Crowded into an unventilated cattle truck, a young Berta Bloomfield took her chance while she still could.
Many prisoners had died on the train journeys to Auschwitz during the long, hot, summer of 1944.
While Berta had no idea of the horrors waiting for her at the end of the track, her instinct to escape was strong.
And when the train stopped in a vast, freshly-harvested corn field, the truck doors opened to let in some much-needed fresh air.
Seizing the moment, Berta jumped from the truck and ran as far and as fast as she could. But when the guards caught up with her they beat her so hard she didn’t even have the strength to lift herself back into the train carriage.
‘She ran and ran and ran,’ says Berta’s son, John Bloomfield.
‘She tried to hide behind this big stack of corn but the guards found her. It’s a wonder they didn’t shoot her.’
As his elderly Italian mum sits in her armchair at her home in North End, Portsmouth, it’s hard to imagine the hardships she’s lived through.
Thinking about what she’s experienced brings tears to John’s eyes. But he has no problem recognising the sparks of courage she showed during the months she spent at the Nazi camps.
On Tuesday, Berta will celebrate her 90th birthday and John now thinks it’s time others knew of her bravery.
Tattooed on her left forearm is the number 82148. It has faded over the years but the brand imposed on her when she first arrived at Auschwitz will last a lifetime.
More than a million people died at the notorious extermination camp in Poland, either in the gas chambers or through disease and starvation. Most of them were Jewish, but thousands of political prisoners like Berta were also snatched from their homes. Her only crime was having a brother who’d become a resistance fighter – and not knowing where he was.
Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a few years ago, John’s pieced together what he can of his mum’s incredible story of survival from things she’s told him over the years and his own research.
As a child he’d seen the number stamped on her arm and knew it was from the war, but for a long time Berta kept what she’d been through as a young woman to herself.
‘I was about 11 or 12 when my dad got a book on Auschwitz from the library,’ remembers John. ‘I recognised the name but I didn’t know what it was. I was looking at the pictures and there were photos of the prisoners and they were emaciated.
‘I said to mum “Look at these people”. She looked at me and said “I looked like that”. That’s when it dawned on me and I started to ask more and learn more.
‘Not long after, when I was in my teens, mum started to open up a bit more. We used to go back to Italy every year and I remember one particular trip. We’d stopped at a cafe in Germany and it was really hot. The woman from the cafe came out, saw mum’s arm and dropped the tray and said “Auschwitz”. She recognised the number.
‘Mum opened up a bit after that and as time went on she told us more stories, but she didn’t openly chat about it. It was pretty horrific.’
Berta was born in Sospirolo, Italy, on July 3, 1922, to Corina and Carlo Cappellari.
Her father left for Argentina in search of work before her younger brother, Cesare, was born in 1925.
During the Second World War, Berta moved to Trieste and 19-year-old Cesare became a partisan fighter.
When the Nazi’s secret police, the Gestapo, discovered Cesare’s name in June 1944 they arrested Berta and interrogated her. Branded a political prisoner, she was listed for transportation to Auschwitz just before her 22nd birthday.
For three months Berta was held at Auschwitz and put to work sorting out clothes. She remembers how Jewish women would give her things to hide for them but would then disappear, never to be seen again.
‘She did know that people were dying there but I don’t know how much she knew of the horrors,’ explains John.
‘I thought if she wanted to talk about it then fair enough, but I remember some years back when people first started to visit Auschwitz I asked her if she would want to go back and see it. She said no.’
He adds: ‘I went to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Berlin a few years ago and I’m glad I went. That made me want to find out more about what happened to mum and to make sure my kids know.’
In September 1944, Berta was transferred to the Mathausen-Gusen concentration camp in Austria. Split into several sub-camps, prisoners became slave labourers, working on the most meagre rations and in freezing cold conditions.
Berta was sent to Hirtenberg where she was forced to work in the munitions factory. If it wasn’t for her good friend Mafalda, John believes Berta may not have survived.
John’s research has revealed that Berta was among around 5,000 political prisoners at Mauthausen. In total, the camp incarcerated around 320,000 prisoners and only 25 per cent of them survived.
During her time at Hirtenberg, Berta received a shrapnel wound to her back and had to spend time in the camp’s very basic hospital.
‘Mum talked about this Polish doctor who was so wonderful to everyone,’ adds John.
‘While she was in the hospital the SS guards were trying to get people back to work and mum remembered this one woman who had no shoes. She begged mum to give her hers and she felt so sorry for her that she handed over her shoes. When it was decided that mum was fit enough to go back to work she had to walk miles in the cold without any shoes.’
Escape came in the form of the US Army, who liberated the camp on May 6 1945. By this time Berta was suffering from malnutrition and typhus.
It took three months for her to be repatriated back to Trieste and by now she was seriously ill and admitted straight to hospital.
Although she was reunited with her mother, she soon discovered that Cesare had been captured by the SS and died in a German prison of typhoid.
Berta wasn’t expected to live and had been placed on a controlled diet. Yet during the nights, she would unplug her drip and creep to the kitchen to steal food.
Thankfully, she went on to make a full recovery and by 1947 was working for the British Army as a waitress in the local NAFFI. Her Italian uncle was at that time the liasing foreman attached to Corporal Victor Bloomfield of the Royal Engineers and an invitation to a Sunday lunch with the family brought Berta into contact with the man she went on to marry.
One week into their two-week honeymoon and Victor was recalled to England. It took three months to arrange all the paperwork but Berta, by now nine months pregnant with John, finally arrived in London and made her way to Portsmouth and Southsea railway station to start her new life with Victor.
While there’s no way of knowing what impact the horrific things she lived through had on her, John says she’s been happy in Portsmouth.
‘She settled down with my dad and she had a family,’ he says. ‘She couldn’t speak a word of English but she went to night school and blagged a job in a laundry and then entered the rag trade.
‘It was hard but if you’ve worked 16 hours a day in a work camp it puts the idea of struggle into perspective.’