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Last victim of Treblinka
He survived SEVEN Nazi concentration camps... but the nightmare caught up with him 44 years after starting a new life
By TONY RENNELL
He was just another down-and out, one of the winos who routinely slept out on the perilous granite piers and iron girders of the railway bridge spanning the Clyde in the centre of Glasgow.
There was a possibility that, befuddled by whisky, he accidentally tumbled into the waters swirling below - that he didn't intend to die.
But the more likely scenario was that he had deliberately jumped from his grim perch. Either way, when he was hauled out of the river, the grey-haired old man was dead.
Tormented: Henry Sperling with his wife and fellow Holocaust survivor, Yaja at their wedding in 1947
At one level, Henry Sperling's suicide was not surprising, and explicable. His devoted wife had died and he had let himself go. He wouldn't look after himself, he drank too much and he wouldn't let anyone help him - not even the two sons who loved him and had reported him missing days before his death.
But there was something deeply puzzling about his death, because Sperling, a Polish Jew, was a survivor by nature who had endured unspeakable horrors.
As a teenager, he had been an inmate of not just one, but seven Nazi concentration camps - including the horrific extermination complexes of Treblinka and Auschwitz, where two million men, women and children were gassed and incinerated.
He lived in hell for years and came alive through the very worst of the Holocaust. Yet, 44 years after his ordeal miraculously ended in liberation and a new life, he could take no more.
He had witnessed the extremes of man's inhumanity. For all his efforts to leave the past behind, the memories of slaughter would never release their grip.
As 62-year-old Hershl Sperling - his real name - sank beneath the murky waters of the Clyde in September 1989, the death camp of Treblinka claimed its final victim.
His story has now been told in a remarkable and moving new book by Mark Smith, who lived round the corner from Sperling in Glasgow and was a close friend of his sons.
Saved: Children liberated from Auschwitz by the Soviet army
He knew him as a cheery, slightly crazy figure, his eyes full of mischief. The number tattooed on his arm was a visible sign of what he had endured but, though his eyes were often moistened with tears and he sometimes howled in his sleep, he seemed to have dealt with the horrors of his past.
Only after his death, when Smith began to piece together the details of Sperling's past, did he come to realise that he was haunted and tormented every day of his life - and for very good reason. His story was one of unremitting horror from the day the Germans overran Poland in 1939 and began their systematic elimination of the country's Jews.
He and his family were among 50,000 Jews confined in the squalid ghetto at a town called Czestochowa until, in September 1942, SS troops drove them en masse to the railway to be herded like cattle into trucks.
They were told they were to be re-settled in the east, but most realised this was a lie. They duly arrived at Treblinka - its pretty station with a clock and fake ticket window a cover for its barbarity.'New transports arrive all the time. On average, 10,000 people per day are murdered. There was one day when the human transport reached 24,000.'
Within 90 minutes, after being stripped of possessions, clothes and all human dignity, they were prodded naked down what the SS laughingly called Himmelstrasse - 'the road to heaven' - to the 'showers'.
Just before he reached the door of one of the camp's ten gas chambers, a hand reached out and grabbed 15-year- old Sperling, pulling him roughly to one side while the rest, his own family among them, stumbled onwards to their deaths.
He was one of 30 men out of the thousands in his batch selected to join the Sonderkommando, slave squads of prisoners who kept the wheels of the gruesome machine turning.
'For the meantime, we are safe,' he noted in the 20-page testimony he wrote shortly after the war, a crucial, long-lost document which Smith uncovered and used as the basis of his book.
'Crucial' because Treblinka, which had opened just two months earlier, so thoroughly fulfilled its purpose as a death camp that very few witnesses survived to tell its awful tale - just 60 or so out of close to a million victims.
Almost all the Sonderkommando perished, too, once they had outlived their usefulness in disposing of corpses or, in Sperling's case, sorting the vast piles of clothes, watches, gold, hair and all the other incidental detritus of mass-murder.
'Death is constantly before our eyes,' he wrote. 'New transports arrive all the time. On average, 10,000 people per day are murdered. There was one day when the human transport reached 24,000.'
In memoriam An elderly Jewish Canadian weeps as he leans against a symbolic tombstone near the Treblinka monument
As if this industrial-scale slaughter was not bad enough, those who ran the genocidal camp indulged in unfathomable sadism.
One SS officer delighted in choosing children from the newly arrived transports and splitting their heads with a spade, Sperling recalled. Another liked to beat prisoners to death with a riding crop. The deputy camp commander would unleash his ferocious dog, called Barry, to tear off their testicles.
For 10 months, the young man worked hard, learning quickly not to draw attention to himself.
He never lost the skill of becoming invisible.
'He was always capable of being inconspicuous,' his son Sam recalled.
But, with hangings and shootings of the 1,000-strong slave force for the smallest of infractions, or just on a whim, his life always hung by a thread - and always at the price of his conscience as he connived with the oppressor in the killing of his own people.
Sometimes, he envied the dead that their suffering was over - but the desire to live was stronger.
As time went by, he came to realise, as did many of the other Sonderkommando, that they too were doomed.
The number of transports was falling. Treblinka's murderous job was almost done. But the Germans were not about to leave witnesses behind. The Sonderkommando's only hope of avoiding the same fate as the victims was to fight back.
In great secrecy and in constant danger of discovery, an uprising and escape were planned.
Prisoners in the workshops sharpened knives and axes. A duplicate key was made for the door of the German weapons store and two boxes of hand grenades and 37 rifles and pistols were spirited away.
The break-out from Treblinka on the afternoon of August 2, 1943, was an astonishing event. There had been small rebellions and attempted escapes before, punished with extreme cruelty, but nothing as organised or on this scale.
Horror: The main gate of the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz, which was liberated by the Russians in January 1945
That morning, an inmate with a spray for disinfecting the huts filled it with stolen petrol instead. Others made up Molotov cocktails. The small cache of weapons was distributed by handcart, hidden under potatoes or rubbish.
The agreed password was an affirmation of their determination. 'Death,' the man handing them out would whisper. 'Life,' the recipient would reply as he quickly smuggled a gun or grenade out of sight.
As the hour for the uprising approached, tension was at fever-pitch.
But with the first shot - fired 45 minutes earlier than intended after a known informer was seen blabbing to an SS commander - the 800 inmates poured out of their workshops and, armed with whatever they could lay their hands on, rushed the SS barracks and set them alight.
As they swarmed through the camp, many were cut down by rifle fire from the watchtowers - but the rest fought on with all the courage of men with nothing to lose.
'The Jews remain firm,' Sperling wrote proudly in his account.
'They throw hand grenades and position their machine guns.'
Two of the inmates seized an armoured truck with a machine gun mounted on the back and turned it on the guards.'The sound of dogs, gunfire and screams echoed through the forest as 200 escapers were tracked down and butchered.'
Before they themselves were killed, they managed to switch their aim to a petrol dump, which exploded in flames. Clouds of black smoke filled the sky. The block of gas chambers went up in flames, too.
There were many acts of heroism and self-sacrifice that day as the leaders of the revolt ran among the prisoners, rallying them to keep fighting in the hope that some at least would get away.
One lay on a roof sniping at the SS with a rifle. With each shot, he was heard calling: 'This for my wife and my child who never saw the world!'
His pregnant wife had gone to the gas chamber 10 months earlier.
Those who made it to the fence hacked a way out and dashed for the forest. But many got snagged and were mercilessly gunned down as they struggled to free themselves.
The fighting went on for two hours, leaving 400 prisoners dead. But almost as many got away. Sperling was one of them, running furiously with a small group of friends into the cover of the trees.
He ran without stopping for three hours, his hand gripping a small sack of diamonds and gold coins he had accumulated during his work - essential if he was to have any chance of getting to the safety of Switzerland.
Meanwhile, having retaken control of the camp, the SS launched a manhunt. The sound of dogs, gunfire and screams echoed through the forest as 200 escapers were tracked down and butchered. Sperling hid high in a tree until nightfall and then continued his flight.
Free: Some of the prisoners who survived the Auschwitz death camp in Poland - some 7,000 prisoners were still alive when the camp was liberated
After five days on the run, he took a chance, bought a train ticket and made it to Warsaw. From there he attempted to travel on, but was arrested two days later.
He was not identified as a Treblinka escaper - which would have cost him his life - but taken first to a penal camp and then, on October 2, to Auschwitz, where, for some unknown reason, the records described him not as Jewish but as a Pole.
It was a distinction that kept him alive.
Years later, he would bewilder family, friends and therapists who treated him by insisting that 'Auschwitz was nothing, a walk in the park'. It sounded unhinged - except to someone who had experienced Treblinka.
As prisoner 154356 in Auschwitz, he committed an infraction that had him sent to the punishment block at nearby Birkenau.
On his return to Auschwitz, he was assigned to Josef Mengele's special work detail, known as 'the zoo', where the doctor was carrying out gruesome medical experiments on human guinea pigs, including castration.
Friends suffered this fate, but Sperling was lucky - he was inspected by the mad doctor more than once, but not selected. His 'invisibility' had saved him.
After a year at Auschwitz, he was transferred to another concentration camp, Sachsenhausen, and then another, Kaufering, as a slave labourer, before being marched to Dachau in April 1945 ahead of the advancing Allied forces.
It was there, malnourished, exhausted and suffering from typhoid, that he was liberated by the Americans shortly after his 18th birthday.
But where to go? He spent time in a camp for dispossessed persons, making a living dealing on the black market. Two years later, he turned up in Glasgow at the home of a distant relation his mother had once told him about.
A new life began, which he shared with his wife, Yaja, another Holocaust survivor, whom he met by chance on a railway platform in Czechoslovakia when the two of them were caught up in the chaos following the end of the war.
A new life it was, but rarely a settled one.
He went from job to job. The family moved to Israel, but that didn't work out either. He tried a spell in Canada, with the same result.
Sperling was doomed, says author Mark Smith, 'to taste and smell the evil he had seen for the rest of his life'. Not for him the serenity of the survivor, but a never-ending nightmare.
His behaviour was often bizarre. He would put himself at risk, driving at high speed with no hands on the steering wheel.
He shoplifted. He was volatile and unpredictable, 'like sitting on top of a volcano', according to his son Sam.
He had a nervous breakdown and was treated with electroconvulsive therapy. But not even that could erase the memories.
'Even when he was calm, he was disturbed,' said his other son, Alan.
'We would be watching television, something entirely unrelated to his experiences, and he would turn and say: "You know, I still can't believe what happened to me." '
In the Sixties, his sons believe he made a secret pilgrimage to Treblinka to pay his respects and to say sorry to the people he could not save.
But peace of mind still eluded him. Yaja was the only one who could soothe him, and her death from cancer was a terrible blow. He took to his bed with cocktails of whisky and valium.
He had a heart attack. He made numerous suicide attempts and had his stomach pumped five times after overdosing.
He began to disappear inside his own head. He wanted to die.
'This is worse than Treblinka,' he whispered one day. Sam Sperling believes that what drained his father of hope - the spark that had kept him going through the camps - was when, in a lucid interval, he saw the film The Killing Fields about the slaughter of millions of Cambodians under Pol Pot's communist dictatorship.
He was deeply moved by it. From the age of 15 he had seen first hand how truly terrible and murderous the human race could be.
The film showed that nothing had changed. The unspeakable evil that Treblinka stood for was still with us. His final solution lay in the beckoning waters of the Clyde.
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1302964/Last-victim-Treblinka-He-survived-SEVEN-Nazi-concentration-camps--nightmare-caught-him.html#ixzz1ay1ECXI4
Janina's Story The Survivor of Auschwitz
Dr. Janina Parafjanowicz died at her home in Kenilworth, England, in February 1995. During the previous year she had willingly and patiently answered questions from students about her life in the Auschwitz Camp. Email messages came to her from many countries; her answers provided young people with a direct source of information about life in the death-camps.
In 1942 she was taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp. She was one of 3,000 survivors and probably endured that horrific experience longer than any other.
The following letters are chosen as typical of her straight-forward and spirited answers to painful questions.
Dear Dr. Janina Parafjanowicz:
My name is Rebecca Leonard, I am 10 years old , and I am interested in the Holocaust. I am interested because I am Jewish and I wanted to learn more about them. So,I would like to know why were non-Jewish people put in concentration camps? Did you know any? And how old ere you when this was going on?
The Nueva School
On March 25th 1994 Janina Parafjanowicz replied...
"You can tell Rebecca that the German nation at that time believed that they were superior and that meant that others must be inferior - only to be used for their hands to work for Germany.
"Gypsies and people who were crippled especially were sent to be killed, but Slavonic peoples and Hungarians who disagreed with the fascist government were also sent to the chimneys.
"Remember this. Many millions of Polish people died in the camps. Anyone who was not German could be used as hands to work until they could work no longer, and then to be burned.
"I was 22 years old when I was sent to Auschwitz with all my family except my youngest son. In the 4 years of my captivity I lost them all. Many died in prison in Warsaw, by shooting or starvation.
"And many Poles were killed by the Russians who also wanted to destroy us or make us work for them. So many Polish people died. All should learn that it was not only jews who suffered - all nations."
(An estimated 6,000,000 Polish civilians died during the war, of which 2,900,000 were Jewish. Tom Holloway).
Kris Van Ness asked....
1. What year did you arrive at Auschwitz?
2. What impact did Auschwitz have on your life?
Ha! What can you say to that!
3. What happened to your family and friends at Auschwitz?
Beating. Starving. Work. Death.
4. What treatment was put upon you at Auschwitz?
What does he want me to say?
5. What occupation did you serve?
First I cleaned the river. Then I nearly died but recovered when the Germans were worried about disease and said I could be a Doctor again. Then I could eat.
6. Did you help anyone who was in danger?
7. Did you see many deaths occur?
8.Were there any other races or religious groups there?
9. If so, was there any special treatment towards them?
No. I had some special treatment because they were afraid of typhus and cholera and so I could eat. Many priests were tortured. Most people just starved and worked and died.
10. Was the treatment better or worse?
Better? Worse? I don't understand this.
11. Do you remember the ride to Auschwitz?
Yes. My husband was in the government and he had already gone to the cells. The Gestapo took me to the camp in a car.
12. What was it like?
I don't remember.
13. Were you allowed to bathe?
When I was Doctor yes. I could have a shower once every month. I also had soap.
14. Were you given a change of clothes?
We wore the camp clothes.
15. What were the conditions like at Auschwitz?
(This answer I cannot repeat).
Ryan Cari asked...
1. Do you have reoccurring nightmares?
No. I sleep very little. I wait for the next day.
2. Were you split up from your family?
Yes. My small son was hidden, but the others I never saw again.
3. What was it like not knowing if you were going to make it through the day?
I never thought about it.
4. How many years were you there?
5. Would you do anything different if you could do it all over again.
If I could do it again? What does he mean? No I could do nothing different.
Dr. Janina Parafjanowicz
Born: 1921, Lodz, Poland
Describes arrival at Auschwitz, selection, and separation from his family [Interview: 1990]
It was late at night that we arrived at Auschwitz. When we came in, the minute the gates opened up, we heard screams, barking of dogs, blows from...from those Kapos, those officials working for them, over the head. And then we got out of the train. And everything went so fast: left, right, right, left. Men separated from women. Children torn from the arms of mothers. The elderly chased like cattle. The sick, the disabled were handled like packs of garbage. They were thrown in a side together with broken suitcases, with boxes. My mother ran over to me and grabbed me by the shoulders, and she told me "Leibele, I'm not going to see you no more. Take care of your brother."
The Germans invaded Poland in September 1939. Leo and his family were confined to a ghetto in Lodz. Leo was forced to work as a tailor in a uniform factory. The Lodz ghetto was liquidated in 1944, and Leo was deported to Auschwitz. He was then sent to the Gross-Rosen camp system for forced labor. As the Soviet army advanced, the prisoners were transferred to the Ebensee camp in Austria. The Ebensee camp was liberated in 1945.
Miso (Michael) Vogel
Miso (Michael) Vogel
Born: 1923, Jacovce, Czechoslovakia
Describes arrival at Auschwitz [Interview: 1989]So they marched us through the gate with whips and beatings and dogs jumping on us. We came to a huge brick building. They shoved us...shoved us into the huge brick building, and there were prisoners and SS telling us what to do next. It was tables, long tables. The first area, where we had to undress, strip our clothing. There were hooks behind us. You put the clothing through a piece of wire, hang the clothing up, take our shoes off, put the shoes on the floor. Next table were the barbers, the camp barbers, where they shaved our head, they cut our hair, shaved the entire body. They said it's for hygiene. Then we moved to another table where the tattooing was done. So, the tatoo was done on the left forearm. There was one person who would rub the...a little piece of dirty alcohol on your arm, and the other one had the...had the needle with the inkwell, and he would do the numbering. So my number is 65,316. That means there were 65,315 people numbered before me, tattooed before me. After the tattoo...tattooing was done, they put us where they gave us the clothing, but not what we came with. They gave us, issued us a striped brown cap, a jacket, striped jacket, a pair of striped trousers, a pair of wooden clogs, and a shirt. No socks or underwear. Then the last area, when they gave us the uniform, they gave us two strips of cloth. The cloth, I would say, was about six inches long, maybe inch-and-a-half wide. And it [was] star...starred with the Star of David, corresponding with the number on your left forearm, sewn on your left breast and on the right pant leg. And then the last item, which was the most important item that we received, was a round bowl. And this bowl was the lifeblood of your being. First of all, without it you couldn't get the meager rations that we got. And second, the bathroom facilities were almost non-existent.
Born: 1925, Korosmezo, Czechoslovakia
Describes arrival at Auschwitz [Interview: 1990]
They marched us to a huge building which had shower caps, and we were told to undress, and I was always, I was young and vain, and I dressed in my best clothes, my nice coat, my, my best dress, so I put it nicely together when I, when I undressed, and there comes over this Kapo, and she flings it to the side, and I say, "This is my clothes." She said, "Yes, but you won't need it anymore," and, and I was terribly scared because I didn't know what that meant. Then when we were undressed, we were ordered, everybody was ordered to stand up on a stool, and they shaved us, they shaved our hair, and the private parts, and we looked, we couldn't even recognize each other once we were stripped, not only of our clothes, but of our hair. Then we were shoved into those, um, showers, and they first opened the hot water, so we were scalded and as we ran out from under the hot water, we were beaten back by the SS and by the Kapos to go under the showers again, so they opened the ice cold water, which had the same effect, and finally we were out of this shower. Each of us was given one garment, which, of course, didn't fit. Some got small, that was too small, some got that was too large. We didn't get, receive not even underwear or brassieres or panties, just that one dress.
Born: 1925, Makow, Poland
Describes gas chambers in Auschwitz [Interview: 1991]
The Germans invaded Poland in September 1939. When Makow was occupied, Sam fled to Soviet territory. He returned to Makow for provisions, but was forced to remain in the ghetto. In 1942, he was deported to Auschwitz. As the Soviet army advanced in 1944, Sam and other prisoners were sent to camps in Germany. The inmates were put on a death march early in 1945. American forces liberated Sam after he escaped during a bombing raid.
The gas chamber was also a hall just like this one, with two chutes, two, uh, like chimneys going all the way to the top, with perforated metal. Had holes about a quarter of an inch all around, all four corners, and it was two or three sheets of metal, one into the other with holes. That chute went all the way up to the roof, which was almost flat to the ground outside. That's where the SS men were standing as soon as the bunker was filled in, yeah wait a minute.... When they filled in the bunker with all the women they put the men in. And sometimes they had 20 or 30 extra people that they couldn't get in, so they always held back children. And when the bunker was already so filled they couldn't put no more people, no more...they made the kids crawl on the top of the heads, all the way in there, just kept on pushing them in, to fill them all in. When the door was slammed behind them, was a thick door, was about six inches thick. I built it myself and I know what it's like: three bolts, three iron bars were across. The bars were laid over and then screwed tight. The men, the SS men were standing outside with a Red Cross wagon and they had the gas can...cans in the truck, in the...in the ambulance. He put a mask on, had to put a mask on, tore the lid off of the gas...of the...of the, um, the gas canister, threw it down the chute, through the chimney into the gas chamber. The crematorium two and...and three had two gas chutes. And as soon as he threw the gas in he slammed the lid shut, so the gas wouldn't escape. And all you could hear is one loud sound, "Shema..." [the Jewish declaration of faith] and that was all. And that took about five to ten minutes. In the door they had a little peephole with four or five layers of glass in between, and it was with bars so nobody could break the glass through. And when they turned on the light into the...in the...in the bunker, you could see whether the people were already dead or not.
Born: 1935, Ostrowiec, Poland
Describes the Auschwitz crematoria [Interview: 1992]Ruth was four years old when the Germans invaded Poland and occupied Ostrowiec. Her family was forced into a ghetto. Germans took over her father's photography business, although he was allowed to continue working outside the ghetto. Before the ghetto was liquidated, Ruth's parents sent her sister into hiding, and managed to get work at a labor camp outside the ghetto. Ruth also went into hiding, either in nearby woods or within the camp itself. When the camp was liquidated, Ruth's parents were split up. Ruth was sent to several concentration camps before eventually being deported to Auschwitz. After the war, Ruth lived in an orphanage in Krakow until she was reunited with her mother.
I don't know, as a child I kind of accepted things as they were happening, because there was nothing I could do about it but try to stay ahead, to survive. For some reason or other that was the most important thing, is to survive. That's all you heard everybody say: "Oh, we've got to survive and tell the world what is going on." I mean, this is, that was it. I mean, if only for that reason, just, because it was just unbelievable. And this idea that, that you go up in smoke became a rea...a reality, because people would come, a transport would come in with a lot of people, and they would move into a certain direction, and then they would disappear. They would never come out. So you realized that something is happening to them, and seeing the, the chimneys smoking continuously, especially after a transport--even at my age you kind of put two and two together and realize that yes, this is where you go, behind those, that fence that has the, uh, the blankets on it and the trees covering something that goes on behind there, that you go in and you don't come out anymore. Exactly what was happening I don't know, all I knew is that you come out the chimney. And as the, uh, crematoriums were working, it, it left such a sweet taste in your mouth that you didn't even feel like eating. During these times I can honestly say I, at times I wasn't even hungry because it was so sickening.
Born: 1937, Teplice Sanov, Czechoslovakia
Describes medical experiments at Auschwitz [Interview: 1995]Irene and her twin brother Rene were born Renate and Rene Guttmann. The family moved to Prague shortly after the twins' birth, where they were living when the Germans occupied Bohemia and Moravia in March 1939. A few months later, uniformed Germans arrested their father. Decades later, Irene and Rene learned that he was killed at the Auschwitz camp in December 1941. Irene, Rene, and their mother were deported to the Theresienstadt ghetto, and later to the Auschwitz camp. At Auschwitz, the twins were separated and subjected to medical experiments. Irene and Rene remained separated for some time after their liberation from Auschwitz. The group Rescue Children brought Irene to the United States in 1947, where she was reunited with Rene in 1950.
I, of course, have, um, unfortunately a lot of memories of, um, of the hospital and, um, the doctor's office. It, I seem to recall spending a great deal of time, um, there. And also being in the hospital and being very sick. And, um, I know one time, when I went to the doctor's office, that they took blood from me and, it was extremely painful because it was from the left side of my neck. That's a strange thing to remember. I also remember having blood taken out of my finger, but that wasn't quite so bad. And I also remember having to sit, um, very still for long periods to be measured and, or weighed, or in X rays. I rem...I remember X rays, X rays. Um...and injections. I remember injections. And then I'd be sick. Because then I, I'd be in this hospital. And I remember having a high fever, because I know they were taking my temperature, somebody was. Um, I really got to hate doctors. I, I got to be afraid. I used, I was terribly scared of doctors, I still am. They're a nightmare. Hospitals are out of the question and illness is unacceptable.
In her postwar testimony, Olga Albogen, a Holocaust survivor, relates to her family's arrival in Auschwitz in the following way, "…We didn't even say goodbye to Mother and the little ones. We just had some food yet from home and I gave it to my mother and said, "We'll see you tonight." And that was it and I never saw them again. It was such a commotion there in Auschwitz… So many people…And when they emptied the wagons, thousands and thousands and trains kept on coming from all over Europe, not just Hungary. It was just unbelievable." Entire families often arrived in Auschwitz, but soon after their arrival, they were brutally broken apart. In Auschwitz-Birkenau, Jews were thrown out of the cattle cars without their belongings and forced to make two separate lines, men and women/children. SS medical personnel, including the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele, conducted selections among these lines, sending most victims to the gas chambers where they were usually killed and burned on the same day. Mengele and his colleagues also conducted so-called "medical experiments" on human beings in the camp. --Yad Vashem Archives.
In her postwar testimony, Olga Albogen, a Holocaust survivor, relates to her family's arrival in Auschwitz in the following way, "…We didn't even say goodbye to Mother and the little ones. We just had some food yet from home and I gave it to my mother and said, "We'll see you tonight." And that was it and I never saw them again. It was such a commotion there in Auschwitz… So many people…And when they emptied the wagons, thousands and thousands and trains kept on coming from all over Europe, not just Hungary. It was just unbelievable."
Entire families often arrived in Auschwitz, but soon after their arrival, they were brutally broken apart. In Auschwitz-Birkenau, Jews were thrown out of the cattle cars without their belongings and forced to make two separate lines, men and women/children. SS medical personnel, including the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele, conducted selections among these lines, sending most victims to the gas chambers where they were usually killed and burned on the same day. Mengele and his colleagues also conducted so-called "medical experiments" on human beings in the camp. --Yad Vashem Archives.
Jack Oran, a Holocaust survivor, relates:
"Everyone worked so hard, got beaten up…and came back to the camp -- the exhaustion alone pushed him to the bunk to lie down and sleep throughout the night and get enough strength so that s/he might be able to do that again tomorrow. …In the morning, sixty percent of the six people [in the bunk] did not wake up. The other forty percent went over the pockets of the dead people to find a piece of bread…The hygienic condition was very, very poor in that period. I remember that I searched a dead body in the bunk and I found a piece of bread. That piece of bread was crawling with lice and you shook them off the bread and put it in your mouth and ate it. We all were crawling with lice. Taking a shower was not an option. To get out in the morning, to walk toward the barrack where there is water, running water &endash; you didn't want to walk through mud. If you walked through the mud you probably lost a shoe and then you had to go barefoot. So it would be damned if I do and damned if I don't. Those were the conditions."
Jack Oran, a Holocaust survivor, relates:
Even in unendurable conditions, people sought support, cooperation and friendship. For instance, Ovadiah Baruch, a young Jewish prisoner who was deported to Auschwitz from Greece, notes that the support of his friends helped him survive. He states:
"During the death marches [from Auschwitz] we were three friends, Yom Tov Eli, Michael and I. We were connected heart and soul. Throughout the whole time we were prisoners in Auschwitz we stayed in close contact….During the death marches, Michael developed dysentery. He was so weak that he could barely continue to walk, and he begged us to go on without him. Yom Tov Eli and I insisted that we would carry him and support him as best as we could."
Even in unendurable conditions, people sought support, cooperation and friendship. For instance, Ovadiah Baruch, a young Jewish prisoner who was deported to Auschwitz from Greece, notes that the support of his friends helped him survive. He states:
I was born in a small town called Kosowa, in eastern Poland. My family consisted of my parents, three brothers who were all married and had children. I also had an extremely beautiful sister, two years older than I, not yet married.
We lived comfortably in Kozowa. It was a quiet town, not too much excitement but I liked it that way. Then, on September 1, 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland and the war was on. In the beginning I was excited. I had no idea what a war was all about. In two weeks time Poland capitulated and the Nazis took over. Germany and the Soviets made a pact and divided the country. The Soviets got the eastern part where we lived and the Germans got the western part of Poland.
Our life under the communists wasn't too bad even though they took away our store because one was not permitted to own any business or property. The authorities gave us jobs and we all had to go to work. For a while I worked in a teahouse. Later on an opportunity presented itself to be sent to take certain courses in Lvov (Lemberg) which was a large city. I volunteered to go because I wanted to get away from my job in the teahouse. In Lvov I enjoyed the school and my studies very much. Then in June 1941 war broke out between the Germans and the Russians. The Nazis broke the pact. They started to bomb the city and I had to leave Lvov. My roommate and I were 100 km from Kosowa and we had no other choice but to walk home. From time to time peasants gave us lifts on their wagons, let us sleep in their barns and somehow we arrived. I was glad to be at home and thought my troubles were over. Just the contrary, our real troubles had just begun. The Russians retreated and the Germans took over.
The Germans, in the beginning, didn't occupy our town but stayed 16 km from us. To satisfy their constant demands a Judenrat (special Jewish Council made up of prominent people, ed.) had to be established. Through this council, one day, came the order that all Jewish men between the ages of 18-60 had to gather in the school yard for "inspection". My three brothers went but my father, who was exactly 60, did not. The Nazis selected 300 of them, including two of my three brothers, led them to the nearby forest and shot them all. That is how my two brothers were murdered leaving behind their wives and children.
Soon after this horrible event our ghetto was established. Since my parents had a big house, all of us, ten people, moved in, to be together. By this time the Nazis started their random killings. Every time they entered our town, whenever they caught any Jews on the streets, they just killed them on the spot. So we started to build bunkers and other hiding places in our homes. In our own home, with the help of a few remaining strong men, we dug a very big cave in the ground, about 12 x 6 feet. Deep enough so an adult could stand up. Was covered it on top with some kind of a trap door and two pipes were installed in one corner, for air circulation. Frequently, all ten of us, had to spend hours there. Sometimes we stood in there a whole day, when the Nazis came and were looking for people to kill. We heard them walking around upstairs and only when we were sure they left would we come out of the cave.
One night April 1941, just three days before Passover, we were walking around in the ghetto. We heard from others that the Germans surrounded the town and the next day would liquidate the ghetto. We went home and later we all went into our hiding place, the cave. There we were: my father, my only remaining brother with his two daughters, the wife of one of my late brothers and their three children, my beautiful sister and myself.
In the morning we heard the Nazis walking upstairs, shouting and yelling, looking for us. While they didn't find the entrance to the cave they must have spotted the two air pipes sticking out. They stuffed them with something and thus blocked the flow of air. I was the first to faint. I was weak anyway because I just recently recovered from typhus of which my dear mother died. I didn't know about anything until later.
It so happened that my late mother had a sister who lived just around the corner from us and knew about the cave.
When the Germans finally left, she came to our house to see what happened. When she didn't see or hear anyone answering her calls, she became frightened. She went to look for the few remaining people in the ghetto. They came to the cave, opened the trap door and pulled us out, one by one. Later they told me that everyone was dead, suffocated, including my sister. They noticed that my eyelids started to flutter, so they poured cold water on me and I revived. The next thing I knew I was in my bed surrounded by a lot of strange people and also the one remaining doctor who finally told me what happened. I was shocked and terribly angry and asked them "why did you revive me?" "Now I am all alone." That day the Nazis killed 1,000 Kozowa Jews.
However, Joseph, a close friend, who later became my husband and whose family still lived in the ghetto, took me to his home. I had to leave my home anyway because the ghetto became smaller. I stayed there with them till June of that year when we heard that the Nazis wanted to make the town Judenrein (clean of Jews, ed.) and intended to kill everyone still in the ghetto.
Joseph knew a man, a friend, in a nearby, small town and went to ask him if he would hide us. He agreed. He was very good to us, just like a father. He was convinced that he'll be the only one to give an eyewitness account of what the Nazis were doing. Joseph's family went into hiding at another farm. On his farm, in a big barn, he built a partition wall of hay. Behind it we could sleep during the night. We also dug a large cave in the ground and during the day we just sat there doing nothing. At night we could come out a little before we went to sleep. A bottle of kerosene with a wick gave us a little light. Our host was a very, very nice man. He brought me a pencil and paper and urged me to record my thoughts and feelings.
I wrote poems and stories and whatever came to my mind. We stayed at this hiding place for ten months. He brought us food and other supplies. He was a poor man but we gave him money and he pretended that he was wheeling and dealing to fool his neighbours about the amount of food and kerosene he bought. His wife was doing the cooking. Later we heard that the front and the Russians are coming back, closer. Our host was a communist. He warned his neighbours about working with the Nazis. He threatened to "I'll tell about what you are doing now". So they were angry with him and on March 17, according to his wife, the Banderovskys, a Ukrainian group collaborating with the Nazis, came at night and killed him.
The next morning his widow, who never really liked us, came and told us that we had to leave right away because she won't feed us any more. Our legs were very weak from lack of use for ten month but we had to leave in a hurry and returned to Kozowa and ended up in the Jewish cemetery. Oh, how we envied the dead!
Joseph remembered a young Gentile man, with whom he went to school. We went to his farm and asked him for help. He got really scared seeing us alive. He was incredulous that we escaped death. He agreed to hide us in his barn but his wife was not to know about it. Everybody knew us in that town so we really had to be hidden well. We climbed into the attic of the barn, covered ourselves with lots of straw and just sat there. We were there for two days and he fed us, pretending he was feeding the pigs.
But hiding there was the the worst because the Germans came to his farm, set up an army field kitchen and some of them stayed in his house. He had difficulty looking after us. One day the Nazis threw out some sour, spoiled, rotten cabbage soup, he grabbed it and brought it to us to eat. It was awful but we ate it and got very sick from it. Imagine, the two of us hiding in that tiny place. Vomiting and with diarrhea. It was plainly: horrible. We stayed there for two weeks, when one day we had to leave again because the soldiers wanted to put their horses in there. Since the Germans didn't know who was who at the farm we just walked away unnoticed.
That night we slept among the ruins of the empty ghetto homes. But this farmer directed us to a friend of his who might help us.
The next day we went there at six o'clock in the morning. The family had six children and when the mother saw me she kissed me and was truly glad to see me and was willing to hide me. But I told her that I am not alone. She gave me food, bread and lard and told me to come back in the evening. At night , when it was dark we came back but by now she seemed afraid and wanted to change her mind but Joseph talked her into hiding us. We went to her potato cellar, dug it even bigger than it was and we crawled into it. The front was, by now, very close. We expected the Soviets' arrival any day. But 30 km from the town they stopped.
This family was feeding us three times a day. They were really good to us, but after two weeks she came and told us that she cannot do it any more. She was sorry, but we had to go. I was ready to surrender to the Germans and be shot. But Joseph would not give up and told the farmer's wife that we won't budge because we have no other place to go. She told us that in that case, because she was very scared, she will move out of her house. She'll leave us water and crackers and the rest was up to us.
In the meantime she didn't go anywhere because some German soldiers moved into her house. She could not look after us any more but the oldest daughter knew where and who we were and very cleverly did bring us food whenever she could. We stayed in that dugout for four more months.
Then one day, the mother came and told us that she saw a Russian soldier. In no time they came to her farm and as they were standing there and talking I just couldn't stand hiding any more, crawled out of the cellar and told her something like "Mama I couldn't find it" like I was there to look for something and she told the soldier that I was one her children. After that I just walked right back to my original home which wasn't very far. Joseph left the dugout later, after the Russian soldiers left. So we were liberated by the Russians in July 1944.
In the meantime only the foundation of my house was left standing. As I was sitting on the ruins, a neighbour, a shoemaker walked by and spotted me. He knew my father very well through business dealings. He turned around went back to his house and came back with a photograph of my family. "I had the feeling that someone from your family will come back and would want this photo" he said as he handed me the picture. I was so happy to have it that I didn't care how he happened to have it. All the other neighbours were kind to us, bringing food
Later we learned that my aunt who lived just around the corner from us also survived. So did her daughter and son-in-law, by hiding in different places. My aunt didn't have to hide. She was so well loved and respected by all because she always helped the poorest of the poor, that while she was walking around freely, living among the ruins nobody gave her away. The Nazis didn't know who was who unless someone pointed a finger. The people in the town also made sure she had food at all times.
While my aunt and cousin stayed in that ghost town, Joseph and I decided to leave. We settled in Lvov where we found jobs. I started to work as a secretary and Joseph, by now my my husband, as a chauffeur. I was very depressed though and couldn't see any reason to live when all my family perished. In fact I was thinking about suicide. Then my husband suggested we have a baby, so giving me good reason to live. In the meantime we also re-married properly with a Rabbi. In a little while I did become pregnant. But then we had to move further west because we didn't want to become Russian citizens and that was a requirement to stay in Lvov.
I was by now seven months pregnant. Eventually, after a difficult and complicated journey, we arrived to Lodz which was just liberated also by the Russian army. This was in January 1945. Here we found an apartment. Joseph eked out a living by wheeling and dealing. The war was over on May 8,1945 and my daughter Marilla was born on June 23,1945.
Nobody in Lodz knew that we were Jewish. Life was easier this way. But I didn't want to live where I still had to hide and be afraid to light my Shabbes candles. So with the help of the Bricha, we left and first went to Czechoslovakia then to Austria where we joined up with my aunt who apparently, also left Kozowa. We stayed here in a D.P. camp in Bindermichel, near Linz, for 2 1/2 years. My husband was working for the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
Life in this D.P. camp wasn't too bad. Almost like we were on vacation. We were fed, given clothing and I took a course in an ORT school to be a beautician. I still have my diploma, but I could not practice it here in Canada. We were brought to Canada buy the Fur Industry as fur workers. My husband declared, in Austria, that he was a furrier so we came as such.
Now, here in Canada we started a whole new life.
Joseph ended up working in a factory, making fur slippers. Then when he was laid off from that job he decided, with two other experienced workers, to open his own slipper factory, called "Quality Slipper Co Limited", which was a success. One partner dropped out, but with the other man they remained partners in the business for 28 years.
When we came to Canada our daughter Marilyn was 2 1/2 years old. When she grew older she wanted three things: a car, our own house and a baby sister. Years later she had all that and in that order. Seven years later Jeanne, our second daughter was born. She is now a fashion consultant and has her own TV show. She is married and has two daughters of her own. My two lovely granddaughters. Marilyn is now a university professor in Los Angeles where she lives with her husband. They have no children.
I love them all dearly.
I fell in love, with my husband Joseph, when I was a teenager. We went through a lot of horrors and hardships. But we also built a good life together in Canada. Nine years ago he died and I still miss him very much. I'll always miss him.
My name is Sally Eisner. I was born Sally Baran in Poland. I lived with my parents and my only and younger brother. My father was an accountant. He was a highly intelligent person, an international champion chess player. My mother helped him in our small business. My brother and I had a very happy and comfortable life until it was completely destroyed by the Nazis.
With the invasion of Poland by the Nazis, we, Jews were hounded, thrown out of our homes and sent to a ghetto in another town. We were then sent to a small labour camp where we worked in the fields from six in the morning to sundown with very little nourishment. Forced to labour as slaves.
The saddest day in my life was the day we lost our parents. It was in July 1943. We heard terrible sounds of shooting and shelling, coming from all over. We didn't know what was going on. At the same time there was thunder and lightning and I thought the world was coming to an end. I was in the fields working when the Nazis surrounded the camp grounds, ordered everyone, including my parents, to dig a mass grave -- their own. Then they were ordered to strip naked and line up. Then they were shot, one by one.
When the firing stopped and the Nazis had left, my brother, who was thirteen at the time, went back from the fields to see what happened. He saw our parents lying, with all the others, in the that large ditch that became their grave. He immediately ran away. I lay in the fields terrified until it became completely dark. I went back to the camp the very next day and saw the mass grave and pools of blood, all over. I was told by some Gentile workers who had covered up the bodies that my own parents were among the the dead, as were my future husband's mother and his two sisters. My husband and I observe this day as the Yahrzeit of our murdered families. I started out in search of my brother. A day later, in a swampy part of the forest, I found him. We were both very frightened and utterly confused. Ha was practically speechless from shock. The two of us, together, lived through many harrowing experiences until the liberation of our labour camp by the Russian Army in March 1944.
One incident that remain vivid in my memory occurred in December 1943. My brother and I were hiding with a Gentile family who lived and worked on a small farm, owned by the Wermacht. I took care of their young baby, tended the house and did handiwork while my brother helped in the yard and stables.
One late afternoon, as dusk approached, my brother was chopping wood in front of the house and I was inside glancing out the window. I suddenly noticed three horsemen approaching. Someone had obviously told the Ukrainian police about our presence and now they were looking for us.
With blind instinct I ran outside, grabbed my brother's hand pulled him inside and pushed him and myself under the huge peasant bed in the house to hide among the boots, shoes, and many other items that were stored there. We crept as far into the corner as we could, pressing our bodies against the wall and each other. We tried, almost, to stop breathing and I held tightly my brother's hand. We thought this was the end. But anyway, there was not too much to lose.
We heard the loud bang as they pushed open the door. The baby in the cradle began to scream and then to cry. They started to search the house. My handiwork, which they must have found, was evidence of our presence. Then they approached our hiding place. They thrust the bayonets under the bed, sweeping the floor with the blades, stabbing and jabbing into the dark and cluttered space, pulling out boots and shoes. I felt the knife point against my skin but we didn't make a sound o or dared to move. When they were convinced that no one was under the bed, they went outside. They searched for us in the potato cellar too. After a while they left, noisily and angry.
We stayed under the bed for a long time after, afraid to come out. When the family came home and we told them what happened, they immediately told us to leave. It was a bitter cold winter night. We wondered about for days and finally ended up in a labour camp.
This was only one of our many awful and terrible encounters. I cannot describe or understand how we survived? It seems that we were guided by Hashem. We were certainly fortunate. My husband Leon, who I have known since 1938 also survived and we met and were married in 1945. Both of our brothers also survived, thank G-d. They were the only family that remained after the war. My husband's father died of typhus in the ghetto.
Since then we became parents and grandparents. My only hope is that our children and grandchildren will not know war and that there will be peace for Klal Yisrael and for the whole world.
"Come on! What’s keeping you so long?" Dad shouted from downstairs.
"Coming, coming.....just a minute."
Why are you so slow getting ready? Because I don’t feel like going with him. - And why not? You like your aunt Iren and your cousin Jutka is an adorable kid, so what’s wrong? - Oh I just don’t feel like it. And that’s that. I’d rather go and see Klari, I enjoy her company so much and I could have a smoke. Soo, that’s it! You are becoming an addict to smoking, is that so? Isn’t I a bit too early at fifteen?
By the time I got to this point in my dialogue I reached the ground floor.
"Dad, I just re-membered I promised Klari I’d be over today."
Aren’t you ashamed to lie like this? "
"Hell, couldn’t you have told me sooner? I have been waiting for you for fifteen minutes.
He muttered some curse words and left. It was a nice, warm day of what the Hungarians calls "old-wife summer" -- the 17th of Sep-tember, 1944 -- I had a good reason not to forget that date. I was strolling towards Klari’s lodg-ing and on the way I was pondering about our rather unusual friendship. She was my cousin, an attractive thirty year old married woman. How come she enjoys the company of a teenager, I thought? I am sure she does. She likes me all right. Maybe she is just lonely and depressed and would appreciate any company. No, no, she talks to me seriously even about very personal matters and listens attentively when I talk. Maybe, because I play the violin, since she is a musician too.-- Maybe. But could it be simply because she likes me -- the person? Hush, you little devil in my head! You are always trying to put me down, to make me feel bad. Klari lived alone now; her handsome, smiling husband had been taken away by the Nazis. (He never came back and Klari herself was shot dead a month later, while attempting to escape deportation.)
The moment I arrived at Klari’s, the sirens started to wail; air-raid. It was the third day in a row that Budapest had been bombed. Twice a day, in the morning by the English or the Ameri-cans, in the evening by the Russians. Klari’s apartment was in a "yellow-starred" house, desig-nated for Jews only. Overcrowded, with several families in each apartment. The cellar which was used as an air-raid shelter was too small for that many people. The air was stifling and the noise of children crying mingled with the noise of explosions and airplanes, was much too much to bear.
The air-raid lasted about an hour. When we returned to Klari’s apartment we were a bit shaken. Klari made some coffee and gave me a cigarette. And we talked and talked. The theme was always the same in those days: what will become of us?
The Russians had crossed the border, the fight was already on Hungarian soil. Still the greatest concern of the Nazis, even now when they were obviously loosing the war, seemed to be the completion of the "task" -- the liquidation of the Jews of Budapest.
By now they have deported all the Jews from everywhere in Hungary, except from Budapest.
The fate of all my friends and relatives who lived in other cities were constantly occupying my mind. I imagined scenes of horrors happening to them. There were rumors of how they were put into cattle wagons and how they were sent to the gas-chambers on arrival in the death camps. I thought of Zoli, my first love, who was taken to the Russian front --- it was well known how they were treated, those with the yellow star. Worse than animals. My own brother was still close by in a labour camp for young Jewish men who were used for menial work. We heard from him occasionally, but they could take him away any time to a death camp. Budapest will be a hard nut to crack though since there were still about 200,000 Jews living there. Would they have enough time to kill us all? This was a race against time.
When our conversation reached this point I asked for one more cigarette.
"I will be respon-sible for you being addicted" Klari said smiling, handing me her cigarette case. "What the hell. I might not live to be sixteen, why not enjoy what little this damned life can offer me?" I said inhaling the smoke with delight. It was about four o’clock when I got back from Klari’s. My father wasn’t home yet.
Where could he be? "He said he’d be back by three," Mom said. There was a curfew for Jews, starting at six o’clock, p.m. We didn’t have a phone and the only neighbour who had one was a member of the "Arrow Cross" the Hungarian Nazi Party.
My mother and I sat in silence. Then I couldn’t stand it any more.
"You know what Mom I’ll run over to Irene’s house to see if anything is wrong there? We still have an hour till the curfew starts."
When I turned the corner, two blocks from the house where Iren and Jutka lived, my heart sank.....a crowd.......a police-line.......good God! Is that the very house? No mercy, it is....!
"What happened," trembling I asked a man standing there.
"Bomb of course, a split-bomb which goes straight down. Probably everybody is done for in there. It was a "yellow-starred" house and very crowded. Must have been over hundred people in there."
The man noticed my yellow star on my garment and apologized.
"Sorry". "Is there someone you know in there?"
I couldn’t answer. I went to a policeman --- they were usually more humane than the Arrow-Cross mob. This one was all right too. He talked to me in spite of my yellow star. He explained that they didn’t know yet what happened to the people in the house. Rescuers had been at work for three hours but they couldn’t reach the people trapped underneath the rubble. The whole house collapsed and debris was blocking the entrance to the cellar. The best thing for me was to go home, he said. As soon as they knew something they would notify us. He took my name and address.
I went home. What else could I do? My mother just looked at me and exclaimed "God! What happened?"
I told her all I knew then we waited in silence.
Around eight o’clock somebody slipped a note under the door. The message from St. Ste-phen Hospital read: "Your father is here, wounded, but walked on his own to wash up. You can visit him tomor-row."
Thank God!. It can’t be very serious if he was on his feet. My mother laughed with a tinge of hysteria. I could neither laugh nor cry.
Next morning we ran to the hospital.
"It looks like a hell of a Catholic place" I whispered to Mom. "Look at that all the nurses are nuns. Just the right place for Dad, right?" We found him in bed with a thick bandage on his head. His first words were: "Am I glad you didn’t come with me."
So it was the cigarette that saved my life -- no it was fate or God using your addiction. Yes I am inclined to believe that.
"But tell me what is this ‘turban’ on your head?" I asked.
"We thought we could take you home today" my mother said. "We heard you were walking on your own to the bathroom."
"They’re full of shit. My legs are paralyzed. I have lost all feeling. You could cut them off without me noticing it."
My God, that’s no good. It looks more serious than we thought.
"What’s wrong with your head, Dad?" My voice was a bit unsteady.
"Good question! The whole goddamned house fell on it. I was sitting there for four hours with the bloody mess It’s a miracle that it didn’t break into thousand pieces. You alweays said I had a hard head." At that we laughed. He has all his wits, speaks normally, it can’t be all that bad..
"Do you know what happened to Iren and Jutka?" My mother asked. This question was burning in me but I hesitated to ask, dreading the answer.
"Yes I know. They are dead."
Oh God, Jutka only four years old! An unusually bright and adorable little girl….and Iren, cheerful "little Iren", as we called her, because she was short and always smiling. And Imre, my uncle has now lost his wife and daughter.
"Are you quite sure?" I asked weakly.
"When it happened I was playing with the kid. My hand was on her head – and it remained there until they dug us out some four hours later. Jutka didn’t move, didn’t breathe. It was clear that she was gone. I tried to call to Iren but no sign of life came from her either.
"And you were conscious duringthe whole time?" My mother asked.
"Yes, I was cursing my hard head. It would have been nice to faint, let me tell you."
I believed he said the truth that he didn’t lose consciousness. He was incredibly tough, never sick for a day in his life. Everyone in his place would have died. There was only one other sur-vivor. By some miracle a chair or a table fell on a woman, keeping the debris away and pro-tecting her. She escaped unhurt. I was about to say something when the sirens started to wail. "Here we go again. Damnation!" Dad exclaimed. The nuns ordered everyone to the shelter. They took Dad on a stretcher. Once in the cellar the nuns separated men and women. "What the hell are they doing that for? Are they afraid of inappropriate behaviour during the air-raid?"
The cellar wasn’t a proper shelter, it was just a few steps down, shallow and echoing. It consisted of several chambers separated only vaults, so that the whole place was one unit. The nuns gathered in a central room and started to pray loudly and monotonously. They began with the Lord’s prayer and recited it over and over --- after a while I was ready to scream. Then they switched to the Ave Maria…..It sounded like a souless routine, lacking any feeling.
The sound of a radio somewhere announced: "An enemy unit is nearing the capital". Soon we could hear machine gun and canon fire, the noise airplanes and explosions coming nearer and nearer and finally it seemed as if the shells were exploding right nest to us. The first wave passed and there was silence for a minute, except for the Ave Maria…..
Then the second wave started. The nuns now did something new: as the noise came nearer they repeated, matching the crescendo of the planes: "Have mercy Jesus, misericordia Jesus…. "
When the bombs exploded like thunder the nuns were shouting with all their might.
Finally they were showing some feelings. Then the lights had gone off and the radio has fallen silent. We were sitting in the dark, listening to the Lord’s prayer. People around us were going hysterical; a lot of them were patients who were injured by bombs. There was wailing and sobbing and cries. Two more waves passed, then my first encounter with the fear of death was over.
We were alive, incredible as it seemed.
I was thinking of my father’s ordeal, four hours under the ruins, with broken skull, his hand on a dead child’s head it must have felt like an eter-nity. We staggered over where the men were. My Dad’s black had humour not deserted him. "Hell, that chanting nearly achieved what the bomb failed to do." We tried to find a doctor to ask him about Dad, but in the chaos after the air-raid it was impossible. We finally said good bye and left.
When we got out of the hospital I could see that our fears were not mere hysteria. There were bomb craters quite close, a couple of houses collapsed. Rescue teams were working fever-ishly and ambulances were taking away the wounded dead. A nearby oil refinery was burning with mile long flames. The sight was incredible, terrifying but fantastically beautiful too.
Two days later they brought Dad home. First we rejoiced, then we gradually realized he wasn’t better at all. His legs were still numb and he had clotted blood on his lips from internal bleeding. But it was difficult to believe that he was gravely ill. He was very alert and his brain worked better than ever.
He would categorically refuse to use the bedpan. In spite of our objections he insisted on using the bathroom. He would slide down from the bed, with our help. Sit on a small pillow and slide on it driving himself with his arms to the bathroom while reciting a famous poem: "My God, my God why didn’t you give me wings?" I never knew until then that he read poetry.
A few days later he started to moan. He was probably in terrible pain but even this sounded like another of his jokes. Thinking back it is difficult to believe that till the last hours we did not think for a moment that was dying. He must have been back home for about a week when one night I woke up to a commotion. My mother was standing by his bed and he spoke some words then fell back on the pillow unconscious. It was about three in the morning.
At this hour Jews were not allowed to be on the streets and if an Arrow-Cross soldier caught one, it meant certain death.
I got dressed in a second, ran down the stairs and woke up the janitor who was a member of the Arrow-Cross. After I explained the situation he let me out without a word of protest. Some human feeling was still glimmering in him. I ran in the deserted streets to our doctor who lived a few blocks away. He was Jewish as well but despite the danger he agreed to come with me.
When we got back, Dad was conscious again and recognized the doctor.
"Here you are again Doc…." His voice sounding strangely high.
The doctor gave him a shot. Then he waited. I was crouching on my bed with my head buried in my pillow listening to Dad’s rattling breathing. Slowly, gradually it became more and spaced, then it stopped. I am convinced that the doctor killed him----probably saving him from a day or two of agony.
My mother and I looked uncomprehendingly on the corpse. Neither of us thought of closing his eyes. They were open the next day when they took him away. I can still see his blue eyes, looking at something unknown, beyond us.
Agnes Vadas was fifteen at the time of this particular story. She was born and raised in Budapest where she lived until the time of her escape in 1956. Having been something of a child prodigy, she was a violinist from early childhood on. By the time she left Hungary she was rather well known. She'd been a State Soloist, concertized in the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, and received several international prizes. From 1956 to 1962 she lived in Paris. From 1962 to 1966 she resided in Germany. Came to the United States in 1966 and taught at the Universities of Indiana, Texas, Georgia and Ithaca New York. (Also played as a soloist in those states.) In 1980 Vadas joined the San Francisco Opera orchestra from where I retired in 1993.
JUDY (WEISZENBERG) COHEN
March 19, 1944 is etched in my memory forever. The day the Holocaust started in Hungary. This was the day the German Nazis occupied the country and linked arms with their Hungarian counterparts. This was the day when our lives, as we knew it then, was shattered forever and I was fifteen and a half years old, the seventh and youngest child in an Orthodox Jewish family. I had three brothers and three sisters. My parents were Sándor and Margit Weissenberg, (nee) Margit Klein. We lived in the city of Debrecen, in Hungary.
My parents, Margit and Sandor
Life for us Jews in Hungary in general and for my family in particular wasn't exactly a bed of roses even before the Nazi occupation. Hungary was a military and ideological ally of Nazi Germany. After the Anschluss of Austria in March, 1938, vicious, discriminatory laws against the Jews were enacted and little by little we were stripped most of our civil and human rights.
For my sister Klári and brother Leslie the most devastating was the edict called "Numerus Nullus" whereby Jewish students were not permitted into universities. My father had a metal and scrap-iron yard. With the start of the war in September 1939, the authorities revoked my father's business license because iron & metal became war material and Jews were no longer permitted to handle it. Nobody, in authority, cared how a family of nine could exist without any income.
Life for us Jews became more and more difficult with all the anti-Jewish laws and regulations but our lives were not yet threatened and somehow we were surviving - against all odds.
On that fateful day, on March 19, 1944, I remember standing at the window with some members of my family, behind the curtains and watched in horror as the German Nazi troops were roaring in on motorcycles. A nauseating fear gripped my young stomach at that moment and have not left me for decades to come.
Passover of 1944 was the last Jewish Holiday my parents and four of my seven siblings spent together.
My three brothers were already gone - conscripted for forced labour, attached to the Hungarian army as virtual slaves. (Munkaszolgálatos.) No uniform no gun. These forced "labourers" became the cannon fodder for the Hungarian army. The danger of their work was of such magnitude that of the 50,000 Jewish men who were sent to the Ukrainian front only 7,000 returned.
My brother Jeno and his wife, Magda Weiss
My brother Miklos
My brother Leslie
Once the country was occupied, the pattern was the same in Hungary as in all other countries in Nazi occupied Europe. A Jewish Council (Judenrat) had to be created. Through this council one order and demand after another was announced. by the Nazi occupiers. We had to wear a specific size yellow star on the left side of our chest, on the outer garment, at all times. Naturally, this made us vulnerable targets in public places in the midst of a hostile population. Our Jewish schools were closed immediately. Jews had to give up all of their valuables, furniture, rugs, furs, money, gold, silver items and anything else that the insatiable Nazi "appetite" desired to hoard or ship to Germany. (The Nazis committed the greatest robbery of the century. ) One day my father was called to the Gestapo. They wanted our gold treasures that we didn't have. He came back with badly swollen feet that he could hardly walk. The Nazis beat his soles to a pulp.
Then the order came for the creation of two ghettos in the predominantly Jewish district. The small ghetto and the large one, for approximately 12,000 people.
We lived in the area of the city that became part of the ghetto. There were three dwellings situated around a courtyard and we had to open a huge iron door from the street to enter. One house was ours, one belonged to my Uncle Vilmos, my father's oldest brother and his wife Sarolta. They were childless and to us, seven siblings, they were like grandparents. In the third dwelling lived Aunt Rózsi and Uncle Herman with their two grown daughters. All these were simple dwellings, since we were not rich, but the many potted plants in the courtyard, my mother's favourites, made it colourful and scented the air, during the spring and summer.
I fondly recall the times when mouth watering aromas would permeate the air from the constant making of preserves of varied vegetables and fruits. The making of smoked meats and other goodies - to provide for the winter in a world where ready made, store-bought food was non-existent or would have been shunned by proud home makers like my mother was. My family, my friends, my school, my home -- were the eminently safe and happy world of my young childhood.
When the ghettos were established, all members of our extended family moved in with us and into my two uncles' homes. There seemed to be people everywhere. We were terribly overcrowded, especially at night when we all had to lie down somewhere to sleep. Wall to wall people. Of course, the toilet facilities became totally inadequate. As a community, our isolation from the rest of the population in the city, was complete for they built a wall around the ghetto. We were permitted to leave the ghetto for two hours every day to do grocery shopping. However, this permit was for the late afternoon when most of the stores were empty of goods.
I remember we were all miserable. The women tried to make meals with the meager supplies but it was never enough. Lack of adequate food and medical supply, lack of freedom, lack of privacy made life seem more and more hopeless every day. However, little did we know how well off we were in comparison of what was to come later on.
We had some unexpected, clandestine help in the ghetto from some very kind people who were reluctant to identify themselves. They brought us much needed food, especially for children, in the darkness of the night. I believe they were Jehovah's Witnesses. They dared to follow their conscience and refused to be bullied into indifference or hatred.
One horrible day it happened. It really came to pass.. The dreaded deportation, in cattle cars. I still see many of our neighbours lining the streets watching and laughing (there was the odd tear here and there) as we were led through the city to the brick factory. People with whom our parents were friendly for thirty some odd years how could they turn adversaries in a mere couple of years, some in a few months? It was difficult for my young mind to understand this and it is still incomprehensible. As we learned after the war, many of these neighbours could hardly wait for our forced departure and looted our homes.
The "journey" in the cattle car took 4 days. How can one adequately describe the "inside" of the cattle car packed with 78 people? My father as a pious Jew, prayed but judging from the expression on his face, I am sure he felt betrayed by his God. My mother cried, my 18 months old baby nephew, Péter, who was very sick, whined constantly for food we didn't have and all 78 of us wished for some water that no one supplied. The atmosphere in the cattle car, definitely foreshadowed something ominous to come.
For at the end of the "journey" we arrived at the hellhole of the world, a death camp called: Auschwitz- Birkenau, in Nazi occupied Poland.
The two men, prisoners themselves in striped clothing, whose job it was to get us all out of the cattle cars, kept shouting "los, los, heraus, schneller," were also telling the young women, who were with children, in a whisper: "give the children to the grandmothers" and kept repeating it. There was no time to explain why, just this urging to heed their warning. I didn't notice any woman, including my sister-in-law who was holding her infant son, handing them over to their own mothers.
As we disembarked, we were instantly separated from the men, and that was the last time I saw my father. Children 14 and under, regardless of their gender, were ordered to go with their mothers. Then came the infamous selection, by the "thumbs".
High ranking SS officers using their thumbs only to indicate who goes where. To the left: women with children, pregnant women, older women (45 and up). To the right only the young women like my three sisters and myself.
In a split second I was torn from my mother without understanding what was happening or having a chance to say good bye. We didn't know we had to say good bye. At 15 1/2 this was pretty devastating and there is still a void in my life not having had that last hug and kiss.
However, I was lucky for I had my three older sisters with me, at least for a little while.
Shortly after our arrival and the deadly "selection", in an ugly gray looking building the Nazis called "the sauna" we were ordered to undress - totally - they stripped us of our clothing, shaved of all our hair and all bodily hairs. We felt humiliated and degraded by being forced to stand naked in front of all those SS men and women. Then we were allowed to have two minutes of cold shower, driven outside wet as we were, and thrown a dress (really a piece of rag) to wear. Fitted or not, we couldn't complain.
After this ordeal, we were marched to the camp that became our "home" for a few months. This was called, B/III or Mexico, the name the prisoners gave this most primitive of camps in Birkenau. This camp did not have running water or proper toilet facilities. The barracks had no bunk beds - we, hundreds of women in each barrack, slept on the wooden floors, tightly packed like sardines in a can. If, one wanted to turn over the whole row had to turn.
I remember we, my sisters: Évi, Klári, Erzsébet (Böshke) and I, cried through that first night along with all the others. I cannot recall crying again till after the war.
My sister Erzsébet ( B
In Birkenau, even though we learned the next day, that all those who went to the left at our arrival, my parents; my sister-in-law with her infant son; all my female relatives with their young children, were murdered in the gas chambers, and then their bodies were burned in the adjacent crematoria.
Even though, we lived with the constant stench of burning flesh, there was no time to mourn.
Every ounce of our being was needed for survival and survival alone.
We also realized, albeit too late, that those men who urged the mothers to hand over their children to the grandmothers, were really trying to save the lives of the young mothers. For they knew that the elderly and the very young will be murdered by gas anyway, regardless who held their little hands or carried their tiny bodies.
In hindsight, I can see that in Birkenau being a father didn't automatically sentenced a man to death. But being a mother with a child or pregnant, or just holding the little hand of a child, meant instant death.
My dearly beloved oldest sister, Erzsébet, 27 by that time a seasoned Socialist-Zionist, (Hashomer Hatzair) politically aware, understood clearly that here a genocide was taking place and tried to make sure we'll survive. The first thing she did was: she borrowed a knife and got hold of a piece of wood somehow and made four "spoons". With these spoons she force-fed us younger siblings by instructing us to hold our noses and try to swallow that awful looking and tasting "dörgemüse" soup that was dished up to us as something edible. I still hear her voice: "we must survive -- eat, eat and eat.
Our existence in Birkenau, the hell on earth, was above all very precarious. Any hour of the day there could be a "selection". This meant that we had to file by, in front of Dr. Josef Mengele or, other doctors, most of the time naked, and we were inspected. Those who were considered too skinny, or showed sign of any illness or had a rash on her body or face were "sentenced" to be murdered in one of the four gas chambers. The fear of these events engulfed me at all times. I was always terrified. I was absolutely horrified to be left alone, to be separated from my sisters or sent to be gassed. I did develop a stomach ulcer as a result.
In this death camp, there were corpses around us - constantly. These were picked up usually during those grueling roll-calls (Zehlappel.) in full view. for all of to see. These 'almost corpses' were handled like logs. Just thrown on a men-pulled wagon. But much too often they weren't really dead yet. Their arms started to flail, the eyes in their sockets moved around, like silent pleas for help. These memories stayed with me for decades, giving me nightmares. After the war I learned that these half dead, half alive women weren't gassed but cremated while still breathing.
I still have memories of feeling hunger - a relentless, never-ending hunger. Not even a shred of hope of ever satisfying it.
Then the day I feared most, arrived! It happened! The four of us sisters were, unfortunately, in two stages, separated. First Klári (22) and Évi (18) were taken from Birkenau and till after the war I had no idea what happened to them. (Neither did they know what happened to me.) Months later, I was selected and torn from my last remaining sister, Erzsébet, during another selection. As I learned much later, the selected group I was in, was earmarked for gassing. I was deathly ill that day, with high fever and diarrhea. I did not comprehend what was happening around me. But Erzsébet, knew. I could see the sadness in her eyes the way she looked at me, for the last time but I didn't comprehend - why.
My sister Klári
I learned after the war, that eventually, when the Nazis started to evacuate Auschwitz-Birkenau, she too was sent to Stutthof concentration camp. There, she miraculously met up with Évi and Klári. Now the three of them were together and I was all alone. Reportedly, she told Évi and Klári that I had been gassed.
I surmised, many years after the war, that most likely, the entire "selected" group and I. we owe our lives to a number of courageous women and men. The women, as members of the resistance in Auschwitz, managed to smuggle out explosives from the factory, Union Werke, where they worked. They gave it to the men who worked at the gas chambers in the Sondercommando. The men, reportedly, made a very primitive bomb in a sardine can with the explosive powder the women gave them and managed to blow up crematorium IV and the adjacent gas chamber. Killing a number of German SS guards. After this incident the gassing of prisoners stopped for a few days. That was our luck. I understand the gassing resumed again and continued till mid November 1944.
My sister Erzsébet, of course, was unaware that instead of being gassed, our entire, selected group was directed to another camp for overnight and next day shipped to a concentration camp called Bergen-Belsen. Here, while in the beginning, conditions were better then in Birkenau, very quickly the situation deteriorated and large scale starvation set in. At this point, I reached the ripe old age of 16 and was all alone.
The Feig sisters, Sári and Edith, whom I knew personally from home, took pity on my solitude and at my request, I became their lagerschwester (camp sister). From then on, we looked after each other. Mainly Sári, who was about seven years older, looked after us. The three of us shared absolutely every scrap of food. In a death camp it was very important to know that someone cared whether you wake up in the morning. Without the help and care of Sári and Edith I would not have survived, I am sure of that.
In January 1945, from Bergen Belsen, 500 of us, were taken to work in a Junkers airplane factory, in Aschersleben, somewhere near Leipzig, in Germany. Twelve hours of slave labouring per day was very tough for our, by now, greatly weakened constitution. But, in comparison with death camps, the accommodation seemed palatial. It was January 1945 when we arrived and bitter cold even if one was properly clothed -- which we weren't. Blissfully, the barracks were heated with huge, round, hot water pipes running through the rooms. We each had single bunk beds, with thin straw "mattresses" and many bedbugs for sleep-mates. The quality and the quantity of the food was also better, while still not enough. We used to marvel at the bits and pieces of meet and potato swimming in the thin soup.
My foreman, in the factory was a French war prisoner called, Argo. 80% of all those who worked there were prisoners of one kind or another. All from Nazi occupied, oppressed Europe. There were small contingents of Nazi collaborators too, who came as " freiwilling arbeiter" (volunteers) to help the Nazi war effort. Some were from Belgium and some were, mainly women, from the Ukraine. Argo enlightened me who is who. Who I should trust and who I should not. Every time he wanted to indicate to me that something hopeful is happening, very, very quietly he'd sing the Marseilles. We had to be very careful. We, the Jewish prisoners, were constantly watched by female SS overseers, (aufseherins) from the upper galleries.
We worked here till sometime in April 1945. Unexpectedly, early, one Saturday morning the American Air Force came, the bombardments started and the factory was destroyed within hours - levelled with the ground. Watching the bombs fall was a beautiful sight. Obviously the war was coming, slowly, too slowly for us, to an end -- so we thought and hoped.
Once the factory was in ruins, we had no work. All our SS guards have disappeared overnight. Then the order came to be transported to Buchenwald. The high ranking SS officer who was suppose to carry out the order, did not. Instead he ordered us to go on a "march" to nowhere. We had to pack up our meagre belongings, line up, get to the highway and march. Just march ! march ! he ordered and "supplied" us with guards and he too disappeared.
I have no idea how long this march lasted. Maybe twelve days or maybe less. We had no calendar. All I know is that we marched and starved, starved and marched for there was no supply of anything for us.. I have no idea how Sári, Edith and I managed to survive. We lived and acted like animals. Raiding garbage cans, begging, ate rotten vegetables dug from the fields. I remember an overwhelming desire to eat and not move my body -- ever again. Just eat and rest and get rid of the lice covering my clothes and body. Those were my very modest wishes. As the days wore on, my feet were bloodier and bloodier, for all I had was wooden clogs held together by a piece of canvas and a piece of cord.
Those who couldn't keep up were left by the wayside to die. Finally, this group of emaciated, dirty, utterly hopeless, bedraggled group of Jewish women were liberated, inadvertently, on May 5, 1945, by the American Army in a small town called: Düben. I believe, we numbered less than 200 of the original 500.
We were not the only "marchers" on the roads in Nazi Germany. Every day we saw "marchers" like ourselves, in striped clothing, dragging themselves on the other side of the road, going in opposite direction. There was this unbelievable, no-rhyme-or-reason, marching in Nazi Germany during the last few weeks before the end of the war and the Holocaust.
One day, however, while marching, we saw a group of soldiers, on the other side of the highway, marching and being brutally beaten, with huge horsewhips, by their numerous SS soldier-captors. I am glad that in spite of our terrible condition and hopelessness, we remained humane enough to be horrified by what we saw. We stopped briefly to watch for these were different soldiers - they were all black men in various, tattered uniforms. Some wore white turbans. We were amazed - we never saw people like these before.
Today I know they were black soldiers from the colonies of the British commonwealth and some from the French colonies. They came to help their white "brethren" to fight the Nazis in Europe. Far from their cities, towns and villages and families. I am eternally thankful to all those soldiers, from all over the globe, who were willing to give their lives, if need be, to see this world freed from Nazism.
The joy of liberation! We comprehended its significance only in terms of that moment's misery -- what it will do for our bodily needs.
To get rid of of our filthy lice-infested clothing. To wash ourselves and our growing hair. To feel clean towels against our bodies. To wear clean clothing - yet again - as we used to, it seemed, a hundred years ago. To attend to our bloodied, infected or swollen feet. To sleep in a real bed with clean bed linen. To eat and eat and eat, knowing that tomorrow we can eat again. To be free of fear! All normal every day activities for most people but of which we were deprived far too long.
After we became "born-again" human beings, the anguish set in. We started to think about the future. The question we all asked, I asked: "What now"? "Do I still belong to anyone or, at 16, am I all alone on this earth?" It was a heart-wrenching question we all wrestled with. Where is the rest of my large family? In search of them I decided to go back to Hungary and so did Sári and Edith. We went back - home(?). There I found the youngest of my three brothers, László (Leslie). He was still in very week physical condition, but he was there, he was alive. I went back to school trying to block out all that I experienced in the camps, that no one wanted to believe at that point.
My brother László (Leslie)
Only months later did we learn that our sister Évi has also survived and is living in Germany in one of the Displaced Person, (DP)camps. In February 1946, Leslie and I left Hungary, this time voluntarily and for good.
My sister Évi
It was an illegal and very difficult journey, back to Germany, through the Austrian mountains, with the Bricha organization. However, eventually, the three of us, had our tearful, bittersweet reunion. (Of course, I was the last person Évi expected to see alive.) She told us her harrowing story of survival. Among other stories she had to tell us that our sisters Klári and Erzsébet died, practically in her arms, in the Stutthof, concentration camp. Klári suffered from severe malnutrition and at one point went blind as a result. Plainly, she was murdered by the Nazis by starving her to death. Böshke was also starving but at the end, untreated pneumonia coupled with extreme starvation that killed her.
My dearly beloved sister, Évi, felt guilty, till her dying days, for not have been able to save her two sisters in Stutthof. A guilt she shouldn't have had. Such was the aftermath of the Holocaust on my sister.
While we were back in Hungary, Leslie and I learned that our two oldest brothers were killed in the Ukraine. My oldest brother Jenö was murdered along with 400 hundred other Hungarian Jewish men because they were in a hospital, sick with typhus, and the withdrawing Hungarian army instead of taking these sick men back with them to Hungary, they burned down the hospital in Dorosits -- with the sick men inside. Luckily, a few men managed to escape from this inferno unnoticed - to tell it all.
Jenö's infant son, Péter, and wife Magda Weisz, were murdered in the gas chambers of Birkenau. Father and son were murdered in two different hells of the Nazi Era and they never laid eyes on each other. His wife, was pregnant when he had to leave home. My other brother Miklós, was last seen alive before a big battle at Voronyez, in the Ukraine. Most likely he was killed in that battle that wasn't his battle at all.
The three youngest of my, once large, family survived. After a two year stay in the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp, near Hanover, in Germany, we managed to emigrate to Canada in 1948 , as needle trade workers. We lived up to our contractual agreement. I went back to school and retrained myself for office work. I became a loyal and useful Canadian citizen. My adjustment and acculturation to Canada is another story for another day.
Eventually, I married a wonderful, Canadian born man, Sidney Jessel Cohen, and we have a daughter, Michelle Elizabeth and a son, Jonathan Alexander. My sister and brother never married and unfortunately, they both died, years ago, of cancer. I no longer have anyone to share my childhood memories with. A special kind of void that nothing can fill any more.
The memory of the death camps and being victims of the Nazi Holocaust never fades. However, through the decades, I accomplished a lot. Built a new life with new skills, learned to love and be loved again and found even happiness.
Judy Cohen, 2002
IRENE (BLÁSZ) CSILLAG
I was born in 1925 in Satu Mare, which was Romanian at that time but in 1940 became part of Hungary. (Szatmar in Hungarian, ed.) We were four in our family. My mother, father, and one sister, Olga, who also survived and is still living.
The Jewish community was very large in Satu Mare in 1939. Most Jews were Orthodox but there were some who were Neolog (something like Reform Judaism today, ed.) We had a very nice life. My schooling went as far as high school but I could not finish it because my father passed away and we the children had to help out. So I went to learn a trade and became a dressmaker.
The language spoken in our home was Hungarian even though my mother's background was Romanian. My father was Hungarian and he couldn't speak Romanian. We also learned to speak German from our father who spoke it beautifully because, way back, my father's background was German.
Our life was good and I cannot remember that we had any problem with antisemitism while Satu Mare was Romanian. We had a very good relationship with our neighbours and were good friends with everyone in our small community.
When the Hungarians took over it was no longer the same. The situation definitely worsened. And stayed that way till 1944 when the Germans occupied Hungary. Shortly after the occupation we had to wear the yellow star. I still went to work though, every day. Then a strict curfew was established for us Jews and four weeks later we had to move into the ghetto that was created in Satu Mare itself. The actual ghetto started at the next street to ours where my mother's brother and his wife lived. We all moved in with them. So did my grandparents and all my nieces and nephews. The condition in the ghetto, while crowded, were not too bad. We had enough food and our Gentile neighbours were very kind to us. We were not fenced in but the German SS was in charge of the ghetto and they stood on guard at all times. The ghetto was enforced approximately four weeks. Then, during the month of May 1944, we were deported.
We all had to leave our houses in the ghetto and march through the town to the railway station. It was a very long march, especially for my grandparents who were in their late seventies. The march took us through the Jewish cemetery and I visited my father's grave and told him what was happening to us.
The authorities told us that they are taking us to Debrecen, which is a large Hungarian city, not too far away, and that we'll work there. So my mother baked a lot of dry cookies and put them all in a large flour sack. She also prepared (rantas) some kind of white sauce and put it in a large jar for emergencies. At the train station the SS packed us all into cattle cars. I have no idea how many of us were in one car. All I know is that we were standing in there like packed sardines. Then the train started to move and we travelled and travelled. No toilet or any sanitary facilities for our needs. Conditions were so bad that one of my sister's school friends died on the way. I was in a daze. We must have travelled 3-4 days, I think. Some bread and something else was thrown to us once to eat but basically we were traveling without food and water supplies, no sitting down, no sleeping. Then finally we arrived somewhere but we didn't know where. Suddenly we saw this sign: "Arbeit Mach Frei." And that was Auschwitz-Birkenau. My mother was holding her brother's two year old child to help her pregnant sister-in-law. The Polish prisoner whose job was to get us out of the cattle car asked my mother whose baby that was? When my mother answered that the child was her sister-in-law's, he ordered her to give back the child to his pregnant mother. Then they took away my grandfather's walking cane and he complained to my grandmother about that.
My mother, sister and I were sent to the right. They took us all into a very large hall where, right away, some men and women, cut off our hair. Then they ordered us to undress, drop everything. So, there we were, completely naked in front of all those SS soldiers and were ordered to take a quick shower. After that we received a long, gray, rag to wear. They then marched us off to camp "C", and assigned us to a barrack but I cannot recall the number on it.
By this time all the others, the old people like my grandparents, or the pregnant women like my aunt, or my cousins who were too young, went to the left. The Nazis didn't need them. We never saw them again. None of them came back. Nobody.
In the barrack there were three tiered bunk beds and my mother too had to climb to the top bed. Naturally that wasn't easy for her, but she made it because at this point she was still in good shape. We were in this camp "C" for about six weeks. Every day there were "zehl appels" (roll calls ed.) No matter how hard it rained or cold it was we had to stand there, twice a day, to be counted. I don't know why. Then one day something unusually terrible happened. As we were standing for roll call, one of the women gave birth to a premature baby. None of us knew that she was pregnant. We just couldn't tell so I don't think she was 9 months pregnant. Anyway, the tiny baby just slipped out as we were standing there and right there and then she made a hole with her feet in the sandy soil and buried that tiny infant. Only those of us who stood nearby saw all this happening. It was so horribly sad.
On another day, after the roll-call we had to line up to be tattooed, on our arms, with numbers. After a long a wait suddenly it was announced that no more tattooing but now we had to wait in line for "selection". This usually meant that some people were selected to stay and some to be taken away. I was very much afraid that we will be separated from our mother. So I gathered up all my courage and went up to a man doing the selection, who turned out to be Dr. Mengele, but then I didn't know who he really was. I told him, in Rumanian, that my mother is 46, still young and in very good condition and we would like if he'd let us stay together. He must have felt good at that moment because he said "all right." And then all three of us were transported to an other camp called Stutthof, again by cattle car.
Stutthof, a concentration camp, while smaller than Auschwitz, had pretty well the same set up and routine. The same kind of barracks, bunk beds, the same roll-calls. Shortly after we arrived they told us that there will be some kind of work for us. The capo was a girl from Slovakia and she spoke Hungarian. I told her I wanted to work. She assigned me to clean the toilets that had to be done early in the morning before the others got up and started to use them.
Later on I was allowed to work in the kitchen. That meant that after work I was allowed to collect the potato and beet peels, also the used up coffee grinds and take them to my mother and sister as extra food. But my mother couldn't eat it. She was deteriorating quickly. She liked to talk about cooking though. She was dreaming about the time when wwe would get back home and all the baking and cooking she would do. But her condition didn't get better even with the food I brought to her.
I kept on hoping and working energetically. Maybe that helped me. I said to myself that even if everyone dies, I will live! I was determined to stay alive. On one very cold and snowy day, I was very cold and before I went to work, I told my sister that I would like to wear the brown scarf we owned. She said "I put it on mother's neck last night because she was also cold." So I took the scarf off my mother's neck but noticed that she didn't move. I asked Olga what's happening to mother when she answered that "mother died last night but I didn't want to tell you because you had to get up so early in the morning to get to work." So, my mother was dead.
There was a woman who knew my father's family from Gyor, (another city in Hungary, ed). in our barrack, and whose job it was to get the dead people out of the barrack. I told her that my mother died. With our help she gently took her body off the bed. She had a prayer book and we said the prayer for the dead. Then my mother's body was taken outside and laid down along with all the other hundreds of bodies, covered with mud and snow. My sister kept asking me every day as I returned from work, "is she still there, is she still there?" She laid there for about a week. Hardly recognizable from all the fallen snow covering her body. Then one day all the corpses were removed including my mother's body. A few days later I noticed that my sister was very ill and very weak. She couldn't walk. I really was frightened. I kept telling her, "you must try to walk, you must. Now there is only the two of us left." Her body was still a little plump so one couldn't tell that she was sick. I took her off the bed so that she could stand and I put her left leg in front the the right one and kept alternating. I did this exercise with her twice, every single day. Until one day she was able to walk again. Even today she maintains that without me being there for her, she wouldn't have survived.
My sister never worked in Stutthof. Not every body did. Many just did nothing, waiting to die of hunger or to be taken away. That's why I was so worried about her. If she wasn't able to go and stand at roll-call they would come and check the barrack. Those who were still in their bunk-beds, unable to be up and around, were all taken away to be killed in the gas chambers. I saw what happened to these friends of mine, two sisters. One of them developed a skin rash. The doctor ordered her to go to the "hospital" to be treated with aspirin. The other sister insisted on going with her. Nobody ever saw those two sisters again. They perished together.
We stayed in Stutthof till sometime after the Jewish Holiday of Purim, which is usually in March. Then we were taken to a work camp in Danzig, by cattle car. Here, most people were taken every morning to work in ammunition factories and back at night. I didn't work in Danzig. The conditions here were only slightly better than in Stutthof. Still, even here, we hadn't enough to eat, sanitary facilities were non-existent and all of us were covered with lice.
The war was coming to an end. The Russians and Americans were closing in on the Germans and they kept running from them, dragging us along with them. One day they put us on a small ship, crowded into a small cubicle. After a while they let us out on the deck of the ship. As we were standing there, excruciatingly hungry, I spotted a cabbage floating in the water. I reached for it, and with the help of others grabbed it, and while it was oil soaked and dirty, it didn't matter. We quickly tore it apart and many of us had a little piece of it.
While we had no way to measure time, we didn't even know what day it was, I think we spent, at least one week on that ship. The ship was moving though and then we heard a rumour that the Nazis intended to throw us all in the sea. As the ship was getting closer to the shoreline, people started to climb down on a ladder. My sister was ahead of me and she jumped from the ladder to the ground on the shore. At this very same minute they took away the ladder and my sister was yelling to me "come, hurry, come" but someone took away the ladder. Everyone started to push and shove and I fell into the water but I couldn't swim then and started to drown.
Somebody, I don't know who, saved my life by pulling me out of the water. It seems that in the water I lost my "Chanel Suit" because, when I was pulled out I was completely naked. Someone had a wet blanket which they wrapped around me. The SS, even then, forced us to march on. We dragged ourselves for a few hours when we noticed that there are fewer and fewer SS soldiers with us. They were running away. Finally they all disappeared. Shortly we arrived to a football field where we saw all these jeeps with soldiers in them. They were throwing chocolates and cookies and cigarettes to us. People were yelling "the British are here, the British are here."
The British soldiers showed us all these barrels set up all over the football field, filled with cherries, figs, dates, honey, sauerkraut, all sorts of sweets that we shouldn't have eaten, just then. What we really needed was hot soup or something very light. But because we were so hungry we ate everything in the barrels. The next day, most of us were sick and had to be taken to the hospital. The hospital was nice and clean with many nurses attending to us. Then I noticed that they started to cut off of our hair. I was thunderstruck. I ran out of the hospital saying: "Not again, not again. They won't cut my hair again." ( The nurses did this because we had head-lice.) While they let me go, I had to sign a paper that I was leaving their care on my own accord and take full responsibility for myself. My sister Olga stayed in the hospital.
We were given accommodation in a very nice school, three to four girls in one room. They looked after us with all necessities of life, even a little pocket money to buy things in town, if we so desired. In about a week Olga joined me. She was still weak but otherwise healthy. While we were given clothing to wear, we still yearned for something prettier. We decided to do some sewing. From our cotton-gingham bed linen we made a few very cute dresses. They were all sewn by hand since we didn't have a sewing machine. This was sometime in late May or early June 1945.
While life was all right in Neustadt, I had the urge to go back to Satu Mare and search out any surviving family members. I did just that. Back at home I found an uncle, my mother's brother, who was a WWI hero and as such was exempt from deportation. He and my aunt were very happy to see me and were very good to me.
From former, non-Jewish friends, I tried to retrieve my mother's wedding ring and a petit-point pillow made by my mother. Something that was hers. Something to remember her by. But to no avail. They simply refused to give me back these items. Disappointed, I left Satu Mare in a hurry. With the help of a Jewish organization and changing trains numerous times I arrived in Germany, in Neustadt, Holstein, where I rejoined my sister and all the other girls who were still there.
At this time, my sister and I were in touch with an aunt in Philadelphia. She wrote to us that she would love to have us there and to give us a home in her house. Right after the war, Germany was divided into four zones. To be able to emigrate to the U.S. one had to live in the American Zone and we were located in the British Zone, having been liberated by the British Army. So we moved to Einring that was in the American Zone.
Einring is where, inadvertently, I met a man, Ede, (now Teddy) who, in time became my husband. We joined a Zionist group, with the intention of going to Palestine and ended up in Waldheim, Austria where we stayed for a while. Eventually we were supposed to leave for Palestine but at this point my husband changed his mind and we didn't go.
At the same time, due to illness, an urgent request came from the family for us to return to Bucharest, which we did. Then we moved on to Hungary, where we lived for ten years. After the revolution in 1956, because of the newly emerging, loud antisemitism in Hungary, we decided to emigrate.
On January 10, 1957, we arrived in Canada with our five year old daughter and I was seven months pregnant. In April our son, Ron, was born in Montreal. After the initial hardships, which most immigrants experience, we had and still have a good life in Canada.
Our daughter Judy has an important position in a Jewish Community organization in California. Our son is a journalist and photo-journalist for a Jewish newspaper. He is married to a lawyer and they have two lovely children.
ELISABETH DE JONG
I was born in Amsterdam, Holland. There were four children in our family, three sisters and one brother. Both my parents were deaf. We were a very closely knit family. As I recall life was actually very good for us when I was growing up. We were assimilated Jews, lived a normal life and many, many of our family and my personal friends were non-Jews. We had a very good relationship with every one in our community.
I got married in 1936. Holland, a small country borders on Germany, and since by this time Hitler and the Nazis were in power in Germany, many Jews started to flee from there to Holland. They were telling us about what is happening to the Jews there and how afraid they were to stay in Germany. Holland was a neutral country during the First World War and we all believed that this time too, if anything happens between Germany and other countries, Holland will stay neutral.
In the meantime many, unforeseen things happened historically. The Anschluss of Austria in 1938, and then Hitler started WWII by attacking Poland in September 1939. In 1940, the Nazi troops also overran the tiny Netherlands and we were occupied. The entire Dutch government fled to England. In Belgium the King stayed, but in Holland there was nobody to govern so the Nazis took over the running of the country with the help of the Dutch collaborators.
Soon we, the Jews had to wear the yellow star, could not go to school, were not allowed to swim in public pools, were not allowed to have bicycles, radios. Curfew for us was 6:00 P.M. After that we could not go shopping or be on the streets. Many anti-Jewish laws came into effect. All these orders came quite quickly after we were occupied.
As I mentioned, by this time I was married. My husband was a very good, quite a well known artist. We moved away from Amsterdam to a smaller town, on the coastline, and we made many friends there. There were only two or three Jewish families living there, so most of our best friends were Gentiles. When all these restrictions were enacted, they came to visit us often, brought food and other necessities and told us "just let us know what you need, you can count on us."
Then all the Jews from all over Holland had to move to Amsterdam. We had to leave our nice home on the seaside. We were allowed to pack two suitcases each. All other possessions left behind. Almost the whole town came to see us off at the train station. Our closest friends told us not to be shy and ask them for help should we need it. I, on the other hand told my friends to take our lovely piano and any other items they wanted into their own home before the trucks of the German Nazis came, as they inevitably did, and took everything, to ship to Germany. We had no idea what happened after we departed . All I know is that two days after we settled down in Amsterdam, the Dutch police came to ask us where are the items we took out of our house and since these were good policemen, they warned us that the Nazis might come to punish us for the missing items. We, of course, said that maybe the local people did it after we left. We took with us nothing except the two suitcases. The police said that it would be best if we went into hiding so the Nazis won't find us.
By this time, it was 1941 and the situation for us got from bad to worse. There were frequent razzias of whole city blocks. People were arrested at random or driven from their homes and transported to the camps. Of course, we knew all about this. We told the police that we didn't know anyone who would hide us. They told us they'll take us to a family who will surely help. So at night the police came for us and took us to this family. They hid us in their attic. It was suppose to be for four weeks only. Then they told us that they knew another family who had a much bigger home and they took us there. In the meantime the police came for our parents too and took them where we were hiding since, being deaf, they could not hide on their own. This family was just fabulous, took my parents in also. So the four of us were hiding in their attic for almost two years. We could never, ever go outside or come down from the attic during the day. We had to be extremely careful. Our kind hosts were risking their lives. At night, however, we would come down to the living room, play chess or cards with our hosts.
As time went on the situation worsened even for the Dutch people. There wasn't enough food to go around in a country that normally was so rich in agricultural products. The Nazis shipped whatever they could to Germany and didn't care about the Dutch. So the authorities started to issue food stamps to ration food. This meant trouble for all of us. Two of our hosts were suppose to feed four extra adults on two people's food ration stamps. It was an impossible task.
At this time, however, a very active underground resistance movement developed. They produced all sorts of false identity cards, passports for those who needed them and they also started to print food stamps. Our hosts got hold of some extra stamps in order to be able to feed us. We think that some of the neighbours must have become suspicious about the amount of food they bought, supposedly for two people only, and must have reported it. So one night the Gestapo came with some Dutch collaborators and arrested all four of us and took us to the police station. There, lo and behold(!) we met up with my brother and sister-in-law Lilian, who were also in hiding, which we didn't even know, and they too were arrested the same night. This was in September 1943.
They took all of us to a central place where there were already at least 2,000 Jews assembled. It was an incredible sight. All these people in one small area. At night they threw some straw on the floor, covered it with blankets and that is how we all slept. There was, more or less, enough food for all of us at this point because the Jewish leadership was allowed to function for a while.
The next day, those of us who were arrested because of hiding, were grouped together and the letter "S" placed on our outer garment which, as we were told, meant SPECIAl. PUNISHMENT. Of course we had no idea what kind of punishment. It seemed though that this group was among the first to be deported. It took only a matter of days from the time we were arrested to the day of the deportation.
We were herded into cattle cars, very tightly. Hardly any facilities for our natural needs, so in no time at all the whole cattle car stank to high heaven. I was in a complete daze, so I don't really know weather the trip took three or four days. I recall trying to stand on my tiny suitcase so I'll be able to look out through one of those tiny windows at the top. I saw the sign Cracow pass by, I remember seeing trees along the way. We were really not afraid of hard work, if that is what they had in store for us, we thought. As long as the family stayed together, we hoped. Our parents needed us for they were deaf.
But then, as fate and Nazi planning, would have it, we arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau in Nazi occupied Poland.
Right away, my father, my brother and my husband had to go with the men and I could see them for a while, in the distance. I had to stay, of course with the women, and I wanted to be close to my mother, and sister-in-law. Then suddenly some huge trucks showed up, a selection took place and my mother with all the "older" women, the women with children and babies were sent to the left, put on those trucks and I never saw my mother again. My mother was 49 years old. I was terribly worried about her, pushed my way close to the truck and pleaded with one of the SS guards in German to take my mother off the truck because while she is otherwise healthy, she cannot manage alone for she is deaf. Or could I go with her (?)I asked, but he pushed me rudely away saying, NO and something to the effect that "not to worry she'll be taken care of." Well, we know now that I would not be here today if I went with her. But then, while we suspected that bad things might happen we could not even imagine the worst.
My sister-in-law and I and all the other young women were taken to a building, had to strip stark naked leaving all our meager possessions behind; they shaved off our hair and all other bodily hairs; allowed us a brief shower and handed out striped prisoner's dress to wear.
They looked into our mouths and I happened to have one gold crown on one of my tooth which they extracted right there and then. Imagine that! They wanted that tiny piece of gold!
Then we were taken to be tattooed. I was bleeding from my mouth (and from my heart) and was crying. The tattooing man had pity on me and said "don't worry about your tooth. To console you I will tattoo your arm with the smallest numbers possible." And so he did.
After this most of the women were marched off to Birkenau, but we, the special group with the "S" sign stayed in Auschwitz and were taken to, as we learned none too soon, to the feared and terrible BLOCK 10.
From this block we could see the other women, all bald, and for a moment I thought they were all men. But then I thought I recognized my mother among them and said so. We could smell a stench, like rubber burning, and ashes flying all over the place. We could see the chimneys spewing out flames and smoke. Then someone said, pointing at the smoke, " Look there is your mother. Gassed and burned." I looked at her like she was crazy. Even at that moment I could not believe what she just said. "But don't worry" she continued, "you'll go that way too."
In a short while a number of SS men came to see us with some papers. They explained that "IN BLOCK 10 WE DO EXPERIMENTS ON WOMEN". You will have to sign this paper that you understand this and will be submitting to this out of your own free will. But you have a choice. If you do not want to sign up you will be taken down to the trucks and off to the gas chambers to be gassed. SOME CHOICE!! Many of the women refused to sign and decided to die. Why suffer and have all that pain first and then to be gassed anyway? It is better to die now they decided. But, by then, Lilian, my sister-in-law and I signed up.
Later on we looked around in Block 10 and saw all these women with all sorts of burns, wounds, and holes on their bodies or limbs missing. Many were experimented on with X rays. They were all prisoners, of course and while we could talk to them, but I didn't want to. I was so shocked and horrified that I didn't even want to get close to them. Seeing them I started to get really scared. I was so very much afraid even to think about what they might do to me that one cannot imagine. So I told Lilian "I don't want to go through with this. Let's be brave and die right now." Lilian agreed and in the morning when the SS men came we went to tell then that we changed our minds and so did many other women. I think they started to think that no one will want to stay so they told us that we cannot change our minds any more. We were shaking with fear and crying.
The experiments actually started 2 or 3 days later but they never let us know what it was all about. I think the experiment was on sterilization of women. We had to go downstairs into a special room, you had to stretch out on a table, they strapped you down and they started first with 24 injections in many parts of our body. We were terribly sore after this. Another day they injected into the womb and ovaries some substance, we didn't know what, that burned like hell and our pains were beyond endurance. Of course all this was done always without anaesthetic. Oh, were we ever miserable! After the war, my husband wanted to find out what was the substance they injected us with, for I had so many health related troubles and problems. Through the German Ambassador, in a roundabout way, we did find out that it was formaldehyde the Nazi doctors injected into us. What else they tried to find out other than measure our endurance or methods for sterilization, I really don't know. Certainly they knew well how to torture women. Those very long injection needles left open sores on our bodies. They also took biopsies from the womb, I suppose to check the results of the injected substance. Our resistance was so low that our wounds and sores never healed. And I repeat, anaesthetic was never used.
There was a woman doctor in block 10 called Dr. Slavka,( I am not sure how her name is spelled), also a prisoner from Poland or from Russia, who was forced to work with the Nazis. She tried to help us as much as possible. At night she would come to the room where we slept, she would gently wash and dress our wounds and try to console us. Another time I recall she had to inject blood into our veins but not our own blood type. So this time it was my turn and during the injection I started to get dizzy so, deliberately, she let the needle fall out. The Nazis got angry but she insisted that the needle accidentally fell out. She was very, very good to me and perhaps to others too. I know without her kind help I would not have survived. Our misery was indescribable.
Then one day the trucks came to take us to die in the gas chambers. There were about 30 of us on that truck. We cried, we didn't want to go to the gas chambers now, having endured all these tortures. But there was nothing we could about it. Then an SS man came with a list from Dr. Klauber the Butcher, one of the doctors in block 10, he pulled, among others, me and Lilian off the truck saying that the experiments on us are not yet finished. So we stayed in block 10 and underwent more sufferings, till about the first week in January 1945 when the Nazis evacuated Auschwitz and tried to burn down block 10 before the Soviet troops arrived.
We were forced to go on a death march or from time to time we were transported in open cattle cars without any food or water supply. It was bitter cold and I had a coat but didn't have shoes and some of my toes froze. This lasted about 7-8 days during which many were shot dead or died of starvation and of exposure. All this time Lilian and I were together, supporting each other every way and honestly without each other we would have both died. By the time we arrived to Ravensbruck Lilian weighed only 63 lb. She was a barely living skeleton. I was in a slightly better condition.
There was absolutely no room for us in Ravensbruck so we had to sleep outdoors on a thin layer of straw. Then they took some us, who were a bit stronger, to work at an airport. By the time we came back Lilian and all the other "skeletons" were taken to be gassed. I ran to the so called hospital to look for Lilian. There I ran into Dr. Slavka who was so kind to us in Auschwitz. She told me that Lilian is still here but she won't make it. She let me look after her. First I tried to get rid of the lice on her dirty body that left sores on her. Then I fed her with the little we had and brought her out of the hospital. The condition in Ravensbruck, at that point, was unbelievabley horrible and hopeless. I don't exactly know how but I saved Lilian.
Finally, in April 1945 the Soviet army liberated us in Ravensbruck. The war was still on so they couldn't look after us properly. We, ourselves had to look for food which I did too. Then one day some Dutch men came into our camp looking for other Dutch people. We indicated who we are and they offered to take us to the house where they, having ascaped from a work camp earlier, set up their "household" and have a stove and lots of food, but were afraid to take the still very fragile Lilian. Since I wouldn't leave her alone, we somehow found a wheelbarrow, put Lilian in it and that is how she was transported to the house. After a few days there these men urged me to cross the Elba river, putting Lilian and me in a small boat, rowing us over to the other side to the Americans who, we assumed, would surely be able to save Lilian's life. And that is what happened.
I could speak very little English then but when I saw the first American soldiers I started to cry and yell: help, help, please help. In no time at all about 15 of them gathered around us and looking at Lilian they could not believe their eyes. I showed them our tattoos and said only: Auschwitz. They too were afraid to pick her up. Eventually a couple of doctors came, they also brought a stretcher for Lilian and we went to the hospital. There they looked after us. In the beginning we received only rice water to stop our diarrhoea, and other liquids for about 3 weeks. Then, slowly, they started to give us very soft solid foods. Many docotors came to look at us and wanted to know what happened to us.
I wanted very much to get back to Holland as soon as possible but waited till Lilian was well enough to travel. Eventually we were transported to the south of Holland and were housed in a Monastery. It was like a dream to have Auschwitz and its horrors behind us and to be free again. There was a committee who started to look after us, who came back from Auschwitz, and by ambulance they took us to Amsterdam
We found life was harsh in Amsterdam. There was a food shortage. The Nazis shipped everything they could to Germany. We could not get our apartment back because by now other people lived in it. So the authorities sent us to stay in a Salvation Army building.
I also found out that my oldest sister with her young child was deported and never came back. My other sister obtained false identity papers and lived out the war as an aryan. Her husband survived in hiding and her few days old baby was also was given, by her doctor, to someone to be hidden. After the war she and her child were, miraculously, reunited. The child was by then 3 years old.
Luckily my brother, Lilian's husband, also survived and so did my husband who went through Buchenwald. Being an artist helped his survival. In comparison with other families we were considered fortunate. However, I didn't realize it right away that my husband was very ill at the time. I myself, emotionally and mentally was "out of it". While my husband knew, Lilian and I hardly talked about what happened to us in Block 10. We wanted to forget it all.
But I had frequent nightmares about it. I also felt terribly guilty that I could not save my mother. Suddenly I was so depressed that I didn't want to live. I was going through a nervous breakdown and had to be hospitalized. Finally I recovered and rejoined my husband and normal life. Of course, due to the Nazi experiments on my ovaries, I could not bear children. We adopted a child and three months after the adoption my husband died. I was heartbroken again. It seems that he really never recovered from his ordeals in camp, but I was too preoccupied with my breakdown to notice it or help him.
Now I was alone with my baby and had to go to work. I was a dress designer in haut-couture. It was a tough life because during the day I had to leave my baby with others but I had no other choice.
Then one day my brother and Lilian decided to emigrate to Canada to join their closest friends who actually saved him during the war. Then in 1954, I and my son joined them here in Canada. I needed and started work here too right away in my own profession as a dress designer.
I also married again. As fate would have it, both Lilian and my brother died within a couple of years of each other then after a lengthy illness, my husband died too. I was simply devastated. My son and I were alone again. 22 years ago I married my third husband Irving and we have a happy and content life together. It was actually Irving who was a long time family friend before we married and who, little by little, influenced me to start talking about my experiences in Auschwitz and made me see how important it was.
So few of us survived who were experimented on that I now realize it is my duty to tell my and the story of all those women I witnessed dying a most miserable, inhuman death in BLOCK 10. They all asked us: if you survive, please, please, tell the world what happened here and don't forget us.
Rabbi Baruch G.
A Polish survivor describes forced labor in Mlawa
Rabbi Baruch G., born in Mlawa, Poland in 1923, was the oldest of three children in an observant and loving family. He has fond memories of Jewish holidays: receiving nuts from his grandmother for grinding matzot into matzoh meal at Passover; the spiritual nature of the Seders; the warmth of extended family visits. During the summer recess from his religious studies in Warsaw, Poland was invaded and Mlawa was one of the first towns occupied. Anti-Jewish restrictions were enacted, a Judenrat was formed, and forced labor was imposed. His father disappeared for one month, after which he was never the same vibrant and dynamic man. The first time Baruch was forced to work on Saturday was traumatic, as was the first time he was beaten.
"I will never forget the first time I was beaten up and that really got to me, not so much the, not so much the, the pain from the beating, but the mental anguish. Instead of telling me how to put bricks together, had to be placed a certain way in order for them to be stacked up, he simply went over and beat me for it, without [my] knowing why. I couldn't even cry. When I came home, this is when I burst out crying. Animal! And I was, I was conscientious. I had to go to work. I knew one thing. I had to do the best I can - [it was] forced labor. But why? I mean, what right? What? It was incomprehensible to me."
Baruch feels that in retrospect, these were not such terrible times. They were hungry and frightened, but the family was together. The family was deported to Lubartow in 1940. Baruch was smuggled back that summer, and arranged for his mother and brother to be as well. He never saw his father or sister again. The three lived under difficult ghetto conditions until they were deported to Auschwitz in November 1942. His mother and brother were immediately gassed and he was assigned to a bricklayer's school. In January 1945, Baruch was transported to Buchenwald, then Ohrdruf, Crawinkel and back to Buchenwald. He was put on a train on April 10th, and liberated three weeks later, but in such a debilitated condition that he has no memory of it.
Baruch describes his loneliness and sense of worthlessness during the time spent in displaced persons camps in Italy. He emigrated to the United States, married, and had a son. He discusses the scars with which he is left, particularly the lack of an extended family and some difficulties in dealing with his son. He reflects upon his religious beliefs and his hope that people will learn from his experience and others like it, so that history will not be repeated.
Rabbi Baruch G. Holocaust Testimony (HVT-295). Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies, Yale University Library.
The length of the complete testimony is 1 hour, 53 minutes. A catalog record is available for this testimony in Orbis, the Yale University Library online public access catalog. Please see the Catalog and research guide section of this site for more information.
Survivor Looking for Other Survivors
I was searching in the Internet for Holocaust-Auschwitz/Birkenau -Survivor related information and between many others I found yours. I am a former inmate of Auschwitz / Birkenau and my primary interest is to find other survivors who shared in one or other part my past. I was encouraged in my decision, because I was able to trace persons with the help of friends in Israel, at least one of the persons from the 51 mentioned below. I hope that some more survived the Holocaust as well as the following 52 years. I am also convinced that WWW & Internet might be a place for searching and information.
I was born in 1929 in Békéscsaba, a little town in Hungary. Shortly after the German occupation on 19. march 1944, on 11 May we were jammed about 2300 Persons in 100 houses in the neighborhood of the synagogue. In our house for three persons lived 13. In the middle of June all the Jews from Békéscsaba, as well as from the villages of the vicinity, were sent to the ghetto, a tobacco drying factory near the railway. Some of the persons mostly from the nearby villages left the ghetto on 25. June to camps in Austria, the majority were transferred on the 26. to Auschwitz/Birkenau. According a transport list, our train with 3118 persons passed Kassa (Kosice) on the 27. June. On the 29. June 1944 our Ghetto arrived to Auschwitz/Birkenau.
Both of us, my Mother as well as I passed the first selection. She was placed in the BIII Camp (known also as Mexico), I with my cousin Tibor in the BIIe or Gypsy camp in Block 11.
During my stay in Birkenau I was able to see my mother on two occasions, in both case we went to collect sod behind the woman camp. The last information concerning my Mother was, that she didn't pass the selection in BIII Mexico camp on the 25. September and she was murdered with many other woman, some of my hometown.
I stayed quite a long time in the Block 11, were my cousin Tibor was the blockaeltester's piple (orderly). Later I was transferred to the Block 24, where I had some function, I was a torwaechter (gatekeeper), until somebody stole my pants during the night. In the Block 24 was one of the camp selections I remember. It was around the High Holidays, as I found out later. In the Session 68 protocol of the Eichmann Trial, Josef Kleinman describes this selection on the 26. September 1944, the Day of Atonement.
We had to pass under a yardstick and all the smaller ones who didn't pass the stick, were separated from the other and closed in two Blocks. I was in Block 23?. Either on the same day or on the next one, there was a reselection, if I remember correctly it was Dr. Epstein, a professor from Prague, who found 21 out of us still able-bodied and released us.
Some weeks later, I can't recall the circumstances, another selection followed, I was between the ones who failed the selection and was locked in Block 13, somehow my cousin (he was "piple" in Block 11) was able to organize, that I was transferred to Block 11. I don't know whether he wanted to comfort me, but he told me, there will be a reselection. From here, in contrast to the earlier praxis, - when inmates were carried away during the night with trucks -, we were to march during daylight to the gas-chambers/crematorium. We had to undress. There was a final examination by some officers, 51 young boys were declared fit to work. We were allowed to choose some clothes and dress us up. The rest, some 600, were sent before our eyes and while we dressed, to the gas-chamber. On our way back to the camp, we met the next group, from the neighbor Block 13. I remember, I saw between them an about 18 years old fellow from my home town Békéscsaba. We the 51 boys, returned into the gypsy-camp Block 25?. This was on the day of Simhat Thora, 10. October 1944, as I found out later, from the (Session 71) protocol of the Eichmann Trial.
From the BIIe camp (gypsy-camp), I was transferred, at some later time to the Lager BIIa, where we stayed until the beginning of November. The reason for our transfer to the next camp, BIId was, to make place for an incoming transport from Sered or Theresienstadt on the 3rd of November. The gas-chambers already ceased operation at the end of October. With this transport came, some young children, as well as disabled persons into the camp, persons who a few days before had no chance to survive a selection. Later,I met three of them, a disabled youngster, as well as two brothers around 10 years, after they were transferred from the BIIa into the BIId camp, if I am correct all three came from Pressburg (Pozsony). I saw them also after the liberation.
In December, I spent one week in the Krankenrevier (hospital), it was around my birthday, during my stay in the hospital I was tattooed, my number is B-14781. Few weeks after my return to the Block 21 in BIId camp, the evacuations started. On 18. January our Block was also evacuated, I was very weak and was unable to march, so I was transferred into the BIIf hospital camp.
The Germans left the camp on 21. January 1945, they returned on 24. to evacuate the camp completly. I hide myself under the bed and stayed there until the Russians liberated us on 27. January 1945. At that time I was 15 years old and my weight was 27 kg. After a few days we were moved into the main camp of Auschwitz I, Block ?24?.
After spending another 7 month in different camps by the Soviets (Auschwitz Stammlager, Katowitz, Chernowitz and last in Slutzk near Minsk), I returned to Hungary on the 6. Sept. where I stayed until the uprising in October 1956. Than I emigrated to Switzerland.
My cousin Tibor left Birkenau in November 1944 for Braunschweig and was liberated by the US Army on 2nd May 1945 in Wobbelin. He went to Sweden to recover and returned 1 year later to Hungary. Finally he emigrated in 1956 to the USA.
I am looking for survivors, persons who have secondhand information or know sources in the Holocaust Literature about the following events:
- selection in BIII woman-camp on 25th of September 1944 (which my Mother failed to pass).
- selections (or reselections) around the high Holidays in the Gypsy camp
- transport from Sered / Theresienstadt on 3. November 1944.
I was liberated in Birkenau / Auschwitz and spent some time afterwards in camps in Katowitz, Chernowitz and in Slutzk (near Minsk) USSR. (One of them was described by Primo Levi, an Italian; he describes this time in his book "Atempause")
One of the traces I found about the selections around the High Holidays are in the book from Martin Gilbert "The Holocaust" a Jewish Tragedy", in Gideon Haussner's "Gerechtigkeit in Jerusalem" and in the printed protocols of the Eichmann Trial. They all refer to Josef Zalman Kleinman's and Nachum Hoch's statement on the Session 68 resp. Session 71 in 1961 June at the Eichmann Trial. It is also mentioned in Session 71 (without names) that there are three other survivors (return of the 51 from the crematorium) living in Haifa and Jaffa. According the Attorney General, the whole episode is well known and documented in the Holocaust literature.
If you have any information (Hungarian, German or English) dealing with the above mentioned events please notify me. eMail address: firstname.lastname@example.org
JUDITH JAEGERMANN, nee Pinczovsky
At the age of seven I knew already that we're different from our neighbours. We lived in Karlsbad, where I was also born.
It was Sukkoth (Feast of Tabernacles) and my Papa had just beenbusy making a "Sukka" in the yard of the house where we lived andwhere my parents had a big kosher restaurant. When all of asudden, stones were thrown from the neighbours' windows. I wasterribly scared and asked Papa why they did this to us. He saidonly softly " Because we are Jews". That was in the year 1937.
We stayed for another two years in Karlsbad, after which we had toflee from the Germans to Prague. Once in Prague, we had to wearthe yellow Star of David and we were not allowed to leave ourhomes after 8 p.m., while we could ride only in the last carriageof the tramway, since the first ones were "Not allowed for Jews".
Many houses bore captions in large letters: " Do not buy in Jewishshops" or "Jews get out". Instinctively I didn't want to knowanything about it and that's why my teddy bear was my best friend.My elder sister Esther had once brought it to me from Leipzig,while I possessed plenty of dolls - 28 precisely. I really usedto be an extremely playful child.
One day, when I was eleven and a half years old, Mama received aprinted summon, instructing us to appear at Prague's ExhibitionHalls, in order to join a "transport" (i.e. the actualdeportation convoy of human beings to the concentration camps)which would drag us into the unknown.
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Papa was at that time in the Karlien prison and I can wellremember that dear Mama had done everything possible to have Papajoin us at the "transport". As a matter of fact he had beenreleased and had been delivered to the Exhibition Halls, whereeveryone was waiting to be shipped on. Everything went so fast...It had been very hard for me to cope with this sudden change inour lives and for me the only little light in this situation, hadbeen the fact, that after his long detention, I could finally hugand kiss my dear Papa again, having missed him so much during hisabsence from home. I had been allowed to visit him sometimes andhe could only stick a finger through the very dense fence andwas then overjoyed that I could kiss his finger. Since I was theyoungest of 3 girls, I was also the most spoilt one by Papa.At the Exhibition Halls we had the first roll-calls, during whichwe were to stand very rigid at attention.
One day we were very suddenly called for a roll-call.The shouting and the inhuman behavior of the Germans frightened meso much, that, while standing there, I simply fainted.Since then I was very sad during all those years of our detention,during which I spoke very little. I always accepted everythingquietly, without budging. This was due to a very strong internalfeeling, which told me in my deep sadness and despair, that thereis just nobody to turn to.
After a couple of days we were sent from Prague to Theresienstadt.It was an enormous confusion. Men, women and children, all wereseparated; my sister Ruth and I were transferred to a children'shome. From the very first day I reached Theresienstadt, I wascrying there all the time. I simply couldn't get used to thissituation of being without my parents and I even isolated myselffrom the other children. This continued for a couple of weeks,until one day I simply escaped from the children's home and ranstraight to Mama.
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She somehow could give me shelter and that is why I stayed withher in the same room, together with many adult women. Mostly theywere Czech women, but also some Viennese and a few German Jews,who knew nothing whatsoever about jewishness and who wouldn'tbelieve that something could happen to them. They were German andfelt themselves as such. And so we started to live together withtotal strangers.Mama was very much liked by all, because she was really anextraordinary woman, so delicate and noble, always ready to helpand never grumbling. From the time I could be together with Mamaagain, instead of in the children's home, I could endureeverything better: the bad food, the snoring of the women atnight, the skimpy washing convenience, as well as the cold,because there was a lack of blankets.Though I usually was quite depressed, there is no question aboutit, that the presence of my dear mother did definitely give mecourage to live.
My sister Ruth, who was only one year older than I, used to bemuch more together with the girls; she even worked in a vegetablegarden and together with her girlfriends they were able to makelife as bearable as possible under the circumstances.
Meanwhile my father was employed as a cook at the Hanover barracksand though he had to work hard, I believe that he didn't go hungryat least. We could see him only very seldom because he was verybusy. All the young men who got to know him and who worked withhim, liked him very much and called him "Pincza", derived fromhis name " Pinczovsky".In Theresienstadt I came down with a very bad case of scarletfever and had to be put in quarantine. All around me children diedof meningitis, which came as a result of the scarlet fever. At thetime I figured that I would end up in the same way.
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We were 16 months in Theresienstadt, when one day we heard thatpeople were being sent to Auschwitz, where they were going to begassed.Of course nobody wanted to believe this and everybody saidthat this is impossible and that these were only rumours.
Unfortunately Papa, Mama, Ruth and I were also amongst those tobe sent to Auschwitz.Our fear grew by the hour since we didn't know what to expect. Theunknown is something dreadful, which is even impossible todescribe.As long as we were all together, even though we didn't livetogether in the same place, it was somehow bearable, but how wouldthis go on? Where would they send us next? Would they tear us allapart? Would we continue to live? It was an enormous chaos.
We were pushed into the cattle cars of the train, in the presenceof Eichmann, in his flawless uniform, his booted legs spread wideapart. With his famous slanted smile he was looking on, how theseunhappy, nothing anticipating people were treated like animals.Struck with dismay and terrified, nobody would think of refusingor resisting to board the train cars.
Everything went so unbelievably fast, with shouts of " Now comeon, you miserable Jews!", while the dogs were barking from alldirections.The main thing for me, I thought, is to be together with myfamily. For me, the fact that we all were together was the mostimportant thing.The continuous fear of the unknown, or that we would be tornapart, was hell for me and almost unbearable, though it seems thatone can suffer even worse; a person can be humiliated to such anextent, as if he were just some disgusting animal.
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In the cattle cars one could hear nothing but moaning and crying,as well as whispers that this "transport" was going to Auschwitz.Of course, absolutely nobody knew anything definite, but everyonehad bad forebodings.
At present I cannot recall how long the trip from Theresienstadtto Auschwitz took, but one of my most dreadful memories, whicheven cannot forget until this day, was the fact, that they had setup a "shit bucket" in the middle of the car", which was placedthere to serve as a toilet for all: men, women and children. Itwas inhuman and degrading.
As we were pretty near to this murderous death machine calledAuschwitz, Papa spoke through a tiny opening and asked a railwayemployee whether from here "transports" would go on to some otherdestination. The employee replied - thumb up - and said : "Sure,toup there, through the chimney, which is burning 24 hours a day,that's where the 'transports' go".
I had overheard this conversation by chance and my poor Papa, uponhearing this, immediately got stomach cramps and diarrhea. I hadto watch how my big, strong Papa, who to me seemed the most daringand strongest in the whole world, had to let down his trousers andwithout shame, had to sit down on the shit bucket in front of allthese people. The fact that he had to go to the toilet in such adegrading fashion, made me feel that my entire world collapsed.
I immediately understood that we would be gassed. But how? Howwould they torture us until we die? I started shivering and so didPapa. He was very depressed from that moment on, when he got thereply with the thumb up.
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Finally the cross bars were taken off the doors outside and thedoors opened. Though it was dark, searchlights were focussed onus from all directions and again the barking dogs and the shouts:"Out, out, faster, faster,come on, come on". Nobody knew what washappening. The men and women were kept separated. Everythinghappened very fast and again we were without Papa. I saw lots ofbarbed wire and searchlights and felt a strong smell of smoke.We were herded into a huge hall and we had to undress completely.I was 13 years old and I felt probably more ashamed at this agethan the adult women, who couldn't care less.
We were standing in rows in order to be shaved everywhere. Ourclothes and personal belongings had immediately been taken awayfrom us and it was evident that the people who had to execute thisaction, were already so callous and dulled by their longimprisonment in Auschwitz, that they lacked all human likeness.These were the early settlers of the place.
When it was my turn to be shaved, I discovered that the person whodid the shaving was a man. But then in fact, he wasn't a man. Hewas just a poor prisoner in a striped suit with hollow eyes andgaunt cheeks. He did his job without caring and without strength.Once we girls had been shaved everywhere, heads, underarms, pubicarea, we all looked like monkeys. None of us dared to look at theothers. Some had cried, while others started to laughhysterically. It was definitely grotesque.
Then we yet stood for hours naked until we were given old rags andagain , as if on purpose to degrade and to debase the people, theywould give tiny rags to the big women, while the smaller womenwere given oversized things. Some girls had only received a coat,without anything underneath, while others got torn thin dresseswithout anything over it. And no underwear whatsoever. Everythingwent quickly; we were totally at the mercy of destiny withoutbeing able to complain to anyone.
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I was only thinking: "Where did they take Papa? Will we ever seehim again? What will happen to all of us now?". After we weregiven the clothes to wear, we had to stand in line again to betattooed.
To stand around for hours was not unusual in Auschwitz. Mama wasstanding in front of me, then I and behind me my sister Ruth. Mamawas given number 71501, I was 71502 and Ruth got 71503. It wasvery painful and when I wanted to take my hand away because ithurt, I was given a slap in the face. It was a big, ugly Polishwoman who did the tattooing.
In short - it took only a couple of hours after our arrival toAuschwitz and we were no human beings any more, but only numbersand none of us could do or say anything about it.
I was only thinking: "How is it possible that grownups arecapable to do these things to others?".Where is Justice and why do we deserve this? In my unhappinessbecame more and more silent and reserved.
After the tattooing, we were driven into barracks withoutmattresses. From now on the women had to live squeezed together,on three levels of bunk beds. It was terrible and cold, and wedidn't know what the next minute would have in store for us. Theonly thing one could do, was to swallow hard and to suffer insilence.
The food was some kind of feed, called soup, a dark, wateryliquid, for which one had again to stand in line in order to getsome of it into a small tin bowl - not even full.Within a couple of weeks we all became thin, numb and listless,just as those who had been before us in Auschwitz. Our camp wascalled Birkenau. B 2 B. Block 12.
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We saw Papa again after a couple of days and my heart was cryingout when I saw him. He was wearing a very short and narrow coatand looked terribly wretched and degraded in it. He was totallydepressed, because we too must have looked terrible to him. Aftersome time he reported as a cook and had to work for the SS. Ifthey didn't like the food, they would keep his head emersed underwater, until he almost suffocated.
I overheard this by chance when he told it to Mama. Sometimes hewould bring us, under mortal danger, some boiled potatoes and thenhe ran immediately back to his barrack, where he would rack hisbrains what to cook for the SS so that they would like it and hewouldn't be tortured as a result.
Back home in Karlsbad my parents used to own a big Kosherrestaurant, but of course Papa didn't do the cooking, because forthat purpose he had plenty of kitchen helpers.
One day Ruth was looking when another 'transport' arrived atBirkenau's railway station. These were Hungarian Jews, who weretaken straight away to be gassed. She had seen this together witha girlfriend and she was caught looking; so she and her girlfriendhad their heads again totally shaved after the hair had alreadystarted to grow a little after the first shaving. Ruth returnedcrying and with a shaven head into the barrack. After I saw her, Istarted to cry so hard that I hardly could calm myself. Neitherhad I immediately understood why she had been punished, but thesight of her bald head was terrible for me and only after a coupleof hours did I calm down, after one of the girls reassured me andsaid that we had to find a scarf for Ruth which she could wear onher head, so that the baldness would not show. But this incidentdepressed me even more. I was very low and always worried thatthey shouldn't - G. forbid - catch Papa when he would sometimescome and see us for a moment and bring us some food.The men whowould visit the women were whipped until they would looseconsciousness. This shouldn't happen to Papa.
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The roll-calls in Birkenau were horrible. They drove us already athalf past four in the morning from the barracks and would let usstand for hours at a time at attention, either in the freezingcold or during a heat-wave. Many women could not take it andfainted, being already extremely weak due to the lack of food,while the cold also bothered us a lot. My feet were totallyfrost-bitten. I had only wooden house-shoes which were constantlyfalling off my feet, because Birkenau had during winter heavy mudin which my house-shoes got stuck.
Mama had torn her blanket apart and had made bands to swathe mylegs to keep them a little warmer.But my legs became worse all thetime; it was terribly cold, -20 C., (i.e. 20 degrees Centigradebelow zero) and the frost-bites became open wounds, infected andwith puss. It is like a miracle to me that - over the years, herein Israel - this has totally disappeared, but I am still fragilein winter and I am wearing only boots, because those places whohad been frost-bitten still hurt sometimes. The local sun hasaccomplished miracles.
Also appalling were Birkenau's latrines. Made as deep pits, theywere separated in the middle by a narrow board and divided by atransparent canvas fabric, so that men and women could see eachother through the material. This was so degrading and inhuman,because all one could see were the naked and skinny behinds of themen. Since everyone was suffering from a watery diarrhoea as aresult of the long period of under-nourishment, this was the sightwe were seeing when we had to go to the latrines.
I will never forget a woman,I believe her name was Kleinova, whoalways used to carry her bread ration around with her, so that shewould not die of hunger. One day her bread ration fell into thedirty latrine and out of sheer despair she crept into the pit, orit seems that she had let herself fall into it, to recover herbread ration. Though she, as the bread, were disgustingly filthy, this was of no importance to her. The animal instinct tosurvive, by keeping food at hand, had triumphed.
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I saw this same Kleinova woman die next to me a couple of monthslater in Bergen-Belsen. It is a miracle that she even stayed alivethat long, because she had literally eaten nothing at all, whileonly hoarding and storing rations. I will never ever forget thisincident with the latrine. People simply became animals.
The daily roll-calls which took hours, were totally senseless.Occasionally 2-3 times daily and only in order to annoy us. Moreand more people collapsed. They just were shot and taken away. Theeternal barbed wire was our only view and all the camps weredivided by high tension wires. Many people committed suicide inthis way; they simply would crawl up to the barbed wires and woulddie immediately, glued to the wires. I still can clearly recall ayoung girl who did this. I had seen her still alive and the verynext moment she had chosen death by reaching out and clutching thebarbed wire. There we had hell in its purest form, impossible todescribe.
One day Mengele appeared in person and asked the barrack'sresponsible whether there were any twins amongst the girls. Sincenobody ever knew whether these questions meant life or death, shedidn't want to take the responsibility upon herself and askedloudly: "Are there any twins amongst you ?".
By chance I had become the best friend of two of the girls whowere twins. They slept opposite me on the bunk beds on the thirdlevel and we had become very friendly, since we all were of thesame age.
I suddenly heard when these two girls said:"Yes, we are twins".Mengele came closer. He looked at them very carefully. They werealmost identical with their freckled faces.
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All Mengele said, was: " O.K., so come with me. Anyhow, by nightyou'll be back here".My instincts told me that I would never see my friends again andindeed, I never saw them again and I even couldn't inquire aboutthem since I have forgotten their names.
I have been thinking a lot about these two. who knows whatexperiments this brute carried out on them and how they had todie.
And again rumours started, that they needed some people for mop-upactions, but then who could believe that we would get out ofBirkenau alive?
I believe it was spring when my dear Mama said:" Look Laluschka,look overthere, a little bird is flying there and I tell you, thatthis is a sign of life or a sign to live and with the Lord's helpwe'll get yet out of here. I marvelled at her for being able to beso optimistic, because I didn't believe anymore in such miraclesand I said only very softly and without strength:"Do you reallybelieve this, Mami?" "Oh yes, I definitely believe that G. willhelp us."This is what she answered me, this poor, starving, yet admirablydevout and dear little Mama. How terribly must she have felt tosee her children so miserable and hungry.
And in fact it was on July 5th, on Mama's birthday, when Mengelepersonally carried out the selection. Again we were standing inline, four rows deep and had of course not the faintest idea whatwas going to happen to us next. Anyhow, we always stayed togetherand rubbed each others cheeks, so that we would look healthier andmore capable to work. While we were standing there to wait for ourdestiny, I saw Papa standing at a distance watching the selectionprocess. At that very moment I knew that I would never see my dearPapa again, no matter where we would be going now.
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I tore myself away from my row and ran to him, not listening to the shouts ofthe women, that all would be punished or killed because of myleaving the row. I hugged Papa with all my strength and knewinstinctively that this was our farewell forever. Then I walkedcalmly back to my row, feeling that I had said goodbye to Papa,who was standing there crying.I was lucky that none of the SSpeople had watched me. And that's how we continued to stand andwait what Mengele had decided for us. Nobody ever knew at thispoint, which side meant life and which side meant death. As if bymiracle all three of us were pushed to the same side and that'show we stayed together again.
As said before, we only didn't know whether this meant life ordeath. We saw how children were torn away from their mothers and Ican still vividly recall today the cries of those mothers. After along time of uncertainly we have been led through the women'scamp, called F.K.L., to the railway station.But in the women'scamp they still had us stand in the burning heat, without a biteto eat or a sip of water.
Though the barrack's responsible there was a woman, she was moreof a hyena. For hours on end we had to stand at attention and sheonly watched whether someone would budge.
Amongst us was a Viennese girl, called Martha. Since the girl madethe impression that she was smiling, the barrack's responsiblebecame so upset, that she had Martha fall on her knees with bothhands stretched up. she had to stay in this position - withoutmoving - for quite a while and again it seemed to her that Marthawas smiling. The beast became even more furious and gave Martha abrick, which she was to hold up with stretched out arms, whilebeing on her knees.I was standing facing her and until this dayam unable to describe the pity and heartache I felt for her. Icould see very clearly, that one can humiliate and degrade a humanbeing to a degree lower than that of a worm. By this time I hadtotally lost my confidence in adults, even before I startedtrusting them. For me, it was again a shocking experience
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I will never ever, for as long as I'll live, forget it. I havebeen told today that Martha has survived and is living somewhereabroad.
I don't even remember how long we had been standing there, butafter a very long time of standing, we were driven into the cattlecars. That's when Mama said to me:"You see, Laluschka, I told youthat the little bird brought us the good news to get out of thishell. This is the most beautiful birthday present in my life."Neither had she lost faith to see Papa again some day.
We were travelling into uncertainty. Though nobody knew whereto,everyone said that it couldn't be anywhere worse than Auschwitz.Today I cannot remember anymore how long we were riding in thesecattle cars, all squeezed together like sardines. We also had lostall sense of time. Unfortunately, many girls suffocated and whenthe railroad cars were opened their dead bodies fell out.
We arrived in Hamburg, where they accommodated us next to theport, where we had to engage immediately in the cleaning up afterbombardments.Since I was the youngest of all and couldn't keep up with them,the older girls often used to help me with this hard work.
Hamburg had more water and all of us were quite happy that after along time we finally could somehow wash and drink. In the
beginning we even got a little more food, but then winter came.Again it was snowing heavily and we had to shovel the snow fromunder a bridge in the icy cold. I can remember that one day duringwork, I blacked out and kind of started to sleep. Suddenly I feltas if someone wakes me and I saw the faces of many women over me.I overheard them saying: "The little one almost froze to death".They let me lie down for a little while longer and then many girlsstarted massaging me and rubbing me, so that I started to feel mybody, hands and feet again.
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I felt miserable, totally depressed and without strength. I gotup and continued to shovel snow and was thinking, how one can goon living like this. Everything was so inhuman, always connectedwith fear and one had to take the utmost care that the SS peopleshould not notice that one of us women would feel bad, so thatthey would not - G. forbid - declare her as unfit to work. Becausethere was always the danger of being sent back to Dirkenau, whichwould of course mean death by gas. With this the Germans used tothreaten us all the time. That's why we used to work over andbeyond our strength. On our way from the camp to work and in spiteof being mostly so hungry, we even used to sing sometimes amarching song like this: " This cannot upset a seaman, no fear, nofear, Rosemary. We won't let our life be embittered, no fear, nofear, Rosemary". Even the SS woman would allow us to sing, becausethat made us march faster. And the song itself gave us a littlecourage to live.
Sometimes we also saw political prisoners, who had of course muchbetter conditions; seeing us wretched, hungry and in rags, theywould sometimes throw us a cigarette or a piece of bread. Ipersonally never dared to pick up something, since everything waslinked to the greatest danger. Girls who were lucky enough topick something up, would usually share it with a neighbour or afriend. As a matter of fact, there was never any scuffling. Onlyat night, when we used to come back to the camp, it was terrible.Then they used to check us, even gyneacologically, to verifywhether we hadn't smuggled anything into the camp from theoutside. The name of the camp's responsible was Trude. She,together with camp commander Spiess would search us verythoroughly and G. forbid, if a piece of potato peel or somethingelse would be found. Then the person in question would be treatedto 50 whippings on his naked behind in front of all andadministered with the greatest pleasure by Spiess himself. Thiswould sadden me so much, that for days on end I couldn't speak a word. Once a friend of Mama was beaten like this; she fainted,couldn't sit for weeks and all swollen, she only moaned in pain.
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The long period of undernourishment made us all suffer fromfuruncolosis. I personally had many furuncles, mostly in my armpits and innumerable ones on my behind. Amongst us we had apediatrician, Dr. Goldova, who had somehow got hold of a scalpel- probably through the SS - with which she used to treat us andto squeeze out the puss. Of course there was no hygienic care,such as disinfection, therefore the puss boils would multiply moreand more, one disappearing while another one started. It is bothvery contagious and very painful. I couldn't get rid of mine formonths on end.
I also got high fever from it and had to be operated. But verysoon and with superhuman strength, or maybe out of sheer fear tobe "liquidated", I returned again to work. Though I had sufferedtremendous pain, I didn't want to bother anyone and suffered insilence, until miracuously it did heal. This really was one ofthe miracles which came about. Evidently G. always helped to getbetter, in order to be able to carry on with destiny.
We had many rats in our barrack, which at night would crawl overus. We had to get used to that too and learned to live with it.
One night, when we returned dead-tired from work, the camp haddisappeared. It had been bombed by the British and totally wipedout; we had nowhere to put our head.
Some girls, who for some reason had stayed in the camp that day,had been killed or injured. Our doctor had also been hit andinjured. And one of our guards was lying there stretched out anddead. I still can see the picture before my eyes. And that's howwe have been once more sent on; again into uncertainty, withoutanything tangible, only fear in our souls, hungry and uprooted,not knowing what else is in store for us. And always in a herd.The only thing I kept thinking about, the only important thing, was to stay together, because that was the one thing that kept usalive. Many women, who had been alone, just didn't care any more,they didn't want to live any more and finally died due toemotional exhaustion.
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So they accommodated us in another camp in Hamburg and straightaway we had begun working again.
It was an icy cold day and even the SS woman had permitted toimprovise a small fire, so that we could warm our hands, whichwere stiff from the cold. Therefore each of us had looked for asmall piece of wood or paper, in order to put it into a pail,which was lying there in the ruins of one of the houses, in orderto light a fire.
The SS woman had the matches and after long efforts we succeededto get these wet pieces of paper and the few pieces of wood toburn.
Naturally, it smoked quite a lot and it also smelled bad, but wewere happy and proud to have succeeded and the entire group wasstanding around the pail, their hands stretched out. We also movedour feet in order not to freeze.
All of a sudden, we heard - coming from the ruins - a manshouting:" What are you doing here, you dirty Jews? Get away fromthere, at once, you scoundrels!". Of course, everybody wasfrightened, even our SS woman didn't know who could be behindthose stones. Everyone ran away as fast as they could and we couldhear that the man came closer. Since I was the last one, becauseI couldn't walk that fast, this man got hold of me and poured theentire contents of the burning pail over my head and neck. Ifell, due to pain and fear, while all the girls were ahead. OnlyMama turned around for me and when she saw me on fire, she pulledme with all her strength and cried out for help.
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That's why some of the girls came back and their hands patted myrags in order to extinguish the fire. It burned terribly and I waslucky that I had been wearing a rag around my head, whichprevented me from getting deep burn wounds.
That same evening, when we came back from work, even campcommander Spiess ordered that I be given a second helping of soup.However I was so terrified and unhappy after the day's events,that I couldn't eat it.
This same Spiess had almost once beaten Mama to death with arevolver, because Mama had found a potato peel. she said that hewanted to shoot her, but possibly the revolver hadn't been loadedand therefore he had beaten her with it on her head like a madman,until foam appeared at his mouth. For many weeks Mama couldn't goto work and her head was terribly swollen.
My grief, not to have Mama with me at work, was considerable andI had the most terrible and fearful mental images,fearing that Iwouldn't find her again. But the camp responsible had kept herbusy in the camp during her illness.
In the evening there was a total black-out in the camp, sinceHamburg had been heavily bombed by the Tommies; several timesduring the day and also at night there had been very heavybombardments and we therefore couldn't go to the latrines, becausedarkness was so complete, that one couldn't see anything at all.
This scared me a lot, since I couldn't find my way around, anddidn't want to wake Mama, who was so tired due to the heavyphysical work she had been doing. And that is why I always triedto retain myself,which kept me from sleeping, while having a veryhard time to hold out until the morning.In the morning, when we were finally allowed to go to thelatrines, we of course lost half of it on the way.
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And then, the number of lice we had! We of course couldn't controlthem, because no sanitation whatsoever was possible. On the pillarin our barrack there was written: " One louse, your death" andthat's why we couldn't show that we were full of lice; furtivelywe used to delouse one another and crush the lice.
One evening, again dead tired after a heavy working day, we werestanding in line with our tin plate, in order to receive thelittle bit of warm water, called soup. When it was my turn, I wasalready so hungry and exhausted from standing there, I simplythought that I can take no more. Finally the soup was already inmy plate. I turned around in order to eat and stumbled in thedark. My entire soup was spilled and I was left with an emptyplate. I started to cry so hard that I was shaking all over andthat's how I went to sleep, terribly hungry, after I hadn't hadany food all day. I wouldn't have dared to approach the campresponsible in order to request a little bit more soup.
We had lost quite some weight since our arrival in Hamburg ninemonths ago. We had gone through terrible bombardments, duringwhich many of us would cry "Shma Israel" and often enough wethought that this would be the end of it. Because next to our campthere were a lot of industrial plants, which were the realobjective of the British.
Then came the day when the front drew nearer and once more we hadbeen evacuated. Partly again squeezed into cattle cars, where Ifelt like being choked. The bang of the bolt being shut, stillremains until this day in my ears. After a couple of days, Icannot recall how many, the door was opened. Most of us werealready half dead when we saw also other trains with emaciated -to us totally unknown - people. These must have been people fromother concentration camps, being evacuated to another place. Onceout of the trains, we were standing again in rows of four andthat's how the death march started on foot. Again, we had not thefaintest idea where they would drag us.
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In the beginning it was somehow still all right, mostly because wevery happy to be in the fresh air and not like cattle in thecattle carriages.But slowly, every now and then, one of us would sit down by theroad, feet all swollen, not being able to continue to walk anymore.Those, who couldn't go any further,were simply shot down, withoutmuch ado.Further and further we went, with the strength of an iron will.And again I must stress, that hadn't it been for my beloved Mama,who was next to me, I'm sure I wouldn't have survived this. shegave me courage, she comforted me in my desperation; she, who wasdesperate herself. She was my guardian angel. She also was motherto all the girls who were alone and she always found a word ofcomfort for them. All the girls tried to stay near to her and feltsheltered with her.
After many days of walking and after the house-shoes fell off fromsome swollen feet, we arrived in Bergen-Belsen.Though we had absolutely no notion where we were, we learned itafterwards.
The very first sight of this ghastly camp, was a huge hill ofnaked, dead people, who were practically only skeletons.
Such a terrible and frightening sight I even hadn't seen inAuschwitz and right away I was thinking that within a few shortdays we would be looking the same, stacked like these ones.Because we wouldn't be able to take it much longer. Since we hadlost a number of women from exhaustion on our way, I felt that wetoo were nearing the end.
The ones who were still alive, could move only very slowly; itlooked like a "slow motion picture".
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There was absolutely nothing to eat. There was no waterwhatsoever. It was a total chaos, because the Germans had all runaway, while the front was drawing closer and closer. We could hearcannon shots, but nobody could estimate the distance from whichthey were shot.There was nobody to supervise us, or to ask any questions.
Suddenly we saw Hungarian soldiers, or maybe they were Ukrainians,who had taken over the sentry boxes. They were shooting quitebrutally all around and it seemed as if they would have liked tohit someone for fun. That's how they kept themselves happy andamused themselves.
A couple of days later I personally witnessed when one of thesesoldiers shot at two sisters, who could hardly creep anymore. Oneof them died on the spot.
The wailing of the living sister was heart-rending. The only thingshe was yet capable of, was to whine and to moan.And that's how weall became "Mussulmen". Emaciated, lifeless, thrown together indirty barracks. Destiny brought me again together with the woman,whose bread ration had fallen into the latrine in Auschwitz. Shedied on the floor one morning in my presence. Her daughter satnext to her, indifferent and numb.We had been for approximately two weeks in thissnakepit, without eating or drinking. People died like flies; theysimply collapsed. Death was everywhere and everywhere death wasanticipated.
One morning we heard tanks and someone came into our barrack andsaid:" Kids, we are free!!!" But nobody moved, because nobody hadany strength left over to be happy. All of us were already soapathetic, that even with the best of intentions, this is almostindescribable.
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Now we had a typhoid fever epidemic, because the British, whenentering the camp with their tanks, threw canned food and bread tothe people.Those, who could still crawl, ate some of it and theresults were terrible. These people simply died like flies, notused any more to food.Mama, my guardian angel, had immediately warned us in a softvoice: "Children, do not touch this. After being hungry for somany years, the stomach is not able to process this food. Wait andeat slowly. Eat only tiny portions ."
I personally couldn't eat a thing. I had contracted typhoid feverand my temperature was very high, while the same happened to Mamaand Ruth. It was, once more, a miracle that we survived. Allaround us people were dying. There was really terrible misery anddesperation everywhere. I was so weak, that I could speak nolonger and I could only hear as if the sounds were reaching methrough a thick veil.Some time later, I really believe it was a miracle, my temperaturefell.
The British soldiers taught us to walk again, just as one wouldteach a small child.So we stayed on for some more time, until they organized therepatriation, for each one to go back to his homeland.
We got a little more strength, thanks to the many vitamin pills wewere taking and also some bread and milk. I was thinking again ofmy dear Papa, who most certainly would not be alive any more. Hehad been all the time alone and had had no news from us. It wasindeed very sad when we reached Prague and of course didn't findhim there any more. And thus we received from the Joint fittingclothes and food supplies. Our hair grew also again. More or lesswe started to look like human beings.
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The memory of the heaps of the degraded naked corpses, before theyhad been thrown into mass graves will always stay vivid in mymemory. Bergen-Belsen was a ghastly camp, without hope nor life.
On our way from Bergen-Belsen to Prague, after the liberation, wemade several stops. When the train would stop, we could even leavethe train for a few minutes.
One of these stops was Pilsen in Czechoslovakia. When the peoplesaw us, they asked us from where we were coming and about themeaning of the tattooed numbers on our arms. We told them that wehad spent 3 1/2 years in concentration camps and that we had gonethrough hell. Upon which these people asked us: "And why didn'tyou stay where you were? Who needs you here?"
We went back to the train, emotionally totally worn out. This wasthe welcome reception to freedom, for which we had so desperatelybeen waiting.
Back in Prague we didn't know what to do. Transportation was beingarranged to Palestine and thus Mama had registered me with theYouth Aliya. According to her, at least one of us should take thisstep to freedom, after we hadn't been able to find Papa again. Myeldest sister, Esther, had been living in Palestine for the lastseven years already. She lived in Netanya and I went to stay withher.
After our arrival in Haifa, we had been detained again in theAtlit camp. I had to stay there for three months and was onceagain behind barbed wire.Being only 16 years old, I couldn't understand that the sameBritish, who had taught us to walk again, kept us here once moredetained. I cried day and night and could not accept that this hadto be, since I had believed that I would be really free.
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Luckily enough, I had good friends, who all had come from variousconcentration camps. They were mostly people, living alone andwithout family ties, who, for the most part joined a kibbutz.Finally came the day when Esther came to pick me up.She took me to her home, where she lived with her husband and sonin only one room.
My terrible traumatic memories will never leave me.Everything is still very much alive in me.
My dearest Mama will always stay sacred to me.G. bless her memory.She was my guardian angel during the most horrible times.
Abram Korn was 16 when the Nazis invaded his hometown of Lipno, Poland, on September 1, 1939, the first day of World War II. He survived the entire war as a Jewish prisoner, enduring the ghettos, the horrific concentration camps, the Death March from Auschwitz. Astoundingly, Abe kept his sense of human dignity--with gangrenous feet he struggled to stay on the healthy-workers list; with scant supplies he bargained for food and coal and helped others survive. Abe always believed he could live one more day, and on April 11, 1945, when the Buchenwald camp was liberated, he was finally free.
After Liberation, Abe focused on going to school and earning a living. He began rebuilding his life with other survivors in Germany. Eventually, as a man earnest to forgive past sins and take individuals at face value, he married a German Lutheran, who later converted to Judaism. They moved to the United States, where they raised their family and built a remarkably successful automotive business.
By the time Abe died in 1972, he had almost completed a rough first draft of his memoirs. His eldest son, Joseph, recently prepared Abe's manuscript for publication. Abe's Story: A Holocaust Memoir was released on April 11, 1995, the fiftieth anniversary of his liberation from Buchenwald Concentration Camp.
To the family he raised proudly in the Jewish tradition, Abram Korn left a legacy of powerful inspiration. For modern readers seeking the best in Holocaust literature and riveting drama, Abe's Story is an incredible story of hope, of the human potential to do good in the face of horrible evil. All who read Abe's Story seem to apply it to their lives today. It inspires them to persevere, despite any obstacles in their paths.
Primo Levi, born in Turin, Italy, in 1919, and trained as a chemist, was arrested during the Second World War as a member of the anti-Fascist resistance and deported to Auschwitz in 1944. His experience in the death camp and his subsequent travels through Eastern Europe were the subject of powerful memoirs, fiction and poetry. Levi died in Turin in April 1987.
Some of Levi's words are more powerful then anything ever expressed about the man-made Nazi atrocities. His memoirs of and refelections on those are light years above careerist, pornographic exploitations by many renowned, award-winning speakers or politicians.
As a composer and librettist, inspired by some of Levi's writings, his life and his death, it took me some years to finally begin a grand, seductive opera,to scratch an angel. The project has already aroused interest in some extraordinary performers and has the blessing of the Levi family.
40 years after his imprisonment, in the spring of 1982, Primo Levi returned to Auschwitz ("in the role", as he put it, "of a tourist"). He accompanied a group of students and professors from Florence, as well as some other concentration camp survivors. A troupe from Sorgenti di Vita went along to document the visit. "Springs of Life" was a cultural television program of the Unione Comunita Israelitiche Italiane, offered bi-weekly by Radiotelevisione Italiana [RAI] on Sunday afternoons.
The Italian interviewer was not identified in the rare transcript that follows. An Italian school teacher, Mrs. Bianca Maria Pace, has recently informed me that it was Daniel Toaff, the son of E.Toaff, the Rabbi of Rome. The original airdate of this program was April 25, 1983. This English translation is by Mirto Stone. It is here designed over 22 web pages, amongst book covers and portraits as well as some of the many photographs I had taken during a visit to Torino in 1989.
Filip Muller's Testimony
From the testimony of Filip Muller, an Auschwitz survivor, Connilyn Feig reports the following account in "Hitler's Death Camps":
Filip Muller, a young Slovakian, arrived early in Auschwitz _ April 1942 _ and survived! He did so, however, because of his forced work assignment as a stoker in the Auschwitz crematorium and then as a jack-of- all-trades in the Birkenau extermination plant squad, the Sonderkommando.
While the corpses burned, the stokers stripped the waiting bodies. At the most fifty-four bodies could be cremated in one hour. The continuous overloading and operation of the ovens caused the inner fire bricks to crumble. The staff built a new modern chimney in the summer of 1942. But it soon evidenced crumbling; and the extermination process, never very effective, began to disintegrate. Himmler soon became dissatisfied. The process moved too slowly; the stench contaminated the surrounding countryside at night; and the red sky over Auschwitz could be seen for miles.
Connilyn Feig provides an overview of the operation of the crematoria (Request auschwitz.01), and describes the process by which the stoking gangs sorted bodies into combustibility categories as the result of earlier experiments by the SS staff to reduce fuel consumption. In this effort, they had the assistance of the firm of Topf and Sons, who had built the crematoria.
In essence, well-nourished corpses were burned with emaciated ones in order to determine the most efficient combination. Three to four bodies were burned at a time, and different kinds of coke were used, then the results were recorded:
Afterwards, all corpses were divided into the above-mentioned categories, the criterion being the amount of coke required to reduce them to ashes. Thus it was decreed that the most economical and fuel-saving procedure would be to burn the bodies of a well-nourished man and an emaciated woman, or vice versa, together with that of a child, because, as the experiments had established, in this combination, once they had caught fire, the dead would continue to burn without any further coke being required. (Müller, 60-61; Klarsfield, 99-100)
The need for large-scale efficiency, to cope with the astounding number of corpses produced by the gas chambers, eventually led to the design and construction of new crematoria, and daily capacity rose from as low as six hundred forty eight per day (MÅller's 1942 figure) to a high of over ten thousand (Ho"ss, Gricksch. Request deathcamp.02, Gricksch.rpt, and jahrling.may43), but, as Feig tells us, the SS eventually had to employ large pyres and pits to dispose of the mounting pile of corpses:
As early as June 13, 1943, all was not well with the new installation. ... Eventually the ovens seemed to fall apart. Crematorium Four failed completely after a short time and Crematoria Five had to be shut down repeatedly. (TWC, V:624) (Between 1945 and 1962 Polish officials found five manuscripts written by Sonderkommando members before their deaths. The published manuscripts and documents relate to the specific process of extermination at Birkenau, and provide detailed descriptions of the crematoria and gas chambers.)
The scientifically planned crematoria should have been able to handle the total project, but they could not. The whole complex had forty-six retorts, each with the capacity for three to five persons. The burning in a retort lasted about half an hour. It took an hour a day to clean them out. Thus it was theoretically possible to cremate about 12,000 corpses in twenty four hours or 4,380,000 a year. But the well-constructed crematoria fell far behind at a number of camps, and especially at Auschwitz in 1944. In August the total cremation reached a peak one day of 24,000, but still a bottleneck occurred. Camp authorities needed an economic and fast method of corpse disposal, so they again dug six huge pits beside Crematorium Five and reopened old pits in the wood. Thus, late in 1944, pit burning became the chief method of corpse disposal. The pits had indentations at one end from which human fat drained off. To keep the pits burning, the stokers poured oil, alcohol, and large quantities of boiling human fat over the bodies.
A Czech survivor describes Auschwitz
Edith P., the youngest of six children from a middle class family, was born in eastern Czechoslovakia, and never perceived antisemitism during her youth. Her family emphasized education and love for family, principles which have guided her life. The annexation of the Sudetenland by Germany was a tremendous blow. Her brother, who served in the Czech military, emigrated to Israel shortly thereafter. The Hungarian occupation in early 1944 brought further difficulties for the Jews. But despite rumors of atrocities in Poland and her father's position on the Judenrat, they did not suspect their fate.
The Jewish community was forced to live for two weeks in a nearby brickyard, under terrible conditions. Then, in June 1944, they were loaded into cattle cars. Her father's last words to her before arriving at Auschwitz were that those who survived should work and keep their principles. Separated from her family, Edith was shaved, given camp clothing and assigned to a block. Her sister-in-law found her there and helped her move so they would be in the same block, where Edith remained for over six months. She reflects upon the dehumanization, humiliation and her inability to express in words the pain of hunger.
"Auschwitz, if I would like to describe it, I would say there is - there has not been - there has not been - people did not invent an expression what Auschwitz was. It was hell on earth. And the silence of Auschwitz was hell. The nights were hell. And the days - somehow, we got up at three o'clock in the morning, and at four o'clock summertime or four-thirty when the sun came up it was not like the sun! I swear to you, it was not bright! It was always red to me, it was always black to me, it never said, never was life to me. It was destruction."
Edith was transferred to Salzwedel with her sister-in-law, and they worked in a munitions factory. After she obtained a job in the kitchen, she became herself again, because she was not always starving. Determined to conduct herself so her family would be proud, Edith shared extra food with her fellow prisoners. They were liberated on April 14, 1945 by American troops. Among the troops was the first African-American she had seen in her life, to whom she feels eternally grateful. Keeping her father's words in mind, Edith obtained work as soon as possible. She emigrated to the United States, married an American and had three daughters. Edith discusses the importance of her husband's love and support and the loneliness of raising children with none of her own family to share happy moments or give her advice. She reflects upon the importance of taking a stand so that others will never experience what she did.
A Polish survivor describes her experience in Auschwitz
Helen R. was raised in Zwolen, Poland, a Jewish shtetl, with two brothers and a sister. She recalls a comfortable, happy life until antisemitism began increasing in 1937.
"When the war broke out  I was sixteen...Our lives changed completely...We came out after the bombardment, just what we had on ourselves. There was nothing left - the business, the house...everything was bombed out. We started new. My father said we're going to be all right...we can start new and we're going to be fine, not expecting what would happen because nobody could realize that such a calamity...would happen."
The family moved to Radom. When ghettoization was ordered in 1941, they returned to Zwolen where her father's contacts enabled them to obtain food. In 1942, the entire extended family went to work on an estate which provided food for the German army, hoping to save themselves. When older people were deported, including her parents, the four children returned to the Radom ghetto. They worked as slave laborers trying to avoid frequent round-ups and mass shootings.
At the end of 1943, they were included in a transport of 500 people to Majdanek. Here she "had very good friends, very close friends. It was like having a family. I wasn't alone. ...You hear people say lager sister, which is like having a sister. ...We had a lagerälteste..., the head of our barrack. She was an extremely humane person. She gave us so much courage."
Next they were transported to Plaszow.
"There were still children in that camp [Plaszow], mothers with children. One morning...they started taking away the children from the mothers. ...Each SS man or SS woman they told them such nice stories and the music was playing, blasting the loud speakers. And here the children didn't want to leave the mothers, and it was so much pain, so much tragedy, seeing the separation...when the children were really small...Even a child at three or four years old, she knew that if she's leaving her mother's hand, that she's going to death. They cry...I can still hear it and the blast of those loud speakers...the Strauss waltz playing loud. ...They didn't even take them to Auschwitz. ...There was a little hill and they took them up. ...There was no consolation. I mean how can you tell a mother? What can you tell her? ...It's something that I don't think anyone can imagine!"
They were transported to Auschwitz, where she experienced the utter humiliation of being shaved. Remaining with her sister and friends was important. "I wanted to live. I wanted to know what married life is. I mean, I was, really, we were philosophizing with my friend who is in Israel, who is a wonderful, wonderful woman, and my other friend, and we would sit in Auschwitz and talk and say 'God, we didn't live! We want to get married. We want to know the feeling what it is to make love to a man. We want to know what it is to have a child."
She and her sister were liberated from Bergen-Belsen. They learned later both brothers had been killed, but her sister's husband survived. Helen married in 1946 and both couples emigrated to the United States.
"We [sister and Helen] didn't have any family, just my husband's. ...It was very, very hard. ...We made family...good, very close friends. We have to have it, otherwise we couldn't exist, just again to be alone.. It was very hard to adjust to life. I think the better materialistically...we got...a nicer house, if we could build our lives nicer and nicer, the more we suffered, the more guilt we felt. Until I had to work it out, to say no! It's good to be alive. ...It's worth living. ...Pain you forget, you have to forget! You can't live twenty-four hours with pain. Even things they happen now and they're very painful. ...If I remember, I remember the good things...the childhood, the love that my parents gave me, and I realize that nothing can be forever. It was a cataclysm...we should never forget. We shouldn't forgive...the guilty ones. But we cannot live with hate the rest of our lives. ...I try to adjust to life, because otherwise what do you do? You have to go up on the Empire State Building and jump down. ...I have to make the best of it, can't go on hating and remembering all the time."
That I am alive today is due to my saintly mother's intervention in saving me from the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
After being in the ghetto in my native land, Hungary, under miserable conditions for quite a long time, we - my father, mother, my two brothers, Simon sixteen and Menachem six and myself were taken away with thousands of other wretched human beings to the railway station. Jammed into cattle cars with the promise that we are being taken to Germany. To work in the factories for the war effort and the greater "glory" of National Socialism.
Of course, the promise was misleading and after a few days of traveling under the most degrading conditions, broken in spirit, hungry and dying from thirst, stripped of all human dignity we finally arrived to a place we never heard of before: Auschwitz-Birkenau.
It was a bright, sunny day, May 20, 1944 when the train stopped with its human cargo. As the doors were unlocked and opened we saw many Nazis in SS uniforms, guns at the ready.
Men in striped suits were running around, pulling people down from the train. At the entrance of the camp was a high iron gate with the sign: "Arbeit Macht Frei". "Work Makes You Free". On one platform beautiful music welcomed us, played by inmates also dressed in striped uniforms. At one side of the fence some people were waiting for the sick and feeble persons, with the promise that they would be taken to the hospital right away.
Before our family left the train, my Father blessed me and instructed me to try to get into a working crew because that might save my life. I am certain that he knew more about our situation than he let us know. He didn't want to frighten us. A few minutes later he disappeared with my brother Simon. I never saw either of them ever again.
As I was standing huddled with my mother and little brother, when along came a high ranking SS officer, who, we later found out was the infamous Dr. Mengele. He started the "selection" among the women. It was noticed that Mengele was separating the women who looked 45 or older and the mothers with children, sending them to one side and the young and healthy looking girls and women to the other side, filed five in a row.
It must have been a maternal instinct that inspired my mother to do what she did next.
In front of us were standing four tall good-looking girls. We knew them from the ghetto, and they were holding the hands of their three little nieces and one nephew whose parents were hiding in Budapest. They sent their children to the countryside to be with their grandfather for safety. But they weren't any safer there for they were deported from the countryside with the grandfather and young aunts.
My Mother pulled these children to her side and pushed me to be the fifth in the row with four young women. "I will take care of the children" she told them "and you will take care of Judith" (meaning me.) I started to protest and turned around to go back to her but within a minute she disappeared with the four children. That was the last time I saw my Mother.
I often wondered how she knew she would save my life by separating me from herself and the children. It gives me sleepless nights even today when I think of the agony she must have suffered before she was killed with the children and thousands of others.
I am for ever grateful for the gift of life she gave me. The pains of losing her so young will never leave me. May her memory be blessed always.
A German child survivor describes a selection at Ravensbrück
Peter S. was born in Nuremberg, Germany in March 1936, into a family which had lived in Germany from the 1600s. A brother was born in 1939. In December 1941, the family was deported to the Riga ghetto, but was saved due to their father's skill as a professional auto mechanic. Eventually separated from his father, who perished in Buchenwald, Peter was sent to the women's section of Ravensbrück along with his mother and brother.
"...surrounded by a stone wall, barracks, a lot of kids... this was not only a concentration camp for Jews. Ravensbrück was a general prison. There were people who were criminals. And you could tell who was who because everybody had to wear a color code [points to left lapel], black, red, yellow for Jews. I don't know what the Gypsies had, but there were a lot of Gypsies there. They were probably more mistreated there than anybody else. This was the place where they did the medical experiments on the Gypsies.
...There were machine guns all around and you always had to be sort of aware of that. ...The women were used as field hands and it was truly slavery. ...They would march off, and I remember her [his mother] and all the other women sneaking in carrots or something--whatever they would be able to sneak in--under their dresses... They were wearing prison garb, striped dresses. ...Food was not that good...although there was bread and I remember some terrible soup."
Peter S. developed infections all over his body, and a large abscess on his neck required medical treatment in the infirmary. Shortly after, there was a selection.
"We had to go in a line in front of an officer and I remember him wearing a grey coat, and some others there. And we were walking left to right and walking by him, and because of this operation, my mother took all, everything she had and wrapped the other side so it would look just as big as this side. We walked by, and the people who were put on the other side were people who were obviously infirm. There was a one-legged girl who I remember being carried away and crying bitterly. And everybody assumed that this was her end. And everybody who was older was also put to that side and they disappeared.
...And afterwards... as we were walking away... the women were sort of yelling in relief and joy, and we as kids were quiet and subdued. In many ways, we were more aware.... The possibility of death was always there..."
In the beginning of 1945, Peter S., his brother and mother was transported to Bergen Belsen. "That truly was an unbelievable cesspool, in terms of the number of people dying, the lack of care... in any sense of the word. ...Death was there all the time. You saw people die. You moved their bodies. It was just there."
Liberated by the British when he was nine years old, Peter S. describes many prisoners dying because they were given too much food by the well-meaning liberators. He and his brother were among the youngest German children to have survived in concentration camps.
A Gypsy survivor describes medical experiments at Ravensbrück
Anna W. was born in Frankfurt, Germany, and spent her early childhood traveling with her parents and five siblings as part of a Gypsy theater troupe. In 1938, they were forced to settle in Leipzig, and were prevented from traveling or attending school.
"In early 1942, we were taken to a camp near Leipzig and... told... we were to be resettled in Poland. ...We were lucky we were put on a passenger car instead of a cattle car. ...The children were excited about the train ride. ...We had heard nothing of Auschwitz before. ...We were the first transport to arrive at the Gypsy camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau. ...All the barracks were empty, there was no fence yet. It was muddy. We sank into the dirt to our knees... but each day more and more arrived. ...They had barracks for 500 people and forced 1000 inside. ...All my relatives, they all died there. Not one of them survived except for my cousin's family. ...We had to give up our clothes and shower. Then they shaved us...the parents were with us. That was terrible. Father, mother had to undress, too. That was the most terrible. The humiliation. There was a children's nursery. What could that mean [at Auschwitz-Birkenau], a nursery?
In March of 1944 I was put on a transport to Ravensbrück. My siblings all died. Within six months, nothing was left. [From] Ravensbrück... we were taken to ammunition factories at Schlieben near Buchenwald. ...We worked the nightshift.... That was terrible for us adolescents [because] those who fell asleep and didn't meet the production quota were sent back to Auschwitz. ...They didn't go to the camp but immediately to the gas chambers. ...I was transferred to Buna works near Leipzig but didn't meet the production rate. ...I was to be sent to Auschwitz but I traded places with a woman who wanted to be with relatives at Auschwitz. ...I would have gone to Auschwitz. ...Nobody knew that they were to be gassed when they returned to Auschwitz, that the Gypsy camp was gone [those living in the Gypsy Lager at Auschwitz were all gassed on August 2 and 3, 1944] -- so we traded places. ... [she] was taken directly to the crematorium. ...I got on the other transport, went to Bergen Belsen...[which] was basically worse than Auschwitz. ...There people died like flies. I got sick with pleurisy and pneumonia...[but] was put not in an infirmary but in prison barracks. ...Nobody cared for me...until the British came and liberated the camp...and took me to a hospital where I stayed for eight months. I returned to Bergen Belsen and lived in the liberated camp for two more years [since] I had nobody left..."
Anna W. recounts the experience that had an irreversible impact on her life.
Very much, yes. For now I have to suffer from it. Since I could have had a family, could have, I could have had grandchildren who would be twenty years by now, my grandchildren, right..."
Anna W. has lived in Germany after the war. Her husband was active in the Gypsies' political efforts to gain recognition of their suffering by the post-war German government. When, in the early 1980's, he built the first memorial for Gypsies at Auschwitz-Birkenau without having obtained permission, he was arrested by the Polish authorities. Anna W. never had children.
A Belgian hidden child describes the Gestapo's search for her
Rachel G. was born in Brussels, Belgium in 1934, and enjoyed a happy childhood prior to the German invasion. Forced to wear the yellow star, she rebelled against it when other children would not play with her, despite her mother's warnings that it was the law. An official notification that she could no longer attend school prompted her parents to seek a hiding place for her. Their landlady's nephew was a priest who assisted in placing Rachel in a convent. Rachel endured a painful parting from her parents to go "with strangers." The last time she saw her father was when he visited the convent on her birthday, bringing her gifts she vividly describes.
Often traveling at night, Rachel moved frequently from convent to convent, changing her name each time, always accompanied by clergy. Kind priests and nuns gave her religious instruction, so she would not be discovered. One incident occurred when she was living with six nuns at a seminary in Louvain.
"One day the Gestapo came in and the Carmelite - they were Carmelite nuns, and as you know the men cannot go there. It's one of their rules; they cannot see men. They knocked on the door and we want her - with the guns and all - we want that Jewish child. We know you have a Jewish child there. And the nuns said absolutely not. We don't have anybody. And they broke the door. And what I will never forget is that the six nuns, they had a big basket of laundry that they carried three on the side, because there was a lot of laundry for all of these priests. And they pushed me in that laundry to hide me and they put all the linen on top. That happened like in one second. And that's how I was saved."
Eventually Rachel was placed with a foster family in Virton, where she felt cherished and loved. She insisted on rising early to attend Mass, since the church ritual gave her a sense of belonging and safety. Ten months after the war ended, her mother returned from Auschwitz in such emaciated condition that Rachel did not recognize her. Rachel harbored resentment that her parents had abandoned her to strangers, a feeling she reconciled when she later understood that had they not hidden her, she would have doomed herself and her mother to death in the gas chambers.
After a difficult recuperation, her mother married a survivor. Rachel notes the miracle of her brother's birth a few years later, "because the two of them with the number and coming from hell and they had this beautiful boy. It's, after that I think I believe in God when I think about my brother."
Rachel reflects upon humanity - the wonderful people who sheltered her and those that tried to kill her - both being the same species. She discusses her continuing relationship with her foster family and others who helped her. She hopes to live her life as a good human being, helping others, regardless of their ethnic, racial, or religious background.
Rachel G. Holocaust Testimony (HVT-139). Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies, Yale University Library.
I was born in Pecs, the capital city of the province of Baranya, in Hungary. My parents had a small tinsmith shop where my father made cans, buckets, cake pans and other household items from tin.
I had four sisters. The two oldest were half-sisters from my father's first marriage. I finished my schooling in Pecs. The first four years in the Jewish elementary school and the subsequent years in middle school called "State Polgari".
At age fifteen I joined a Zionist group and during one summer while attending this Zionist Camp I met my future husband, Zolti. We corresponded for two years. At the age of seventeen I moved to Budapest where I worked hard to support myself. Zolti and I were married in 1939, on the threshold of World War II. When in 1941 I became pregnant, I was frightened and confused. I wondered about life and what kind of future will it hold for a Jewish child? But I also remember well my husband's words "Don't cry darling, we need this baby, just wait and see". My dear Zolti couldn't have known how true his words were.
Hungary was the last country to be occupied by the German Nazis. On March 19, 1944, they invaded the country. After this date, bad events, against the Jewish population, occurred quickly, every day. The following month, on April 6, 1944, every Jewish person had to wear the Yellow Star of David on her or his outer garment around the chest area. This was mandatory from age six on.
Many other discriminatory restrictions followed. We were not allowed to go to any public places; on the streetcars and buses we were restricted to the back seats of the vehicle; to go shopping, during the day we were allowed only certain hours; and many other similar restrictions. A ghetto was created in the heart of the city, houses were equipped with huge yellow stars on their fronts called "Jewish Houses" and here is where they concentrated the Jewish population of Budapest. Fifteen persons to a room.
On October 15, 1944 the Hungarian ruling Regent, Miklos Horthy, spoke on the radio and made a declaration to the nation that Hungary will cease to fight. He wanted to get out of the war and this was a welcome news for all of us Jews. But it was too late for a change of heart.
The Hungarian Nazi Party, called the Arrow Cross Party, with its leader Szalasi Ferenc, staged a coup, took over the Regent's office and he became President. The bloodthirsty Szalasi swore that he would help the German Nazis to annihilate all the Hungarian Jews, who were not yet deported. And they started to do this the very next morning.
Arrow Cross bandits came into our building and one of them barked on top of his lungs, "every Jew must get down to the yard or I'll shoot." Once downstairs, we had to march, with raised arms, to a racetrack called Tattersal. There we spent two horrible days and nights, without food, water or a roof over our heads. Arrow Cross Hungarians were guarding us from a platform above and one of them roared: "You rotten Jews, all of you will die within a few hours". Some of the guards were women and they proved to be worse than the men. They carried whips and beat everyone they could reach. I tried hard to avoid these beasts. Two and a half days of this terror and we were allowed to go home. After this traumatic episode I didn't have even a minute of peace, either during the day or at night.
My dearest Zolti and his father, by now, as part of the Hungarian Army's forced labour battalion, were taken away from Budapest. My baby son and I were on our own and lived with my mother-in-law.
The Hungarian Nazis kept up their terror by constantly searching all the apartments, looking for young people. I tried to hide wherever I could. Even under the bed. One day I heard that on Columbus Street there was a Red Cross house that accepted refugees. So a group of us parents, with our children, escorted by two policemen, went there to seek refuge. ( Without the police escort, the Hungarian Nazis surely would have lynched us. ) We were accepted..
However, two weeks later, because someone betrayed us, we were all taken from this refuge to a huge sports field, for some kind of a selection. As a young person I was kicked out from the group where only the elderly and the children were suppose to gather. I was selected and forced to go with the other young people to the railway station, from where all train loads were destined to go to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Luckily I found a way to escape from the railway station. Managed, with great difficulty, to re-join my mother-in-law and my young son Andy, and finally we were marched back to the ghetto with all the others. There were about 70,000 people in the ghetto by the time they closed it. In the ghetto conditions were terrible. Many of us starved to death or were killed by other means. We heard rumors that the German and Hungarian Nazis together planned to finish off the ghetto by bombing and by machine guns, just two days before the liberation. We lived in constant terror and fear.
Much later, after the war, I learned that it was Raoul Wallenberg, the young Swedish diplomat's intervention that saved us from being butchered. Appearantly, Wallenberg sent a message to the German General Schmidthuber, saying that he'll make sure that the General will be tried as a murderer after the war if he didn't stop this planned killing. The General stopped it.
As a result, in the morning, on January 17, 1945, as I looked out from my window, I couldn't beleive my eyes for I saw a young Russian soldier in the yard. At that instant I realized that we were liberated. I was overjoyed for my baby, Andy, was near death due to starvation. And I myself was also extremely week for the same reason.
In the spring of 1945, those Jewish men who survived, started to come back, home. Every single day I went to the railway station hoping to see my Zolti among the returning men. Then one day I saw one of his comrades who told me that Zolti was shot by the German Nazis because he got sick.
After this news I thought my life was not worth living any more. I was devastated. But, there was my young son Andy, who needed me. I had to live for his sake!
My parents and the two oldest sisters were taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau from Pecs and perished there. My other two sisters survived. One of them was hiding with her ten year old daughter in a convent and the other returned from a concentration camp, but very sick from typhus. My father-in-law survived also. After the war, my son Andy and I lived, with my in-laws, until my first attempt to escape from Hungary with Andy, in 1949. Unfortunately we were caught and I was jailed for six months.
In 1956, during the Hungarian Revolution, I tried to escape again with Andy who was 14 years old by then. This time we were lucky and the escape was successful. Eventually we immigrated to Canada.
To start a new life as a single mother in a new country without knowing any English or having any skills, with a teen-age boy, was indeed very, very difficult. More than words can say. But I was determined to succeed.
I studied English diligently at night and tried to make a living, for both of us, during the day. Eventually, being able to speak English, helped me to get a better job, as a clerk, in a bank.
This short biography cannot possible tell all the trials and tribulations my son and I had in Canada, especially in the beginning. But we made it and we are happy to be here. A few years later I married again to a nice and gentle man, Emil, who is also a Holocaust survivor.
My son Andy grew up, married and now the father of two children, Kathy and David.
Now my life is complete with having gained a daughter, Andy's wife, and being the grandmother of two wonderful grandchildren.
Ibi Grossman is the author of the book: An Ordinary Woman in Extraordinary Times. See details in the Bibliography Section. The above article is a short version of her extraordinary times.
Alina Trachman Kentof
My mother, Rina, and I are survivors of the Holocaust. When Krakow, Poland was invaded by the Nazis, I was only a little girl. My mother hid me in a monastery, then had to smuggle me out near the end of the war. Together we fled through Europe and escaped to Palestine where we witnessed the birth of the state of Israel.
Alina stands on the outskirts of Auschwitz. Her father, Isaack Trachman, was on his way here fifty years ago. He and several others jumped from the S.S. truck and were gunned down by the Nazis. She has one memory of her father; she is only three-years-old, bouncing on his knee. She has only two pictures of him. No tombstone. Nothing. Alina Kentof now lives in Jacksonville, Florida, where she is a teacher and Holocaust educator.
Alina Trachman-Kentof As told by daughter, Tali K. Whiteley My mother's first and only memory of her father, Isaak Trachman, is a happy one. She is two years old and he is bouncing her on his knees. She remembers his red hair and glasses. My mother has one photo of him, a group picture, where he appears as a small speck, a father she never had a chance to know.
He and his brothers were deported by truck in the early 1940s. A woman in the truck states she witnessed my grandfather and my great uncles being shot as they tried to escape from the truck, which was turning the bend on the outskirts of Auschwitz. They knew where they were going and they risked their lives to escape. Gunshots. The woman states the SS fired at the ten men who escaped, firing openly into the wood in which they ran. Then, they hounded the area until they found them and hung them from the trees to serve as a lesson to the others that escaping death was futile.
Still, my mother has not lost hope, wondering if possibly the man shot and hung in the forest was not her father, Isaak Trachman, but someone else, mistaken for him. Could he still be alive, she still wonders. She still searches. In the 1970s, she discovered that a man by the same name was living in New York. The man's description was even similar to her father. She wrote him a letter, but received the response,"I'm sorry, but I am not your father."
When my mother discovered the possibilities of searching the Internet for someone else who might be able to tell her more about her father, she held hope again, but discovered nothing. Isaack Trachman, and those who knew him, had simply vanished.
My mother survived because my grandmother was able to buy false papers, allowing them to live in the Aryan part of Krakow. These papers labeled them as Polish Catholics. My grandmother had my mother educated in a monestary so that she would be familiar with Catholic customs and prayers, an education that would later prove to save both of their lives.
One day, as they were walking down the street, an SS guard approached them and asked my grandmother, "Where are your papers?" Trembling, my grandmother handed over the papers. The fake documents were not of great quality. They were good enough to pass, but someone with a trained eye would surely know they were false papers. This SS guard was growing suspicious.
My grandmother did not know the prayers. But my mother did. "Don't ask me to recite them," my grandmother told him. "Why don't you ask her?" she asked, pointing at my mother, who at the time, was four years old.
My grandmother and mother continued down the steet to the small apartment on the Aryan side where they were living. When they were safely inside the apartment, my grandmother shut the door, leaned against it, and fainted.
Shlomo Schweizer As told by grandaughter, Tali K. Whiteley Following the war, my grandmother, having lost her husband in the Holocaust, remarried and started a new life in Israel with her five-year-old daughter, Alina, and her new husband, a friend of the family, Shlomo Schweizer. They have been together for fifty years and now have three daughters and six grandchildren. Shlomo Schweizer is the only grandfather I ever had, the only father my mother really remembers having.
One year ago, my grandparents came from Israel to visit during Passover. Around the Passover table, at a time when Jews celebrate their redemption from slavery in Egypt, my grandfather told us the following story:
In the concentration camp, I had a friend. We worked together in the factory within the camp. Our commander was an SS man who had a dog named Rex. Every day, the dog would bite our heels as we worked. He was a terribly mean dog.
Sure enough, my friend came through, giving me a steak wrapped in newspaper. That night, we had the most delicious meal. It had been months since I had had a decent meal. The meat tasted extra sweet and juicy, having not had any in so long. I asked my friend, "How did you manage to smuggle this in? Where did you get this meat?"
ESCAPE FROM BELZEC
SAVED BY A PAIR OF HEELS
Incorporating the Narrative of Hanna Cohen (Szper),
Transcribed and Translated from the Polish
When the German army punched into Poland on September 1, 1939, my mother's family still had three weeks before the Nazi conquerors would seize the ancient city of Lublin. The family had lived in Lublin and its environs for centuries. It was a large, learned, middle class family, integrated in Polish society and culture to the degree that Jews were allowed to integrate. My mother, Hanna, lived in a big old townhouse with her parents, her older brother, the customary live-in domestics, and extended family and friends dropping by at all hours of the day.
As the Germans were approaching, my grandmother begged my mother to flee east, to Lwow, to relative safety. Lwow had just been occupied by the Soviets, by prior understanding with Hitler. Although life under the Soviets was harsh and perilous, compared with Nazi domination it was considered the lesser of two evils.
Hanna, twenty-four and a teacher of German literature, was reluctant to leave, but she could not ignore her mother's entreaties. She took the train to Lwow.
Her travails under the Soviets would end in July 1941, when the Germans, breaking their pact with Stalin, pushed east. Within hours of their entry into Lwow, the Germans sicced Ukrainian mobs to large-scale pogroms of Jews. Later, they decreed that all Jews must relocate to a ghetto.
My mother would have none of it. She decided to escape to Warsaw. On the train to Warsaw, the German Railway Police arrested her.
At this point, the commentator had better move aside, leaving only the translator. Those who saw the face of Chiron while being rowed across the Styx, and who swam back to the shore of memory, have a right to tell their story that cannot be usurped. They have a unique insight, too. The survivor of a holocaust possesses knowledge about the human species that the rest of us are rarely privy to, for he has seen people's character alloys melting even at the periphery of the evil furnace, revealing their true proportions of base and noble metals.
"They stopped the train and called one of them, a fat German wearing a helmet. 'Get off the train with her now. You'll take her on the first train back to Lwow, to the Gestapo.'
When we got off, I started asking that he let me go. I say to him, 'What benefit is it to you that they kill me; I am young, what I have with me I will give you.' And he answers, 'I would gladly let you go, but if I do that, they will kill me too.'
He hugged me, this old German, and started stroking my hair. He says, 'Child, I know one hundred percent that you will survive this war, but I will not.' And he took me on a train to the local police headquarters. I spent the night there, in jail. In the morning, they took me away, and he accompanied me.
At the jail, they conducted the first interrogation: who I am. He sat to the side. There was an officer and two sergeants, and they conducted the interrogation. At a certain moment, the officer takes a carbine off a wall rack and orders one of the sergeants: 'Take her downstairs.' And the fat one with the helmet winks at me, so that I won't be afraid. Then he got up, poured and gave me a glass of water. This was a man with a heart. And in the morning, he transported me to the Gestapo, and there I had a real investigation.
I only remember that there was a large commission. One of them walked me to the window and said, 'You see that tree? From that tree you will hang.' Everything was in German.
Then they threw me into a small cell where there were already some thirty people, Jews. Suddenly they opened the door, and threw in a young Polish woman. She cries, 'Woe, they caught me, woe.'
I didn't like the look of her. And she made like she was a great Jew lover, 'Give me what you have on you. If they find it they will club you to death, but I will hide it for you.' I had nothing left, but everybody else started digging out their last coins and valuables from various nooks in their clothing. She took all this, and then disappeared.
After a week or so, they packed the entire prison population, mostly Jews, into a sort of lorries, and took us to the Kleparowski train -- it was a freight train terminal in Lwow. At the platform, they ordered us to take off our shoes and overcoats, take off our clothes and deposit them in piles. Then they started herding us into the train. Polish train engineers stood by, and they were saying, 'Folks, jump from the windows, we will be going slowly.'
The Germans were saying that they were taking us to a camp, but the train engineers were saying 'It's a lie; they are transporting you to a gas chamber. Jump, we will be going slowly.'
I entered what was a sort of freight train, but with barbed wire. But before, when we were still being processed at the Kleparowski terminal, one of them stood -- they had a sort of steel whipping rod, with a little steel ball at the end -- and that's what they beat people with. He looked at me just so and said, in German, 'Ah, we have yet a few pretty women for the good-bye.' With the steel rod, he picked up one of my shoes and tossed it to me, then the other. Those shoes saved my life.
Because, I had said I wanted to jump from the [little] window, but there was an iron grid there. So I took the shoes and knocked out the iron grid; various people knocked out the grid, and they hoisted me up -- I don't know for the life of me how I managed to squeeze through that [little] window.
It was, more or less, noontime. With that, on each wagon's steps they stood with rifles. My goal was only that they shoot me; it was noon, impossible that they not see me. Let them kill me; I didn't want to die in agony.
I thrust my head through first -- but I couldn't jump with my head upside down. I had to turn around. I swear I have no idea how I did it; after all, I am a coward.
I jumped. And-- like-this --my heart was thumping. The train rolled along. They saw me and shot. They were all shooting. None of the bullets hit me. I was the first one [to jump]; maybe others jumped too, but later.
Before, in the train car, next to me stood the lawyer, old Mr. Axer -- a well-known personality in Lwow, one of the great lawyers. 'Child, what are you doing? Why do you want to jump to your death? We are traveling to a camp; you are young, you will be working.' And I say, 'Don't you see that we are not traveling to a camp? If it were a camp, would they have stripped us?'
In brief, they hoisted me up, and I jumped. The train rolled on; I started running. There was a forest on the horizon; I ran and reached that forest. And I started walking. Then I saw a clearing. And in this clearing, a peasant, working the soil with a horse and plough. And I have to cross, and I think, 'This is the end of me.""
QUESTION: "To which concentration camp was the train going?"
ANSWER: "Not to a camp, there was no camp there; there were only gas chambers."
QUESTION: "What gas chambers?"
ANSWER: "Belzec, notorious. That's where they hauled people; it was a death factory."
CONTINUED: "I crossed, and that peasant saw me and he says: 'That they sit here and wait.' And I am thinking to myself, 'He went to call the police; so be it, if that's my fate.'
After half an hour, he comes back with a pitcher of milk and a big piece of bread. He gives them to me and says, 'That they drink, eat, and leave with God.'
To this day I say -- since Jews have bad feelings about Poles -- I assert that we who survived, a small percentage though it be, none of us would have survived if in some moment he did not get help, usually without ulterior motives, from some Pole. It was impossible [to survive otherwise].
I started walking, walking -- it was September -- I was gathering wild blueberries, and that was what I ate. Only at night I walked. During the day, I lay low. When it got dark, I would start walking. I did not know where I was going.
After a while, I came to some buildings with a sign: Sanitarium Poluzki (sp?). And I knew that I was near Lwow, because there was such a sanitarium in Lwow.
It's a bright day, I am walking, and suddenly I see a woman walking towards me with containers of milk. She saw me and crossed herself, 'Jesus, Mary; Jesus, Mary,' because I looked like, you can imagine. She took off her apron and covered me -- for I was naked."
This was only the end of the beginning of my mother's experiences during World War 2. She would escape certain death, improbably, at least three more times, not to speak of the daily dying she endured for six months in the infamous Janowska labor camp.
In July 1944, the Soviet Army liberated Lwow from the Nazis, in order to enslave it in turn. The Allies' betrayal of Poland at Yalta resulted in Lwow becoming a Soviet Ukrainian city. Most refugees from western Poland were allowed to repatriate.
My mother returned to Lublin as soon as it was possible. Her family was not there. The family house was not there. The street on which the family house had stood was not there. The city ward in which the street had been was not there. It was all rubble. Eventually, the site would be paved over.
Hanna had been corresponding with her mother, so she knew how the family had fared during the occupation. On a busy street, in 1942, the SS had shot to death her brother, a young lawyer and promising mathematician. In the same year, the SS had taken away her father, and sent him to his death in Belzec. In 1943, her mother's time had come. Again, I'll let Hanna speak:
"I still got a postcard [in Lwow] from my mother. I later learned that on the day on which she wrote the card, there was a liquidation [aktion, or roundup]. 'My dearest, beloved daughter,' she wrote, 'this is my farewell'... no, I can't."
I never did learn what else had been in that postcard. There is a zone of private pain that even a son may not enter. Records show that my grandma was murdered at Majdanek, as were the other remnants of her --and my --family.
When I was born, the war had already ended. The Germans(*) had wiped out the family, looted its possessions, destroyed its houses, burned its mementos and documents — but for a long time I was unaware of that. All I knew was that, for some reason, I did not have the grandparents, aunts and cousins that my friends had. I also perceived that, uniquely, our home did not contain a single personal artifact, even a piece of paper, predating 1945.
My mother did not tell me about her lost family and lost years anymore than my father did about his. Eventually, in my late teens, I started asking, and she told me something. It wasn't until she was in her late seventies that she told me more. I recorded it.
I was too stupid, and too busy getting ahead in the world, to do the same with my father. He died at 67, having told me almost nothing about how he had lost his family, or how he had survived the war. The only scrap of information I have I retained from our conversation about his acute rheumatism, when he mentioned that he had lived in snowed-under forests, alternately fighting or hiding from the Germans.
One day, perhaps I will visit my native country that I left fifty years ago. I'll go and pay my respects to my grandparents at Majdanek and Belzec. Then I'll walk from Belzec toward Lwow along the railroad tracks. Maybe I will find a forest clearing, pick some wild blueberries, sit down and think about it all.
(*) I feel that it's unjustified to say that the Germans were Hitler's willing executioners, even though millions were. My mother shared this feeling, and the fat man with a helmet nods in approval. Nevertheless, even with the many thousands of executioners who must have been unwilling, and hundreds of noble heroes who, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, gave up their lives to oppose evil, in this particular war, in which Aktion Reinhard was just one component from hell, the scale of the evil, and usage patterns of the languages of the victim peoples (e.g. Polish), permit me to use this broad generalization.
On the evening of 14 August 1942, the first day of the Hebrew month of Ellul, a Friday, the SS surrounded the ghetto in the village of Zagrodski, near Pinsk in Belarus (Belorussia), home to five hundred Jewish families.“The commotion and noise on that night”, recalled Rivka Yosselevska, “was not customary, and we felt something in the air.”
On Saturday morning 15 August 1942, the Germans entered the ghetto, ordering the Jews to leave their houses for a roll call. All day, the Jews were kept standing, waiting. Towards sunrise, the children screamed, demanding food and water. But the Germans would allow no one back into their homes.
That evening a truck arrived at the ghetto gates. The Jews were ordered on to it, and drove out of the ghetto. Those for whom there had been no room on the truck were ordered to run after it. “I had my daughter in my arms”, Rivka Yosselevska recalled, “and ran after the truck. There were mothers who had two or three children and held them in their arms – running after the truck. We ran all the way. There were those who fell – we were not allowed to help them rise. They were shot – right there – wherever they fell.”
On reaching the destination, Rivka Yosselevska saw that the people from the truck had already been taken off, and were undressed, “all lined up.” It was some three kilometres from the village, by “a kind of hillock”. At the foot of the hillock was a ditch. The Jews were ordered to stand on the hillock, where four SS men stood“armed to the teeth.”
“We saw naked people lined up”, Rivka Yosselevska recalled, “and we hoped this was only torture. Maybe there is hope – hope of living.”
Her account continued:
“One could not leave the line, but I wished to see – what are they doing on the hillock? I turned my head and saw that some three or four rows were already killed – on the ground.
There were some twelve people amongst the dead. I also want to mention that my child said while we were lined up in the ghetto, she said `Mother, why did you make me wear the Shabbat dress, we are being taken to be shot’-; and when we stood near the dug-out, near the grave, she said, `Mother, why are we waiting, let us run!’
Some of the young people tried to run, but they were caught immediately, and they were shot right there. It was difficult to hold onto the children. We took all children, not ours, and we carried – we were anxious to get it all over- the suffering of the children was difficult- we all trudged along to come nearer to the place and to come nearer to the end of the torture of the children. The children were taking leave of their parents and parents of their elder people.
We were driven; we were already undressed; the clothes were removed and taken away; our father did not want to undress; he wanted to keep his underclothes on. He did not want to stand naked. Then they tore the clothing off the old man and he was shot. I saw it with my own eyes. And then they took my mother, and she said, let us go before her, but they caught my mother and shot her too; and then there was my grandmother, my father’s mother, standing there; she was eighty years old and she had two children in her arms. And then there was my father’s sister. She also had children in her arms and she was shot on the spot with the babies in her arms.
And finally my turn came. There was my younger sister, and she wanted to leave, she pleaded with the German; she asked to run, naked- she went up to the Germans with one of her friends; they were embracing each other; and she asked to be spared, standing there naked. He looked into her eyes and shot the two of them. They fell together in their embrace, the two young girls, my sister and her young friend. Then my second sister was shot and then my turn came.
We turned towards the grave and then he turned around and asked, `Whom shall I shoot first?’ We were already facing the grave. The German asked, `Whom do you want me to shoot first?’ I did not answer. I felt him take the child from my arms. The child cried out and was shot immediately. And then he aimed at me. First he held onto my hair and turned my head around; I stayed standing; I heard a shot, but I continued to stand and then he turned my head again and he aimed the revolver at me, ordered me to watch, and then turned my head around and shot at me. Then I fell to the ground into the pit amongst the bodies – but I felt nothing.
The moment I did feel I felt a sort of heaviness and then I thought may be I am not alive anymore, but I feel something after I died. I thought I was dead, that this was the feeling which comes after death. Then I felt that I was choking; people falling over me. I tried to move and felt that I was alive and that I could rise. I was strangling. I heard the shots and I was praying for another bullet to put an end to my suffering, but I continued to move about.
I felt that I was choking, strangling, but I tried to save myself, to find some air to breathe, and then I felt that I was climbing towards the top of the grave above the bodies. I rose, and I felt bodies pulling at with me with their hands, biting at my legs, pulling me down, down. And yet with my last strength I came up on top of the grave, and when I did I did not know the place, so many bodies were lying all over, dead people; I wanted to see the end of this stretch of dead bodies, but I could not. It was impossible. They were lying, all dying; suffering; not all of them dead, but in their last sufferings; naked; shot, but not dead. Children crying, `Mother, Father’; I could not stand on my feet.
The Germans had gone. There was nobody there, no one standing up. “I was naked, covered with blood, dirty from other bodies, with the excrement from other bodies which was poured on me.” Riivka Yosselevska had been wounded in the head, but she managed to crawl out of the grave, then she recalled;
“I was searching among the dead for my little girl and I cried for her – Merkele was her name – Merkele! There were children crying `Mother! Father!’ – but they were all smeared with blood and one could not recognise the children. I cried for my daughter. From afar I saw two women standing. I went up to them. They did not know me, I did not know them, and then I said who I was, and then they said, `So you survived’. And then there was another woman crying, `Pull me out from amongst the corpses, I am still alive, help!’ We were thinking how could we escape from the place. The cries of the woman, `Help, pull me out from the corpses!’ We pulled her out – her name was Mikla Rosenberg. We removed the corpses and the dying people who held onto her and continued to bite. She asked us to take her out, to free her, but we did not have the strength.
And thus we were there all night, fighting for our lives, listening to the cries and the screams and all of a sudden we saw Germans, mounted Germans. We did not notice them coming in because of the screaming and the shouting from the bodies around us.
The Germans ordered that all the corpses be heaped together into one big heap and with shovels they were heaped together, all the corpses, amongst them many still alive, children running about the place. I saw them. I saw the children. They were running after me, hanging on to me. Then I sat down in the field and remained sitting with the children around me. The children who got up from the heap of corpses.
The Germans came and were going around the place. We were ordered to collect all the children, but they did not approach me, and I sat there watching how they collected the children. They gave a few shots and the children were dead. They did not need many shots. The children were almost dead, and this Rosenberg woman pleaded with the Germans to be spared, but they shot her.
They all left – the Germans and the non-Jews from around the place. They removed the machine guns and they took the trucks. I saw that they all left and the four of us, we went on to the grave, praying to fall into the grave, even alive, envying those who were dead already and thinking what to do now. I was praying for death to come. I was praying for the grave to be opened and to swallow me alive. Blood was spurting from the grave in many places, like a well of water, and whenever I pass a spring now, I remember the blood which spurted from the ground, from that grave.
I was digging with my fingernails, trying to join the dead in that grave. I dug with my fingernails, but the grave would not open. I did not have enough strength. I cried out to my mother, to my father – `Why did they not kill me? What was my sin? I have no one to go to. I saw them all being killed. Why was I spared? Why was I not killed?’
And I remained there - stretched out on the grave, three days and three nights.
I saw no one, I heard no one. Not a farmer passed by. After three days, shepherds drove their herd on to the field, and they began throwing stones at me, but I did not move. At night, the herds were taken back and during the day they threw stones believing that either it was a dead woman or a mad woman. They wanted me to rise, to answer. But I did not move. The shepherds were throwing stones at me until I had to leave the place.
A farmer took pity on Rivka Yosselevska, hid her and fed her. Later, he helped her join a group of Jews hiding in the forest. There she survived until the Soviet army came in the summer of 1944.
Nineteen years after her escape from the execution pit she told her story at the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem.
Gertrude Poppert-Schonborn “Luka”
Sobibor Death Camp
Sasha Pechersky wrote in his diary about his relationship with a girl called “Luka,” whom he met in the women’s barracks after the day’s work was done, as a cover for his meetings with Leon Feldhendler, and the other underground members in the Sobibor death camp, as they planned the revolt in October 1943.
Sobibor transport list from Westerbork showing "Luka" Gertrude Schonbonn
Luka often described as an 18 year old woman from Holland, but she was indeed a German, her real name was Gertrude Poppert – Schonborn and she was born on the 29 June 1914 in Dortmund, Germany, so when Pechesky met Luka she was 28 years old.
She fled to the Netherlands in the 1930’s with her husband and they lived at Utrechtschedwarsstraat 113 I Amsterdam.
She was sent to the transit camp at Westerbork in the Netherlands on the 28 November 1942 and from there was deported to Sobibor with her husband on the 18 May 1943.
Sasha Pechersky described in his diary, one of the conversations he had with “Luka:”
“Do you know where I work?
In the yard where the rabbits are
It is fenced off with a wooden fence. Through the cracks you can see the naked men, women and children, as they are led to Camp lll. I look and shake as if in a fever, but I cannot turn my eyes from the sight.
At times some call out, “Where are they taking us?”
As though they knew that someone was listening and could answer their questions. I tremble and remain silent. Cry out? Tell them they are being led to their death? Will it be any help to them? On the contrary, like this, at least, they go without crying, without screaming, without humiliating themselves before their murderers.
But it is so horrible, Sasha, so horrible!”
Gertrude was deported to Sobibor death camp with her husband Walter Michael Poppert who was born on the 26 March 1914 also in Dortmund and whose profession was a Clothing Contracting dealer.
At Sobibor he worked in the Waldkommando and was murdered by the Nazis in Sobibor on the 31 October 1943.
As for Luka just before the escape from the death camp she gave Pechersky a shirt for good luck, which he wore, and is now in a museum.
Excerpts from an interview with Alexander Aronowicz Pechersky
Leader of the Sobibor revolt
Soviet Union, 1980
(Questions from Toivi Blatt)
Toivi: I had seen you a few times in Sobibor casually talking with Luka, the Dutch girl. In your diaries you mention her quite often. She left a lasting impression on you.
Pechersky: Yes, Luka was only 18 years old, very intelligent and smart. Although our meeting was initially arranged by Shloma and I knew her only about two weeks, I will newer forget her. We were not involved like other young people in camp. She was an inspiration for me.
In the beginning the communication was difficult, because the language problem.
Soon we were able to understand each other without help. I informed her minutes before the escape of the plan. She has given me a shirt. She said, "it's a good luck shirt, put it on right now", and I did. It's now in the museum. I lost her in the turmoil of the revolt and never saw her again.
Luka perished either in the break-out from the camp or in the forest, her fate has never been factually established, Pechersky tried to find her in the forest without success.
*Although no record exists regarding the fate of Gertrude Poppert-Schonborn "Luka", we have chosen to honour the memory of a woman who proved to be such an inspiration on the leaders of the Sobibor revolt.
Vernichtungslager Sobibor by Jules Schelvis, published by Unrast –verlag Hamburg 2003
Sobibor The Forgotten Revolt by Thomas Blatt, published by H.E.P 1998
The Digital Monument to the Jewish Community in the Netherlands
Jules Schelvis for his excellent research which uncovered Luka’s true identity.
Martin van Liempt
Guido Abuys – Kampwesterbork
Oscar Strawczynski was born in Lodz Poland in 1906, he became a skilled and accomplished tinsmith, which saved his life in the Treblinka death camp and which also made it possible to save the life of his brother Zygmunt.
Strawczynski arrived in Treblinka from Czestochowa on the 5 October 1942, with his wife Anka, and their two children Guta and Abus and his father Yoseph and mother Malke, who all perished shortly after their arrival.
He testified at the Treblinka trial in Dusseldorf in 1964/65 of Kurt Franz, August Miete, Willi Mentz, Arthur Matthes, Otto Horn and others.
Oscar Strawczynski described conditions at the transport yard:
“The yard is full of people. On one side women and small children, and on the other side, kneeling men. In the centre armed SS men and Ukrainians and a group of about forty men with red bands on their sleeves.
These were the Jews from the “red” group. In the jargon of Treblinka they were called the “burial society.” At the head of the group was Jurek, in the past a crude wagon driver from Warsaw for whom the most despicable thing was not despicable at all… dressed elegantly – something which was not a special problem in Treblinka- with a whip in hand, which he frequently used on the Jews.”
Here Oscar Strawczynski described the sorting work he performed in Treblinka, during his testimony:
“The group to which I belonged, consisting of several hundred people, reaches the yard and begins working. On the blankets and tablecloths that are spread on the ground are piled all kinds of articles, from imported material and expensive suits to plain rags.
From the suitcases we remove notions, cosmetics, soaps, matches, medicines. It seems that there is nothing that we do not remove here in quantities- all sorts, from the most expensive tins to the few potatoes that the poor Jews brought with them.
The sorted articles are brought non-stop to the edge of the yard, where they are piled up and up. The suitcases with valuables have a special place; into them are put things made of gold, watches, rings, diamond’s. Wedding rings make up the greatest quantity of valuable articles.
There are also great quantities of foreign exchange, dollar bills and coins, pounds sterling and gold Russian coins. Polish money is gathered into large piles. From time to time some “gold-Jews” come to the yard and take suitcases full of valuables and money to their workshops and leave behind the empty suitcases that they brought with them. These are also filled up within a short time.
The entire yard gives the impression of a market. There is a special place for house-wares and bottles. Among the house-wares there are utensils of the most expensive nickel or aluminium as well as old broken pots.
I work in a group of twenty men. They make us sort packages from the transport from Czechoslovakia. I open a package and find underwear, suits, shoes, notions, and so on.
I am still new at this work so I am not sure what to throw onto the pile of silk clothing, of partially silk clothing, wool, cotton. One must always be in motion; to rest or sit down is prohibited – one could pay for that dearly.”
Strawczynski described the brutal Kurt Franz who toured the camp with his dog Barry by his side:
“He walked through the camp with great pleasure and self-confidence. Barry, his big, curly –haired dog, would lazily drag along behind. Lalka would never leave the place without leaving some memento for somebody. There was always some reason to be found.
And even if there were no reason – it made no difference. He was expert at whipping, twenty-five or fifty lashes. He did it with pleasure, without hurrying. He had his own technique for raising the whip and striking it down.
To practice boxing, he would use the heads of Jews, and naturally there was no scarcity of those around. He would grab his victim’s lapel and strike with the other hand. The victim would have to hold his head straight so that Franz could aim well. And indeed he did this expertly. The sight of the Jew’s head after a “training session,” of this sort is not difficult to imagine.
Once Lalka was strolling along the platform with a double- barrelled shotgun in his hand and Barry in his wake. He discovered a Jew in front of him, a neighbour of mine from Czestochowa, by the name of Steiner.
Without a second thought, he aimed the gun at the man’s buttocks and fired. Steiner fell amidst cries of pain. Lalka laughed. He approached him, commanded him to get up, pull down his pants, and then glanced at the wound.
The Jew was beside himself with pain. His buttocks were oozing blood from the gashes caused by the lead bullets. But Lalka was not satisfied. He waved his hand and said, “Damn it, the balls haven’t been harmed!”
He continued his stroll to look for a new victim.”
Several Jews had managed to escape from Treblinka and the Germans tried a number of ways to persuade the Jews not to make the attempt.
Oscar Strawczynski outlined what the Germans did:
“At first they wanted to persuade us with nice words. An important person from Lublin came to the camp, gathered us together and spoke to us. We were told that a “Jewish city” was being established and that the Jews would be granted full autonomy there, and if we would work with dedication and earn their trust we would receive leadership positions in the Jewish city.
When the nice words did not help, they began to threaten us. They announced that if the escape attempts continued, they would strip us and we would have to work naked, and that attempted escape would be punished by death by torture, because we had violated the trust that had been placed in us.
To demonstrate that these were not idle threats, the next day two young boys were stopped and accused of having planned an escape from the camp. In the centre of the roll-call square, a gallows was built and all the prisoners were gathered around it.
The commander gave a short speech on the punishment of the escapees and the two boys were hung naked by their feet. The Germans whipped their swinging bodies for about half an hour, until one of the Germans pulled a gun and shot them.”
The Jews in the Treblinka death camp knew that the Germans would kill them as soon as they had outlived their usefulness, so an underground movement was established in early 1943, and planning for a revolt in April 1943 was postponed due to the typhus epidemic that gripped the camp.
Strawczynski was a member of the underground and he described its initial plans:
“In the first months of winter, while we were a small group in the carpentry shop, Mordechai came up with the idea of resistance and escape. There were Germans who came nearly every evening to the tailor shop to listen to the prisoner’s orchestra’s music, and the idea was that a combat team would ambush these Germans, kill them quietly and take their weapons.
One of the team would then put on a German uniform and call the Ukrainian guards who were near the Jewish barracks, one by one. As they entered the hut they, too would be killed silently.
With the guards eliminated, the prisoners would be summoned to leave their huts and escape from the camp. The plan sounded altogether too fantastic and gained few supporters, but within a short time the idea of revolt had taken root.”
Read about the revolt at Treblinka [here]
Interview with Survivor of the Grande Rafle - Pithviers and Drancy
[Photos added to enhance the text]
“My parents came to Paris from Poland in 1930 and had twelve years of very difficult life. Mother had a grocery, at night she went to Les Halles, and in the morning she did her baking. My father worked in a butchers, they each did an eighteen-hour day.
I had a brother who was much older than I, he was twenty-five, married with a child. He was arrested in 1941 and interned in Pithviers. It begun like that, life was very perturbed.
We sent him parcels – his wife and child had not been taken. I know my sister (Sarah) and I were due to go to a holiday camp by the sea. My parents had bought us each a little suitcase to pack our holiday clothes in, and those suitcases served us for our arrest. I was ten, Sarah was five.
On July 16 the French police knocked at our door and asked us to prepare. We’ll be back to fetch you in two or three hours, they said, we’re taking you for checking your papers.
It is untrue that many people understood what this meant, did not wait for the return of the police, but escaped. It is probable that some policemen did not do it light-heartedly, but very few gave a warning that lives were at risk.
My parents were very religious, observant: they were people of great probity. They decided they would wait – they had done nothing wrong and there was nothing to reproach them with.
So they stayed got dressed, and prepared a small bundle. My father went to the synagogue to fetch a scroll, the Torah, which a pious Jew ought to have on him, if he is going away.
The police returned and took us on foot, about 500 metres to a collecting place in the Rue des Rosiers. We lived in the fourth arrondissement, at 18 Rue Saint-Croix de la Bretonnerie. There we were escorted into buses, along with thousands of children who were crying, and old people, some being dragged in pitiful states of health.
We were driven to the Velodrome d’Hiver, a big arena for bicycling races, and there we remained in the most atrocious conditions. There were a few Red Cross helpers, but we were under the French police.
Rumour and propaganda was out of control, people screamed all night long. Women threw themselves off the top of the stands. I still hear the screams. I can see the scenes today. We stayed there eight days, the conditions were dreadful, the lavatories were the worst, blocked and the smells and the filth was pestilential. There was no room, we were cramped together.
Then we were taken again in buses to the station and piled into cattle trucks, one on top of the other. The journey to Pithviers lasted a few hours. There my father and another brother, age thirteen were separated.
My mother, a sixteen -year old sister the little one and I were put into huts. After two or three weeks there was an assembly, and my mother and sisters saw my father and brother. Their heads had been shaved. That was the departure for Auschwitz.
We were separated again, this just my little sister and me, I can see the roll call of the crowd. My father wore a beard and it had been cut off too – it was an atrocious sight. They were taken off in transports whose destination nobody knew. Not one of them came back.
My sister and I were born in Paris, we had French nationality, and this time they were taking foreign-born Jews. We stayed for weeks with a multitude of children at Pithviers, until we were taken to Drancy, where we lived for some weeks in terrible conditions.
I don’t want to relate the horror of it – sleeping on disgusting mattresses, eating disgusting food which made everyone ill. The diet was a soup composed of things which had no nutrient value, and our intestines couldn’t absorb it.
We were over-run with lice and skin diseases. We must have looked a sight. But we continued to correspond with an uncle outside. He had an Ausweis and tried to free us. It sustained our morale. People did get out occasionally.
Every morning there was a roll call. One day the roll call included us. We were terrorised. The uncle had said he’d fetch us, but we wouldn’t be there for him. We climbed onto the bus. Then I had a reaction – I can’t explain – I took my little sister by the hand and led her back into the camp. She was crying that they would come and shoot us.
The miraculous occurred -a few days later the order to release us arrived. We were taken to the gate of the camp and told we were free. The order might well have come too late.
My uncle crossed into the unoccupied zone. An organisation coping with Jewish orphans had us placed in the Sarthe with peasants who were paid to look after us. We are among the very few who escaped.
As soon as we had been arrested, the French came into our apartment and looted it all. My sister remembers a detail from Drancy. One day I stole a carrot from the kitchen, and I was confined in a cellar. My sister came and shouted down the ventilation shaft, “I want to get you out – get the warden to let you out.”
At Drancy too, we had been searched that day.My mother had slipped me a little ruby before we got there – it must have been all she had. The French searchers found it and said, “Give it here – it’s no business of yours to have a thing like that.”
It was miserable for me to hand over all I had left from my mother.
-Gitla Szapiro nee Rosenblum
Her uncle Haim Rosenblum was also present at the interview and he added:
“On May 14 1941, I was interned at Pithviers. The Prefecture de Police had summoned me for a check of my papers. It was a swindle – they simply laid hands on everybody.
If I’d suspected that they were capable of such behaviour, I’d never have gone. After three months at Pithviers, I got out. I escaped while on a pass.
As an activist and a Zionist I had a lot of contacts. At the Prefecture I knew an Inspecteur Henri. He got me an Ausweis to say that I was called a Wirtschaftswertvoller Jude, or economically valuable Jew, supposedly working in the fur trade.
Some of my family were covered by that Ausweis. My brother had been arrested, and I tried to save him through two Jews who had been brought from Vienna by the Gestapo to supervise Jewish communal life, one of them a friend of mine since before the war.
Then when the big round –up took place, I wanted to save my sister-in-law. I spoke to this man and he said that I was to telephone after tomorrow, which I did, to hear that the parents had already been deported but the two little girls were still there, and on this Ausweis I could get them out.”
(The Wiener Library)
Alfred Wiener and the librarian Ilse Wolff circa 1960
Alfred Wiener was born in Potsdam, Germany on the 16 March 1885 and after attending grammar school in Bentschen, Poznan and then in Potsdam, he studied at the Universities of Berlin and Heidleberg, where he took his doctorate in Arab literature.
Following World War One, Wiener became the syndic and executive officer of the Centralverein, the largest Jewish organisation in Germany, which at its peak represented 300,000 people, over half the Jewish population in the country.
Its ideology was assimilation, emphasizing that Jews were national Germans entitled to full equality and differentiated only by religion. It offered legal protection to Jews, fought against the erosion of Jewish identity and the flood of anti-Semitic propaganda which was sweeping Germany in the 1920’s.
Wiener was particularly active in this struggle, regarding anti- Semitism as a test case of German democracy and constantly protesting against the indifference of the authorities, the silence of the press and public apathy.
Description by Alfred Wiener, of the leadership of the Centralverein of the position of Jews in Germany - June 1, 1933:
Between Heaven and Earth
...The great majority of German Jews remains firmly rooted in the soil of its German homeland, despite everything. There may be some who have been shaken in their feeling for the German Fatherland by the weight of recent events. They will overcome the shock, and if they do not overcome it then the roots which bound them to the German mother earth were never sufficiently strong.
But according to the ruling of the laws and regulations directed against us only the "Aryans" now belong to the German people. What are we, then? Before the Law we are non-Germans without equal rights; to ourselves we are Germans with full rights. We reject it, to be a folk or national minority, perhaps like the Germans in Poland or the Poles in Germany, because we cannot deceive our own innermost [feelings].
We wish to be subject as Germans with equal rights to the new Government and not to some other creation, whether it is called League of Nations or anything else. As far as we are concerned that also closes the question of Geneva,** which at present occupies Jewish people everywhere.
Thus we are suspended between heaven and earth. We will have to fight with courage and strength in order to get back to earth, in the eyes of State and Law too...
Wiener’s brochure “Vor Pogromen?” published in 1919 warned of the consequences of the pseudo-scientific hate-mongering which was perverting German nationalism under the eyes of the authorities, and he attacked the leniency of the judiciary in the early days of Nazi subversion. Wiener’s appeals to the conservative middle classes fell on deaf ears and he was obliged to leave Germany in 1933, fleeing to Holland where he established the Jewish Central Information Office.
This was the nucleus of the massive documentation on the perils of Nazism which he accumulated in late 1930’s and transferred to London in 1939.
The Jewish Central Information Office played an important role in the British government’s propaganda warfare against Nazi Germany and as a source material for the British military, officialdom and the press about the Third Reich.
After the war, the Wiener Library, as it became known in 1947 provided crucial information in the prosecution of war criminals and subsequently developed into a major archive for the historical study of Nazism and the Third Reich.
Wiener frequently visited Germany in the 1950’s and sought to create a spirit of reconciliation between Jews and Germans while warning against any re-emergence of Nazism.
Alfred Wiener died on the 4 February 1964 in London.
The Wiener Library
The Wiener Library has been located in Devonshire Street in West London since 1939 but the lease ended in July 2009 and there are plans to relocate the library and its archives to 29 Russell Square , London WC1B 5BH.
The Wiener Library collects material related to the Holocaust, its causes and its legacies. Contained on its on-line archive is over 65,000 items for both the casual reader and serious researcher to peruse. The material covers books, documents, personal possessions, photographs and periodicals.
The archive is multi- language, predominantly in English and German - importantly up to one third of its collection contain pre-war material, including statements and documents on the rise of Nazism and the start of persecution and terror against the Jews. Many Jews sought refuge in London, and the Wiener Library captured their individual accounts, including subjects such asKristallnacht and incarceration in the new Concentration Camps springing up throughout Nazi Germany.
Throughout the war, the Ministry of Information and the Allied Governments apparently made wide use of the Collection. The success of BBC counter-propaganda derived largely from its solid grounding in the comprehensive and reliable information that had been gathered by Dr. Wiener. Since the war the staff worked hard on extending the scope of the collection.
The Wiener Library has provided material for various War Crimes Trials, and indeed has a fine collection of the Nuremburg War Crimes Trials, and others. But it is not purely a collection of books, and documents, it serves as a living memorial to those who suffered and perished at the hands of the Nazis, and their Axis collaborators, and indeed as an Educational beacon, for the youth of today and tomorrow, about the evils of intolerance and racism.
A few quotes from a recent edition of the Wiener Library News, show how much the Wiener Library, the world’s oldest Holocaust memorial institution, is regarded:
“The Wiener Library has a unique place in the research of racism, anti-Semitism, fascism and the Nazi regime.”
-Professor Sir Ian Kershaw
“The Wiener Library is a secret jewel. It must be congratulated on its 70th year of life and supported.”
-Miriam Margoyles OBE
“The Wiener Library is vital if future generations are to have the opportunity to confront the past.”
-Andrew Motion CBE
“We must remember the Holocaust because it must never happen again. The Wiener Library exists to remind us.”
The Forgotten Revolt
The odds were stacked against the escapees. It is estimated that about one-third of the escapees survived the liberation. The general conditions it occupied, provided formidable obstacles. The situation of a Jewish escapee stood in sharp contrast to that of a Christian escapee. The latter could simply mingle with the rest of the population and be safe. Not so the Jew.
At the end of 1943, there were no Jewish communities to which the hunted could return. The Jewish hamlets and small towns, once vibrant with Jewish life, were now empty. In addition, harboring a Jew meant certain death to the person or family brave enough to do so. For the Jews, Sobibor had meant certain death; the Polish countryside or city raised the odds for survival only slightly.
Stories of treachery by the indigenous population were common. Berl Freiberg tells what occurred to a large group of survivors after the escape:
"On the third day we were sitting, binding our wounds, when we saw an armed Gentile suddenly come out into the clearing... He came near us and began speaking. He questioned us and decided to take us to his group. Then he asked us if we were hungry and said he would bring back some food.
He left and came back with a whole gang of armed villagers and gave us some bread. We were sitting around and eating and they asked us if we had guns, or gold. They told us to hand over our guns. That's is how it's done, they told us; later they'd return the weapons. Though we knew we shouldn't, we gave up the few light weapons we had... They started shooting at us point-blank. We were trapped! We had nothing to return fire with and it ended in tragedy. We came out of Sobibor to be gunned down by the likes of these..."
Fifteen year old Berl managed to get away.
Only days after the revolt, Shlomo Szmajzner and a group of twenty one escapees were unexpectedly surrounded in the forest by supposedly friendly partisans. Shlomo's rifle was taken, they were robbed and most were murdered. During the shooting, Shlomo fell and pretended to be dead. An excerpt from his writing portrays his story:
"One of the Poles who seemed to be their leader, ordered us to raise our hands for him to inspect us. What happened next was actual looting. Those who still had some gold or valuables lost everything. ...Then I realized we had fallen in the hands of hostile guerrillas. At the same time, I said to myself, ''we are done for!" The first shot came. Quick as lightning I threw myself to the ground, while the salvo was intensified. While I lay there pretending I was dead, the bandits left, since they thought their atrocious task was ended. When I realized that only silence was around me, I slowly raised my head and saw that there was no one else in sight. To my immense surprise, I noticed that both Majer and Jankel, the old tailor, had done the same. The others were all dead. ...It had to be a miracle, my being still alive, since the shots had been fired point blank.
Terribly frightened, we left this sinister place immediately, now that there were only three of us. Leon and the other boys were already in Eternity. They had survived the German tyranny and not even Sobibor had finished them off. However, they had met death at the hands of their Polish countrymen..."
Even those escapees lucky enough to find shelter with the Poles often found themselves in grave danger as this entry from Thomas Blatt's diary reveals:
"...One day Bojarski appeared in our hiding place, saying: "The Germans are looking for partisans in our area; they are searching in all the farms close to the woods. I'm afraid they will search mine as well and so I'm going to put you for in a more secure shelter a few days.'' Later, in the night we were led behind the barn to a patio-like roofed storage area. Close by, I noticed a two-wheel cart. In it lay a large object, round and gray. He held us each by the armpits and lowered us into the ground through a narrow hole dug in the earth. We asked for the kerosene lamp so that we could arrange ourselves in our new quarters. He gave it to us without a word and closed the opening by tightly pushing in straw. I looked around. We were in a small dugout, about four-and-a-half feet long, three feet wide and three feet high. Along the "ceiling" there was a strong pine pole and across it some smaller pine poles covered with straw and branches. On top of it must have been soil. The small, round entrance in the corner of the roof was now jam-packed with straw.
While wondering where the air vent must be, we heard footsteps above, then the sound of something heavy being rolled. In a moment, an object fell with a great thud over our heads and the main pole began to crack slowly in the center to form a "V".
Szmul immediately supported the pine pole with his shoulders so that the ceiling would not collapse upon us, while I tried to push the straw away from the opening in order to call the farmer. It was impossible. I began to pull out big clumps of straw, and found that something else was blocking the entry! "What's wrong?", Szmul cried out. "It's blocked! It's blocked!", I gasped. The kerosene lamp began to flicker and waver and finally went out. We could not panic, I told myself...we mustn't panic. I tried to light it again. The match lit for a few seconds and went off. "Why the hell doesn't it burn?", my mind screamed. The answer came instantly: there was not enough air. We couldn't see each other in the dark. Panicky and struggling to breathe, perspiration poured down my forehead into my eyes.
It was very dark and cramped. Without oxygen we were exhausted, close to fainting and trembling with fear. Finally, with superhuman effort, Fredek managed slightly to move the heavy object blocking the entry hole, shifting it a little towards the crack of the bent ceiling. A stream of fresh air quickly revived us all, and we squeezed out. As we stood there, it flashed through my mind that there was a change in the surrounding scenery. The two-wheel cart wasn't on the side as before, but partially over our new hiding place. The handles stood high up and the body of the wagon was slanted down to the ground. Next to it on the now broken roof was a huge millstone. We didn't try to figure out what it was all about. Fredek went immediately to inform Bojarski of the accident. In a minute he was back. "Bojarski's getting dressed and will be right out." And, grinning, he added, "You know, when he saw me coming towards him, for a second he stared at me like I was a ghost. Then he clasped his head and yelled, "How did you get out?" We laughed. It still hadn't occurred to us that he had actually tried to bury us alive and that the two-wheel carriage with the millstone was expertly prepared to seal off the entrance and make any escape impossible. It had been the sudden force from the edge of the fallen millstone that had broken the main support of the roof, forming a slide, which made shifting the weight possible. This saved us from death. There was no way we could have been able to move it off had the roof been straight. We watched Bojarski's huge figure advance towards us in the murky night. "Well, boys" he said, "you'll have to return to the old hiding place. We'll think of something else later."
The fatal day on the night of April 23, 1944 we were lying quietly, hungry and resigned, when we heard faint footsteps about the barn. We recognized Bojarski's tread perhaps he was bringing us food. We heard him stop before the board barring the entrance. Fredek stretched out on his belly and edged towards the opening in the straw. We heard the hatch open and the board move. A moment of silence, then a flash and the thunder of a shot.
I heard Kostman scream, the rest was a gurgle and then a mutter. The board was hurled back and now we heard only Fred's hoarse deathly gasp. Szmul and I were sitting against the wall. In his final convulsions Kostman threw himself about, spraying us with his blood. After the initial shock and confusion, we realized that he was dead and it was our turn. Still we felt it was a nightmare, a kind of bad dream, but Fred's body was only too real.
To reach us through the regular opening one had to crawl flat on his stomach, but now we could be too dangerous for the murderers. So they decided to disassemble the hiding place. We heard the straw covering the shelter being pushed away. We knew this was our last moment. Cramped and without weapons, we felt like rats in a trap. Szmul crawled to the other corner where he burrowed into some thick straw. I followed him. We waited. The last straw was removed uncovering the big table--our hiding place. Then the thin layer of straw covering me was removed. "I got him", shouted a young fellow happily. I begged him not to shoot and to spare my life. Holding a lantern, he looked straight into my eyes. I saw his face and the muzzle of his rusty pistol. "Where is the first one?", he asked me. I replied, "He's dead." "And where is the second?" "Next to me." I heard the report of the pistol and felt a sharp, burning bite of the bullet under my jaw. My ears rang. Instinctively and fully conscious, I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and slid down. Seconds passed. I felt no pain. I wasn't sure whether I was alive or if this was life after death. I opened one eye slightly. In the dim light, I saw the man who had shot me. He was talking in a low voice with someone. Now I knew I was alive. At the same time I wondered if I should ask him to shoot me again? If he left me, I would only suffer and die later. Or he would bury me alive. But I did not move...
I felt a noose around my feet. They pulled me outside. Evidently, I was in the way of their reaching Szmul. I was put down in the mud. The night was cold. I was nude and it was raining. I opened my eyes and watched in the dark, silhouettes of the men in front of our hiding place. I heard steps and lay down again. A man approached, stopped and said, "Might be better to give him another bullet." I froze, recognizing Bojarski's voice. Someone put his hand over my mouth, I held my breath. At the second, when I though my lungs would burst, he removed his palm. He then felt my fingers in the dark probably looking for rings and said to Bojarski, "Lets not waste a bullet; he is already stiff."
Suddenly I heard a scream from Szmul, "Don't shoot! Don't shoot! I want to live!" There was a shot, then another. Again a scream from Szmul, a last muffled shot, then complete silence...
They returned to and pulled me inside the barn. After more poking and shaking of the hay they left, while one said to the other, "We'll bury them tomorrow; they won't rot until then and we can search more thoroughly in the daylight." When they left I crawled out, and ran to the woods.
Ironically, after surviving the hell of Sobibor, Leon Feldhendler was killed in his home in Lublin, soon after the liberation by anti-Semitic Polish countrymen. Sasha Pechersky spent years in a Soviet prison. They did not believe his story and he was accused of cooperation with the Nazis. He was released when people from abroad were asking about him and his story was verified.
SOME OF THE SURVIVORS
he last thing my father told me as he pushed me from the train was "You run. I know you will stay alive, you have the Belzer Rebbe's blessing." He was very religious and he believed this.
I was born in a little city in Poland named Oleszyce. Our community consisted of 7,000 families, half of them were Jews. My father, Israel Vogel, was the head of the Jewish community, the head of the Kehillah.
In our part of Poland there was a famous Rabbi, the Belzer Rebbe. When I was born there was a big fire in the Rebbe's house. He had many invitations to stay with people while his house in Belz was being rebuilt. His personal secretary, his Gabbai, went to look at all these places and chose ours. Our house was big enough to accommodate the Rebbe's household. This was a great honor. He lived with us for three years.
At this time I was an infant in the cradle. My mother had lost four children. We were supposed to go live in a house we owned next door. My mother refused to move me out of our main house until the Belzer Rabbi blessed me. It was said that he gave me a special blessing. The whole city knew about this.
My father had a business of distributing religious articles. The occupation of a majority of the older Jews in our community was to make these articles, like Torahs and tefillin. I was interested in how they were made. They would stretch animal skins on a frame to make the parchment. The parchment would be cut into sheets. Sofers or scribes would then write the letters on the parchment. It took a scribe an entire year to write a Torah. They sewed the parchment sheets together into the scrolls with threads made of animal sinews. My father could recognize the handwriting of all of his scribes. Every week they brought their work to my father to get paid. He would then distribute the religious articles to buyers in Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Rumania and later, after my brother emigrated, to the United States.
My mother, Ita Prince, was an orphan. The family she lived with was too poor to afford a dowry, and in those days it was hard to get married without one. My father was a widower with six children. My mother was 18 and my father was 34. They matched my mother up with my father because he was rich and because he promised to take in all her sisters and provide dowries for them. She did not want to marry him, but she had no choice. Her foster family said, "If you do not marry him you will have to provide for yourself and your three sisters." It was a business proposition. My mother had eight children. I was the oldest child. I felt sorry for my mother because she was always pregnant.
At that time it was considered unimportant for a girl to have an education. The government gave you only a basic education, and after that you had to pay. My father educated the boys. After I completed seventh grade my father did not think I should go to high school. I went on a hunger strike. I did not eat and I locked myself in the room until my father agreed that I could go to high school. I had also gone to cheder to get a religious education.
In our city everybody was observant. Everyone went to synagogue and everyone ate kosher. On Shabbos the men wore streimels. When it was time to go to synagogue on Friday night, the shammes would holler in the street or knock on the doors.
The Jews and the non-Jews in our town did not mix socially, only in business. The anti-Semitism was very strong; we felt it all over. The gentile children did not want to associate with us, and they called us names. The Jewish children were not permitted to take part in school plays. The Christians were told that the Jews killed Christ. On Easter they would throw stones at us. However, there were no pogromsat this time, before the Germans came into Poland.
We were aware of the Nazis and events in Germany from the newspapers. I remember the incident at Zbaszyn when the Polish citizens were expelled from Germany and were forced to return to Poland. This led up to Kristallnacht, which happened in Germany. I remember that one refugee family did not have a place to live, and my father gave them a room.
Somehow we did not believe Hitler would come to Poland. Until the last minute people did not believe that the Germans would invade us. The Polish soldiers used to sing patriotic songs. They would not give up an inch of our Polish soil to the last drop of their blood. They sang songs about fighting for the port of Danzig.
People did not believe that the Germans would come until they saw the airplanes. It was so sudden. In a couple of days the Germans occupied the whole of Poland. Then there was not anything one could do. It was too late. The Germans and the Russians had a treaty, the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, which divided Poland at the River San. Because our town was on the Russian side, the Germans occupied our part of Poland for just two weeks. Then, according to the Treaty, the Russians came in. Until 1941 the Russians were in charge.
I still had a year left to finish high school. But my father could not continue his business because the Russians did not permit the practice of religion. As the oldest child I had to take a job to support the family. Jobs were hard to get. The Russians gave the first jobs to poor people and to working people. Because my father was considered a rich businessman, he was called a capitalist. As the daughter of a "capitalist" I could not get a job. So I wrote a letter to Stalin. I wrote him that we were a large family and my father was too old to work. I received a reply from his office, and I was given a job. They wrote it up in the local newspaper. I started out as a secretary and advanced to assistant assessor in the local internal revenue office.
We did not expect anything to happen. One Saturday evening in June 1941 we went to sleep. About 6 o'clock Sunday morning we heard gunshots and went out to see what was happening. German motorcycles were going down the main street. Soldiers were shooting right and left. Whoever was on the street was killed right away. This is when our problems began.
The Jews were not permitted to keep a job. People started to trade their belongings with the farmers for food. Potatoes and flour were more important than money. If someone had savings in the bank, all the money was confiscated. If someone had cash at the house, it did not last too long. Best off were the people who had stores and who could hide the merchandise.
The first thing they did was to make a Judenrat. A few Jews became responsible for the entire Jewish community. To these people they gave orders which they had to pass on to us. Every day there was a different decree. We had to put on armbands so we would be recognized as Jews. Our armbands were white with blue Stars of David sewn on. Every day orders came for people to go to work at hard labor or to do work like cleaning toilets. The Judenrat had to deliver the number of people they required.
Already it was a fight for survival. We had to do what they wanted. If we did not, we would be killed immediately. We did not have a newspaper or a radio so we did not know what was going on in the outside world. We just hoped to stay alive and that the war would end before they would do something to us.
We were not allowed to walk down the sidewalks, but had to walk down the middle of the street. The street in our town was not paved. When it rained it became a street of mud. Once my mother forgot and walked on the sidewalk. A young walked by, a Ukrainian man who was a teacher. He had helped my brothers with their homework and had come to our house. He went and hit my mother when he saw her walking on the sidewalk. My mother came in and cried. She said, "If a German had done it, I would have said nothing. But this man should have been an intelligent person: he came into my house and I fed him."
Even your friends could turn against you. It was as if anyone could pick on the underdog. I did not understand. I felt degraded. There were times when I envied a dog. A dog has his master who takes care of him and feeds him. We were outside the law. Anyone could do with us as they wanted.
I was luckier than most people under the Germans. I understood the tax books. For almost a year I was sitting in city hall with the armband working on the tax books. I worked for them until they could train somebody else. I did not receive any pay. I got bread, which was better than getting money. When I brought the bread home, I gave everyone a piece. My little brother looked for crumbs on the floor because he was hungry and wanted more, but nobody could have more. Now I feel so guilty. I hit him because he took the crumbs from the dirty floor.
In those days the way they delivered messages was by a city drummer. He beat his drum calling out "Ja wam tu oglaszam"" I have an announcement for you." In our town the drummer's name was Pan Czurlewicz. He wore a uniform like a policeman. He came to our street drumming and calling until everyone came out of their houses. "All the Jews must assemble in the city square," he said, "If they find someone missing they will be shot."
When we arrived at the city square, we saw a fire in the middle of it. The whole inventory from the synagogue was burning, the prayer books, the torah scrolls, everything was burning. The German soldiers pushed the young girls up to the old men and made them dance around the bonfire. When we looked up we saw that each of our town's three synagogues was on fire.
All around us our neighbors and friends were watching and laughing at us like they were at a show. This hurt us more that what the Germans did. After the fire burned down they told us to line up and parade through the whole town so everyone could see us. This I will never forget.
We were living in conditions of hunger and fear, but we were still in our own homes. People made hiding places in their houses to hide from the Germans. Our hiding place was in the attic behind a double wall. Whenever we saw the Germans, we would run to the attic and hide. Even the little children understood that if they made noise it was a matter of life and death.
This continued until September 1942. One day the drummer came. He announced that all the Jews had to take what they could carry and walk the seven kilometers to the next town of Lubaczow. There was a ghetto there.
All the Jews of Oleszyce and the neighboring villages were moved to the ghetto in Lubaczow. The ghetto was the size of one city block for 7,000 people. We slept 28 people in a room that was about 12 by 15 feet. It was like a sardine box. People lived in attics, in basements, in the streets--all over. We were lucky to have a roof over our heads; not everyone did.
It was cold. In one corner there was a little iron stove but no fuel. We were not given enough to eat. The children looked through the garbage for food. There was not enough water to drink. There was one well in the backyard, but it would not produce enough water for everybody. To be sure to get water you had to get up in the middle of the night. Once I had a little water to wash myself, and my sister later washed herself in the same water. Some people started to eat grass. They would swell up and die. Because of the unsanitary conditions people got lice and typhus. My brother Pinchas got night blindness from lack of vitamins. Every day a lot of people died. It was a terrible situation. People were depressed. There was nothing to do. They waited and hoped and prayed.
Then, beginning on January 4, 1943, the Gestapo and the Polish and Ukranian police started to chase all the Jews out from their houses. The deportation took several days. People ran and hid. The Jewish police helped to find the people in hiding. They had been promised that they would stay alive if they cooperated.
We knew where we were going. A boy from our town had been deported to Belzec camp. He escaped and came back to our town. He told us that Belzec had a crematorium. Deportation trains from other cities had passed by our city and people had thrown out notes. These notes were picked up by the men forced to work there. The notes said, "Don't take anything with you, just water."
They took us to a cattle train. People started to run away from the train, but they were shot. Once on the train we had to stand because there was no room to sit down. A boy tore the barbed wires from the train window. The young people started to jump out of the window. Many jumped. The SS on the rooftop of the train shot at them with rifles. My father told us, the oldest three, "Run, run--maybe you will stay alive. We will stay here with the small children because even if they get out, they will not be able to survive." To me he said, "You run, I know you will stay alive. You have the Belzer Rebbe's blessing." He was very religious and he believed this.
My brother Berele jumped out, then my sister Hannah, and then I jumped out. The SS men shot at us. I landed in a snowbank. The bullets did not hit me. When I did not hear anything anymore, I went back to find my brother and my sister. I found them dead. My brother Berele was 15. My sister Hannah was 16. I was 17.
I took off my star and I promised myself that never again would I ever wear a star. I ran back to the city where we lived. We had a Gentile friend there, a lady to whom we gave a lot of our belongings. She was scared to keep me. Gentile families who were found to be hiding Jews would be killed. She hid me behind a cedar-robe in the corner. I was standing there listening to people come in. They were discussing how they were killing the Jews, how the Jews were running away, who had been shot. It was a small city. They felt sorry for the Jews. It was a sensation, a thing to talk about. They felt sorry but they forgot right away.
In the evening when it became dark she gave me half a loaf of bread and 25 Polish zlotys. She told me to go. I went to another family's house that I knew who lived close to the woods. He was a forester. When I worked with the taxes, I had helped them. They were afraid to let me in. It was already dark. I could not walk. It was freezing cold. There was snow. I was not well dressed. I went in the barn where they had a newborn calf, and I lay down with it to keep me warm. About twelve o'clock the wife came to look at the calf. She saw me and felt sorry for me. She let me come and sleep in the house, but in the morning she told me to go.
I wanted to go to the train station, but I was afraid to go in our city because everybody knew me. So I went to the woods and walked to the next station 32 kilometers away. At that time it was thought that there were partisans in the woods. People were afraid to go in the woods, but I was not afraid. I was walking in the deep snow, and in the evening I came to the station in Jaroslaw.
At the Jaroslaw station I bought a ticket for Cracow. I figured that Cracow was a big city with a big Jewish community. Maybe the ghetto would still be there. In the train station I saw the person who took over my job at the internal revenue. I was frightened that she might recognize me. I kept walking around the block until the train came. Then I got on the train. This was another situation. I did not have any documents. The lady that gave me the bread had given me some papers from her daughter, but they were not good enough. There were identification checks on the train. Every station I would move to another wagon.
In Cracow I spent two days and two nights living in the train station. There was a curfew at night because of the war. People who came into the city late had to stay in the train station until morning, so there were always a lot of people there. I moved around a lot so people would not recognize me, from one bench to another, from one room to another. It was a big station. But I did not have any money, and I did not have any bread. I had never been to Cracow before. I did not know where the ghetto was. I did not see anybody with an armband, and I was scared to ask someone where the ghetto was.
I walked and walked. I was hungry. I figured the only thing to do was to jump in the river. I came to a market place, a farmers' market. I could hear running. They closed up the market place and took all the young people aside. I could hear the girls and boys talking. They were catching boys and girls and sending them to work in Germany. Nobody would go work freely in Germany; they had to use force. This was how they rounded up the people. I was very glad that I was caught with those people. I was caught as a Gentile and not as a Jew.
They took us to an old school at Number 4 Wolska street. First they sent us to take baths, and they disinfected our clothes. A lady inspected our hair; because I had been in the ghetto, I had lice. She cut my hair short and put something in it. Next they sent us to doctors. If you had certain kinds of sicknesses, you would be relieved.
I prayed to God that they should not find anything wrong with me--after such a long time in the ghetto, after the malnutrition. Thank God, I passed the physical. If I had been a boy, I could not have passed. None of the Polish boys were circumcised, but the Jewish boys were. A Jewish boy would have been recognized by the doctors right away. I assumed the identity of a Polish girl, Katarzyna Czuchowska, a name I made up. I took a different birthday, May 12th.
We were put on a train and taken from Cracow to Vienna. They sent us to a place where the German farmers came to pick up workers. It was something like a slave market. One family liked me and took me to their farm, which was on the border with Czechoslovakia in the Sudetenland. The farm was a bad place because the husband was at home and he was a very mean person. The neighbors said that he avoided the draft by bribing someone. He made anti-Semitic remarks, even though he did not know I was Jewish.
After a year I got sick. They transferred me to a smaller farm where there were nice people. There were no males there, and I had to carry sacks of grain. At Christmas, when the husband came home on leave, they made homemade wine from their vineyards. The husband got drunk and he began to curse Hitler, "Hitler, you so-and-so! If it were not for Hitler, I would be home with my family." I was scared someone would hear him, so I closed the door so nobody would come into the house.
I was scared that they would find out I was Jewish. I was not afraid of the Germans because I was not different looking from anyone else. But I was afraid of my friends, the Poles. I was scared that one of them would recognize me. They were country girls, and I was afraid that they would figure out how much more educated I was.
I was the letter writer for everybody. If someone needed to write a love letter, they came to me. The Poles got letters from their families and packages of clothes. My letters were returned. I made up the excuse that my family was resettled and they did not know where I was. After a time when I saw that nobody recognized me, I felt secure.
Then a terrible thing happened. Before Easter, Marie, the farm lady I worked for, told me that I had to go to confession. I was a religious Jewish girl, and I did not know what Catholic girls did at confession. I lay awake nights worrying what I would do until I came up with a solution.
My Polish friends did not speak German, which I had picked up easily because I knew Yiddish. My friends were going to go to confession at the Slovakian church, where they spoke a language close to Polish. I asked Marie to let me take confession at her church in the German language. She showed me the prayer book where I had to confess my sins. I figured if I did not say the words exactly right, the German priest would not be suspicious because I was just a Polish girl. So I made up some sins and went to confession. My heart was pounding; I was so scared. I saw what other people were doing, and I imitated them. I went up to the German priest, and he put something on my tongue. Somehow I blacked out; it must have been the fear. When I came to, Marie asked me why I was so pale. I made up the excuse that I was weak from fasting. Later on everything went smoothly.
The worst part was when I tried to go to sleep. In the daytime I did not have time to think. I got up at five o'clock in the morning, milked ten cows, then went into the fields. But at night I was afraid to sleep. I dreamed about my family and my friends. I had horrible nightmares: I dreamed I saw my whole family with the Germans running after us. I hid but I could not escape from them. I wondered if my family were dead or alive. I dreamed I saw my dead sister and brother on the cattle train to Belzec. I woke up shaking in a cold sweat. At that time I prayed to God. I promised myself, "If I will survive, I will return to the religion of my parents. I will observe." And that's how I survived.
They brought sixty Jews to a big farm to work. There were guarded by the SS. One day I passed three of them, and I felt such an urge to talk to them. I saw that other boys and girls were talking to them, but I was scared that if I talked to them, I would get emotional or reveal something, and they would recognize me. I do not know what happened to those people.
In May 1945 the Germans started to draw back, and one day the Russians came in. I was still scared to tell anyone I was Jewish. I looked at the Russian soldiers to see if I could recognize anyone who was Jewish, but I didn't.
Now came the time that I could help my people, the German farmers. The Russians started to rape the German women. When they came to our door, I spoke to them in Russian. They stationed a Russian captain in our house. He saw to it that nothing happened to our family.
I wanted to go back to Poland. I figured that maybe I would still find somebody alive. It was a long journey back to Poland. The mail started up. I had a brother and sister from my father's first marriage who were alive. He had immigrated to the United States in 1933, and she had gone to Russia. He wired her and she came and got me and took me to Breslau (Wroclaw). We could not go back to our city because Russia had taken that part of Poland. I had written to a friend and not one Jew went back to our city. I learned later that from my whole city of about 3,000 Jewish families, just 12 people survived.
The Red Cross had lists of people who had survived, but we could not find anybody from our family. My half-brother attempted to get me a visa to the United States, but there were quotas. I got a transit visa to Sweden. Meanwhile, from the Red Cross lists I found a friend from Oleszyce who had been in Auschwitz. She was the only other person who jumped from the same train as I did and lived. Her fiancee had met my future husband at the train station in Cracow. My husband was in the Polish army. He and I were childhood friends from Oleszyce. Her fiancee invited my husband to come to their wedding, which was two weeks before I was supposed to go to Sweden, but they did not tell me anything about him.
At the wedding Henry walked in--He did not know that I had survived--I did not know that he had survived. I almost dropped from the chair. I thought I was seeing a ghost. Henry right away asked me to marry him. I said, "No, Henry, I have to wait; I am going to Sweden." Henry went with me to Warsaw to catch the first airplane that was going from Warsaw to Stockholm after the war. Henry said, "I will come to Sweden." Four weeks later Henry came illegally on a coal boat to Sweden. He paid a sailor who smuggled him onto the boat.
At that time most of the survivors were single. People married people that they did not know just to get somebody, just to have a family. When Henry and I were young children in school, he would come to our house under my window and talk to me. We were friends. Not boyfriend and girlfriend. I was too young. But we were attracted to one another.
When the Swedes let Henry out of quarantine, he asked for political asylum. He did not want to be in Poland, a communist country, in a communist army. A Rabbi married us three weeks later on Christmas Eve. I did not even have a coat. I had to borrow a coat from the girl next door to go to Synagogue. We took a furnished room and went to work in a restaurant. We were dishwashers. Henry washed the big pots and I washed the glasses. We lived on one salary and with the other we bought things that we would need for the house.
After three months I got a job in a factory making blouses, and Henry got a job in a tailoring factory. No one gave us anything; we started out from nothing. We worked our way up with our ten fingers. Henry learned tailoring in no time. They sent him to a school to learn to be a foreman. He got a high school degree; he took correspondence courses; he learned English. After three years my eldest daughter was born.
We came to the United States on May 2, 1954, when our quota came. After eight years in Sweden it was difficult to adjust to life in New York City. It was difficult for me not knowing the language. When I came to the United States I spoke Yiddish, Hebrew, Polish, Russian, German, and Swedish, but not English. I was pregnant and stayed at home. My oldest daughter came home with her school books--"See Dick run." I learned English by helping my daughter with her homework. I tested her on spelling, and she tested me. As soon as I learned the English language, I adjusted. After seven years in New York, we thought we would like it better in a smaller community. We came to New Orleans in 1962. Eventually, my husband started his own tailoring business. I had two other children, both girls.
There are times when I ask myself, "Where was God when my parents were taken away from me? When my youngest brother shouted, which I still hear him screaming, I want to live too!"' When they took us away, he shouted, "I want to live, I want to live!" This picture will never, never in my life disappear from my eyes. A lot of times when I lie down, I still hear that voice. He was 3 years old. Even though they were that small, the little children knew what was happening to them. And I ask myself a lot of times, "Where was God? Where is God?" I don't try to search any deeper because I think without religion it would be harder for me to live.
If you lose your parents at any age, it hurts. To lose your parents in that way, at that age, and to be alone in the world... If you cannot grieve right away, it stays with you for your whole life. You need compassion to be able to talk out your grief. Time is the best doctor. As the days and weeks and years go, it grows weaker and weaker. But you never forget. I tell my students that they should cherish their parents and obey them. A parent is always at your side.
In Poland, after the war I was sick emotionally and physically. I had to go to a doctor to get shots to gain weight. In Sweden I went to a psychiatrist because I could not get over those terrible nightmares. Today I see that when there is a disaster, they send people to a psychiatrist or a psychologist. We had to work out our own problems. As parents we were overprotective to our children. My eldest daughter was accepted at an Ivy League college, but I was afraid to let her go away from home to school. We were afraid to let our children know too much about our past.
I taught Hebrew and prepared children for their Bar Mitzvahs. A friend encouraged me to go to college. In 1985 I graduated from the University of New Orleans. It was my children that made me talk. In the beginning I did not talk to anybody. I did not tell anything. My daughter had to write a paper for school, and she got me to talk. Now, Henry and I go to schools to talk with students about the Holocaust. That is how life goes on.
How did I survive? When a person is in trouble he wants to live. He fights for his life...Some people say, "Eh -- What will be, will be." No! You have to fight for yourself day by day. Some people did not care. They said, "I do not want to live. What is the difference? I don't give a damn." I was thinking day by day. I want to live. A person has to hold on to his own will, hold on to that to the last minute.
I am from Warsaw. I lived in Praga, which is the part of the city across the Vistula river. I had a nice life there; I had my own shop where I used to make fur coats. In Warsaw when a Jewish holiday came we used to know it was a holiday. All the stores were closed, and the people were in the synagogues.
Out of the 78 people in my family, I am the only one to survive. My parents had 3 boys and 3 girls: My parents were Jacob and Toby; my brothers were Moishe and Baruch, and my sisters were Sarah, Rivka and Leah. They were all killed.
My mother and my older sister were killed in the last week of January 1941. The year 1941 was a cold winter with a lot of snow. One morning the SD and the Jewish police caught me in the street. I was forced to work with a lot of other people clearing snow from the railroad tracks. Our job was to keep the trains running.
When I returned to the ghetto I found out that my mother and older sister had been killed. The Germans demanded that the Judenrat collect gold and furs from the people in the ghetto. When they asked my mother for jewelry and furs, she said she had none. So they shot her and my older sister too.
My father was killed in April 1942. He went to buy bread from the children who were smuggling food into the ghetto. The children brought bread, potatoes and cabbages across the wall into the Warsaw ghetto. A Jewish policeman pointed out my father to a German and told him that he saw my father take a bread from a boy at the wall. The German shot my father in the back.
The deportations started on July 22, 1942. My other 2 sisters and 2 brothers went to Treblinka. After that I never saw anybody from my family again.
I am a furrier. In the ghetto I worked at Tobbens' shop. We made lambs' wool jackets for the German army. These were short jackets; today we would call them Eisenhower jackets.
For lunch they gave us bread and soup. In the evening we got another bread and coffee. When Poles came to the shop, we could trade with them for extra food. We gave them a few shirts for a piece of salami and some bread or potatoes to make a soup. But how long could our situation last?
One day there was a selection and I was pulled from the shop. However, I was lucky because a Volksdeutscher told them I was a good worker. So I was allowed to go back to the shop, and someone else was put in my place.
A friend told me that he saw one of my sisters working at Shultz's shop. I wanted to see her, but I was 3 kilometers away and I did not know how to get there. A Jewish policeman told me that he could get a German soldier to go with me and bring me back. It would cost 500 zlotys, which was a lot of money, but I said OK.
The soldier put me in handcuffs, and he walked behind me with a rifle like I was his prisoner. When I got to Shultz's shop, I could not find my sister. Then I found that I was stuck there. I could not go back because the ghetto had been surrounded by German soldiers. The next morning was April 19, 1943, which was the day the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began.
On May 1, 1943, I was shot in the right ankle. The bullet went through the meat and not the bone, so I did not lose my leg. I was taken to the Umschlagplatz. The Treblinka extermination camp could only take 10,000 people a day. In our group we were 20,000. They cut off half of our train and sent it to Majdanekconcentration camp. Majdanek was another death camp.
At Majdanek they took our clothes and gave us striped shirts, pants and wooden shoes. I was sent to Barracks 21. As I lay in my bed, an older man asked me how I was. He said, "I can help you." He had been a doctor in Paris. He took a little pocket knife and operated on me. To this day I do not understand how he could have kept a knife in the camp. There were no medicines or bandages. He said, "I have no medication, you have to help yourself. When you urinate use some of the urine as an antiseptic on your wound."
We had to walk 3 kilometers to work. I had to hold myself up straight without limping and walk out of the gate of the camp. I was scared. If I limped, they would take me out of line. At Majdanek they hung you for any little thing. I did not know how I would make it. God must have helped me and, I was lucky.
We stood at the appell in our wooden shoes. Then when we got out of the gate we had to take off our wooden shoes and tie them over our shoulders with a piece of string. We had to walk to work barefoot. There were little stones on the road that cut into your skin and blood was running from the feet of many people. The work was dirty field work. After a few days some people could not take it anymore, and they fell down in the road. If they could not get up, they were shot where they lay. After work we had to carry the bodies back. If 1,000 went out to work, a 1,000 had to come back.
One day as we were standing at appell, a man in the back of the line smoked a cigarette. Heavy smokers would find a piece of paper and light it just to feel like they were smoking something. A German, the Lagerfuhrer, came up riding a tall, black horse. The horse had a white patch on his head and its legs were white too. It was a beautiful horse. The Lagerfuhrer held a whip in his hand. This man was a monster. It was late in the day and the sun was going down. He saw the smoke from the cigarette.
The Lagerfurhrer looked down at us and demanded to know who had smoked a cigarette. No one answered. "I am going to hang 10 dogs," he said. "I will give you 3 minutes." They called us dogs because we had tags with our numbers on them; my number was 993. We looked from one to the other, but no one answered.
The Lagerfurhrer did not wait 3 minutes; he did not wait 2 minutes. He took his whip and he cut off 2 rows of 5 prisoners. I was in the group of 10.
He asked, "Who wants to go up first on the bench?" You had to go stand on the bench and put the rope around your neck. I was in the first three to go up on the bench. I climbed up and put the rope around my neck.
He started beating us. He beat me so much the blood was running down my head.
Before this happened, a soldier had come to Majdanek for the purpose of selecting three groups of 750 people to take to another camp. I had been selected to be in the second group of 750. This soldier had been in Lublin at the main office processing our papers. While I was standing on the bench, the soldier came back to the gallows area.
When he saw what was happening, he started hollering, "Halt, Halt! What is happening here?"
The Lagerfurhrer said, "A dog smoked a cigarette. They won't say which one, so I am going to hang 10 dogs."
"Whose dogs?" the soldier asked. "I have papers to transfer these people, and I cannot bring in dead dogs. I have to bring them alive."
The soldier took off the rope that had been around my neck. All it would have taken was a few seconds more and I would have been dead. He just had to kick out the bench. The soldier beat us until we jumped down from the bench and got back into the line.
The soldier took us to the railroad tracks, he put us on a train and the next morning we left Majdanek. I had been there 9 weeks. We were on this train for two nights and a day with no food or water. In my 9 weeks at Majdanek I had not changed my shirt or washed myself. We were eaten up with lice, and many of us were swollen from hunger.
When we got off the train, we saw that we had arrived at Auschwitz. There was a selection and some of us were machine gunned in a field there. They did not take them to the gas chambers.
I was taken to get a number tattooed on my arm. I got Number 128232. The separate numbers add up to 18. In the Hebrew language the letters of the alphabet stand for numbers. The letters which stand for the number eighteen spell out the Hebrew word "Chai,"which means life. After I was tattooed, I was given a potato.
I was first sent to the camp at Buna. After I got out of quarantine, I was put to work building railroad tracks. The Capo there was a murderer. I am short, and he would put a short man together with a tall man to carry twenty-foot lengths of iron. The tall man I worked with had to bend his knees.
One time I fell down and could not get up. The Capo started screaming and beating me, and he pulled me aside. There was a selection, and we had to take off our clothes and stand naked the whole night. The next morning a truck with a red cross came, and they pushed us into it, one on top of the other. We thought that they were going to take us to the gas chambers.
Instead, we were taken to the Auschwitz I camp. A Polish man came out of a building, and he asked us to call out our numbers. I said," 128232." He looked at a paper and asked my name? I said, "Szlama Radosinski," which is my name in Polish and doesn't sound like a Jewish name. He asked me where I was from? "Warsaw," I said. How long was I there? "I was raised there," I said.
He started to cuss me like I never heard before in my life. He pulled me out of the line and put me in a corner. He said, "Stay here." He brought me a piece of blanket to cover myself with. I was freezing, so he brought me inside the barracks.
I lay down. I did not know what was happening or what to think. A young guy came up to me and said, "I know you." I asked him, "Who are you?" He said his name was Erlich and that he knew me from Majdanek.
I asked him what this place was. He said it was the hospital barracks, Block 20. He told me, "It is very bad here. Dr. Mengele comes two times a week to make selections. But this is Tuesday and he will not come again this week. I will let you know what is going to happen." I had not eaten since Monday. He gave me a bread.
Erlich had been there 5 weeks. He had come from Majdanek to Auschwitz the same day as I did. Two of the doctors at the hospital knew his grandfather, who had been their rabbi in Cracow. They had hidden him from Dr. Mengele. Those doctors had tried to help hide Jewish people in Cracow. When the SS came, they killed the Jews they hid and took the doctors to Auschwitz.
On Thursday Erlich came to me and said, "You have to get out of here." I said, "What am I going to do--jump from the second floor window?" In the afternoon he came again and said,"You have to get out of here, or after tomorrow you are going to be dead." About an hour later a man came in and sat at a table. He asked, "Who wants to go to work?" The Poles in the hospital were not worried about going to work. Why should they go work when they were getting packages from the Red Cross and having enough to eat?
I had to get this work. The man at the table asked me my number and then he cussed me out. I begged him, " I want to go out. I have friends outside. Please let me out." He gave me a piece of paper that said Block 6.
I walked to Block 6, and I showed the paper. The man there said, "I cannot let you in until 9 o'clock at night." I stayed there until the men returned from work. One man asked me, "You are new here; where are you from and what did you do?" I said, "I am from Warsaw and I was a furrier." He asked me where I lived, and I told him. He asked me if I knew a certain man's name and I said, "Yes, he is a furrier too, and he lives in such and such street."
One of the men said, "I don't believe you; what is this man called? He has a nickname." I said, "This man has a little piece of skin hanging down by his left ear, and they call him 'tsutsik' (Yiddish=nipple)." When I said this, they started to help me. They brought me a big piece of bread and some cold soup.
They asked me where I was going to work, and I showed them the piece of paper. They said, "Oh, No! You will not make it over 8 or 10 days in that job." The job was to work in a coal mine. "The longest anyone lives in that job is two weeks. After that they go to the crematorium." I was scared. My number was registered as working there. I said, "If I do not go there, then I am going to be hanged next to the kitchen, and the prisoners are going to walk by me."
They said, "Don't worry." One guy calls another guy and says, "Go fix this!" They went to the Capo with the piece of paper. This Capo was a murderer. He had a green triangle. The Germans opened up the jails and they made the prisoners our bosses. Some of the boys worked in Canada. When the transports came they separated the valuables. They risked their lives to smuggle out gold and other things. Every day they brought this Capo cigarettes or salami, so he said, "Yes."
The next morning they woke me up and they took me with them. They put me in the middle of the line and we walked together out of the gate. They told me that as soon as we get out of the gate, I would be safe because over 6,000 prisoners walk out of the gate every day and nobody knows who is who.
There was a beautiful orchestra playing by the gate. They would not let me go to the other job. I stayed with them until the last minute when Auschwitz was liquidated. They helped me out with little pieces of bread and a little soup.
One day the boys asked me if I could make a cap for the Capo, and they brought me some striped material. I took a piece of string to take a measurement. I asked them for some thread and a needle, and I made the cap in about 2 hours. For stiffness I took some paper from a cement bag and doubled the material at the top. The Capo liked the cap. I was his guy from then on, and he never beat me the whole time.
I was working for over a year with the boys at the same job, digging sand. Ten of us worked in the sand mine. There was a little guy from Breslau that we made our supervisor. He stood on top, and we were 20 feet down below. Every day we loaded up a wagon with the sand and pushed it 16 kilometers. That was 2 trips of 4 kilometers one way and 4 kilometers coming back--over 10 miles a day.
Twice a day we carried sand to Birkenauto cover the ashes of the dead. The sand was to cover the ashes that came from the crematoria. I did this for more than a year.
The ovens were on one side of the crematoria, and the ashes came out this side. The other side was where the gas chamber was. The Sonderkommando, took the ashes out of the ovens. There were big holes for the ashes and we covered the ashes with sand.
I saw when the transports came. I saw the people who were going in, who to the right and who to the left. I saw who was going to the gas chambers. I saw the people going to the real showers, and I saw the people going to the gas. In August and September of 1944 I saw them throw living children into the crematorium. They would grab them by an arm and a leg and throw them in.
One Saturday, when we were working, we turned around and saw a soldier with a rifle, so we started to speed up. The soldier said, "Slow down; today is your Sabbath." He was a Hungarian, and he said, "Come to my barracks at 4 o'clock, and I will have something for you. I will put out a bucket with trash in it. Look under the trash, and you will find eleven pieces of bread." For two or three weeks he put out bread for us. He asked us to bring him money from Canada, which we did. He used to tell us the names of the Jewish holidays. One day he disappeared.
The Russians were pushing back the Germans at Stalingrad. Transports were coming from the Lodz ghetto. That is when we saw them grab the little children by the head and the leg and throw them into the crematoria alive. Then the Hungarianpeople were coming.
There was this group of young people who wanted to destroy the crematoria. There were four crematoria in Birkenau. The young girls worked at an ammunition factory, and they smuggled in explosives. One crematorium was destroyed. They hung 2 of the girls in front of us when we came back from work.
Life was going on. Everyday was a different problem until January 18, 1945, when they began liquidating Auschwitz. On the 18th I left Auschwitz, and 9 days later the Russians liberated it. Those 7 days cost me 5 months.
When we left, everybody had to get out of the barracks. I was walking the whole night with a rabbi from Sosnowiec. The Rabbi had come from Block 2, which was the tailor shop. I saw that the soldiers behind us were shooting the people who fell down. The Rabbi fell down in the road and this boy from Belgium and I held up the Rabbi between us and kept walking. We saw a sled pulled by a soldier, and we asked him if we could pull the sled with the Rabbi in it until morning.
The guys who lived in Block 2, the tailors' barracks, could get some of the gold and the diamonds that people had sewn into the linings of their clothes. They gave their block leader some gold and diamonds to let them hide the Rabbi in the barracks. They hid him in a closet that they had built in the wall. They put the Rabbi in the closet when they went out to roll call at 6 o'clock in the morning and took him out when they came back in the evening. Many times I went there at 5 o'clock in the morning to say Kaddish for my parents with the Rabbi.
At daylight we came to a small town and the farmers let us stay in the stables. In the evening we had to get out. We walked to a railroad station. In two days the train brought us to Gross-Rosen camp. I never saw the Rabbi again.
Gross-Rosen was murder. The guards walked around with iron pipes in their hands. They said, "We are going to help you; we are going to get you out of here." We were put in a shed with two thousand men. In the daytime we had to stand up, and at night we slept head to food. The only food we got was a slice of bread and a cup of coffee at night. I thought I was going to be die there.
They walked us to the railroad station, and in 3 days we came to Dachau. The train ride was terrible; the train pulled up and pulled back, up and back. We ate snow for water. A man was in there with his son who went crazy. The son grabbed the father by the neck and choked him to death. At Dachau there was a selection for the typhus blocks. I had a friend from Radom who was strong. He could have made it, but they put him in the typhus block.
I left Dachau on the 26th or the 27th of April, 1945. I was liberated on May 1st. During this time we were traveling on trains. We were in Tutzing and in Feldafing and in Garmisch. There were big mountains there . One day they had us get out of the train, and we had to go up twenty feet to the other side of the mountain. Then the Germans set up machine guns and started to fire at us. A few hundred were killed as we ran back to the train.
The next day we heard planes dropping bombs. A few hours later the soldiers opened the door to the train. They said they needed a few people to work cleaning up from the bombs, but we were scared to go. So they said "You, you and you out," and they caught me. I said to myself, "I think this is the end. After all these years in the ghetto and losing everybody, now this is the end. Who is going to be left to say Kaddish for my family?"
We went to this small town on the other side of the mountain where the train station had been bombed. To one man they gave a shovel, to another a broom and to me they gave a pick. I saw a counter in the station where they were selling little black breads. I said to myself that I would like to eat a piece of bread before they kill me. I was ready for Kiddush Hashem. I grabbed a little dark bread into my jacket and started eating it. A soldier saw me and he howled, "Go to work." I stayed until I had eaten the bread. I did not move, even though he beat me. I fell down and he kicked me and I got up. I had to finish eating that little bread. Blood was running down my head. When I finished, I went to work. I had gotten my wish. Then I knew that I was going to survive.
Early at 4 a.m. the next morning near Tutzing we heard heavy traffic on the highway. We pushed to look out of the two little windows of the train. We expected to see the Russians coming but it was the Americans. We hollered. A jeep drove up with two soldiers. One was a short man, an MP. He spoke good German. He asked who we were. We said we were from the concentration camps. Everybody started hollering and crying. The American soldiers said we were free. They arrested the Germans and the Germans got scared. It was May 1, 1945.
The Americans cooked rice for us. The MP saw me take some rice and he said, "Don't eat that. If you do, you will die. There is too much fat in that for you to eat now. Because your stomach has shrunk, if you eat that you will get diarrhea. I will give you a piece of bread, and you should toast it."
"What is toast," I asked. He said, "Toast is when you make the bread hard." They brought us to Feldafing. I sat in the sun. I boiled a little water and sugar. In two weeks my stomach stretched. They gave us pajamas to wear, but we had no shoes.
One day I saw the same MP in the Jeep. We said to him, "You gave us freedom, but we have no clothes." He said, "I am 3 kilometers from here; come tomorrow at 7 am. We were there at 6 am. We saw the soldiers get breakfast. He signaled for us to get breakfast too and he told the Captain about us. The Captain said to bring us in. We were nearly naked in our pajamas and with no shoes. The Captain gave us a paper to go to the PX and we got shoes, pants, shirts and jackets. We were told to come back at lunchtime. We got three meals a day for weeks.
At the Displaced Persons camp in Feldafing a man asked me to bring food to his niece who was in the hospital. I brought her oranges, bread and butter. When she got well, she gave me a pair of white linen pants. "You saved my life," she said.
In Germany Feldafing had a big name as a place where you came to find missing people. They put up lists of names of survivors on the walls. A lot of liberated people came looking for relatives. A friend of mine came with two ladies, one whom I knew from before, and the other, Sofia, was my wife's friend.
Sofia said, "Your were in the fur business; my girlfriend's family was in the fur business too. Did you ever hear the name of Bursztyn?" I said, "I used to deal with the Bursztyns." She asked me to come to Turkheim to meet her.
I had nothing to lose. Two brothers from Lodz, tailors, made me a suit with two pairs of pants out of a grey and white blanket. My friend and I put our belongings together in one package and went out on the highway to hitchhike to Turkheim. I left Feldafing in August of 1945.
The next day my wife, Frieda, came to see Sofia. My wife was shy and wouldn't come downstairs to meet me. So Sofia said to her, "Go to the window and take a look." She looked. Since then I say, "My wife looked through the window and took a fishing rod and she got me."
We got married in November 1946. My wife was from the same town as I was, and I used to deal with her family. With us there was a feeling, like a family.
We were very poor. At that time you had to have a card to buy things. I went to the Burgermeister, who was like the mayor, to get coupons to get a suit. The problem was that I did not have any money to buy it. My wife and Sofia had a little money that they loaned me to buy a suit, and I loaned this suit to my friend when he got married.
My wife had no dress. We were going to get married on Saturday night. Saturday during the day I knocked on the door of this German woman I knew. I had spoken to her in the street, and we had talked a few times. She had a daughter who was the same size as Frieda. I got 2 packages of cigarettes, 2 Hershey chocolate bars and a little can of coffee and put them into a paper bag.
When she answered the door, we talked and she said to me, "Oh, I saw at the City Hall that you are going to get married." "Yes," I said, "and I am sorry, but my bride has no dress."
Her daughter said, "Oh, No!," and she jumped to the ceiling. Her mother asked her, "Why do you jump, he never said anything about you?" She said, "He is going to want a dress." I said, "Yes, I want a dress." I told that lady that I did not come to rob her. I came to ask her to help me.
I went over to the cedar robe and opened the door and I saw a sky-blue dress. I took up the dress on the hanger and held it up and saw that it was a beautiful color. The daughter started crying. I took the little bag and turned it over on the table and said, "This is the money. This is all that I have. Later on, if I have some, I am going to pay more." The mother said, "Take it." I thanked her and walked out. The daughter was crying. Later on when I built myself up I never went back to the house because I did not want the daughter to get angry. I saw the mother on the street and talked to her. I did not say to her "What you people did to us."
We got married on November 11, 1946. All the greeners in our town came to the wedding. My friend left early on Friday and brought home carp fish and ducks and a goose. We had challa and cakes, and there was singing and dancing. There was just one thing missingrelatives.
We moved from Turkheim to Landsberg, and after 4 years until we came to the United States. My son was born on May the 13, 1948; the State of Israel was born on May the 14, 1948.
We came to New Orleans in 1949. I could not speak English. I went to a fur shop and they gave me fur and pointed to a sewing machine. I sewed. Then I pointed to a frame for stretching the skins and showed them I could do that. I also picked up a knife and showed them I could cut. The hired me at 50 cents an hour even thought the going rate for beginners was 75 cents an hour.
I bought a sewing machine for $50 and started taking in work. Then I was hired by the Haspel Brothers store where I was a foreman. I built myself up, and we raised and educated our two children. After 28 years Frieda and I went on our first vacation in 1978 to Israel.
There we 375,000 Jews living in Warsaw before the war. I doubt that there are 5,000 living there today. It is very, very important for me to tell this story.
I went to see Schindler's List. I was physically broken. Schindler protected. Ninety-nine percent did not have protection. How can you see taking children and throwing them down from the top floor? I cannot imagine it. I have no answer to it. Yet, now you have professors who deny the Holocaust. I am asking you how can they deny what everybody knows is true?
I come from Radom, Poland. We were a big family, 3 sisters and 3 brothers. My father was a livestock dealer. He would buy cattle and take them to another farmer to be fattened up. When the animals were fat, we sold them to Jewish butchers. I would walk the cattle from the country to our house where we had big yard with a stable.
If the animal was for our own food, then we butchered it at home. This was technically against the law because butchering was supposed to be done in a slaughterhouse. When the shochet came to our house, I would carry his knife. It was over a foot long and razor sharp. To be kosher the shochet had to cut the animal's throat with a quick one-two motion. The animals suffered little. Then the shochet would open up the chest and take out the lungs. He would blow them up and examine them. If the lungs were damaged, then the meat could not be kosher and we would sell it to the gentiles. I would pull out the veins by the light of a candle. Before it was cooked the meat would be soaked in water for an hour. Then it would be salted on all sides and washed. All of this was done because there could be no blood left in the meat. Jews cannot eat blood.
So many things happened to me during the war. When the Germans came into Poland, I ran away to Russia. I ran as far as Krasnodar. There I worked as a carpenter. In 1941 when Hitler invaded Russia, I joined the Russian army. We were sent to a place nearKremenchug. Before we could fight we were caught in a pocket and were surrounded by the Germans. I am sorry that I did not get a chance to fight.
When we surrendered, I was with 35 other Jews. Only two survived the shootings. The rest were picked out by the Germans and killed. So I decided to change my name from Borenstein, which was a Jewish name, to Broniewski, which was a Polish name.
As we were marching with thousands of other men into a prisoners-of-war camp, I escaped. We were being marched around a corner, and I jumped out of the line onto the sidewalk. A Russian woman took me aside and hid me. She repaired my shoes. I ran to a little town whose name I can't remember now, but translated it meant "five houses".
At a hospital nearby I worked for bread and soup. I joined the partisans. However, before we got a chance to fight, a Russian teacher, a good friend of mine named Romanoff, got drunk. When he was drunk, he talked too much. The Germans squeezed him, and he gave up the names of 60 people. I was arrested in the forest and taken to a prison in Dnepropetrovsk.
In jail somebody told them I looked like a Jew. They brought me down into the death chamber of the jail. There in the basement of the jail was a dark room. It was maybe 6 feet wide and 25 feet long. Just one brick was taken out for air. They kept me down there for ten days. During this time they brought in three Jewish transports and then took them out to shoot them.
In the jail there was a young girl named Ira Pogorelskaja -- I will never forget her. She was about nineteen. She had blonde hair and was very beautiful. How did I know this? I saw her face in the light when they took us to the toilet. She nursed me when I could not move because of the beatings. They used to throw bread down there for us. I was so weak I could not get any. Ira held me in her arms and protected me from the other prisoners. She saved my bread and fed me. She was half- Jewish and a member of the Communist youth organization. They took her out of the jail and she never returned.
I tried to find Ira Pogorelskaja after the war. One time I was in a train station, and an old lady asked me if she could get a ride to Ira's home town, Dnepropetrovsk. I asked her if she knew her. She said she was Ira Pogorelskaja's grandmother. I told her what I knew. She said Ira was never heard from again.
In the death chamber I was tortured. I given cold showers. I was beaten with leather straps until my skin turned the color of wood. They looked to see if I was circumcised. If I was circumcised they would know I was a Jew. I made up a story: I told them that I was a bed wetter. I had put a tight string around my penis and it had cut me. A Volksdeutscher said, "This guy has been beaten so much that if he was a Jew he would already have confessed." They believed me that I was a Russian soldier, so they put me back in a regular cell. There in the cell a Polish officer recognized me as being a Jew. He started yelling, "Jew, Jew, Jew." The Russian prisoners beat that officer so much that he did not say anything. It was pure luck that I survived.
I was put into a labor camp near Dnepropetrovsk. In 1943 a Jewish fellow told me the story of his life. He did not know I was a Jew. He said, "I know I am not going to be alive, but you, a Russian, may be alive." Later, they took him to the washroom with 49 other Jews, 25 men and 24 women. They undressed them, but left their socks on. They put potato sacks over their heads. They put them on trucks, and we never saw them again. You think I don't dream about that fellow?
The Russian army was coming near us, so they put us on a train. We were taken toAuschwitz, where our train stopped for half a day, but there was no room in Auschwitz for us. So they took us to Mauthausen . At Mauthausen there was a checkpoint: Good, you went to work; Bad, you went to the ovens; Half-bad, you went to the hospital. I was lucky. I had typhoid. They put me in the camp hospital, which was a place for moderately sick people to recover.
In the hospital a Pole recognized that I was Jewish and wanted to help me. He knew I wouldn't survive if I stayed in the hospital, so he sent me out on the next transport to a sub-camp of Mauthausen called Schlier-Redl-Zipf. There we were put to work building a factory inside of a mountain. I never knew what the factory was for. One day the mountain exploded. No more factory. From there I was sent to another sub-camp of Mauthausen called Linz III. I was put to work for the Hermann Goring Works (Reichswerke Hermann Goring) cutting out tank wheels with a torch.
How many hangings were there? In Linz III, they hung 6 Russian boys. The SS put us out to watch. You cannot see anything. You do not feel anything. They make you feel like an animal. It was a slaughterhouse. Absolutely not describable! How can you forget?
While we were working, I heard this guard say, "I am going to kill one of them so the other men will work harder." His gun was pointed at me. I understood German, but I could not let on that I knew it. I just kept on working. Then the other guard said, "He is a soldier just like you, a soldier who wants to go home to his family."
Once my block official got mad at me because I got some extra soup. He said, "I'll fix you up, I'll put you on the transport with the dead." While we were waiting for the transport an SS man with a dog came by. He saw my low number, which was 37,200 something, I can't remember it exactly now. The low number meant that I had been in the camp for a long time. It was an unwritten law of the camp that you got some respect with a low number. The SS man said, "You have time to die; get back on the block." Again I was saved.
They put me in a Kommando, a Bomb Kommando. This meant we dug out the unexploded bombs which the English and the Americans threw down. In six months we dug out 64 bombs. We had one explosion. We were about 150 feet away. I was saved.
They had a crane about 200 feet high, which brought coal to the factory. The planes tried to bomb the crane. One bomb hit the railing of the crane sideways on its stomach. It was chipped up a little bit, and this slowed down the speed of the bomb. It fell down on the coals, but could not dig in too deep. They came to get us to go defuse this bomb. There was no way we could unscrew the fuse. So I asked them to bring me a metal chisel and a hammer. I sat down on the bomb and tried to knock it loose. I kept hammering until the fuse broke off. At this everybody started running away. I just got up and looked at it, like it was nothing. Dead today or dead tomorrow. I don't know if I was so stupid. I did not care if I was alive. I was so lucky.
We were working on a barge during the last days of the war before the American army came in. We filled up sacks of oats or wheat (these were two hundred pound sacks), and we carried them from the barge to a train.
There at the last minute I was a lucky man again. While we were sleeping on one side of the barge, our SS guards were sleeping on the other side. On this, the last night, we heard an officer come onto the barge. He told the guards to get rid of us. Then they would have to go and fight to defend Germany. We knew what this meant, that to get rid of us meant to kill us. All night we could hear the officer and the guards arguing back and forth about what to do with us.
The guards were older men; they did not want to fight. They argued that since they had taken us from Linz III, they had to account for us by returning us to the same camp. At about 4:00 or 5:00 o'clock in the morning, the officer finally gave in.
The guards marched us to a train. The train stopped in a little town called Wels. Around noon an American soldier came by. He looked to us to be about six foot six. He was a colored man. He ordered us to gather up the rifles, to break all of them except for 4 and to take the SS prisoners back to Linz III. I could not go into the camp. My emotions. I went inside a store where I found a ten pound sack of sugar. I took a pot and made a fire out in a field. I put the sugar in some water and I fed myself sugar and water for three days. After three days I said to myself, it was time to go home.
On the way home to Poland I came to a little bridge over the Elbe River. On the other side was a Russian soldier. He asked me where I was going? I told him I was going home. He said, "No you are not going home. You are going into the Russian army." So I looked at him like I am crazy. I asked him, "Who is going to carry whomme the rifle or the rifle me?" I weighed just ninety pounds. He said, "Don't worry. You have bones, the meat will grow." Then he took me to the army.
I was in the Russian army for fourteen months. I worked on a train taking back Russians prisoners-of-war from Germany to Russia. After I got out of the army, I went back to our house in Radom. At our home everything looked exactly as if I had left yesterday, even the furniture, everything in the house the same. There were just strange people were there. I could not stay. I passed through the whole town. Out of 34,000 Jewish people I could not even find ten Jewish people left.
Our neighbor had a letter from my older brother, Abe, who was the only other Borenstein to survive the war. He had survived Buchenwald concentration camp and was sick. He was recovering in a sanatorium in Germany. When I went to see him, I told the people there that I wanted to surprise him. When he came down, I saw a broken man. It was hard. I did not recognize him. He was just a broken-down man.
My brother told me that after I left Radom for Russia at the beginning of the war, the Germans had come looking for me. When they couldn't find me, they looked up another Jewish boy who lived near us who had the same name as I did-- Borenstein. We were not exactly friends, but we knew each other. The Germans came to my house looking for me, but since they could not find me, they looked him up. They took him out and shot him by the door of his house. A Borenstein is a Borenstein. Can you imagine? I do not know if I feel guilty. It is hard to talk about this. It hurts.
Abe and I lived in Stuttgart, Germany for a few years. I met my wife there. She is also a survivor from Radom. We came to New Orleans in 1951. Abe and I started a woodworking shop. We bought rental apartments. Abe wrote a testament about what happened to our family during the war, but I still have not read it. Abe died in 1974.
Today, when we get together with friends, we talk of happiness. But before you know it we are right back there. There is no way to get away from it.
How do I deal with it? By just going praying. I get up at 5:30 a.m. I go to work. I make myself busy. If not busy, I might go crazy. Busy night and day. I remember nothing. Cut it off.
In 1968, a group of survivors called the New Americans Social Club started to celebrate the Yizkor memorial service for the Holocaust survivors. I got the idea to build a big wooden menorah to hold the memorial candles. I would donate it to the Jewish Community Center in memory of my parents and my wife's parents. I started to build it quite a few times, but it did not work out. In 1988 I thought up the plans I wanted. The menorah is lit each year in the spring. The 6 candles stand for the 6 million Jews who perished. The Star of David stands for the State of Israel. The olive branch is for the new generation rising from the ashes.
Sometimes I try to go back to my past, and it is unbelievable for me. Sometimes I think I am just dreaming.
It is not so easy to do this interview. Last night I did not have a minute's sleep. When I sleep, I dream, I dream, I dream. We did not know who was going to be left alive. "Don't forget, tell the world" was the last thing our friends said before they were taken to their deaths. You cannot keep it inside.
I was born in the little Polish town of Krzepice. My father, Simon, was a tailor. He always dressed in a coat, a tie and a hat. My mother, Felicia, raised the children and kept the house. She was a so gentle. They called her gentle Feigele (little bird).
There were 6 of us, 3 boys and 3 girls. Abe was the oldest. I was the middle son. My brother Leo was the youngest. The girls were Leah, Manya and Freida. Freida was the youngest girl and such a beauty.
I met my wife because of Freida. My wife lived nearby in the city of Czestochowa. She came to Krzepice for the summer. When she saw my sister Freida walking on the street, she stopped her and said, "You are such a beauty. Do you have you a brother?" That is how I met Rachel. From then on we were involved.
My father was an educated man. He could write in Polish, Russian and German. In Krzepice he was a secretary to the court dealing with contracts and property. This was an unusual job for a Jew to work for the government.
My father specialized in making clothing for priests. He was asked to make an outfit for a cardinal. I went with my father to deliver it. Before you delivered a job, you pressed and pressed it to make it nice. I had the garment draped over my arm. I was 13 years old. We went into the cardinal's house. We saw so many crosses on the walls. We took our hats off as a sign of respect.
When the cardinal tried on the vestments and looked in the mirror, he got excited. "It looks the best," he said. "Mr. Sher, what can I do for you?" He took my father's hat off the chair and put it back on his head. "Mr. Sher," he said, "you respect my religion; I have to respect yours."
While we were still living in Krzepice my sister Manya moved to Czestochowa to get a job. There she met a Gentile girl named Stefa. They both worked in the same delicatessen and lived together in the same apartment. When I got back after the war, my brother Leo and I went to see Stefa. She had opened a store. All she said when she saw us was, "You still alive?" She did not offer us a glass of tea. I thought she was going to hug us and give us something. There was no warm feeling for us. She did not ask if my sister was still alive. After 5 minutes we left. And she and my sister had been very close friends.
There was no future for Jews in Poland. Jews were second class citizens. The church taught that the Jews killed Jesus. This is where the hate came from. In public school I could raise my hand all day, but they would never call on me. In the street a Jew could get beaten up. My mother, not just my mother, every Jewish mother had to go pick up her children at school because it was not safe for them to walk home alone. Women got a little more respect.
In 1936 I was reading in a Yiddish newspaper that had been included in a package of used clothing sent from America. It told how Mrs. Roosevelt helped in all kinds of cases. I sent her a card written in Polish. I wished her a happy birthday and asked if she could help bring me to the United States. "I have a good trade. I'm a good tailor. I can make a nice living," I wrote. I thought maybe she would help me. Maybe I would be the lucky one. It was a cry out for help. I was waiting, waiting, until the war broke out. I never got an answer.
The family moved to the city of Czestochowa. When the German army came in, they put placards up in the street. Every male Jew between the ages of 15 and 80 had to gather in the market. We lived in a third floor apartment. I was frightened, so I hid in the attic. I said to myself, "If they kill me, let them kill me here." My father and my brother Leo went to the market. All the Jews were told to lie face down in the street. The sun was hot. There was no food or water. If you raised your head, you were killed. They shot every tenth or twelfth man to scare us. This is when we found out what Hitler means. We called itBloody Monday because they shot hundreds of people.
They burned down the synagogue. They made a ghetto. We wore the yellow star and the yellow arm band. We were ashamed, but we had no choice. We felt the way a dog feels. The Germans picked out a number of rich Jews and made them responsible for the community. This was called a Judenrat. The Jews had to do to the dirty work for the Germans. They shoveled snow, cleaned horses, shined boots and dug ditches.
I had a close friend, Isaac Blitz. When we heard that young people were going across the border to Russia and that it was safe there, we decided to go. I wanted to go with my girlfriend and Isaac wanted to go with his. Rachel and I told our parents about it. They said that it would be nice if we got married and could go as a couple. We listened to them, and we got married. They were glad. But at the border we got stuck. Thousands of people had already gone across. Thousands of people were waiting to cross. The Russians saw what was happening and stopped it. We held up signs that said, "We want to go to work." It did no good. So we went back home.
Hitler was building a highway in the east and needed workers. Each city had to supply so many men between the ages of 20 and 30. In Czestochowa each family had to give up 1 man. My older brother, Abe, was married. My younger brother, Leo, was not yet 20. Leo was afraid for me because I was little. Leo was strong. He asked if he could take my place, but my parents would not let him go. They just looked at me, and I knew I had to go. You cannot imagine what my mother went through. They took us in cattle cars to Lublin. From there we went to Cieszanow and from there to the place where we were going to build the highway. Out of the 1,000 young men who went there from Czestochowa, only 3 survived. I am one of the 3. Even strong people could not survive. We had to be at work at 5:00 o'clock in the morning. When we got up at 4:00 am., we had to be counted. We got 2 kilos of bread, which had to be divided between 4 people. Some people finished their bread in five minutes, but I crumbled my bread into the pocket of my coat. All day long I ate a crumb at a time.
We slept on straw in barns, 70 to 80 people to a barn. We wrapped sacks around our feet to stay warm. We got lice, and some people scratched at the bites all night with their nails. Many got infections and died. Once it was ten degrees below zero, and we had to cut holes in the ice to wash our bodies. We took off our clothes and stood as naked as when we were born. We put our clothes on the ice, and in 5 or 10 minutes all the lice got frozen. Then we put our clothes back on. But in a couple of days the lice came back.
When you went to the toilet, you had to drop your pants and sit over a big ditch. There was no paper; you used leaves. All of the sudden from the distance a bullet would knock you down. The Ukranian and Lithuanian guards took their guns and they played with us. They tried to shoot close to us. If they got you you fell in the ditch. I had to sit and do my business. You got diarrhea from the bad food. Someone sitting next to me got shot and fell in. I could hear him saying the Shema Yisroel. For myself, I did not care. What happened, happened. We just lived from moment to moment.
We cut down trees. We dug up hills. We filled in trenches. There was a hand cart that ran on rails that we used to move earth. Four of us would push it up the hill, and it was more dangerous to come down. The cart did not have any brakes; you used a 2 by 4 stick to put under the wheels to stop it. People got killed every day. People got beat up. I was careful not to let them hit me because when they beat you up, that was it. If you could not work, you were worth nothing to them. One day I was pushing a full barrel. A Ukrainian guard passed by with a stick, and he hit me right in the head. I was crying. I told him I was pushing with all my strength. I was careful to do exactly what they wanted, but you could not be safe. Some tried to escape. The next day they brought the bodies back tied to a horse.
I survived because of two German Jews that I knew from the big ghetto in Czestochowa. They moved into an apartment across from ours. One was a doctor and one a professor, and they worked in the office with the Germans. They had come to Czestochowa with only 1 suit a piece. Every morning I would put a crease in their pants. I would fix what needed to be fixed. When they heard that I was being sent to the labor camp, they promised my mother, they swore to her, that they would do their best to bring me home. They were crying, "We have to do something to get Joseph Sher free." It took them months. One night as I was sleeping, 2 Ukranian guards came in and called me. I thought they were going to shoot me. Instead they took me to the infirmary.
In the infirmary I was put in bandages up to my neck. It looked like I had been injured at work. I was taken to a horse and buggy and brought to a little village nearby. The two men, the doctor and the professor, were there waiting for me. They took off my bandages and gave me clothes. They gave me a ticket and put me on the train. I do not know how they did it. I had been in that slave labor camp 9 months. The other people never came home.
When I got home, everybody lied. They said I looked so good, but I looked terrible. My face was swollen, and I was dirty. My mother heated hot water, put me in a tub and soaped and washed me around. Two days later I got sick with typhus. This was dangerous because if you got typhus, you had to report it to the Germans, and they would finish you off. My sister had a friend who was a doctor, and he came to see me. He told my parents to build a wall in the apartment and to put me behind it. Every morning he sent a nurse to give me a shot. I was in that corner for four weeks until I got better. So I survived another time.
When I came back, they had already made the big ghetto. In September 1942, during the holiday of Yom Kippur, there was a big deportation from the ghetto. In our building someone had gotten a torah and set up a small room to pray in. I was wearing a tallis I was praying with twenty-five people when the Germans surrounded the building. They told everybody to leave their apartments and to go down to the courtyards. I threw down my tallis and started to leave the building.
My grandmother said she wouldn't go. We told her, "You better come down." As a young girl my grandmother had worked in a dress shop in Germany, and she had learned to speak beautiful German. In Krzepice she owned a bagel bakery. Everyone knew her as Szandle the Bagel Baker. She made all kinds of bagles. Her father and her grandfather had been bakers. After her husband died she kept the shop open.
My grandmother thought she was going to talk to the Gestapo officer in her beautiful German, and she was sure he was going to release her. She talked to him very nicely. She told him, "Officer, look, I'm 92 years old. Where are you going to drag me? Leave me in my home."
The Gestapo officer was a young man, maybe 23 years old, and so proud. He got excited. He said to her, "You old goat, you still want to live." He got his gun and put just one bullet in her. She wasn't dead. He wouldn't put two bullets into her. He said, "We have to win the war. We can't afford more than one bullet." He wouldn't waste the other one. We were all standing around, but there was nothing we could do. That was all. She was 92 years old.
My brother Leo saved ten people with the help of the Chief of the Gestapo. He and his wife did not have any children; instead their dog was like their child. He sent an order to the Judenrat. He wanted a little, neat boy to take care of his dog. They picked Leo. Leo was nice and neat, and he could speak good German. Leo walked, washed and fed the dog. The dog was close to him. And they loved Leo so much that they treated him like he was their own son.
One day the Chief of the Gestapo said to Leo, "It doesn't look good. Tomorrow, they are going to send the Jews out of the ghetto. I have a porcelain factory. I cannot keep you here in the ghetto, but you can go stay in that factory." The Chief of the Gestapo had confiscated a porcelain factory owned by a Jewish man. He gave Leo a pass for ten people. When Leo came home, he told us he could help ten people. My mother said, "You are young boys. You go. You got a chance; Save your lives. Maybe you can help us later." I was crying, and my wife was crying. Everybody cried. It was our last goodbye.
So Leo picked me, my cousin and eight other people, and we went to the factory. In the evening we climbed up a tree and looked out at Czestochowa. We saw that although most of the city was dark, the ghetto was lit up. They used searchlights to light up the ghetto during the deportations. A couple of nights later the ghetto was completely dark. This meant that the deportations were over.
We survived for ten weeks at the factory. Our job was to go barefoot and dance all day long in a swimming pool filled with cold water and clay. This would soften up the clay. The director of the factory was anti-Semitic, and he called us dirty names. One day, when the Gestapo chief left for a week, the director said that he had ten Jews that he didn't need and sent us back to the ghetto. A German Gestapo chief tried to help us, and a Pole tried to get rid of us. Out of the 45,500 people in the ghetto 39,000 had been sent toTreblinka extermination camp. After the deportations the Germans moved the remaining Jews to the small ghetto. There were only a few people left.
When we got back, my mother wasn't there. My sisters weren't there. I did not know where my wife was. People told us what happened during the selections. My mother had been sent to the side with the old people because she was 52 years old and too old to work. My 2 younger sisters--one was 18, one was 16--had been sent to the side with the young people who were going to go work. But my sisters decided they could not let my mother go alone. They chose to join her. My older sister, Leah, had a baby. Like most mothers, she went with her child. They did not know that they were going to be killed.
I could not find my wife. When a neighbor told me, "I saw your wife yesterday," I thought he was kidding me. Thank God, my wife was still alive. She was living in a room with four other women who had lost their husbands. For a year my wife and I lived in the small ghetto.
We moved into a room with another couple. For our needs we had 1 bucket. You could not go out at night to use the toilet; you had to do it in the room. One morning I would empty the bucket, and the next morning he would empty it. The 2 couples got so close. When you have to do everything in front of one another, it is something.
They tried to organize an underground fighting organization. It did not work. My wife's brother-in-law was supposed to go over the wires. We saw him hanging on the barbed wires with the legs inside and half outside. One beautiful day in May 1943, while we were waiting to go to work, they surrounded us with machine guns and trucks. They were liquidating the small ghetto. I remember the words of the Gestapo officer. He said, "You are not going to live to see another beautiful May."
We spent the rest of the war from May 1943 to January 1945 in the HASAG slave labor camp making ammunition for the German army. There were 4,000 Jews working at this factory. I was lucky: my job was to be a tailor working for the German officers. My wife's job was to carry boxes of ammunition to the trucks. The women whose job it was to fill the shells turned yellow from the powder they breathed in. After they turned yellow, the Germans took them away and they disappeared. But we knew where they went. They took them to the cemetery and shot them there.
In the beginning we trusted in God. A miracle was going to happen. But no miracle came. My wife was afraid every minute that I was going to die. I was afraid that she was going to die. We asked God, " Eli, Eli why us?" We still believe in God.
While I was working on the officers' uniforms, I saw the Germans kill the Jewish policeman. The Germans did not run the ghetto themselves. They picked Jewish policeman to help run it for them. These Jewish policeman thought that they were going to be safe. Not everyone could be a policeman. Most had been doctors and lawyers. They had paid bribes in gold to get those jobs, and they wore beautiful uniforms.
The Jewish policeman helped the Germans in the deportations. They did whatever the Germans told them to do. After the ghetto was liquidated, they brought the Jewish policemen in one by one to a building next to where I was working. I could see out of the keyhole, that there were forty or fifty of them. They called them in one by one. They walked in with their heads held high. Perhaps, they thought, they were going to get a medal. After what I saw, I lay down because I was afraid for my life. Each man was led in and hit in the back of the head with a sledge hammer. The bodies were put on a truck and taken to the cemetery.
It was January 1945. When the Russian army came near our camp, the Germans left. Around 10:00 in the morning a Russian came into our camp, said we were free and left. We were all by ourselves for the first time. We started howling, "We are free! We are free!" We started jumping and kissing. We went crazy. Suddenly we were free.
At 2:00 in the afternoon the Germans came back. But they were acting differently. They pleaded with us, "Jews, come with us. The Russians are going to kill you because you have been manufacturing bullets to shoot them. They are going to kill all of us. Come, we are going to save you."
A train with cattle cars came near the factory. You had to walk over a little bridge which crossed the Warta River to get to the train. We talked back to the Germans as we would never had done before. We told them that we were afraid that the bridge was mined. We said that we would not allow ourselves to be killed by the mine. A German came back and he picked up my wife by her collar and carried her across the bridge and back again to show that it was safe.
Most of the people went with them in the cattle cars. My wife and I were in the last group of ninety people. A man said, "Don't go with them. They are going to kill us. That is what Hitler promised." This man was an officer in the Polish army, a Jew. He said, "If Hitler is going to lose the war at 12 o'clock, he is going to kill us at 11o'clock." He was talking sense, and we believed him. The train got full and went away and never came back.
It was January and the snow was deep. We ninety people divided up into small groups and I was with my wife in a group of ten people. We went into the woods. In the distance we saw a farm house. We knocked on the window and told the farmer who we were. He said, "I am afraid to help you. You know what the Germans would do to us. Go to the empty house over there. Rest for the night, and I am going to see what I can do." In the morning the farmer came with a kettle of hot water. He said, "This is all I can do for you. Jews, go back to the city. The Jews are dancing in the streets with the Russians." We did not believe him, but we had nowhere else to go.
We were ten miles from Czestochowa. When we got there we saw that it was true. They were dancing in the streets. My wife and I, and my brother Abe and his wife, took a room in a building that had been a German office building. Two Russian captains came into our room. One was a Jew named Zalman Brodsky. He was six feet tall and had a beautiful uniform. We told him we were Jews out of the concentration camps. The captains let us share the room with them. We gave them the beds and we slept on the floor.
They had to go back to the front. Captain Brodsky said to us, "We have no tailors. The soldiers have no underwear. Their uniforms are torn." He asked me, "Joseph, will you come with us? We are going to treat you well." I wanted to help him. I had nothing else to do. He promised my wife to bring me back and kissed her hand. She was not happy to let me go because she had nobody, but she said, "If you want to go, go."
He gave me a Russian uniform. We traveled I do not know how farmaybe 200 miles, deep into Germany. At night you could hear the bullets and the fighting. We stopped in a town. They brought me a sewing machine from one of the German houses. They brought in sheets. I cut the sheets out in a pattern to make new underwear. The soldiers threw away their torn underwear, dirty and filthy from the front. I worked day and night. I was so happy. And they appreciated me. They brought me chocolate. One brought me a golden ring with a beautiful stone and placed it on my finger. Every morning, Captain Brodsky brought me in with him to eat breakfast. I was still hungry from concentration camp. There was so much food, and I had to be careful not to overeat.
One day Captain Brodsky told me he had to go away. He told the cook to give me my meals. So I went in the morning as usual and sat down. The cook brought me my hot chocolate with a biscuit and beautiful soup with white bread. I could not eat everything. The soldiers were sitting around me. All knew me, all appreciated me. But three or four steps away the other Russian officers were sitting behind a glass door. One officer of high rank called over to his man and asked, "What is that silly man doing?" He told him, "He is our tailor, a civilian. Zalman Brodsky brought him." The officer did not believe him. Two soldiers came over to my table and took me by the arms. In this town there was a prison camp for 5,000 German prisoners-of-war. They were being sent to Siberia. The soldiers opened the big iron gate of the prison and pushed me in. I fell on my face. When I looked around I saw 5,000 German soldiers. I thought, "This is my freedom?"
When Zalman Brodsky came back in the evening, he asked, "Where is Joseph." They told him the whole story. It was pitch dark. He came into the prison and called, "Joseph." I started crying, "Zalmen, what happened? Look what has happened to me!" I was dirty and filthy. Zalman was a big man with size twelve boots. He opened his double-breasted overcoat. I was little. I put my feet on his boots and he buttoned up his coat with me inside, and that is the way we walked out. When we came to the gate, the guards asked for a paper. He argued with them. They said they were going to shoot. I will never forget this. Zalman said, "If you are going to shoot him, you will have to shoot through me." They did not like it.
He got a truck and put me in a uniform. He hid me and drove me the 200 miles to Czestochowa. When I walked in, my wife saw the way I looked in a uniform. Zalman told me, "Joseph, do what you want now." I took the uniform off and burned it. That was my freedom, my second freedom.
My wife had a big family. We lookedno one had survived. Her parents were well off. They owned a big apartment building with stores on the first floor. We went back to her house. When the janitor opened the door, she saw her furniture there, the beds, the covers, everything in his apartment. The janitor said, "You still alive; I thought they killed you." We did not say anything. We did not trust him. Jews were being killed after they came back home. So we left the house.
My family lived on the main street of Czestochowa at Pierwszy Aleja No. 8 (First Boulevard No. 8). Today the street has been renamed after Jasna Gora, the Black Madonna. It was a courtyard building of about 90 apartments. Our apartment was on the third floor on the left. The Poles who moved into our apartment and the apartments of the other Jews who lived there threw down what they did not want into the courtyard. It lay there in a big pile for several years. Nobody bothered about it. The pile was six feet high. On top of the pile everything was moldy and rotten. Deep down everything was like new. I dug in it with my hands and saved our family pictures. Today, after fifty years, I would not know how my grandmother looked without these pictures.
After the war my brother Leo enlisted in the Polish army. Because he could speak Russian he worked assisting the Russian staff. His job was to help uncover the Nazis who had gone into hiding after the war. There were 50 Jewish children who had been hidden away with Christians that the Jewish Agency wanted to bring to Israel. This was against the law because of the British. There was this illegal organization called Berichah that smuggled people to Israel despite the British blockade. A man from the Jewish Agency came to Leo's house at night and they talked it over. Leo got a Russian truck and a chauffeur to drive it. He sat next to the chauffeur in his Polish uniform. Leo risked his life to bring those 50 children across the Czechoslovak border. God forbid, if the Russians would have stopped that truck. All 50 children got to Israel.
In 1946, in a nearby town called Kielce there was a pogrom. There was a rumor that the Jews killed a Christian boy and sucked out his blood to use in making the Passover matzoth (Ed. note anti-Semitic fallacy known as the Blood Libel). A mother was howling, "My child did not come back." Some people said, "Maybe the Jews killed him." They said that his body was in the basement of the Jewish community building. Forty-two Jews were killed.
When we heard this the next day we went to the Swedish Consulate to get Swedish passports. We went to Czechoslovakia and stayed there with the Red Cross for four weeks. We had to crawl across the border to get across the iron curtain into Germany in the US zone. We lived in a Displaced Personscamp. I worked for ORT teaching 22 girls to sew. They paid me beautifully. David Ben-Gurion came to speak to us in the DP camp. He cried so hard. He said, "I know you don't know English, but let me talk to the world in English. On your behalf, I must tell them what I have found here."
My wife had an aunt in New Orleans. We wrote to her and she sent us packages. We had our first child in Germany. In 1949, we went to the United States by ship. We were one of the first survivors to come to New Orleans. It was March and the weather was rough. The boat went up and down. Most of the women were seasick. My wife was so sick that she was in the sick bay for ten days.
At that time everyone used cloth diapers. Our child was eleven months old. There was nowhere to wash his diapers so I emptied out a suitcase and put them inside. I had plenty of diapers. When we got to New Orleans we had to go through customs. They wanted me to open the suitcase. I was ashamed. The smell would be terrible. I thought that if they would open it they would send me back to Europe. I couldn't speak English and tell them my reason. A member of the Jewish Federation came over. She could speak good Yiddish. I told her that my wife was sick and I had put all the dirty diapers in the suitcase. When she explained it to them they laughed and let me go.
When we arrived at the dock a reporter from the newspaper wrote up our story. In a few days I got a letter. Because I could not read English I gave it to my cousin to read. I asked him what it said. He said don't ask. He gave it to B'nai B'rith. They came and asked me questions. Nothing happened. Years later I found out what it said, "If Hitler did not get you over there we are going to get you here." When there was a Nazi march in New Orleans the survivors got together and formed a group. The New American Social Club has stayed organized all these years.
Some mornings I wake up and I am so worn out I cannot go to work. I am free but I am still in the concentration camp. You go through it again and again.
Whenever I hear singing, "God Bless America" I have to repeat several times: God bless America. That's freedom. Nobody is going to bother me here anymore.
I was a hidden child. I hid in this woman's house from ages three to five. I am grateful to her, but I do not know her name. I will never be able to thank her in a public way.
Belgium was supposed to be neutral during the war but Hitler paid no attention to treaties. Unfortunately, the King of Belgium helped him. Rumors began to circulate in Brussels that things were going to get very uncomfortable for the Jews. There must have been a network of underground resources where you could inquire about hiding Jews. My father had found a place for my brother to go. He had a place for my sister to go. He found this place for me to go.
My father took me on a streetcar. This memory is etched in my mind because it is the last time I ever saw my father. We rode to the end of the line. I remember getting off with him. I remember walking what appeared to me to be a long distance. He knocked on a door and a woman answered. I went inside. That was the last time I ever saw my father.
I lived inside this house for two years. Occasionally, I was allowed to go out in the back yard. I was never allowed to go out front. I was never mistreated. Ever! But I was never loved. I lost a great part of my childhood simply because I was a Jew.
The Nazis used to love to parade. When they used to parade, everybody on the street had to open their doors to watch. The lady I was staying with had to open her door and watch too. She would hide me in the outhouse. I was petrified. I did not know exactly what I was afraid of, but I remember being absolutely petrified. An outhouse is small, and I would retreat to the farthest little corner. There was a crack in the front of the outhouse. I thought that if I could see them parading outside they would be able to see me.
I remember one time pushing open the outhouse door and crawling on my hands and knees after this pussy cat. I grabbed the kitty and pulled it inside with me. I wanted partly to protect it and partly to hold onto something because I was so alone and so scared.
My life as a hidden child was...how can I say it...I had no toys. The only fresh air I got was when I was allowed to go in the backyard. I made up imaginary friends because I had no one to play with. I do not remember being hugged and kissed. That was my life for two years.
The rest of the story was told to me afterwards by my sister. My brother was twelve years older than I was. He had already been hidden in a Christian home for boys. My older sister was eight years older than I was. She could not be easily moved because she had a bone disease, osteomyelitis.
Some neighbors snitched on us. One morning at 5:00 o'clock the Gestapo went through the neighbor's house, jumped over the brick wall and pounded on the room where my parents were sleeping. They broke down the door. The Gestapo took my father and threw him in the truck. They wanted to take my mother, but she wouldn't go. My mother told them, "You can shoot me here, but I will not leave my daughter." The Gestapo pulled the blankets off my sister and saw that she was in a body cast. The officer said that they would be back later for them. And that is what they did.
By some miracle my mother made one last phone call to a Catholic hospital, and they agreed to take my sister. An ambulance came to get her. The Germans used to take over hospitals for their own use. However, the one place they would not go was the isolation ward. The nuns felt that it would be better for my sister to risk contracting a disease rather than to risk letting the Germans find a Jewish child. My sister lay in bed in the isolation ward for two years.
Once my sister was hidden, my mother went to hide in a pre-arranged location. It was a nursing home out in the country. There was a stereotype about Jews, that they had dark hair and hooked noses. My mother was blonde and blue-eyed. She did not fit the picture that they were looking for, so she was safe working as a practical nurse in the country.
In the fall of 1944 I remember my mother coming to get me. Then we went to get my sister. She had to learn to walk all over again. My brother found his way back to the house where we had lived. One day we saw soldiers on the street. Every family took in a couple of soldiers. I remember them giving me chocolate, and I also remember starting school.
We were waiting for my father to come back. Periodically there were groups of survivors and prisoners of war who would march home. They must have been reunited in one particular place. I remember standing outside with my mother, sister and brother and waiting and waiting for my father to come home. We kept waiting and waiting. Later we found out from an agency that my father had been exterminated. He had been gassed inAuschwitz. If I had been home when they took my father, I would be dead too. They would have gassed me instantly. That is what they did to little children.
I was never allowed to have a father. I don't have a picture of my family except for one little picture of me and my father. I have no idea of what the five of us looked like together. None. And all because he was a Jew. He never killed anyone. He never robbed anyone, yet they murdered him. They exterminated him simply because he was a Jew.
After the war my mother struggled to take care of us. We had nothing. We were poor. My mother contracted breast cancer. They removed a breast, but it was too late. The cancer had spread all over her. She knew she was going to die because the night before she had all of us come to the hospital room. She said to me, "You gotta be a good girl." My sister-in-law took me back to her house while my brother and sister stayed overnight at the hospital. The next day they came back to get me. She had died during the night. My mother was only forty-five when she died. God gave her too little time. I still cry for her.
My mother died in February 1950, when I was ten. In March 1950 the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union was having a 50th anniversary celebration in Atlantic City. The Union had sent money to help the children. They invited two kids from France, two kids from Italy and one from Belgium. The director of my school knew us and asked my sister. The first little girl had either gotten sick or chickened out. Having had nothing for most of my life, I thought the trip was like heaven. We were treated like royalty.
We landed in New York and visited the Union headquarters. They were so good to us. They gave me a new watch and one for my sister. There was this wonderful man, Mr. Rubin. Also, this journalist and his wife really took a liking to me. They took me to Klein's Department Store, to the Toy Department. They said, "You can pick out any doll you want and anything to go with her." I guess I have always been a certain way. I picked out just one doll and nothing else. Oh, I loved that doll. She really was beautiful. The trip was the most incredible six weeks.
A month after I got back to Belgium, we got a letter from the Savage family. In America there had been a news article about our trip in the Forward Yiddish Newspaper. Some of my father's sisters had gone to America before the war. The Savages were related to them. My brother had gotten married and had two kids. My sister was engaged to be married. The Savages offered to bring me to America. My sister thought I had a chance to be adopted and to have a better life.
Leaving Belgium was the most traumatic thing that had ever happened to me. I was close to my brother and my sister. To me it looked as if they did not want me anymore now that they were married.
The Savages had gone to a lot of trouble. They had obtained special permission from the governor of New York to get me a visa outside of the immigration quotas. The Sabena flight took eighteen hours. I had never been on an airplane before. At the stopover in Greenland I ate an ice cream cone. I got sick on the plane. When we landed in New York my only thought was where can I hide so I can go back with the plane.
The day I landed was my twelfth birthday. I did not speak any English. I did not know what the people looked like who would be coming to get me. When they saw me, the Savages were mortified because I was so skinny. I weighed 62 pounds. When they gave me a bath they said my skin was grey. It would have been better if they had not adopted me. I guess they did the best they could.
I was young when I got married. I had two boys, and later I got divorced. I was alone for a long time. Then I met Maurice. In 1970 my ex-husband's family introduced us. Maurice was a widower with four children. When we met he was singing in a barbershop quartet in Atlantic City. Maurice is the most wonderful person in the whole world. It is like God finally said, "OK, you deserve him." We have six wonderful children and nine grandchildren.
I did not start to speak about the Holocaust until after I joined the New Americans Social Club. I think it was partly from denial and partly from guilt. Can you imagine? I was a grown mother with six kids and I would be driving in City Park and I would imagine that my father would show up.
In 1985 I went to the World Gathering of Holocaust Survivors held in Philadelphia. It was an incredible experience. Several of us from the New Americans went together. Elie Wiesel spoke. I was with a lot of people who had experienced harder things than I had. But we were all survivors.
At the Gathering there was a book of German records. The Germans were meticulous record keepers. This book contained the names of people who had been deported to the concentration camps. This was the first time that I saw my father's name as being deported. For years I really had the fantasy that he would find us, but in Philadelphia I saw his name. They had added the dates when the person came back from the camps. Next to his name there was nothing. This was the first time it sank in. He was not coming back. I was glad my sister and brother-in-law were there.
At the Philadelphia gathering there was a stage. Survivors would get up on the stage and say, "Is anybody here from this town" or "I survived this camp." They were hoping to meet someone. It was heartbreaking to see that after so many years people were still searching. People were still hopeful.
I think that my parents may have paid the woman I was hidden with. If it were not for her, I would not be here. I don't know where she lived. My sister doesn't know, and my brother doesn't know. My father was killed, and my mother died when I was ten. My parents were the only two people who knew where I had been hidden. I would like so much to do something for that woman. I am sure she is not alive, but maybe her daughters are. I would like to thank her, and I can't because I don't know who she was. I don't have a clue. What seemed a far distance to a three-year-old may not be so far away to an adult, but I don't know. I have no idea.
I did not observe anything for the longest time. I did not believe in God. I think a lot of survivors feel guilty about surviving: "Why am I alive and why is my father dead? Maybe God chose me because I am able to make a little contribution by telling this now."
People ask me, can I forgive? I can't. I cannot forgive. I blame the German people a great deal because I feel they were passive. They turned away. They may have the audacity to say they did not know. That is unacceptable. Until they can own up to it, I can't forgive.
There were 10 of us who stayed together for the entire 5 years and 7 months of our captivity. We had been through hell. There were 2 things we were not going to do: We were not going to get married and we were not going to have children. Why should our children suffer as Jews? Then we got married and had children. Life goes on. Now, our children are giving back to society.
I am proud of having been born in Vilna because it gave an eminent name to the Jewish people. Vilna was called the Jerusalem of Lithuania. Why? Because like Jerusalem the capital of Israel, Vilna was believed to be the capital of the Diaspora Jews in Eastern Europe.
In Vilna, we believed in the book, in learning. We had the Strashun Library, the biggest library of Jewish learning in the world. We had Jewish organizations. The Bund started in Vilna. We had so many organizations: the left Zionists, the right Zionists, the middle Zionists, the Bund, the Communists, the religious party. A father and mother could have five children and they would belong to five different organizations. At dinner they would all be arguing because each wanted to persuade the other one to his point of view. We had the biggest cantors in Vilna. And, also we had the biggest thiefs.
My private hell started six months before the war began. In February 1939, I was drafted into the Polish army. The army was the first time that I associated with Poles. In Vilna, the Jews lived on one side of the street and the Poles lived on the other side. We spoke Yiddish and Russian. My Polish accent was not that great. The Polish soldiers laughed at me.
In the Polish army we had a lieutenant named Walchek. He was skinny, six feet tall, handsome and he had boots that shined like a mirror. On his office he had a sign which read: ENTRY IS FORBIDDEN TO JEWS AND DOGS. We, Jews, were told, "First we are going to take care of the Germans, then we are going to take care of you." How did I feel going against my enemy, the Germans, fighting with my second enemy, the Poles?
On September 1, 1939, the war started when Germany invaded Poland. Poland lost the war in sixteen days. I was with the 77th Pulk Piechoty (77th Infantry Regiment). Our unit was captured near Radom. We were sent to a prisoner-of-war camp near Kielce. I remember that the Jews had already been separated from the Polish soldiers. The Germans could not tell the Jews apart from the other Polish soldiers. They depended on the Poles to tell them that.
Vilna at that time was technically located in Lithuania which was not at war with Germany. I was classified as one of the so-called Lithuanian Jewsand not as a regular Polish soldier. So I was sent to a POW labor camp. This saved my life. The other Jewish soldiers were demobilized and sent back to Poland. There they faced almost certain death.
I was in various labor camps for five years and seven months. We belonged to Stalag VIII A. But we did not stay there. If we had stayed in the Stalag (prisoner-of-war camp) we would have starved like the Russian POW's we saw because there was not enough food there. They sent us to many different places to work. International law required us to kept in humane conditions, and it forbade Germany from forcing us to be slave laborers.
I was forced to work on the Autobahn near Krems, Austria. I was forced to load coal at Ludwigsdorf. As Jews we were singled out for special treatment. At Goerlitz the Jews had to clean excrement out of the slit latrines with our hands. The Jews were always given the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs. Our lives were threatened and we were beaten. We were always hungry, and many of us did not survive.
This is the only picture I have of my family. It was taken on the occasion of my sister, Rachel, leaving for Palestine. It shows my four sisters, my mother and father, and my nephews and nieces. I am standing at the far right. Except for my sister Rachel and myself, none of them died a natural death. They were all killed. This is my Holocaust. After the war I came to know what happened to some of the members of my family. It is better to know how they died then not to know.
My oldest sister Sonia was married to the famous Professor Morgenstern who taught Polish literature at the Epstein-Szpeizer Gymnasium. His daughter Tzerna was a gorgeous girl. She was the first grandchild in our family. I can remember her reciting a poem at a Passover Seder when she was 4 years old. It began, "Softly, softly goes the mouse." Tzerna was personally killed at Ponary by the sadist Martin Weiss. Her story was written up in a book by the Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever, and also mentioned at the Eichmann Trial, Tzerna's Story . Recently, a book was published that contained two of Tzerna's school essays .
After the war I got a letter from Israel from a man who identified himself as the brother-in-law of my youngest sister, Doba. Doba had married his brother during the war. They were living in the Vilna ghetto. He, the brother-in-law, was a member of the partisans. Both his wife and Doba had given birth to baby boys at around the same time. A Polish peasant was found who agreed to hide the two babies. However, there was a stipulation. The babies could not be circumcised because then they could be identified as Jewish. The other baby was not circumcised and he was sent with the Polish woman.
Doba decided to ask her parents what to do. My parents were very religious. My father said, "The boy is Jewish; he has to be circumcised." So Doba's little boy was circumcised, and he stayed with our family in the ghetto. All of them perished. The other little boy, who was hidden with the Polish woman, was picked up after the war by his father. His wife had been killed. Today, that child works for IBM. His daughter was Miss Vermont.
Doba and her infant were in that part of the ghetto known as Kalis. It was the last part of the ghetto to be liquidated at the very end of the war. I was told by someone that Doba had a chance to be liberated by the Russians if she would give up her son. This she would not do. She chose to die with her son.
My father, besides being a very religious man, was a Zionist. In 1926, he was doing well financially. He considered moving the entire family to Palestine. So he sent Professor Morgenstern to Palestine to look around for business opportunities. Morgenstern came back to Vilna and said, "You are having it good here, it is very hard over there." So the family stayed in Vilna.
My father sent the wrong man. Professor Morgenstern was a very nice man, but he was a professor of Polish literature. Can you imagine? What kind of opportunities could a Professor of Polish literature find in Palestine? Eventually, my brother Benjamin went to a kibbutz in 1933, and my sister Rachel went to Palestine in 1936.
Near the end of the war we were marching two or three days without stopping. The Germans told us to lie down in a field. We slept. The Russian calvary woke us up. About 30 of them on horses rode up to us. The first thing they said to us was, I will never forget it, "Give us your watches." We learned that they were crazy for wristwatches. We told them who we were, and they left us alone. They smiled and rode away. That was our liberation on April 22, 1945.
There were eleven of us Lithuanian Jews together at this time. We were free. No Germans. We went into the villages and there was plenty of food there. One of us died from overeating, and then we were ten.
When the war was over, we thought we had survived because we were smarter than other people. Then we talked to other survivors. Plenty of smart people died. We learned we were just luckier than they were.
Somehow we knew nobody was left alive at home. We did not want to go back to Poland. We wanted to stick together and we wanted to go to Palestine. So we lied to the Russians that we were members of the Jewish Brigade. The Russians sent us to the Americans. We told them the same lie. We were members of the Jewish Brigade and we had lost our papers. So the Americans sent us to the British. The British brought us to England to a camp near Newcastle.
There was a Jewish Captain in the British Army, who was named Goldman. He came to see us. We told the truth to him because he was a Jew. We said we were Polish soldiers who wanted to go to Palestine. At 4:30 the next morning, they woke us up, and then they took us to a camp in Scotland for Polish Soldiers.
Goldman betrayed our secret. Can you imagine how we felt? We did not want to be back with the Poles. We did not expect to be back in the Polish Army which we hated. That evening we went into the canteen and there were two Volksdeutsch speaking German. We got into a fight with them. We were so depressed. They did not know what to do with us so they gave us leave. We went to London. The Jewish community took us in and showed us the sights. We were stuffing ourselves on the food, and we went to see Parliament.
After six months it became clear we were not going to be allowed to go to Palestine. I got a temporary release from the army, and I took a job in the East End of London selling suits. I got three pounds a week for working all week long and half a day on Sunday. After three years my boss said to me, "You have finished 'Harvard'- - now you can go to America to sell."
On December 23, 1948, my boat landed in New York. An uncle who lived in New Orleans sponsored me to go to America. I spent the first night in Brooklyn at the home of one of my ten army friends who was from Vilna and who was with me in camp all those five years and seven months. He had gotten married in May 1948. "Sasha..." he told me--my friends called me Sasha, in America they call me Shep. "Sasha," he said, "here in America we take a shower every night."
I took the train to New Orleans. I had $32.15 in my pocket and no job. I couldn't drive a car. I spoke broken English. In Vilna, my profession was as a dental technician making false teeth. Somebody recommended me to a Jewish doctor by the name of Kaplan. He said to me, "Well, I guess we can get you a job paying fifty dollars a week." He talks to me a bit more and then he asks me. "How long has it been since you worked in your profession?" "Nine years," I said. "Nine years, that is a long time," he said. I was still a young man of 32. Then he looked at me and he said, "Can you sell shoes?"
I looked at him and I thought, "What does he mean can I sell shoes? I never sold shoes in my life." I asked him, "What do you mean? I don't know if I can sell shoes?" "Well, I don't mean shoes," he said. "Can you be a salesman? Can you go out on the road and sell to people? You will make better than as a dental technician." Well, that convinced me, and I asked around. I had a cousin who introduced me to two brothers who were in the wholesale ladies dresses business. They called themselves Greene's Fashion Mart.
Of course, I wasn't a salesperson. I didn't even have a car. So they brought me inside and paid me thirty dollars a week. Later I became a salesman on the route. My cousin taught me how to drive a car in two hours. Then I was driving like mad. Everybody was flying around. I really couldn't drive, but everyday I got better. I had to get better or I would get killed and you wouldn't hear this story from me now.
I called on small towns in the State of Louisiana. Later, I borrowed some money and became self employed. I bought property. After one year in America I married and had a son, Justin, who is a lawyer. My wife died, and I married Anne, my present wife.
I remember the first time I came into a bus in New Orleans. I sat in the back of the bus, where I like to sit. A few people looked at me. That was where the blacks were supposed to sit. I found out about segregation, but I did not understand.
In 1961, George Lincoln Rockwell, the American Nazi, planned to come to New Orleans to demonstrate in front of the picture show "Exodus" which was showing in a theater on Baronne Street. There were going to be 10 or 12 of these Nazis demonstrating , and they were going to be carrying swastikas. Our people didn't like that. Word went around that there was going to be a meeting at Ralph Rosenblatt's butcher shop and later we had another meeting at the Jewish Community Center. Barney Mintz, the chairman of the Anti-defamation League, was there, and I remember we were telling him, "We don't like it and we are going to kill him." Can you imagine it?
Of course, we were just talking. But it was still fresh in our minds because we had only been 12 years since coming out of the DP camps. I do remember I was in a car with three other survivors, and we were going around and around Baronne Street in front of the theater. Sure enough we saw him. We were so mad we wanted to stop the car, but there were Jewish people from all kinds of organizations there. The police were there, and in five minutes the police took him away and led him out of town.
Then I got to thinking, and some others got to thinking, too. We were going to have more strength if we were organized than if we were individuals. It was sometime in June 1961, at the Jewish Community Center, that we had our first meeting. Around 60 to 80 survivors came, and we decided to organize ourselves as a group. It was a secret ballot, and I was elected the first president. We decided to call ourselves The New Americans Social Club. I think we had 60 members; right now, we have 28. More than half of us have died out, but we are still strong. We still call ourselves The New Americans. People are laughing, saying we are not new Americans anymore, but we like the name.
In 1981, there was the First World Gathering of Holocaust Survivors in Israel. It was organized by an Auschwitz survivor, Ernest Michel. I met Ernst Michel in New York in 1977. He said it was his dream from when he came out of Auschwitz to bring all of the Holocaust survivors to Israel for a world gathering. It became my dream also.
I came to the members of our club and said, "We are going to save money every month for a couple of years." We had 37 or 38 people on that trip to Israel, proportionately the biggest percentage of Holocaust survivors from any other city in the United States. Many people said, "Why didn't we do this before?" The answer was that it took 30 years to heal the wounds before survivors would come. It was just the right time.
In 1983, in Washington we had a gathering of 18,000 Holocaust survivors. For 18,000 people we did not get just a congressman or a senator. We got the president. Then we met again in Philadelphia in 1985 and elected Benjamin Meed as our president.
The main job right now is to speak out whenever we can. We go to high schools, to colleges, to universities, or to NASA, or to the Social Security office. I feel personally, why should I talk to Jewish people? Jewish people should know about the Holocaust. I go out of my way to talk to non-Jewish people. If I speak to 60 students or 40 students or 80 students, then they will know that the Holocaust did exist. It is important never to forget that we have been through hell in our lifetimes if we don't want the Holocaust to repeat itself.
The whole business with Hitler lasted only 12 years. It started in 1933, and Hitler committed suicide in 1945, which is only 12 years. What is 12 years in history? A blink of an eye. I divide Hitler's reign into two parts: 6 years, 1933 to 1939, and 6 years, 1939 to 1945. From 1933 to 1939, Hitler was building, building, building and from 1939 to 1945 he was killing, killing, killing.
Once a year we commemorate the Holocaust at a ceremony held at the Jewish Community Center on the 27th day of the month of Nissan, the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. My part for the last few years has been to lead the singing of the Hymn of the Holocaust Survivors, the Partisan Song, Zog Nit Keyn Mol. It was written by Hirsch Glick, a poet and a partisan fighter. He was born in 1922 and was killed in 1944. He was 22 years old. He was a young fellow, brilliant. He was also from Vilna.
“There is a place on earth that is a vast desolate wilderness, a place populated by shadows of the dead in their multitudes, a place where the living are dead, where only death, hate and pain exist.”
– Giuliana Tedeschi, Holocaust survivor
“I live some of the horrors of 65 years ago everyday.”
– Paul Arato, Hungarian Holocaust survivor (courtesy of Matthew Rozell/WWII Living History Project)
“Silence helps the oppressors.”
– Leslie Meisels, Hungarian Holocaust survivor (courtesy of Matthew Rozell/WWII Living History Project)
“How could we [the world] have stood by and let that happen to them? We owe them.”
– Carrol Walsh, 743rd Tank Battalion, Liberator (courtesy of Matthew Rozell/WWII Living History Project)
“For me the Holocaust was not only a Jewish tragedy, but also a human tragedy. After the war, when I saw that the Jews were talking only about the tragedy of six million Jews, I sent letters to Jewish organizations asking them to talk also about the millions of others who were persecuted with us together – many of them only because they helped Jews.”
– Simon Wiesenthal, Holocaust survivor
“The Nazis victimized some people for what they did, some for what they refused to do, some for what they were, and some for the fact that they were.”
– John Conway, Holocaust survivor
“… in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquillity will return again.”
– Anne Frank
“Love gives us wings to soar above it all.”
- Sara Atzmon, Hungarian Holocaust survivor (courtesy of Matthew Rozell/WWII Living History Project)
“After a few days some people could not take it anymore, and they fell down in the road. If they could not get up, they were shot where they lay. After work we had to carry the bodies back. If 1,000 went out to work, a 1,000 had to come back.”
– Solomon Radasky, Holocaust survivor
“This is the biggest cemetery for Jews, Poles, Roma and Sinti. It must tell us that we have to come back here again and again. We must keep the memory of the worst crime in human history alive for those who were born later.”
- Horst Koehler, Germany President
“The Holocaust is not only a tragedy of the Jewish people, it is a failure of humanity as a whole.”
- Moshe Katsav, Israeli President
“It’s here, where absolute evil was perpetrated, that the will must resurface for a fraternal world, a world based on respect of man and his dignity.”
- Simone Veil, Auschwitz survivor and former French Health Minister
Quotes from American Soldiers/Holocaust Survivors
Compiled by Mrs. Hales, English teacher, Hudson Falls High School.
If borrowing, please send an email to email@example.com to explain purpose, and please have the courtesy to credit Matthew Rozell and World War II Living History Project/Teaching History Matters. . If re-posting please include the link,http://teachinghistorymatters.wordpress.com. Thanks. You may also wish to consider supporting my work and my mission.
- “How could we [the world] have stood by and let that happen to them? We owe them.” Carrol Walsh, 743rd Tank Battalion, Liberator
- “I often wonder what this world would be like if those 6 million had never perished.” Frank Towers, 30th Infantry Division, Liberator
- “Against all odds I am standing here before you.” Steven Barry, Holocaust Survivor, (Hungary, Florida)
- “I tell my story so that they might tell the next generation.” Sara Atzmon, Holocaust Survivor, artist, (Hungary, Israel)
- “Love gives us wings to soar above it all.” Sara Atzmon, Holocaust Survivor, artist, (Hungary, Israel)
- “The Holocaust was bullying on a grand scale.” Elisabeth Seaman, Holocaust Survivor, (Netherlands, California)
- “What you do matters.” Peter Fredlake, Director, National Outreach for Teacher Initiative, USHMM
- “Hatred is something we must fight against.” Leslie Meisels, Holocaust Survivor, (Hungary, Toronto)
- “Silence helps the oppressors.” Leslie Meisels, Holocaust Survivor,(Hungary, Toronto)
- “I tell my story so that it won’t become your future.” Leslie Meisels, Holocaust Survivor, (Hungary, Toronto)
- “We cannot be lax at all. We must keep the faith. We must tell others.” Buster Simmons, Chaplain, 30th Infantry Division Veterans of WWII.
- “I’m listed as a liberator, but I’m a survivor of WWII.” William Gast, 743rd Tank Battalion
- “We keep the faith.” Motto of the 743rd Tank Battalion
- “Freedom is not free; there is a high price tag attached.” William Gast, 743rd Tank Battalion
- “We must ever be thankful [for our freedom]. We must NEVER take freedom for granted.” William Gast, 743rd Tank Battalion
- “After they gave us back our lives, we needed to live each day.” Paul Arato, Holocaust Survivor, (Hungary; Toronto, Canada)
- “I live some of the horrors of 65 years ago everday.” Paul Arato, Holocaust Survivor, (Hungary; Toronto, Canada)
- “You have the power to heal the world.” Lev Raphael, son of Holocaust survivors
- “Don’t be a bystander.” Mr. Rozell,
Nina Morecki's story
It was September, 1939. It was the Jewish High Holiday season. The place was the city Lvov in Poland. Nina was eighteen years old. Her parents were into business. She had just graduated from school and planned to go to medical school. But she painfully learned that in Poland, Jews were refused entrance to universities especially to medical schools. It was a Friday.
Her father was at the factory. Her mother had gone out shopping with the house caretaker. Suddenly, there was a massive explosion. Bombs started falling and exploding around her. She was extremely scared and anxious. For three weeks the bombing continued. Finally Poland was defeated and divided between Germany and the Soviet Union. The part of Poland where Nina lived went to the Russians. They lived under Russian rule for the next one and a half years. In July 1941, the bombings started again. She found out that the peace pact between Germans and the Russians had been broken.
The Russian army panicked and ran away. The Poles who believed that the Germans would treat them better than the Soviets welcomed the Germans. But the Jews were frightened of their future. The Germans put posters on buildings with the statement - 'He who helps a Jew is worse than a Jew and will be killed on the spot'. Some Polish people collaborated with the Germans in identifying Jews and their businesses and homes. The Gestapo ordered all Jews to give up their valuables. Nina did the same but regretted it later. Jews were punished and even killed for the smallest of reasons. Jews were supposed to wear an armband, which was six inches wide with an embroidered blue Star of David. Those who failed to do so were put to death. Nina would sometimes wear the armband and sometimes not. She was terrified and saw many horrible scenes.
The Germans would let loose large, hungry dogs on Jewish children. The Germans created a 'Judenrat', which was a Jewish city council, set up to put all Jews to work doing the most horrible tasks. Jewish policemen were told to collect larger numbers of Jews for 'work crew'. But when it was realized these poor people would be killed, the Jewish police refused to continue. One fateful day, the Jews of the city were assembled to watch 12 of these policemen hanged in front of their eyes as a lesson. The Jews refused to cooperate at the risk of their lives. Afterwards, the Jews were all moved into a ghetto.
Nina's mother was murdered at the age of 52. After this incident, Nina was completely unable to function. In 1942, the Jews were relocated to a poverty-stricken area. The living conditions were unfit for human beings. The Jews were packed into empty shacks without enough food and water or sanitation. Nina was forced to hard labor moving heavy bricks and supplies. She was unable to sleep because of pain and hunger. She longed for food and a bath that was denied to her. She was sent to Janowska concentration camp. She witnessed many Jews being tortured and killed. She somehow managed to escape from the camp.
She wandered through the forest drinking from the streams and eating leaves. Finally, she encountered members of the Polish Underground. She was given forged documents. Her new name was Maria Kvasigoch and her papers stated that she was a Catholic Pole. She worked for the resistance movement. One day, she was arrested and bought in for interrogation by the Nazis. The interrogation went on for over a week. The supervisor whom she was working for her obtained her release by saying that he needed her for his work. When she was near the Romanian border, she fled from her supervisor.
She reached Romania by train. There the Russians detained her disbelieving her claim of being Jewish. She met a Polish man named Josef there and fell in love with him. He was sent to the front at Berlin as a Russian soldier. She traveled to Lvov and found it in ruins. All the Jews there had been killed. The war was over after which she met Josef again and married him.
Shep Zitler's story
On September 1, 1939 Germany attacked Poland. Shep Zitler was serving in the Polish army. He and his unit was captured. They were sent to a prisoner-of-war camp near Kielce. The Germans could not identify the Jews among the Polish soldiers. They depended on the non-Jewish Poles for that. Shep was a Lithuanian Jew. He was a sent to a prisoner-of-war labor camp. He was in different labor camps for more than five years. He was forced to work on the Autobahn in Austria. He was coerced to load coal at Ludwigsdorf.
Jews were given special and different treatment. They had to clean excrement out of the latrines with their hands. The Jews were often beaten and their lives threatened. They were given very little and poor quality food. Many of them died because of the conditions. Near the end of the war the Jews were made to march continuously for two or three days. The Germans told them to lie down in a field. They slept there. The Russian cavalry woke them up. They told the Russians their identity and were left alone. The day of their liberation was April 22, 1945.
Elane Norych Ghellar's Story
Ghellar was only four years old when German soldiers took control of her town, Stockton during the 2nd World War.
Her father had hired a tutor a few months before to educate her and her brothers and sisters with the objective of passing off as Christian children. The Germans shot and killed Jewish children. Her aunt posed as her mother to the German soldiers for the next five years. In the concentration camp, she suffered from tuberculosis and typhoid. She had to drink urine and eat toothpaste to survive. After the war, the refugee camp where she was staying was liberated. She then migrated to the United States and never returned to her homeland.
Sabina Szwarc Born 1923 Warsaw, Poland
"I had false ID and wore a cross."
Sabina grew up in a Jewish family in Piotrkow Trybunalski, a small industrial city southeast of Warsaw. Her family lived in a non-Jewish neighborhood. Her father was a businessman and her mother was a teacher. Both Yiddish and Polish were spoken in their home. In 1929 Sabina began public school, and later went on to study at a Jewish secondary school.
1933-39: On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. Four days later, German troops streamed into our city. After one month of occupation, my father had to give up his business, I had to give up school, and our family of five was forced into a ghetto that had been set up by the Germans. We shared an apartment with another family. From blocks away we could hear the sounds of German patrols and heavy German boots on the cobblestones.
1940-44: In 1942, as the ghetto was being liquidated, my Polish girlfriends Danuta and Maria got my sister and me false Polish ID cards. On the eve of the final roundup, we escaped and hid in their home. Two weeks later my sister and I took labor assignments in Germany where nobody knew us. I was a maid in a hotel for German officers. One of them asked me whether there were Jews in my family. He said that he was an anthropologist and that my ears and profile seemed Jewish. I looked offended and continued to work.
Sabina was liberated in Regensburg, Germany, by American troops on April 27, 1945. She emigrated to the United States in 1950 and pursued a career as an ophthalmologist.
Gitla Zoberman Born 1917 Sandomierz, Poland
Gitla was the second-youngest of four girls born to observant Jewish parents. They made their home in Sandomierz, a predominantly Catholic town on the Vistula River. Her father owned a small bookstore across from the town hall, selling school texts and novels. Gitla attended public school before enrolling in a Catholic girls' high school. In the winter, Gitla enjoyed skating on the Vistula.
1933-39: In 1937 I moved to Katowice, a large town on the Polish-German border. There, I enrolled in a business college and lived with my sister, Hana, who worked as a pharmacist. In August 1939 we heard that the Germans would invade Poland. Hana and I decided to return to Sandomierz, where we thought we would be safer. On September 1, 1939, the Germans invaded Poland. They occupied Sandomierz two weeks later.
1940-44: After one year in the Pionki labor camp, my father and I escaped to Warsaw. My sister Irene, whose Aryan features and good Polish let her pass as a Christian, arranged our way to the city, aided by a Polish man she'd hired. In Warsaw, I stayed locked in Irene's apartment while she worked. After we dyed my dark hair blonde, I got a job as a dishwasher. I had false ID and wore a cross. My disguise failed. A boy on the streetcar pointed at me and yelled "Kike," an insult for Jews. I never left the apartment again.
Gitla was deported to Stutthof and Gross-Rosen camps, before being liberated by Soviet forces in January 1945. Her sisters, mother and father all survived.
Lonia Goldman Fishman Born 1922 Wegrow, Poland
Lonia had three sisters and one brother. Her parents owned a cotton factory in the town of Wegrow. The Goldmans were a religious family, strictly observing the Sabbath, the Jewish holidays and the dietary laws.
1933-39: After studying all day at public school, I attended a religious school for girls called Beis Yakov where I studied Hebrew, the Bible and Jewish history. Later, when I was in high school, a private tutor came to the house to teach me Hebrew. My favorite hobby was knitting. After finishing high school I learned the quiltmaking trade. We moved to Warsaw in the mid-1930s when my father opened a down feather factory there.
1940-44: We were trapped in the Warsaw ghetto when it was sealed off in November 1940. There in the ghetto, at age 18, I married Sevek, a tailor. In 1942 Sevek and I escaped to Wegrow, and then to a village near the town. A peasant couple, Jan and Maria, agreed to hide us. With bloody fingernails we dug a dank cellar "grave," lined it with straw, and lay motionless in the hole, concealed from danger for 18 months. Jan and Maria risked their lives by bringing us food and emptying our chamberpot every day. Once a week they sponged us down.
Lonia and Sevek were liberated by the Soviets in 1945. They had to relearn how to walk after their many months of confinement. In 1948 the Fishmans emigrated to America.
Lisa Dawidowicz Born 1925 Ostrog, Poland
Lisa was born to a Jewish family in the small city of Ostrog in southeastern Poland. Her parents operated a grocery out of their residence; the front half of the house was a store and the rear half was their home. Ostrog was an important center of Jewish religious learning in Poland, and by 1933 Jews made up almost two-thirds of the city's total population.
1933-39: My family was religious and we regularly attended services. I studied at a Polish school until the Soviets arrived in September 1939, at which time I briefly attended a Soviet school. But Soviet rule didn't alter our lives much.
1940-44: Suddenly everything changed. The Germans invaded Soviet-controlled Poland in June 1941 and reached Ostrog in July. They quickly set up a ghetto and organized the local Jews into work brigades. We realized by late 1942 that many of these groups were not returning from their work sites. We searched for a hiding place.A poor farm woman agreed to hide our family of five in an underground potato cellar--there was no room to stand and we could breathe only through a hole covered by pumpkins. We remained there for 16 months.
Lisa was liberated when the Soviet army freed eastern Poland in 1944. After living in displaced persons camps in Germany, Lisa emigrated to the United States in 1949.
Erzsebeth Buchsbaum Born 1920 Stebnik, Poland
Erzsebeth was raised in Budapest, where her Polish-born Jewish parents had lived since before World War I. Her father, a brush salesman, fought for the Austro-Hungarian forces in that war. The Buchsbaums' apartment was in the same building as a movie house. There was a small alcove in the apartment, and Erzsebeth's brother, Herman, made a hole in the wall so that they could watch the films.
1933-39: Every summer Mother, Herman, and I took a special trip to Stebnik, Poland, to visit Grandma. Father stayed back to work. I loved Grandma's village. We'd walk near the train station and smell the flowers. I'd play with Grandma's dog, Reyfus, and sometimes we'd travel by horse and buggy to the nearby spa, where a band played and people sat and sipped drinks. In 1938 when Germany annexed Austria [the Anschluss], Herman emigrated to America.
1940-44: Since we were Polish-born, we had to leave Hungary in 1941 when all "foreigners" were forced out. We went to Kolomyja [Kolomyia], Poland, where a ghetto was imposed in 1942. Thousands were killed, and by summer I decided to escape back to Hungary. A smuggler took our small group through the woods. We slept by day and walked all night. On the 12th day, we heard a German shout: "Get up!" After I crawled into a hollow tree trunk, I heard shooting and voices crying "No!" Then it was silent. The smuggler had been wounded. The others were dead.
Erzsebeth escaped Hungarian work camps and many brushes with death before liberation in 1945. She moved to the United States in 1951.
Dachau Survivor Returns to Germany to Fight the Nazis
BY CAPT RUBIN
Legion Magazine has a fantastic article about Werner Kleeman, a 91-year-old Jewish WWII veteran, whose story is rather unique and amazing.
Mr. Kleeman, a German citizen at the time, was rounded up and sent to the Dachau camp just after Kristalnacht. In what was surely a continuous series of amazingly fortunate events, Kleeman was able to secure his release from the camp, escape to England, and eventually emigrate to America.
Having learned English in high school, Werner was able to find a clerical job in London, and his siblings went to work as well, his brother as a carpenter and his sister as a domestic helper. Finally, in early 1940, four months after war was declared and Great Britain stood directly in the crosshairs of Hitler’s despotic ambitions, Werner’s visa to go to the United States came through. Once again, the young man went westward ahead of his family, hoping to deliver them to freedom as Nazi Germany was closing in. He raised enough in donations to buy the least expensive ticket he could find, and crossed the Atlantic. He had $2.50 in his pocket when he arrived in New York. Upon seeing the city skyline as the ship neared, he remembers, “I felt that I was safe. I took my suitcase and rode the subway to Jackson Heights to look for a relative.”
Kleeman was drafted into the Army in 1942 (where he became an American citizen) and was quickly selected to serve as a German translator. He worked with a unit that followed the first wave into France in 1944. In a story that rivals Forrest Gump, Kleeman crossed paths with Ernie Pyle, J.D. Salinger, and Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. during his tour.
It was during the bloody Normandy battles that Werner lost much of his hearing, in the company of someone he would never forget. “On July 25, 1944, it was the biggest bombardment in World War II to concentrate on one small area, maybe three or four miles by six miles, where the Germans were sitting in front of Normandy to hold off the Americans. For two weeks, it rained every day. They couldn’t turn the bombers loose. All of a sudden one morning, word came: ‘Today is the day.’ I was burying animals up on the front line to clear the fields, so the troops wouldn’t smell them. About 9:30, I got word: ‘Get out!’ I took my jeep and went back 400 or 500 yards. I parked it at a farmhouse, where I crept under a table. A guy comes up next to me, and it turns out it was Ernie Pyle. He was looking for a haven, like I was.”
My favorite part of the story is when Kleeman returns to the very village whose residents sent him away to the camps.
When he reached the little farm village he had fled nearly seven years earlier, Kleeman found what he expected. “There were no Jews left. They had all been taken away and killed. The Germans had taken everything. There was nothing you could claim. I gave them two hours to get out of the houses they had taken or I would take them out in the woods.
It is really an amazing story and an excellent article. I highly encourage you to read the full version over at the American Legion Magazine. Kleeman also wrote a book titled, From Dachau to D-Day, although it is currently out of print (but used copies are easy to find). Of particular note, several years ago Steven Spielberg supposedly bid on the rights to a movie about Kleeman’s story. I couldn’t find any more recent news about a file, but I really hope that comes to fruition, as this would be a fantastic tale on the big screen.