on the floor.
Return to Bratislava
As the situation in Hungary worsened, Horak’s father started making arrangements to return to Bratislava. They had the same guide as in 1942 and took, roughly, the same route. They took the train and stopped at the same little Hungarian border village. On the way out of the station, Hungarian gendarmes were positioned to verify papers and travel documents. Horak and her parents got through safely. Her Aunt Aranka and Uncle Jacob did not; they were deported to Auschwitz while their 15-year-old son, Thomas, kept walking. He never saw his parents again and would never again speak of them.
In late August 1944, the Germans invaded Slovakia. Eugene, a cousin of Horak and a young solicitor who worked with the underground, was pushed from the third story of a building in broad daylight. With the invasion of the Germans came more deportations to death camps. In early August 1944, Horak and her family were told to go to Marianka, another area outside of Bratislava. After two weeks, a group of SS guards and Hlinka Guards surrounded the building.
Horak was transported to Sered, a collection point for Slovakian Jews located 55 kilometres (34 mi) northeast of Bratislava. There the commander, Alois Brunner, would entertain himself by shooting prisoners at random.
Horak, her parents, her grandmother and about 120 other people, were shoved into a cattle truck that normally would have held eight horses. Horak does not know how long she was in the train to Auschwitz but says:
After a long and seemingly unending journey, the train slowed and came to a halt. We had arrived. I could hear dogs barking and voices shouting in German. All of a sudden, the bolts on our doors were slammed back and the door rolled open. Daylight flooded into our dark car and the light hit our eyes and blinded us. Strangely, amidst all the yelling and screaming, I could hear music. An orchestra was playing light operatic tunes to ‘welcome’ us. It hit me that the music belonged not to the world of the living but of the dead. The merry tunes were really the songs of unbelievable heartache and immeasurable sorrow. The bizarre nature of everything I saw and heard stunned me. All around, people were being pulled out of the cars. Guards shouted at them: Raus raus!—"Get out, get out!" Strange figures in blue and grey striped garb with caps ran around telling us to leave our baggage on the ramp. And, all the time, everything had to be done in a hurry: Schnell schnell!—"Quickly, quickly!" I looked up and saw an iron gate over which there was an inscription: Arbeit macht Frei—"Freedom through Work."
Horak had arrived at Auschwitz, where she underwent Selektion. Horak was separated from her father after they came off the train. She never saw him again. Horak, her mother, and the remaining female members of her family who were at Sered, were forced to strip and to pass an inspection done by Doktor Josef Mengele. Horak and her mother were sent to the right; the ones sent to the left were killed.
Horak was at Auschwitz until October 1944. One morning, after Appell (roll call), Horak and some 1,000 other female prisoners were told not to return to the barracks. She feared the worst, but as she puts it, "At this point, I didn’t care anymore. They could have done what they liked."
Horak and her mother were sent to Kurzbach, a small German village with only a few, small, low-built houses and a newly built straw barn. Kurzbach was cold, and she was given only a paper bag and a grey blanket to keep warm during the cold of winter. Every day, they went into the woods and picked logs for the soldiers to cover up their hideout.
Horak recalls: "Everyday [sic?] I prayed that help would come, either from heaven or from the Allies". During one roll call, just after Christmas 1944, the prisoners were ordered to form columns, five abreast, and to start marching. It would be a long time before they stopped.
Horak was still with her mother. They walked the same route they took every morning to the forest but, instead of turning right at the end of the village, they kept going. They could hear gunfire and could see an airplane above them—the Russians were near. The SS guards pushed them, even though they were visibly weak. The soldiers said, "Anyone who stops will be shot". So everyone marched. Horak's cousins, Lilly and Trude, were at the end of their strength. Lilly was suffering from a severe cold, high temperature and a bad earache. They fell out of the column and sat by the road. Horak and her mother tried, in vain, to get them up but they would not move. Horak says, “They had taken enough and were beyond caring what happened to them.” So they kept walking, fearing the worst. An hour later, Russian forces found them by the side of the road.
Horak and her mother had marched for nearly 375 kilometres before arriving in Dresden. There they were shoved, once again, into cattle cars. Before the train left, they were caught up in one of the three air raids by the British Royal Air Force over Dresden. "During the raid, we watched as the bombs fell like manna from heaven. We were not scared, even as shrapnel flew around us..." Within a few minutes of the raid's end, the train was moving again. They were on their way to Bergen-Belsen, with no food or water for the 500-kilometre (310 mi) journey.
Inside Bergen-Belsen the camp were many rows of wooden huts in lines along the camp roads. Rations were just some black water, a small slice of black bread, and sometimes a watery soup after night roll call. The roll call continued even though the remaining prisoners had been left for dead. In the last weeks before they were liberated, conditions became even worse. Their bread ration was reduced to less than a slice per day, and then was stopped completely. Then, for the last week, their water stopped. There were still 60,000 inmates in the camp.
On 15 April 1945, Bergen-Belsen’s residents lined up for roll call; nobody came. Suddenly, they became aware of the situation around them, hearing the noise of tanks. There were no SS guards in sight. As the hum got closer they realised that the noise was of British tanks.
Within hours of securing the camp, they brought in DDT to delouse the survivors. They also brought in food and left it outside the barracks. But after years of enforced starvation, survivors were physically incapable of eating even the most basic foodstuffs without repercussions.
After the food was distributed, the British started up a registry to take an accounting of the survivors. Horak and her mother were issued with 'Displaced Persons' cards. Shortly after exiting the tent, Olga’s mother collapsed. "My mother had survived Auschwitz, a death march from Kurzbach to Dresden, the journey to Belsen and four months in that cesspool, only to die moments after being registered as a survivor".
Horak survived the Holocaust, but lost her family. Her mother, father, sister and grandmother all died. After her mother died, Horak was taken to the camp's sickbay. From there, she was transferred to the town hospital, but was transferred back because the German nurses paid no attention to her as she was a 'sick Jew.' She stayed at the Bergen-Belsen sickbay until the camp was burnt to the ground, when she was transferred to the State hospital in Pilzen. It was at the State Hospital that she met Bozena who, once Horak had regained some strength, offered her an apartment and some level of care.
Horak stayed with Bozena in Pilzen until she was healthy enough to return to Bratislava with Bozena. In Bratislava, she met Thomas, who was also an orphan. Horak stayed with one of his aunts, the Bardos family, while in Bratislava. Zsuzsi, her cousin, offered to set Horak up with her friend's brother; they got married on 9 February 1947. John and Olga were determined to start a life outside Europe and away from the horrors they had suffered. John’s sister had made travel arrangements for her family and, using the same connections as had Olga and John, they were able to gain passage to Australia. Travelling on the Greek ship Cyrenia, they left in August 1949, arriving in Melbourne on 16 September 1949. There, Horak was employed as a dressmaker and, after moving to Sydney, she established the Hibodress garment factory.
Horak still lives in Sydney, and is a volunteer guide at the Sydney Jewish Museum. She has donated several of her artifacts to the museum.
- Auschwitz to Australia, p. 3
- Auschwitz to Australia, p. 63
- Auschwitz to Australia – A Holocaust Survivor's Memoir, Simon & Schuster (Sydney), 2000 ISBN 978-0-7318-0958-5