“When we would come home from the factory, from working, we fell asleep easier if I told them a story,” Agnes Tennenbaum shares in her small but bright apartment in Mobile. What she describes may seem like a sweet bedtime ritual, but the reality proves much darker. Tennenbaum’s stories were an escape for herself and her fellow prisoners forced to build bombs in Germany during World War II.

Tennenbaum was one of thousands of Jews imprisoned in Auschwitz and Allendorf, two concentration camps in Germany during the Holocaust.

Tennenbaum’s home feels light and cozy with a short blush-colored couch and plenty of family photos on the coffee table, on the desk, on a table off the kitchen. Her bird chirps from the bedroom, echoing the gloriously sunny day outside. “You hear my bird?” she asks with a smile. “He’s always so happy.”

I smile, too, because her joyous energy feels contagious. As we delve into her story that is so deeply intertwined with the history of an entire people, I lean in and hang on every word. It seems as if she could continue talking for years without pause, sharing the tales of hardship and fleeting moments of hope that filled the years she spent in Germany.


Now a 93-year-old woman, Tennenbaum was born in Hungary in 1922. Her accent still shines through her impeccable English as she shares insights into her childhood. “We had a pretty good life while I was growing up,” she says. At just 8 years old, her mother pushed her to read classic literature. Around the same time, Tennenbaum began to create her own stories. She laughs: “My mother used to tell me, ‘Agnes, you have two left hands, so I don’t know what you are good for, but you are going to make a good writer.’”

That early push toward literature paid off: Tennenbaum has penned two books about her memories of the camps. One, “Life is a Gamble,” consists of several short stories and poems from her time at Aushwitz and Allendorf. Her first novel, “A Girl Named Rose,” traces her journey from the weeks before occupation through her liberation and migration to the United States.

Early in the war, her father believed that Hungary might escape the occupation; Hungary had yet to be invaded, after all, after all, and there was a wider diversity of religion in the country due to mixed marriages. Tennenbaum recalls, “That’s what my father would say – ‘How can they separate people and send them to concentration camps if the mother is one religion, and the father is another, and the children another?’ I met some women in Auschwitz who were good Christian women who married Jewish men. They didn’t have to go to Auschwitz – they were just going with their children and husbands. They didn’t imagine that they could possibly be separated.”

But Hungary was occupied by late March 1944, one of the final countries to be invaded. Soon, Tennenbaum and her family were forced to don the Star of David. Their non-Jewish friends shunned them. Government officials herded the Jews to ghettos and stripped them of all belongings. Her father responded to a government deal for men to clear the debris from the bombs. Afterwards, the men, including her father, were executed. Finally, Tennenbaum and her mother were loaded onto a cattle train and taken to Auschwitz. She arrived on June 16, 1944. She was 22 years old.

For days, they rode with no food or drink in an overcrowded car with other Jews, all heading to Auschwitz. “Mother and I were separated from the rest of the family, and so everyone around us were total strangers,” Tennenbaum writes in her book. “Yes, they were strangers, but in a way they all looked alike to me. The faces were like masks, wearing the same frightened and hopeless expressions.”

Within moments of arriving, Tennenbaum was directed to one gate and her mother to another. Her mother’s hand, which she had been gripping tightly, slipped from her own and was gone. Tennenbaum walked toward the barracks, while officers directed her mother to the crematorium, where she lost her life along with more than one million others at Aushwitz. “I didn’t really know what was coming when they pushed us into the cattle train,” Tennenbaum admits now. “Maybe it was a blessing, I don’t know. It was just terrible when I was separated from my mom in one second. It was a shock.”

Months went by, and the camp inmates grappled with severe hunger, dehydration, filth and depression. She quickly found her cousin in the camp. A group of women, including Tennenbaum, were selected for transportation to Allendorf, a work camp specializing in munitions and chemical products. Only a piece of bread, a slice of cheese and tiny pieces of meat were doled out to last each woman the three-day trip.

It was here, in Allendorf, where Tennenbaum began to tell the women stories after each long night’s work, breathing in deadly chemicals and hammering together bombs. She relayed stories of love and life, of passion and excitement. “I was in a room with 50 women and girls, and I started to tell them stories,” Tennenbaum says, her eyes looking straight into mine as she recounts those nighttime tales. “And they thought it was from my life – no, it wasn’t my life! I made up all kinds of sexy stories for them,” Tennenbaum declares with a chuckle.