| Volume 23
My Long Road to Freedom
A publication of
Copyright © Benjamin Kujawski, 2002
|IN MEMORY OF
My dear Parents
All my relatives
And the millions of Jews who perished during the Holocaust
IN MEMORY OF
My loving and devoted Daughter Sara (Sue) who fell victim to cancer at the age of 38
AND IN MEMORY OF
My dearly departed Brother Misha (Moyshe) who was like a Father to me during my long period of physical rehabilitation, and remained my best friend forever.
AND LAST BUT NOT LEAST, IN MEMORY OF
My big brother Isaak, my childhood hero who in 1936 was arrested and sentenced to a month in prison for daring to resist an attack by anti-semitic hooligans.
To my dear daughter Ella, for her patience and skills in transforming my hand-written memoirs into a viable, properly typed manuscript.
And to my loving wife (of 48 years), Ann, for her patience and support.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Some reflections about the title of my memoirs
Ch. 1 The Years before W. W. 2
Our apartment - the school years - the turbulent thirties - anti-semitism - the government - lies and scapegoats - an improvement in our living conditions - a not too memorable excursion - on our way - on the train back home - back home at last.
Ch. 2 The German occupation of Lodz (The Ghetto)
Ch. 3 The Soup Kitchen (Winter Of 1940-41)
Ch. 4 On Charniekiego (The Ghetto Prison)
Ch. 5 Fathers Departure (The "Sperre" 1942)
The Sperre - sealed cattle wagons at Marishin -the aftermath of fathers departure.
Ch. 6 My Mother
The departure of aunt Rachel - Sept. 1939-Aug. 1944 - a case of guilty conscience.
Ch. 7 Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski
My personal encounters with Rumkowski = Rumkowskis apparent search for a remedy - Rumkowskis second concept - an attempted short strike at the fur factory - Rumkowskis return to the fur factory - my personal thoughts about Rumkowski.
Ch. 8 The Final Days Of The Lodz Ghetto
On the way to the rail station - in front of the cattle wagons - Auschwitz-Birkenau - Arbeit macht frei - on the way to the bath house - a second selection inside the bath house - Tadek our block eldest - leaving Auschwitz-Birkenau - inside the cattle wagon
Ch. 9 Arrival At Munich, Germany (Then Camp 4 Kaufering)
Dachau-camp 4 Kaufering - the official welcome - block eighteen - a meal fit for a king -again some help from an unexplainable source.
Ch. 10 Camp 1-Landsberg Dachau
Twenty-five lashes - help from a highly unexpected source.
Ch. 11 Christmas Of 1944 At Camp 1 Landsberg
The tragic effects of the holiday feast - a hot welcome by my newest block eldest - a newly erected showcase hospital - at the bath house - the new place - a taste of apple peelings - a very important visit - the beginning of the end of the good life.
Ch. 12 Back At Camp 4 Kaufering
One days work in the camp kitchen - reunion with my twin brother - a small food parcel from the Red Cross.
Ch. 13 Camp Kaufering (Passover 1945)
The first confrontation with my block eldest - my second and last confrontation with Zulty - expelled from the hut.
Ch. 14 The Last Week At Camp 4 Kaufering, Dachau
Evacuation - my guardian angel at work again - the last voyage - alone at the end - liberation - liberated but still not free - finally liberated.
At last a reunion with my twin brother.
It is a well established fact that for many years after liberation most Holocaust survivors with very few exceptions talked very little about their ordeal during the horrible years under the Nazis.
There were of course many reasons for that voluntary silence. Although those reasons did not differ much from one survivor to the other, they were nevertheless quite personal. It all depended in the character and attitude of each individual.
It took several decades to finally break down that deafening silence. All of a sudden it seemed as if everybody started to talk at the same time. The reason for that sudden awakening was without doubt the emergence of scores of Holocaust deniers. Those self-styled so-called historians were obviously supported by various Neo-Nazi groups and other far-right organizations all over the world. To counter that shameless trend, many Holocaust survivors started to publish their memoirs which were telling the whole truth about the crimes against humanity committed by Nazi Germany.
That was the time when I decided to do my part in helping to spread the truth. I wrote my memoirs which I'm hoping to publish soon. I had also submitted two personal accounts through video tapes, one at the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre, and the other to Stephen Spielbergs, "Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation."
I am convinced that with better writing skills, I would have, been able to produce a better and perhaps a more understandable account of my experiences before and during WW2. However, I do believe that even with my limited skills, I am in a position to offer a truthful and detailed account of the terrible horrors and sufferings endured by hundreds of thousands of innocent and helpless Jewish men, women, and children. And indeed the suffering of my immediate family and myself.
Before I decided to put my story on paper, I realized that it won't be easy for me to re-live again the horrors of the Holocaust. However, I overcame all the hurdles without special difficulties.
Still blessed with an excellent memory, I wrote my memoirs without any or very little actual research. All my experiences up to the smallest details during the Holocaust are still clearly and vividly engraved in my mind and will remain there till the end of my days.
I sincerely hope that my graphic description of certain events will not unduly disturb the readers of my memoirs.
SOME REFLECTIONS ABOUT THE TITLE OF MY MEMOIRS
Ask any Holocaust survivor how he or she managed to survive those terrible years of confinement in ghettos and concentration camps, the most probable answer you would hear would be "Just pure luck." And indeed, they all are right.
My twin brother and I were fortunately among those (not too many) lucky ones. It was a matter of luck, of course, that my family had lived in the area where the Lodz Ghetto was later erected. This provided us with a luxury of living in the same flat until the final liquidation of the ghetto in August of 1944.
Besides a few more strokes of luck, the greatest of which is without doubt our extreme luck to have been blessed with a loving and devoted mother during all those terrible years.
However, as you will learn while reading my memoirs, many extremely unexplainable events did happen to my brother and I which I can not simply dismiss as simple luck.
I am quite convinced that some of those events during my incarceration, especially the mysterious circumstances of my eventual liberation were much more than plain luck. I leave it however to the discretion and intelligence of my readers to arrive at their own conclusions.
It is well known that during the Holocaust some very religious Jews who were forced to witness the indescribable horrors committed against their people in general and their loved ones in particular became so disappointed that they openly turned against their beliefs in God. At the same time we learned that the opposite also occurred, although on a smaller scale.
Although as I said before, I had experienced instances of supernatural last minute rescues which only touched me personally. I did not however see any signs of that sort of help arriving for the thousands of innocent men, women, and children who perished in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and other death camps. Witnessing how many piously religious Jews and especially the thousands of innocent little children were being tormented and murdered by the Nazis without seeing the slightest sign of help from above, I kept on asking a still unanswered question: "What did I ever do in my young life to deserve such an exceptional treatment?"
While pondering a fitting title for my memoirs I also considered: "My incredible guardian angel." However, being brought up in a modern but traditional Jewish home, I tried to remain that way. Although at times during the Holocaust I sincerely believed that I was being taken care of by some sort of guardian angel, I nevertheless decided to stay away from choosing one of the two extreme positions.
I decided therefore to adopt the more logical and more fitting title: "My long road to freedom."
And since I am far from being an expert in matters of religion and spirituality, I decided to leave this aspect of my survival to people with more experience and more knowledge in these matters.
There is also another important phenomenon which was never too easy for me to fully comprehend. Namely the despicable problem of collaboration with the Nazis.
There were of course voices which tried to dismiss that painful problem with simple explanations, like for instance: "They were forced to do it," or "they tried desperately to save their lives and the lives of their families." However, I personally never believed in those utterly simplistic explanations.
Of course there must have been some cases of people being forced to do things against their will. But those in my opinion, were very isolated cases.
However I was fortunate to have seen many exemplary and human behaviours of countless Jewish policemen in the Lodz Ghetto as well as by decent capos in the concentration camps.
Therefore I am inclined to consider the few (thank God that there were only a few) bad cases of vicious behaviour of individuals dehumanized by the circumstances, including some in highly powerful positions, as sick people.
Therefore I sincerely believe that also this problem should be left to be assessed by trained professionals, like psychiatrists, and psychologists.
THE YEARS BEFORE W.W.2
Shortly before the outbreak of World War 2, I had finished my seventh year of public school. This particular period, I consider the best years of my young life. Not to forget, of course, the many happy memories of my early childhood, which are still solidly engraved in my mind.
I vividly remember my first Hebrew lesson while sitting on my teachers lap. I must have been only four years old at the time. when a private teacher, a relative of our landlord taught me the first letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
I was born, raised, and lived in the same one room apartment on the Zydowska street, Number 25, until the final liquidation of the Lodz ghetto, in August of 1944.
Although the correct translation of the street name was the Jewish street, to the Jewish population of Lodz, it was simply known as "Mordechai-Gabos" street, fondly named after the late beloved Gabay of the great old-city synagogue.The synagogue, a large highly impressive structure, stood majestically on the Wolborska street, a short walk from our residence.
I still remember the saturday mornings leaving my father inside the crowded sanctuary, and running outside with a bunch of friends, to watch with pride the arrival of groups of Jewish soldiers from the twenty eighth Kaniowski infantry division which was stationed in Lodz. In order to keep them from leaving the synagogue on their own, they were usually escorted by a non-Jewish corporal or other non-commissioned officer.
Moshe, my oldest brother was not yet ten, and Isaak, about seven when my twin brother and myself were born.
When I was old enough to ask why I was named Benjamin, I received an answer which was not fully understandable to me at the time. "Having already two sons, your mother and I were actually aiming for a girl, but instead God blessed us with two more beautiful sons. But since I was officially the youngest (by only fifteen minutes), I was named Benjamin after the youngest son of the patriarch Jacob.
Unfortunately at that time my father had lost his job at the textile factory due to automation, and the additional two mouths to feed surely became quite a burden to our parents. My mother being an experienced worker in the comforter trade was forced to take in contracting in order to compensate for the loss of fathers weekly salary.
To raise four children, taking care of a household, while putting in a regular days work was surly quite a burden on mothers shoulders, even with some help from my father.
The fact that all that had to be done in a one room apartment (literally one single room) must have made my parents lives unbearable. Even under existing depressed economic conditions in the young independent republic of Poland, to live under such poverty was far from normal. However to the overwhelming majority of the Jewish population of Lodz, especially in the old city area, this standard of living was indeed considered normal. Adding to the misery, was the absence of sewers (and of course any sort of plumbing.)
I can still remember and vividly visualize each piece of furniture and each item in our apartment. I am also able to place each piece of furniture at the proper place exactly where it was located at the time.
To state that the single room apartment of ours was overcrowded would be an understatement indeed. Only the clothing cupboard, the parents double bed and the large table with six heavy chairs, have already taken up about seventy percent of the available space. Mothers kitchen credenza, the wood burning stove and a corner space to store some coal and wood took up almost the entire thirty percent which was left.
The two folding beds on which the boys were sleeping were during the day placed near a wall and neatly covered up. On Saturdays and holidays, when mother was not working, the so-called "frame" on which she used to make her comforters was also folded, covered up and placed at another part of an empty wall. Since we had no running water, a sort of cabinet stood at the left corner next to the door on top of which two buckets filled with fresh water were placed.
Another bizarre thing about our apartment was, that although
we had no running water, a sink was attached to the wall, next to
the water cabinet, this quite important appliance was used mostly to dispose of dirty water. The other important use of that sink was to brush our teeth and wash our faces.
No matter how drab looking our apartment was during the six work days, the transformation for the Sabbath and holidays was quite remarkable. The spotlessly clean room, the large table covered with a beautiful white tablecloth and the candlestick in the centre, brought a distinctive look and festive atmosphere not only to the apartment but to everyone present.
Every Friday afternoon in order to properly welcome the Shabbat, father took my twin and myself to the famous "Offenbach Shwitz" (bath house).
When I reached the age of nine or ten I began to realize how difficult my parents lives were. To bring up a family under such conditions was surely no picnic. But for me as well as my older brothers these were indeed times of joy and happiness. The closeness and love among all of us and the respect for our parents and their respect towards the children added a lot to that happiness.
THE SCHOOL YEARS
My twin brother and I were not four yet, when my father introduced us to our first teacher. Of course we were not exceptions because most Jewish children at that time. started their education about this age. Our teacher, a brother-in-law of the owner of our building was a frail, slim young man, who at the age of thirty was already completely grey. His long beard added substantially to his odd appearance. But he was gentle and kind.
In order to win my confidence the "Rebe," as we used to call him, held me on his lap and with a bright smile on his pale face, taught me the first letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
Apparently having no other skills, or perhaps physically unfit to do any hard labour, Reb Mendl gave individual Hebrew lessons to beginners. Being aware of the financial problems of his students, the teacher charged a minimal fee. This job, however provided a measure of self respect to this proud man and ample proof, that he was capable of making a living like any other married man.
A couple of years later, when I was already attending regular Hebrew school, my first-ever teacher passed away. Although he had no children the tragedy for his immediate family was enormous. He was loved by everybody, and even as I was still a young child I felt a kind of pride to have been among a large group of students to escort the funeral procession and offer special prayers. The whole neighbourhood attended and paid homage to this unfortunate young man. Although I overheard some people talking about the Rebes heart condition, I did not really comprehend what it was all about. However the passing of my young teacher was the first real tragic event of my young life and the beginning of my actual growing up.
At that time I also began to understand the difficulties my parents were experiencing and how hard it must of been for them to provide for four growing children and give them at least the minimum what they needed. So, I used to comfort myself with the fact that my parents were not the only ones with financial problems. Most people in our neighbourhood lived under the same deplorable conditions and many were even poorer than we were. The shortages which we had to endure during the weekdays were handsomely compensated with delicious Shabbat and holiday meals.
Although our mother was working very hard, being for a long time the only provider, she never neglected her duties as a wife and mother. She did everything with love, devotion and compassion.
The unlimited love of our parents for their children and the closeness among the siblings made it much easier for all of us to endure the hard times while sincerely believing in a brighter future.
Some better times for our family eventually did come. But with the
rapidly approaching disaster, the better times soon became overshadowed by total darkness.
THE TURBULENT THIRTIES
When I started public school, in the early thirties, my oldest brother Moshe was already working as a furrier and Isaak began his apprenticeship in the same trade. Since three of my mothers brothers were in the fur business, it was normal at that time for members of the family to follow in their footsteps. Moshe as well as Isaak were already contributing some money to the household, lessening a bit the burden of my parents.
Although a lot easier than before, my parents struggle to make ends meet, did not entirely diminish. The boys kept growing up, and with it a more urgent need for clothing, and shoes, not to mention larger food orders.
So even at my age, my outlook on life was already influenced to a great extent, by the economic problems of my family, as well as by the struggles and frustrations of the families of my school friends. I was also wondering why so many men in our neighbourhood were unemployed. Another important influence on my premature growing up, were the several daily newspapers in Yiddish as well as in Polish which were never missing on the table along with the morning coffee.
At the age of nine, I was already reading the papers in both languages, while teasingly nick-named by my brothers "the politician." My favorite school subjects in the higher grades were history, geography, and the weekly roundups of current events. This interesting class was conducted by the school principal himself.
The most important event which remained engraved forever in my memory, is without any doubt, Hitlers coming to power in Germany. I vividly remember that fateful, cold January morning of 1933 when getting ready for school, the door slammed open with an unusual bang. Father, pale and visibly shaken stepped in as if to avoid collapsing, grabbed the nearest chair and sat down. After relaxing for a few seconds quite upset and still pale he showed us the headlines of the two morning papers printed in large and bold letter: "Hitler became the new chancellor of the third reich".
Knowing already quite a bit about this infamous German monster and being aware of his vicious hatred towards the Jewish people, I felt as if someone had hit me over the head. My little heart must have stopped beating for a moment and then racing uncontrollable. It became clear to my whole family that something very bad took place not just in Germany, but was also going to effect the Jewish people all over Europe.
On that terrible day, in all the neighbourhood shops, markets, small work places and factories where people were working the air was filled with anxiety and fear. A creeping feeling of an unavoidable approaching disaster was also felt at schools among the teachers as well as the students.
Roughly ten percent of Polands population was Jewish. Taking into consideration the high percentage of Jewish academics like lawyers, doctors, architects, scientists, well-known writers, artists, and especially educators, the Jewish influence in Polands political life was next to nill. Even the several industrial giants, owners of large factories (Israel Kalman Poznanski and Asher Kohn of Lodz ) who employed tens of thousands of workers and contributed immensely to the welfare of the Polish population, were dwarfed by the power and influence of the many ethnic German textile tycoons and rich entrepreneurs.
Although the Jewish presence in Poland goes back to 14th century when Polands king "Kazimir the great" opened Polands gates to the homeless and persecuted Jews of Western Europe, their vast contribution to their new homeland was hardly recognized.
According to the Polish constitution, every citizen, no matter of what religious persuasion was supposed to enjoy equal rights and privileges. The Jews however, who were Poles for over five hundred years, were at best only second class citizens.
On the surface however Jews were considered equal. Jewish political parties from the far right to the moderate left sent democratically elected members to the "saim', (lower house), and senate, (upper house).
All Jewish political parties operated legally, as other parties did, except of course, since the early thirties, the outlawed Communist party. Several independent Yiddish papers and magazines were published.
So, why was there a so-called "Jewish problem?" For starters the Jewish parliamentarians of both houses had no power at all. Not only were their proposals and suggestions completely ignored but most of the time they were personally ridiculed by many right-wing members of parliament.
After the passing in 1935 of the moderate Polish leader Joseph Pilsudski, the right-wing parties had an overwhelming majority in parliament, as well as in government.
The other very important problem, was the total indifference of a great sector of the Polish intelligentsia toward the real Jewish problem. At a time when several openly anti-semitic parties were supported by upper-class Poles as well as enjoying massive support by the conservative Catholic church, Jews were left without reliable protection.
It became quite clear that the poor masses of unemployed Poles and their families had to be fed, so they were provided with heavy doses of hatred towards the Jewish neighbours, who were blamed for their sufferings.
The ever-stronger viciously anti-semitic party, the so-called national democrats', (N.D.) became the main source of the anti-semitic propaganda, especially among the poor, the unemployed and ignorant.
After Pilsudskis passing, even the following governments and the prime ministers were not hiding their anti-Jewish feelings by ignoring an open boycott against Jewish businesses. In the late thirties the then prime-minister Slavoy Skladkowski, in one of his speeches to both houses of parliament endorsed the boycott while mildly expressing his opposition to violence: "it will give us a bad name around the world", was his given reason for opposing violence.
Violence against Jews in Eastern Europe, especially in Poland, was not a new phenomenon, but after the passing of Pilsudski, whom the anti-semites considered and named the grandfather of the Jews, violent incidents became a daily occurrence in Polish cities and towns.
Violence seemed to have multiplied after the rise of Nazism and Hitlers coming to power in neighbouring Germany.
It became quite dangerous for an elderly Jew to walk the streets especially at night, and for school children, to walk to or from school.
Many small towns experienced organized pogroms which occurred mainly after unfounded rumours of Jews killing Christian children. Such pogroms occurred in towns like Minsk Mazowiacki and Przytyk in 1936 which resulted in several deaths and scores of badly injured men, women and children. Not to mention destruction and torchings of Jewish homes.
The tragic part and most irritating to the Jewish communities was the fact that in the aftermath of such horrible violent acts, not the attackers but the innocent victims, were arrested and prosecuted. In Przytyk for instance, many Jews who dared to defend themselves, among them Mr. Leyzer Feldberg a seventy yearsold man, who received a life sentence for supposedly injuring an attacker who allegedly later died of his wounds. Mr Feldberg was defended by an honest Christian lawyer Mr. Wazlaw Szumanski, without success.
Violence against the Jewish population kept on increasing steadily. Smashing windows of Jewish shops and homes became some kind of a sport for young hooligans. Leaving the churches after Sunday mass seemed a favorite time for many of those brainwashed young men to demonstrate their hatred towards the Jews. Even more dangerous than the regular Sundays was the Easter holiday. On that day the conservative priests were officially accusing the Jews of murdering Jesus Christ.
The national democrats and their followers, encouraged by the events in Nazi Germany became ever more vocal and openly professed more violence against the Jewish citizens. They also organized and supported a more extended boycott against Jewish enterprises while urging non-Jewish store keepers to display in their windows signs in big letters informing the passerby that they are a Christian firm.'
The government in Warsaw pretended to be blind to the increasing, suffering of its Jewish citizens. Ignoring the protests from the Jewish parliamentarians and partly by the opposition,"Polish socialist party," the saim and senate kept on introducing new anti-Jewish laws. At the time, the Jewish population was already used to the fact that our government as well as the parliament, will do their utmost to make our lives as miserable as possible.
But a bill introduced in parliament by a right-wing member, demanding a complete ban of kosher meat, became the straw which broke the camels back. Arguing that ritual slaughter is inhuman Mrs. Pristorowa, a well known anti-semite was aiming direct at the heart of Jewish religious life.
I must add that many Christian liberals were voicing their opposition against that bill, finally showing open support for the oppressed Jewish population.
Mrs. Pristorowas proposal prompted for the first time ever a united front of all Jewish political parties, partially supported by the Polish "socialist party"and a handful of other moderates. This time the entire Jewish population recognized their numerical power and in full solidarity followed a call by their leaders for a general boycott of beef and beef products.
This action caused an obvious panic in the countrys meat industry which realized that they could not afford to loose their Jewish customers who represent a close to ten percent of the overall population, but uses proportionately more beef than their Christian neighbours. Mostly because the others were consuming more pork and less meat.
Mrs. Pristorowa and her supporters did not give up easily. But after a protracted fight on the floors of parliament the bill was finally shelved. In spite of this obvious set-back the anti-Jewish bickering continued unabated.
LIES AND SCAPEGOATS
My experience with anti-semitism probably goes back to the day I was able to walk out to the street on my own. The abuse and harassment by older Christian children remained among my first childhood memories. This was the time when I heard for the first time the slogan "Jews to Palestine."
Later when I started public school my mother sent me to school at least a half an hour earlier in the morning in order not to meet up with the Christian boys. I also left school about a half an hour later for exactly the same reason. Sometimes however groups of those little hooligans were already waiting for us on the way to school turning our usual pleasant way home into sheer hell. They seemed to find pleasure in kicking and hitting the younger kids while their accomplices tried to block our escape routes.
All sport activities like soccer games, volleyball, or ice skating, were scheduled for us at times when the Christian children were already in their homes. In order to avoid harassment, the teachers picked sides for those activities in strictly Jewish areas. Even the weekly showers we took in the Jewish area, escorted by a Jewish teacher.
In time I also experienced acts of violence by adult bullies. These characters to camouflage their true intent, most of the time pretended to be drunk. My brother Moshe was not yet seventeen when during a walk on a busy street with his girlfriend was assaulted by such a character. The man, who as the others, pretended drunkenness, (and according to my brother did not smell of alcohol) embraced him in a friendly manner
uttering words like "How much he loved Jews."
In only a few seconds this so-called drunk managed to inflict a deep cut to my brothers skull. He apparently used a razor blade because Moshe only noticed the assault after the man had already disappeared. With blood streaming down his neck, he ran to the nearest police precinct. Knowing well that violence against Jews was openly tolerated, he refused to press any charges. After being given the necessary first aid he left the precinct, amid loud laughter by several policemen who seemed to have enjoyed the spectacle.
After this unfortunate incident Moshe was not the same any more. He started to get involved in leftist activities, believing that socialism will eventually bring equality among nations and also eradicate the scourge of anti-semitism.
To his great disappointment however, this dream of his soon evaporated. After his escape from Nazi occupied Lodz in 1939, hoping to find a haven in the Soviet Union, he found instead a regime no less ant-semitic than the fascist governments of western Europe.
After the incident with my brother, although still a child, I began asking questions about the reasons of anti-semitism. Although my father felt that I was too young to absorb the proper answers he nevertheless told me things which began to open my eyes. He told me that the Jews who had no homeland of their own were the perfect scapegoats for all sorts of corrupt regimes and for corrupt leaders of various political parties. This situation was also aggravated by a conservative Catholic church.
To cover up their own weaknesses, their corrupt and even criminal acts against their own people, these regimes blamed all evil on the helpless Jews. Innocent Jewish men, women and children were being discriminated against, abused and murdered for as long as two thousand years. During the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition thousands of Jews were killed in the name of God. Later on Jews were being killed by different regimes who accused their Jewish populations of being disloyal and through lies and innuendos instigated Christians to kill their Jewish neighbours by accusing them of being spies and traitors to their own countries.
My father explained to me in simple words that according to those regimes, Jews were at the same time capitalists, socialists, communists, zionists, bankers and even beggars. They created for their masses a stereotype of a person unworthy of living among them. Jews were held responsible for unemployment, for poverty and even natural disasters. Those vicious libelous lies resulted in tragedies like the Dreyfus affair in France and many trials of Jews who were accused of killing Christian children and using their blood to bake passover matza, a good example was the infamous Bailis trial in the Ukraine and other trials of that sort.
All those vicious accusations turned out completely groundless and the accused were eventually released and in many cases rehabilitated. Even in my time I have heard many of the same accusations in our supposedly democratic country of Poland. Knowing well that all those allegations were pure lies, I was still unable to dismiss them as harmless. I got angry and disgusted when reading or listening to such dangerous accusations.
What made me most angry was the often repeated shameless assertions by the anti-semitic press and leading right-wing politicians that all Jews of Poland are rich. The sad part of this propaganda, of these lies and innuendos was the fact that many perhaps too many of Polish Christians believed in them. The real truth was that very few Jews of our city were rich. Their numbers were so small that they constituted a very small percentage of the overall Jewish population. The fact was, that a vast majority of the Polish Jews, especially in a large city like Lodz, lived in a sort of poverty unparalleled in any country in Western Europe. Families of six (like my own family), and of more, were living in one room flats. Those so-called apartments mostly in unheated dilapidated buildings were without running water or any sort of plumbing.
The public latrines were mostly situated at the rear of the usually large backyards and were most of the time overflowing and so were the large garbage containers. No wonder that those places were breading grounds for rats, which were roaming the area as free as birds. Although these conditions were later improved and the rodents exterminated, the air around those places was poisoned with an unbearable stench especially during the hot summer days.
Most of those impoverished slum dwellers were self employed, actually contractors, who were doing work for larger manufacturers. These workers were paid so little, that they could not afford to keep extra space for their workshops, and most of them did their work inside their already overcrowded living quarters. These were mostly tailors, shoemakers, furriers, weavers, etc.
Due to the very strong trade unions, Jewish workers could not get employment in large factories, even in the predominantly textile industry. This was part of the reason for Jewish weavers to do contracting in their homes. Most of these contractors work was seasonable, so many of them had to go through many months of unemployment and unbearable hardship.
Freezing during the cold winters and sweltering during the hot summers, the children of those poor, hard working Jews had never enough food to satisfy their needs. Many mothers kept pots of hot potato soup to feed their children, as a substitute for bread, which was much more expensive.
At school these kids were provided with some sort of lunches donated by parents of more affluent students, but mostly by Jewish charitable organizations. The so-called affluent people were mostly struggling small store keepers and small manufacturers. But the overwhelming majority of the Jewish working class, and the masses of Jewish unemployed were living under those deplorable conditions, I described above.
I must add that in spite of all the difficulties and prevailing poverty Jewish life in general seemed to flourish. In the relatively young Polish republic, Jewish institutions, religious as well as charitable, had full freedom of self governing and growth. A democratically elected Jewish committee (kehila) with a president who was the leader of the winning party. This committee was overseeing all activities of various Jewish institutions, like charitable organizations, medical and dental clinics, welfare, and so on. All religious affairs were handled by a rabbinic assembly, a so-called Rabbinate.
All athletic clubs were supported by various political parties, and partially by dues from the membership.
In general, Jewish life, with its self-supporting institutions was thriving amid an atmosphere of undiminishing anti-semitism.
AN IMPROVEMENT IN OUR LIVING CONDITIONS
The year was 1936. The economic situation in the country reached crisis proportions. The results of mass unemployment especially affecting the small contractors. My father was still jobless, and for mother to obtain contract work became ever more difficult. The manufacturers understandably had first of all to provide work for their own labourers.
My two older brothers were already working as furriers, but also began experiencing the general squeeze, with much shorter seasons than usual. They actually needed for their own expenses more than they were able to contribute to the household. The situation turned from bad to worse.
What was really hard for me to understand.was how under such extremely difficult conditions, my father was able to spend some money, no matter how little, to buy lottery tickets. Fathers faith and hope that someday he might win some money, kept him going. For him and for millions of others like him, this was the only way out, and the only way to turn his life around. All he dreamed of, was for the day he would be able to provide a decent living for his wife and children.
Finally, at a time when he needed it most, his prayers were answered, and the dream came true.
Fathers number on the so-called "dollar lottery" won a staggering hundred dollars. Since this money was being paid in gold dollars, father collected a for us astronomical sum of close to one thousand Polish zlotys. Although we all knew about fathers possession of such a lottery ticket, the only one who actually knew the number by heart was Isaak. On that fateful day, he happened to read the paper during his lunch hour, when he noticed among the winners fathers number.
Isaak of course immediately left his work place and came running home with the great news. The tremendous joy and happiness we all experienced at that moment is indescribable. But most memorable were mothers tearful thanks to God for his kindness and mercy. As usual she found that this was the time for her favorite expression: "The light never comes on before you experience total darkness."
Soon after obtaining the money my parents established, on a small scale of course, a comforter factory, starting with only two employees.
Although the general economic situation in the country did not show any visible improvement, my parents venture became quite successful. After only several months in business, the sales were going up to a point, when they were forced to employ about six to eight workers.
After a while they rented some separate space for the factory, because it became impossible for them to continue working in our over-crowded one room apartment. Although economically we were fast reaching the middle class status my parents were working harder and more hours daily than ever before.
Mothers work load as head of production, plus the burden of taking care of the household, became much too much for her fragile personality. She seemed constantly to be on her feet never taking a bit of time to relax. The only benefactors of our newly acquired prosperity were my brothers and myself.
Amid the uncertain political situation in Europe in general and in Poland in particular, we finally began to enjoy life; although we fully realized that there might be little precious time to enjoy.
Sometimes I'm not really sure if the people at that time did not foresee a fast approaching disaster, or they simply refused to face reality. The signs were bold and quite obvious. Ever more groups of former Polish Jews expelled from Nazi Germany were being brought to the border crossing near the town of Zbonshin. Those refugees told stories of horror and disaster which befell the German Jewish community.
At the same time Jewish life in Polands towns and cities was going on in a relatively normal way, with all local institutions functioning in as normal a way as possible under the circumstances.
My older brothers and myself were busy with our own activities. Meyer and I were still attending school and quite busy with extra curricular activities. We were also members of the well-known athletic club "Morgenstern" where we took part in all sorts of competitive sports. Reading books I usually obtained at the school library, and I also found a large variety of interesting books at the Jewish library. Belonging then to the more affluent students, my brother and I began to take part in many school outings and even went on a three day trip to the capital city of Warsaw.
I had friends who were members of various Zionist youth organizations ranging from the extreme right-wing "Betar" to the far-left, "Hashomer Hatzair." Although we were urged on by our friends to join one or the other of these groups, we actually never did. Being by nature a moderate and ardent believer in a Jewish homeland in Palestine, I was not yet inclined to choose political sides and never officially joined a specific group.
For me, however, the most important thing in those days was school. Starting at grade one, up to finishing grade seven, I was always among the small group of "A" students. Since studying came very easy to me, so besides helping my twin brother with whom I was always attending the same class, I was also able and quite willing to help others with their studies and homework.
This, in addition to my being "the resident artist", turned me into one of the most popular students in school. Starting in grade five and onward I was the elected president of the class council. I was never considered a "geek" because of my being a good student and not too big in size, but was respected by all, even by the official school bullies who listened to my advice and judgement.
I very well realized that most of that respect had to do with the help I provided with their homework and in the art class but nonetheless I felt pretty good about it. Of equal importance for me was also the respect and friendship I got from all my teachers especially from the distinguished principal, Mr. Tabaksblat. They all appreciated my active involvement in all sorts of school activities which also included collecting funds for poor children.
At the time I was quite convinced that I am destined to pursue a higher education, which was also the opinion of my teachers and principal. During the last couple of years before W.W.2, I became dissuaded and discouraged by the ugly display of anti-semitism of Polish institutions of higher learning.
The degradation of Jewish students and their humiliation by ghettoizing and forcing them to sit separately became a factor in changing the minds of many Jewish boys who decided to take the safer road by learning a trade.
Soon however all plans and dreams for the future became worthless indeed. Nevertheless the school years remained my best and most memorable time of my life.
A NOT TOO MEMORABLE EXCURSION
A year or so before Germanys invasion of Poland the public school board organized a special excursion to the Baltic port city of Gdynia. This trip which was supposed to last three days with an addition of four weeks at a summer camp was offered for a lowest fee possible. So there was no surprise when we learned that some strings were attached to this fabulous deal, namely that only "A" students were eligible.
The excitement diminished quite a bit when we found out that although each Christian school will be able to send about twenty students, Jewish schools were allocated a quota of only three. Again a blatant example of government sponsored anti-semitism.
When notified that my name was among the three students chosen for the trip, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of euphoria unknown to me before, plus of course a tremendous feeling of pride.
After a while however, I realized that this is going to be the first time in my life that I'll be forced to be separated from my twin brother for such a long time. I felt sad and confused and was even contemplating some excuse to drop my participation. My parents however swiftly changed my mind by convincing both of us that it might be to our advantage to finally become less dependent on each other.
This trip was sheduled for the end of the school year, which was about the 25th of June. But at the beginning of the month, the three chosen students were summoned to the principals office for a short briefing. Two of us, Kempinski and myself, were truly top students, but the third one, a very close friend of mine, was pretty average. His mother however was for many years a hard working head of the parent-teacher association, so it became quite obvious why he became the third participant.
The meeting with the principal became quite a traumatic experience for all of us when Kempinski declined the exceptional honor and chance to participate in this important venture. This gentle fourteen year old boy who was nicknamed "grandpa" was tall, slim, with a pale sad face. But worst of all his hair was completely grey. He himself stubbornly refused to talk about it, and surprisingly I could not recall a single instance when anybody would ever make fun of him or teased him because of this affliction. There were many versions about the cause of that utterly unique tragedy, but the most probable version and most believable was as follows: The Kempinski family of five was living in a very poor district of our city. Once during a dark and cold winter night they were viciously attacked by a couple of armed bullies and were robbed them of whatever possessions they owned.
While his parents were brutally assaulted this then ten year old boy was hidden under a bed with his two younger siblings, witnessing their poor parents being stabbed and beaten unconscious. This apparently was the time when because of an unbearable fear his hair started to turn grey.
The principal seemed to realize that Kempinskis refusal to take part in the excursion was a problem of financing and offered to pay all expenses from the schools petty cash reserves. Our friend however was adamant with his assertion that his refusal had nothing to do with money and insisted that he had to stay home with his ailing parents who are not able to take proper care of his younger siblings. All our pleading and attempts of convincing him to change his mind, were in vain.
Kempinski left the principals office visibly swallowing his tears. There was no doubt in my mind that the question of financing was his main problem and his decision was made because of youthful pride. This gentle youngster was too proud to accept charity. This was obvious indeed to everyone present.
When I told my parents that one of the boys is unable to take part in the excursion, dad dropped a hint, that perhaps I should ask the principal if it could be a chance for my twin brother to take his place. At first this idea hit me as preposterous. How can I act so selfishly on somebody elses misfortune?
On that night I could hardly shut my eyes, my thoughts were racing in many different directions. The next day at school I was still undecided how to handle my peculiar dilemma. I was ready to go home without settling anything. While on my way home I passed the principals office and I was hesitant of what to do next.
The office door was wide open and the principal seemed to have noticed my hesitation of whether to stop or continue on my way out. "Do you want to see me Benjamin?" he asked with his usual pleasant voice and with his familiar smile. I stopped. Confused and totally unprepared, I slowly walked into his office. "Sit down Benji," he pointed to a chair on the opposite side of his desk. His friendly manner completely disarmed me. I calmly went directly to the point.
First I expressed my very sincere regrets about Kempinskis problem and that my parents would be ready to pay the full cost of his trip. If only he would be willing to accept. But since this proud boys decision seemed final.... I did not finish my sentence while pondering how to continue, the principal finished it for me: "So perhaps your twin brother could take his place".
I was overwhelmed with the intelligence, sincerity and frankness of our beloved principal. He stood up and again with a pleasant smile, he assured me that in a couple of days he will let me know about his final decision.
The next day, to be entirely sure about my friends stand, I asked him again if he wouldn't change his mind. Looking at his always pale face and sad eyes, I pleaded with him to reconsider. With visible pride, he looked at me and as before insisted that his parents can easily afford the fee for the trip, but as the oldest son in the family, he could not and will not leave his sick parents without proper care.
Being fully convinced that his mind was made up I told him about my idea of replacing him with my twin brother. To my surprise Kempinski, with a straight face even with a hint of a smile wholeheartedly supported my plan. "I sincerely hope," he said "that the principal will come up with a positive decision.
As promised it took only a couple of days to be called into the principals office.
It was a beautiful spring day, with a bright sun penetrating through the window of the principals office. The sun totally blinded me for a moment. Politely as always, I heard the principals voice asking me to sit down. This time he was in the company of a couple of my favorite teachers.
Mr. Tabaksblat immediately came to the point. "As you probably know, your brother does hardly meet the criteria of being part of this project, but we nevertheless decided in your favor." As in a daze I heard him continue, "the vice principal, Mr. Smolenski, and your class teacher Mrs. Hendler were both instrumental in that decision. "We did it mainly because of your closeness with your twin brother" were his final words.
"Today the sun did truly shine on us," I thought when I left the office with a several times repeated "thank you very much."
Needless to say that my parents as well as my brother were delighted with the outcome.
The excitement around the house was indescribable. Even our older brothers had the pleasure in helping us with the packing of our knapsacks. Our apartment was constantly visited by well wishing relatives and neighbours. The festive atmosphere in our place could easily have been compared with families where a son or daughter was in the process of emigrating to Palestine or the U.S.A.
After all, I had to recognize the fact, that people in our neighbourhood seldom ventured very far outside the boundaries of the city.
Until the end of the school year, all the three candidates for the trip to Gdynia, understandably became the envy of all our school-mates. Unfortunately most of the youngsters were destined to spend their summer vacation inside our terribly polluted city of textile factories and slums.
ON OUR WAY
We met in the late afternoon because we had a scheduled overnight train direct to Gdynia. The June sun was still shining when we arrived at the central station with our heavy knapsacks. At a predesignated place in front of the station our supervisor, a public school teacher, was already giving instructions to a small group of Jewish boys and girls.
While the plaza and street outside the station was crowded with hundreds of seemingly happy and noisy youngsters our small group didn't seem to get much larger. We were standing separated from all the others and before entering the station, I estimated the group of Jewish youngsters at no more than twenty.
So right at the start it was easy to notice that while the other supervisors were having lively conversations with each other, our teacher, apparently the only Jew, was completely ignored. Our teacher, a handsome dark-haired man in his late thirties or early forties pretended not to notice the snub, but his sad face said it all. We were outsiders, and the stench of obvious anti-semitism was clearly in the air.
Not being able to conceal my feelings of despair, I whispered to my brother while walking in the direction of the wagon designated for us: "The Jewish population of Lodz numbers close to a quarter of a million, which makes it one third of the overall population, so why in Gods name are we so few among so many non-Jewish children"?
It turned out that the amount of Jewish students chosen for this well publicized excursion, was no more than about two percent of the overall number of participants. But I could hardly have expected that this so eagerly anticipated trip will turn into an unforgettable nightmare.
Just minutes after settling down into our seats, this nightmare had started. To use a toilette, we had to cross into the next wagon. Unfortunately we had to pass a wagon full of hostile youngsters. The first one of us who tried to reach the toilette soon returned limping and crying.
With tears running down his cheeks, he told our supervisor, that he was verbally and physically abused by some bullies who refused to let him use the facilities. Asked by our supervisor if none of their teachers tried to intervene on his behalf, the crying youngster told him that the supervisor apparently pretended not to notice the incident while enjoying a good laugh with the happy crowd. One of the girls who took a chance to visit the toilette, was allowed to enter, and although not physically assaulted, the girl was harassed, verbally abused, and made fun of.
Unwilling to take further chances, the boys decided to use their teacups when needed to relieve themselves. The unpleasant consequence of such a way out, was an unpleasant return of your own urine. While trying to get rid of the content through the wagon window, the wind returned most of the fluid straight into your face. This unfortunate situation continued until we left the train at the Gdynia station.
The moment we started breathing the fresh air of the Baltic sea, we also began to experience a totally uncontrollable harassment and physical abuse by the hands and feet of our Christian peers. This appalling behavior of the not very supervised, youngsters lasted uninterruptedly and with the visible approval of their supervising teachers, the entire three days of our tour of the port city of Gdynia.
A venture which was supposed to be stimulating, educational and pleasurable, turned into one of the worst experiences of my pre W.W.2 life. Although our supervisor did his very best to keep us separated from the main crowd, it was nevertheless very difficult to avoid the seemingly well organized harassment. Besides sleeping in separate quarters and many times taking separate site-seeing tours of the port, our time in Gdynia could at best be described as miserable.
What was most painful, however was the verbal abuse we had to endure during our joint meals at a huge hall at one of the citys high schools.
What I am going to describe was repeating itself at each of those joint meals which were strictly supervised by a number of teachers and even principals of Catholic schools. Each meal which normally supposed to be a restful break from the uninterrupted tours, turned into an anti-semitic demonstration poisoned with hate by supposedly Christian educated youngsters.
Before the start of each meal, and after saying grace, and under the watchful eyes of their Christian educators, one of the boys in a loud voice wished everybody "a good appetite." After receiving a loud unanimous "thank you" he followed with "a good appetite to the Jews' for which of course the reply was a deadly silence. The same reply he received after wishing a good appetite to the Jewish girls.
Then, as a fully seasoned hooligan, the same youngster shouted on the top of his lungs, "down with the Jews", to which the entire hall of hundreds of youngsters replied in unison with a thunderous "down", followed with the old well known anti-semitic slogan: "Jews to Palestine".
Those ugly and disgusting anti-Jewish demonstrations were performed by youngsters in the presence of laughing and visibly proudly looking educators who by their behavior and arrogance gave their full approval to such a shameless display of hatred.
In addition, the utterly snobbish behavior of the so-called educators towards the only Jewish supervisor, and by ignoring their only Jewish colleague, they also gave tacit approval the young hooligans to harass and abuse our teacher. During one of our joint meals, some kind of a flying object reached his forehead, causing quite a nasty wound. Luckily it missed his black rimmed glasses, without which he would unable to function. The out of control youngsters even composed a specific slogan against this gentle supervisor of ours: "down with the enemy in spectacles."
ON THE TRAIN BACK HOME
As far as our relations with the non-Jewish youngsters, the ride back home was not much different than the miserable experience on the way to Gdynia. Except for one memorable event.
For some reason or another, the train from Gdynia to Lodz had to pass the city of Gdansk. For another unknown reason, the train had to go on an elevated track over the city of Gdansk, which gave us an excellent view of the citys centre. To our dismay, this beautiful city which was internationalized by the "League of Nations," did not look less German than Berlin itself. Huge Nazi flags with their despised swastikas, were literally covering all the buildings of the streets and wide boulevards. This display of Nazism was, especially for us Jewish youngsters, a terribly scary experience.
Exhausted physically and mentally, most youngsters in our compartment dozed off. I, however, although pretty tired was not able to close my eyes. I kept thinking of why and how those Christian youngsters turned out the way they did. I was quite convinced that their parents followed the example of their radical leaders.who were not able or willing to improve the lives of the average citizen and instead blamed the Jews for their own shortcomings.
So, those children were brought up in an atmosphere of hate, and at an early age learned to blame others, especially the Jews who were their primary scapegoats. At the same time, our upbringing was leading in just the opposite direction.
Our parents, and teachers taught us to respect and be tolerant to anybody, regardless of their religion or nationality. The Rabbis in their sermons at the synagogues were preaching the same values.
My thoughts were suddenly interrupted and so was the sleep of most of the youngsters when one of us started to sing a Polish patriotic song, while the train was still passing the city of Gdansk. Instantly others were joining him, and apparently the loud singing was picked up by the adjoining wagons and spread to the entire train. It became quite clear to me that while sensing a common enemy, we all became united at least for the duration of this particular moment.
The song chosen for this expression of defiance was the unofficial anthem of the Polish navy, in which the lyrics tell the enemy that the Baltic Sea shall remain ours forever "even if we have to die for its defense and.... land at the bottom of the sea."
This latent act of defiance by hundreds of youngsters made us Jewish kids feel at least for a while equal citizens of our homeland.
BACK HOME AT LAST
With a sigh of relief we finally arrived exhausted at the Lodz busy central station, happy to be home safe and sound.
In spite of all the difficulties and aggravations, the trip to Gdynia could be considered a very important part of my growing up, and indeed an important lesson of "intolerance". It provided us with first-hand knowledge of who we really were. Finding out first hand of what an upbringing our Christian peers received, I suddenly felt proud of my heritage. I felt a bit presumptuous to be proud of something which was not of my own doing. But after my return from Gdynia I felt really proud to have been born a Jew. It took only a couple of days after our return home to start packing for our up-coming four weeks of summer camp.
This time we spent a truly unforgettable four weeks. Although the camp was also sponsored by the public school board it was designated for only Jewish students. The place was situated in a typical Jewish "Shtetl", surrounded by a dense forest, and large meadows and farms. The town was split in two halves by a clean small river called Pilica, one of the outlets of the Vistula River. The town was called Sulayov, near Piotrkov.
Amid an already aggravated political situation and a fear of an imminent approaching disaster, we enjoyed a pretty good summer vacation under the circumstances.
Being among our own, I felt secure and content especially after our disastrous trip to Gdynia. I could have had the time of my life if I would only be able to erase from my mind the despicable behaviour of our non-Jewish peers, who were supported by their arrogant supposedly Christian educators. It was also difficult for me to forget the sea of Nazi flags displayed all over the free city of Gdansk.
Now six - decades later, living in a Canadian multi-cultural society where my wife and I had raised children and grandchildren free from fear and prejudice, I could only pity the mislead pre-war young generation of my former homeland.
Without really realizing the consequences of implanting prejudice and intolerance into the hearts of their offspring they created a generation filled with hate and bitterness. In a way the real victims of such an upbringing were, besides their potential victims, the brain-washed youngsters themselves.
It still makes me wonder if many of those youngsters grew up to become willing helpers to the Nazi murderers. Unfortunately such an assumption might not be too far from the truth.
However, according to the numbers of Polish Catholics who saved some Jews during the Nazi occupation it would be safe to assume that some of those youngsters grew up to be decent human beings and were even helping their parents in that dangerous task ... I sincerely hope that this assumption of mine is really close to the truth.
THE GERMAN OCCUPATION OF LODZ (THE GHETTO)
Almost immediately after the entry of German troops, into the second largest city of Poland, the war against the Jewish population began.
Perhaps the Nazis wouldn't have been able to start their dirty work as soon as they did, if not for the local help granted to them by many of their supporters. Thousands of ethnic Germans, proudly showing off their swastika arm bands, were ready and willing to help their Nazi brothers in the war against their helpless former neighbours.
Lodz surrendered to the Nazis without any actual resistance. Evacuated days earlier by the Polish army, police force and the city administrators. Those retreating "heroes", promised to put up a strong defence at the gates of Warsaw.
This promise prompted a mass evacuation of tens of thousands of men, women, and children, many with their entire families, who soon became targets for the murderous German pilots who bombed and mercilessly gunned down hundreds of those innocent civilians. Many of those evacuees including little children, became the first victims of Nazi brutality.
While the Nazis were busy with occupying the rest of Poland, the occupiers of Lodz began their dirty work of harassing and abusing the Jewish citizens of our city.
In addition to the help granted to the Nazis by their ethnic brothers, they were also assisted by some Polish hooligans who for a small reward, and many times just for pleasure, willingly denounced their Jewish neighbors or even former close friends.
So, Jews were grabbed from the streets to perform all sorts of hard labor. While many of them were fortunate enough to return home after performing their days work. Others, especially young men were shipped off to labor camps, never to be seen by their families again.
Religious Jews had their beards cut off forcefully, while many of them were also forced to put on their prayer shawls. During those barbarous ceremonies, the Nazis joyfully photographed each other, apparently to send pictures to their loved ones in Germany.
Scores of different laws against the Jewish population, were posted daily on billboards all over the city. Among the first outrageous proclamations were against the Jewish religious life: "prayers in synagogues and assembling in groups for any religious purposes was forbidden. Jewish stores had to be opened on the Jewish Sabbath, holidays, and festivals. Jewish schools had to be closed until further notice."
Other regulations included a ban for Jews to walk on sidewalk in the presence of any German official, whether military or civilian. Jews were also obliged to remove their hats and respectfully greet an oncoming German soldier.
Daily harassment of the Jewish population occurred unabated. Jewish businesses were being closed, and their remaining stock looted and hauled away in large trucks. Those looted goods were apparently transported to Germany. Smaller stores were constantly looted by individual German soldiers as well as by ethnic Germans.
Finally the most degrading of all those laws was forced on us: Jews must attach a yellow star of David on the front and back of each garment in their possession.
During the initial evacuation of Lodz my two older brothers, Moshe and Isaac, were also on their way to Warsaw. With thousands of others, they were surrounded by the advancing German forces, and arrested somewhere between the two cities.
At the same time I became ill with an acute flu infection which caused fluid in both of my knees. I probably contacted the flu while standing for many hours in line-ups to fetch a loaf of bread for my family.
After a couple of weeks in detention, Isaac was finally released and returned together with scores of other young men. Moshe, however, who at the time had no proper identification, was kept as a prisoner of war.
Being back with his family, Isaac confirmed the tragic stories of death and destruction, as a result of German low flying planes, bombing and shelling indiscriminately civilian men, women and children.
The roads, byways and ditches were filled with corpses of innocent people. In some places parents were found dead on top of their children whom they tried to shield with their own bodies.
Moshe returned about six weeks later. Bailed out (or rather bribed) by my father who together with a neighbor managed to bring their boys home.
Moshe, who was not twenty four yet, returned home in terrible shape. Skinny after loosing at least twenty pounds, sick with a bloody diarrhea, physically and mentally exhausted he told of atrocities at that time totally unimaginable.
Together with a large group of young men, Moshe was taken from one temporary camp to another, sleeping on bare floors with very little food to sustain their strength. There was no change of underwear or a simple shower during all that time.
Dirty unshaven with their clothing turned into rags, they were dragged to the streets of the German city of Leipzig. During those walks escorted by Nazi soldiers with vicious dogs. loudspeakers kept on shouting insults at those exhausted young men, while introducing them to the passing-by German civilians as typical dirty and damned "east Jews" who were the cause of all suffering in the world and the ones responsible for the present war.
Soon after his return home and under the constant care of our dear mother, Moshe recovered splendidly.
However, the situation in our city turned from bad to worse. On the 11th of November 1939, on the day when Poland was supposed to celebrate the anniversary of it's independence, the monument of Polands historical hero Kosciuszko, was destroyed. On the same day most of the synagogues of Lodz were blown up and some were set on fire.
Jews were shedding tears and their hearts were bleeding. Especially the Jews of my neighbourhood, could not bear the thought that their great old city synagogue, where my family and myself were attending the shabbat and holiday services was also destroyed. All that remained from that majestic world renowned synagogue was a pile of rubble with it's concrete ten commandment tablets almost undamaged on top of the debris. The nearby Beit Medrash (study house), was torched to the ground.
This was the day which prompted my parents decision to urge their two older sons to escape to the east. My parents felt that their lives would be in danger under the ever more brutal German occupation.
Soon after, amid hugs and tears, my two brothers together with scores of other young men were on their way, with a promise to send for us if things work out as expected.
Unfortunately things turned out worse than we expected. My brothers never saw their parents again.
The economic situation, especially for the poorest segment of the Jewish population became disastrous. Large families, without any means or without any prospect of paid labor, were the first to suffer. An acute shortage of food products and fuel caused the prices to sky rocket, making it impossible for most Jews to feed properly or to keep their children warm.
The misery of the first winter under the German occupation was devastating to a poorly prepared and mostly without means Jewish population of our area. The death toll, especially among children and the elderly had reached unexpected proportions. The main cause of this disaster was of course, cold and starvation. At the same time the Germans started with their mass deportations which reduced the Jewish population of Lodz at least by one third. Rumors of a soon to be erected ghetto, began to circulate all over the place.
Through unexpected developments the economic situation in our household improved immensely. An old customer of ours, a store keeper of German ancestry and incidentally a decent person, recommended my father to a high ranking Wehrmacht officer who ordered and paid for several comforters to be shipped to his family in Germany.
This was the start of at least a couple of months of relative prosperity, because several other German army officers followed with similar orders.
During this particular period, the Jewish population were struggling with a shortage of yellow stars of David to attach to each one of their garments. The few places where you were able to buy this very important, at the time, commodity were producing fancy embroidered stars for which they were asking high prices, which were unaffordable by most of the population.
Since my father had quite an amount of yellow satin material in his stock, my brother and I decided to make our own yellow stars, and also some for our relatives and close neighbors. As soon as what we were doing reached the streets, many street vendors showed up at our apartment simply begging us to supply them with stars to meet the demand of the Jewish population. They also indeed sensed a chance to make a living. The demand became so big, that my brother and I had to work sixteen hours a day, to meet the orders of ever more street vendors. Soon my father had to find more material while my brother and I had to find new ways to double or even triple our production. Although we covered the cost of our material, plus a decent return on our labor, we provided the ghetto population with affordable stars of David and indeed a decent living for dozens of street vendors.
"This enterprise," if I can call it that, lasted until the end of June 1940, a couple of months after the closing of the Lodz ghetto. Although it gave us a chance to survive a bad period by making a decent living, by hard work from the four of us, I still feel that although our product was an obscene Nazi invention, we nevertheless supplied the poor ghetto dwellers an affordable product instead of a highly expensive embroidered yellow star.
It didn't take long for the face of the ghetto to change drastically. This was still the transition period from a free market to official rationing. The acute food shortage and astronomical prices at the black market, caused mass starvation and together with ever more worsening sanitary conditions in the over-crowded ghetto, the death toll kept on rising.
The streets were already full of walking skeletons, and during the nights dead bodies were picked up from sidewalks and alleys. The vicious prophecy on the billboard, which the Germans put on, on each of the ghetto gates, "SEUCHEN GEBIET EINTRIT VERBOTEN" (Diseased area, off limits), unfortunately became reality.
All kinds of diseases prevailed, culminating in the devastating typhus epidemic.
The terrible living conditions, of an average six to eight people occupying a one room flat with no plumbing or hot water, and piles of garbage, in addition to constantly overflown public latrines, became a breeding ground for this terrible epidemic.
By the beginning of July 1940, 1 fell victim to this most contagious disease. I don't remember exactly how long my hospitalization lasted, but two episodes of this tragic period in the life of my family and myself I will never forget. They will stay engraved in my memory as long as I shall live.
The first event occurred while my illness reached the apparent crisis. My temperature was at its highest possible level which put me in a state of semi consciousness. I felt like lying on a pile of burning coal, and at the same time I was trembling viciously from a freezing chill. My lips were split open from dryness and constantly bleeding.
Since this hospital was off limits to visitors the only recourse of finding out about a patients condition was by appointment with a physician on duty.
On this particular afternoon my parents and my brother were sitting in the doctor's office waiting for his assessment of my state of health.
Coincidentally a friend of mine, a youngster who belonged to the same athletic club as I did, before the war, of course, happened to be present in the doctors office. The ,pariser' as we used to call him, having already survived a bout with typhus was now working in the hospital as a courier. He was of great help to me during my illness, mostly by bringing me desperately needed bottles of water, supplied daily by my father.
This time, however, his help to my family was priceless.
Doing or pretending to do something, my friend overheard the Doctor telling my hysterically crying parents that my condition was hopeless. In an attempt to soothe my parents fears the ,pariser' stopped them after leaving the doctors office and tried to convince them that the doctor was wrong in his assessment. "I just saw Ben and I can assure you that his condition is improving", he whispered to them. "You just stay as always in front of the building and I will bring Ben to the window and prove to you that the doctor was wrong", he assured them patiently.
Suddenly I heard my friends voice, like as if in a dream, telling me that he will escort me to the window for just a minute in order to say hello to my parents. With the help of a nurse, he put me on my feet covered with a blanket, and without even realizing what it was all about, I found myself in front of a large window. Like through a dense fog I noticed my brother and my parents waving in my direction. Then I felt my friends hand lifting up my right arm helping me to wave to them. While I automatically did that, he urged me to smile, and I did that too, this time fully realizing what I was doing. I was gently put back to bed by those two angels, who covered me with a warm blanket and quietly left the room.
The next morning, I woke up seeing a smiling doctor and nurse next to my bed. They both seemed ecstatic, and for the first time in quite a while I felt excellent. My temperature was almost back to normal.
The impression that I felt excellent was so misleading that it almost led to a tragedy of great proportions, to myself, and indeed to my poor parents.
Being over-anxious to go home and remembering rumors that being a hospital patient in the ghetto could be quite dangerous, I tried with certain tricks to keep my temperature as low as possible. The consequence of this behaviour was of course my premature release. Which brings me to my second event.
It was about ten a.m. on this hot early August morning, when my father and my brother came to the hospital to take me home. They were told by the hospital administrator to go home by themselves while I according to hospital rules will be taken home by ambulance. Soon after I was placed together with several other patients in a makeshift horse driven ambulance, accompanied by a male nurse.
According to a Nazi devised plan, the Lodz ghetto was split into two parts connected with several wooden bridges. This was done to accommodate the Christian population who had to pass the area on streetcars. These bridges were erected over the main artery which connected the Christian parts of the city.
Ghetto pedestrians had to cross those bridges daily on their way to the factories and to other desired destinations. All kinds of vehicles had to pass through the gates which were guarded on one side by German soldiers and on the ghetto side, by Jewish policemen.
When the ambulance I was driving in stopped near the gate, which was leading to my home, a male nurse told me that I was the only one of the whole group who lived on the other side of the ghetto. He proposed to me that since I am the only one, and already in good shape, I should cross the bridge by foot and walk home. Without realizing in what condition I really was, I agreed and walked out in the direction of the bridge.
While walking the short distance to the bridge, I suddenly realized the huge mistake I made by agreeing to take this outrageous suggestion of the male nurse. Hardly being able to walk I found myself in front of the tall bridge, which I had to cross into the Wolbarska street from where I would have to walk a kilometer to reach my home.
The moment I looked up to the close to three stories tall bridge, I became fully aware that I am faced with an impossible task. In desperation I was searching for a familiar face whom I could ask for help but all in vain. I was even asking for help from total strangers, but without success.
Wearing a pair of terribly wrinkled pants and not better looking jacket and being awfully skinny and pale, I obviously did not look different from hundreds of other youngsters, starved and skeletal beggars who were already a familiar sight on the ghetto streets. Hardly being able to drag my legs, I started to walk up the wooden stairs, fully realizing that this is my only chance of reaching my home.
In order not to get additional discouragement, I made up my mind, not to look up. I just took one step after another, rested for a while and continued at the same pace. Every step seemed to take a lifetime, and with each little bit of progress, my strength seemed to diminish. It took me at least two hours to reach the top of the bridge.
Holding on to the rail, I looked down. I felt like standing on the summit of a huge mountain. The people on the street looked like dwarfs, in comparison to the ones walking next to me. The fast moving streetcar seemed like a toy train. I felt dizzy, but slowly continued my walk towards the downward stairs.
When I finally reached the street below, the sun was already beginning to hide behind some of the tall dwellings. I found myself on the "wolborska street", from where I had to cross the plaza of the old city synagogue leading to the street where I lived.At the end of the plaza the street numbers if I remember well, started at number 9 and the building where I lived was number 25. Normally, to reach my home would have taken me no more than twenty minutes. However, in my condition, it felt as if I had to walk by foot to Warsaw.
Very slowly, with painful effort, I reached the corner of Wolborska street just opposite the ruins of the great "OLD CITY SYNAGOGUE." This pile of debris was probably left there by the Nazi tyrants as a reminder to the Lodz Jews of their past glory.
Just across the street, there were still several abandoned apartment buildings whose tenants were already deported to an unknown destinations. I managed to sit down on the steps of one of the few padlocked stores.
The street was completely deserted. Exhausted, physically as well as mentally, I figured I will just take a short rest and continue on my way home. To my dismay and horror, I realized that this was nothing but the end of my journey. Not only was I not able to continue walking, but I was lacking the strength of simply standing up.
In desperation I kept looking in each direction for a passerby, but all in vain. Not even a sound of footsteps could be heard from a distance.
When the sun finally disappeared I realized in what grave situation I really found myself in. What actually hurt me most was the obvious state of distress my parents felt at that moment. There was no doubt in my mind that together with my brother, friends and neighbours they must be searching for me all over the place. I also realized that my remaining relatives must also have been alerted and are helping in the search. I was also praying for the daylight to last a bit longer.
It was hard for me to keep my eyes open, I fought very hard to avoid falling asleep. Through my almost closed eyelids, I looked across to the pile of rubble and in my distress noticed the attached-together concrete tablets with the engraved Ten Commandments right on top of the pile. For a moment, I thought that I saw the great synagogue standing intact in front of me in its full splendor.
Like in the good old days, I also saw the commandment tablets on the very top of the majestic building of that great synagogue.
Painfully I fully opened my eyes and tried to return to reality. I looked again at the pile of debris and could not comprehend how it was possible for these tablets to remain in tact, except for a few chopped-off pieces and remain on top of the pile. Was it accidental or did the Nazis place them there after the destruction of the synagogue, or was it a cynical act of defiance to show the Jews that their God is really worthless?
I continued to struggle to keep my eyes open, and again saw myself inside the synagogue full of people. Among the worshipers I saw scores of Jewish soldiers who were obliged to visit a house of prayer during the Jewish Sabbath. I remember well how those handsome, young men in uniform usually escorted by a non-commissioned Christian officer were brought to attend the shabbat services. I also saw myself with my twin brother standing next to my father who was draped in his prayer shawl and feeling proud to be inside this holy place.
"Benji, Benji" my thought were interrupted by a sudden familiar voice. Hardly able to open my eyes, I felt a hand shaking my shoulder. Like awakened from a deep sleep, I slowly opened my eyes. In complete disbelief I saw a man bending over me, talking to me, again calling my name, "What are you doing here Benji? Come I'll take you home", he kept on talking.... I noticed that it was still daylight, and except for the young man who stood in front of me, the street was still empty of any other human being. I finally realized to whom this familiar voice I heard belonged: David Malinowski, a neighbor of ours, a young man in his early twenties, was just on his way from work when he noticed me.
Tenderly David lifted me up, placed me on his out-stretched arms, and carried me into the Zydowska street, where dozens of neighbors and relatives were gathered in anticipation of some good news to convey to my parents.
We were almost half way to our destination when I saw my parents running towards us, shedding tears of happiness and joy.
"How did you find him?" I heard my father asking David. "I don't know", the overwhelmed with excitement David answered. "I never go home this way, never, this time I somehow turned into the Wolborska street, as if someone would have pushed me", and added, "I really don't know why Mr. Kujawski, I really don't, I swear.
When I think of this episode, it is hard for me to determine if I would have been able to survive a night sitting on the steps of this abandoned building. Therefore I must assume that David, (Duvcie) saved my life. This young man, the oldest son of a poor tailor, was later deported together with his parents and six siblings.
They were part of tens and thousands so called welfare Jews who became the first victims of the Nazi death camps, apparently in chelmno, Maidanek or Treblinka.
So it is obvious that David will remain alive in my heart, as long as I shall live.
When I look back to the countless other severely dangerous events during my continuous struggle for survival, I am quite convinced that Davids route home from work on that fateful day was guided by something much higher than pure luck.
THE SOUP KITCHEN (WINTER OF 1940-41)
About six weeks have passed since my return from the hospital, and was still unable to leave the house. The first couple of weeks, I was still quite sick. It seemed that from a period of high fever and dehydration, my body had little resistance to infections.
Painful boils invaded many parts of my almost transparent skin.
My parents, of course, did their very best to ease my suffering, although there wasn't very much they could do. Everybody agreed, that time would be the actual healer.
It is well known that after a bout with typhoid, a patients appetite is usually returning with a vengeance. I however was not able to swallow anything for at least two weeks.
When my appetite finally returned, my parents found themselves facing some unforeseeable problems. Fortunately we were still able to buy enough bread, and there was also an abundance of cereals, especially cream of wheat.
This was the time when the famous ghetto troubadour Jankele in his song "Rumkowski Chaim" was lamenting that God is only sending to us "Mannah" (cream of wheat), instead of real food.
There was, however an acute shortage of essential food items, like meat, eggs, dairy products, and fruits. My parents, of course, did their best with little savings, they still had left, to give me the best care possible. They even began selling house items of any value to buy better food for me, while neglecting my brother and themselves.
It was already the end of July, and I was still unable to get out of the house. I was full of envy when friends were calling on me, and then together with my twin brother left to enjoy the beautiful summer weather.
One morning, while still half asleep I heard my father telling something to my mother. Since the conversation was conducted in a whispering tone, I became quite eager to eavesdrop. It turned out that they were talking about me and my prospects for a fast recovery. "Ben will not be able to get on his feet without some meat", I heard my father saying. Although I was not able to understand every word of their conversation, I realized that my father's point was to convince mother that it is high time to put aside religious convictions and consider first of all the health of their child.
"Ella-dear", I heard father address my mother, this time in a louder voice, he continued "there is no other meat available than horse meat, and if we want our son to survive, we must buy what we can get." When my mother began to cry he tried to convince her that in this case she will not commit a sin because the Jewish law allows for "pekuach nefesh," which means that you can break any religious law when a human life is in danger. "O.k., o.k., I heard my mother whispering through her tears. Then I heard a sound of a kiss. Apparently my father planted a kiss on mother's forehead.
On the same day, father brought home a parcel of fresh horse meat. Mother slowly took out piece after piece, and put it into her usual kosher meat pot, filled it with cold water and began the familiar process of making it kosher, as if it was beef bought at a kosher butcher. After soaking the meat for about an hour, she put it on the meat board and salted: it all over, leaving it that way, for the usual thirty minutes or so.
Having gone through the process of "koshering" the meat, mother seemed to feel much better. pretty soon we had noticed a change in her general attitude.
Only at the first time while frying horse meat hamburgers, I noticed mother shed some tears, but eventually when she saw how I enjoyed her juicy burgers, she seemed to feel much better.
When I started to gain weight, Mother's face was shining with joy, she even started to serve some to my brother and my father, apparently, taking under consideration the same law of "pekuach nefesh."
However, mother herself tasted her first piece of horse meat several months later, when this important food item became rationed and a luxury in the Lodz ghetto. (A hundred grams of horse meat was allowed to a person for a period of two weeks).
By the end of August, I took my first walk without anyones assistance. The weather was warm and beautiful, the sun was shining through a clear blue sky.
After walking a couple of blocks, I returned home deeply disturbed. The atmosphere and the people on the streets have changed drastically since the day I entered the hospital.
People I knew well have changed beyond recognition. Although there was still enough bread and other food items available, people without means were starving. I came face to face with walking skeletons, they were moving slowly as if they were dazed. Many of them were probably survivors from the typhoid epidemic.
People who were still looking half decently nourished, seemed depressed and worried. The sunny weather seemed to have little influence on most of the ghetto inhabitants.
There were rumors that finally food will be rationed; an apparent advantage for the poor and unemployed majority of the ghetto population who could not afford the high prices of free market food.
The greatest fear however seemed to be the approaching winter. Everybody still remembered the harsh winter during the first few months of the German occupation. Obviously those memories were pretty disturbing.
Although there was still coal and wood available, for inflated prices of course, many people were freezing inside their poorly heated dwellings.
By the end of 1939, most of the wooden fences and sheds, were dismantled by desperate people searching for fuel to keep their children from freezing to death.
But many did freeze. Mostly children, the elderly and the sick. Those unfortunate souls were dying in the hundreds. I don't think that I have seen as many funerals in all my life as I have seen in one week during those horrible winter days of 1939-40.
I myself used to join a group of other youngsters, equipped with a shovel searching for small pieces of coal, especially on the grounds were previously sheds were standing. These groups of youngsters became known in the ghetto as "Coal Miners".
After a day of desperate searching and hard labor each of us sometimes were lucky enough to accumulate several pounds of precious fuel.
The still existing house committees felt that it was their duty to be prepared with any possible means to face the approaching winter of 1940-41.
Not being able to do anything about heating fuel, the consensus among the committee members was at least to find a way to provide a hot meal daily for the poor and needy. At that time the majority of the ghetto population already belonged to this category.
The committees meeting on this still hot August day of 1940 took place in our apartment. My father, in his capacity as secretary opened the gathering of about a dozen men. He tried to explain in simple and convincing arguments the urgency and need to erect a soup kitchen. This he argued, must be done before the arrival of winter.
At the time, I was just planning to leave the house to meet some friends. Becoming intrigued by the topic of the overheard discussion, I decided to stay until the end of that seemingly important meeting. Not to make myself too visible I pretended to do something at a corner of the large room. Without anybody really caring about my presence I stayed on till the end of the meeting.
After a heavily heated discussion, and a unanimous decision to build the soup kitchen, it seemed that the stumbling block turned out to be a lack of money to finance this daring project.
The meeting ended with each member expressing his readiness to help in any way possible, but financially. One of the members, Mr. Blum, actually expressed everyones thoughts by saying"I admit that I still have left a little of my lifes savings, but who is going to help me feed my wife and children?
The meeting ended quietly without any concrete decision.
After everybody left, my father still remained at the table holding his head with both hands. He looked devastated. Mother went over to comfort him, "It will work out" she whispered, "with Gods help it surely will."
Suddenly a seemingly crazy thought went through my head: "A show, some sort of a theatre." This was in my view at the moment the only way to raise funds for this very important project. After all this is almost a full year since anybody had an opportunity to see a movie or attend a theatre performance.
I left the apartment without telling anybody where I was heading. While running down the stairs I met my twin brother who was just returning from a neighboring backyard, where he was kicking around a soccer ball with a group of friends.
"Where are you in such a hurry?" Meyer asked. I took him aside and told him about the meeting of the house committee. "So what?" he asked, if there is no money, there is no money. He just brushed me off. "I am hungry" he said, "I am going upstairs". "No you are not" I said as firmly as I could, holding him back with both my arms.
In comparison to me, Meyer was still in good shape, and with only a simple move with his arms could have pushed me aside, but he didn't. He looked at me in bewilderment, waiting patiently for what I had to say.
Just in a nutshell I told him about my idea to create a small show in order to raise the necessary funds to build a kitchen. "We must do it as fast as possible," I argued, "so let us not waste any time and organize as many teenagers as possible and start working."
Perhaps he was touched by my sincere excitement, that he agreed to get in touch with as many friends as possible.
On the same evening with the permission of my parents, a small group of teenage boys and girls gathered in our apartment. I told them what I overheard. They all seemed very interested. After hearing about my idea, they became really excited. Realizing the great importance of a soup kitchen in our area, we all agreed to make it our goal to raise as much money as we possibly could.
Our friend Krawiecki, a nephew of the owner of our building promised to convince his uncle to let us use the large basement in the rear building, one of the two large dwellings he owned on the Zydowska 25.
The basement which was once a furniture workshop was abandoned in 1938, when the shop owner with his wife and three children emigrated to Palestine. If we would be lucky enough to get this place, it would serve as a first class theatre, and after as an ideal place for the proposed soup kitchen.
So Krawiecki's task was actually the most important one of the whole project. The other assembled teenagers were handed different responsibilities, besides taking part in the overall cleanup of the terribly neglected basement.
My brother and I took over the duties of decorating the place and overseeing the erecting of a stage that would meet our needs. In addition to stage decorations, we also promised to make and distribute posters and other necessary publicity materials.
Three girls, all from our building, were in charge of finding as many young talents as possible. Since the kitchens purpose was to serve the needy from the whole neighborhood, everyone willing and able to help out was more than welcome.
Very soon several young men in their twenties, became interested in our project. One of them, Alex Lenga, took over the duties of Master of Ceremonies, and helping produce the show. He was also blessed with a pretty good singing voice. His biggest contribution, however, was the fact that he knew very well a former professional actor of the Yiddish theatre, by the name of Shefner, who was living all by himself. Mr. Shefner must have been in his late fifties, very poor and very happy to have found, at least for a while, some work in his profession.
It turned out that my parents remembered Mr. Shefner from the days when he was performing in the old Yiddish theatre in Lodz. My father promised him three meals a day during the time of the duration of the theatre, and afterwards a bowl of any soup available from our soup kitchen, daily.
The moment Mr. Krawiecki handed us the key to the basement, our project went into full motion. About fifteen teenagers were working several days just to clean up the basement, a task which at first seemed impossible.
While a couple of neighbors, professional carpenters were busy erecting a stage, Alex, Mr. Shefner and myself, were busy auditioning scores of teenagers, the majority of them girls, who were eager to show off their hidden talents.
My brother with several other boys were cleaning the walls and windows. Then we both , my brother and I became busy decorating the walls with colored posters of known movie stars and theatre actors.
Soon the old basement which already became completely unrecognizable, became known as"THE HALL".
Alex, with the help of his older brother had managed to engage some unemployed musicians who were more than happy to help out. The continuous rehearsals were beginning to show promise for a successful musical review.
Because of the approaching high holidays we were not able to set a date for the show's debut. We also had to wait for the official permit from the ghetto administration.
The permit from Rumkowskis office arrived one week before the holidays. The main clause in the lengthy permit besides a strict time limit was that the posters and any other publicity material must clearly mention that all the proceeds from the stage performances were being designated to build a neighbourhood soup kitchen.
The time allowed, if my memory serves me well, was about only three weeks. We were never really sure who actually insisted on these strict regulations, the German or Jewish administration. The signature on the permit however was just M.CH. Rumkowski.
Several days before Rosh Hashana, while putting up the finishing touches to the hall, we received a very distinguished visitor: Reb Itzhak Krawiecki. Still the landlord of the building was quite surprised by the transformation of his neglected basement. His pale face, with a fiery red beard which was cut down to a minimum, (to avoid harassment by German soldiers), suddenly looked as if he had found something he was desperately looking for.
"This will be the right place", he told us with visible excitement. We all looked at Mr.Krawiecki without a clue of what he was talking about. But we waited patiently for Mr Krawiecki to make clear to us what he meant by the "right place."
His proposal was blunt and to the point. As you know, it is officially forbidden to use any halls or "other public places" for prayers during the upcoming holidays. The neighborhood "Bet Midrash" is padlocked by the German authorities. "So why couldn't we use this beautiful place for our holiday services? The place is hidden in the back of the building, he argued, and with all of you sharing guarding duties, we could conduct normal holiday services.
With the cooperation of the majority of our group, we provided enough chairs to fill the hall, and a special group of boys were designated to become look-outs during the services. To the great satisfaction for all of us the holidays went through without any trouble at all.
The use of the cleaned up basement for such an important event provided us with a feeling of pride. Even the several leftist neighbors, who never stepped into a synagogue before, this time took part in the solemn services conducted almost entirely by Reb Krawiecki.
Right after the holidays, posters announcing a three week run of a musical review were placed in different points of the ghetto.
Each performance, one matinee and one in the evening was sold out. Even standing room tickets were in demand and sold out days before the performances. The hall could only hold approximately 80 to 90 people.
The success of the show was far above our expectations. Not only have we earned enough money to build a kitchen, but a substantial sum was also left over to stock up on coal, wood and important food products to last at least for a couple of months.
The fact that we managed to stage a show almost entirely in Yiddish, (except for some songs performed in Polish), was quite an achievement. But to conduct full services on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur under severe duress and most dangerous conditions was considered an act of pure heroism.
I still think that what we accomplished by building a most needed soup kitchen, did not diminish the importance of conducting the holiday services. There is no doubt in my mind that both enterprises were acts of passive resistance to the Nazi occupation, and open defiance of the laws of the Nazi occupation.
The kitchen was ready just in time for winter. In the beginning of December of 1940, long line-ups started to build up in front of the kitchen, by people eagerly waiting for their daily hot meal. To everyones pleasant surprise the orderly behavior by the hungry masses of people was admirable. They just had to hand over their own container which was filled up with a hot and dense delicious potato and vegetable soup.
Heading the kitchen staff was Mrs. Baum, a mother of two who was appointed by the tenants committee for purely humanitarian reasons. Mrs. Baum was the first war widow in our building. Her husband, a quiet decent man in his late forties, was killed during a merciless massacre at a checkpoint, while entering the ghetto on the day before the complete closing of the Jewish area.
Food rationing was finally enforced, but the small amount of food items was a death blow to the ghetto population. The amount of groceries for a period of two weeks was not even sufficient for four days. A two kilogram loaf of bread for the same period lasted at best for one week or even less.
The same problem was with the small coal rations, especially during the harsh winter months.
Under those conditions the soup kitchen became an important source of nourishment, especially during the second week of the used up rations.
The hardship of the ghetto population was rapidly becoming unbearable.
People with no means to supplement their food rations with some black market items were starving and freezing to death inside their unheated flats.
The group of youngsters who were active and instrumental in erecting the soup kitchen were now helping out in the day to day running of this important institution. Many of them were delivering a hot meal daily to the sick and elderly. Those errands in time became so tragically disturbing, that it became very difficult to find additional help for this important task.
It was of no surprise to any delivery boy or girl to find a dead body in bed instead of the living person whom they expected to enjoy a hot soup.
Many doors were left open with a dead person inside a freezing apartment. Others had to be broken into, when nobody seemed able to open the door.
On one of such a delivery to the flat of Mr. and Mrs. Leszczynski I found the door ajar. Slowly I pushed it open. Hearing no sound whatsoever, I called out for Mr. Leszczynski. There was no answer, so I tried a bit louder, this time for Mrs. Leszczynski, again there was no response. The room temperature was surely far below zero. I slowly walked over to the bed which was placed next to a solidly frozen-up window. They both seemed to be sleeping; their sleep, however, seemed to me somehow too peaceful. There was no human sound coming out of these two so familiar to me elderly couple.
Deep in my heart I knew that these unfortunate lonely innocent souls were no more alive.
Calmly I decided not to panic.Perhaps I was already getting used to these sort of tragedies. Slowly I left the room, quietly closing the door as if being afraid to wake them up. Like in a daze I walked to our flat where my mother was already preparing something for supper. "Don't you feel well my child?" mother asked as if sensing some trouble, "you are white like the ceiling." She gently helped me to reach the chair and asked me what had happened. I told her what I just saw. We both cried uncontrollably for a while. The Leszczynski's were our neighbors for as long as I could remember.
Do you know Ben, Mother said with her tears still running down her cheeks, that Mrs. Leszczynski, besides being a good neighbor, used to be your favorite babysitter.
The next morning several members of the Chesed Shel Emet (funeral committee) came to pick up the two frozen bodies of the elderly couple.
I'm not certain if their three daughters, who were living abroad ever really found out how their beloved parents had perished. Until the outbreak of World War Two, the oldest daughter who lived in Switzerland, was the main supporter of her parents. The second oldest who emigrated after her older sister and lived in Argentina, also contributed to her parents upkeep. The youngest daughter managed to escape to Palestine just before the outbreak of WW2.
It is hard to say if our effort actually helped save many lives. One thing, however, I am pretty sure of is the fact that the soup kitchen we helped to build made it easier for many ghetto dwellers to pull through the terrible winter of 1940-41.
I personally am very proud indeed of that group of teenage boys and girls who took part in this noble endeavour.
The tragic part of all this is the fact that most of these boys and girls, in one way or another, perished during the Holocaust.
Only a very few were fortunate enough to survive; Leo Krawieski, with his younger brother, Laibel, who are living with their families in Ramat Gan, Israel. Also alive are the two children of Mrs. Baum, Bina and Srulek, who live with their families in Tel Aviv.
Another teenage survivor was our good friend, Frania (Berkowicz) Wolkowicz, who is living since 1948 in the U.S.A. Plus of course my twin brother Meyer and myself.
ON CHARNIECKIEGO (THE GHETTO PRISON)
End of March 1942. Under normal circumstances, winter should have almost been over, but not in Lodz Ghetto. The roads and sidewalks were either slippery or still covered with snow or ice patches. Some heavy snow or just wet snow kept on coming down from the eternally black skies.
People walking to and from work, were still bundled up, mostly in worn overcoats, and many just in rags. "When you are hungry, the cold gets to you" you would hear people complaining.
Inside the apartments, the situation was almost about the same. Hunger and cold prevailed while people slept fully dressed. Under ever deteriorating sanitary conditions the plaque of body lice continued to add more suffering to the Ghetto dwellers.
On one evening of this miserable month after a "normal" day of misery in the factory, my mother, tears streaming down her bony cheeks, handed me a note from the Ghetto administration.
Even without mothers tears I realized that the note was no "wedding invitation." I read only one short sentence and put the letter into my pocket. "Please report immediately to the Ghetto prison on Charnieckiego"...
"Another deportation," there was never any question about it, but I told my mother that it's "just a request to answer some questions".. My father had just left for his night shift. The three of us, mother, brother, and myself ate our soup in complete silence. Mother still had tears in her sad eyes.
The next morning on the way to the factory, I spoke with my brother about my summons. We both agreed that there is no other way than for me to report as requested. Otherwise the whole family would be in danger of deportation.
About one PM. I left the house without taking anything with me. I said goodbye to my parents, telling them that as soon as I give to the authorities the information they need, I'll be back home.
The streets were muddy and almost empty of pedestrians. From time to time, a man-driven wagon with a barrel full of excrement from the always overflowing latrines, was pulled by a couple of sickly looking men dressed in rags. When they passed by, the air became contaminated by a unbearable stench. "How in Gods name are those poor men able to handle such a terrible job"? I thought forgetting for a moment my own predicament.
I kept on walking without fully realizing that I might never see my family again. Deep in my heart, however, I had a feeling that also this time, I will prevail.
Only one lonely Jewish policeman was standing in front of the prison gate. A high wooden fence surrounding the prison prevented me from seeing any part of the actual prison. The officer looked at my "invitation," handed it back to me, and just by pointing, he directed me to the first building inside.
I was met by a large and noisy crowd of young men, mostly in their twenties, and some teenagers as myself. "Get in here" one of them called out and pulled me into the centre of a large room filled with desperate young men cramped together like canned sardines.
The room was empty of any sort of furniture, not even a single chair was in sight. . .
"What is going on here?" I asked a guy next to me. His answer was plain and simple "Who the hell knows?" Most of us are here since the early morning, and nobody spoke to us yet.
Another one told me that we apparently have to wait for the arrival of Commissioner Hertzberg, the head of the prison, who supposedly is going to select a large group of able men to be transferred to a labor camp.
I also learned that so far there was no food or any kind of fluid served. In spite of the large crowd, the place was freezing cold.
In the meantime many more men were filling up the already overcrowded hall. I did not feel the floor under my feet any more, I was just hanging between a bunch of bigger and visibly stronger guys than myself.
Darkness began to engulf the unlit place, but still no food or water was in sight. Hungry and cold, without seeing a prompt end to this horrible ordeal, the would-be camp laborers soon became irritated and restless.
A chaotic pushing, shoving and screaming, seemed to alarm the prison guards, who arrived wielding their rubber batons over our heads. During all that commotion, I thought that I heard my fathers voice. Desperately looking towards the wide open door, I spotted my father calling and waving in my direction.
With all the power and energy left in my exhausted body I squeezed myself through the mass of people. At the door my father pulled me outside.
While handing me a small container with some still warm soup, and a slice of bread, he told me that the commissioner will soon arrive and start the selection. Father urged me to do everything possible to avoid being selected. Do it for your mothers sake he whispered, while leaving me helpless, probably hoping for some kind of miracle... "I must make my night shift", he said sadly, and disappeared.
I became the envy of the whole unfortunate mass of young men. "A big shot", I heard some of them utter in visible anger. But after explaining to them that my father is just a night watchmen at a produce depot, they seemed to calm down a little.
It became understandable that as a worker at this type of job my father had a right to wear a yellow-white arm band. This of course, gave him the privilege to freely enter any ghetto institution, including the jail area.
It must have been close to 10 P.M. when we were ordered to gather in the huge prison yard. A couple of hundred young men were ordered to stand in a single line facing commissioner Hertzberg.
Suddenly a burst of bright lights were turned on blinding the already overtired and hungry prisoners.
The freezing weather added considerably to our overall misery. But having in mind fathers plea before he left me, I knew that something must be done as soon as possible. Without any more contemplating, and before the commissioner had a chance to start with his actual selection, I found myself in front of him.
Like a trained actor, I limped over, bent in half, like Quasimodo in the "Hunchback of Notre Dame" my left hand hanging down as if paralized, and the summons paper clutched in my right hand.
Looking up to this giant of a man, by lifting up my eyes only, I cried, and in a stuttering voice pleaded "Please, Herr Commissar" let me go back home, I am sick and half paralized, please let me go home and have mercy on me.
Being bent as I was, my posture was completely dwarfed by the tall and fat prison commissioner. I kept looking up in order to sense any reaction on the face of the dictatorial head of the infamous ghetto prison.
The fat face of the commissioner seemed to turn into an ugly mask. He looked down at me with total disbelief,screaming on top of his head "Take his paper and get him out of here", he shouted at a policeman who stood next to him. "Get him out of here", he kept on barking.
Slowly I limped away, being escorted by the scared to death policeman. The guard who let me out the prison gate looked at me as if contemplating if he ever noticed a hunchback as myself, enter the prison on this day...
I walked, or rather limped very slowly through the prison gate without turning around.
The Charnieckiego street was dark, and the sidewalk icy and slippery. I felt terribly cold, but I also felt free, free to go home to my parents and brother.
The moment I turned the corner, and the prison became out of sight, I finally straightened out and began walking faster and faster until I finally began running as if Hitler himself. was chasing after me.
I continued running, even up the four flight of stairs to our flat. Calmly I knocked at the door. "Who is it?" I heard my mothers familiar voice. "It's me, it's me," I kept on repeating excitingly.
My brother opened the door, grabbed me and locked me in an embrace like never before. "It's great to see you back", he whispered, tears of joy filling his eyes.
Mother was standing next to the stove. Without turning around she quietly told me to sit down at the table "I'm heating up some soup for you", and added, "you must be very hungry."
I noticed her shoulders trembling. (She always did that when sobbing). This time she cried for sheer happiness.
Father was doing his regular night shift.
FATHERS DEPARTURE (THE SPERRE 1942)
Fathers job, which he obtained through my letter to Mr. Rumkowski, the head of the Lodz ghetto, turned out to be a double blessing for our family. First, and most importantly, we avoided the mass deportations of thousands of welfare recipients, and secondly, it helped us to survive the devastating winter of 1941-42
At the time, however, we did not foresee the tragic consequences that my dear father would have to endure.
Mother was still without a job due to the slow pace which plagued the opening of a comforter factory. My brother and myself were still too young, and without skills to obtain a factory job.
My father, though very reluctantly and against his principles, took my brother and myself to his old friend, Max Fuchs, asking for his help in finding some employment for the two of us.
Fuchs, who was the father of Rumkowskis executive secretary, and whose son was the head of the employment department, bluntly refused any help. He told us that he solemnly promised the head of the ghetto administration to stay away from any sort of patronage. "All I can do, my dear friend, is ask my son to send your two youngsters to a labor camp in Germany."
In disgust, we left his beautiful house, ignoring the tempting homemade cookies and tea served on the dining room table. However, just before leaving the nicely decorated room, my father could not resist to remind his old friend when in 1937, he with his children were forced to return from Germany to Poland, my father was the first to help them in their predicament.
The maid was just ready to shut the door behind us, when my father with his head high, proudly put his arms around our shoulders, and without a proper goodbye said; "My family with Gods help, is going to survive, without your help, my friend Mathis"- calling him by his real name.
While stepping out, I managed to have a last glimpse into the room. Max Fuchs, the Germanized Polish Jew, who just several years before became a refugee, humiliated and poor, stood now without any visible expression of regret, heartless and cold.
To me at the given moment, the former best friend of my parents looked as if he would be a Nazi himself.
So, father was the only one in the family to hold a job, fortunately a job with important privileges. Working in a produce warehouse even as a watchman was at the time considered enviable. In addition to his daily soup, he was also permitted to eat on the job vegetables like red beets, carrots, turnips, etc.
However to take out anything, even a frozen or spoiled potato, was not permitted. For such a crime the punishment could have meant deportation of the culprits entire family.
Meanwhile the situation in the ghetto kept on deteriorating. The management of the produce warehouses, besides being corrupt were not skilled enough in the art of maintaining and distributing perishable foods. So, tons of potatoes and vegetables turned rotten and especially during the winter months, became frozen before reaching the starving ghetto dwellers.
To avoid outbreaks of dangerous epidemics, most of those spoiled produce had to be disposed of. This situation prompted many warehouse workers to fill up their pockets with spoiled or frozen vegetables and bring it home to their starving families. Without considering the consequences, my father became one of those "dangerous criminals."
Although mother was terribly fearful of fathers involvement in "stealing," she was nevertheless happy with the few frozen potatoes and some spoiled vegetables that father brought home almost daily. My fathers excuse for doing that was simple and quite logical: "If I would not take it, and my coworkers wouldn't take it, the disposal dumps will be filled even more with those life saving items'
So, the soup at our supper time became a bit better and denser and much more nourishing with produce which would otherwise have been disposed of.
Soon my brother and I became factory workers. My brother with the help of our neighbour, Mr. Feldman, who was production manager of a Nazi uniform factory obtained a job a few blocks away from our residence. While I was hired as a helper at the fur factory through the intervention of an uncle of mine, who was a master furrier.
Relatively comfortable under the prevailing circumstances our family managed to survive the winter of 1941-42 in pretty good shape.
In general however, the ghetto went through a devastating winter. Freezing, unheated dwellings, and mass starvation caused the death of thousands of men, women, and children.
Spring arrived as it always did, but there was no rejoicing. Scores of young men unable to obtain factory jobs or even some daily work, were lining up for voluntary transfers to German labour camps.
At the beginning of spring of 1942, father abruptly stopped bringing home the usual few frozen potatoes and spoiled vegetables. He became moody and seemed to start again to lose weight. Obviously mother looked pretty worried, but didn't say anything. Scared to hear any bad news and not wanting to irritate her husband even further, she even asked my brother and myself to act as if nothing had happened.
We didn't have to wait too long to get a clearer picture of our fathers peculiar behaviour.
On that unforgettable sunny April day of 1942, minutes before father was supposed to leave for his night shift, he surprised us by letting us know that he registered as a volunteer to a labour camp at the western Polish city of Poznan. Needless to say that we were shocked, standing in front of him in complete disbelief. Mother started to weep hysterically and the only word that she could bring out was "Why?"and at the same time blocking the door with her slim body.
Father's timing to let us know about his decision was quite diplomatic and understandable. He obviously did it just before leaving the house to give us as little time as possible for unnecessary arguments. His tactics seemed to work. As he immediately left to work, my brother and I, remained with ample time to calm down our hysterically crying mother and calmly assess the situation.
Early the next morning, after father returned from his shift, mother served him breakfast, a slice of bread with margarine and his usual cup of "ersatz coffee." My brother and I were already getting ready for work. "What is that nonsense about going to Poznan?" mother asked quite calmly.
Visibly tired, and hardly keeping his eyes open, father answered quietly but firmly, "This is no nonsense, I am leaving very soon." Not waiting for our reaction, he continued, "I don't want to share. the fate of most men in our neighbourhood; don't you realize that most of them have died or are dying of starvation." He tried to explain that according to his knowledge, the labourers in those camps received enough food to survive. And while undressing to go to sleep he assured us that the war is going to end pretty soon, and that he will return home and so will Moshe and Isaak, and we will be a happy family again.
Needless to say, that there were more discussions and arguments on that subject with lots of tears being shed, but all in vain.
At the end of April, or just the beginning of May, we sadly escorted my dear father to the gates of the ghetto prison from where a large group of volunteers, mostly younger men than our father, were soon going to leave for labour camps.
In the following days I tried hard to convince my constantly weeping mother that dad did the right thing, and that everything is going to turn out as well as he promised.
But deep in my heart I was very skeptical about fathers so-called voluntary departure. It was very difficult for me to believe that our caring and devoted father would voluntarily leave his family. This gentle man didn't have a selfish bone his body and his love for his wife and children was indisputable.
Pretty soon after his departure we learned the truth about fathers predicament.
Sometimes in May of 1942 we received same papers from the ghetto prosecutors office which pretty much enlightened us about what had really happened. We were informed that several workers of the warehouse including my father, were apprehended while stealing potatoes and vegetables. The supervisor, apparently, to cover up his own questionable activities, reported them to the police. To avoid certain deportation for my father with his whole family, he somehow managed to reach a deal with the prosecutor who let him voluntarily enlist for deportation to a labour camp without involving his family.
Several days later we received by mail a routine postcard from a camp near Poznan, which read, "I work and am very fine," with just his signature at the bottom. This was the last time we heard from him.
To both my brother and myself, and later to my older brothers who returned safely from the Soviet Union, my fathers heroic act of unselfish devotion to his family and his own sacrifice will forever remain in our hearts and souls.
SEALED CATTLE WAGONS AT MARISHIN
It must have been no more than four weeks after fathers departure, when we heard that a train full of inmates from a camp near Poznan, is being held at the Marishin rail station. The wagons are sealed and the inmates not allowed to enter the ghetto area.
Purposely withholding this piece of news from mother, my brother and I decided to check out the story on the spot. When we reached the station, it became quite obvious that something out of the ordinary is taking place. Scores of Jewish policemen and Nazi soldiers with vicious dogs were patrolling the area putting the whole surrounding streets off limits. A long train with dozens of cattle wagons was visible from afar.
At first it seemed impossible to come near those wagons, but after nightfall, when the soldiers with their dogs left the area, we decided to take a chance and reach at least the nearest wagon.
My brother was waiting while I slowly moved past some dense bushes and not even realizing how, I managed to crawl close to the train. Soon I found myself in front of the very last wagon.
Lying on the ground I looked up to the little barred window on top of the wagons front, but there was no sign of life. A dim light from somewhere cast a bit of brightness around that small opening. Slowly I crawled over the rough ground and started to whisper in Yiddish,"Friends, from where did you come" and a bit louder I continued,"Did you by any chance know or heard from Shlomo Kujawski?" There was no answer.
Suddenly, I noticed a pair of boney hands appearing at the window, and then another pair. But instead of a reply to my questions I heard faintly crying voices pleading for help. Gesturing with their skeletal hands, they kept on pleading for water and bread. In low and horse voices they begged to help them to get released and a chance to return to their families.
I asked them to show their faces, with the hope that I might know one of them, but soon I regret my request. What I had seen after a few moments, became one of my worst nightmares. Two skeletal heads of bearded creatures, hardly resembling human beings tried to show their faces through that little opening above, followed by a face of a teenage boy.
The light, although not too bright, gave me quite a clear picture of those three faces. They were greyish yellow and their eyes were placed deep inside their skeletal skulls. Their voices and gestures had more resemblance to monkeys than to humans. I felt both faint and nauseous. Not being able and completely helpless to assist those unfortunate people, and also being scared of getting detected by any of the security men, I ran as fast as possible in the direction from where I came.
My brothers first question when he saw me was: "Are you sick?" and holding me tight he led me away from this horrible place without even asking further questions.
Sensing my state of mind, he waited patiently until I recovered and told him what I had seen. After telling him only a part of my nightmarish experience, we decided to keep this story from my mother, who suffers enough without knowing too many grizzly details.
The next day it became known that the train with the condemned cargo of innocent victims of Nazi terror, left the ghetto for an unknown destination. This was the time when I truly learned first hand how well the Nazis treated their workers at the so-called labour camps.
By the summer of 1942 conditions in the ghetto seemed to have stabilized. The times of deportations seemed to belong to the past. But quite the opposite was happening. Many young and middle aged men and women from all over Western Europe were brought into the ghetto as an apparent substitute for the slowly diminishing labour force.
The many factories which produced items ranging from brooms to military uniforms, furniture and even shoes including boots for German officers, were working full speed. There were also rumors that important parts for the military were produced under strict German supervision. Because of the approaching winter at the Russian front, fur-lined winter coats and fur hats were in such a demand that they caused a severe shortage of workers at the fur factory. Policemen and firemen who were known to be furriers were forced to take jobs at the fur factory.
The knowledge of all that provided the ghetto population with a feeling of confidence and security unprecedented before. A feeling that the Germans need us was the general consensus of the ghetto dwellers. However, during all that imaginary peaceful existence, the death toll from starvation continued to rise.
There was apparently an even stronger feeling of confidence in the offices of the Nazi and Jewish ghetto administrations. Hans Bibov, the Nazi ghetto head, supposedly kept on dispatching positive messages to Berlin, about the excellent work being done at the Lodz ghetto and the importance of the many products being produced by his Jews.
Obviously Bibov, who was far from being a friend of the Jewish people, did all that in order to avoid a liquidation of the ghetto, which would lead him and his large staff of loyal friends direct to the Russian front.
Also the Jewish ghetto administration with Rumkowski himself were confident and pretty sure that they will continue their lives in relative luxury in comparison to the average ghetto dweller and survive the war.
Unfortunately all those hopes and predictions were shattered by the end of August 1942, when posters placed all over the ghetto proclaimed a start of a mass deportation. This unique selective deportation will last approximately a full week and was targeted toward the sick, children, the orphanages, the elderly and people considered by the Nazis worthless.
The selections which started on September the 1st were conducted in a typically Nazi orderly fashion. Every day a different area was surrounded by armed soldiers with their dogs plus dozens of Jewish policemen. The selection was conducted by a high ranking Nazi officer while trucks were waiting on the streets to swallow his selected victims. During the selections all inhabitants of a chosen building had to leave their dwellings and line up on the street in front of the Nazi officer who with a gesture of his thumb decided whether you should live or die. At the same time a thorough search for possibly hidden dwellers was conducted by soldiers and Jewish policemen.
When the time came for our selection, my brother and I put on our best suits and mother who was still looking quite healthy dressed up as decently as possible and calmly together we were walking down the four flights of stairs to face the Nazi beast. During our walk down we were approached by one of our neighbours who suggested that his wife and our mother should hide in a prepared by him hiding place. Reluctantly we agreed.
The street was full of neatly dressed up people hopeful of passing this dreadful ordeal.
The first tragic moment of that unforgettable day occurred when Mr. Szeratzki, himself a member of the "Sonder Commando'"walked into the street carrying his elderly, sick mother-in-law in his strong arms and placing her on top of one of the waiting open trucks. Mrs. Feldman seemed quite calm, but tears kept streaming down her pale wrinkled cheeks.
Even more tragic were the pictures of policemen pulling crying babies from the hysterically screaming mothers arms. The intended purpose of this barbaric action became clear to everyone present and chaos and panic replaced the till then prevailing calm. However a certain degree of order was forced on us by the swiftly intervening policemen and Nazi troops.
My brother and I were almost near the Nazi officer when I heard behind us my mothers voice. "I could not stay hidden while you two were going through this terrible ordeal," and in a whisper she continued, "whatever it is going to happen, let us at least be together.'
Several steps behind us stood an elderly man whom I knew only by sight. The man probably in his sixties with ash grey hair was one of the new arrivals from Western Europe. A pharmacist by profession, he told us that he is still without a job, and that he is the only survivor of his large family. He still looked in fair shape and I told him so, trying to give him a bit of much needed confidence.
When mother suddenly appeared, the elderly man asked her politely if he may join us during the selection. "You are a beautiful lady," he told her, "and together with your two handsome sons, I might have a chance to pass."
Mother did not have a chance to tell the lonesome neighbour of ours that it would be a pleasure to have him join us, when the Nazi officer with a move of his thumb, ordered the four of us to return to the building. Needless to say how happy we all were to have passed successfully the selection. It was also a sheer delight to watch our euphoric neighbour who lived on the second floor of our building, walking back to his room expressing his gratitude and thanks to our mother for being kind enough to help him during this horrible ordeal.
Coming back into our apartment I tried a glimpse down the street. What I saw was a picture of terror and devastation. Several trucks were already filled up with human cargo. Screams and cries from the terrified unfortunate human souls reached our fourth floor dwelling. Familiar faces of neighbours, young and old , sick and some quite healthy were forced into the trucks. Some, who dared to resist were brutally beaten by soldiers, and pushed into the trucks by shouting Jewish policemen. It was a picture of horror, I could never erase from my mind.
When the "sperre" finally ended, several of my cousins who resided on the other side of the ghetto, took the Wolborska street bridge and rushed over to check if the three of us made it through the selections.
One cousin of mine who resided near the ghetto hospital had witnessed scenes of indescribable brutality. She saw new born babies being thrown from the hospital windows into the waiting on the street trucks. Since many missed to fall direct into the trucks, the sidewalk in front of the hospital was splattered with blood and littered with body parts. It was a blood bath of unbelievable proportions.
The scores of vehicles overloaded with elderly and sick men, women, and children piled on top of each other went in the direction of the "Marishin" rail station from where they were transported in sealed cattle wagons to death camps.
There was no doubt in my mind that this was the actual and official start of the final solution.
On the very last day of this largest ever mass deportation from the Lodz ghetto, the neatly dressed up youngsters of the ghetto orphanages, were placed on horse drawn farmers buggies and driven through the ghetto streets in the direction of Marishin, obviously on their last voyage. Not fully aware of what is really happening to them many of the children were joyfully singing Yiddish songs.
Soon life in the Lodz ghetto slowly returned to normal. There were however very few families who hadn't lost a member or two, during this horrible disaster. An estimated twenty two thousand men, women and children were rounded up and shipped to the death camps of Chelmno or Auschwitz.
THE AFTERMATH OF FATHERS DEPARTURE
Almost certain that our father, if he wasn't dead yet, had no chance whatsoever to survive the harsh conditions of the camp at Poznan, I tried my very best to spare my mother from knowing the truth.
She continued her daily routines as if truly believing that her husband is alive and well and with Gods help will soon return to his family. There were times however when I had a feeling that Mother hardly sees a chance for this ever to happen, and that she herself is just putting up an act to ease the pain for my brother and myself.
She continued to kindle the shabbat candles as always, making her blessing and shedding her usual amount of tears by whispering a silent prayer for her husband and children. She also continued with her traditional Friday night meal with "gefilte fish", made from a piece of ground horse meat, and "chicken soup," cooked from another small piece of horse meat. The table, as always, was covered with a clean white table cloth, and my brother and myself had to take turns making the Kiddush over two slices of bread.
The same "festive" suppers with the identical ceremony were repeated on all Jewish holidays and festivals, without fail. On some Passovers the ghetto received permission to bake matza which anybody who wanted to could have instead of the normal bread ration. Although the amount of matza received was much less than the usual bread ration, mother had at least half of our bread ration replaced with Matza.
So our Passover seder table was graced with matza, chicken soup with several small matza balls, ironically made of bread with a small addition of ground matza, instead of regular matza meal.
In addition to the deliciously made gefilte fish there was also a kind of "tzimes"made out of a mixture of carrots and turnips.
As unbelievable as it may sound, we continued to conduct a Passover seder in the ghetto, the same way as my father did all his years until his deportation. I am quite sure that thousands of other families inside this horrible place were conducting their own Passover Seders.
While reading the story about our eventual liberation from slavery, thousands of years ago, we were all praying and hoping that some day we will also be free and reunited with our loved ones.
It is also important for me to mention and remember the three young girls, who after my fathers departure were living with us in our flat, and had the opportunity at least a couple of Passovers to celebrate with us.
After the Bloom sisters, seventeen and ten, lost their parents to starvation, my mother took them in to live with us. She also took in their cousin, Frania, who at the time was already the only survivor of her family. By the end of 1943 the two sisters were put on a list for deportation. Soon after their departure, Frania, then about eighteen was sent to a labor camp in the city of Chestochowa where she survived the war.
In 1947 1 had the pleasure to attend Franias wedding which took place in a village near the city of Landsberg.
However the two beautiful Bloom sisters perished in one of the Nazi death camps.
Throughout my memoirs I described in detail the many virtues of my mother and father, (of blessed memory), and could state without exaggeration that they were the best parents children could ever be blessed with.
In a separate chapter I described a most unselfish act of sacrifice by my dear devoted father, and in this short chapter I will add a little bit more about my mothers devotion to her children and a brief description of her own early years.
My mother was brought up in a strictly religious home. She lost her father during some kind of an epidemic when she was only two years old. Her mothers second husband who owned a small wool factory, was extremely religious in addition to being a scholar in matters of the Torah and religious teachings, in general. All his free time he spent learning Torah at the Bet Midrash (an extension to the Old City Synagogue).
Zaidy Mendel, as we used to call him, was no follower of any chasidic sect or Rabbi. Those Torah scholars were known as Mesnagdim.
However none of my mothers five half brothers and sisters grew up to be religious. My mother, however, although a working girl before marrying my father, was the only one of the family to sustain her traditional Jewish way of life and throughout all her life continued on the same path.
Although without a formal secular education, she was well versed in the learning of the Torah and was equal to any Jewish man in reading and understanding of the Hebrew prayer books. She was also educated in Yiddish, knowing perfectly how to read and write in that language.
As long as I can remember she managed to keep a strictly kosher household where the Shabbat and religious holidays and festivals were observed in a not lesser way than at the home of her childhood.
While always working and helping her husband to support the family, her duties and devotion to her family did not diminish.
Those double duties however, did not interfere with her thirst for a good Jewish book and for her love for the Yiddish theatre. I still remember the several photo albums and scrapbooks of actors and shows she collected since her younger years. She used to show off with pride those mementos from the time of the great Yiddish theatre of Lodz.
Having a perfect partner in these activities, my mother and father used to tell us stories about those fabulous times. They also told us that after the building which housed that great Yiddish theatre,was destroyed by fire, the Jewish population of our city and even of most cities all over Europe, were in deep mourning.
Although always busy and most of the time without funds to buy tickets, my parents managed from time to time to attend a Yiddish show or a new Jewish motion picture.
Mothers only regret was not being able to obtain a formal education while a youngster. Since she was growing up during the Czarist rule over Poland, her knowledge of our countrys language was far from adequate and indeed another of her regrets.
Although still a young woman, mothers main concern however was always the welfare of her family. Because of her double duties, her time had to be carefully planned. Her cooking and preparing for the Shabbat, as I vividly remember, began Thursday night and lasted until the wee hours of Friday morning. I will always remember the two miniature challahs mother specially baked for my brother and myself which we took with us Friday morning together with our school lunch. She also never forgot to bake a large twisted challah which she donated to the Rabbis wife who distributed the collected food items to the poor and needy.
In her very limited free time, mother took on a kind of duty which I always used to admire. Since many of our women neighbours were completely illiterate, mother used at least twice a week to read to them the important news from the daily paper and once a week she gave them a special treat by reading the continuations of great romances and letters to the editor reprinted in our local newspaper from the New York Yiddish "Forward." Judging by the way the ladies swallowed mothers every word, those eagerly awaited weekly readings must have been among their most important and very appreciated events in the lives of those poor ladies.
Mother also seemed to have great pleasure in organizing those sessions and considered them a "Mitzvah" indeed.
There were of course times when mother had to do things which were far above her strength. But at times like that there was always someone ready to give her a hand, sometimes it was her husband and on different such occasions there was always one of her sons.
At this particular time, some time during the latter half of the 1930's, my mother was almost without any help at all. My oldest brother was then serving his second half of a ten months sentence in a prison for political offenders in the town of Linczyce, and father was hospitalized with a severe case of jaundice. Isaak was doing his apprenticeship at a fur factory, and my twin and I were attending school in the morning and Hebrew classes in the afternoons.
Mother suddenly found herself in an impossible position of not only having to care for the house and family, but also to take over full responsibility of a thriving business. At once she turned into a tower of strength.
Without ever complaining or openly showing any signs of strain she took full care of the business, without neglecting in any way her children and household. In addition she also fulfilled a task previously done by father, namely arranging and sending the periodic large food parcels to our brother in prison.
Realizing, of course, that the food she sent had to be shared by a large group of inmates in Moshes cell, mother was nevertheless happy to be able to send those parcels: "Even if he gets only a small fraction of what I send, it still makes me feel good," she used to say.
Although I was just a kid at the time, I was quite amazed and really proud of how mother managed to come through these extremely difficult periods, unscattered and still in good health.
THE DEPARTURE OF AUNT RACHEL
The emigration to Palestine by mothers younger sister Rachel, turned out to be quite a blow to both of them. The year was 1935. The Jewish boycott against German goods was in full swing, especially among businessmen who used to deal direct with Germany. So, Aunt Rachels husband, a successful fur merchant decided not only to stop dealing with the Germans, but also to leave Europe altogether.
Being at the time president of the General Zionist party of Lodz, uncle Abraham had no difficulties to obtain permission to enter the British mandated Palestine. His ability to invest heavily in his chosen country must have been another important factor in receiving the visas as fast as he did. So, Aunt Rachel with her husband and three children left Poland several years before the great disaster.
With her sisters departure, mother also lost her dearest friend and constant companion.
Although mother had five more siblings her bond with Aunt Rachel was special indeed. Only the two of them were from the same father, while the others were children from their mothers second marriage. For an unknown to me reason these two little sisters were never formally adopted by their stepfather and never called him father. Instead they respectfully addressed him as long as I remember as Uncle Mendel.
Being only about one and half years apart in age, it was quite understandable that under those circumstances they both became not only loving sisters, but extremely close friends. With an always busy husband, sharing his time between the business and his activities in the party, Aunt Rachel spent a lot of time with my mother. She really did her utmost to give her hard working sister a bit of pleasure and a much needed change in her daily routine: "I can't look at the way you are constantly working, while I do almost nothing," she used to say, while tenderly hugging and kissing her oldest sister. So routinely once or sometimes twice during the week the two of them used to spend a couple of hours together. Sometimes they enjoyed a show or a movie together and on other occasions just a coffee and cake in one of the many coffee houses.
Although I was just a kid at the time, I still remember how deep in my heart I was grateful to Aunt Rachel for being so good to my mother.
After her beloved sisters departure, mothers life was not the same any more. Normally, time is supposed to be a great healer, unfortunately not in this case. The longer their separation lasted the more difficult it became for mother to adjust. Her suffering became so vivid, that it started to reflect on our entire household. Especially sad were the days when the mailman brought in a letter from Tel-Aviv.
When father used to ask her about her sister, her answer was short and always the same: "she's fine, everything is fine." We all thought of course that her sadness and all the tears were only because she missed so much her little sister, as she fondly used to call her.
Finally, not being able to conceal it inside herself any more, mother came out with the truth. "My dear sister is miserable," mother burst out sobbing as if God forbid somebody in the family would have passed away. Not being able to control herself, she told us how aunt Rachels life became miserable and almost unbearable. Mother kept blaming her brother-in-law for his refusal to stay in Poland. What we found out later, was the unfortunate fact that my uncle had lost most of his holdings soon after their arrival in Tel-Aviv. He fell victim to a group of real estate swindlers who almost wiped him out.
Being used to a life of leisure, with a steady housekeeper, and a niece of my uncle acting as a nanny to their children, the reality of life in Palestine seemed indeed quite miserable. Aunt Rachel instead of keeping that misery to herself did not miss an occasion to convey her misery to my poor mother. However, at that time my aunt could hardly realize that her husband with his "stupid Zionist ideas" as she used to write, saved her and her three growing children from becoming victims of the Nazis final solution.
SEPTEMBER 1939 - AUGUST 1944
During the entire period of the Nazi occupation, my mother was a tower of strength. Of course, she was not immune to suffering, but always kept her pain locked inside herself in order not to cause additional worries to her family. Without showing emotions, she suffered silently when her two oldest boys had to leave home and continued suffering until the last hours of her life thinking about them. It was easy to sense her real emotions each time she was kindling the Shabbat candles with a tearful and silent prayer. These sessions became more intense after my fathers departure in 1942. I fully realized that the events of the recent past kept on torturing her.
Her perseverance and exceptional determination to stay strong for her childrens sake, must have been the main factor of her ability to go through all that hellish period. Mother of course gave all the credit for her good health to God the All Mighty. Also our fortunate avoidance of the many deportations during the ghetto years and the survival of the deadly epidemics she gave credit to her unbreakable belief in the mercy of the All Mighty. This sincere belief kept her going until the last minutes of her life.
To truly describe the love and devotion of my mother will be sufficient enough to describe an event that occurred in the spring of 1943. This was the time when the bi-monthly food rations which usually were distributed with their German punctuality on every second Monday, was for no apparent reason delayed by several days.
Most ghetto dwellers were normally using up those meager rations and the two kilo loaf of bread during a period of mostly ten days, and workers managed to pull through the remaining several days with the help of the daily soup at the factory. Very few people however including my mother were painfully managing their households by equally dividing the rations into equal portions to assure that some food, no matter how little, would last through the full fourteen days. .
Needless to say it was very difficult to exist on such a small amount of food, but at least we were not left even for one day without food at all, no matter how little.
My dear Mother with her exceptional skills and some sort of manipulation, always managed to keep some left over items for an extra day, in case of an unexpected delay in the food distribution
This time however, the delay lasted for a period of three to four days. People were literally collapsing on the streets. Every morning special squads were collecting dead bodies of men, women and children off the sidewalks and from the dwellings. The disaster reached the highest proportions. This enormous tragedy is impossible to describe with simple words.
Mother still somehow managed to put on the supper table some sort of watery soup, but the bread ration was already completely used up. On the third day all the three of us were still going to work at the usual time, but we were so weak that the short walk to the factories turned into a torturous venture.
I cannot recall how many coworkers were already missing, but on this exceptionally warm spring day, those workers who were present, were just sitting around without having the strength of doing any sort of work. The factory soup on that day was almost without the usual few slices of potatoes, an apparent victim of the prevailing shortages. Nobody on that day seemed to conduct any conversation with a friend or coworker. They were just sitting at the tables or machines as if half paralyzed. There was no intervention by a foreman or instructor.
The day was dragging on endlessly. Since the place had very large windows, the warm spring sun, not having any restrictions, was generously warming the half starved to death bodies of the young men and women present.
At about three P.M., I decided to go down to the backyard to get some fresh air, something I would never be allowed to do during a normal work day. Since our factory was located in a former school building, the backyard was nicely paved and surrounded by an iron fence. Close to the fence, and all around the yard there was about two feet of ground allocated for grass. Being terribly weak and more hungry than ever before, I sat down on some freshly grown grass, and rested my boney back on the iron fence. I didn't even realize that I took a place exactly opposite the small gate which led to the adjoining factory where mother was working.
Trying as much as possible to forget my hunger pains, I desperately attempted to get some sleep. Apparently with the help of the soothing warm sun, I somehow succeeded. I apparently had a short nap without dreams or nightmares, so when I heard my mothers voice calling my name, I swiftly opened my eyes. Surprised and even scared, I asked her how and why she left her work in the middle of the day.
She tried her best to assure me with her soft voice full of love and concern, that she somehow had a feeling that I found myself in a situation in which I could need a little bit of nourishment. She handed me a small pot of soup, and kissing my forehead, told me that she had to go home and cook a little bit of soup with a couple of spoons of left-over flour. Assuring me that she still had a bit of flour left for tonights supper. Putting the pot next to me I slowly stood up and embraced my dear Mother while tears were streaming down from both our boney cheeks. This display of a Mothers devotion, I will carry in my heart forever.
The regular distribution of rations after a delay of several days resumed in a normal fashion, but the cost in human lives during that unexplainable short period of time, was enormous.
A CASE OF A GUILTY CONSCIENCE
I am still not sure what caused Mr. Max Fuchs, my Fathers old friend, suddenly to come to our rescue. This time he did it without our pleading or asking. Who or rather what influenced this seemingly heartless person to turn into a human being if only for one good deed.
If my memory serves me well it was in the late spring of 1942. A new directive by the Ghetto administration posted all over the Ghetto and published in Rumkowskis totally, irrelevant newspaper, (a paper without any actual news) stated that everybody regardless of gender or age included children over ten years old are obliged to acquire a working card. Needless to say that such a directive was taken very seriously since it could have been considered a matter of life and death.
Several months had already passed since my Fathers deportation and Mother was still without a steady factory job. Although my brother and I were fully employed, the danger of all of us being deported in case Mothers name should be put on such a list
Fortunately for us the manager of the so called cooperative (the store which distributed the food rations) was Mothers old friend. This friendship went back to the period when my parents were also friends with Mr. Fuchs before he immigrated from Germany. Apparently Mother must have mentioned in passing about her problem to the store manager who still continued his friendship with Mr. Fuchs. I'm quite sure that this man, whose name I could not recall told Mr. Fuchs about our predicament. He was probably convinced that this time through his son who headed the employment department Max would be of some help. This, if I remember well, must have been by the end of March 1943.
It seems that Mr. Fuchs, my parents former friend, who in an unforgettable cruel manner once refused to assist in finding jobs for my twin brother and myself had gone through some unexplainable bout of guilty consciousness. This time he apparently decided to do something for the family of his once best friend.
I vividly recall that nice sunny spring afternoon, while still in bed after a night shift at the factory, I heard somebody calling my name from down the street. As always on such a nice day I kept the window wide open. I looked down from where the voice came and noticed a neighbours kid standing next to an elegantly dressed handsome couple. "Yomin" the kid shouted "This man wants to see you"... after a harder look down from my fourth floor window I was able to recognize the tall lean body of Mr. Fuchs who waved in my direction signaling for me to come down.
I ran down, mostly sliding on top of the railings as I always did since my early childhood. It didn't take more than two minutes for me to stand in front of him. Mr. Fuchs greeted me with a warm handshake and a smiling face.
Probably being aware of my Fathers fate, he asked only about Mothers health, while handing me a working card for her ... "Give this to your Mother with my best regards and good wishes" he said while walking off without any further explanation, holding the arm of an elegantly dressed pretty girl, half his age. About two days later Mother began to work in a shirt factory,
When I returned to our flat Mother just came in from visiting a sick neighbour. I excitingly told her what had happened, and persuaded her to look down the window from where she could still catch a glimpse of her old friend.
"What is going on?" she asked with tears in her eyes..."where was our good friend when Daddy was being deported?", and with a move of her arm she dismissed his good deed as a disgusting and blatant act by a man with a guilty conscience.
This was the last time I ever saw my parents old friend, the father of Mr. Rumkowski's executive secretary and of a big shot son. As I learned later, all the three of them survived the Holocaust and returned strong and healthy to their "German homeland."
MORDECHAI CHAIM RUMKOWSKI
We were told that shortly after the German occupation of the city of Lodz, a high ranking Nazi officer visited the Jewish committee, (kehilah), and accidentally bumped into Chaim Rumkowski. "Who are you?" the Nazi evidently barked at the scared old man, whom it took a while to straighten out and give a proper reply to the Nazi officer towering over him.
The officer in question, who turned out to be in charge of creating a ghetto in Lodz, apparently liked what he saw in this distinguished looking elderly man. Rumkowski with his full head of bushy white hair and black rimmed glasses seemed to be just the personality the German was looking for. Without further questioning him, the Nazi told Mr. Rumkowski that from now on he will be the head of the Jewish population of Lodz and will be known as "der Aelteste der Juden."
Nobody really knows if this is what actually happened on that given day at the Jewish committee. But what we know for sure is the fact that this frail old man suddenly became strong enough to assist the Nazi authorities and maintaining the longest lasting ghetto in all of occupied Europe.
On May the first of 1940, the gates of the Lodz Ghetto were hermetically shut from the outside world with large billboards placed in front of each gate proclaiming this area as a diseased district and strictly off limits. In German it read,"Seuchen Gebiet, Eintritt Verboten."
THE KING OF THE GHETTO
I don't know and hardly believed that others really know how and with whose help Rumkowski managed in such a short period of time to meet a deadline submitted to him by the Nazi authority. I wouldn't even try to research this subject. The fact however remains that on May the 1st 1940, Rumkowski had in place a complete "Cabinet" of heads of all important departments, a strong unarmed, of course, large police force, fire stations, and directors of numerous to be established factories.
With his unsurpassed energy the "preses" held meetings with hundreds of former tailors, furriers and other craftsmen whom he appointed as instructors and production managers in yet to be established factories. His favorite motto during his many speeches to the Ghetto population and on posters with his signature was, "survival through labor." The former tireless life long fund raiser on behalf of Jewish orphanages, universally known as the "father of the orphans" gradually went through a transformation from a gentle old man into a dictatorial despot who blindly collaborated with the Nazi authority.
Among many harsh measures on the way to the establishment of the Ghetto, were several mass deportations of so-called criminals. These first transports to labor camps and death camps were filled with thousands of unemployed young men, among them a small number of petty thieves and very few with legitimate criminal records. Also many buildings near the Ghetto fence were being forcefully evacuated and their occupants deported to the Lublin area which was supposed to have become a Jewish district.
Although it was quite clear that those deportations occurred to assure a degree of smooth sailing for Mr. Rumkowski and his clique, it was never really established who were in fact the initiators of these early deportations. My guess is that Rumkowski was just an agreeable participant to the Nazi initiative.
Rumkowski who soon became known as the "preses" or the King of the Ghetto, also established Ghetto money with his exclusive signature. His signature also graced each order or directive to the Ghetto population.
The preses and all members of his family were living in relative luxury, and so did everyone of his trusted cabinet members. Factory directors and ranking civil servants received special food rations. In a bit lesser degree, special privileges were also granted to factory instructors, foremen, and to all members of the Ghetto police force and firemen.
While the whole existence of the Ghetto was based on the factory workers, the only addition to their meager food rations was a daily soup at the factory. However, most blue collar workers, laborers with part time jobs and the unemployed had to live exclusively on their prescribed rations.
The ever-deteriorating situation in the Ghetto and the steady increase in deportations, seemed not to soften Rumkowski's convictions. Unfortunately the opposite happened. He became even more resilient. In his speeches before deportations the preses urged Mothers to hand over their children in order to save the rest of the Ghetto population."We are a sinking ship", he forcefully tried to convince his distressed listeners, "so we must unload cargo to stay afloat".
It was hard to believe that this kind of argument came from the mouth of the former "Father of Jewish orphans." He became the most despised and hated individual next to our Nazi oppressors. His notoriety reached every town and hamlet in occupied Poland. Inmates of every Ghetto and concentration camp soon became aware of the "Mad King of the Lodz Ghetto."
Although Rumkowskis goal to turn the Ghetto into a network of factories instrumental to the Nazi war effort,was indeed fulfilled, it did not deter the Germans from conducting frequent deportations and small scale raids. Prisoners like petty thieves were frequently being taken from their cells and deported.
Sometime in 1942, Rumkowskis exclusive leadership of the Ghetto was challenged by David Gertler, the head of the Sonder Commando, a special police force of exceptionally strong men. Due to corruption in the higher ranks of Rumkowskis trusted cronies and mismanagement by the inexperienced head of the food supply department, Mr. Szczesliwy, Gertlers star kept on rising. Gertler who apparently cooperated with the local Gestapo, in the eyes of the Ghetto population was considered some sort of a saviour. He became the official overseer of the entire food supply department of the Ghetto. Instead of letting tons of produce especially potatoes spoil and freeze inside the warehouses, Gertler with his staff of able managers increased the rations, while distributing the perishable items right after their arrival into the Ghetto.
Apparently Rumkowski became ever more irritated and more abusive even to his own staff. According to people who were working with him he apparently behaved like a wild man, who sometimes in a state of rage physically assaulted his associates.
While Gertler became a beloved figure in the eyes of the Ghetto population, Rumkowski became ever more disliked and hated. Even the "Ghetto troubadour" and song writer Yankele stopped writing songs about the preses replacing them with new songs of praise for David Gertler.
MY PERSONAL ENCOUNTERS WITH RUMKOWSKI
My first encounter with the preses was a indirect one, but fruitful nevertheless. His designs for turning the Ghetto into a giant network of factories just began to take shape. Great numbers of the population were already employed and ever more were being hired. But there were still thousands of unemployed, who were living on welfare. The amount of money received by a family each month did just cover the price of the bi-monthly food ration. It was the beginning of 1941 and my Father who had no necessary skills to work in one of the already established factories automatically became a welfare recipient. My Mother who was hoping that a comforter factory will soon be established had to wait a long time for that to happen. My twin brother and myself besides lacking necessary skills were too young to be hired anyways. However, I did not consider myself too young to understand and be quite disturbed
by the fact that my family is on the welfare role. To me it did not seem logical and believable that the Nazis became humane and willing supporters of unemployed Jews.
At the first occasion I told my parents about my concerns and laid out for them a plan which crossed my mind recently. I was thinking of writing a letter direct to Rumkowski pleading for his help to find a job at least for our Father. At first my idea looked to them a bit far fetched. But after giving them all the details of what I intend to write, they were in full agreement with me and urged me to do it as soon as possible.
Being well aware of Rumkowskis pre-war activities and connections to my uncle Katzberg, who was an important contributor and benefactor to the Jewish orphanages, I decided to incorporate this part in my letter to him. I also decided to mention the fact that Rumkowski was an invited guest at the festive banquet given by the General Zionists in honor of my uncles aliyah to Eretz Israel in 1935. At that time my uncle was the president of that organization. To make my letter even more understandable to the old man I attached a photo of my uncle and his Tel- Aviv address.
No more than two weeks after I mailed my letter we received a summons for my Father to appear at the employment office for an interview. Soon after my Father was hired as a watchman at a large produce warehouse.
Automatically my family was taken off the welfare role and a short time after one of the largest and cruelest deportations from the Lodz Ghetto took place. Thousands of welfare recipients with their families were loaded into cattle wagons and shipped to a unknown destination.
My second encounter with the "King of the Lodz Ghetto" was a direct and personal one. We actually met face to face. Although of a lesser importance than our first encounter, which involved the well-being of my whole family, this one touched only me personally, but nevertheless became an unforgettable event which I believe contributed to my successful struggle for survival.
It occurred to me in the early summer of 1943, just several weeks after the Ghetto went through the terrible trauma of a delayed distribution of the bi-monthly rations. The same as most Ghetto dwellers this period of extreme hunger left me in an extremely week state from which I could hardly get out. I lost more weight than my body could afford, and was pale and sick looking.
Since that tragic period of total hunger, the Ghetto population went through a drastic change in their overall appearance. People changed beyond recognition and the mounting death rate and the general condition of the labor force deteriorated to the lowest level. Men and women who were just weeks before in pretty good shape became unrecognizable. With their skeletal bodies they could hardly manage to walk with their swollen feet and became completely unable to work. Besides my brothers and my weak state, my Mother started to complain about her extreme tiredness and some swelling of her feet and abdomen.
By exchanging a two week bread ration, (one two-kilo loaf), we managed to obtain a small bottle of "vigantol," a miraculous remedy for acute swelling. After taking daily drops of this medicine, Mothers condition improved to a point of being able to return her factory job. In the meantime however due to the fact, that for several weeks our daily intake of bread had to be drastically reduced, our hunger pains became even stronger.
By the time we started to consume our normal bread rations, my brother and I were already so weak that the strain of a regular days work became almost unbearable to endure. But at the same time I started to notice some unusual red spots on my neck and other parts of my body. Some of them became quite painful. Since we did not experience any body swelling and fortunately my Mother took good care of us, we were both continuing our jobs at the factory.
Although some of the red spots on my body slowly disappeared painful boils on my neck were growing in size. The constant pain became ever more difficult to endure.
At the beginning I did my best to keep Mother from the severity of my condition, but the excruciating pain kept me from sleeping, I could not hide my secret anymore. My condition became so serious that I was forced to stay home for quite a while. My Mother of course did her utmost to ease my suffering, but realizing that all her efforts were in vain, she took me to a near-by doctor.
The diagnosis was predictable: it was caused by a lack of vitamins for which unfortunately the doctor had no remedy whatsoever. My Mother as always gave me a lot of tender care and even larger food portions, at her own expense, of course. She insisted that she could manage with smaller portions. Although I vigorously resisted her generosity, she did not give in. She needed her rations to be able to continue her daily work at the factory and her work at home. All my arguments of course did not change her mind.
Without not too much complaining, I struggled through my days and sleepless nights. I kept on losing more weight and walking up to our fourth floor flat became quite a challenge.
In this condition I had to continue to work again at the factory, hoping for the best. Amid Mothers help, care and devotion and perhaps some intervention from my "Guardian Angel", my condition slowly started to improve. At first the boils began to shrink and soon they slowly started to disappear.
RUMKOWSKI'S APPARENT SEARCH FOR A REMEDY
Sensing the gradual diminishing of the Ghetto labor force, the "preses" with the apparent cooperation of David Gertler was desperately searching for a remedy to improve the health of the Ghetto workers.
Sometime in June of 1943, posters on factory billboards were telling us that by the grace of Chaim Rumkowski several so called "supper kitchens" are going to be established exclusively for the working people of the Lodz Ghetto. Lists of names will be provided by factory directors and the chosen workers will benefit from a "special gift from me to you." And it continued with, "Each worker will receive seven nourishing and delicious suppers"...signed M. Ch. Rumkowski.
Right after the opening of the first kitchen this worthy and very important project became marred with the terrible Ghetto disease which we called "Protekcja" (Patronage). Although some workers were lucky enough to receive this precious gift of seven suppers, most of the recipients turned out to be family members of factory directors, close friends of administrators, office workers, etc.
My brother became one of the lucky ones, simply because our neighbour, who was at the time the production manager of the factory where he was working, put Meyers name on the list. Through my Mothers intervention my twin brother gave me a gift of one of his suppers.
The evening of that special event was truly extraordinary for me. The moment I entered this heavenly place, the aroma of a real kitchen, the beautiful smell of fried hamburgers and fried potatoes simply intoxicated me. When the food was put in front of me on a large plate, filled with those delicious home fried potatoes, vegetables and a huge juicy hamburger, I thought that I was just dreaming. This fantastic meal was served after I already had finished a large bowl of a dense vegetable soup. After that I was surprised by a large slice of chocolate cake and tea. Although I was really tempted to consume that seemingly delicious cake I had decided to take it home as a gift for my Mother. I sincerely felt guilty to have had such a sumptuous meal while my Mother had to do with a watery soup for supper.
As I expected, my Mother was vigorously resisting my gesture. However when I insisted that I am really not able to have another bite and that she would make me happy to eat it, she finally gave in. My Mother however looked at me with an understandable smile on her face, embraced me and planted a warm kiss on my forehead. Then she turned to my brother thanking him for what he did for me. After watching my Mother enjoy eating that special treat, I went to sleep fully content and as always I thanked God for blessing us with such a Mother.
RUMKOWSKI'S SECOND CONCEPT
After launching of the supper kitchens, the Ghetto administration must have realized that this enterprise was not enough to solve the problem.
Shortly after a new project, apparently proposed by the preses himself and with the cooperation of the German administration started to take shape. Rumkowski's main argument was the rescue of the physical as well as the mental health of the Ghetto workers in order to sustain the Ghetto and avoid further deportations. The plan which emerged was to erect several convenient places for workers to regain some of their strength.
Sometime in June of 1943 several vacated buildings at the edges of the Ghetto area, were converted into makeshift summer resorts. These dwellings which became known as "Homes," with a capacity of housing about a hundred vacationers each, supposed to serve only the working force.
Unfortunately again, as with the supper kitchens, the lists of workers chosen for a seven day stay at such a home, were provided by factory directors and administrators. After the initial excitement, it became quite clear that the procedure to administer this new project did not differ from the first one. Again as before, very few actual workers had the privilege to benefit from this very important endeavour.
The presence of several workers at each of the homes became a calculated attempt to cover up the dirty practice of "Protekcja" by the greedy and selfish factory administrators.
AN ATTEMPTED SHORT STRIKE AT THE FUR FACTORY
The "Project Home" like the previous attempt to help the tired factory workers, became as futile and worthless as the first attempt to help the labor force. Although "Protekzja" was already a fact of life in this hellish place, it was still difficult for many of us to be reconciled with this incurable disease. The fur factory which had among his laborers many former unionized workers and union leaders was at the forefront of a protest against this horrible practice.
Since our factory already had an organized group, a committee to protect as much as possible the legitimate rights of its workers, it took some action to see to it that as many as possible of our workers should be included in that new project. After a meeting with the factory director, it became clear that again just a handful of actual workers were placed on the list of the chosen ones.
After a short debate with no opposition at all, the committee chaired by its leader decided not to accept the directors list and to stage a work stoppage in protest. This daring act of defiance was from the outset doomed for failure. Fortunately by the end it turned out to benefit many of our workers and possibly scores of workers in other factories.
I find it of importance also to mention that the workers committee at the fur factory, besides looking after the interests of their workers, had also a separate group of activists, who from time to time were holding clandestine meetings during which we received reports about the developing political and military situation at the time. In 1943 by recommendation of the head of my working group I was accepted to become a member.
The next morning after receiving the go-ahead from the organizing committee, the work stoppage began. Immediately condemned by the production manager and instructors, the factory director tried desperately to persuade the workers to return to their tables and immediately stop this "Terrible madness". When his pleading was hitting a stone wall, the already quite irritated director contacted Rumkowski, informing him about the turmoil at his factory.
It took no more than a couple of hours until the news of Rumkowski's arrival began to spread like a wild fire.
Running like a young man from floor to floor and room to room, wielding his ever present cane, the "preses" was shouting on the top of his lungs. Like a mad man he kept on hitting anyone and anything standing in his way: "Not only will you be excluded from my project, but you will work by pulling barrels of excrement." Continuing screaming he repeated the same threats in room after room. Nervously questioning our strike he shouted, "Do you really know what you are doing?" And then in a hoarse voice he continued, "Do you really realize in what danger you are putting us?"
Nervously continuing his diatribe and this time as if talking to himself, he quietly said something which sounded as "if the Germans would find out what you are doing, we will all be doomed." Flanked by his fat body guard and another police officer, he demanded immediate return to work.
Realizing the gravity of the situation the committee decided to drop the intended strike. With Rumkowski's threat to keep us out entirely of the "home project" still ringing in our ears, resigned and disillusioned we all returned to our work place.
Seemingly happy with the outcome of Rumkowski's visit, our director was slowly walking in the direction of his office. While I was looking at his burly stature and his full and rosy cheeks, I could not help comparing his looks with the looks of my walking-past skeletal co-workers.
"What a contrast"...I could not help thinking.
During those hectic days, I had hardly enough time to think about my own physical condition. The boils on my body and especially on my neck were almost gone, but not my sleepless nights. This time the pain was replaced by a constant itching, a condition which kept bugging me during the day time and still did not let me sleep at night.
I was skinny and weak. My hopes to become a beneficiary of a weeks rest and better nourishment seemed to have been dashed for good.
But not as far as my "guardian angel" was concerned.
RUMKOWSKI'S RETURN TO THE FUR FACTORY
As it turned out, the tremendous risk we were taking by our short work stoppage was not in vain at all. Nobody knew then and we never really found out what or who influenced the preses to change his mind. Just a couple of days after our abortive strike, Rumkowski and his body guards arrived on the steps of the fur factory.
Without any previous announcement, he called on the director and together they quietly visited room after room, personally picking candidates for the seven days of summer vacation.
The director seemed like a casual onlooker, while the preses conversed with each potential candidate. Each approved worker gave his name and other necessary details to his body guard who kept filling out a list. This time Rumkowski was calm and in full control of the situation. He spoke quietly to everyone concerned and from time to time even flashed a smile.
The workers silently greeted the preses when he entered one large room after the other. Actually working or pretending to do so, they did not lift up their heads.
I was sitting by my machine pretending to do some work when I sensed the preses stopping just behind me. "Stand up", I heard his voice with that unmistakable Lithuanian Yiddish accent.
I stood up, turned around to face the "King of the Ghetto" and without lifting up my eyes I waited for further instructions. "What is your name, and how old are you?", I heard Rumkowski asking in a surprisingly pleasant tone. Still pretty confused I lifted up my eyes and looking straight into the eyes of this despised old man, I quietly and calmly answered all his questions.
When I told him that I was eighteen years old, Rumkowski who was quite a bit taller than I was bent down to come close to my ear and whispered: "You will be a good Jewish soldier."
When he told his assistant to write down my name on the precious list, I thought that I saw a sign of satisfaction on Rumkowski's serious but still a bit smiling face. On the other hand, perhaps it was just a figment of my imagination.
Again I took my place in front of the machine, and for a while remained sitting like in a daze. While Rumkowski continued his interviews I kept wondering what was really happening. "Was I simply lucky or was it again an act committed with the help of my imaginary "guardian angel." How could it possibly be normal for a known tyrant like Rumkowski to change so drastically? For a moment, while in front of me he truly looked like an angelic figure taken out from pictures of famous renaissance painters.
When he finally left the room, I became the centre of everybodys attention. They all seemed to notice the preses whispering something into my ear and were anxious to find out what it was all about. When I told them exactly what had happened, word by word, they all seemed quite sceptical. It was hard for them to believe that those words could have come from the mouth of this heartless and ruthless Nazi collaborator.
I must admit that even to this day nobody whom I told about my encounter with Rumkowski and about our friendly short conversation, is inclined to believe what I actually experienced with the King of the Lodz Ghetto.
HISTORY WILL BE HIS FINAL JUDGE
There were different views and opinions about the person and character of Chaim Rumkowski. It is quite normal that every individual who spent years under Rumkowski's rule is rightfully judging the preses according to his or her personal experiences in the Lodz Ghetto.
I am quite sure that survivors who during the five years of existence of the Lodz Ghetto belonged to the chosen and privileged, consider Rumkowski a fair person. But entirely contrary views were and are expressed by the majority of survivors who went through the whole five years struggling constantly without help from anyone. The overall Ghetto population who suffered indescribable periods of hunger and cold who have lost most members of their families through starvation, all kinds of diseases and deportations, Rumkowski was the personification of evil, who was held partially responsible for all that had happened in the Lodz Ghetto.
There is no question that according to them Rumkowski deserved the death penalty, if he would have survived of course.
Fate however took care of that desired sentence. Rumkowski together with his young wife and all members of his immediate family perished in Auschwitz in the same way as thousands of innocent men, women and children perished after the final liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto in August of 1944.
Rumors were circulating in Auschwitz at the time that Rumkowski himself didn't receive the privilege of being gassed, and was apparently burned alive.
So many questions still remained unanswered: Was Rumkowski a willing participant in the German attempt to exterminate the Jewish people? Or was he really so naive or perhaps already a senile old man who believed the lies of his Nazi bosses? Or perhaps the most of many questions would be, that maybe, just maybe, Rumkowski was a clever old man, truly convinced that by pleasing the Nazi authorities, providing them with whatever they needed to protect their safe jobs, and avoid to be shipped to the Russian Front, he would be able to save as many Jews as possible.
So far there is no proof or a simple way to answer these difficult questions. It will probably involve many more years of research and work by psychiatrists, psychologists, and historians to find an answer.
However of what we do have proof is the fact that the Lodz Ghetto, considered to be the longest lasting Ghetto in all occupied Europe, had at the time of the final liquidation an estimated population of about seventy-seven thousand men, women and children.
MY PERSONAL THOUGHTS ABOUT RUMKOWSKI
From my experiences during as well as after the Holocaust I have learned that each individual had seen the Holocaust exclusively through his own experiences. The same formula of course can be applied to the survivors of the Lodz Ghetto. It is quite normal that the thousands of pre-war poor tailors and others whom Rumkowski appointed to lead the numerous factories have seen the Ghetto in general and Rumkowski in particular with different eyes than the average Ghetto dweller.
This also applies to the many highly privileged heads of various departments and other privileged positions which I had mentioned before. Therefore it is quite difficult to reach a unanimous opinion about the character and personality of the former head of the Lodz Ghetto.
As far as I am concerned there is no doubt in my mind that Rumkowski with all his faults had no evil intentions.
The responsibilities thrust (by sheer fate) on him were much too much for a man his age, especially for someone without any leadership experience. Without that experience he delegated highly responsible positions to irresponsible people. They were mostly former merchants or ranking members of different political parties whose main goal during the Ghetto years was to protect and save their own families. This of course they did mostly at the expense of the average ghetto dweller.
There is no question that there were times when I hated Rumkowski with the same passion as any other average Ghetto dweller. However I am far from ready to judge this highly complex personality. After all I am among the very few who had the privilege personally to experience his softer and perhaps human side.
To conclude I must add another, perhaps a bit too far-fetched thought, maybe, just maybe if the Red Army wouldn't have halted their advance toward Western Poland, Rumkowski might have been acclaimed the saviour of close to eighty thousand Jews of the Lodz Ghetto.
Unfortunately the Soviets decided to let the Germans first crush the Warsaw uprising, which gave the Nazis ample time to liquidate the Ghetto of Lodz.
So, in my opinion we will have to let the professionals come to a final conclusion and cast their final verdict.
THE FINAL DAYS OF THE LODZ GHETTO
August 1944. Just a couple of weeks short of five years under the Nazi occupation. I was informed during a meeting of our factory committee that the Germans are already planning a final liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto, but for the time being to keep this terrible news even from our own families. We were also informed during the same meeting that the Soviet Red Army halted their forward incursion into Western Poland. It became clear to anyone present that this strategic move was more political than military. The communists apparently decided to wait until the Warsaw uprising and most of its fighters will be crushed by the overwhelmingly stronger German forces and pave the way for the Soviets to liberate Poland.
Moscow seemed to have lots of time. But by digging in on the east side of the Vistula, the Soviets provided the Nazis with ample time to liquidate our Ghetto. The tragic consequences of this unfortunate decision by the Soviets were at least over seventy thousand Jewish lives from the Lodz Ghetto alone.
For several days I managed to conceal this terrible piece of news from my brother and mother. But very soon it became common knowledge that the fate of the Lodz Ghetto was sealed.
The main provider of that news became no other than Hans Bibov himself. The Nazi head of the Ghetto administration started an intense campaign of deceit and lies during his constant visits from factory to factory and also by organizing street rallies.
In a obvious attempt to avoid another Ghetto uprising (like the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943), he tried desperately to convince the already exhausted Ghetto population that there is nothing to worry about. "The Ghetto is just being relocated to another more convenient and much nicer place as you can see" he tried to act in a fatherly way, "we are doing it only for your own good .... after all you have been working for the Germans for the last five years, and helped our government in our War effort."... And, in an even more fatherly manner he quietly asked a sneaky question: "Do you really think that the Soviets will like that?" "They are going to kill you all," this time he was already shouting, and repeated that warning several times.
To help him in this effort, Bibov engaged his loyal assistant Chaim Rumkowski, who repeated these absurdities all over the Ghetto. Rumkowski even assured us that the Germans are transporting all the machinery and factory equipment ahead of us, so that everything will be ready in time for our arrival... this "promise" he kept repeating with full conviction as if he would indeed truly believe the Nazi lies.
In fact, very few, if any of the Ghetto dwellers believed in their promises, and at the beginning of the evacuation very few went voluntarily to the Marishin rail station. Eventually realizing that time is not on their side, the Nazis began putting on more pressure. Ever more German soldiers fully armed and helmeted, assisted by vicious dogs, became involved in searching hideouts and forcefully transporting people to the station.
The Jewish Ghetto administration with the hope that they are not going to be touched by this disaster and the entire Jewish Police Force became willing helpers to the Nazi effort to liquidate the Lodz Ghetto.
At the start of the final liquidation the number of Jews living in the Ghetto was at a long time low, probably around the seventy five thousand mark. Considering that on May the first of 1940 an estimated hundred and fifty thousand men, women and children entered the Ghetto and the tens of thousands of Jews from the surrounding areas which were brought in to the Ghetto during the five years of its existence, the numbers kept on swelling. With the additional arrival of thousands of Jews from Western Europe, including Germany and Austria, the number of Jews who perished in the Lodz Ghetto must have been much over two hundred thousand.
Those innocent people were victims of starvation, diseases, despicable sanitary conditions in their overcrowded dwellings and of constant deportation to death camps. Many of the incoming German Jews were already long time Christians and some of them were also former members of the Nazi Party. Their only crime must have been having a Jewish grandparent. Some of the younger men were detected as Jews while serving in the German army and many of the youngsters were members of the "Hitler youth." There was no wonder that this wave of German Jews had special difficulties in adopting to the Ghetto life and perished in the thousands.
The liquidation of the Ghetto was being conducted in a way planned by Mr. Bibov and his helpers.
Much too weak and exhausted to resist and obviously having no other choice, masses of Jews carrying heavy suitcases and bags with their meager belongings on their shoulders kept on walking in the direction of the rail station. There were already dozens of cattle wagons ready and waiting to swallow them. While many were taking the route voluntarily, others were escorted by armed soldiers after being taken out from their temporary hiding places.
Being aware of the existence of death camps, a neighbour of ours, who was a member of a special police unit, invited the three of us to share a hiding place with his family. We spent our days in this long abandoned dwelling in an already unpopulated Ghetto area and returned home for the nights. The actual evacuation was conducted mostly during daytime.
We somehow managed to avoid detection for a short period of time, but after several days of hiding we noticed some activity in the vicinity of our hiding place which made us change our plans.
Running from one hiding place to another it was not too much of a strain for my brother and myself, but for my Mother and the others who also had with them a little baby, it was impossible to continue. On the ninth or tenth day of feeling like hunted animals, our neighbour who took good care of us during the terrible ordeal sadly informed us that our hiding from the Nazis is all in vain. With a visible effort to calm us down by promising that no harm of any kind is awaiting us. he reaffirmed the rumors that Rumkowski himself with his wife and relatives is also getting ready for departure.
At the same time I was also quite aware about the places where the Nazis are deporting Jews. But we had apparently no other choice than the route forced on the last remnants of the once large and vibrant Jewish population of Lodz.
All I have heard and learned about those places of death, I kept to myself and as if preparing for a normal change of living quarters, I helped Mother pack necessary household items for our imminent departure.
ON THE WAY TO THE RAIL STATION
Glad that Mother listened to my advice not to take too big a load, with the promise that as soon as we are going to start working again, we will buy whatever we will need, we carried much less luggage than the allowed by the Germans fifteen kilo limit per person.
Others however did what people usually do during moves to new places: They overloaded themselves without considering the size or weight of the luggage. The result of such behavior was disastrous. The streets and roads were littered with abandoned bags and suitcases left by people who could hardly walk without heavy loads on their shoulders.
My brother and I were exceptionally calm and in full control of ourselves while turning the key to lock the door of our one room apartment. We closed forever the place where we were born and spent our childhood. No matter how many years of poverty we experienced in this place, we had nevertheless lots of good and happy times. Those happy times together with my parents and brothers were mostly on my mind while closing our door. In sharp contrast to my eternal optimism, I was somehow convinced at that time that we are leaving this place forever.
Our dear Mother however, was not able to control her emotions. Hugging and kissing us both at the same time she whispered some unrecognizable prayer while tears were streaming down her sad but still beautiful face.
The monetary value of what we had left inside the apartment was of little importance. But the sentimental value was priceless. Especially the photo albums full of family pictures and other mementos.
Through her tears and hardly able to talk, Mother assured us that with God's help we will soon return to our home where we will continue to lead a normal life together with our Father and brothers. This optimistic assurance she repeated several times while walking down the stairs into the street. Without looking back we walked slowly to the Franciskanska Street from where we took the Brzezinska on our way to the Marishin Station.
Since those were already the final days of the evacuation most warehouses and food depots were left open. So, many people over estimating their strength, looted those places and carried heavy bags of potatoes and other produce on their shoulders. Not being physically able to carry such heavy loads, they were forced to discard their precious cargo on the streets and roads of the soon to be abandoned Ghetto.
So, only a short while ago priceless food items were littering the Ghetto streets together with loads of pillows, comforters, linens, and other household items.
All this was forming a clear picture of the tragedy of the being evacuated Ghetto Jews and of the once vibrant Jewish population of Lodz in general.
As we came closer to the waiting trains, the streets became ever more crowded with ever slower walking people. The struggle for survival was especially visible on children eight or ten years old who were still carrying heavy loads on their tiny shoulders. Apparently they were convinced that by bringing with them any kind of food supplies, they will help their families during their relocation.
Besides the unlocked warehouses there was an additional source to obtain freely some fresh produce. For the last two or three years, whoever was able and willing to erect for himself a small vegetable garden could receive, by presenting the families ration cards, a small parcel of land for that purpose. Many people who had a bit of "Protekcja" were granted some clean and almost ready to plant parcels of land. The vast majority however, received pieces of abandoned streets and alleys which through extremely hard labour were turned into parcels of ground and eventually into vegetable gardens.
My brother and I had received such a paved plot at a corner of an abandoned street, and after several months of indescribably hard labour we started to witness the fruit of our labor. Just before the evacuation we had visited our garden and admired the beautiful cucumbers, carrots, beats, and some green salads which were almost ripe.
Those precious little gardens that were supposed to supplement our meager food rations were now being looted and trampled on by desperate youngsters on their way to the train station.
Trying hard not to abandon my eternal optimism I was nevertheless very worried about my Mothers fate. She was already fifty-three years old at the time, frail and perhaps a bit too skinny, my heart was aching for her. Because of my awareness about the existence of extermination camps, my heart was also aching for those hundreds of food carrying youngsters the small children and the elderly among us.
I was walking side by side with my Mother and brother without uttering a single word to each other. Each one of us apparently engulfed in ones own thoughts.
No matter how much she tried to pretend, my Mother did not handle very well the first phase of our upcoming long journey. Just the thought of losing our dear Mother seemed to eradicate my ever present optimism. The luggage she was carrying was too much for her to handle, but she vigorously protested when my brother and I offered the slightest hint of help.
Before approaching the train station, Mother was talking again about her husband and two sons in Russia, again expressing her hope of a reunion with her loved ones. When we finally saw from a short distance a long winding train of dozens of cattle wagons I became fully aware of the gravity of the situation.
Hundreds of men, women and children were walking in front of us and many hundreds behind us. The weak and disabled were tenderly being helped by family members and friends. The elderly were slowly and with visible difficulty dragging their tired legs toward the waiting train.
IN FRONT OF THE CATTLE WAGONS
With little strength left in their exhausted bodies and only with pure determination many of the evacuees were still clinging to their remaining possessions. Many old suitcases were tied up with heavy string to avoid any loss of their precious belongings. Others had managed to carry all the way their heavy bags with all kinds of household items and bedding. They all apparently felt that in the new place all this will be badly needed.
The ramp in front of the train was crowded to its full capacity and the general chaos was indescribable. Children were holding on tightly to their parents while others were shouting at their youngsters to stay together with their siblings. Friends were sticking together with friends in order to continue to be together at the new place ... neighbours hoped to be neighbours again and they promised each other to do their best to stay together. The Germans on their part continued their deceptive tactics and did their utmost to prevent any sort of disturbances or the slightest attempt of physical resistance. Apparently the experience of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and of the present uprising by the population of Warsaw, were now of great help to them.
The hundreds of armed troops which were all over the place were exceptionally polite, and even more so were the higher ranking officers. Some people were asking questions to which they replied without the usual shouting. When my Mother asked an officer if families are going to stay together, the Nazi answered with a bright smile on his fat face: "Natuerlich Liebe Frau" (Naturally, of course dear lady).
Although I knew very well, that all this politeness was just a sleazy put-on act, I nevertheless wanted to think that perhaps, just perhaps something did change. After all the Nazis must have realized by now that they lost the war. However the fact that the Ghetto is being evacuated at a time when the Red Army was already near Warsaw, was not very encouraging.
Deceptively, loud speakers were urging the assembled crowd to take all their possessions with them into the wagons: "Please ladies and gentlemen, don't forget anything," the Nazi officers kept on dispensing advice to the confused evacuees. Before entering the cattle wagons each one of us, even small children, was handed a full loaf of fresh bread. This gesture was probably also done to show the Nazi sincerity.
There is no doubt that the monstrous plan of deception by Hans Bibov and his helpers was working brilliantly. Not only did nobody show the slightest sign of resistance, but people were entering the cattle wagons voluntarily, many with full hope for a brighter future.
Although I was one of the few who was aware of where those wagons may take us, I nevertheless entered the wagon with a little bit of hope. I was too much of an optimist to give up too easily. I still hoped that whatever was going to happen my Mother and my twin brother and myself might have a chance to survive.
In a matter of minutes our wagon was filled up much over its capacity. Most space on the wagon floor was taken up by literally mountains of luggage on top of which families were rapidly settling their youngsters who were holding on to each other. Cries of children and shouting by their desperate parents who did their utmost to keep their youngsters near them suddenly turned into a deafening silence. The terrible sound of slamming shut the wagon doors added to by shouting orders of Nazi officers to their troops, and the horrible feeling of being shut in, gave us a sudden sense of reality.
Our wagon was so over-crowded that we could hardly find a little space for the two empty buckets, which were supposed to replace a toilette for an estimated seventy and perhaps even more men, women and children. The hot August sun kept heating up our wagon to an unbearable degree, and pretty soon the two buckets were filled up with human refuse causing a horrible stench already mixed with human sweat. The little bit of fresh air which managed to steal itself through the little barred window was not enough to give even the slightest bit of relief.
While my Mother was squeezed in between a group of our neigbours, I did my best to find a place near the little window and from time to time managed a look outside with the hope that perhaps some good samaritan will take a chance to throw in something to ease the already unbearable hunger and thirst.
After the second day there was very little left of the loaf of bread which we received before boarding and a little bit of water which we managed to bring in, was gone completely. The nights however were much easier to endure because of two reasons; first of all there was no sun to heat up the roof of our closed up wagon and secondly, because the train for some reason or other was moving pretty fast and with it more cool air was able to come through the one and only tiny window.
It is very hard for me to recall exactly how long we were travelling until we reached our destination mainly because during the daytime the train was hardly moving. For hours we used to stand at some small stations as if the Germans had designed a special system how to torture those innocent men, women and children. During the nights most of these exhausted and by the stench intoxicated human souls, fell into a deep sleep the moment night arrived. Being awake I could from time to time get a glimpse at some faces of those sleeping people. They seemed to me then peaceful and relaxed, as if they would dream of better days together with their families.
Next to me my brother was also engulfed in a deep sleep. My thoughts were full of contradictions: Perhaps if I wouldn't be aware of places like Chelmno, Auschwitz, and other death camps, I would have been much better off. At the time however we had already travelled about two days which made it certain that we had already passed Chelmno and might be going in the direction of Auschwitz.
So, what about the promises by Bibov and his helpers about resettlement? How could anybody possibly believe in such promises after experiencing years of numerous deportations, especially the great Sperre of 1942 when over twenty thousand Ghetto dwellers in a most brutal way were shipped to death camps.
During the second day of travelling we stopped near a small station in Czechoslovakia where the man who was chosen to be the head of our wagon managed to stick out his hands through the little window and collected a bit of small food items handed to him by generous and good hearted Czech people. I must add that during the first day when our wagon was having several stops on Polish soil, not once such a generous human act occurred. The little precious food obtained at a few other stations on Czech soil was evenly distributed among all people in the wagon.
Needless to say that the extended travelling time (due to constant stoppages) and terrible heat, made our situation totally unbearable. Children became more restless and babies kept on crying. Many were vomiting while their Mothers who were sick themselves were doing their very best to comfort them. Some of the elderly also became sick. The man in charge with some of his assistants did an outstanding job in helping the sick and comforting the others by telling some stories and even jokes.
I really admired the behavior of most of the people inside our wagon during those treacherous days. After what those people went through in the last five years they seemed still strong, if not in body, at least in character to behave the way they did. Even the few families who were still intact, had already lost scores of relatives. But there were among us many single people who were already the only survivors of large extended families.
Amid this horrible mess, I noticed a couple of men with visibly great difficulties, somehow managed to put on the Talith, and Tefilin, and performing their morning prayer. So, the Nazi goal to dehumanize our people did so far not succeed.
The horrible situation in this closed-up hell, in form of a cattle wagon, was turning from bad to worse. I don't really know how many nights we were locked into this place, but after the third night nobody except the very small children, were able to sleep. The stickiness and the unbearable stench plus the worries about our fate kept most of us awake.
The longer the misery in our wagon lasted, the more people especially children and the elderly became ill. I of course, was mostly concerned with the well being of my poor Mother. She was not a youngster any more and her health, although she never really complained, was not as good as she would have liked us to believe. During these few agonizing days Mother had shown an unusual degree of determination and perseverance, which helped her come through this merciless voyage in pretty good shape.
As I said, it is hard for me to determine the exact time we were locked inside this cattle wagon. Nobody seemed to care anymore about our future fate. Our only concern at the moment was to get out of this hellish place.
It was a bright sunny and warm morning when our train began to slow down while approaching its final destination. I still had my priceless spot near the little window, and a chance for a glimpse into the outside world.
Several people in grey, blue striped prison garb were already doing some work on the rail tracks just parallel to our train. Besides their shabbily looking uniforms I noticed their wooden shoes which some of them had covered with dirty rags.
While none of them seemed to openly look at our wagon, one who stood the closest to the train, talked to us without lifting his head up in the direction of our little window: "You are approaching Auschwitz," he was talking like to himself. And then he followed with some peculiar questions: "Are there many children with you?" and again quietly he was asking if there are elderly people with us. And without waiting for an answer, the young unshaven and terrible looking young man moved on to do his job, whatever it was he was doing before.
While our train kept on moving in the direction of the camp several other of these working men kept asking the same questions without directly looking at us. After one of them quietly said, "May God be with you", we received a clear picture of the gravity of our situation. A little further away from this prisoner, I noticed a much cleaner looking inmate probably one of the supervisors who didn't seem or didn't care what his men were telling us.
I managed a glimpse at my brothers face. His eyes seemed wet with tears as he looked back at me. Apparently we both had the same thoughts on our minds. We automatically turned our heads in the direction of our Mother who was just awaking from a few hours of sleep.
"May God help us", I whispered to my brother while also looking at the excited men, women and children in our wagon, who were yet unaware of what fate was awaiting them, while we apparently are entering the largest factory of death ever known to mankind .
Although I had personally experienced some help from some unexplainable source, I must say that it is very difficult after five years in the Lodz Ghetto to believe in miracles. Even people who had spent their lives in praising the Lord and praying three times daily perished from starvation, diseases and in gas chambers with God's name on their lips. Hundreds of thousands of innocent children had perished the same way, and no miracles occurred. "So how could we possibly expect any miracles now?", I thought. I also thought at the moment about us being God's chosen people ... and I asked a relevant question, "Were we really chosen to become sacrificial lambs in this horrible place."
ARBEIT MACHT FREI (WORK MAKES YOU FREE)
In sharp contrast to the masterfully staged departure from the Lodz Ghetto, the reception we received on our arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau was an indescribable and unforgettable picture of horror.
At the moment the wagon doors slammed open, the last hopes of so many desperately clinging to life human beings, collapsed in waves of shouting, pushing, and indiscriminate beatings, by stick wielding special commandos. The same Nazi officers and troops who showed so much politeness and false understanding when we boarded the wagons in Lodz, suddenly turned into wild animals, shoving and hitting young as well as old, with a viciousness no normal human being would be able to comprehend.
While performing their unholy duty in the name of the special chosen German Nation, they were shouting obscenities, and cursing the Verfluchte Juden (The dammed Jews). "Raus, raus-shnell, shnell", (Fast, fast, out, out). They also shouted to the scared and confused human beings to leave all their belongings inside the wagons, not to touch anything. The special commandos of Jewish prisoners were doing the job of pulling the people out of the wagons, while soldiers with their constantly barking vicious specially trained dogs, surrounded the whole area.
Many of the forcefully removed people from the wagons, especially the elderly and the sick were dropping to the ground. Many of them were already lying with blood gushing from different parts of their bodies. Mothers with infants in their arms received the same treatment while most had their babies pulled from them and thrown to the ground. While the desperately screaming Mothers were trying to pick up their infants, they were mercilessly beaten by the heartless commandos and kicked by the vicious soldiers with their heavy leather boots.
The cries of children and the desperate pleadings by their helpless Mothers, while the Fathers were already being shoved over to form a mens line. The painful cries and groans of the elderly and sick were drowned by loud music coming through loudspeakers from different directions.
A bright sun was shining on us, coming down from a clear blue sky. But it did not seem in any way to warm those masses of suffering men, women, and children. There seemed no help from anywhere. Not even when infants were forcefully being pulled from the arms of their desperately pleading and wailing helpless Mothers.
When finally two separate lines of hundreds of already resigned men and women had been formed, a high ranking Nazi officer appeared in front of us to start his selection. With a simple move of his right hand thumb this Nazi monster made a quick decision of whether you should live or die. And even while this executioner was performing the job of the devil, and while the walking towards him men were silently praying and pleading for God's help, the sun kept on shining.
The music coming from the loud speakers seemed ever louder while the overwhelming majority of the men were being selected in the direction of the getting ready for them gas chambers. Only a small percentage were lucky enough to get a temporary reprieve, a chance to live a little longer.
The unbearable loud music kept on playing while the hundreds of men were moving almost unsupervised but already fully aware of what gruesome fate awaits them.
Amid the indescribable situation before and during the selection, many families managed a fast hug and some tearful kisses with their loved ones. Those who did not manage to embrace each other were doing it from a distance.
My brother and I were fortunately among the small group of the lucky ones. We were also fortunate enough, before we were separated to embrace and kiss our Mother, while promising her that everything will be fine and assuring her that she looked good enough to pass the selection. During these few seconds, my dear Mother managed a smile but tears were streaming down her lovely face. She still waved to us while being pushed into the line of waiting women.
As if an especially arranged way of Nazi torture, the women were the first to go through the procedure of being selected. This way the Fathers, husbands, sons and brothers were forced to watch as their beloved Mothers, wives, and siblings are being mentally and physically abused by a sadistical Nazi officer whose biggest pleasure seemed to be forcefully pulling some of the remaining babies from their Mothers arms.
What we were really forced to witness is impossible to describe. The horrible scenes unveiled in front of our eyes were heart breaking. The crying, pleading, and screaming of small scared to death girls, being forcefully separated from their Mothers, must have been heard somewhere behind the blue skies above.
The most gruesome scenes were with no doubt, when desperate young Mothers were resisting and struggling with all their remaining strength to keep their infants close to their chests. Still with their infants in their arms, they were shoved into the groups of hundreds of women walking in the direction of the gas chambers.
While very few young women had to give up their babies, and join the ones chosen to live, many refused to give up and were ordered to join the overwhelming majority destined to perish. One of those resisters was my Mothers younger sister, Rivka. I noticed her in line a few steps ahead of my Mother. She was young and pretty, so the selection officer ordered one his troopers to take her two year old only son from her arms. Rivka resisted with all her might, and even with the intervention of another Nazi, they were unable to pull the baby from her arms.
Proudly, but with a broken heart, I watched how my dear aunt was shoved into the masses of condemned ones, clutching her beloved son to her chest. I followed her with my eyes for several more seconds and noticed her constantly kissing my little cousins face. But the sun kept on shining ... under the circumstances an almost obscene happening.
I was still looking in her direction when a push by my brother brought me back to reality. This time in front of the Nazi selector stood my dear Mother. Her tall and slim figure, dressed in a beige trench coat which my Father bought her before Passover of 1939. We could not see her face, but I tried to press a bit forward in order to get a better view of what's going to happen. It seemed that the Nazi was talking to her, perhaps asking some questions. I whispered a silent prayer. The Nazis thumb turned in the right direction. Slowly but seemingly relieved, Mother joined the small group of the chosen ones.
Needless to describe how my brother and I felt at that fateful moment. A feeling of seldom experienced euphoria overwhelmed both of us. My prayers seemed to be answered. As far as I was concerned, I felt quite sure that my brother and I are going to pass the selection. Why I really assumed that we will pass, it's hard for me to explain. Perhaps it had to do with my optimistic nature.
My brother who was in front of me passed first without the slightest problem, and then without even looking into my face the officers thumb pointed me in the direction of the small group of young men and teenagers gathered a short distance on the right side of him.
While capos and Nazi troopers were busy transforming our group into some sort of military formation, I managed a glimpse to the left, where masses of condemned men, women and children were being shoved and even physically abused by armed troopers and led in the direction of the death camp.
The selection officer was still busy performing his devilish job with obvious monstrous pleasure. Ever more condemned people were crowding the grounds on which they were being herded like sheep to the slaughter. While we were already standing in formation, those innocent poor souls were slowly moving in complete disarray and total chaos.
From afar I was looking for familiar faces, for relatives, friends, and neigbours. I managed somehow although in a short glimpse pinpoint some of them. I noticed an uncle, another aunt walking with their youngsters. Frail faces of close neighbours and even some of old school friends were also visible from far away. They seemed like in a daze and as if not realizing what's going on around them. Some elderly people were assisted by younger ones and the disabled were being carried or perhaps forced to do that by younger men.
Amid all that commotion, I was surprised to notice several Ghetto policemen among the ever more swelling mass of condemned. Ironically they were still wearing their policemens caps.
Although I was pretty far away from this horrible place, I was able to notice many young men and women among those unfortunate souls. Since many of those young men were bigger and seemingly stronger than I was, it was easy to conclude that to be selected with a chance to temporarily go on living, was just a matter of pure luck. In strict military formation we were already walking into the camp of Birkenau. We were escorted by armed troopers and several capos who eagerly seemed to please their Nazi bosses by shouting on the top of their lungs orders in the German language mixed with all kinds of obscenities.
And the sky was still blue with a bright and shiny sun.
ON THE WAY TO THE BATH HOUSE
While the vast majority of our transport from the Lodz Ghetto, many perhaps still unaware of their fate, were walking towards their physical destruction, two small separate groups of men and women, were approaching the bathhouse of Birkenau. It was quite obvious that these small groups of approximately two hundred each, were being chosen to be kept alive. However the question remained: for what purpose and for how long?
Although with a terribly heavy heart caused by the horrors we experienced during the past several hours, I felt guilty for feeling happy that all the three of us, my Mother, brother and myself were among the small groups of chosen ones.
The red brick bath house, if I remember correctly stood on the right side of a large plaza. The one floor structure was built in an "L" shape.
While the first men of our group started to enter and others followed slowly, I suddenly heard from afar my Mothers voice. Instinctively I turned in the direction from where the sound came. In front of the smaller part of the "L" shaped building, the apparent bath house exit I noticed an ambulance guarded by several armed soldiers. Shocked when I heard again my Mothers crying voice, my brother and I moved a few steps back from the bath entrance in order to see what was happening.
In sheer horror we saw about a dozen naked young women being shoved into the wide open ambulance doors. Among them was my hysterically crying Mother and one of our young cousins. Noticing us from a distance of about thirty metres, my Mother kept crying out in our direction. In spite of being brutally handled by one of the guards, she managed to call in our direction in Yiddish: "Dear Yomile, my crown, I am too skinny, we won't see each other again", and while almost half inside the ambulance she screamed out, "Dear children, stay together."
Heart broken, disappointed and totally resigned, being already the last of the group being shoved into the bath house by a big fat German in civilian clothing, we could clearly hear the sound of the speeding away ambulance.
After only a short time of illusory happiness, our hopes of still having our dear Mother alive suddenly disappeared together with the speeding away Nazi ambulance. The irony again seemed to be the red cross which was painted on top of that vehicle. Ambulances which normally carried sick people to places where their lives were being saved, the murderous Nazis were using them to transport many of their victims to the gas chambers.
And the sun over Auschwitz kept on shining ...
A SECOND SELECTION INSIDE THE BATH HOUSE
We were ordered to undress and wait in a large sort of lobby which led into the showers. We entered into a small room which soon became quite crowded. Several capos inside kept on shouting obscenities in our direction and even abusing some of us physically. Suddenly a deadly silence engulfed this overcrowded place. Without any previous warning the high ranking officer who conducted the main selections was suddenly standing in front of us. Slowly without uttering a single word, this cold blooded Nazi was moving around us performing another sort of selection. This time he was walking between the group of horrified already once selected, sadistically picking additional victims.
Apparently the first selection didn't yield the full quota for gas chambers and an additional number of victims had to be chosen. This of course explained the horrible tragedy which happened just a short while before with my Mother and the other group of unfortunate women with her.
The Nazi monster was again at his job. Every new victim was ordered to stand at the wall next to the exit door. The purpose of this terrible act became obvious to everyone present, although the men who were being selected seemed oblivious of what was happening to them.
The rest of us were just waiting helplessly for our turn. Suddenly I saw the Nazi officer asking something from my brother. He apparently noticed a little scar on his left side chest, so he obviously tried to examine the scar with one of his fingers. Satisfied that the wound was completely healed, he left him alone and continued looking for other victims. Cool and still confident I noticed the monster moving in my direction. While he stopped in front of me he asked or rather barked out a question: "How old are you?" I really don't recall if he paid attention to my reply, but he swiftly moved away talking to somebody else.
What I felt a moment after was my brother squeezing my right hand in a clear expression of happiness and love. Seemingly quite satisfied, the Nazi officer left the bath house followed by about fifteen new victims guarded by a couple of armed Nazi troopers. Remembering the scene when my Mother was taken out from the bath house, I was not able to lift my head and look in the direction of these downgraded and humiliated naked young men.
As I learned later this high ranking Nazi officer was none other than the infamous Nazi monster Dr. Mengele. Apparently still not satisfied enough with sending thousands of innocent men, women and children to the gas chambers, he seemingly felt obligated from time to time to conduct a second selection. This act of a sadistic orgy probably gave this so called doctor special pleasure.
People who were not there might ask, and rightly so, "Why did these young men go to their death without resistance of any kind?" But after truly accessing the situation, some people perhaps might feel some understanding, but many I am sure will remain skeptical. So let me express my thoughts about those tragic days. After our arrival at Birkenau, the chaos, shock and panic, with the forceful dividing of families, were enough to paralize a person physically and mentally. To this state of mind came the gruesome process of selecting and choosing human beings who were fully aware where they were heading. But the most tragic were the scenes and the unforgettable sites when our loved ones and the hundreds of other victims were being herded like sheep to the slaughter house.
All this was happening after five years struggling in the Lodz Ghetto, was surely enough to create people incapable of anything more than passivity. By the end however, those men who were selected again in the bath house were not passive at all. Knowing very well that fully armed Nazi troopers are all over the place, they realized that physical resistance was impossible. They were also fully aware that the slightest attempt of physical resistance would definitely cause the elimination of all of us.
So, they must have instinctively decided to show Dr. Mengele that although he possesses the power to take their lives, he is unable to provoke them to lend him a hand and an excuse to kill of us. Not giving the Nazi monster the pleasure of seeing them dehumanized not even one of them was crying or pleading with him to be spared. They seemed to walk out from the bath house with their heads high, without giving the Nazi troopers who were escorting them an additional feeling of superiority. Under the circumstances I consider this an act of passive resistance.
Before entering the shower room the remaining group of young men had every hair on their bodies shaved off. We were ordered to hold on to our shoes only. One of the attendants noticed a small picture of my Mother in one of my hands, grabbed it from me and brutally hit me in the face. To my dismay he tore the picture into small pieces, which hurt me more than my partially swollen face. The same fate met a bunch of drawings which just a few hours before I tried to salvage at the rail ramp after our arrival from the Lodz Ghetto.
After the showers we received some clothing and after getting dressed, we were led into the so called "Gypsy Camp" in Birkenau. After going through some sort of registration, our group of several hundred young men and teenagers were assigned, if my memory serves me right, to block eighteen. Being aware of the danger of being twins, although we were not really identical, we nevertheless decided to register with different birth dates.
TADEK, OUR BLOCK ELDEST
Birkenau consisted of dozens of structures, apparently former stables which served a Polish cavalry regiment stationed there before the outbreak of W.W.2.
The roads and alleys between those so called barracks were covered with gravel, and in spite of the still persisting hot summer days , the grounds were quite muddy and treacherous. On the way to the barracks I noticed several wooden dwellings which had signs, "latrine", but I soon learned we could only visit those places with the permission of the block elders. It turned out that from that moment on you could not do anything without the permission of this new master of our destiny. And our master turned out to be a young Polish criminal, a vicious anti-semite by the name of Tadek.
Tadek welcomed us to his domain with a wielding cane, hitting indiscriminately over the heads at whoever was unfortunate to be close to him. His vocabulary consisted of the worst obscenities in the Polish language, or any other language for that matter. He was constantly shouting and cursing, especially at the older ones of our group. In his distorted mind men in their late twenties or in their early thirties, were already considered old. Especially if they were Jewish. Besides hitting them viciously, he kept shouting at them to make them aware that they are already too old to live, and that eventually they will also be put into the "ovens." Tadeks special pleasure was ordering us to look at the smoking chimneys to see, "How your loved ones are being fried."
The barrack was empty of any sort of furniture, just four walls and bare concrete floor. Since several hundred of inmates were already living in this place, prior to our arrival, the barrack became extremely overcrowded. Sleeping on the bare floor outstretched was out of the question, so we had to sit one inside the others lap in order to find a spot on the floor.
After an extremely chaotic short while, we finally settled down and ordered not to get up before receiving permission from our new boss.
Tadek in the meantime was beating up several "old men", and announced with his vicious sadistic smile, that there will be no food this evening. And with great pleasure, he also let us know that to visit a latrine, "You will also have to wait till tomorrow morning, you dirty Jewish bastards."
Exhausted physically and mentally I fell asleep in my brothers lap, squeezed from all sides by others.
Loud shouts with lots of obscene cursing by our block elders woke us up. Literally running over our heads and bodies, like a let loose wild animal, Tadek was wielding his cane in all directions. "Get up, you bastards"..."Get up, you sons of bitches dirty Jews." Many of us were bleeding, mostly from head wounds. While we were struggling to get up , Tadek ordered us to assemble in front of the barrack. After we finally reached the outside, we had to form a triple line with the help of a couple self appointed helpers to the block elders. In front of the line, Tadek was busy distributing chunks of fresh bread and some sort of a bitter fluid.
The morning was exceptionally beautiful, without a sign of a cloud in the sky. It was very early, but already quite sticky. With his sadistic smile on his face, Tadek ordered us to inhale the polluted air: "This stinking air is caused by your burning relatives," and seemingly amused by his funny joke he added, "the ovens were busy all night."
Many of us were already eagerly consuming our breakfast. Even this routine procedure, was used by Tadek as a calculated torture weapon. Especially against the more mature inmates among us. To those Tadek considered old, he refused to give their slice of bread and instead handed it to a standing nearby youngster. At the time next to me or in front of me, I noticed our next door nieghbour, Motel, who must have been at the time twenty-four years old being pushed away by Tadek who refused to give him his bread ration. Instead Tadek handed it to me, with a warning that if I would give the bread to the "old man" he will kill me.
To me it was heart-breaking to look at Motels pale face during this sadistic spectacle. However his sad face lit up when I whispered to him that I will save and keep his portion and at an opportune moment, give it to him. This moment finally arrived when an hour later we were permitted to visit the latrine. The poor man eagerly consumed his bread inside this terribly smelling dirty place, but far from the eyes of our "benevolent bread giver."
After finishing our breakfast, we received permission to sit outside but only close to our barrack. With broken heart I sat next to our brother, whose eyes were filled with tears, talking quietly about the suffering Mother must have gone through? Deep in my heart I was already glad that her sufferings are finally over. Without uttering a single word, we continued our much needed rest. Before we were called by Tadek to gather in front of the barrack entrance, my brother whispered into my ear: "Perhaps we should rejoice that our Mother is finally liberated."
Full of hate against anybody who causes suffering to innocent men, women and children, and full of hate for the Tadeks of this world, who made our lives miserable for as long as I can remember, I recalled a Polish patriotic song, which stated, that "Those who will survive will be free and those who die are already free." Physically and mentally devastated, I somehow didn't care much about my own fate. After all that happened to me so far could not possibly get any worse. To say that I should leave everything in God's hands, was at the time out of the question. The same as everybody else in my predicament ceased believing in a merciful God, I also became quite skeptical. However the fact that my brother and I managed to go through all the selections, untouched, I could not possibly totally dismiss some help from above.
I still felt miserably tortured. The terrible pictures at the ramp after our arrival, the gruesome scenes during the selections, the scared faces of the condemned men, women and children and especially the crying and pleading of the little children still remains steadfast on my mind. The heroic scenes of distressed Mothers forcefully resisting to hand over their babies will remain on my mind for the rest of my life.
And so will, of course, my Mothers last goodbye.
"What's next?" I truly didn't care. New transports kept on arriving daily. We however saw only small groups being led into barracks, but the overwhelming majority of those new arrivals have already been sent to the gas chambers.
On the next morning after our arrival, we began going through new horrifying daily ordeals. Representatives of various German enterprises like ammunition factories, construction firms, etc., who were hand picking young and fit men for slave labour. After going through an official registration, we had to fully undress and jog in front of those big fat Nazi entrepreneurs who with the help of so called doctors selected their slaves.
Understandably those slave merchants picked the tallest and strongest among us, so it took my brother and myself a full week of those torturous spectacles until we were finally selected.
At the time of course, we were completely in the dark of where we were going and to what type of work. But we were glad that those torturous days came to an end. The worst part of those days were the standing under a burning sun for hours without food or water until we were finally led back to the barrack. The same routine, as I said before was repeated for at least seven days.
Since we returned to the barracks just before night fall, our daily soup was already being sent back by our block eldest, or waiting for us completely cold.
Besides the daily physical and mental torture we were forced to listen to Tadeks vulgar speeches during which he graphically described how the "bastard Jews" are being killed off and how lucky we are to be leaving Auschwitz alive.
Tadeks favorite victims besides Jews were Gypsys. "These f.... bastards" he announced with a sort of pleasure, "weren't gassed, they were all burned alive."
Tadek also seemed to have special pleasure by telling us that the gas chambers of Auschwitz were recently terribly busy absorbing the entire Jewish population of Hungary. "Those dirty bastards Magyars charred bodies smelled even worse than your relatives," he added with a ghastly smile on his ugly face.
So, we had to live under this monsters supervision for a whole week. Although normally a relatively short period of time, he managed to turn it into an eternity. This short time has taught us more about cruelty than perhaps months or even years in the Lodz Ghetto. Among all Tadeks prescribed tortures, the worst one, I think was keeping us from visiting the latrines when badly needed.
This vicious pathological Jew hater, himself an inmate for an unknown reason was our master, free to torture us in any way he pleased, even kill any Jew without being reprimanded.
So, our only hope and our prayers were directed towards the good will of the slave dealers who had the only power to bring us out of this God forsaken place.
Finally this eagerly awaited moment arrived. My brother and I were picked, if my memory serves me well, on the sixth day of our stay in Birkenau. On the seventh day we were told to report to the bath house for a final check up and showers.
Although we did not know where we were heading to, we were relieved and happy just by the prospect of getting out of Auschwitz.
Exhausted, tired, hungry and thirsty but nevertheless happily excited, my brother and I were walking back to our barrack after finally being selected and told that soon we were going to leave Auschwitz. It didn't matter to us where we were going to be transported to, and no matter how hard we will have to work. However at the moment, no matter how odd it may sound I was only thinking about a little bit of space where I would be able to sleep fully stretched out. As far as food and water was concerned I knew somehow that it could not get worse than it already was until then. While walking absorbed in my thoughts I heard some men laughing loud and talking in Polish just behind us. I hardly at first paid attention to what they were talking about, until I heard one of them ordering another to kick those dirty Jews in their asses ... In a fracture of a moment I felt an excruciating pain in my right hand. (I had a habit since my childhood to walk while holding my hands behind my back.) My brother and I automatically stepped aside and watched three or four capos, obviously enjoying themselves, laughing even more loudly than before passing us by as if nothing had happened.
The top of my right hand was terribly bleeding with a part of the skin being rubbed off. If this incident would have occurred a day before, my chances of leaving Auschwitz would have been next to nil. In the meantime I had to hide my injury from Tadek and from others, by holding my hand constantly in my pockets. On my evening visit to the latrine I managed to partially clean up the wound and finally stop the bleeding.
That night I did not sleep at all. Very early on the next morning, when the sun was not out yet we, a large group chosen a day before, were ordered to assemble in front of the barrack from where we were led in the direction of the bath house.
This was the last time I slept under Tadeks supervision, and the last time to be forced to look at the face of this vicious man who even as an inmate at a death camp continued the ugly tradition of the pre-war vicious anti-semitic segment of the Polish population.
As we reached the plaza in front of the bath house, the place was already crowded with hundreds of inmates. They were all sitting on the ground tightly close to each other waiting for their turn to be called in the already busy shower rooms. Unfortunately our group of about sixty young men and teenagers found a place on the far end of the huge field which was surrounded by dozens of armed soldiers. We were ordered to remove our caps, one of the Nazi ways to let us know that we are still inmates who must obey orders.
After a short while under the already burning sun, and without being allowed to cover our already shaven heads, I began to experience an excruciating headache. After a couple of hours many of our co-sufferers began to feel dizziness and some even fainted.
Only about thirty men at a time from a crowd of several hundred, were being let into the showers, and from one such group to the other, took at least an hour and a half to two hours. The ones who finished were let out through the other side of the bath house and were ordered to take their places on the field behind.
This terrible last ordeal at Birkenau became one among my most unforgettable torturous experiences. Without food or water under a bright blue sky, and terribly burning sun, only young men and teenage boys were capable through sheer perseverance to survive for so many hours.
When I finally heard the call to get up and walk to the bath house, it was already in the very late afternoon. I was already quite dizzy holding on to my brother, I walked into the shower room, where the first drops of ice cold water touching my head and body felt so heavenly that many of us were loudly thanking God for his mercy. While taking this long awaited pleasurable event, I kept my mouth wide opened and kept on swallowing water like a dried out camel in the desert.
After the showers we received a set of underwear and a striped prisoners uniform with a cap of the same color and stripes. We kept our own wooden shoes and belt. Before being let out we went through an additional examination during which they put an electric bulb into my wide opened mouth, apparently searching for hidden diamonds inside our teeth. The same procedure was performed at the bottom of our rectums.
Instead of being allowed to dress inside the bath house, we were ordered to get out and dress outside. It seems that also this simple move was one of the Nazis thought up tortures. It was already past midnight and in sharp contrast to the hot day, the night was absolutely freezing. Being still wet, I was shivering to a point of almost being unable to breathe. Getting finally dressed, I again found a place together with my brother. Sitting back to back and very close to each other, our body temperatures slowly returned to normal.
In the cool of the night we felt quite relaxed and less restless than during the extremely hot day. While waiting for the official orders to move on, I even managed a short nap. When the last group emerged from the bath house it was already full day light.
Escorted by dozens of armed and helmeted soldiers and supervised by scores of shouting capos, we were at last on our way to the waiting train.
The first time after five years of incarceration in the Lodz Ghetto, I found myself among several hundred young men dressed in prison guard like common criminals. Nonetheless I was glad to be able to leave this place no matter how I was dressed. The road we were walking on was an alley dividing two separate camps surrounded by high fences. There were scores of inmates inside each of these camps. Not coming close to the seemingly electrically wired steel fences, many of the inmates kept waving their arms in our direction. Many of them have even managed a loud good-bye, although there were armed guards visible behind them."May God be with you", and "You are so lucky to leave this place", were among the messages coming out from both sides of the fenced in camps.
Judging by the many identical looking inmates, I realized that those separate camps were housing the hundreds of twins who apparently had to go through all kinds of so-called scientific experiments.
Amid another hot day similar to the one when we left the Lodz Ghetto, I found myself again in front of a long train with dozens of cattle wagons. The heavy doors of those wagons were wide open and in apparent contrast to the crowded with luggage wagons of the train which brought us to Auschwitz, these wagons were completely empty. Also the situation at the ramp was less chaotic and much more subdued. Small groups of about fifty each were formed in front of each wagon where baskets full of bread loaves and other items were placed.
In an orderly fashion each one of us received a loaf of black bread, a pretty large chunk of blood wurst and a slice of margarine.
Supervised by capos and being watched by dozens of armed guards, we climbed into the wagon. The only items I noticed immediately were two buckets, one filled with drinking water and the other empty. The empty one is obviously going to serve us as a toilet. After finding a place to sit down I whispered a silent prayer for the dead. I did it not only for my Mother, but for all the relatives and friends whom we left in the ovens of Auschwitz. I vividly saw again my dear Mothers tearful face before being forcefully taken to her death. I also saw again the fearful and distressed faces of the innocent victims walking in the direction of the gas chambers.
INSIDE THE CATTLE WAGON
For the second time in less than two weeks I found myself inside in a hermetically closed cattle wagon. Although I had already experienced it once, the slamming shut of the heavy doors and the horrible feeling of being locked in, brought shivers all over my body. Only a person who went through such a terrible experience is able to comprehend the horror of such a moment.
For a short while until the first shock was replaced by a sense of reality, the wagon with all its inmates got engulfed in a deadly silence. Then as expected from a hungry group of young men, most of us swiftly managed to consume the entire ration which was supposed to last us for the remainder of the voyage.
Surprisingly calm and collected like normal human beings we selected one of the older inmates to act as the supervisor and the head of our wagon. His main duty was to evenly distribute the sparse but much needed water, which he managed to perform in a way completely unexpected under such circumstances.
Having gained the confidence of every one in the wagon, he proposed to have a couple or three guys on steady watch at the little barred window, in case some good samaritan at passing by rail stations would be kind enough and willing to take chances and help us with some food or water.
The train was moving very slowly and often stopping between stations. Those constant stoppages added to the heating up of the wagon. After a while the constantly burning sun caused an unbearable stickiness. On the second day of our constantly disrupted journey, we were left with no drop of drinking water. There was also no sign of any help from the outside, though we saw many farmers peacefully working their fields without even throwing a glimpse in our direction.
When we crossed the border into Czechoslovakia things changed drastically. Farmers, without any fear of armed guards at the roof tops of our wagons, kept on throwing into the little windows of our wagons all kinds of fruits and vegetables. Surprisingly enough the guards seemed in general to ignore them, although some did shout some warnings mixed with obscenities in the German language.
From time to time our guys on duty next to the windows did catch some of those goodies, which were eventually fairly divided between all of us. This little help, although immensely appreciated did not drastically change our ever more desperate situation .
The ration of black bread and especially the spicy blood wurst, which was given to us before boarding, must have been especially designed complying with the official Nazi tortures. Consuming such items inside an over heated wagon with very little water to help it digest, turned out dangerous indeed. My mouth and tongue felt like on fire, and my desire for a drop of water became unbearable. I suppose that all of us had the same horrible feeling. But there was no water in sight.
I recall one time receiving a slice of onion, part of our daily catches. Being extremely hungry and thirsty, I eagerly consumed a large piece of this hot produce. Although it added to the terrible dryness inside my mouth, I was nevertheless grateful to the people who threw in even this kind of produce, because the tears running down my cheeks wetted my dried out lips a bit.
Sitting on the wagons bare floor, which was a little less crowded than Tadeks barrack, many thoughts were crossing my mind. Some of those thoughts concerned my recent past and others my uncertain future. For a fraction of a second I could not help thinking about the dense and wholesome soup we supposed to have been served once a day at Birkenau, but during all the seven days at Auschwitz I managed to consume only one of those soups. As another one of the Nazi tortures, just minutes before the arrival of the soup, we were called to the plaza to go through some kind of selection.
I also could not help thinking about the fact that throughout the whole journey through Czechoslovakia we constantly received some kind of help from the Czeck people. Sadly enough no such help was granted to us while passing Polish farms and villages. Our country men in spite of our pleading for help completely ignored us.
I don't really recall how many days and nights it took our train to reach the next point of our torturous journey. The only difference which I experienced from day changing into night was the fact that during the nights it was a bit easier to breathe. During those periods I managed a few hours of restful sleep, from time to time however disturbed by horrible nightmares.
After so many years I'm still puzzled by the fact that after reaching our destination we all managed to survive this horrific journey. Although hardly standing on our feet, we didn't count a single casualty. I think that this phenomenon could be attributed to the young age of those inmates and perhaps most of all to our will to live and sheer perseverance.
ARRIVAL AT MUNICH, GERMANY (THEN CAMP4-KAUFERING)
After several days of indescribable misery our train finally came to a halt at an isolated ramp at the central station of Munich. Dressed in our grey and blue striped prisoners garb, surrounded by dozens of Nazi troops, our presence at the station seemed quite a normal sight to the hundreds of seemingly busy and self absorbed German travellers.
After disembarking I was quite surprised by the relatively subdued reception we received. There was no shouting or any sort of verbal or physical abuse. Another, and at the time more important surprise to us all, were the countless barrels of fresh water placed around the platform.
In a very uncommon orderly fashion, the military guards were dividing us into small groups forming line-ups close to the water barrels from which we were allowed to drink as much as we pleased. Refreshed and almost brought back to normality and in a much heightened mood. We became even more encouraged by a short speech delivered by the commanding officer. Walking with one stiff leg, seemingly a war invalid, this well mannered officer promised us very soon to reach our final destination, where we will immediately receive food rations and a chance to rest up "after this very difficult journey of yours."
Shortly after, a regular passenger train replaced our cattle wagons.
While we were again in an orderly fashion boarding the trains, I could not help looking again at the seemingly untouched by the war huge train station crowded with normally behaving travellers, seemingly quite happy at a time when most of occupied Europe was lying in ruins.
Presently surprised by our initial welcome on German soil and having my twin brother next to me while sitting on quite comfortable seats, I truly anticipated at least a bit better times ahead of us. Intoxicated by a couple of well calculated gestures by our torturers, we all seemed foolish enough or perhaps just naive to think that the Nazis have suddenly changed their policy towards the Jews.
DACHAU-CAMP 4 KAUFERING
It took us no more than an hour to arrive at the train station of a little town named Kaufering, where we again in a quite orderly fashion disembarked. Under loud orders by the limping commander we formed military-like groups. Each of those groups was escorted by several armed troops who marched with us in formation to our final destination.
In the early afternoon of September 1st, 1944 after about half an hour of brisk walking we arrived at the camps gates.
As all the time through the last several weeks, this day was also quite warm and the sun was constantly shining from an entirely cloudless blue sky. The paved road on our march to the camp, was shadowed by rows of large trees on each side which made it easier and quite refreshing for us to walk. However the beautiful houses and villas visible behind those trees filled us not only with envy but also with considerable anger.
The guards at the camp gates were helmeted SS men with pointed rifles directly at us. Dozens of more guards were lined up next to several wooden barracks and more were visible on top of countless towers placed a small distance away from each other. The entire camp was surrounded by tall, barbed wire fences.
All I saw besides those few wooden barracks were countless rows of huts, usually used by farmers to store produce during the winter seasons.
My first impression therefore seemed quite logical: "We are here to do farm labor." Not for a second did it occur to me that all those partially underground huts are going to be our homes for the next eight months.
Passing by row after row of those huts we reached a huge gravelled but again somehow muddy field, soon to be known to us as the "Appellplatz", the place for our dally head counts. Direct supervision over the new arrivals was immediately delegated to capos, who were already waiting for us. They were chosen from among inmates who were already in camp before us.
The limping officer with his troops was already out of sight. After a while it became clear to us that this camp is entirely being ruled by the SS and dozens of capos.
THE OFFICIAL WELCOME
The "appellplatz" was filled to full capacity. While waiting again in military formation for the arrival of the camp Fuehrer and his assistants, the ghosts of Auschwitz appeared again all over the place. The shouting by the stick-wielding capos, their obscene language and the abusing treatment toward their fellow inmates, have dashed all our hopes for a more humane treatment.
A loud shout of "Achtung", followed by "hats off" by one of the capos, brought me back to full reality. It was already in the late afternoon and the sun was already disappearing beside the clearly visible mountains in a distance away.
Several high-ranking SS officers followed by two civilians came out from an adjoining wooden barrack and stopped several meters in front of the first row of inmates. One of the two civilians, a tall handsome man in his early thirties stepped foreward and introduced himself as the camp eldest. Afterwards he introduced to us the SS camp Fuehrer followed by the names of a couple of his lower ranking SS officers.
With the other civilian who turned out to be Rolf, the head camp capo, Hans, the camp eldest finished the introductions followed by a short but most disturbing speech: "You are here to do honest work, but don't expect to be pampered. As long as you are going to follow strict orders and behave properly, you might have a chance to survive in this place about three months, and sometimes more ... Otherwise you are going to die much sooner."
Soon after this most disturbing sermon we were ordered to put our caps back on. Divided again into groups this time about fifty inmates in each one, we were led by capos to our designated quarters.
Coincidentally of course the number of my designated hut was the same as the number of Tadeks barrack in Birkenau. To describe my new home is not going to be a too heavy task. After stepping down about four or five steps, a small gate was leading into an approximately eight to ten metres long and about four metres wide chamber. On both sides divided only by a narrow passage were wooden platforms. On each of these platforms which were completely bare, I noticed just a number of grey blankets supposedly one for each inmate. On the far end of the hut there was one small window. Next to the window a tiny wooden table with two chairs was standing, probably for the convenience of our block eldest and his helper. At the center of the unpaved floor, a small wood burner was placed probably in preparation for the coming winter. This oven made it more difficult to squeeze through the extremely narrow passage. An extremely small-voltage electric bulb was hanging down on a wire attached to the ceiling, just over the wood burner. Needless to say that the place was besides being utterly depressing, very poorly lit.
The "block eldest," a French Jew named Jacob, with the same filthy and abusive mouth as most of the capos, ordered each one of us to lie down next to a blanket. Soon about twenty five inmates on each platform were resting on a plain wooden board next to each other. Without a pillow to rest my tired head, I substituted it with my blanket and stretched myself out on the wooden platform. 602)
During the entire time at Birkenau including the several days journey to Munich I had not been able to stretch out my legs. But finally on this wooden platform, which was going to serve me as a bed I fully stretched out and over tired, exhausted and weak from the long and stressful journey, I dozed off. My brother next to me was already engulfed in a deep sleep.
Our hut which normally was supposed to serve farmers with their crops was now serving as a permanent home for about fifty inmates,
Loud orders shouted through the loud speakers, calling for the block eldeste to pick up the food rations, awaked all of us. Being without any or very little food for the last several days I was eagerly awaiting the arrival of some food, no matter what. However this time surprisingly we received a meal far above our wildest expectations.
A MEAL FIT FOR A KING
The block eldest assisted by two helpers had to make a couple of trips to the kitchen in order to bring the full days rations. It was already dark when the food began to be distributed. I was simply flabbergasted and indeed overjoyed by the amount and quality of the food received. First our containers were filled up to the rim with non-peeled large boiled potatoes, and on a second plate every one of us received one third of a loaf of fresh bread in addition to a large piece of Polish sausage. If this was not enough they also gave to everyone of us a small triangle shaped piece of cheese and a large slice of margarine.
The first time in many years I had completely consumed in one sitting such a generous and sumptuous meal. This place seemed unpredictable indeed. With a full stomach, utterly satisfied and more optimistic than ever before I fell asleep on the wooden platform.
For the next several days we were resting most of the time enjoying our still sumptuous meals and the continuing beautiful weather. Several times a day I freely ventured out of the hut for a refreshing walk admiring the breathtaking view of the faraway Alps which on a clear day were fully visible. Apparently on the other side of those mountains was the enviable country of Switzerland.
The tranquility of those precious restful outings were from time to time interrupted by the "head capo." As if to wake us up from our present dreams and letting us know that we are living with imaginary illusions, Rolf an extremely tall and strong Mischling, (half Jewish and half German), performed this task with visible pleasure. Rolfs apparent daily enjoyment during his walks around the camp, was to pick one inmate out of a group of ten and giving the unfortunate chosen one several lashes on his behind with some sort of a bamboo stick.
After the initial several days of our illusionary affluence, the unprecedented daily rations began gradually to shrink.
Very soon, approximately after on week of relative rest, on one late afternoon we were suddenly called to the Appell Platz. Without previous notice we were told that we are scheduled for night shift at a construction company, which is going to start this very evening.
It was just before night fall when several open trucks were lined up in front of the camps gate. In sharp contrast to the last several days, a group of several hundred inmates, my brother and myself included, had again to endure mental and physical abuse by capos and armed guards who shoved us onto the empty tracks shouting the well known obscenities.
Unfortunately the September night was unusually cold, especially for us who were dressed in pajama like prisoners garb. A brisk wind added a lot to the chill. Standing on top of the trucks we tried to form small groups and stand close to each others backs in order to resist the wind and cold. We were all shivering and literally freezing until finally after about an hours drive we reached the construction site.
A brightly lit billboard on top of a large gate clearly announced the name of our future bosses: "Leonard Moll construction-Munchen". Next to it a smaller sign read "Holtzman construction and architecture." (or something similar).
We entered into a tremendously large and seemingly quite busy construction site, surrounded on all sides by a dense forest and barbed wire fences. There were also visible some towers with armed guards.
The place was buzzing like a beehive. Rail tracks all over the place were handling trains moving in all directions, loaded with thousands of sacks of cement and other building materials. Trucks with other materials were being loaded and unloaded. The heavy sacks of cement were being handled and carried on the backs by scores of inmates who were in the process of ending their day shift. Most of the inmates working at this place were inmates of the many outside camps affiliated with Dachau.
As usual viciously shouting capos and foreman were urging their laborers to move faster with their loads while trying to please their always present Nazi bosses. Those misguided and weak characters were convinced that by forcing others to work harder, their own chances to survive would be assured.
Judging by the location as well as by the scores of armed and helmeted SS troops, the work going on at this place was obviously of a secret character.
Adding credence to this assumption were the always present high-ranking "Luftwaffe" (air force) officers who were apparently supervising the whole enterprise.
My brother and I were assigned to a group who were forced to carry twenty five kilo sacks of cement from the trucks to a point where they were erecting some sort of underground bunkers. Under threats of severe punishment, we had to be exceptionally careful not to drop or spill any cement on the ground. On one of those constant trips from the trucks to the bunkers, my brother lost his balance and dropped a sack which unfortunately split in half on the ground. This was the first severely vicious beating he received on the first day of our work at the construction company. And this was just the beginning.
From that day on we continued our slave labor, alternating each week from day shifts to night shifts.
The ever colder weather, the extremely hard labor and the steadily diminishing daily food rations in addition to the terrible sanitary conditions were among the many causes of the already rising mortality rate among the new arrivals. Only several weeks after we arrived to this hellish place, many of my former friends had already died and others became walking skeletons, unable to perform any work.
Although relatively in good shape I was plagued by several nasty boils on my left shoulder, obviously caused by sleeping on the bare wooden platform. When they finally covered those platforms with a layer of sawdust, the boils on my shoulder were fully developed and causing severe pain. Not being able to endure the severe pain, I was forced to let a former male nurse or whatever other experience he had in such cases, cut open the boils and give a chance to the accumulating puss to ooze out.
This self appointed doctor performed his surgery with a plain knife and bandaged the wounds with some kind of white paper. The pain actually almost disappeared and miraculously the remaining wounds healed up after only a couple of weeks. From time to time however some of the scars reopened, discharging some puss or blood and eventually healing up again. These occurrences happened quite often and caused besides pain, quite a bit of discomfort. The truth is that at that time I considered this affliction an unimportant problem in comparison to the daily sufferings I had to endure.
Every single day became a separate struggle. The work at the construction site could only be described as slave labor. Before each shift whether night or day, my prayers were directed at one crucial point, namely not to be picked for work inside the bunkers. It seems that my prayers were only partially answered because I was only assigned to this place a couple of times. The work inside the bunker consisted of pushing with some heavy stick, the flowing concrete. Countless inmates who were already too weak to hold on to the narrow platforms of the bunkers walls slipped and fell into the deep concrete mud from where they were never pulled out. Truly to describe in detail the first three months in camp 4-Kaufering-Dachau and the slave labor at Leonard Moll construction company, I could fill up a thousand pages and still not be able to tell all.
So I will just describe the events of the end of the first three months. At the beginning of this chapter I quoted from the welcoming speech of our camp leader, Hans, who was also a Mishling like his friend, Rolf. Hans then issued a warning to the new arrivals telling us that with good behavior and hard work we might have a chance to survive up to three months. This is exactly what actually happened. After three months to the day, during a thorough selection of all the surviving inmates, a small group of about two hundred young men considered still able enough to work, were transferred to camp 1-Landsberg-Dachau. The remaining survivors were unable to leave their huts where they were awaiting a slow death by starvation or diseases.
My brother and I were fortunate enough to be among the two hundred inmates, and were soon on our way to the new camp.
AGAIN SOME HELP FROM AN UNEXPLAINABLE SOURCE
Since our camp leaders welcoming speech turned out to be correct indeed, the logical question by anyone to ask is how my brother and myself had managed to survive the full three months, and still be able to continue working.
A logical question, of course, deserves a logical and truthful answer. However in my reply I will try to elaborate a bit more, instead of giving a short and simple answer.
As we all know, the Nazis conducted their diabolical final solution with a goal to exterminate the entire Jewish population of Europe. They were using two different methods and both with well prepared German precision.
The first method and the most efficient at the start was by simple killings. Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children were being shot by special Nazi troops and their bodies thrown into previously prepared mass graves. Those mass killings were eventually scientifically improved by using gas chambers and crematoriums.
The second system and even more calculated one was to use young men and women as slave laborers to help the Nazis in their war effort. Those victims of Nazi barbarism were working under most inhuman conditions, while being fed far less than the minimum a person needs to exist.
While they were performing their slave labor, the Germans inflicted on them incomprehensible suffering. They had to endure constant physical and mental abuse, suffering constant starvation and living under indescribable disgusting sanitary conditions, they had to endure all kinds of diseases, and epidemics without any medical help whatsoever. Hundreds of thousands of those victims had perished in concentration camps and so-called labor camps.
So it was quite clear that under those conditions nobody but nobody had a chance to survive in those camps without some additional help, no matter of how little or from what source.
Here is how my Brother and myself were able to survive the first three months at camp 4 Kaufering.
By the end of the second month in camp 4, my brother and I were already reaching the end of our physical endurance. By the start of the third month the camp leaders prediction started to show its ugly face. The death rate among the extremely overworked and starving inmates was steadily climbing. Fortunately for my brother and myself, just in time to block our sliding into a skeletal stage, some unexplainable occurrence took place. On one cold November night after arriving at the construction site, my brother and I were lucky enough to be picked for work other than carrying sacks of cement. We joined a small group of young men equipped with sharp axes and escorted by a German supervisor, we were led into the nearby dense forest. There our job for the night was to chop off branches from already cut down large trees.
The night, besides being exceptionally cold was also damp and foggy with very limited visibility. Poorly dressed, in only our thin prison uniforms, the only way to avoid freezing to death was working up a sweat, which meant working fast and as hard as possible.
It must have been a little past midnight when I heard a voice coming in my direction: "Come over here boy," someone addressed me in German. When I turned my head in the direction of the sound I noticed through the dense fog a tall figure of a military man. I was unable to see his face, but the figure in the darkness seemed slim and tall. When I found myself in front of him I noticed a small sort of wooden baton in his right hand, with which he constantly tapped on his military boots. Apparently looking straight at me, he ordered the visibly surprised German supervisor to write down my inmate number.
After exchanging a few words with the supervisor, the apparent SS man disappeared into the prevailing fog the same way he shortly before emerged.
I don't recall being exceptionally afraid or even confused by what had happened. I rejoined my group without even thinking too much about it. I remember however that some of my co-workers kept asking me some questions to which I had no specific answers. The next morning soon after returning to camp I heard my number being called through the loud speakers.. I was ordered to swiftly report to the camp office. Having almost entirely dismissed my midnights encounter, I reluctantly and quite tired took the approximately ten minutes walk to the camp office.
When I reported to the capo on duty and gave him my number he quite politely pointed to a desk where to my utter surprise a smiling clerk handed me without any explanation one and a half packs of German cigarettes. At the moment it was difficult for me to distinguish whether someone played a joke on me or I was simply dreaming.
Holding tightly my freshly acquired fortune and protecting them with both my hands, I walked briskly back to my hut. To avoid the risk of losing my treasure to some greedy thief, I called my brother outside, where we decided on a way to safely secure our "jackpot."
To correctly describe the value of thirty cigarettes at that crucial time, I could only point to the fact that the SS camp guards received daily a ration of three or five cigarettes. And the Soviet laborers at the construction site were gladly exchanging a large bag of potatoes for one single cigarette.
This unexpected gift from a highly unexpected source helped us, my brother and myself, live relatively well to the end and passed the estimated three month survival rate of an inmate in camp 4 Kaufering. Needless to say that with such a fortune, it became much easier for both of us to continue our struggle for survival, even after our transfer to camp 1-Landsberg. During the following period of continuing suffering and despair, it was hard for me to wipe out from my mind that towering SS officer.
At the time I kept asking myself two very important questions to which I have still no answer, many decades after that unexplainable encounter: "How can I sincerely dismiss such a mysterious encounter as plain luck? Or would I be considered simply weird or just superstitious to credit this act to my unexplainable "Guardian Angel." After all this was not the first time during the Holocaust that I was being helped through some mysteriously unexplainable events.
At least, for the next couple of months, my brother and I became wheelers and dealers, exchanging cigarettes for much needed food items.
CAMP 1-LANDSBERG DACHAU
Our arrival at Camp 1 from Camp 4 was entirely uneventful. A couple of capos divided our group of about two hundred inmates into smaller units and led us to half empty huts. After the usual formalities we were accepted by a block eldest.
The camp was exactly the same as Camp 4, with the same partially underground huts and the same narrow muddy alleys leading to them. As I found out pretty soon, also our work place was the same as before.
As I recall, my brother and I were assigned to join the night shift on the very night of our arrival. Although the camp as well as the working place was the same as Camp 4, 1 nevertheless noticed quite a remarkable difference between the inhabitants of the two camps. While Camp 4 was housing mostly Polish Jews, predominantly former inmates of the Lodz Ghetto, Camp 1 inmates were mostly Jews from Lithuania.
So it was no surprise to us that they occupied all the highly privileged positions at camp as well as at the Moll construction site. Besides being capos and foremen, the average Lithuanian inmate was employed at better work details, other than carrying cement bags or pushing mixed cement inside the concrete underground bunkers.
Since for an incomprehensible reason to me, most or at least a large segment of Lithuanian inmates had not much sympathy left for Polish Jews; our group of about two hundred new arrivals were assigned to the most difficult and most dangerous jobs available. A still unexplainable animosity towards us was caused by a weird assumption that every Polish Jew was a thief.
Unfortunately during a night shift I had to go through a painful degrading experience. Trying once during a miserable cold night to approach a small wood burner to warm up a bit my freezing hands. The burner was a common sight close to working groups of Lithuanian Jews. The moment they noticed me coming near to the burner one of them called out to the others, "Hey guys, take care of your Pasoode", (a tin container where inmates used to keep some pieces of bread or other items), there is a Polack among us." I must say however that none of them attempted to chase me away.
I considered it unjust and very painful that under the worst working conditions ever, in addition to the steadily diminishing food rations, and unbearable deteriorating sanitary conditions, our group had to suffer discrimination by their own comrades. To me this situation was in a way more painful than the suffering inflicted upon us by the Nazi beasts.
So far the month of December was the hardest to endure. The bitter cold at work as well in our scarcely heated hut, hard work and very little food, plus the ever more annoying plague of body lice became unbearable. Many of the group of two hundred were already unable to continue working, and quite a few had already died.
During those horrible nights and days, some encouraging rumors about a special festive meal, a full loaf of bread for each inmate and other surprises for the approaching Christmas holidays, began to circulate all over the camp.
There were also rumors that some warm winter clothing for the freezing inmates would arrive very soon, probably before Christmas.
In the meantime however our suffering continued unabated.
TWENTY FIVE LASHES
As we had learned during the years of incarceration, there were two helpful ways to survive, excluding of course plain luck: one was the ability of an individual to organize, (an expression used by inmates), some additional food or try to avoid as much as possible involvement in hard labor.
The first solution was the most difficult one, although some of us did manage to obtain some extra potato or slice of bread. But as far as work was concerned, there were inmates who would take the risk to sneak away during work hours and somehow managed to find a hiding place. Those few who did that had actually accomplished two worthwhile tasks: first to avoid hard work and at the same time to sabotage the Nazi war effort.
My twin brother from time to time subscribed to the second idea, although his chances to being discovered much diminished by my covering up his absence. During the spot checks by the German supervisor, who usually called out every individuals number, I managed to reply for both of us. In different tones of voices of course.
Until on one early morning of a cold December day, the expected had happened. But instead of my brother, I was the one to endure the punishment.
After a night of loading and unloading heavy bags of cement, I was, as usual, on my way to pick up my brother from his hiding place and return with him to the place where the inmates assembled in preparation to return to the camp.
Shortly before approaching the hiding place, some sort of a bunker, I noticed some kind of an unusual chaos. Several inmates seemed to be running in different directions being chased by capos and armed guards. When I spotted my brother among the ones being chased, I immediately attempted to turn around. Unfortunately I was blocked by one of the capos who without any questions grabbed me, hit me in the face while turning me over to another capo who was standing next to a guard. He immediately reported to the armed guard that he caught a saboteur who was hiding during work hours.
Soon, with blood dripping from my face I found myself next to a small group of other youngsters accused of the same crime. They were all shaking like leaves and crying hysterically as if awaiting the death sentence.
Feeling completely innocent and being sure that my night shift foreman would intervene on my behalf, I stood among them quite calm although being abused physically and verbally. But when I tried to plead with my night shift foreman, Mr. Caplan, the Lithuanian was simply pretending not to see or hear me. While I in desperation tried to plead with my escorting capo, a Lithuanian by the name of Burstin, this young and strong fellow kept on hitting me over the head with some kind of a heavy wooden stick. Without reservation he repeated those hits each time I tried to open my mouth.
Realizing the futility of my pleading, I decided to shut up and quietly and obediently walked together with the others back to camp. Normally our work force returned to camp by train, but those seven dangerous saboteurs had to walk a distance of about ten kilometers to camp as a prelude to an expected severe punishment.
At the camp gates the overly zealous capo again introduced us as a saboteur who instead of working were hidden in a bunker where they slept all night.
The Nazi camp fuehrer and the camp eldest, were obviously informed beforehand about our arrival. They were already waiting for us when we entered a dimly lit shack which was empty of any sort of furniture except for a wooden horse placed in the centre of the gravel floor. Besides the two camp leaders, there was also present the head capo, (also by the name of Burstin), and a SS officer who was probably an assistant to the camp leader.
The lower rank officer was the one to read to us the formal accusations and the sentence. Underscoring the magnitude of the crime, he tried to present the Nazi camp leader as a man with a heart of gold, who decided to punish you in the mildest way possible ... Only twenty-five lashes.
The Jewish camp eldest who was the one ordered to perform this merciful deed, came out with another surprise for which he also gave credit to the camp fuehrer: "If you were able to count each single lash up to number fifteen, you will save yourself ten lashes."
I was not scared at all while standing among the small group of youngsters whose faces were covered with tears. It was painful for me to watch one after the other receiving their full punishment of twenty-five lashes during which they were crying and pleading for mercy. I don't recall exactly if I was the fifth or sixth to be called to bend over the wooden horse. After receiving the first hit, I somehow realized that I would not have the physical strength to survive twenty-five such painful lashes; so I tried my best to erase for the moment from my mind the present situation and concentrate only on the counting. When I reached number three, the pain seemed to be less severe and to ease after every additional hit. As closer as I came to number fifteen, I somehow felt more resistance towards the pain. The moment I called out fifteen, the executioner finished his job.
Perhaps it was just some sort of illusion, but I was convinced at the time that I heard him whispering, "Bravo."
With all the strength in my body I slowly walked out into the refreshing morning chill and made my way to the hut. On the way I had to stop off at a latrine to get rid of the only pair of underwear in my possession. This tremendously valuable part of my winter clothing was unfortunately full of excrement and impossible to be saved. I cleaned myself the best way that I could and continued my walk to the hut.
Somehow the loss of my precious long under garment which I was wearing from the day I left Birkenau, was in a way more painful to me than the bloody fifteen lashes. When I finally reached the dimly lit hut, everybody except the "stubendienst," was already asleep. Visibly touched by my ordeal, he handed me my bread portion with some hot water while helping me to sit down. This however turned into an impossible task and I had to consume my breakfast while standing. Afterwards I dragged myself up next to my soundly sleeping brother, and laid down on my belly. The events of that night and early morning in addition to the excruciating pain were keeping me from getting a bit of needed rest. Eventually weak and exhausted, I somehow dozed off.
HELP FROM A HIGHLY UNEXPECTED SOURCE
It took no more than a couple of weeks for me to return to my normal daily routine. Although it was hard for me to erase from my mind what I went through during that short period of time, I felt that it was time to think more of the future and as much as possible to forget the past.
On that cold mid-December morning after arriving at the construction site, we were as usual waiting for our assignments to specific work groups. Again, as on any other day, I was silently praying not to be picked for the dreadful cement work.
This kind of labor was becoming increasingly harder for me to perform. Especially after enduring so much pain during the last few weeks. It became ever more hard for me to carry on my bony back the heavy cement bags without avoiding an accidental drop of one of those bags to the muddy ground. Such an accident was often the cause for severe punishment. Unfortunately my brother and I were lately quite often assigned to this work detail, and several times we also had to endure the extremely dangerous work inside the concrete filled bunkers. I had seen several times weak and exhausted inmates helplessly slipping into the rapidly moving wet concrete from which they were never recovered.
Even less difficult jobs around the construction site were more than often aggravated by physical abuse by O.T. men or capos.
This particular morning however turned out to be quite different. My silent prayers seemed to be heard and properly answered. My brother and I together with a small group of about fifteen young men were chosen for some kind of detail outside the construction site. With the unknown to us destination we soon left the place marching in proper formation under the watchful eye of a young SS man and a foreman, whom I incidentally knew from back home.
Even while unaware of the destination we were heading to, it felt awfully good to walk through wide open spaces, passing by large farms with their neatly painted farm houses. Although we were forbidden to pick anything from the ground, it was still surprising to notice how many produce like carrots, beats and potatoes were littering the roads next to the farms where these precious items obviously froze and got rotten.
This sort of waste was allowed while thousands of innocent camp inmates were starving to death just a short distance away.
Amid all those thoughts we finally arrived at our destination: "A camp for members of the Organization Todt"' (O.T), a camp for German work supervisors.
This camp which stood in the middle of nowhere although looking from the outside had no guarding towers or any armed guards in front of wide open large gates. Just before entering the camp, I noticed our two escorts, the young SS man and the foreman having some sort of conversation. Soon after while we were still standing, the foreman whose name was Lachman, approached me with an odd proposition. He told me that this young SS man is an ardent art lover and would like very much for someone to make him some drawings. Since I know" he continued "that you are a good artist, (I was a classmate of his younger brother) I told him that you would be willing to do some work for him." At first I was quite shocked by such an unexpected proposition. I pleaded with him not to get me involved with an SS man, because I was afraid of unpleasant consequences if he would dislike my work.
Lachman, however was quite persistent with his assurances that he knows this young SS man for quite a while, and that he is a very nice guy who never abused or touched an inmate. Reluctantly I eventually agreed.
After a short conversation between the two of them, I noticed a smile on the SS mans face.
Soon after we were led into the camp. The dozen or so of clean wooden barracks were quite different than the dirty huts we were forced to live in. The grounds and roads leading to the barracks were covered with gravel and some even neatly paved. There was no sign of dirt or mud. The place was already busy with O.T. men being driven out, apparently to their work places, while others were performing different jobs inside the camp proper.
I could not help noticing how neat and clean this camp was kept in spite of the harsh winter which caused so much misery inside the dilapidated concentration camps.
While I was told to wait outside next to my foreman, my brother with several other guys was assigned to the camp kitchen where they supposed to help pealing potatoes and chop some wood for the kitchen stove and probably for wood heaters in the camp barracks. The others were sent to do odd jobs around the camp periphery.
Lachman then took me into the camp cantine while still assuring me of the young SS mans good intentions. He told me that the young man is actually a Ukrainian who was forcibly drafted into the SS and besides quite often showing willingness to help some inmates, he was also a quite intelligent young man and an ardent art lover.
My first impression of the O.T. canteen was really overwhelming. Quite a large room with several tables which were already occupied by a dozen or so Germans eating what seemed to be a hefty breakfast. The smell of fried eggs and home fried potatoes plus the long forgotten to me aroma of freshly perked coffee brought back to me almost forgotten memories of home.
If not for the vulgar loud laughter of some O.T. men, and the hated swastikas on their uniforms, I would have thought that all this was just a dream.
A couple of young women inmates were busy around the kitchen preparing food while another young girl, apparently also an inmate, was busy serving breakfast and cleaning off the tables.
In one corner of the room I saw two middle aged inmates intensely working on some oil paintings using large easels. Both of them simultaneously greeted me with a friendly good morning, while I passed them on my way to a prepared for me clean table.
On the table I already found a prepared drawing pad and a bunch of pencils. The table and the two artists easels were placed next to a large window. As if she could sense the way I felt, one of the ladies appeared in front of me with a plate filled with food I hadn't seen or tasted for a long time. Two large slices of bread covered with a thick layer of margarine a pile of freshly scrambled eggs with a nice portion of home fries. Before I managed to say a proper thank you, she ran off to bring me a large cup of steaming hot coffee. "Eat it in good health," she said with a friendly smile on her face and with an unmistakable Hungarian accent.
At first I just looked at the food in disbelief. I was hesitating for a moment to start eating, simply because I could hardly believe that this type of food was meant for me. I nevertheless followed the fast moving lady and in a stuttering voice thanked her for her kindness. She smiled at me and kept on doing her work. After finishing that sumptuous meal, the same woman brought me a mug of beer. I must admit that this was the first time in my life that I consumed an alcoholic drink. Who would believe that this would have happened while I was still an inmate of a Nazi concentration camp....
Content and quite in a good mood I made several drawings of whatever came to my mind. On the request from my foreman I also did some drawings of naked girls. Lachman assured me that such drawings will immensely please the young SS man.
I was pleased that before handing over those drawings to my foreman, I received compliments of approval by the angelic ladies who were taking care of the canteen and also by the two artists who were still working on their paintings. They told me later that they both are Hungarian Jews and inmates of a nearby concentration camp. Fortunately both of them are steadily employed by the Nazis by continuing their life-long professions, and feel quite grateful for this granted to them privilege.
Although those two veterans of several concentration camps, including Auschwitz, were rewarded for their art with only relatively decent three meals a day, they were nevertheless happy not to have to work as slave laborers at the construction site.
Before the days end, one of the nice ladies slipped into my coat pocket a couple of slices of fresh bread wrapped into a paper napkin. Probably as a habit, she did it in a surprisingly discreet way, although there was no German in the canteen at the time. While leaving that place which would have existed only in the dreams of each and every camp inmate, I again expressed my sincere thanks to the nice ladies for the best day I had experienced during my entire period of incarceration.
The moment I stepped out of the canteen my foreman was already waiting to collect my days work.
Although the sky was full of dark clouds, the weather was not too bad. A brisk wind caused a bit of discomfort but the important thing was that it was still quite bright when we left the O.T. Camp on the way back to Landsberg.
My brother seemed also very happy with his days work. With the specific inmates language, he gave me to understand, that he managed to organize quite a few raw potatoes and some other produce. Judging by the happy faces of all the others in our group, it became quite obvious that they all had a pretty good day. Without knowing, of course that I would still be handsomely rewarded for my quite easy days work, I was very satisfied and grateful for this unexpected remarkable day. At that very moment without even considering the fact that I and all the others with me were extremely lucky , I again gave full credit for this special day to my incredible guardian angel.
Again we were walking through open spaces passing by large farms which had at the time their obvious winter rest, I tried to breath in as much fresh air as possible before returning to my smelly and dirty hut. After all the air doesn't belong only to the Germans. At least this pleasure could not be taken away from us, not even by armed guards.
While my mind was occupied with similar thoughts, I heard our foremans order to stop walking. I found myself in front of a huge farm which was almost entirely covered with dark huts similar to the ones which were for the last several months our homes. To my surprise and quite a bit frightened, I noticed the SS man walking directly towards me. This time without the help of the foreman he addressed me directly in a broken German.
Without the usual mannerism of an SS man, he spoke to me as a friend to a friend. He pointed to one of the many huts, and told me that one of them is already not locked. He gave me the exact number and place where to go to: "Go there as fast as you can, take yourself whatever your heart desires while we will slowly continue to walk". In haste he added, "Try to catch up with us as soon as you can."
Completely intoxicated with the prospect of obtaining some food and without considering the possible consequences and repercussions, such an act could bring, I ran as fast as I could into the huge field until I reached the particular hut.
Now, after five decades, I am still unable to comprehend how I got the energy, the power and most of all the guts to do what I then did. At the time it didn't even cross my mind that if I would have been spotted by anybody, whether it would have been a farmer, a passing policeman or another SS man, I would have been shot and killed on the spot.
It is impossible for me to describe the way I felt after pushing open the small gate of the hut. A picture of unbelievable beauty appeared in front of my eyes ... A treasure beyond my imagination. The hut, an exact replica of my living quarters, had both side boards filled up almost to the ceiling with all sorts of fresh produce: Beautiful red carrots, beets of all sizes, turnips, potatoes, etc. A view that almost made me faint.
Realizing my limited time, I hastily tied up the bottoms of my slacks with pieces of string we always carried in our pockets in case something important emerged. As quick as humanely possible, I began loading myself up with whatever I could easily reach. In a matter of several minutes I was loaded with produce all over my body, which weight exceeded probably double my actual weight. With a power and energy provided to me only by the Almighty, I kept on running in the direction of our supposedly slow walking group.
It was already quite dark and without any lamp posts in the vicinity, I could not see any sign of my walking comrades.
Surrounded by complete darkness, I nevertheless ran in the proper direction, and became quite panicky when I still could not spot my group. I was running like a fox who was being chased by a vicious wolf .... Finally amid a deadly silence, I heard a variety of steps, a sound which was at the moment so welcomed that I burst out crying like a baby. It took me several more minutes to join the gang who apparently also a bit worried, seemed overjoyed to see me at last.
I walked next to my brother, who did his best to relieve me of some of my load. More relief eventually came when on the suggestion of our SS man, I distributed a great part of my bounty to everyone of the group.
My brother and I had still enough food left to last us for at least a couple of weeks. It was surely an important supplement to the ever decreasing daily rations and provided us both with some awfully needed nutrients.
Obviously satisfied with my drawings, the SS man instructed our foreman from now on to include me every morning to his working detail. Needless to say that such a prospect made me very happy indeed.
Unfortunately with deep disappointment and sorrow I was informed by Lachman that the young Ukrainian SS man was transferred to another kind of duty.
Although hurt and disappointed, I realized that in order to survive, life must go on. I still believed that no matter what, my steady protector, the invisible guardian angel will without fail appear whenever I would need him and whenever my life will be in real danger.
CHRISTMAS OF 1944 AT CAMP 1- LANDSBERG
Rumours for a special Christmas with special treats for the inmates were apparently leaked from the camp office. As always my reaction to this sort of rumour was at best skeptical.
This time however the rumours turned out to be true indeed. On Christmas eve each one of us received a one pound loaf of bread with a slice of margarine, plus a large piece of German sausage. After that our containers were filled up to the rim with a dense cabbage and potato soup.
The joy of the inmates at the time was indescribable. The pale and bony faces of the happy young men were simply shining. Though we were all Jewish, it was nevertheless a kind of joyous event which I will never forget. We actually called this celebration a Hannuka party. Many of us were loudly giving thanks to God for the special food he sent to us.
For a short couple of hours the misery of our existence was almost forgotten.
For my brother and myself however the joy and happiness didn't even last that long. During the unusual commotion, while my brother and I were busy dividing one of our loaves of bread, one of our priceless loaves mysteriously disappeared. Apparently one of the starving inmates was looking for an opportunity to supplement his ration by stealing somebody elses bread.
Needless to say how angry and disappointed we both were. After all, the person who stole our bread was not exactly too hungry at that moment. But after five years of Nazi Ghettos and camps, I had learned to adjust to situations like that. No matter how careful one was, things like this were indeed unavoidable. No matter how painful this occurrence was to both of us, I nevertheless tried not to blame that poor soul whoever he was. There was always someone among us who after so many years of suffering didn't have the strength to resist such an occasion.
After that special feast we expected at least on Christmas day to be allowed to sleep a little bit longer. The Nazis however had apparently already prepared a plan for a special torture for Christmas morning. After all, they didn't consider it right to have in camp too many happy Jews.
Instead of the usual six a.m. wake up call, on that Christmas day we were ordered to the "Appell Platz," about four a.m. We were standing there in total darkness with our caps removed as we always did while waiting for the camp fuehrer to arrive and perform the actual head count.
It was a bitterly cold and windy morning with snow covering our hairless scalps, which gave us a feeling of being locked inside an ice box. The snow on top of my head slowly kept accumulating probably to a couple of centimeters. I felt like the cold and the wind were penetrating deep through my skin and freezing up my whole body.
This terrible ordeal which was designed to inflict on us more suffering than on any other regular working day, had without doubt added a lot to the rapid deterioration of my health. Shaking like a leaf and using up the last bit of strength in my body I stood as patiently as possible, while waiting for the Nazi tyrant to arrive. Finally after several hours, the camp fuerer showed up. He was dressed in a seemingly fur lined warm overcoat with a large fur collar and fur hat. Shortly after his appearance we were finally dismissed and returned to our cold and smelly huts. The Nazi escorted by a couple of other high ranking SS men walked back to his comfortable and obviously well heated quarters, to enjoy his Christmas holiday together with his family.
THE TRAGIC EFFECTS OF THE HOLIDAY FEAST
Christmas day was hardly over when several of the inmates began to experience stomach cramps. Others were already running to the latrines with severe pains of a bloody diarrhea. It became quite clear that the cabbage soup in addition to the very fresh still warm bread, was much too much for the empty stomachs to handle.
Total chaos and uncontrollable panic took over all of us, especially the affected inmates. We were all afraid that this unexpected Christmas meal could bring a disaster to all of us. Even the shouting of orders by the block eldest could not stop the moanings and cries of the sick ones. We all knew that even those who were badly affected will have to join the work force on the next day.
Fortunately I personally emerged untouched by this terrible disaster. I got up as usual in the early morning ready to report for the head count. While getting dressed in the dimly lit hut I did not notice my brothers absence. He soon appeared pale as a dead person, acting as if he would be in terrible pain. "I became one of them," he pointed to the many who were lying on their places unable to move.
Terribly worried about my brothers condition I was forced to join hundreds of others on the way to the construction site. This morning was the first time since our incarceration that I walked the several kilometers to the construction site without my twin brother at my side.
The most dreadful moment of our always feared separation had finally arrived. After my return from the days work, tired and hungry, I was immediately informed that my brother with a group of other diarrhea victims were moved to a "Schoenungs Lager." (A death camp which was cynically called a place where sick inmates were taking care of.) To which camp he was sent, I could not find out. However I was told by one of my friends that Meyer was in very bad shape before his departure.
After tragically losing my Mother at Auschwitz, I was convinced that no other tragedy could ever move me; however the worry about also losing my twin brother depressed me immensely. Adding to my state of depression was the fact that no matter how we tried, we were not able to fulfill our Mothers last wish for us to stay together.
As it turned out the time for me to worry about my family ended abruptly.
The unbearable freezing mornings during the head counts and the very cold days at the construction site had finally shown its damaging effects on my exhausted and undernourished weak body. It seemed that the warmer winter clothing which we received recently arrived too late to shield me from the cold weather. Also my recently acquired wooden shoes although much warmer than my already torn shoes from back home, didn't do much to avoid my impending illness.
A steady nasty cough kept on bothering me during my working days and became much more nasty during my sleepless nights. Feverish and hardly dragging my aching legs, I kept on following my regular daily routine until New Years day of 1945. After the holidays it became entirely impossible to join the work force again. Realizing that my condition seemed pretty grave, my block eldest ordered me immediately to visit Dr. Bergman in his makeshift office.
On that miserably cold morning after New Years, I dragged myself through the narrow muddy roads to Dr. Bergmans "Clinic Barrack." His office was the same hut like we all dwelled in, but much cleaner of course. The dwellers of this place were several doctors, mostly men in their mid or late thirties. Dr. Bergman however who was apparently the chief doctor must have been in his mid forties. On the small table in the centre of the hut, I noticed some paper bandages, scissors, and several small bottles of white pills. Close to the table, two chairs were placed, one next to the other, apparently reserved for doctor and patients. This was all the furniture visible in the clinic.
Dr. Bergman, a Lithuanian Jew, a handsome man with a full head of grey hair greeted me with a friendly smile. After a short examination he diagnosed me with pneumonia and suggested a transfer to a so-called hospital block. With a transfer paper in my coat pocket I slowly walked back to my regular hut to inform the block eldest of my impending move. Unfortunately, although to us inmates the sound of sirens became like music to our ears, that evening was unusually busy with constant air raids.
Obviously impossible for me to walk in total darkness to my new place of residency, I failed to consider the possible consequences if I would not show up in time at the new hut. I left my hut only the next morning.
A HOT WELCOME BY MY NEWEST BLOCK ELDEST
I don't remember the time when I felt so terribly as on that cold January morning. The wet snow enforced by a gusty wind irritated my ever more nagging cough, causing severe chest pains. Again dragging my tired feet with the heavy wooden shoes through the muddy grounds, turned into sheer torture. Holding tightly my container filled with the morning hot tea I finally reached the hospital hut.
I was not yet down the few steps into the hut when out came a shouting and viciously enraged block eldest, throwing the usual obscenities straight at me. Suddenly I felt his fist direct on my face. Loosing my balance I fell backwards like a sack of flour, half consciously hitting the muddy grounds.
While lying there shocked and still unaware of what had happened, I felt the entire content of my container all over me. However I could still hear the block eldests shouts and curses: "You bastard son of a bitch, you were supposed to be here last night, not this morning." In a rage he kept on yelling, "Where do you think you are, you little bastard, in a summer resort?"
This kind of behavior from block eldests and capos was nothing new to me, but it was very hard to digest that someone who was supposedly entrusted in helping the sick, could treat a patient in such a barbaric way.
I was helped to get up by a couple of passing-by inmates and afterwards was led into a not much cleaner stinking hut which I had just left a while earlier.
The block eldest of this "hospital" still raging mad, ordered me to occupy one of the few empty places between two other patients. This, at the moment seemingly heartless man refused to listen to my explanations and reasons for not reporting to him the night before. He turned his attention to some other patient as if for him I wouldn't exist anymore. I had to struggle with whatever strength was left in me to climb up to the platform and settle down as comfortable as I possibly could.
The only difference between the wooden platforms of the regular barracks and this so called "hospital block" was that here the sawdust was covered with some dirty blankets.
I tried, although not very successfully, to calm down. I could hardly control the tears which were streaming down my cheeks. It was very hard for me to understand the behaviour of the block eldest towards a patient in my condition, although he seemed quite decent to the other patients.
The familiar noises during the distribution of the daily rations awoke me from a short nap and brought me back to reality. In sharp contrast to the regular barracks, here we were served our rations while lying down. And I must add that the service by a couple of helpers to the block eldest was done without shouting or other sort of abuse.
The two fellows as well as the block eldest seemed pretty well nourished in comparison to the miserably looking patients. After a while I felt like forgiving the block eldest for the reception he accorded me after my arrival. I felt that the whole incident was partially my fault as well.
In addition to other exceptional conveniences was one which I considered the most important one, namely having the head count inside the barrack. For me it was the first time since I left the Lodz Ghetto, that I did not have to get up during the wee hours of the morning, many times during heavy rains, snow storms, or far below freezing weather, for the obligatory head counts.
So, after several days of rest and almost no exposure to the cold weather, I began feeling less feverish and my cough was not as nasty as before. I was provided with one white pill daily apparently some sort of aspirin, which also seemed to help a bit.
A NEWLY ERECTED SHOWCASE HOSPITAL
There was an old Yiddish proverb which could have easily applied to myself at the time: "Mehr Mazel Vi Ferstand" (More luck than brains).
Already a short while before Christmas I noticed some unusual activity on an empty lot close to the Appell Platz. Soon many trucks loaded with clean cut wood and other building materials were arriving steadily. A large crew of O.T. men with quite a large group of inmates became busy erecting some kind of a wooden structure.
As usual rumors started to circulate about the purpose of such a development. We were most intrigued by the unusual urgency and secrecy surrounding this project. After all, the weather was far from ideal for construction. "So what's the hurry?"
The rumors were intensifying with ever more bizarre suggestions, until they caused quite a panic among the inmates. One of those suggestions which some inmates began to believe in was that the Nazis are erecting a gas chamber to finish us off before the Americans will try to liberate us. Those rumors were causing sleepless nights to many of us.
By the middle of January the new structure had already turned into quite an impressive large building with a smaller extension next to it. They were both towering over our half underground huts and even over the quite large SS barracks.
While the structure was being finished, the inmates seemed to be less interested in their new building and more in their individual problems. They were especially absorbed in the ever more diminishing food rations and in their ever more deteriorating health.
It must have already been by the end of January, when my block eldest who seemed to have completely mellowed informed me that Dr. Bergman wants me to see him for another physical. The next morning during another one of those miserable cold days, but walking with more energy than on my earlier visit, I carefully negotiated the treacherous grounds to Dr. Bergmans clinic.
The doctor seemed in quite a good mood. After some friendly greeting, Dr. Bergman, assisted by another young doctor, gave me a thorough examination, which lasted about half an hour, disregarding the fact that several other young men were waiting to be examined, Dr. Bergman seemed to have taken some extra time to check my entire body for any blemishes, fresh pimples or scars. A process which at the time I could hardly comprehend. Before I left I was told to report at a certain hour of the next morning to the bath house. Again with a pleasant smile, the doctor told me not to forget to take all my possessions with me because I might not return to my present quarters.
Until the next morning I tried to convince myself that my appointment at the bath house was a routine "entlousung" and disinfection of my clothing. It turned out however to be something of an entirely different and much more important nature.
AT THE BATH HOUSE
When I reached the bath house I became one of a group of young men ranging at the age of nineteen to about twenty one. We were told to undress while one of the attendants collected our clothing for disinfection. The large vestibule with its concrete walls and concrete floors was windowless and empty of any sort of furniture. Amid the cold and and discomfort, many of our group were engaged in peculiar conversations. Some tried to connect our presence in the bath house with the newly mysteriously erected structure.
One of the guys told us that he just had a fast glimpse through a window of the newly erected building and could swear that he saw clean double bunks, while another one was sure that he saw shelves stocked high with white sheets and new grey blankets. What I noticed however was that nobody at the time was mentioning a previous suspicion that the new building might house a gas chamber.
The worst suggestion however was that perhaps the structure might be used for medical experimentation.
While this bizarre conversation was still progressing, we returned to reality by a shouting voice of an approaching SS man, who was followed by a push cart pulled by several inmates on which a group of naked men were being brought in to the bath house. Next to the wide open door they slowly unloaded the brought in "cargo" under the watchful eye of the tall exceptionally blond young SS man.
The new arrivals were placed on the cold concrete floor, one next to the other. There were at least ten of them, all hardly alive. Except for their silent moanings, they were hardly showing any sign of pain. Their bodies were swollen with multiple colored bruises like large balloons of different colors. Part of their skin was cracked up and opened, dripping with puss and blood.
The sight of those retched individuals whose bodies were apparently being eaten up by gangrene, caused a panic among our group. Suddenly the notion about us being used for medical experiments had gained strength. After watching this unfortunate group of suffering human beings lying in the front of us, we all became convinced that we were definitely being prepared to replace those dying men.
Some of us could not resist crying loudly while others, myself included were just standing motionless and shocked without being able to utter a single word. Helpless, we were all resigned and ready for whatever was bound to happen.
As always, I tried my very best not to let myself be overwhelmed by a panicky pessimism. I tried, although it was not too easy at the moment to be as calm as possible while hoping for the best.
It was hard to believe that while the allied armed forces were already occupying parts of Germany, the Nazis would still be engaged in such bizarre practices. I tried to convince myself that there must be something else, something more logical explanation to the purpose of our being in this situation.
I had desperately attempted to convince the others to follow my way of thinking, unfortunately without success.
The hot showers may have helped a little in calming down my desperately panicky friends, but when the capo returned with our disinfected clothing, plus a new white nightgown for each one of us, I also became quite skeptical and a bit scared.
This skepticism of mine got even more fortified when the capo was leading us in the direction of the newly erected building.
The seriousness on the face of our accompanying capo, and the silent weeping of some of the scared youngsters also seemed to have a bad influence on my way of thinking. I must admit that throughout all that walk, I stopped thinking all together.
THE NEW PLACE
For a moment we stood in front of this exceptionally clean wooden structure, which hardly fit into this dirty dilapidated camp, waiting in fearful anticipation for the opening of the large double door. Even the camp commanders quarters and the SS barracks fared poorly in comparison to this impressive building.
The doors were finally opened by a man dressed in white slacks and white coat. "We expected you," the man greeted us with a warm smile. "Come in fast, because we don't want you to catch cold," he said with a slight hint of sincere concern.
Without passing any sort of vestibule, we entered directly into a large hall. To say that I was stunned and flabbergasted with what I saw at that moment, would be an understatement of the greatest degree . In front of me I saw a picture of a real genuine hospital, almost the same as I remembered when my father was hospitalized when I was only about eight years old. The only visible difference that instead of single beds on each side of the hall, here were rows of double bunks.
The still freshly smelling natural woods of the inside walls as well as the brand new bunks, for just a second reminded me of summer camp. The wooden bunks which were covered with grey blankets and white linens were a nice match to the pure white curtains which were covering the many windows on each side of the hall. It might be odd that under the prevailing circumstances I was able to concentrate on such unimportant details. I could also not help noticing the fluffy pillows which were also white and apparently brand new. At the centre of the room there was a large table covered like anything else, with a pure white tablecloth.
There were several male nurses, all of course dressed in white which completed successfully the identical appearance of a real hospital.
Again an orderly collected our clothing while we all remained standing in our white long to the ankles night shirts. For a moment it reminded me of the night shirts we were wearing back home. Several bunks were already occupied. But the mystery of our being here was still unsolved. We were escorted to our bunks by the same orderly who collected our clothing. I was fortunate enough to be assigned to a lower bunk, so I wouldn't have to climb up and down; besides the lower bunk had also a night table which made it more practical. .
While finally resting in a clean comfortable bed, my thoughts became ever more troublesome. The question of why I was brought to this place and what kind of new torture is awaiting us here, could not be easily erased from my mind. The whole attitude of the doctor and everyone else who took care of us seemed abnormal under the prevailing circumstances, even bizarre. It felt odd to say the least being an inmate of Camp 1, and not being shouted at not constantly being showered with obscenities and not witnessing any sort of physical abuse. Being the eternal optimist I must admit that I felt nevertheless some sort of fear.
While my thoughts kept on torturing me I noticed a young man whose face seemed quite familiar, occupying the bunk just across the room facing me. For a while I was unable to make out his identity. Suddenly it hit me. This young man was one of three brothers who belonged to a group of the most influential and most prosperous inmates in camp. They were all employed at the provisions warehouse which supplied the camp kitchen and also the kitchen for the SS guards as well as other German personnel.
This revelation indeed gave me enough assurance that this hospital must be free of any dangerous or sinister plans by the Nazi administration. There is no way that his two brothers would have agreed to place their sibling in an unsure environment. At once all my doubts had suddenly disappeared. Although still unaware of the purpose of our being placed in such a beautiful hospital, I informed my new found friends about what I had discovered, and seemed to calm down most of them. Instead of sadness I had seen many smiling faces among them. The feeling of despair was suddenly replaced by an atmosphere of hopeful expectations.
It took only several days for the two rows of double bunks to become fully occupied.
With a more hopeful peace of mind, I began to really enjoy this unusual place. This huge hall with its very high ceiling and large windows gave me a feeling of some sort of freedom. After living for over a half a year in dirty huts with absolutely no air, muddy floors and a steady stench of human refuse, this place could only be described as paradise. Just a walk on the clean wooden floors to the exceptionally clean toilette could be described as pure pleasure.
Soon I began to feel human again. In contrast to my previous way of life, I felt almost liberated.
Like in any other regular hospital, our meals were served in bed. For breakfast we received a couple of large slices of fresh bread, with a cube of margarine, some marmalade at the side with a silver foil rapped triangular piece of cheese. Instead of the usual colored hot water, we were served a cup of "ersatz" coffee which tasted pretty good. At noon we received a good soup with some more bread and about the same meal at supper time. Although it was not enough to really fatten us up, it was nevertheless enough to make us look more human as time progressed. For me personally the way we were treated was not much less important than the food itself.
We had regular visits by Dr. Bergman who with his usual smile treated us as if we were paying patients. Besides the tranquility of this place, we were kept clean and most importantly free of the plague of body lice.
Pretty soon, I should say no more than two weeks, my health and apparently my appearance seemed to improve immensely. I judged my appearance by the looks of the entire group who arrived together with me.
Still puzzled, for what reason I was chosen from among hundreds of inmates to enjoy such an exceptional rich life while so many others were dying daily of starvation and diseases, I nevertheless selfishly enjoyed my feeling of being human again.
So it was no surprise to me that feeling human makes you also think human. So from time to time I became engulfed by a feeling of guilt for the many other unfortunate and especially for my twin brother whose fate was still unknown to me. And again like many times before I started to wonder what unexplainable power was working towards my well being, while at the same time thousands of others were still being tortured to death in countless concentration camps.
A TASTE OF APPLE PEELINGS
Since the first inmates of Camp I were predominantly Lithuanian, it was quite normal under the prevailing order, that the best jobs in Camp were divided among them. I was also not surprised that the entire staff at this hospital were Lithuanians. As I mentioned before their relationship towards the Polish inmates was far from being correct. It made me realize indeed that if it would have been up to them, the very few Polish Jews, including myself, would not have been patients at this hospital. However I was still grateful and thanked God for being one of those lucky few.
Most of the patients were probably inmates without any siblings or other family members still alive. So there was no surprise that my neighbour across the room was a subject of envy by the rest of us, simply because he had two brothers who often visited him and took good care of him. On each of such a visit, they brought him food items which the rest of us had not seen for several years. From time to time I noticed him eating hard boiled eggs and chocolate bars. But most of all I envied the daily red apple, one of his brothers brought him. Each afternoon during my nap I was awakened by the long forgotten aroma of fresh apples. At first I thought that I was just dreaming. "Who in this world of ours would be in possession of such a treasure." Automatically I gazed straight ahead of me, and there it was: Our famous neighbor was sitting up and slowly peeling a large red apple. But I became much more irritated when in addition to the unbearable aroma I noticed the young man disposing of the entire peelings into a waste basket next to his bed.
At a time when thousands of hungry inmates were happy to find and eat some rotten or frozen potato peelings, this arrogant young man threw to the garbage such a priceless treasure. Somehow I thought that while he was doing this despicable act, he was looking over at me with a sarcastic smile on his face.
I tried my very best to avoid looking at this arrogant spoiled brat during his continuous sadistic performances. Unfortunately I could not avoid inhaling the beautiful aroma of something I hadn't seen or tasted for over five years.
The seemingly forced politeness towards us by the hospital staff was probably ordered by the camp administration. At the surface we all seemed to be treated equally.
A VERY IMPORTANT VISIT
On the third week or so when most of us had already been transformed into human beings, as far as appearance was concerned, we were officially informed that several important people were going to visit us soon. We received strict instructions not to talk to any of them unless being personally addressed. If asked, any questions should be answered simply with a yes or no.
A couple of days after we were prepared for a visit, an apparent delegation from the Swiss Red Cross arrived. They were accompanied by the Camp commander and several more high ranking officers. They were slowly walking from bunk to bunk, looking at each of us without uttering a single word or a simple greeting. They seemed quite indifferent to the entire spectacle. They left with the same expressions on their faces as they had arrived with.
After they had left, the head nurse told us that in the near future we can expect several other of these visits.
All I could think of at the time was "Why, only after five miserable years during which millions of innocent men, women and children were brutally slaughtered by the Nazi murderers, the Red Cross had finally decided to visit a concentration camp. And what were they being shown? Except for hastily erected model hospitals or other prepared show cases, did they visit the hundreds of real concentration camps? Of this we were not aware at the time.
Later on I had learned that during those special visits, the Red Cross delegates were told that the regular inmates were all at work and doing fine. The camp grounds were being properly cleaned and prepared before the arranged visits and all the huts were being closed for the time of each visit.
I can recall no more than a couple of those visits while I was a patient at the model hospital. I could only guess that there were also visits by the Red Cross in other camps of which I was really not aware. One thing however I was sure of, that there was no visible change in the lives of the average camp inmates. Life at the camps was going on in the same brutal and despicable way as before those seemingly at the time important visits.
The daily food rations kept on shrinking drastically and the load of hard labor remained the same and in many instances even increased. The death toll kept on rising drastically and so did the scores of incapable and unfit to work inmates.
However some results of those visits were shown shortly before liberation. By the end of March or early April of 1945, while I was already an inmate and a returnee to camp 4 Kaufering we were surprised with a small parcel from the International Red Cross. Unfortunately this gift arrived much too late to have had any impact on the mostly sick or dying inmates.
As far as I know, the only people who gained from these staged masquerades, were the small number of patients in the showcase hospital. This relatively small group of extremely fortunate young men were apparently used by the Nazis for their last attempts of Nazi propaganda. However through this obvious deception, these young men, myself included received a much needed boost in their continuing struggle for survival.
After the short time of uncertainty about the purpose of this hospital and after the first visit of the Red Cross delegation, life for the patients could only be described as an unbelievable sweet dream.
So as usual, when things go well small happenings of little importance are being taken too seriously.
Unfortunately and unwillingly I became involved in such a minor incident. Among many misfortunes brought on us by the Nazis and their collaborators, we also had our share of problems created by our own.
Most inmates, no matter from what country they came from were always ready and willing to help their fellow sufferers. But there were always a few who harbored some unexplainable animosities toward others.
Some Hungarian Jews for instance didn't like very much. their Rumanian neighbours while some Polish Jews felt some resentment for Hungarians and visa versa of course. We, the couple of hundred Polish Jews at this camp sometimes felt some open resentment. Even inside this beautiful hospital this problem was prevalent to a certain degree. It was quite obvious to me that the old Lithuanian staff of this place are favouring their own landsmen, although we actually did not suffer too much because of that problem. The fact was that most of the staff of this hospital were more educated and older than the average Polish patient.
As part of their recreation, our staff gathered around the only table in the hall for some sort of literary discussions. For these gatherings they also used to invite some of the Lithuanian patients while completely ignoring anyone of us. I could hear them pretty well while with a cup of tea they were talking about classical literature, old movies and the theatre. Since that table was pretty close to my bunk, I truly enjoyed these interesting discussions, to which of course, I was never invited.
Once during such a discussion I heard them review the book "The Call Of The Wild." Although they were all correct as to the theme of the book, none of them seemed to remember the name of the author. They seemed so frustrated that they came to a point when one of them proposed to postpone the discussion until the next day.
Since this book as well as the movie which starred Clark Gable, was my favorite, I not only remembered the name of the author, but almost the whole plot.
I must admit, with a bit of shame, that for a while I really enjoyed those guys frustration. But in eagerness to win their sympathy, I could not resist calling out the name of Jack London. In a split of a second, I had most of them next to my bunk, happily expressing their thanks and gratitude for helping to get them out of such an "unbelievable dilemma." Some of them even warmly shook my hand.
Needless to say, that from that moment on I became an invited guest at the frequent, sometimes quite heated discussion. And something more, at the time probably of no lesser importance was the fact that after my arrogant sadistic neighbour finished peeling his next apple, he called me over with a smile and handed me the entire peelings. It is also needless to say how immensely I enjoyed that special treat.
THE BEGINNING OF THE END TO THE GOOD LIFE
Since the first visit of the Red Cross delegation, the day when the charade about the model hospital was finally solved, life in this place was completely detached from the lives and problems of the regular inmates. We were like a paradise island surrounded by a sea of suffering and misery. We never learned whether the German authorities actually invited the Red Cross in order to deny the already well known facts of Nazi atrocities or the International Red Cross was seeking proof to the contrary.
As far as we were concerned, we couldn't care less. For the patients at this hospital, every day passed was a day gained and a better chance to survive.
An additional assurance about the security of this place, was the fact that there was a chance for us to remain in this place indefinitely. So far there were no discharges nor any new arrivals. It was apparently too difficult to find among the hundreds of regular inmates any who could fit the criteria to become patients in this model hospital.
So I felt secure, confident and under the circumstances pretty good indeed.
Unfortunately, as the saying goes, "Nothing lasts forever." After enjoying a quite normal relationship with the Lithuanian personnel for quite a while, I had lost this privilege due to the silly, but dangerous animosity between inmates of different backgrounds.
It actually started with my neighbour who became my steady supplier of apple peelings. On one regular afternoon when I was eagerly waiting for my "supplier", to call me over to pick up my treat, I surprisingly met his old malicious gaze followed by the torturous act of throwing the entire peelings into the waste basket.
Apparently one of his brothers workers, an inmate of Polish background, had stolen something during his errands. So, I as a Polish Jew automatically, according to their way of thinking, became an accomplice to the crime.
The same perverse logic of generalization was also used by the group of quite intelligent men who never again invited me to join in their literary discussions.
This sort of behaviour was not new to me. Fortunately it was not too widely spread, and it occurred mostly among the more ignorant and obviously among the very frustrated and starving individuals. I was however very surprised and it was very painful to me to digest that the intelligent and well read staff of this hospital displayed the same attitude.
Although I felt hurt and insulted, I did not have the time to dwell on it. A sudden discomfort and occasional pain in the back of my neck started to give me sleepless nights and quite a bit of worry. When the pain became more intense and the swelling on the neck quite visible, it became hard for me to hide my condition from Dr. Bergman much longer.
Realizing that not just with such a serious problem, but even with a simple rash or pimples, my days in this place were numbered. I tried very hard to postpone the inevitable for as long as possible. Finally when the excruciating pain became unbearable, I was forced to reveal my secret to Dr. Bergman. It was probably my sixth week in this fabulous place when I decided to tell Dr. Bergman about my problem. After the examination, the kind doctor with visible sorrow in his sad eyes told me to get ready for immediate surgery. The boil on my neck, a so called "carbuncle" was apparently growing deep inside my neck and was already reaching a dangerous stage.
With obvious sympathy, the doctor expressed his regret that I could not under any circumstances return to this hospital. He added that right after the surgery I would be sent to my previous "hospital hut."
The orderly who led me into the operating room, was carrying with him the plastic bag with my clothing, as if confirming the fact that I would never see this place again.
The surgery was performed on an operating table inside a beautifully equipped model operating room. Dr. Sacharin, a well known Lithuanian surgeon assisted by a much younger Dr. Katz, did the job.
A hard slap on the face awakened me from the anesthetic, and minutes after, without any escort and hardly able to walk, I was again dragging my legs through the eternally muddy grounds of Camp I Landsberg. It took a while to reach my hated and despised regular hut.
Again lying on a joint bunk together with about twenty-five sick and starved inmates.after such a long time of enjoying a near normal life, it felt quite strange, to say the least. I was again covered with a dirty old blanket and again a potential victim of body lice and again waiting eagerly for the daily watery soup and a slice of stale bread.
Amid the never ending shouting and cursing by the block eldest and his helper, I still felt lucky and grateful for the time I spent away from this hellish hut. Every night before falling asleep with a silent prayer on my lips, I thanked my guardian angel for the help I received so far.
The pain on my neck awoke me several times during the night. The completely dark hut and the unbearable stench was more than enough to feel depressed and discouraged. Many of the inmates were snoring loudly and others were just moaning. It was very difficult to fall asleep again.
During such times, thoughts of long gone times mixed with recent events, kept on racing through my mind. It was clear to me that my future didn't look too promising, especially with an open wound on my neck which was continuously bleeding and discharging puss.
In spite of all that, I was still optimistic and resolved not to give up too easily. I felt ready to continue, with all the strength left in my body, my desperate struggle for survival.
BACK AT CAMP 4 KAUFERING
After my discharge from the model hospital, and after spending a couple of weeks at the filthy hospital hut, I was branded as unfit to work.
On a rainy morning in the middle of March of 1945 1 joined a small group of mostly skeletal looking young men chosen for a transfer to a so- called "Shonungs Lager". Partially walking and partially sitting on a man-driven push cart, it took us almost a full day to make a distance of about eight kilometers. Although I was walking most of the time and had only a couple of slices of bread for the day, I did not feel too bad. In comparison to the others I was still in pretty good shape, thanks of course to my stay at the model hospital. I walked into the camp on my own feet while most of the group were riding on push carts. Although quite exhausted and as usual very hungry, I was nevertheless happy and surprised to find myself back in Camp 4, which was my first camp after Auschwitz. First of all I hoped to see my brother again or at least find out more about his whereabouts. Secondly, I might get the opportunity to meet some of my former comrades and perhaps even some friends from back home. Another surprise indeed was my being assigned to the same hut where I spent the first three months as an inmate, although with a different block eldest.
My first impression while stepping into the hut was quite depressing, to say the least. Most of the inmates were confined to their bunks, except for a couple of youngsters and the "stuben dienst" (the assistant to the block eldest). What had hit me immediately was the fact that most of the bunk-ridden inmates were stark naked except for a dirty blanket covering their skeletal bodies.
Many of them seemed to recognize me and were happy to see me alive, they even gave me compliments of how well I still looked. They tried to inquire of how life was at Camp I Landsberg. They complained a lot about the ever more diminishing rations and especially the little bread they were receiving.
None of them seemed to know anything about my brothers whereabouts. However I received from them some very useful and valuable advice. They told me that under no circumstances I should willingly surrender my clothing and let myself be forced to stay steadily on my bunk. It became obvious to me that by letting myself forcefully to be out of circulation, it will mean certain death.
When my new block eldest, Mr. Zulty, told me that according to camp regulations I must undress and surrender all my clothing except my belt and the wooden shoes, I simply refused. I tried although politely and with reservations to convince him that as long as I am able to stand on my own feet, I would like to do any work around the camp. I promised him to do anything he would ask me to. "I will do anything without reservation," I pleaded, "as long as I would be able to walk on my own feet." Zulty looked at me with an expression of mockery and surprise. He measured me from top to bottom, as if asking himself: "Who the hell does this little shrimp think he's talking to."
Suddenly as if my good old guardian angel would have pinched him, this big seemingly strong mans face turned into a pleasant smile. "O.K. you little son of a bitch," he said while leaving me standing next to my bunk, and still walking he gave me a firm warning: "but don't you ever dare to disappoint me." For a while I stood there with an open mouth not being able to utter a simple thank you. Very soon I was brought back to reality by one of the inmates who in a whisper uttered an even more important warning: "If you know what's good for you, better remember what he told you."
The very next morning after obtaining my bread ration, and some warm water, I left the hut in search for some work around the camp.
It was a beautiful sunny early spring morning, but the camp was almost deserted. Here and there you could see a capo escorting several slow walking inmates who were apparently heading to do some work around the camp. I could also see some skeletal inmates with only their blankets rapped around their naked bodies sitting next to their huts consuming their rations while getting a bit of fresh air and enjoying the warmth of the sun.
Only several months earlier this camp was busy like a beehive with hundreds of inmates leaving or returning from work at the construction company and other work details. The majority of them were young men in their late teens or early twenties still able to work and perhaps even full of hope and belief in eventual survival.
The reality however turned out to be quite different. Most of those young men were already dead and the remaining survivors were on the way to meet the same fate. It was clear to me that the Nazi intention to use us for as long as possible and finally kill us through hard labor and starvation succeeded indeed. While I was away at Camp I Landsberg, Camp 4 Kaufering went through a devastating typhoid epidemic during which hundreds of inmates had perished.
Slowly I was walking around hoping perhaps to find somebody who would have heard something about my brother. I visited hut after hut asking questions but all my inquiries were in vain. Many of those inmates were already in such a terrible state that some didn't even know what I was talking about. Not only couldn't I find out anything of substance, but became depressed like never before.
Besides the terrible state of most of the inmates, each hut had the same unbearable stench and the same horrible picture of total devastation. The barracks were already half empty and those still alive were half dead.
While walking back to my quarters, I kept inquiring about some work around the camp, but this too was in vain.
During the following days I visited almost all the huts and only found one young man with whom I was pretty close prior to my leaving the camp and who was still recognizable. After a long conversation I found out in more details about the last several tragic months at this camp. He told me of many close friends who had died and of others who were deported to other camps. But the best information which I got from this man was that my neighbour and good friend Laibl Krawiecki, with his father are both alive and somewhere in this camp. Another important piece of information obtained from this young man was that all women who were working in the camp kitchen were being transferred to another camp and were being replaced by youngsters who are still able to work.
After another day of searching, I finally found the Krawieckis. Laibl looked not too bad and was recognizable. His father, a man in his late forties or early fifties, looked quite pitiful, especially without clothing except for his underwear and was like most of the others wrapped in a dirty grey blanket.
Under the prevailing circumstances finding close friends was of great importance. We were all happy and excited to have found each other. And happy that we were still alive.
Laibl as myself was fully dressed and was also searching for some kind of work in order to supplement the ever more decreasing daily food rations.
Unfortunately they were also unaware of my brothers whereabouts.
My friend and I decided to join forces and together start a serious search for something to do before the block eldest would force us to give up our clothing, the way they did to most of the camp inmates. In the meantime the older Krawiecki, a Chassidic Jew, invited me to join in the daily prayers which he was leading inside his hut.
ONE DAYS WORK IN THE CAMP KITCHEN
As soon as I found out on what day the kitchen was going to hire youngsters to replace the departing women, I decided together with my friend Laibl to try our luck.
It was very early and a pretty chilly morning when we met in front of the kitchen doors. There was already a line up of about twenty other boys and young men in front of us.
The capo and another kitchen worker who opened up the door were both unable to control the shoving and pushing group of eager youngsters running inside the kitchen. The understandable chaos prompted another two kitchen workers to intervene in quieting down the terribly noisy crowd.
Without any effort from my side, I was simply being shoved in by the others and in seconds I happily found myself inside a large well equipped kitchen. And so did my friend Laibl. Soon we were both assigned for the job of peeling potatoes.
For a short while I was quite convinced that not only did I find a good job but also another chance to push through the terrible period and even had a good chance in my struggle for survival.
Unfortunately my euphoria didn't last too long. I soon realized that all this was just a dream. As it turned out, the whole new kitchen staff, which was supposed to be hired at that morning were preassigned by the camp administration. Those were all youngsters whose names were being put in by capos and other camp dignitaries. This list was at the moment in the hands of the kitchen capo.
When my friend and I were eventually identified as impostors we were just quite politely told to leave the place. Surprisingly without any sort of punishment.
Our effort however turned out to be not entirely unsuccessful. Apparently out of pity several of the new kitchen workers took the two of us aside and told us to be in front of the kitchen early every morning. There a wooden stretcher loaded with potato peelings would be ready for us to carry it away for disposal at the nearby dump. They promised that under each load of potato peelings, they will place several potatoes or some other raw produce.
Needless to say.that we were both happy and grateful to our new acquired friends. Although it was not an easy job for a couple of starved camp inmates, we were both happy with the results of our not completely successful venture.
For quite a while this unexpected addition to our daily rations gave me another chance to fight starvation.
REUNION WITH MY TWIN BROTHER
The problem with raw potatoes is of course that before eating them, they have to be cooked. So, with the experience of a concentration camp inmate, I somehow managed to solve this problem to my full satisfaction. First I asked my kitchen friends to supply me with two empty tin cans. One I used as a cooking dish on which I made a couple of holes and attached to them a piece of wire. The wire which was formed in the shape of a hook was easy to hang up inside the small wood burner which was still from time to time heating our hut.
The second can I took apart and formed a straight piece of tin. Using the same large nail and a rock with which I opened the holes on the cooking can, I knocked out dozens of small holes creating a perfect shredder to make potato pancakes. My friends at the kitchen from time to time supplied me with a bit of salt to add some taste to my cooking.
So every mid morning after returning from my chores and safely leaving with several potatoes in my pockets, I felt quite satisfied. Most of the time I rested for a while before starting my cooking. The main meal which I made for myself was of course a potato soup, which I often shared with a couple of my closest neighbours. Sometimes closer to the evenings, when the small burner was really hot I made some potato pancakes by sticking the shredded potato mix to the sides of the wood burner. I must say, that those "latkes" (pancakes) tasted heavenly. But also this delicious treat I often shared with my friends.
Having an almost perfect schedule, and not living on an entirely starvation diet, I took some afternoon walks around the camp grounds with the hope to find somebody who by any chance did meet or heard something about my brother.
During the last week of March warmer weather arrived with sunshine most of the day. On those days the camp started to show a bit more of life. There was noticeable activity in preparation for the approaching nice weather. Small groups of inmates supervised by capos or foremen were helping to plant flowers in front of the SS barracks. Other small groups were busy cleaning up the walks in front of those barracks, but doing their jobs very slowly and seemingly without strict supervision. Many skeletal inmates, dirty and unshaven, were standing on their thin legs wrapped in their blankets next to the hut. Others obviously too tired to stand, were sitting on the still muddy grounds. With their sad eyes and understandable envy, they kept looking at those still able to walk, or able to do some work.
I could not help comparing those poor souls with the still healthy looking capos, foremen, and block eldest, who still looked the same as I remember them after my arrival from Auschwitz many months before.
On one of my walks I came face to face with the two highest ranking camp inmates. Hans, the camp leader and Rolf, the head capo, were both "mischlings" (half German and half Jewish). Both tall and handsome, apparently in their early thirties, looked even better and healthier than at the time of our arrival at the camp. They were both apparently having their meals together with the SS high ranking officers and as some inmates would attest, were many times spotted in the company of German female SS guards from a nearby womens camp.
On one of my daily walks, it must have been on the last days of March of 1944, 1 met a man who travelled with us in the same wagon from Auschwitz. I am unable to recall the mans name, but he knew my brother and myself quite well. He must have been already in his late thirties or perhaps early forties, and with his friendly personality acted like some sort of protector of the many youngsters who were travelling with him.
We were talking for quite a while and needless to say that we were both happy to have met each other again. He hugged me in a fatherly fashion and before going back to my quarters, we exchanged the numbers of each others huts, promising to visit each other as often as possible.
It was already past noon when I reached my hut. Since the little wood burner seemed to be quite hot, I decided to make myself a few pancakes. I was just starting to eat when I heard the noise of the little gate slamming open. I also thought that somebody was calling my name. I hastily turned around.
Holding the gate wide open, the man with whom I had just spoken a short while ago excitingly told me that he brought me a precious gift. While he was trying to tell me what it was all about, my brother came running towards me. To describe the remarkable scene of our reunion is for me truly impossible. I can't even recall our first words that we had said to each other, while hugging and kissing. However, I clearly remember what he said when he saw the pancakes in front of me. Looking at me with wide open eyes, he whispered: "You have food?"
After pleading with my block eldest, he permitted my brother to move in into our hut and secured for him a spot next to me.
My brothers story of how he survived the bloody diarrhea and then how he found the place where I was staying was quite miraculous.
Soon after he left camp 1 on that miserable day after New Years, he started to feel much better. The fresh air during his ride to another camp seemed to have helped a lot in his recovery. He landed in camp 7, which was also designated as a "Schonungs Lager". Since he felt pretty good after his arrival he was also permitted to wear his clothing and the same as I did here, he performed all kinds of work around the camp. Before the liquidation of camp 7 he was transferred to camp 4 in Kaufering. The same as I, he also was hoping to find me here.
Exactly as I did after my arrival, he was also venturing around the camp hoping to find somebody who might have known something about my whereabouts.
Incidentally or miraculously, the first person he met was the same man I was talking to a short while ago. Being happy to see a familiar face, Mayer approached the man greeting him warmly and asking him how he was. The man looked at him in bewilderment, asking him if he is, "Out of his mind"... "I was just talking to you a short while ago, and you are asking me again, how I am?" A bit confused, he added, "I hope that you are not loosing your mind."
Needless to say that my brother immediately understood the mix up. Although we were not identical twins, people used to confuse us, especially in the camps with both shaved heads and wearing the same Prison uniforms.
Without further explanation, Mayer grabbed the mans arm and begged him immediately to take him to my hut... "You were talking to my brother, not to me", he tried to convince our good friend. Happy about the turn of events, our friend whose name I unfortunately am not able to recall, brought me the best present imaginable.
A SMALL FOOD PARCEL FROM THE RED CROSS
Being together again with my brother was advantageous for both of us. First of all it was a fulfillment of my Mothers last wish. Besides that, we both felt more secure and ready to help each other in any way possible. In the meantime Mayer took over the duties of preparing the additional meals made from my daily limited supply of potatoes. His presence gave me a chance to rest up after my morning chores.
Even with the additional few potatoes, the task of carrying quite heavy loads of potato peelings became harder by the day. With ever smaller bread rations and the replacement of a little bit of marmalade instead of margarine, my strength seemed gradually to diminish.
In the beginning of April, rumors began to spread among the inmates that we might soon receive some food parcels from the International Red Cross. As fantastic as it may have sounded, it really happened. Sometime before Passover on one of those sunny spring days, the camp loud speakers were calling for the block eldests and their helpers to report to the camp warehouse. Soon after they returned with a pushcart full of small boxes with the "Red Cross" stamped on top of them.
Unfortunately this first ever unexpected gift which arrived just a few weeks before liberation, turned out to be a curse instead of a blessing. The content of the parcel, one kilo of sugar cubes, one small can of coronation cream, and a pack of twenty cigarettes, triggered one of the worst disasters this camp had experienced since the disastrous typhoid epidemic.
The overwhelming majority of the half dead and skeletal inmates were unable to digest the fat cream and the many sugar cubes which they eagerly consumed as fast as they received them. Non-smokers immediately exchanged their cigarettes for another can of cream or some additional sugar. Many finished their entire parcel in one sitting.
The result was indeed devastating. In our hut alone several victims died during the night while others complained bitterly of stomach cramps and diarrheas.
As usual, there was no medical help available, and many more victims were found dead on their bunks the next day and after.
My brother and I ate only some of the sugar cubes and shared one can of cream. The rest we kept hidden under the saw dust of our bunks. The cigarettes we gradually traded for additional slices of bread. This additional food made our lives a bit easier for another week or ten days.
Even with all that my physical situation kept on deteriorating until I reached a point of no return.
CAMP 4 KAUFERING (PASSOVER 1945)
At first after my arrival at camp 4, the place was filled up to capacity. This was of course almost eight months earlier. Each hut was then fully occupied with about fifty inmates, all laboring at the large construction site of "Leonard Moll-Munich."
On passover of 1945, the camp was less than half empty with mostly unable to work, sick and almost half dead inmates. The overwhelming majority of the first arrivals, mostly from Auschwitz, were already dead. Starvation, hard labor, constant harassment, and all kinds of diseases, were causes for this tragic and devastating situation.
Even with the steady daily influx of new arrivals from camps of Eastern Germany, this place could never reach its capacity again.
Since none of the present inmates were doing any outside work, the daily rations for the mostly and slowly dying inmates was kept to a bare minimum. A slice of stale mostly greenish with mold black bread with some colored lukewarm water for breakfast and a watery soup with a single slice of potato, if you were lucky, could hardly keep us alive.
So ever fewer of these skeletons dared to venture outside of their huts to catch a bit of fresh air or a glimpse at the spring sun. Inevitably the death toll kept rising.
The blue sky of spring and the beautiful sunny weather kept on teasing the helpless inmates as if daring them to get off the smelly bunks and come outside to enjoy nature. However, we the members of the chosen people, were not granted this great gift of nature. Nobody or very few were able to step outside or even care any more to do that. Fortunately my brother and I were still able to move around, while I with my friend, Laibl were still, although with a much slower pace, continuing with our daily chores.
I was still hoping to make it to the end, and my optimism of surviving this terrible war remained as strong as ever.
After all, we were all aware of the fact that Germany was losing the war. We also knew that allied forces were already on German soil. But most of us lacked physical or mental strength to celebrate. We were also aware of the recently established "United Nations," which had already drawn up plans for a new world order. The question at the time however was who among us was going to live to enjoy the planned new world.
Most of the inmates in this camp and most likely in any other Nazi concentration camps had given up and lost their will to continue the daily struggle for survival. "What is the use to continue suffering, when by the end the Nazis are going to kill us anyways?" was the accepted argument by most of us.
Although my intentions were not to give up, I was finally forced to quit my daily job. My health and strength deteriorated to a point when I could hardly get off my bunk and venture outside the hut. Just a short while ago I was still among the few fortunate ones who was able to supplement my meager daily rations. I had an exceptional break and help from friends who were working in the kitchen. However as it seemed, all this was not enough to keep me on my feet. For a while I was quite sure that this additional help would let me continue my daily struggle while still standing on my own feet. Unfortunately it was just the opposite. It seemed that I was working too hard to sustain my ever diminishing strength.
For some, the shining sun became like a magnet for those still able to move. Slowly they dragged themselves outside and sat down resting their skeletal bodies on the hut walls, trying to enjoy as much as possible the warm spring weather.
They hardly talked to each other. Not that there wasn't enough to talk about, but they all seemed to be engulfed in their own thoughts. Some of them were sitting there with wide open eyes as if wondering what this world is all about, while others seemed asleep, perhaps dreaming of the past, of being together with their families and perhaps even dreaming of a bright future.
During rare occasions when I was also sitting down among my fellow sufferers, I did my best not to think at all, especially not about the past. I tried my best to enjoy the few precious minutes which I hoped would help me to push through another day. It was however very depressing to look at the people around me.
I knew most of them, they were all young men in their early twenties and some still teenagers. I remember them when they were still looking quite human, and some of them used to be my co-workers at the construction site.
Dear God, how they all changed. Living skeletons with greyish pale faces and terribly sad eyes which were placed deep into their skulls. How many of them, I thought will be strong enough and fortunate enough to survive under the prevailing circumstances?
It looked to me quite bizarre that even during those moments it never really crossed my mind that I would not survive. I somehow witnessed horrible suffering all around me without really realizing that I am one of them.
I used to whisper to myself, even trying to convince myself that I must survive, and even that I am destined to survive: "How is the world going to know what was happening to our people if we would all perish?" I was sure even during the worst moments of suffering that by the end there are going to be survivors, and that with God's help, I would be among them.
THE FIRST CONFRONTATION WITH MY BLOCK ELDEST
It happened during Passover of 1945. Until that day I was fortunate to belong to very few favorites of this monster.
The supreme master of our hut who was known as the block eldest was a well known sadist by the name of Zulty. In Warsaw and later in Paris before the war, he was working as a baker. As a capo at Auschwitz and later as a foreman of a clean-up squad after the Warsaw ghetto uprising, he apparently single-handedly had killed several inmates.
The irony of all that was that ZuIty considered himself a marxist, a saviour of the suffering working class. At every occasion he kept on preaching about the superior quality of life in the Soviet Union while denouncing the oppressionist regimes of capitalist countries. He also considered himself an ardent music lover but his preference in songs were mostly tunes which were denouncing capitalism. Since I remembered quite well several such songs, he designated me and a couple of other youngsters as his "block singers." After noticing some of my pencil drawings he also considered me as his block artist. So every night before turning off the light he confortably stretched himself out on his bunk and together with his ever-present boy friend at his side, enjoyed our songs praising the victorys of the world proletariat. For this task and for my"art work" he rewarded me with an extra spoon of marmalade and sometimes even with a slice of bread.
Many times during our "concerts," Zulty used to open his little window, actually the only window in the hut in order that the SS man on top of the nearby tower could also enjoy himself and arrive at some sort of satisfaction by hearing young Jews singing for him.
Apparently this was a Ukranian SS man who was on exceptional friendly terms with our block eldest who was a well known homosexual. According to Zulty, this guard was once an active communist who was forced into the "Waffen SS" against his will. On this particular night before the first day of Passover, after our nightly "performance" the hut became engulfed a deadly silence. Somehow at once everybodys thoughts became occupied with the fact that this was supposed to have been the first Seder night.
While my mind was completely absorbed with thoughts about the Passover Seder together with my family and almost hearing myself asking the "four questions," I returned to reality by a tap on my shoulder. Unwilling to abandon the beautifully served Passover table, I tried to hold on to that vision a bit longer. But my neighbours pleading voice kept on repeating itself, although in a sort of a whisper.
My neighbour, a Hungarian born Orthodox Jew, pleaded with me to perform a "great Mitzvah" (a good deed). This thirty something ultra religious man asked me to intervene with Zulty on his behalf. Since he would never eat bread on Passover, and as he put it, he would rather die instead of becoming a sinner, he would like me to ask our block eldest to give him during the Passover days an extra soup instead of the bread ration.
I tried as much as I could to convince this skeletal young man that in his condition he would be better off with his bread ration, and might even commit a sin by not eating it. My arguments were obviously unsuccessful. Apparently I found Mr. Zulty in an exceptional good mood, or perhaps he pretended to be, because without hesitation he promptly agreed to give the poor man an extra soup instead of the bread. When I gave the good news of the arrangement to my neighbour, his pale skinny face seemed to had lightened up from happiness.
It did not take me too long to realize that Zultys deal was worth as much as his reputation. The poor inmate did indeed not receive his daily bread ration, but the promised extra soup was never given to him. All this poor starving man could do at the time was moaning and quietly complaining to his helpless fellow inmates.
I can not recall exactly on which day it happened, perhaps on the third or the fourth day of Passover, when my starving neighbour kept whispering into my ear, "Please, my friend, please help me", he was crying bitterly. Feeling a sense of guilt for actually believing the block eldest, and making the deal with this monster, I could hardly hide my frustration and anger.
Obviously not realizing that Zulty might hear me from quite a distance, I apparently,a bit too loud, urged my starving friend to walk over and with the little strength left in him, demand from the block eldest to keep the deal as promised. "Don't wait any longer if you want to survive the holidays" were my last angry words before a deadly silence overtook the dimly lit hut.
Suddenly the hoarse voice of a obviously angry block eldest, broke the silence like a thunder during a bad storm: "You f ... ing bastard son of a bitch painter" he shouted like a wild beast..."Come over here at once, you little creep".
All I managed to notice on the way to his part of the hut were the faces of my scared fellow inmates and friends. Walking like in a daze, I apparently did not fully realize the seriousness of the situation.
A bit of light from an outside lamppost managed to steal itself into the almost dark hut and allowed me a glimpse at Zultys viciously angry face. Before I came near him and before I was able to open my mouth, I found myself flying backwards in the direction I came from. Fortunately our tormentor hit me with a vicious slap to my face which was so powerful that I completely lost control of my entire body. In seconds I found myself on the floor at the other end of the hut. Although my face seemed bruised, and swollen, I was grateful that the brutal monster didn't hit me with a clenched fist. In pain I could hear Zulty continue his vicious diatribe for at least several more minutes. Even in a much worse hoarse voice than before, he kept on shouting obscenities in my direction: "If it wouldn't have been you, you bastard son of a bitch, I would have killed you." Several times he repeated the same sentence.
I am not quite sure if my poor ultra religious neighbour received any additional soup on the remaining few days of Passover. However, I do remember well that a couple of days after Passover of 1945 only a few short weeks before liberation, this deeply religious man was found dead on his bunk. In contrast to other victims of starvation he looked exceptionally peaceful as if being already liberated.
This was about the same time when my own health was already rapidly starting to deteriorate. I became almost completely bunk ridden and could hardly walk on my own. I had to have the help of my brother even to walk over the few meters to the "relieve" bucket.
Without the extra few potatoes I earned by carrying heavy loads of potato peelings, plus the recent loss of the small privileges granted to me by our block eldest, I became weaker by the minute. The ever more reduced bread ration, and the ever more thinner daily soup added to my physical deterioration.
Since I was not able to continue my daily chores at the kitchen, I desperately tried to talk my brother into taking over my job. I attempted to convince him that the few extra potatoes might help me in my recovery as well as help him to continue to stand on his own, moved him. Realizing in what condition I was in, his argument seemed quite logical: I would rather not eat" he argued "than use up my last bit of strength for a couple of rotten potatoes. At first I was quite upset by his refusal to help out. After all he was always an equal partner to whatever food I managed to bring in. Later however I fully realized that he was right indeed.
During those last weeks of April, hundreds of new arrivals crossed the gates of our camp bringing with them tales of horror and devastation. Many concentration camps in East Germany, including the infamous camp of Buchenwald, were liquidated and their Jewish inmates were being dragged by foot in the direction of the Tyrol mountains. When the surviving inmates reached our camp they were already half dead.
For several weeks under most gruesome conditions, those unfortunate Jewish men and women had to endure torture, cold and starvation. Those unable to continue walking were shot or beaten to death. Their bodies.were dumped into the ditches alongside the roads. According to the survivors thousands upon thousands of those unfortunate men and women perished on the roads and byways of Germany.
A relatively very small percentage of those "marchers", managed to survive this terrible ordeal. After arriving in "camp 4" they were assigned to different huts where they shared the miserable lives of the already "native" inmates.
Surprisingly also large groups of Soviet P.O.W.s arrived at the same time. Those separately kept prisoners did not look much better than the Jewish inmates. They were only recognizable by their dilapidated Russian military uniforms. In a blatant violation of the "Geneva convention," those prisoners of war were starved and tortured in the same way as the Jewish inmates.
Those already walking skeletons were wearing uniforms which seemed several sizes larger than their bodies. To those who watched those former brave soldiers, they appeared tragically ridiculous. After several days we learned that the Soviet prisoners left the camp for an unknown destination.
MY SECOND AND LAST CONFRONTATION WITH ZULTY
It was probably about ten days before liberation. I was already one of those helpless skeletons as most of the occupants of my hut. Unable to wash myself or even to walk over to the bucket to relief myself. From time to time my brother who was still in relatively good shape helped me drag myself outside to get some fresh air and enjoy the beautiful Bavarian spring weather.
But most of the time when Mayer with a couple of friends who were still able to walk ventured outside by himself, I remained quite lonely on my bunk listening to the moaning and silent cries of dying inmates. However I felt sometimes much worse when some of them seemed too quiet. It turned out that those silent ones, most of the time were already dead.
Sometimes I used to hear loud complaints addressed to God ... They kept asking "Hashem", why he created such a gorgeous spring "while none of us is able to enjoy it?" "Do you care more for the German people than for your own chosen ones?" Some in their distress and anger were even cursing their God.
Others were simply complaining about the stale piece of molding bread which they were already unable to swallow or for the awful watery daily soup.
Considering my own condition I suddenly realized that theirs was a truly legitimate complaint. Lately it was getting very difficult for me to bite into this hard like a rock stale bread and the soup which contained just a hint of potatoes was causing pain to my stomach instead of stilling my hunger.
I remember telling my brother about not being able to eat the slice of bread or swallow the always cold watery soup. He told me then that the block eldest is cheating us by distributing to the inmates only the water from the soup barrel while the potatoes which were left at the bottom, he enjoyed together with his little boy friend. Mayer assured me that he himself saw the two large plates of dense soup on the block eldest table.
Although it was always obvious to all of us that Zulty was stealing from our rations, it nevertheless irritated me this time more than ever. It was hard to comprehend that this sadist would continue to steal from us under the present conditions and so close to our possible liberation.
Full of rage and obsessed with a desire to let this beast know what we felt about this practice, I was looking forward to next distribution of the daily soup.
On the next day when Zulty with the help of his "stuben dienst" began to distribute the soup, I was already armed with a prepared verbal attack, which Zulty did probably remember until the day he died.
The moment I took the container of soup into my bony hands, I realized right away that all I received was a container full of luke warm water. Without the slightest fear of any possible consequences, I started a tirade of insults, I myself hardly believed were coming out from my mouth and my weak body.
I began with Zultys own expression: "You bastard son of a bitch" and continued with a rage of obscenities which almost paralized the shocked and scared inmates of our hut. I noticed Zulty standing next to the soup barrel seemingly not less shocked than the others. My brother kept holding me tight trying desperately to calm me down. His attempt to restrain my outburst, didn't seem to help. Without the last strength in my body, I kept on shouting: "Don't you know, that your judgement day is fast approaching?" "Didn't you kill enough of us with your fists and especially by stealing from our daily rations?" "Do you have to continue those murders, even now at such a terrible time and at our last struggle for survival?" I recall shouting at him to take this watery soup from me and choke on it, because "I am not able to swallow this anyways." Already exhausted with a completely hoarse and still angry voice, I told him to "Take it and go to hell with it." I finished my tirade amid a deadly silence.
As if in a daze, Zulty was still standing next to the soup barrel holding his large ladle in his right hand. The deadly expression on his fat face did hardly give a hint about his possible reaction. As far as the inmates were concerned, they probably expected to experience another killing.
I however remember being very calm and most of all very satisfied. I finally let that beast know who he really was. Something that I am sure many of us had the urge to tell him but were somehow to weak or were just lacking the energy and guts to do it. I am sure that deep inside they were all satisfied by what had just happened.
Suddenly we heard Zultys quite subdued voice calling to my brother, "Mayer, come over here." In a split of a second, Mayer stood in front of him apparently not knowing what to expect. "Bring me over his soup" he requested from my brother, who rapidly followed his order. Zulty took my soup, poured it back into the barrel, and waited for a second. While all eyes of the scared inmates were focused on him, Zulty slowly dipped the ladle down to the bottom of the barrel, and filled my container up to the rim with a dense soup full of large slices of potatoes.
"Give it to your brother and let him eat it" he said with a tone which sounded quite cynical. He then continued to distribute the soup as if nothing had happened. This time as I found out to everyones satisfaction, each soup contained at least a few slices of potatoes.
EXPELLED FROM THE HUT
The next morning Zulty came in with a man I had never seen before. He introduced him to me as a doctor, who examined me thoroughly (or pretended to conduct an examination). After the examination the alleged doctor decided that I had typhoid. To my reaction that this is impossible, since I already went through this disease during an epidemic in the Lodz Ghetto, the "doctors" answer was complete silence. Nevertheless his swift recommendation was an immediate transfer to a so-called typhoid block. I must admit, that at first I was almost fooled by Zultys change of heart. But as it turned out his seemingly kind gesture was just a calculated way of revenge. Being already afraid of fresh accusations of cruelty, in the wake of the obviously near liberation, he conveniently expelled me from my familiar environment and effectively separated me from my twin brother.
In 1945 or in the beginning of 1946 1 had learned that my former block eldest, was shot dead while walking on a street in Paris. Zulty was apparently gunned down by a sibling of one of his many victims.
THE LAST WEEK AT CAMP 4-KAUFERING, DACHAU
With the last confrontation with my block eldest still on my mind, I was hanging on quietly to the arms of my brother who assisted me on the way to my new quarters. I don't remember how the weather really was on that for me gruesome day. But the grounds were still muddy and treacherous as during the worst winter days. It again crossed my mind a perception that muddy grounds were somwhow a part of Nazi torture intended to make our lives as miserable as possible.
The time to reach the typhoid block seemed to me endless, although the distance from my place to the intended destination was no more than about a hundred and fifty metres. My skeletal legs were so weak that the wooden shoes on my feet seemed to pull me to the ground with their weight.
When we finally reached the designated "typhoid hut" I thought that I felt some rain, or perhaps just a drizzle. I don't remember the exact time, but the heavy clouds were adding to the approaching darkness of the late afternoon. This seemingly sudden bad weather added a lot to my extremely depressed state of mind.
With one hand Mayer opened the little gate, and with the other he carefully led me down the several steps into the hut. He then left me in quite a hurry, as if being terribly afraid of catching the deadly desease.
The hut was completely engulfed in darkness. I was not sure whether the little bulb hanging down from the ceiling was turned off or was already burned out.
A young man who seemed to be waiting just for my arrival handed me a dirty blanket and helped me to find a place to settle down. Amid total darkness he found a narrow space between two inmates. Having completed his task without uttering a single word, he disapeared, never to be seen again.
The total darkness inside this place was frightening. Even the little window at the rear of the hut did not let in a trace of some outside light. I settled down between two conspicuously quiet patients. Not being sure if they were dead or alive I was quite relieved to hear one of them letting out a faint growl. The stench inside this so-called typhoid barrack was unbearable. In addition to the horrible odor of human excrement, there was also a mixture of staleness and sweat and most probably of decomposing human flesh.
Through the blinding darkness it was hard for me to see any faces, not even of my closest neighbour, but according to the many bony bare feet which were sticking out from under the blankets, the place seemed filled up to capacity.
Lying stretched out I was finally able to rest at least temporarily my aching bones. The depressed thoughts inside my equally aching head were chasing each other like racing cars. I tried my best to be as rational as possible under the circumstances. But felt much too tired and weak to concentrate. Willingly or not, many nagging questions started to surface inside my mind: "Why are we here left completely on our own without supervision of any kind?" "Why are we left in total darkness?" But the worst question of all was: "Why is it so frightening quiet inside - this by God and anyone else forsaken place?"
Although I had my suspicions, I could not arrive at a definite explanation. But after several hours inside this despicable place of human misery I started to see the real picture quite clearly.
When the usual standard time for the distribution of the daily rations had passed without anybody showing up, I fully realized the gravity of my present situation. Even in my quite unstable state of mind, it became clear to me that I am not inside a so-called typhoid barrack. This place was no hospital of any kind. Besides not having a doctor or nurse on duty, this place had not even a simple human being who would take care of our minimum human needs. This hut was simply a part of a "final solution" without a gas chamber.
The terribly poisoned air and the deplorable conditions inside this place and left alone without food or water, was equal to a death sentence.
Not even the filled up bucket of human excrement seemed ever to be emptied, but worst of all the already dead inmates were not being removed and left simply to rot on their bunks. This of course clearly explained the scary silence as well as the unbearable stench.
Although my stomach was completely empty, I was much more bothered by thirst than hunger. I hadn't had a bite or any fluid for at least twenty four hours. My mind kept on working in a abnormal speed. Yesterdays events came back to me clear and vivid. I suddenly realized that my block eldest could have easily killed me. I also realized that for this man being insulted in front of his victims, must have been a terrible blow.
But the times surely did change. Zulty was indeed aware that the Americans were quite close and that his days as master over helpless inmates were numbered. So as sneaky and clever he thought he was, this shameless collaborator and vicious torturer surely must have realized that this was the time to pretend to be a nice guy. That must have been the only reason that instead of a deadly punch, he gave me a bowl of potato soup.
In addition to that human gesture, he also demonstrated how passionate he could be when a sick inmate needed help. That's why he probably decided to let me be examined by a so-called doctor who did it of course in front of the surprised inmates.
It didn't take too long for me to get used to the terrible stench inside this forsaken hut. However, the continuous total darkness became unbearable. I also missed terribly at least for a little while to talk to somebody. Even the closest neighbour of mine seemed to be dead or close to it. From time to time I could hear a quiet painfull growl or some hardly understandable whisper in Yiddish or Polish mixed with some muffled sobbing. In general the hut was engulfed in a deadly silence.
I felt terribly alone and abandoned, even by my own brother who hadn't visited me yet. The dryness in my throat and mouth was terribly irritating. Cracks opened up on my dried-out lips, and I began feeling some wetness on my neck caused by a reopening of the old scar which was again bleeding and discharging puss. It was hard for me to understand at the time why I did not feel any special pain.
From time to time I tried to talk to myself and even to utter a silent prayer: "All I need " I felt myself uttering, "is just some water and a visit from my brother." I also heard some subdued voices of a couple of other inmates. One very close to me asked God not to forsake us and help the unfortunate children of Israel.
Through the sleepless nights I could not stop thinking about my grave situation. My eyes were burning to a point where I could hardly keep them ajar. When finally the morning dusk arrived I somehow felt a bit safer and more secure. The strong sun seemed to manage to push through a little bit of light into the hut, although the window was small and covered with dirt. At such times feeling a bit more hopeful I fell asleep.
When I woke up the hut seemed a bit brighter. A few sunbeams must have shown some mercy for the abandoned creatures inside this even by God forsaken place. It took me a few seconds to realize where I was. Then I let my bony legs slide down to the muddy floor and bare footed, dragged myself over to the overflown bucket to relieve myself. The smelly full of refuse bucket brought me back to reality. When I slowly returned to my place I usually tried to sit down at least for a while at the edge of the bunk. "I cant give up, I must continue my struggle to survive." I looked around but through the half darkness I could not see any movement or much sign of life. I estimated that at least fifty percent of patients in this typhoid hut must have been dead with the rest dying or in a coma.
I tried to convince myself that I had a better chance to survive than many of the others. They had nobody who would help them. With me it was entirely different. After all, I still had a brother who will surely show up at any minute. If he would only have the occasion, he would bring me a slice of bread, perhaps even a bit of soup. But most importantly some water, maybe even a lot of water.
Why should I even think otherwise. After all he's my twin brother with whom I have shared every bite I managed to obtain. I did that from the start of our incarceration to the day my strength gave up on me. Somehow I was always lucky, probably with the help of my invisible guardian angel in obtaining some additional food. I was quite sure that he fully realized that now was his turn, and with that awareness he would show up pretty soon.
With these kind of thoughts the hours went by while the hut returned to its usual darkness. Nothing in this place however seemed to change. Although interrupted from time to time by some silent moaning or crying, the deadly silence in this hut was more than frightning. Perhaps yet another inmate passed away in silent agony? But the little gate of our hut remained constantly shut.
Nobody, not a living soul seemed to come through this little gate, not even my own twin brother.
On the third or fourth day my two bony sticks which were once strong legs were already unable to carry me over the short distance to the bucket. I was lying in a pool of urine and excrement, unable to do anything about it.
I don't remember feeling any more hunger, but was tortured by a terrible thirst. "If only my brother could manage to bring me something to drink." Tears kept constantly running down my bony cheeks. All my thoughts at the time were full of questions and doubts of why my brother was still not showing up, even for a single minute. Amid my helpless and horrible situation I began worrying about the well being of my brother. In addition to the terrible darkness inside the hut, I became blinded by my own tears.
As ridiculous and bizarre it may sound, my constant sobbing turned into some kind of blessing. I kept on licking and swallowing the salty tears which came down close to my mouth. This little bit of fluid became in a way a relief for my burned up lips and soothed a bit the dryness of my blistered mouth.
The pain and frustration and even anger about my brothers continuing absence became much worse than the misery of the nights and days spent in this almost mass grave.
I even became immune to the horrible plague of body lice. My blanket, the one and only piece of clothing which supposed to shield my body from the chill and dampness of this hut, was literally invaded by lice. These little creatures usually had the power of constantly keeping you from getting some much needed sleep and provided you with endless torture while you were awake.
So during my present predicament, this until now terrible plague became secondary to my other problems. Whether my brother would show up or not, my determination and unbreakable will to survive became my number one goal. Even in my seemingly hopeless situation I was hoping that with my perseverence, hope and sincere belief that also this time I would overcome and manage to survive. Perhaps I was not entirely in full control of my senses, but I still believed and trusted my Guardian Angel, who somehow until now never missed to be around when I needed him (or her).
I remember once when I was quite sure that nobody was listening or perhaps at a time when I was quite delirious, silently talking and asking questions to our God himself: "Dear God, how can you allow your chosen people being tortured by the Nazi murderers and their helpers?" I also kept on asking if he doesn't think that it is time to bring an end to the suffering of his people.
Although I could hardly hear my own voice, my questions turned into an angry outburst: "What wrong have we done to deserve such harsh punishments?" ..."You took everything from us, our parents, our families, our freedom ... isn't that enough?" I continued with an ever more lower voice to plead for help for the still living souls of this horrible place. Especially in the wake of the soon approaching end of the war.
I could have gone on and on, if not of a faint but very angry voice coming from a short distance away "Shut up you idiot, there is no God", and as if in embarrassment he repeated himself, "There is no God". While continuing the same sentence several more times, the poor man turned his resentment into a silent sobbing.
Another day went by without anybody showing up to provide us with some help. Unable to count the days anymore, it was impossible for me to actually pinpoint the time of my presence inside this place without any food or water.
Being completely dehydrated and hardly able to move, I was lying on that dirty with lice infested place still hoping for some sort of relief.
Because the little gate of the hut was not opened for quite a long time, the place seemed completely airless. It became impossible to breathe. But all my thoughts continued to be occupied with my brothers fate. I could still not comprehend why he never came to see me. I became frightened by the thought that perhaps he was not alive any more.
I kept on crying, but my tears seemed already to have dried out. I nevertheless tried not to give up and still kept on hoping for the best.
After all I was one of the very few who never subscribed to the theory that the Germans would kill us all, even minutes before liberation.
After a few days I became accustomed not only to the life in this hut but also to the steady almost total darkness. I was able to see certain things, although not too many details. I looked at my bony legs and my thoughts were wandering back to my childhood. "Is it possible that those legs were once able to play soccer or ice skate?" I was also, probably to forget a bit about my present prediciment, thinking about the many hours I was standing on my legs playing table tennis in preparation for upcoming competitive matches.
Probably in order to forget about my lonliness, I even tried to recall the time when my Father brought home the first ice skates for my brother and myself. I must have been six or seven at the time. How trivial it seemed to me while lying among dead and dying inmates, to remember the label on those skates: "turf weden stahl." This for me unforgettable day happened after I was skating for a while on only one old skate attached to my right shoe. This loving gesture by my Father seemed to me something that I would never forget.
Finally on the fourth or the fifth day of my total loneliness I thought that I heard the little gate shut open and to my pleasant surprise I also heard my brothers voice calling my name. Apparently not being sure if I was dead or alive, my brother kept on calling my name and asking where I was. I tried to reply to his callings but my voice was so low that he was barely able to hear me. I used the maximum of strength to raise my voice, which apparently made him aware of my presence. After a few minutes of searching through the darkness, he finally found me. At first I was numb with accumulated rage, but nevertheless was happy to hear his voice and see him standing near me. I started to cry hysterically, being unable to utter a single word. "What is it?" he asked as if not fully realizing the gravity of the situation. Perhaps not to make me feel too bad he pretended that everything was quite normal.
I gathered whatever little strength was left inside my body and still crying, I asked him why he waited so long to visit me. Still crying I pleaded for his help. Without uttering a single word, he took both my hands into his and held them tight.
Finally he seemed to be talking to me, but his words made hardly any sense. I was unable to see the expression on his face but I was sure that he was also crying. What I was able to understand and clearly remember was that the camp was being evacuated. I also understood that all able bodied inmates were being taken and escorted out to an unknown destination by SS troops. In my feverish mind I could hardly fully comprehend what my brother had just told me.
My brothers entire visit must have lasted about five minutes. He told me that he must join the hundreds of others who were already getting ready to leave the camp. Amid tears by both of us, Mayer handed me a medium size raw potato after he promised to fetch for me some water, "if only possible"....he kissed my forehead and promised to see me soon.
The next time I saw my brother was forty-five years later, when he visited me together with his son in Montreal.
My brothers gift became my only source of nourishment for the next several days. Only the tremendous will to survive provided me with the strength even to be able to bite into the raw potato, which provided me with both some food and some fluid.
Like a baby satisfying its hunger from a mothers breast, I was eagerly sucking the cooling delicious juices of the raw potato. I was also consuming small crumbs of the potato itself. As I always did with my meager rations, I also this time had the sense of preserving this newly found treasure: "There is always another day" my mind told me. Every hour or so slowly and with care, I took the potato to my mouth and sucked a bit of strength into my dehydrated body.
Perhaps it was just psychosomatic, whether it was real or imaginary, I began feeling better and stronger. For the first time in several days I was able slowly to drag myself to the bucket of refuse to relieve myself.
After my brother had left me my mind kept on searching for an explainable reason for his unexplainable behavior toward me. To avoid unnecessary pain, I found an answer which would at once soothe my anger and also free my brother from any intentional wrongdoing. The answer in my head, but not exactly in my heart, was quite simple: Since he was convinced that my days were probably numbered, he was reluctant to take unnecessary chances by visiting a possibly highly contagious typhoid hut.
My self explanation seemed at the time quite logical especially then when he saw the Nazis leaving the camp in great panic and being sure that liberation was closer than ever before. Not thinking too much about my own situation, in my mind my brothers behavior was fully forgiven.
With the help of my blanket I wiped my eyes dry, took a deep breath and again reaffirmed my promise not to give up. "I will gather every bit of strength left in my body and continue my struggle to survive."
"I am not going to die"...I cried out not being sure if anyone heard me. This time however nobody told me to shut up.
MY GUARDIAN ANGEL AT WORK AGAIN
On that evening I somehow fell asleep quite early. I was suddenly awakened by loud shouts in German mixed with screams and cries in other languages. The until now mostly quiet nights and days were apparently coming to an end. Inside our hut however a deadly silence still prevailed. Nobody seemed to hear or even care. Not having forgotten what my brother told me several hours earlier, I sensed something of utmost importance was happening or was going to happen.
While all kinds of thoughts began torturing my mind again the little door of our hut burst open with a frightening bang. Together with the now amplified noises, the lights from the lamp post outside brought in a brightness into our hut never seen before. Two young men apparently in great hurry were desperately trying to wake up one inmate after another, obviously without great success.
"Whoever is able to leave the bunks, we are going to help" they shouted. "You have to get out of here very fast"...They kept on shouting to a clearly unreceptive audience.
With an unexplainable power I pushed myself to the edge of the bunk and managed with my feet to reach the floor. "Here, here" I brought out a quiet cry from my throat. One of them finally heard me and after a split second they both grabbed my skeletal body, put my helpless arms over their shoulders and swiftly dragged me outside. A pushcart already quite full of some half-dead inmates were already lying one on top of the other. In another very rapid move I was then placed on top of the others. A couple of other young men were already pulling the filled to capacity push cart.
Amid the indescribable chaos and panic, our pushcart was being driven as fast as humanly possible. Scores of inmates some still walking on their own feet and others being helped by others were moving in different directions, as if not realizing what was going on around them. The camp seemed brighter than ever before with the help of the usual lamp posts, and some reflectors. The air seemed quite fresh in comparison to the stench and dampness of the completely airless huts.
Lying on top of the heap, I was able to see most what was going on around us. While the pushcart was crossing the muddy grounds of the "Appell Platz", and while I was inhaling the refreshingly wonderfull air, pleading voices and heart breaking cries for help brought me back to reality. The vast area of the plaza and all the empty spaces around the camp were transformed into virtual dying fields. Hundreds of dead and dying inmates were lying all over the place. Many of the dead skeletal bodies were already piled up one on top of the other. The pain and misery of those still alive you could see in their horrified wide open eyes. The desperate cries of the dying and their pleading for help, must have reached the heavens. But no help seemed to be forthcoming. These pictures of total devastation and horror were visible throughout the entire camp, and all the way to the waiting trains. Only several minutes after I was being taken out of the barrack and just before I reached the train I noticed a huge f1re lighting up the sky behind us. It turned out that the two typhoid barracks, one of them which was my miserable home for close to a week, were set on fire.
Still on top of the pushcart and realizing what was going on around me, my mind became again bombarded with questions impossible for me to answer. As a matter of fact I am now several decades after those horrors still unable to find answers to those questions.
"How could I explain why I was the only one from my barrack to be saved by a couple of inmates whom I knew only by the look of their familiar faces?" "What prompted those two inmates at a time when their own lives were in mortal danger to so passionately try to help others? As many times during my incarceration I was also this time mysteriously helped in a way I could hardly had expectedtv. "Why me?" I kept asking myself. Why did those people choose me while hundreds of pleading inmates were openly visible and lying all over the camp grounds?
We soon reached the place where a long train was waiting for us. In contrast to the closed up cattle wagons in which the Nazis were usually transporting their victims these wagons were similar to half trucks which were used mainly for transporting coal or construction supplies. The fields close to some wooden areas where the train was standing was also a picture of sheer hell. Amid chaos and confusion, there seemed no Germans in sight. Hundreds of half dead skeletons were walking aimlessly apparently not knowing how to settle down. For those people to climb on top of a wagon was humanly impossible. Many of them were just lying down on the terribly muddy grounds. Some of them were helped by still relatively mobile young men who had shown great passion and extreme human kindness at a time when many others were absorbed in their own well being. I will always treasure the memories of those days when I witnessed extreme human kindness from many inmates towards their less fortunate comrades.
During all that indescribable chaos, some of the helpless inmates were pleading to be placed into the wagons, while others were crying and begging to be taken off and being placed somewhere on the ground. Most however were unable to move alltogether, and were helplessly and quietly lying on the ground.
Our pushcart was slowly emptied of its cargo. One of the boys grabbed my arm and the other took hold of my legs and together they literally threw me onto the wagon.
I landed on top of a pile of scantily dressed and some completely naked inmates. The reaction to my sudden arrival on top of them was quite mixed. Some screamed out in pain apparently hurt by the weight of my bony body and most likely by the impact of my heavy wooden shoes. They kept on pushing and shoving me off their bodies while others seemed not to react at all.
Amid all that confusion the most important thing on my mind at the time was to hold on tightly to my treasured raw potato, whatever was left of it.
No matter what teriible hardship I just had to go through, the next ordeal with its fresh horrors and sufferings has always seemed to dwarf the previous one.
THE LAST VOYAGE
The train which seemed to move for a short while suddenly stopped and as I recall, never moved again. The time spent and the pain endured during those several days, I can describe without hesitation as the summit of my suffering.
Being sqeezed in between many dying and already dead inmates with some of their wooden shoes cutting mercilessly into the skin of my knees felt like a pain I had never experienced before. Blood kept gushing from both my legs. I was crying and pleading for help, but nobody seemed to be able to help me. In addition to this excrutiating pain the scar on my neck which never really completely healed, reopened again causing a steady flow of blood probably mixed with pus coming down my back.
To add to my suffering I felt a stinging pain in my right ear which was also discharging some blood and pus. This came from an almost healed up injury to my right ear drum. For the first time during my entire incarceration I felt really scared. In spite of all this however, I gave myself a vow never to give up.
Conspicuously in a way that nobody would notice, I slowly took my raw potato to my mouth and enjoyed a few small crumbs of the only source of nourishment I possessed. I can vividly recall thinking at the time that the sweet juices of this potato must have tasted better than the most expensive wine. Although I was tempted to finish what remains of the potato once and for all, I still had the sense of keeping some for later.
I really didn't know then and will probably never know exactly how many days I managed to live without food or water. Except of course for the raw potato given to me by my fleeing brother. Days seemed automatically to turn into nights and nights into days. Although at the beginning I tried to remember the amount of time during my last voyage, I finally completely lost track.
Again left completely without supervision or anybody to help me it was impossible for me to reduce the pressure on my bloody knees. In addition I had to endure for quite a while a heavy load of new victims which were thrown into the wagon on top of me.
On one morning I was awakened by a sudden outburst of shouting and crying. When I opened my eyes I saw on the other end of the wagon a couple of young men holding a basket full of sliced bread. Obviously unable to distribute the bread in an orderly fashion, they were just throwing slices into the crowd. Suddenly as if the dead inmates returned to life, most of them tried to push forward with all the power and energy seemingly still left inside their skeletal bodies. The two men probably fearing the worst swiftly emptied the entire content of the basket by throwing the bread randomly at the hungry inmates.
Being tightly pinned in between several unmovable bodies and quite far from the point of distribution, none of those treasured slices of bread ever reached me. My pleading in the direction of the two benefactors was apparently never heard. Silently crying I remained in my helpless condition. Even while being ignored or most likely being taken for already dead, I could not help admiring those young inmates who were still trying to help their fellow sufferers.
No matter how bad and how disturbed I felt at the moment, I could not help to compare this display of human kindness to the many years of witnessing mens inhumanity to man.
In addition to all the suffering we were also plagued by a constant drizzle. At the time when some warm weather and a bit of sun might have helped the poor sufferers, the sky was constantly covered with dense clouds. At some point when the sun managed to push away some clouds, I felt a bit better even while the pain in all my open wounds was still bothering me. My worries at the moment however were mainly about the fact that my raw potato was slowly vanishing.
As time passed it became more quiet on top of the previously noisy wagon. This silence however was suddenly disrupted by a German military train which seemed to have stopped just paralell to our train. Armoured vehicles and tanks loaded on top of the wagons were visible in spite of their camuflaged covers. Again shouts in German were sounding all over the place.
Suddenly a roar of incoming planes accompanied by several explosions became a simple affirmation that the war was not over yet. Together with the German shouts, screams and cries in Yiddish, Hungarian and Polish became a mixture of chaos and panic.
Bombs exploded in the vicinity of our wagon and I could clearly hear shrapnel hitting the outside of the wagon walls.
A fresh outbreak of panic occurred immidiately after the several explosions. Whoever was still able to move began crawling to the wagon walls unwillingly causing serious injuries to others in their quest to save themselves. In their desperate attempts to get off the wagons, many of them simply fell down to the ground and some of them apparently remained there lying helplessly. The stronger ones or at least some of them managed to crawl into the nearby woods. Most of them however were being hit by flying shrapnel and killed instantly.
Screams and cries for help were heard all over the place, only to be overwhelmed by the roar of flying aircraft and many explosions.
The wagon I was in became half empty. I was finally able to release my bloody legs and like a baby managed to crawl on my knees and arms to finally find a more comfortable spot near a wagon wall. At last I was able to stretch out my aching legs. Several others pulled themselves over next to me. I was glad they did, somehow feeling a bit more secure and what's more a bit warmer.
In a while the explosions seemed to have scaled down, though some were still being heard from a distance away. Also the desperate cries of our suffering brothers seemed more distant. The dark clouds and the constant drizzle seemed to remain without interuption.
At first I considered the weather an additional hardship, but changed my mind when I decided to use a part of my wet blanket as a remedy to my dried up lips. Besides licking the wet dirty blanket, I was also trying to catch some rain drops into my palms, and drink them.
On approximately the third day the blanket which was my only piece of clothing began literally dripping with water. Also the wagon floor slowly turned into a black muddy mess. Little chunks of coal obviously remnants of previous transports were almost swimming on top of the ever more accumulated rain water.
"Look around, my friend", one of my nieghbours whispered... "besides the few of us, everyone on the wagon seemed already to be dead." I did not say anything. I was clearly unable and perhaps even unwilling to count the number of my dead comrades. But by judging the piles of dead bodies, I could estimate that at least thirty young men and teenagers were spread out all over the muddy floor. At a couple of places some of the corpses were piled up one on top of the other.
Most of those young innocent victims of "Hitlers final solution," were lying on their backs staring with their wide open bewildered eyes at the skies above. Already dead, their grim faces still revealed pain and anger at a world that did nothing to help them. I was quite convinced at the time that their anger was also directed at the heavens. They all remained with wide open mouths, as if asking "why" and perhaps even shouting the same question.
Probably the same question was asked by the Jewish people for many centuries: "Why did God stand by idle while his chosen people had to endure so much suffering?"
Without really considering my extremely grave situation and as always still being optimistic about my own fate, I uttered my own questions to God. "Why now, obviously days or even hours before liberation, have so many young innocent Jewish people to die? ... Weren't there enough victims already?"
My comrades next to me were already sleeping soundly. I however was not able to close my tired eyes. The constant thoughts about my parents and the whereabouts of my brothers, kept me wide awake. Exhausted and weak, I also fell asleep.
The brightness of the morning, though still cloudy did not help much. It only brought new pain and tribulations to the ones still alive.
Only three of us seemed to have woken up. The man on my right pulled himself closer to me. He kept staring at me with his sad wide open eyes as if in search for something of great importance. Suddenly he opened his mouth and with visible excitement in his weak voice cried out my name. Instinctively and swiftly came my response: "Bialik', I managed to whisper, and before I was able to utter another word, Bialiks head fell backwards. With his eyes and mouth still wide open, my former factory coworker from the Lodz Ghetto who in his last minutes was able to recognize an old friend became another victim of the Nazi horrors. This decent young man, probably in his early thirties was joining his young wife and two small children who about eight months earlier perished in the gaz chambers of Auschwitz.
While tears were running down my cheeks I tried in vain to shut my friends eyelids, and at the same time was wondering how it was possible for two skeletons to recognize each other.
When I settled back to my previous position, I noticed a can of conserved meat lying next to me. I also noticed that my only living comrade was clutching in his hand a piece of dry salami.
Probably seeing some sign of life on our wagons, someone from the military train tried to ease his accumulated burden of guilt by throwing into the wagons some food for the poor souls.
There was obviously no way for me to open a can of meat. I wouldn't even be able to lift that heavy can. In case there would have been someone to do it for me, I am sure that even one spoon of that apparently pork would have killed me instantly. My neighbour however seemed to be much luckier. Although it was quite impossible for him to bite into that seemingly already hard fully dried out piece of salami, he kept on vigourisly licking his unexpectedly acquired treasure.
The night before I consumed the last bite of the potato, my brother gave me several days before. I hardly realized at the time that my brothers goodbye gift would sustain my life for so many days. It would be hard for anybody to understand how it could be possible for a human being to survive such an extended period of time without food or water. And even less understandable is the fact that I made it with the only help of a medium sized raw potato.
It seems that my perseverence and tremendous will to live combined with my belief that someone, somewhere is really taking care of me gave me the strength to survive that far.
I could not help staring at my nieghbour while he was enjoying his gift from God. I desperately tried to dismiss my hidden envy. After all I also kept my potato from the others without even offering a little bite to anybody. The night before we both had a sort of a introductory conversation. My friend told me his name, his age and some other small details. He was born and raised in Sosnowiec, a city in South Western Poland. He was twenty years old and as far as he knew he was the only survivor of an extended family.
Without really realizing how I looked at that time, I felt some heart breaking pity for this obviously dying young man. I was quite convinced that this young man had little chance to survive another day.
My constantly bleeding open wounds were still bothering me, but were somehow not as painfull as before. Also my previous hunger for some food somehow diminished, but although I still was able to wet my lips on the wet blanket, I would have been gratefull at the time for a drink of water.
I thought that perhaps my friend would be able to help me. If I could only gather the strength to ask him just to let me have a couple of licks on his piece of salami. It reminded me of the hot summer days when I and other children used to ask for a lick of each others ice cream. I nevertheless decided not to ask him. The usually beautiful Bavarian spring seemed to come late on that season. The grey skies and the constant drizzle and the whole environment around us was a perfect match to the situation I found myself in.
Not being able to resist the temptation, I finally dared to ask my friend to allow me a couple of licks of his salami. With all his strength left in him he pulled backwards, as if someone was going to hit him. He was holding his treasure with both his bony hands as tight as he possibly could. Having very little strength left in me, I was not able to continue begging or pleading. Besides I still had some pride left in me to do that.
I was lying on my back looking upwards like all the others did....the dead as well as the two of us who were still alive. Although there was hardly a sign of some life in the whole area, I did not feel that I could soon be one of the dead ones. I simply refused to think about it.
Also this long day, which turned out to be the last day of my voyage slowly came to an end. The skies were getting darker and it looked like night was approaching pretty fast. The rain or drizzle seemed to have come to an end. It became colder and with only a wet blanket to protect my skeletal body, my situation in reality must have been much graver than I actually felt.
Just before it became really dark, I felt a light touch on my shoulder from my neighbours hand. I moved my head in his direction. He was half lying, apparently trying to sit up, staring at me as if in a daze. His right arm with his hand holding that covetted piece of salami was slowly moving toward me. And from his opened mouth I could hear a faint whisper, "Here, here, take it." With this unforgettable humane gesture of brotherhood, my only living companion and the last inmate alive also passed away. I remember somehow a thought crossing my mind at that moment: "Probably only several hours before liberation"...
His half sitting-up body slowly took on the position of all the rest of them. His mouth and eyes like on all the other victims remained wide open. They all somehow seemed to look in bewilderment at a cruel world which had permitted such a terrible disaster to happen.
ALONE AT THE END
When recalling the last hours on the train which apparently was supposed to take the remnants of the camp to the mountains of Tyrol for a final liquidation, it is still impossible for me to comprehend how I went through and endured all that suffering without giving up hope for my own survival.
After losing my last living companion, I attempted to settle down for a "normal" nights sleep.
With one part of my body already quite irritated, I desperately tried to change my position, but was unable to move a single inch. Finally I gave up, but did not feel aggravated or distressed. I took a few licks of that delicious salami. I felt like putting it away for tomorrow, but was unable to resist the heavenly taste of this precious gift. Before hiding it under my blanket, I allowed myself several additional licks. I even tried unsuccessfully of course to have a little bite.
The night seemed to have been exceptionally dark. There was not a single light visible in the whole area. There were no more explossions heard or any particular noices even from far away.
There was no more shouting, screaming of any sort or even silent crying. The whole area was engulfed in total darkness and in deadly silence.
For an instant I thought that I heard some footsteps near by. Excited about the prospect that someone might be able to hear me, I desperately tried to call out for help. But what my vocal cords were able to bring out, was a faint whisper. Obviously, I decided to give up.
I felt cold but no pain whatsoever. An unusual lightness seemed slowly to have replaced the terribly heavy load accumulated inside my head. A weakness never felt before overwhelmed my entire body. My tired eyes stubbornly refused to stay open.
"Why am I suddenly so terribly sleepy"? Were my last thoughts.
I heard voices. It sounded as if several men were talking, all at the same time. I could hardly understand a single word. The language or languages I heard seemed very foreign to my ears
"Perhaps I am dreaming?" I desperately tried to open my eyes. It took a while, but after several attemps and a bit of a struggle I finally succeeded.
I couldn't see much. As if through a dense fog, I was able to make out some contours of people, shaddows only. But no faces. I was totally confused, didn't know where I was and who those strange people were. After a while the fog slowly lifted. The voices became much clearer, though still not understandable. Also the confusion inside my head seemed slowly to stabalize.
I began to recall certain things: The wagon, the dead inmates, the bombing of a military train parallel to our train. Most of all I recalled that by the end there were no more Germans in sight.
I was lying on a table face up. A very bright light was shining down from the ceiling terribly irritating my aching eyes.
The shadows next to the table slowly turned into people. Men with faces, surprisingly smiling faces. They were all wearing some kind of uniforms, military uniforms, clearly not German ... "Who are they," I kept asking myself.
Without feeling the slightest hint of pain, I noticed a needle in my left arm from where a thin pipe was attached to a hanging from somewhere bottle with fluid.
Then I heard voices talking directly to me. At first someone asked me in German who I was and from where I came from. I stubbornly refused to answer, not even realizing why. Then it seemed that I was being asked the same questions in other languages, which I obviously could not understand.
Finally I heard someone addressing me in Polish, although in quite a halting Polish, but to me quite understandable: "Don't be afraid to talk to me", he said and with a pleasant smile on his face he continued, "you are liberated, you are free, you don't have to be afraid any more, we are Americans." When he asked me my name, and where I was born, I was hardly able to answer. I was weak and confused, but looking at his smiling face, I was finally able to whisper my reply to his questions.
Apparently too weak to show my real feelings and happiness, I was lying motionless waiting for further questions. What came next was the seemingly excited voice of the American officer asking me what I would like to have at that moment. I could clearly remember asking for water. Instead I was given a few sips of milk through a glass straw, which I also remember was my first taste of milk since the start of World War 2. It was also my first drink in probably more than a week.
All I can remember, before I blacked out again was a room full of men with smiling faces.
LIBERATED BUT STILL NOT FREE
When I opened my eyes again I was still lying on my back. This time, however, on a stretcher inside a speeding ambulance. I did not know where I was and much less where I was being taken too.
Confused and scared, I desperately tried to recollect what had really happened to me in the last day or two. With my mind speeding in different directions, it became quite a struggle for me to remember clearly anything that happened. After a short while however, one episode of the nearest past came back to me vividly indeed: I was told that I was liberated ... An American officer told me that I was free. I understood him well because he spoke to me in Polish.
Lying with my feet towards the ambulance door, I tried to move my head backwards, in the hope to be able to get a glimpse at the driver. In fact I managed to see with the help of the front mirror the face or part of the face of a military man. Although his helmet did not resemble one of the Germans, I was still unsure of who he was.
My terribly confused mind began to work on my worst fears. I somehow became convinced that the Germans found me and were taking me back to the camp.
This terrible nightmare was further reinforced when I turned my back and in horror noticed a fully uniformed SS man lying on a stretcher next to me.
When the SS man returned my frightend gaze, with a pair of a typical SS mans hatefull eyes, there was not a slightest doubt in my mind that I was on the road back to the Nazi camp.
According to the time already past, I somehow figured that I was being taken much further than camp 4 Kaufering.
Terrible thoughts of being taken to the gas chambers became completely devastating. My thoughts kept on racing one another in an unbearable speed. For the first time in all those years I was anticipating my own death..."This is finally it." I thought "But why does it have to happen after I was already liberated?" Again as always I attempted to calm my fears by trying to awake in myself my ever lasting optimism.
My thoughts were suddenly interrupted by a loud squeak of the ambulances brakes. The ambulances doors abruptly opened and two men dressed in white swiftly pulled out the stretcher with the SS man and disappeared.
Although the commotion inside my mind was for a short while completely uncontrolable, I finally realized that my fears and tribulations were completely groundless.
After they removed the SS man it became clear to me that the Nazi who I thought was placed there to guard me, was actually an injured P.O.W. being transfered to a military hospital.
Although I was not fully aware where I was taken to, I soon learned that all events following my liberation were done exclusively for my benefit. Apparently I was taken away from an area where fighting was still going on, to be placed in a field hospital deeper inside the American occupied German lands. At the new field hospital, where I stayed only several days, all my opened wounds were finally being cleaned up and properly bandaged. I received mostly fluid and mashed foods fitting for a person in my condition. During that time I was being taken care of by a personal nurse.
I will always remember and remain gratefull to the many wounded American soldiers who treated me with love and respect. There were moments when I had to beg them to remove from my blanket the too heavy loads of Hershey bars with which those young Americans kept on showering me.
I was especially gratefull to one of the American patients, a young man from Chicago who spoke some Polish and became my official translator.
After that second field hospital I was transferred to a regular U.S. military hospital. There I was placed in a private room, and being taken care of exclusively by a nurse with a Czeck backround, and Dr. Pavlowitz, a Yugoslavian American. Both of them were easily able to converse with me in Polish. They both took care of me like devoted parents of a new born baby.
During the first days at the hospital, the Americans turned my room into a sort of freak show, (at least this was how I saw it at the time) showing my skeletal body to an array of guests sometimes high ranking U.S. officers. All of them used to snap pictures of my naked body.
However, when they also started to present me to seemingly high ranking Nazi P.O.W.s, I vigorously protested, especially because of their insistence that none of them was aware of the atrocities committed in the concentration camps. Finally these annoying to me shows finally ended.
During the couple of weeks I spent in that hospital, while constantly bed-ridden, I had plenty of time to reflect about my recent past, as well as about my immediate future.
The most difficult thing for me to understand was how under the prevailing circumstances, I was rescued and obviously still alive taken off a wagon full of dead bodies.
Now after so many decades after liberation, while watching documentaries and pictures of how this procedure was handled, (by using baggers and shovels) it is impossible for me to comprehend how my equally skeletal body was being separated from all the dead ones and rescued.
To say that I was just lucky would have been too simple an explanation of something surely much larger. I could also not be sure that if I would remain among the hundreds of other skeletal half dead survivors, I could have had a chance to live for another day. Therefore my old belief that I was being taken care of by a special guardian angel crossed my mind again, this time indeed with more conviction than ever before.
Very slowly I started to gain some weight and some flesh began to cover my transparent almost blue skin. My dramatic rescue, which of course in general was a blessing had also unfortunate side effects: When the first American doctor asked me in Polish my date and place of birth, I hardly realized that according to the Americans the place of birth meant also the nationality of the person. So soon after spending some time in U.S. army hospitals, I was eventually transferred to a D.P. hospital exclusively for Eastern European refugees.
Close to seven months I spent in this type of hospital where I was all the time the one and only Jew.
Although I found several good friends among the Polish patients, I had to endure seven months of anti-semitic abuse by many of the others, especially the Ukrainians. The whole seven months while still sick and almost helpless, being the only Jew among people who hated me only because I was born Jewish, I still consider as some sort of extension to the Holocaust.
One day while visiting a barber shop outside the hospital in the German town of Lohr Am Main near Frankfurt, I noticed a small item in a German newspaper where they mentioned about the existence of a Jewish committee in the Bavarian city of Munich.
Without waiting to get my haircut I immediately returned to the hospital. Although the chief doctor vigorously opposed my leaving the hospital at the time I nevertheless insisted on leaving immediately. With a stern warning to be carefull because the approaching cold November weather might worsen my existing state of an acute pleuritis, he gave me permission to leave.
With the help of my good Polish friend Kazik who literally took off his own shoes and gave them to me, plus one of his warm jackets, I soon found myself (without a single penny in my pockets) in front of an overcrowded train at the rail station at Frankfurt Am Main.
After several hours of travel squeezed among a mass of travellers on an outside ramp of a speeding train, I finally arrived in the Munich Central Central Station.
Standing under a light first winter snow in front of a bus stop, I finally heard a first Yiddish word in over seven months. Standing next to me, a tall slim boy, who later introduced himself as Marek Landau, whispered the commonly used Hebrew expression: "Amchu?" which meant the question, "Are you one of us?" At that very moment I finally felt liberated indeed.
After liberation, a substantial number of survivors had filled up dozens of hospitals and sanatoriums all over Germany.
In spite of the tremendous efforts by the allied forces, thousands of already half dead survivors kept on dying daily. Obviously their vital organs were already damaged to a point at which help came much too late.
So I again found myself in an exceptionally unique position. Instead of being one of those unfortunate souls I was extremely lucky to find myself the one and only survivor among scores of injured American soldiers.
Being put into a fairly large single room and being taken care of by a specially assigned nurse who took care of me as if I were a newborn baby. Maria was of Czeck background who could easily communicate with me. Also a doctor with a Slav background became my personal physician. Dr. Pavlowitz was a Yugoslavian who was also able to speak with me in Polish. Slowly and with utmost care the two of them brought me back to life. I am convinced if many others could have had received such a unique treatment as I did, many thousands of lives could have been saved. It seemed however that under the prevailing conditions such a general treatment was quite impossible.
In all those fabulous places I did not meet (or hear of) a single Jewish survivor. "So why, me?"...I am still searching for a proper answer.
The seven months I had spent in various U.S. and D.P. hospitals, being the only Jew among Gentiles and my eventual return to my people were, to say the least, quite traumatic. This period followed by several years of actual healing and my eventual immigration to Canada in 1951 were so eventful that they warrant a continuation of my memoirs. This second book, on which I am working on already for some time, I hope to have completed soon.
My arrival in Munich, and again becoming a member of the Jewish community, I consider to have been the end of my uniqueness. I started to live and being treated in the same way as all the other survivors of the Holocaust.
During those years of rehabilitation, and quite a degree of suffering, I also experienced, perhaps even more than others, a great deal of happiness.
By the end of 1946 my two older brothers returned from their exile in the Soviet Union and after a short period spent in Lodz, they immediately found their way to Germany. Needless to say that our reunion was one of the most happy events in my life.
Understandably the happiness was mixed with a lot of sadness when they learned from me about the fate of our dear Parents and relatives. There was also a great disappointment due to the absence of my twin brother. While in Lodz, in addition to my letter to the Jewish committee, they had also found a letter from my twin brother who was at the time in Kaunas, Lithuania. Being sure that Myer was already in Germany with me, they didn't even bother to reply to his letter.
They were also quite disturbed by the state of my health.
After a short while Isaac returned to his wife and one year old son Allen, who were staying at a D.P. camp somewhere near Frankfurt. They were living there until their immigration to Canada by the end of 1948.
Moshe, however, with his wife Sonia and his equally one year old daughter Chava settled in Munich, where he found a job in the garages of the A.J.D.C. (American Joint Distribution Committee). They made that move in order to be near me.
During my extended stay at the sanatorium, Misha and Sonia became my virtual parents. They devoted most of their time and energy helping me return to my full health. This feeling of security, provided me with a will to continue my education. Which I did.
In 1949, completely cured and transferred to a school near the Austrian border, at a small town close to Bad Reichenthal, Misha and Sonia decided that it was time for them to leave Germany. With a clear conscience they emigrated to Israel and settled in Jerusalem where Sonia had two older brothers with their families. Misha was also reunited with my Mothers younger sister Rachel and her children who were living in Tel- Aviv since 1935.
After my arrival in Canada in 1951, 1 became one of the thousands of Holocaust survivors who had emigrated to various countries of the Western World. Exactly as the others I worked hard to make a living. Saved up a bit of money, got married, and had two beautiful children (girls), went into business for myself and as most of the others I did my best to live a normal and productive life.
I consider the day when my first daughter, Ella was born to be one of the happiest days in Canada. She was the only one to be named after my dear Mother.
As most as the others did, we sent our children to Jewish schools, regular high schools and Cegep. Eventually both of them got married and shortly after my wife and I were blessed with four grandchildren.
And the years seemed to pass as normally as a person could only wish. Until tragedy struck. In 1990 our loving and devoted daughter Sara was diagnosed with breast cancer. This happened shortly after I had lost my brother Misha who lost his battle with acute leukemia.
In 1993 on the same day we returned from our grandson Rons Bar Mitzvah in Jerusalem, my brother Isaac was taken to a hospital with an apparent heart attack. On the same evening he passed away.
In 1995 after a five year struggle, our devoted daughter Sara, (Sue) passed away. She left two grieving children, Shannon, fifteen, and Ashley, seven. Her sister Ella lost not only a sister, but a dear friend and my wife and I will remain broken hearted forever. And life must go on.
In the year 2000 1 finally retired and soon after became a volunteer at the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre, where I was speaking mostly to students about the Holocaust. A year later I also began work on the "Information Line for Holocaust survivors and their families." Recently I took on an additional job as a member of an advisory committee to help needy Holocaust survivors.
Being married for forty eight years (February 14/1954), my wife and I are blessed with lots of "naches," (pleasure and satisfaction) from our four exceptional grandchildren.: The oldest, Ron is a student of political science at Concordia University (Montreal); his younger brother Michael studies humanities at the same university. They are both graduates of Bialik High School.
Shannon who will soon be twenty two, is on her third year at the University of Ottawa soon to be majoring in biology. She attended the Hillel Academy in Ottawa from where she graduated with distinction. She graduated from high school with a four year scholarship. Her sister Ashley (Orly) is now graduating from the Hillel Academy, probably also with distinction. She will be fourteen on June 5th of this year.
AT LAST A REUNION WITH MY TWIN BROTHER
After years of just corresponding and lots of telephone conversations, I finally managed to bring my brother to Canada for a two month visit. The year was 1990, several months after the untimely passing of my brother Misha, Myer arrived in Montreal. He was accompanied with his son Oleg.
Needless to describe the happy scenes of our reunion. For days we did not tire from the constant nostalgic conversations. He envied my good fortune to have spent so many happy moments with our brother Misha, during the countless times my wife and I had spent in Israel. During each of those visits Sonia jokingly used to tell us that for Misha, our visits were always considered his most happy times. As always Sonia used to treat us not just like a sister-in-law, but like a devoted Mother.
Among most of Misha's few regrets in life was his insistence for me not to emigrate to Israel. The main reason for him to do that was his constant worrying about my health: "The times in Israel are too difficult now, and it would be better for you at least temporarily to choose a better place." And with fatherly concern continued: "Didn't you suffer enough?" Sometimes during our conversations, Misha used to confess regretfully that if he would have been a bit smarter we could have been living together all our lives in Israel.
Myer and his son spent a terrific two months in Montreal. A time he would never forget. We met again at both Bar Mitzvas of our grandsons in Jerusalem, Ron's in 1993 and Michaels in 1995. Also two of his sons were guests at both Bar Mitzvahs. His son Oleg soon after his visit in Montreal decided to emigrate to Israel. With the help of Sonia and his cousins he established for himself a new and happy life.
Recently Myers oldest son with his wife became new immigrants to Israel. He himself however claims to be too old to start a new life, a claim which he started to express twenty years ago ... While in Montreal Myer did his best to explain the circumstances of his misinformed departure from Germany to Lithuania: "After the Americans entered Camp 4 Kaufering, he returned to the camp searching for me. When he came close to the two typhoid huts expecting to find me inside, he saw instead two piles of rubble. Being convinced that I was killed in the apparent explosion, he helplessly stood there for several minutes reciting Kaddish, (the prayer for the dead). He left the place where he was spending a most terrible period in his life as if he would be leaving a cemetery.
Not being fully aware about life in the Soviet Union, he let himself be talked into a misguided venture by some of his newly acquired Lithuanian friends. They convinced him that by going with them to Lithuania, he might be able to find his two older brothers. Disappointed and miserable all his life. he was a Father of three sons with an always sick wife. He had to wait forty five years to finally get the chance to visit Canada.
Now we are in touch by often having endless conversations on the phone. We both sincerely hope to see each other again.
Our Mothers last wish while being taken to the gas chambers of Auschwitz "For us to stay together" was unfortunately only partially fulfilled. We only managed to stay together during the period of our incarceration at Dachau.
With Sonia and her children we are in very close contact. We speak with them very often, sometimes once and even twice weekly. Unfortunately we did not have the opportunity to visit them in Israel in the last several years. However, Chava with her husband David were here several times and so was her brother Chanoch, with his wife Mira. During our grieving period for Sara and during the Shiva, all of them were here to comfort us.
Our closeness and love between both our families will remain forever.
IMMEDIATE FAMILY, RELATIVES AND FRIENDS WHO
I will start, of course, with both my parents, and continue with the names of our immediate family and relatives:
My Mothers parents, Naomi and Mendl Rosenbloom.
Her three brothers, Isaak, Hillary, and Nathan, with their wives and children.
My Fathers brother Samuel and sisters Esther, Chava, Tayga, and Yeta, with their families.
Two of my cousins, a nineteen year old girl and her seventeen year old brother (Fela and Jurek Rosenbloom) survived the Lodz ghetto and several concentration camps but were murdered after liberation. They were taken out from their apartment by members of the Polish Home Army, and mercilessly killed. Members of this right-wing resistance group murdered thousands of Jews during the Holocaust and continued doing that also after liberation. Thousands of concentration camp survivors and returnees from the Soviet Union were being killed by shootings and during organised pogroms.
Beside the above-mentioned close relatives we had lost all our second aunts and uncles with most of their children and grandchildren.
Among the survivors, in addition to my brothers, were several cousins. Some of them survived in the Soviet Union and some the German occupation.
Without exaggeration it would be safe to estimate the number of victims in both my parents families between eighty and ninety men, women and children.
The few survivors established themselves in Israel, the U.S.A. and Canada.
It might be of interest to mention that one cousin of mine, a woman about thirty years old, survived with her ten year old son by working as a Christian at a Nazi officers cantine. After liberation Bronia and her son Marek settled in Israel. Her husband however perished while in hiding. Her older sister with her two young children were killed in 1941 during a pogrom by Ukrainians in the city of Stanislavov. After her husband buried the mutilated bodies of his family he committed suicide.
One more cousin, Hershy Rosenbloom, survived in hiding and also settled in Israel.
In sharp contrast to the staggering number of relatives our family has lost to the Holocaust, the number of survivors was very small indeed. However, in a relatively short time we had managed to rebuild our shattered lives and secure a "hemshech" (continuity) of the large Kujawski family.
I am grateful and thank God for granting me the privilege to be alive and able to see our family grow and prosper. Most of our second generation became professionals with the third generation following in their footsteps.
Now at the start of the second millennium, the Kujawski family including their spouses with an already emerging fourth generation, number close to 45 young men, women, and children.
Although we are spread over three continents, we remain a family united by a tragic past and a promising bright future.