Thursday, July 04, 2002

War refugee

I have it all; 'I have freedom'


        That light green sequence of numbers etched into Mary Conradi's forearm are not as easy to read as they were 60 years ago, when they were tattooed into the skin of a 5-year-old child.

        While the ink has faded, the memory has not.

        “I could have had it removed,” she says, reaching to touch the tattoo as she speaks. “But I couldn't have that done. This was my ticket to freedom.”

        It was a different time in a horrible place, a suburb of the Polish city Oswiecim, a destination of human extermination called Auschwitz.

        Mrs. Conradi was 5. Her sister was 3, her brother 2. Their father was somewhere in the camp. They saw him once in the two years they spent at Auschwitz. Their mother was dead.

        Because they were Hungarian — or Gypsy in the parlance of the day — they were not Aryan pure. So Hitler sent them from Germany to Auschwitz.

        The children survived. More than 1 million others — Jews, Gypsies, Soviet prisoners — did not.

        Her stories tug at the heart and churn the stomach.

        Dead bodies on the ground. Beatings in the middle of the night. A putrid “soup” of wilted vegetables in warm water served with a single piece of hard bread, given out once a day. Experiments conducted by Nazi doctors in white coats, uncaring men jabbing needles in the chest of a young girl.

        “My breast, it would turn hot red and swell and hurt for days,” she remembers. “I don't know what they were doing or putting in me. But I lost my breast to cancer, and I always wondered if something happened in the camp that gave me the cancer.”

        One day some soldiers came. Not German, but Russian. She thinks that is what happened. It was a long time ago. She was a little girl.

        “I do know they were Russians. They let us leave the camp.”

        She and her brother and sister moved in with their grandma in Germany. The Russian soldiers stayed for a long time. They made things hard for many of the people. But not Mary.

        “They would see me and see the numbers on my arm,” she remembers. You suffered enough, they told her.

        When she was 12 the government sent her grandma a letter. American families would adopt the children. The girls went. Their brother stayed.

        They ended up with a family named Franzen in a place Mary had never heard of called Crescent Springs. “A small town in the middle of nowhere” is how she remembered it.

        Mary could not speak English. She knew no one. But she did not complain. After what she had been through, this was a new chance at life.

        The Franzens were wonderful. They sent her to Villa Madonna. She met a man, Richard Conradi. They married. They raised six kids on Nordman Drive. Dick died 20 years ago. It still hurts that he is no longer around.

        Mary Conradi loves this country with a devotion I'll never fully appreciate. She doesn't need the Fourth of July of celebrate what America means to her.

        “Even today, my family comes from Europe, and they can't believe how I live,” she says modestly. “They think I'm rich. I have a stove, and a microwave and a house they could never afford.

        “And I have my freedom,” Mary Conradi says, her eyes dropping back to those faded green numbers on her arm.

       Patrick Crowley can be reached at (859) 578-5581, or e-mail



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