By January 1945, the two women had endured months of hunger, cold, lice, the fatigue of digging trenches, the capricious savagery of their Nazi guards and the steady deaths of women around them. But Pepi Deutsch made sure that her daughter, Clara, got to celebrate her 17th birthday.
She took three slices of bread she had been squirreling away from her rations, smeared them with a rare portion of marmalade, and - presto - there was a layered birthday cake.
"I said, `Where did you get that bread from?' " Clara recalled having scolded her mother. " `You didn't eat last night your bread!' "
By taking care of each other, they survived Auschwitz-Birkenau and three slave-labor encampments. And they have continued to take care of each other through the many years since. The mother, one of the oldest living Holocaust survivors, will be 100 on June 30, and the daughter celebrated her 71st in January.
It may be a kind of visceral but not quite definable glue that Saul Bellow has called potato love, or it may be an indebtedness that grew out of their shared miseries, but their tie seems unbreakable.
"I could never separate from my mother or she from me," said Clara, now a widow bearing her late husband's name of Knopfler. "During my 40 years of marriage, my husband said, `I know I can't argue with my mother-in-law like other normal men, because if someone goes, it will be me.'
"I couldn't do it, because I felt in the concentration camps, if we are separated, we will never be together again. Now, if I go to Europe for two weeks or to Los Angeles to visit my son, every day I call her. Is that neurotic? Maybe."
The two women will be honored Wednesday at a candle-lighting ceremony for them at Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y., one of many survivor tributes in next month's annual worldwide Holocaust commemorations. Yet even among the thousands of astonishing survivor tales, the story of these two women remains remarkable, and not just because Deutsch has lived so long.
Very few mother-daughter pairs survived the concentration camps together. Either a mother was too old or the daughter too young for the work the Nazis demanded, and one or the other was dispatched to the gas chambers. Among those who managed to stay alive together, it was often difficult under the feral pressures of starvation and despair to retain common scruples.
"People in these circumstances argued over a slice of bread or a spoon of soup," Knopfler said. "My mother and I never argued. She didn't eat her soup, and gave it to me."
Donna Cohen, president of the Westchester Holocaust Commission, which is organizing the tribute, says the story of Deutsch and her daughter can be instructive in an era when family cords seem more elastic than ever.
"Even though everything was taken away from them, they never lost that bond and still had a sense of family," she said. "There is a lesson for us as parents. These bonds will be tested one day."
It was not only the mother who took care of the daughter.
When they were digging six-yard-wide antitank trenches as the Russians were approaching, a teen-age Hitler Youth guard grew displeased by the pace of the work and called her mother "an old bag" and struck her across the shoulders.
"This is the only time I lost my temper," said Knopfler, who looks back on her torments with a tart Mittel-European irony. "I got out of the ditch and I said, `You stop that. Don't you have a mother? How do you think she would be if she worked all day without any food?' "
The teen-age guard replied, "My mother's not Jewish." But the next day, he showed up with a carrot and gave it to the two women.