Concordia University MIGS

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Volume 9

September 21, 1993

It took me a little while to get the idea that I am in Buchenwald. I had heard of this infamous place far back, before the war. When the Nazis got the largest vote in the election to the German parliament in 1933, they set up almost the day after the elections, concentration camps for opponents to nazism. The place had no previous history. It became known the world over immediately after it was established. It is located in the German province of Thuringia and it is close to the city of Weimar. It became synonymous with torture, inhumanity and bestiality. All of those designations were constantly confirmed by stories that came out of the German underground. We used to shudder at the very thought of that horrible place. Socialists, trade unionists, communists, freemasons and at first some Jewish businessmen and professionals were imprisoned there. The treatment that was meted out to the detainees was shocking. It became a scare word everywhere. When the war started in 1939 and then the fall of France followed in 1940, the nazis took many politicians and known anti-fascists to this infamous place. Lon Blum, the former French prime minister, was incarcerated in Buchenwald. I knew about the famous-infamous place a long time before the war. It certainly was not associated with anything but horrible pictures of tortured freedom fighters.

When our transport arrived, we were faced with a huge inscription on the front gate, leading to the camp grounds. It proclaimed the saying, that "right or wrong, it is my fatherland". It certainly was not a very pleasing invitation to the doings of the place. We were given numbers. Since that moment, when I was transformed into 113208, I was just a number. It was a vast camp. There were the old established sections and the newer ones. We were herded into the newer section. Barrack 59, number 113208 was all that I was told of this place at the time of registration. Barracks devoid of anything save the three-tiered bunks. Dark, cold and frightening. We were continually taunted by the older inmates for being so stupid and to be taken out of Czenstochowa, when liberation was only a day away. It hit us very low. Of course we could not have known what was in store for us. Under strict guards, not being aware as to what and when, and having been used for years to follow the slightest command, we were not in a position to create that type of energy that was necessary to resist the marching order. I do not think it was very considerate to depress us with such arguments. We were of course a pitiful lot. Although not starved, but bedraggled and forlorn, we just huddled together for mutual comfort.

We encountered all kinds of other inmates. There were people with red, yellow and green signs on their lapels and backs. Each of those signs meant a different type of prisoner. The green were criminals, the red were political and the yellow were the Jews. There was also a small number of religiously persecuted inmates who had mauve-coloured signs. These were the Jehovah Witnesses and other religious opponents of the Nazis. The majority of the prisoners were not Jews. There were people there from every corner of Europe. We heard languages being spoken, of which we could not even fathom the origin. It was a bedlam of different groups. It was a new experience for us to be imprisoned together with other people of different ethnic and religious groups. Our whole sojourn through the ghetto and camps made us feel a group which was shunned and deserted by everybody else. I could not picture a Jew and a German sharing the same place or the same destiny. It was difficult to adjust to constant contact with non-Jews.

The camp itself was situated on a hill, surrounded by woods. The very name Buchenwald meant beech forest. There were many barracks and other structures spread over a very large tract of land. There were storage sheds, some industrial buildings and other places like bath houses, kitchens, sick rooms, guard barracks and the crematoria. There were no selections there while I was imprisoned. Each barrack or sometimes several barracks had an outhouse with long benches and a smelly pit to collect the human excretion. We started feeling the rigor of camp life almost from the moment that we were herded there.

 

September 22, 1993

Buchenwald, the ill-famed concentration camp. Huge, multinational, multi-lingual. The designations of the various places of confinement were already an important element in our thinking process. The world knew of its existence since its inception. Like all things associated with the evil spirit of Nazism, it too was a place of inhuman creation.

It was being run like an efficient machine. It had its rules and regulations and an established procedural entity. Early morning parades, departures to allotted tasks, command structures, transportation and feeding norms. It was frighteningly efficient. Human life or incapacity were the last concerns of the S.S. staff that manned the camp. We were always told at the last minute as to assignments. Not everybody was treated in the same manner. We noticed already, that the old inmates were considered the elite of the prisoners. They were also better fed and lived in cleaner and more spacious barracks. The old-time inmates even had their own inner camp prisoner elders. I never managed to get through to the political prisoners and inquire about the camp's standing and policy. It was like a division that was marked by the looks and numbers of the barracks. Ours were the high numbers, the old prisoners were housed in the lower numbered barracks. I never lived in or visited the other, older barracks. We only heard from prisoners of the entirely different attitudes of treatment. Very seldom did we meet at work or after work hours. There were also prisoners of war there. I met only Russian ones. But I heard that there were many others too. We were also very close in distance to the outstanding feature of the camp. It was a children's barrack. I do not mean little children. They were mostly just about 10 years old or slightly older. There were no women in the camp. Now and again we used to see some women prisoners escorted by guards. We were told that they were women from a nearly women's camp. I do not know the purpose of those visits. A railway siding was there to facilitate all kinds of needs. As is commonly known, the fences around the camp were electrically charged.

We saw in the camp many Italians who were a short while before partisans of rebellious anti-fascist groups. There were some Spanish inmates. They were the anti-Franco groups that the Germans came across in France. Altogether there were literally people from all over Europe. I tried to befriend some of those new fellow inmates. There were great language difficulties. We could only communicate in German. None of us spoke that language well. We managed though to get by. For me, it was not too hard to speak German. I knew some from the encounters that I had had with German soldiers and Volksdeutsche, prior to the ghetto. I learned very quickly of the war situation from them. Somehow they had contacts with Germans and knew quite a lot about the course of events. Many of those prisoners were socialists and communists. They openly said so. In Buchenwald there were no fears for one's politics. They were there a long time already and had established a rapport with some of their guards. The old inmates were inquiring immediately upon our arrival as to prisoners who were oppressing us in our previous camp. The inner circle of camp elders was making sure that such characters were somehow dealt with in appropriate ways. The ones to fear most were the so-called green-sign prisoners. They were the criminal element amongst the inmates. They were often Kapos. Although the camp elders tried to deal with them, they were the scourge of the prisoners.

It was in the middle of winter when we arrived. The camp, being located on top of a steep hill, was a very cold spot. Harsh winds and freezing temperatures made our parade time an agonizing experience. Almost shoeless and dressed in tattered trousers with no underwear or overcoats, we endured terrible frosts. I had also the misfortune to have a very painful hand which kept on freezing up at the very place of injury. There were no fresh dressings available at first. One just had to endure agony, which sometimes used to cause me fainting spells. The inside of the barracks was also very cold. The barrack elder used to have a little wood stove. It hardly ever gave us much warmth. It looked then to me like a place close to the end of endurance. But like many times before, the will to see this living hell through gave me that much stamina that at the lowest point in my camps and ghetto sojourns, I still saw other horizons. To go through that winter in Buchenwald was for me sheer hell.

 

September 23, 1993

The stay in Buchenwald was at first just parades in the mornings and evenings. I had lots of pain in my left hand, due to the unhealed fingers. Time went by during the day by encounters with other prisoners and a little politicking. The war was coming to an end. New groups of prisoners kept on arriving daily. From all directions came news and hints as to the already desperate situation for all German armies. There was another invasion of France, through the South. The Russian and allied armies were capturing big chunks of Germany proper. There was German withdrawal from the Balkans. Poland was already liberated. According to the news dispatches that even penetrated to us in camp, German border areas were already taken by all the allies. Buchenwald, being in the middle of Germany, was a place where the Germans kept on gathering the inmates of many other outlying camps. We felt unmistakably that the ring around the hated Nazi regime was getting tighter by the day. Unfortunately for us, they, the most despised in the world, kept the war going.

By the end of February 1945, prisoners were being taken out to nearby Weimar, a German city of some fame and associated with the Weimar Republic of pre-Nazi days. It was a pretty medieval place with a lot of old buildings. The parties that were assembled in the mornings after parade were designated to clean up Weimar after allied bombings. I was drafted along with most of my barrack inmates for that kind of work. We used to be taken by freight trains to the outskirts of the city and then distributed in smaller units to various parts of the city. Each group had a Kapo and a German guard. We came into contact with the civilian population. It was the first time that I encountered ordinary Germans. I remember not knowing how to react to the sight of people going about their concerns in an unhurried manner. There were children and old people as well as lots of women of all ages and quite a number of invalids. Sometimes our guards used to be even friendly. Most of the time they were scary. We were engaged in clearing the rubble and digging up broken water and sewage pipes. The German civilians that were directing the digging were often reasonably civil. It was such a contrast to the bestiality that we encountered up till then when in contact with Germans, save for the several German masters in Chenstochowa. Now and again some women would give us a potato or a piece of bread. The work was arduous but not debilitating. Although sometimes a rough guard would hit someone or curse, we were generally treated not too badly, considering the circumstances.

The camp itself was a very busy place. Lots of new prisoners were arriving daily. There were at first some inmates who were sent out to nearby working camps. This stopped about the end of February. The camp was getting overcrowded. There were lots of rumours around as to the fortunes of war. The atmosphere was already highly charged with expectations.

I was still being sent out daily to Weimar. Once our detail was sent to a bombed out factory, a very short distance from camp. We had to clear away some rubble. The place looked like a spot where a heavy earthquake took place. Nothing was on that spot that could be used for any activity. None of us knew what to make of that place. Some guards volunteered explanations. This was an important munitions plant. The allied air force knew about its existence. They had information as to the working schedules in the plant. They chose a time when there were no inmates at the factory. It was the changing of shifts. They swooped down, about 500 of them. Within 12 minutes the factory ceased to exist. The remarkable thing about that raid was: the absence of casualties amongst the inmate labour force. There were lots of casualties amongst the guards. It all happened just before we arrived from Chenstochowa. In the camp, they were apparently carrying on as always. Not a single bomb fell in the camp. The whole distance from the camp was about one half mile. Many times did I go back in my mind to that event. If they had only done things like that before, they would certainly have boosted our morale. They might even have had less German war capacity to deal with. New inmates that kept arriving in a steady stream brought with them exciting news. The industrial Ruhr and Rhine districts were taken by the allies. France was already functioning as a sovereign republic. Belgium, Holland, Poland, Luxembourg, Norway, Greece, Yugoslavia, were all liberated. Only a small pocket in the middle of Germany was still under Nazi rule. We expected any day to see our own liberation.

 

September 24, 1993

At the end of March 1945 came a new departure. The talk in the camp was only about one thing: how long is it likely to last. There were some references to radio bulletins. I am not sure how those bulletins came down to the prisoners. We all breathed the odour of forthcoming events. We could almost see it: the areas that were falling daily to the allies on all fronts. It was getting closer to us by the day and hour. The outside work in Weimar was suspended. We gave each other encouragement. There were still many deaths amongst the inmates. Some were thoroughly exhausted. There were no more outright murder cases. Everybody held their breath. True to German attachment to obey the powers to be, there were no signs of open revolt or disobedience. There was however lacking in the guards the spirit of viciousness and hate. They were obeying orders with little enthusiasm.

In the last days of March, when I still used to be sent out to work, I once encountered a curious situation. On the freight car, bringing us back to Buchenwald, I sat on the floor next to the Kapo and the S.S. guard. I was able to hear part of their conversation. The Kapo was not a criminal prisoner, but a red triangle one. As a rule I was afraid to be too near either of such people. But having been thrust in that spot by chance, I just could not help overhearing the two of them having their chat. At an unsuspecting moment I heard the Kapo asking me something. I woke up in a stupor. I was half dozing when he nudged me. He pointed to the guard, a Waffen S.S. man, and said in a clear voice that he, that is the guard, is a communist. He stressed that I should not be afraid of him. All he wants is to buy some dollars. He offered to pay the right price. I was flabbergasted. I thought at first that it might be a cruel joke or some sort of provocation. I answered after hesitating for a minute. I told them both that I don't have any dollars or any other money. To my pleasant surprise, they just said that if I should know of some money that is dollars or British pounds, then I should contact them. It was all very strange. I told them that I will do as they asked me. The whole pattern of behaviour and the very question of dollars was really like some apparition from space. Could it be that relations between Germans and Jews were assuming human norms? It seemed so odd that it really jolted me. I couldn't share the matter-of-factness of the question. A new dimension unveiled itself. I think this encounter between an emaciated inmate of a concentration camp, a political German prisoner and an S.S. guardsman, did alter my established views as to the way things have moved in the last few days or weeks. Somehow the reality of possible encounters on a human level became a probability.

Life in the camp was going on in a regular way on the surface. Every day parades were still the norm. Food was being distributed as before. Not as good as in Chenstochowa, but it was somehow possible to keep body and soul together. My hand was almost healed. Nature, even in such a state of exhaustion as we were already after 5 1/2 years of deprivation, was still capable of utilizing its inherent means of rushing to the defense of life. There were so many things going on in this fenced off world of its own, that it was hard to follow all developments. We, the comparative late comers to the Buchenwald scene, were not even acquainted yet with the wide scope of all the activities and human potential there. It would probably have taken many more weeks or months to realize who the prisoners were and their dispositions. The whole process of getting acquainted with the camp came to a sudden halt. On April 6th or 7th, an order was barked out on the camp loudspeaker system. It called for an extra parade. As soon as the parade was under way a second order asked all Jewish prisoners to step out. We were told to assemble separately. Right after that we were led away to a special compound. The camp was being evacuated. All normal activities were suspended. We were once again on the move.

 

September 25, 1993

The move was not however a direct one. In a short time after that morning, when the order was barked out for all Jewish prisoners to step out, we were marched off to a compound at the back of the camp. I used to see that area many times. I was always told that this is a storage place. We were dumped by our guards at the entrance to that compound. It was a large area with many storage buildings. Within a short period of time there were there thousands of prisoners. I have the impression now that there were others besides Jews there. Many of the people that I saw there were not even from the camp. They were taken there directly from the evacuation transports that were constantly arriving in Buchenwald. The western front was moving closer and the Nazis kept on taking all the prisoners along with them, as they kept on giving up huge tracts of land. We were told by the officers in charge, that this was the end of Buchenwald camp. We were supposed to be sent away in parties of several hundred each. Our direction was southward. The name often mentioned was Dachau, the other notorious camp of prewar infamous fame. We knew that Dachau was close to the Austrian border.

As there was no roll call or any taking down of numbers or names of those that were being dumped in the area, I came to a quick conclusion that there is actually chaos reigning around. Instinctively I kept on drawing back into the far corners of the dark shacks. I saw through gaps in the walls that parties were already forming. There were others besides me that followed a similar instinct or hunch. When there was a break in the continuous group forming, I came out unobtrusively and grabbed any morsel of food that I could find. We kept on being chased around by the zealous guards who were suspecting hideaways. I landed finally on an attic above a food storage dump. I remember hiding behind the big beams. We could hear what was going on around us. We must have been well hidden, as nobody stumbled on our refuge. At night we went out to find a drink and anything else that was edible. We also used the darkened yard for natural needs. This game of hide and seek went on for 3 days. We were not sure whether the camp as such still existed. Unexpectedly an order came through on the loudspeaker system. It told all who could hear it to make it back to the camp proper. The order was short and curt. The whole area where we were hidden was going to be blown up shortly. Any one that would not obey would be either shot on sight or blown up. Slowly I could see individual prisoners making their way out to the gate. The order was repeated once more. Without any contacts I was in a state of bewilderment as to what to do. Both sides of the coin were fraught with mortal danger. I made my way back to camp. Those that came out with me were directed to the low-numbered barrack area. We were several hundred that came back.

There must have been thousands that were herded in from the camp, plus the ones that were directly dumped there from the arrivals in the camp transports. As it really looked to us, this nightmare would collapse any hour. We were given a place in a barrack run by a gypsy from Germany. The interior looked clean and tidy. Nothing to compare with the barracks that we were housed in before. We were given some soup and bread and told to assemble outside the barrack. There again was a parade. There was an attempt to segregate the Jews from the others. We again dodged the order. After an hour or so of chaotic orders and counter-orders, we were told to disperse to our bunks. As we proceeded with this order, we heard an announcement. The whole camp would be evacuated tomorrow. All prisoners, including the prisoners of war, would be sent out because of the approaching allied armies. They even encouraged us to go, as the allies would take us for helpers of the German war effort. That might make our lot miserable if taken prisoner. Early next morning we saw all the barracks lining up for departure. There were no transports to the main line railway in Weimar. We were marching behind the Russian prisoners of war. Some who could not make the 8-kilometer march were supported by others marching next to them. Some others were left at the roadside. We hard some shots around us. It was probably the German way to dispose of stragglers. The huge mass of several thousand prisoners arrived at the freight siding of Weimar.

 

September 26, 1993

When we marched out of Buchenwald, we became aware of the fact that some prisoners were still left behind. We were told that the others will follow in the afternoon. Almost immediately after we all arrived in Weimar, we were loaded on open freight cars. We were tightly squeezed together. There must have been between 70 and 80 persons in each car. Everybody got one loaf of bread for the journey. The train pulled out as soon as the loading was finished. We had no idea as to where we were being taken. We could not even tell by the sun whether it was south or east. West and North were already liberated. We did however memorize the date. It was the 10th April 1945. The train was going at a slow speed. There were frequent jolts and stops. Of course nobody could explain anything to our inquiries. The guard, who was stationed in the car with us, was not saying anything at all. There was no room to sit down properly. We could just crouch where we stood. After several hours of slow moving, we came to a full stop. We were told to disembark. We were taken in small parties by our guard to a nearby lake. There we were told to drink in any way we could. I just crouched on the water's edge and just like an animal, slurped with my tongue the small doses of water that I could find. There was not too much that I could get that way. I helped myself with my cupped hands. The awful thirst subsided. We still had to see to our natural needs. These functions had to be done in a great hurry. As soon as one group was watered, the other was taken. It did not take too long to lead all the prisoners to the water. It was already the afternoon. We were packed into the carriages again. Very slowly we moved forward. It seemed that we were not going forward too far. We kept on going backward quite often. Wherever we were, we did not know. There was no contact with any peasants in the place that we halted.

Towards the evening we stopped again. We were given a soup and some ersatz brew. The night drew near and we were beginning to doze off. It was still cold and we were dressed in a shabby jacket and trousers. Nothing else was there to cover yourself with. It was hard to tell when we woke up, whether we moved during the night. Still the same countryside. The weather was mercifully not too windy or wet. Each one had still a bit of bread left. We ate the dry bread and looked longingly out to the passing fields and brooks. We were going somewhere, presumably southeastward. Again we stopped at some spots for water and needs' comfort. At the end of the second day we were again given some soup and the brew that was supposed to be coffee. We were getting into a stupor. There were no acts of violence on the ride. The guards who were with us were also in a stupor. Except for the curses and swearing of the guards, there was no visible agitation on board.

We were still going forward and backward. We sometimes stayed on a siding for hours. At the end of the third day we were given our soup only. No explanations were given. We knew that the war was on all around us. At the stops we used to exchange a few words with the prisoners of war. Generally we were not allowed to have any discourse with them. But sometimes we stole a word here or there. They too did not know where the train was leading, but they indicated that definitely to the southeast.

The end of the third day was also the end of food rations. We were not told anything by the officers or the guards. As usual, we were hardly ever spoken to at all. We had no idea how far we traveled or how long we are likely to travel.

 

September 27, 1993

The terrain that we entered was a little more friendly than the one we had come from. The hills of the area around Weimar gave way to flat lands. We could see some peasants as the train passed through farms and small villages. Everything there seemed peaceful. Whether it really was that way we could not verify. It looked that way to us. We saw lots of farm animals. It was spring. There was sowing and ploughing all around. Sometimes we saw people waving to us in some sign of encouragement. When the train would stop, as it did so often, for no known reasons to us, people would come forward and assure us that the war was coming to an end. Occasionally some bread or boiled potatoes used to be tossed over. The guards tried to stop that. Unmistakably, the people on that stretch of the country showed some concern. It was encouraging. At the end of day four of our evacuation, we did not get any soup. We were already through with the bread. Mercifully, we were given water. The reason given by the guards was the running out of supplies. We were told that as we will travel on, we will be re-supplied with provisions from depots along the rail line. Hunger was already gnawing at the insides. Most of us did not eat the whole day. In a despondent mood we sat down in our wagons to spend the night somehow.

It was also the season for spring showers. We huddled together for a bit of protection from the elements. As the train drove on, industrial complexes and residential areas were passed. We could make out some names of places. It was definitely the part of Germany close to Czechoslovakia. We saw lots of bombed out buildings. As on the day before, we did not get any food at all. We were hoping to receive something at the end of the day. We were told the same story as the day before. Now it was blamed on allied raids, which have destroyed lots of food. We were getting ravishingly hungry. I looked on the side of our stop. There were some leaves already on bushes. I picked up some and started munching them. They did not satiate my hunger. But I felt some gratification of my senses. Many others did the same.

Another night of numbed anxiety. The war was almost over. Unmistakable signs were everywhere. We were going forward, sideways and just nowhere for many hours in the day. We passed through bombed out cities. The sight of Chemnitz was probably as close a picture of destruction as doomsday prophets paint. We could see from the open cars a complete city destroyed. One could see from the rail lines right across the bombed out shells of buildings, to the other side of the city. There just were not any houses that looked like inhabited places. Just skeletons and charred ruins. It warmed our hearts. We could see the work of the allies at first hand. All our thoughts were on the just retribution that is coming down on the heads of the hated Nazis.

This awesome sight did not saturate our nagging hunger and thirst. But we felt an inner thrust of hopefulness. We stopped just outside this bombed out city. We quenched our thirst and again made do with some leaves and bark from young trees. At this stop, we watched a dive attack on another train that was full of army men and women. The bombers dove one after the other spraying bombs and shrapnel on the train next to ours. We were allowed to hide under our car. There were lots of casualties among the soldiers. We also saw one aircraft hit. I am not sure what the situation was on our transport. That scene plus the sight of the bombed out Chemnitz gave us a clue as to the war and its atmosphere. The allied bombers must have seen our train. At times we could see the pilots of the diving planes. They did not shoot at us. At long last we could almost feel that we are not alone and abandoned. We moved on. For the first time in several days did we get some crust of bread and soup.

The lot of the prisoners on our transport was getting desperate. There were already many dead from exposure, hunger and illnesses. We were in a way getting out of the picture. I too felt the end was coming. I could feel a numbness in my whole being. We came to the Czechoslovakian border. Somehow there were less German faces and the language was sounding closer to Polish. We were told that we are in Czechoslovakia. It was a relief to hear it.

 

September 28, 1993

For all those prisoners that were already on the transport for close to two weeks, life was ebbing out, with hardly any food and unprotected from the still chilly spring weather. I remember things as if they were filtered through a net. Nothing that comes through now or in the previous forty odd years since that time is very clear cut. At best there is a sort of fog enveloping the days and nights at that period. I remember moving around, but not the reasons why. Grass and leaves and bark were the materials that often filled my mouth. If there is a pre-ending period, this must have been the time that the whole transport was either moving forward or sideways or backward or standing still. We lost count of days and nights. Life as one knows it, is a continuous chain of interlocking events. Even when one period and another don't always have a direct or rational link. There is motion in life and there is a continuity, both in thoughts and deeds. From a rational point of view, we are gathering impressions and reactions as we travel on our life's road of experiences.

If I managed to convey my observations of the periods of life under German occupation, then the existence in those close to two weeks of being nowhere in particular, was actually a break in the motion of life. I remember vaguely events and even some people around me. One such an event was the stop in the middle of a field. There were some plants growing there. They could have been potatoes or beets or carrots. There were many guards on the perimeter around us. They were behind machine gun nests. Prisoners of war and the other prisoners were mingling aimlessly on the field. I tried to sneak away and grab a shoot of some vegetable plant. I almost got to it, when a guard yelled out to get away from the plant. I froze still. I only recall some Russian prisoners trying to plead on my behalf with the guardsman. I am alive today, I don't know till now how and why they helped me. I can't forget that. Even when it was all so misty as to further happenings on the transport. I don't remember getting any food in the last days of that hellish journey. Somehow we were already near a town. There were yells and commands. We disembarked. I remember hearing of maybe half our number dead. I even heard words to the effect of some dead people having been cannibalized. I didn't see those things myself. I don't recall anybody whom I could identify by name or looks, that had seen it himself. But I clearly remember hearing of it then.

Some people were talking of Czech partisans. They were supposed to have helped the transport in the last few days of the journey. I can't say that I saw any of those things going on. And yet I remember in a much clearer way getting into a building and waiting to be allowed to go to a shaving of all the body hair and cutting of my hair. I even remember the fact that women were doing all this cleaning and shaving. I remember hearing someone saying that the only thing that they could do, was getting all the dead people out of the freight cars. It was night. I know that we got something to eat. I don't know what, though.

We had arrived in Theresienstadt. Dimly I remember an impulse which told me that I heard of this place before. I wasn't any more on the freight car. I was in a building that had bunks. At the time when it all happened, I don't remember whether I was in German or Red Cross hands. There was a registration the following day. We were given some identification cards. With those cards we received some food. It must have been the end of April or early May. Still in a state of almost total mental fatigue, I remember going to the ambulatory room and being told that I have to be hospitalized. The only thing that I worried about was my piece of bread. I was allowed to take that with me. There were quite a few nurses, that I could make out. I was undressed and of all things I remember being in a bed.

 

September 29, 1993

The next few days or more than days I must have been in limbo. No clear recollections as to how and when. It seems to me now, that I was associating the almost insensible under the circumstances desire for bread, with any life left in me. I remember now raising myself out of bed in a violent swing to make sure that my bread is next to my bed. I remember being calmed down by people, who showed me the bread. I don't know if I could or did eat at all during that suspension from life period. I remember noises. I remember human figures. I know that this period in my life was a no life, no death period. I was told by the nurse, when I could muster enough energy to ask the only question that was on my mind then: where am I and what is going on, that I am still down with typhus and that I am in a clinic. I remember that talk. It did not stir me to any reaction. The next time that I could take in any impression that made sense was the vague outline of people atop a huge tank. There was jubilation. I saw this through the window panes. I remember the thought that shot through my mind: the allies are here. I don't recall any jubilation on my part, only an inner sigh of relief. As if spurred on by this inner spark, I turned around and saw a very small woman in a military uniform. She told me in a language that had some familiar undertones - it must have been Ukrainian or Polish - that the war is over and that we will be getting medical treatment and food. I even think that she also spoke some Yiddish. It did seem strange to my mind then. I was told to make an effort and get up. I did it instinctively and I also remember standing stark naked in front of that small woman doctor. I became after that encounter strengthened enough to look around me. There were quite a number of other men in the room. One or two came over and told me that I was in delirium for most of my stay in the clinic. They confirmed that the war is already over. The attention that was bestowed on us was friendly and healing. I don't know where from, but there were lots of young women ministering to our needs. They were probably from the women barracks in Theresienstadt. They spoke Polish and Czech and German. I began to make out what they were saying. They told of the dramatic rescue by the Russian army. The Germans were trying to do harm to the swollen body of inmates that were dumped in the camp in the last days of the war. The quick action of the Russians, answering a call from the Red Cross, saved the lives of many inmates. Such was the general topic of conversation.

It was pleasing to listen to such talk. It started the process of bringing me back to reality. Even after being assured that no more will there be war and hunger, I was still numb as to reactions to such heartwarming pronouncements. The state of my being then I can only describe as not having come out of limbo yet. Somewhere between being and not being. The days that followed were already full of vibration. People were coming in with tales of flushing out hidden Germans from the nearby woods. Soldiers kept on coming. They were not only Russians but from other allied units as well. There were Americans and Polish soldiers. The sick and the recuperating people were given tidbits the likes of which were not seen for the last five years: chocolates, biscuits, cheese, white bread and many other delights. This warmth more than any other facts around us, inspired the growth of energy and desires. Even fruit, unseen all the war years, were seen among the staff and visitors. I didn't have at that time anybody around me, that I could talk to, such as a friend, acquaintance or even a person from any of the places that I was incarcerated in. However, there were friendly people around me. Language didn't seem to be a barrier. Somehow, we each knew some of the languages of the people around us. Even when we spoke in a very badly structured ungrammatical way, we were nevertheless able to communicate with one another. The period of coming back to life had begun.

 

September 30, 1993

REBIRTH AND REFLECTIONS. If a true thought came out of my dilemma as to how to phrase the other side of having been out and coming back to life, I would say with as much certainty as I can muster, that being born again fits the thought.

One doesn't normally live twice. I don't even think that one does live abnormally more than once. How else could one combine the persistent thinking of having had a life before and yet having another one now. There had to be a between period. Otherwise it is continuously the same. The big problem is how to treat each one. Maybe make them out in your mind as two separate parts of one existence. Maybe hibernation is the right description. Any of these terms are appropriate to the state of mind and disposition, that I found myself in at the time of liberation.

There is another thought that came to me soon after that eventful period. I still remember it after all those years that have elapsed since. May is the month of renewal in almost all real and allegorical terms. Nature in its perpetual way, favours this period with an abundance of manifestations. May used to be the synonym for awakening. I remember the songs and poems extolling the renewal of hope and life's gifts to men and beasts. It is maybe a twist of fate that it was in the month of May that I was born twice. And to boot, it was very close in actual days to one another. It used to be considered a truism, that one gets to be grown up upon reaching the age of 21. It still is true in many ways. So, just entering the jubilation of being free after more than 5 12 years of terrible calamities, I felt like a 21-year-old newborn person. I didn't know the extent of the destruction in all its horrible details. I certainly could not focus on what is my place in this old-new setup. Where is my place? What became of the whole world that I knew and felt part of? I never moved out of my home nest for any length of time, except for vacations and visits to the place of birth of my mother and surrounding localities. Where is my family? What kind of life is there, where we lived before? Where is one to go? Could one go wherever one wanted? Who is caring for the survivors? Are there other survivors?

We knew instinctively the enormity of destruction. But we could not fathom it. It wasn't at all reasonable on all premises that I lived with to accept an entirely new reality. So if there was a new thing that was directing life, what was the guiding light of it? Being born again at age 21 isn't at all like being born at age zero. But a rebirth it was. When I awoke at that clinic some time after the liberation. I had passed out of unbearable agony into a suspended existence. I started being imbued with the thoughts of a two birthdays person. It still pervades my thinking and feelings.

It was on May 8 that Theresienstadt was liberated. I was not exactly aware of it at the time. I was told by those around me that we are free of the scourge of nazism. I was celebrating my 21st birthday on May 13. At the time of liberation and the subsequent birthday of mine, I was in both cases not available for comments. I had to be pulled up to face the realization that there is life around me. With a lot of uncertainty, I faced the new life.

 

October 1, 1993

I am sure that I was not the only one to be beseeched with such questions as to what life is going to be. There are fortunately a number of survivors who, whether they had my experiences or other, equally traumatically devastating ones, have asked and are still asking those poignant questions of the surrounding humanity. Each of us has all pertinent questions and some private ones, confined to their surroundings and particular experiences. Each such question is valid and often heavy to bear with oneself. They come through to us when an encounter or a circumstance triggers off a half-submerged impression. I am probably in that respect quite normal. We, the survivors, have an enlarged normalcy. It covers so much of the essentially countless possibilities, that it is a never-ending condition. All those thoughts and hidden fears, started to emerge at first in a half-hidden way and as time went on, in an open way, immediately upon getting up from the misery of the war. No single mind can cope with such an avalanche. It was almost improbable to live through the war. It certainly was not at all easy to find answers to the questions that refused to disappear after the war. We did not have any access to counseling or psychological services. Except for basic needs like food distribution and medical attention, we were left to brood and ponder and retreat into ourselves.

I was transferred to a convalescent barrack on the outskirts of the sizable terrain of the camp. This camp was actually an old garrison town, named after the Queen of Austria, Maria Theresa. The fact that it was on Czechoslovakian territory had to do with the old Austro-Hungarian empire. As a camp it had redeeming features. There was a river running through the camp. It actually formed the border of the camp. There were decent streets and a large square. The houses, although called barracks, were clean and fairly spacious. I was allocated to a house that looked a bit like a rest house. It was spacious and had lots of air and sunshine. There was a front porch and the best of all, it had a bath tub with running hot and cold water. There were a couple of nurses with a supervisor. It was a clean place and a wonderful retreat. We were not isolated from the rest of the camp. We were just outside the main area. This was one of a group of similar houses. There was a doctor and there were some women who did the domestic chores. The weather was getting warmer and full of the blessings of spring. For people like us, recently saved with maybe a minute to spare and out of a severe typhus, this was probably the balmiest experience in my life.

In spite of being transported from the pit of nothingness to a pleasant, cheerful place, my inner process of so many questions kept on arriving. There were also other problems presenting themselves for consideration. Who knew that I had survived? Were there survivors elsewhere? Where was a central point of reference? How does one communicate with the outside of the camp? I knew that there was family in Argentina, Palestine and Great Britain. From the experience and stories told by others, there did not seem to be anybody left in our hometowns. What about the ones who left for the Russian occupied parts of Poland in 1939 and 1940? The curiosity and urgency of those questions made contact with anybody that came our way an anxious event. All kinds of stories were exchanged between whoever and us. There were so many different people around me, Jews predominated. There were also Ukrainian labourers, who were taken for labour to Germany. There were even Germans from some religious sects. There were Poles and Danish people. There were people from almost all of Nazi occupied Europe. We met a fairly large number of Hungarian Jews. There was no end to the questions, directed by all to all.

There were already some people who claimed to have come back to the camp after having gone out to the nearest villages and towns. We even became aware of German civilians, doing domestic work in and around the camp.

The territory of the camp was guarded by Russian sentries. They were mostly young soldiers. The area of the camp was declared a quarantine area. The Czech Red Cross was visible in the health teams around the camp. Officially we were not allowed to go out of the camp grounds. It took some time before we could figure out the nature of the regime that we were under, as well as the real power in the administration of the camp.

 

October, 2, 1993

If life in each place of confinement, be it ghetto, labour camp or concentration camp, had its rhythm and after a while, routine, then the life in Theresienstadt was a continuous whirl. People kept on coming from many places and others kept on going away. All sorts of military personnel from different armies were making appearances. Different agencies were operating in the camp. They were from international as well as national and Jewish charitable background. There were representatives from the Polish government and many religious envoys. It was a continuous hustle for both the attention of the ex-inmates and for their needs as well as a sort of hunt for the religious and nationalistically inclined adherents.

There was a lively atmosphere about the camp. Lots of ex-prisoners discovered anew their own or their parents' preferences in the realm of politics, social aspirations, national aims and religious affiliations. Although I understood that we are under communist domain, there was still a lively exchange of ideas and sometimes even direct political affirmation, not necessarily pro-communistic. The human material of the soldiers guarding us was rather not too exciting. They were mainly very young boys and a fair amount of girls too. It would be hard to describe those guards as more than a hastily assembled group of conscripts. As a rule they were not world wise. Their dominion over us was not too strict.

After a few weeks in the convalescent home, I was reallocated to a place in the main area of the camp. My place was called the "Magdeburg Caserne". The designation fitted well in with the structure of the building. The name meant an army barrack. There was an amount of space there, that allowed each inhabitant to feel free and easy. My general state of health was improving. I began to feel stronger and bouncier. We were a fairly large group of ex-inmates from various concentration camps and from labour camps, that were sent in to Theresienstadt towards the end of the war. It was there that new friendships and acquaintances were made. I do not recall any instant where I could identify an old friend or someone that I might have met on my sojourns, throughout the war. I was often thinking of myself as a newborn person. There were not even any people from my hometown of Lodz. None of the people that I could remember from Czenstochowa or Buchenwald. There were not any people who could be traced to the nightmarish journey from Buchenwald on that terrible death train. Instead, there were boys, some quite young, who were from places in Poland, Germany and Hungary, that I never heard of before. There were all kinds of horror stories related in those days and nights. I did make the acquaintance of several new pleasant boys. Some turned out to have been in Czenstochowa too. I did not know them then.

The food and other comforts like some clothing and shoes was provided by the administration of the camp. We spent the time by relating stories or going around the camp area and exploring the other barracks and getting to know the institutions in the camp.

At that time, i.e. in the middle of June, I had a great surprise. Walking casually through the square, I noticed a very familiar face. It was strange indeed to encounter him in Theresienstadt. He was the comrade from the ghetto who was sent out at the same time as I to Czenstochowa. He was lucky enough to have been scheduled for the second transport. The first one was filled up quickly. The ones left behind were marched back to the Warta camp. They were supposed to leave the day after us. It never happened. There were no trains leaving any more when they arrived at the station. That same evening the Germans fled. I knew about this story when I arrived in Buchenwald on the 17th January 1945. Of course at that time it was a terrible blow to us. Just to have missed the liberation by a day. All the greater was my surprise to see him in Theresienstadt. After much embracing and many exclamations, we told each other our respective sagas.

He was liberated in Czenstochowa and as soon as conditions on roads permitted, he made his way back to Lodz. Although it was only a few days since the Russians liberated Poland, i.e. the west side of Poland, because the eastern part was already liberated while I was still there, there were already some Jewish people living in the centre of Lodz. This was a very meaningful report to me. If there were Jews in Lodz, maybe there are some members of my family and relatives and friends also amongst them. He told me that he is now on a mission to find his sister and cousin. He heard that they are in Theresienstadt. He said he is looking for them and hopes to get back to Lodz with them too. I got very excited. Maybe I should get back to Lodz and look for possible survivors. He strongly advised me not to try. I was still in the stage of recovering from my bout of typhus. According to him, people sleep in shelters for lack of accommodation. It is not an easy situation in Poland. Anti-Semitic acts are reported daily. By his advice, if I have a chance to go elsewhere, then I should do so. He also told me that the community of Lodz as I knew it is no more. Most of those who are there now are people from other places. Lodz was not destroyed as Warsaw or other places were, so people came to Lodz to seek shelter. He could not stay on in Theresienstadt. I did not see him for a long time. He did go back to Poland and I met him only when I came to Toronto, many years later.

 

October 3, 1993

My friend Lenkinski who came to Theresienstadt told me also what he found in Lodz, and who was alive and has been heard from. There was even a group of Bundists in Lodz. It was both cheerful and devastating. It became clearer than for a long time what was the real state of affairs. The war was over. The allies had won an unconditional surrender on all fronts. Germany as we knew it for many years was no more. Allied armies made up of many European and overseas contingents, plus the main armies from the United Kingdom, United States, France and the Soviet Union, were firmly in control of all the belligerent countries that sided with Germany. However, there were millions of ex-prisoners right across Europe. Some wanted and most did not want to return to their countries of origin. It was mainly an abhorrence of the communist regime in Russia and in many other countries in Eastern and Central Europe, that stopped huge masses of homeless people from going back to their own countries. It was becoming clearer as we got in contact with all kinds of newcomers, that Europe as it was in the immediate postwar period, was a large terrain made up of refugees of all kinds. There were already refugee camps in Germany, Austria, Italy and in places that were under the control of newly established regimes like Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Greece and even Spain and Switzerland. There was a big clamour for allowing people to join relatives and friends in the Western world.

At the time that I met Lenkinski, the beginnings of that problem became known. Everything was so new and yet so extraordinary. The Jewish people who were liberated in various concentration camps or who were able to surface after having been hidden in stables and underground shelters, joined the ones who came back from the forests, where they were participating in partisan units that fought the occupiers. Both the communist dictatorial regimes and an outburst of latent anti-Semitism made the life and prospects of settling down again very precarious. The talks with Lenkinski put my fears and thoughts on a new course of action. Poland seemed to offer only a new period of instability. Communist doings were very alien to my mentality. There were no known members of my family anywhere, except in the West. It was becoming obvious to me that to go Westward and not Eastward was the new orientation.

At that time we saw an influx of Zionist emissaries from Palestine. There were soldiers from the Jewish Brigade and some with just Palestine written on their epaulets. There were people ready to persuade you to go to Palestine for settlement. Quite a few of local Jewish ex-prisoners were joining up in the campaign to direct us to the Middle East. How was one to choose? There were not many open venues to take, except to go back to your country of origin. Almost all other routes outward were fraught with danger, prohibitions and real hustle. There were very few chances to seek advice from trustworthy people. Because we were comparatively young, we were prone to be persuaded by those who could talk glibly. We were hard pressed to make a move somewhere. As these thoughts took deeper root, I got into a state of anxious anticipation of new things to come. Somehow the air became heavy with all kinds of suppositions. It was by now quite obvious that they wiped out the Jewish populations of most East and Central European countries. Small remnants were scattered across the terrain that the Germans were occupying in the war. The whole life style of the prewar Jewish populations ceased to exist. There just were not any meaningful communities with a solid base. People were coming back from wherever to look for what was left after the Holocaust. By our own, i.e. survivors', reckoning there was not much that one could expect to find. We went through ghettos and camps. We almost felt that we were the last ones in line. Only a lucky coincidence helped us to survive. That kind of luck did not happen in too many places. We knew by then that those dreadful places that one heard of during the war, actually existed, and through a well organized murder machinery wiped out the vast majority of Jews that came under German occupation. We did not know all the details. In that state of terrible consciousness we had to direct our steps somewhere. What was the direction and where?

 

October 4, 1993

The early summer was a beautiful gift to our reviving will to be active and hopeful. Most of those that were in the same place that I was, were straining their recollections and trying to piece together odd names and places of relatives who might have survived or who were somewhere in the outside world. Those that carried a vivid picture of the things that happened to their families, were mostly apathetic as to possibilities of finding live members of the families. Some names were displayed in U.N.R.A. (United Nations Rehabilitation Agency) offices. There were few notices and they mostly dealt with local Czech efforts. It was a difficult period for me. I could not see anything of good value anywhere.

Jewish groups sprouted up. They were mainly recruited from among the vocal Zionist adherents. They were also helped along by the visits of emissaries from Palestine. They clamoured for an attempt to get to Palestine in a legal or an illegal way. In the heated atmosphere of the immediate postwar period, ex-concentration camp reality, they, i.e. the Zionists, called forth all the gory things that took place and the possibility of similar things that could again happen, to create an aggravated psychosis to be with Jews and somewhere where there would be no threat from hostile gentiles. Not seeing anything else on the horizon as the Polish option was receding, I enlisted in a half official way to go to Palestine. It was done in conjunction with the opening of an office of registration. Nobody had any identity papers. Some who were in hiding or ex-partisans, might have kept some real or faked identity papers. The vast majority of the camp survivors had no identification with them. I too had no document at all. When the registration office opened up I went there and declared myself to be a certain Goldberg and put my birth date back several years as well as an expressed desire to go to Palestine. I did all this in order to be registered somewhere. There was an added incentive. We were given a small sum to facilitate our journey. It was a semi-commitment to go to Palestine. Nobody was there to enforce it in any way. My thinking was in the direction of having a chance to get out of the camp. The difficulties of getting to Palestine were then enormous. Nobody of the advocates of it elaborated on them. But some rumours penetrated to Theresienstadt about the border being closed and strict controls erected by the British border police.

I was never enamoured of the idea of a Jewish state. It seemed unreal and carried the threat of Arab-Jewish confrontation. I thought this was an attempt to avoid fighting for your human rights wherever you lived. Of course the war and the collaboration or apathy and the small number of helpful people amongst our neighbours, helped create a climate of distrust and fear of yesterday's neighbours. The still panicky air of the recent events, made rational thinking hard. The impact of this psychosis was deep and long lasting. The new regimes established in the lands occupied by Soviet Russia, were to me extremely undesirable. This was a mighty empire of oppression and inhumanity.

In the meantime good weather encouraged adventures. A group of boys that were in the same barrack as I, suggested a foray into the world outside the camp. We were already much stronger and some of the boyish spirits came along with it. We used the ruse of showing an old permit at the gates. It worked. Three of us made our way to the next village, which was not far away. It was all so strange. Small, neat houses. Little gardens around the houses. The people that we encountered were mostly Sudeten Germans. They were the hostile element in prewar Czechoslovakia. We got lots of stares. They wore white arm bands and looked far from the mighty enemy of a month ago. They were actually cowering around their houses. Mostly women and old men. A fair amount of young children too. I was not sure of the time of day. We could not stay out too late. When I asked one young woman what time it was, I got a terrible look of fear from her. I could sense that there was panic among those villagers. We could only wonder as to the change that took place. I remember not being at all sure what one ought to do, when faced with such a situation. That situation did not prompt me to hit or take anything from the fearful inhabitants of that village.

 

October 5, 1993

On one such escapade to the countryside around the camp, we walked on the road when suddenly we were told to stop by what looked like military police. We could not think of why this sudden order was directed at us. We were asked for identity of any sort. All we had was that new document stating that we are on the Palestine designation. The policemen were fairly polite. They just were not sure who we were. Being in an area populated by Germans, there was an awareness of tension in the air. When we wanted to know what prompted them to stop us, they told us that some villagers overheard us speak in a tongue that sounded German. Immediately we were suspect. We actually spoke Yiddish to one another. That has always been the language of my home, family, friends and the natural way to communicate. The policemen apologized and explained that there are still Germans around and although the war was over, the attitudes to the hated occupier were still making people suspicious on hearing the language of the despised former occupiers. The policemen helped us buy some fruit from local orchards. It was with great delight that we bit into the fresh plums that grew in abundance in the region. We even took some of those plums back with us. We sold them for cigarettes, which we then sold for eggs and sugar. That kind of wheeling and dealing was going on all around us. We liked the thought of having something to do. We also managed to supplement our rations with some extras. We were already full of pep. Youth took over from our despondency and life seemed to have possibilities. I remember once buying boiled eggs for cigarettes. It must have been very good eggs, because I finished off 13 eggs in a matter of one hour. I never again repeated that feat. I still marvel at such an accomplishment. It did not incapacitate me. We just kept on going out at frequent intervals. Of course always with the same permit for one person, for one time only, to take a picture in Litomerice, which was the nearest town. On one occasion we were stopped by a few very young Russians in military uniforms. They wanted to know why we were coming into the camp from the back of the enclosure. We were still officially confined to the quarantined area. Our excuse was that we were just walking around for exercise. They threatened us and told us to come with them to the commandant of the camp. It did not look good. I started speaking to them in Polish. They understood because they were Ukrainian and their language is similar to Polish. I offered them a cigarette. They pushed away the cigarette saying that I was trying to bribe them. I then offered them two cigarettes. The answer was a rude reference to women's body parts. They laughed it off with an answer that even for such a gift they would not allow us to go free. I then offered the third cigarette that I had. Without any further bargaining they took the three cigarettes and laughingly walked away. It looks like their sense of duty made them be very rigid, but for the sweet smell of tobacco. I must say it shook me a bit. I just did not trust those young bloods. They could be nasty and unpleasant. As much as my newly found friends and I wanted to do things, we also became aware of many goods brought into the camp, that had their origins in plain looting. I would not see the reason for that. We were already liberated and did not have to engage in such practices. It was not in keeping with a dignity that was more important than the robbing practices of the hated Nazi invaders throughout the war. In my opinion that was lowering one's self to those hated people's level and their practices. I also found it hard to subscribe to beating up some Germans who were now in work details around the camp. I just did not want bestiality to overcome me. I can say without hesitation that I kept myself away from such doings.

When we could walk around freely, throughout the camp we encountered many people from different countries. Theresienstadt was a central point for many inmates before the end of the war. It stayed for quite a while as a focal point on the map of the constant wanderings of postwar migrations. I met some Danish Jews who were taken there in 1944. They were under the protection of the Danish government and their king. For us it was a great comfort to hear of such assistance from gentiles towards their Jewish neighbours. We also heard then of the wonderful deed of the Danes, in the spontaneous rescue of over 80% Danish Jews by taking them over to Sweden across the narrow sea lane in one historic night. They sailed their small boats to a point outside their territorial waters, where Swedish war and fishing boats took the fugitive Jews to the free Swedish ports. What a heartwarming tale. Faith in human beings was renewed and made me feel cheerful and forward looking.

It was also from the small number of Danish Jews still in camp that I learned of the second miss that I had in Buchenwald. The story repeated itself as with Czenstochowa. The ones that did not make it with my transport out of Buchenwald went back to the camp, to go with the next transport the day after. On that day after, there were no more trains. They again came back to the camp to be liberated that same afternoon by the Americans. I never heard what happened to all the transports that left Buchenwald whilst I was hiding in the sheds in the storage area, behind the camp. They were supposed to go to Dachau. I have not met with any such survivors. I hope that at least some survived.

 

October 6, 1993

On my twisted journey through the various camps and the ghetto, I encountered many Jews from eastern, central and some Jews from the west of Europe too. The Jews from the south of Europe, i.e. Greece, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and from the more central part of the southeast of Europe, Hungary, were also part of the camp populations. There were not too many such Jews as compared with the eastern Jewish groups. There were comparatively few German, Austrian and Italian Jews. I only met a few except in the Lodz Ghetto, when there was a large influx in 1941-42 of foreign Jews. There were not too many points of contact. Whenever circumstances permitted, we exchanged ideas and impressions. The new groups that came into the ghetto were sticking to one another. In Buchenwald I saw already larger groups from almost all the countries in Europe that were overrun by the Germans. The ones that were under Italian occupation fared best. They were not sent out at all, with a few exceptions. Rumanian and Slovakian Jews were delivered to the Nazis in large numbers. I came in contact with Hungarian Jews mainly in Theresienstadt. Other Jews were there too. I did not manage to speak to many, save some from Denmark.

The Hungarian Jews were really a different group from the others. Nobody could talk to them, because language difficulties were great. They did not speak much Yiddish, except for some who came from the border area with Czechoslovakia. They were also in the camps a comparatively short time. Their problems started only in 1944, when the Germans invaded their land. Even then did the Hungarian government retain a large degree of sovereignty. They were as a rule healthier and less depressed than the Polish Jews. With some Hungarian Jewish boys I made acquaintance. They were not too eager to get closer to us. In spite of being at the end in the same boat, the two groups did not really develop any closeness. We were bound by the same destiny during the war. That experience did not develop a closer interaction culturally. The only thing that was on a similar track was the religiosity of some individuals. Even the deeply religious groups that were visible in camp did not really share many things in common, except for the overall idea of a common deity. The Hungarians adhered to their Hassidic beliefs much more devotedly than the Polish or Lithuanian Jews. When we started looking at ourselves as a group of Jewish survivors, we were really an amalgam of many groups. Not only culture-wise but in language and mannerism, we were separate groups.

As time went on we became aware of the need to dress decently. During all the time away in the camps, dressing was just a matter of utility. We had to cover our nakedness. Nature would not allow us otherwise. We had to present an appearance of attired people. What we really were, was a motley of lousy, rag-clad semi skeletons. Of course not all were dressed in that way. There were elites everywhere. But most inmates had nothing but the tatters that they wore. I don't remember having any change of anything. I think that we used to be given deloused underwear now and again. I don't think anybody had any possessions at all. I can't recall having anything of my own since I left the ghetto. I don't even remember looking into a mirror to see my own face. Normal living would have meant shaving, hair cutting, wearing shoes and some sort of decent trousers. All we had was rags. They were threadbare and filthy.

This state of affairs started gradually changing as were our feeding habits and the availability of warm water and soap. From a colourless ragtag monstrosity we slowly started looking and behaving like civilized people. We even became aware of the opposite gender. Friendships started forming almost from the moment of liberation. It became more of a movement to pair up as the nightmare slowly receded into human concerns of life in units, family, procreation and thoughts of careers, advancement and ambitions. We were given warm but decent clothing and shoes. The various agencies that operated in the camp and the newly formed Czechoslovak government, combined to alleviate our otherwise quite depressed lot.

Whilst the propaganda for emigration to Palestine was gaining in intensity, several other offers became available. Save for the Polish or Palestinian options, there came a whispered rumour of a British option. It was half official, not too much talked about. The British government in conjunction with the Jewish Refugee Committee in the U.K. let it be known that all youngsters till the age of 15 would be allowed into Great Britain. It was assumed that those that registered would be fairly healthy and with no parental or other supervision. This offer went from a whispered version to a fully official announcement. The Zionists and Palestinian activists did not like it at all. But under the weight of the following pressure from the young would-be emigrants, they started being compliant. A new opportunity opened up. There were other venues too: illegal entry into France, Belgium and Holland. Even some ideas were bandied around about going to Germany. This was mostly so as to be in line for a possible permission to get to the U.S.A. Theresienstadt was full of whispers, offers and a continuous stream of newcomers from camps and people that had already made their way to Poland and came back dejected and forlorn.

 

October 7, 1993

There was still no immediate knowledge on a lot of very pertinent questions. What happened to the Jewish emigrants to the Russian-controlled parts of Poland, Lithuania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Rumania? How much did the authorities and international rescue agencies know about the millions of deportees? Was Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and the occupied parts of Austria and Germany by the Red Army to be part of Soviet Russia, or would they be what they were before the war? Where would the mainstream Jewish life be? In Europe? In Palestine? In the U.S.A.? And most pressing was the ever present question on the real state of the Jewish population and its fate.

We had followed events as they were unfolding themselves. Everyone around me tried to get an extra morsel of food. We tried to get advantages as to ability to emigrate to a good place. I too was part of that psychosis. Our past experiences, our deeply ingrained personal traumas and fears were not put to the test in the immediate postwar period. I do not think too many of us came across overt anti-Semitism in our contacts with the gentile surroundings. I never heard nor was I exposed to the fear of my person or to my future as a result of outright bigotry. Even Palestine with its inherent undertones of conflict over land, state or battle against the Arabs and British did not amount to me as an anti-Semitic manifestation. I, along with my immediate newly found friends, felt more than anything else, the nagging sense of the very nature of our survival, existence and purpose. Of course being still engaged in daily endeavours to be where there was a chance to better one's self, took up most of our energy and time. Those very deeply felt questions plus individual traumas of each one's personal travails, remained as much a part of our beings as our very physical functioning process. Even now I look at that time period and marvel at the capacity of very hurt and almost mortally wounded individuals to re-embrace life and hope. There were not then, nor even further on, any large mental breakdowns in my immediate environment. I did not hear nor witness many deeply depressed cases of complete breakdowns. Religious manifestations surfaced in camp. There was a longing to be again part of a community of interests and longings. Those who had any experience in clubs, parties, youth groups, became the instinctive leaders of groups. Even the old arguments were remembered and perpetuated. Each group began vying for adherents. Life as remembered before the deluge, offered a sense of continuity and purpose. The deeply felt doubts about all and everything did not stop the process of renewal. I too started feeling a certain adherence to my often mentioned ideals. Young boys in my immediate circle, began questioning me eagerly about the doings of my pre-war and ghetto organization. I almost always at that time saw myself surrounded by eager and bright-eyed youngsters. They were all a number of years younger than I. I was not alone any more. It gave me a sense of purpose and community. The same scene repeated itself in lots of instances. It was not always on the same theme. There were different religious groups, Zionist groups, particular locality-based groups and many others. In a miniature way, we started to resemble prewar associations. This came about both spontaneously and to a lesser degree by design.

It was at that time that I and all of my newly found friends and chums enrolled to emigrate to Great Britain. For that purpose I threw away my previous registration. As there were no normally functioning birth registration offices at that time, one could readily become anybody one could think of. I simply registered as PEREC ZYLBERBERG. But my age dropped almost six years. By the way I looked, both clad and otherwise, I knew that nobody would question my real age. I passed the medical. There were some meetings of all those enrolled to go. We got a few rudimentary bits of information regarding the new place. This was taking place in July 1945. In a short time we were told to be ready to leave for Prague. The British government was dispatching a squadron of bomber aircraft to pick us up. The expectations were high. The spirits rose and somehow we all looked brighter. The number of both boys and girls that were on that transport was around 300.

 

October 8, 1993

The trip to Prague on the way to the U.K. was almost an earth shattering event for me. I did not travel a lot before the war. When I did, it was always as a child with adults to accompany me. My memories of those trips were a pleasant pastime throughout the war years. It was always associated with good and exciting adventures and impressions. The train journeys that I went through during the mainly nightmarish period of the war, were if anything certainly not pleasant. I still had a fascination with trains. They were and still are a good way to travel. My previous journey was the worst nightmare that I lived through. I still cannot figure out how it was possible, given the circumstances.

To be taken by bus to the regular railway station in the small town of Litomerice, assigned passenger cars and treated civilly in the process, was the real eye opener to the liberated world. With camp and ghetto regimes being my constant companions for close to 6 years, I was not quite sure what the unrestricted way of life felt like. I was 15 years old when it came down on all of us, around me. By sheer force of the brutal life that I had to endure, I got into the habit of being distrustful and never letting my guard down. I did not totally forget what free life was all about. It is just that all the impulses and impressions of being continually hunted and defenseless and only mentally fighting back, had put on thick layers of instinctive anguish and street wiseness. The period between liberation on the 8th May and leaving Theresienstadt at the end of July served as an interval to catch one's breath.

Full of expectations and natural joy, accompanied our embarkation on this long dreamt-of journey. The actual distance between Litomerice and Prague is really short, measured in kilometers. It was hilarious. We sang and told jokes and even tried to ride outside, hanging on to the steps, for sheer thrills. It was a journey back to life. What kind of life, was not all that clear. But life it was. We were accompanied by a staff of relief workers and some adult supervisors, from amongst the survivors. We did not all know who the person sitting next to you was. We hardly knew a few immediate pals. But we were all exuberant. We were flying the coop for a new life.

Although we were all called survivors and definitely survivors we were, we were not at all alike in so many ways that one designation was not really embracing for all. We were from big towns, small towns, villages, different countries, different class levels, different cultures and different languages. We even found out later that some were not Jewish. Besides all the other differences, there were really young kids, miraculously saved, and older ones like myself. There were the religious ones and the secular ones. There were the cards and the apathetic ones. We really presented the mix of a lucky random survival. We all shared a desire to start anew. We also had a deeply ingrained urge to relate to others in more ways than the simple way of socializing contact. We felt the need to tell the stories of near impossible dimensions. When the train was pulling out of the little station, we were pulling out of a nightmare. We were on our journey to daylight and renewed hope.

Upon arriving in Prague, we were not exhausted, but overcome with emotion and expectations. This was after all a well known city throughout the world. Jews had a fair share of their own history tied up to Prague. It was mostly for us a matter of stories and fantastic doings. It was also the well known place for enlightened European humanity and literature, as I remembered from reading and listening to lectures in the SKIF. The very approach to the city was already full of wonder. There were almost no ruins. It is an old city with many beautiful houses and parks and monuments. We took it all in, in a limited way. We were not going through the centre of the city in our train. But the charm of Prague was balm to our joyous exuberance. Before too long we arrived and disembarked in Prague on our way to Great Britain.

 

October 9, 1993

We were billeted in a school on the outskirts of the city. It was very peaceful around us. People seemed each to be going after their own chores and concerns. Not that long before Prague was among the last bastions of German defences against the Russians. To us, recently liberated and not used to see any semblance of normal life for years on end, this picture of tranquil life was almost a new revelation. Where was the deep anxiety that ruled our lives for so long and how could people who were themselves under German domain even longer than Polish Jews, endure it? Is it possible that all is normal already? Maybe even largely forgotten? There were a few stores open for business. I remember the joy we experienced, when we saw some clothes and not too many food items displayed for sale. It was then that I realized how estranged we had become of regular life pursuits. To go around the streets and browse and observe life became a wondrous pastime, while we stayed in that friendly, beautiful city.

To me, Prague was also a symbol of the prewar presidents of Czechoslovakia and of the noble humanity of Masaryk and Benes. It was Prague that became a synonym for the perfidy of prewar compliance with Hitler's Germany's monstrous desires on other people's lives and decent pride. The west, where we were heading, did not look so good to me when faced with this proud city. I saw Prague as a symbol of defiance to totalitarianism. It was a good twist of fate to be able to visit this place which left such a deep impression on me, as a young boy, for its glorious stand in the face of overwhelming odds and abandonment by its friends and protectors. I recalled with a deep aching heart the infamous grab of a piece of Czechoslovakia by my country of birth. I felt that Polish born people must all be ashamed of this ignoble act. The matter of this rush to dismember this beseeched land, threatened by Germany, on the eve of the Second World War, had left a deep scar on my psyche. I just could not reconcile our own anxieties and fears during those fateful days with Poland's lust for a part of a friendly neighbour's territory. It looks like such things as chauvinism and coveting left on me an everlasting grief.

Prague also evoked in my mind the stories that I heard from others and I read about, the times and importance of the ancient Jewish community and the doings of the mythological Golem in the Prague Ghetto of old. I also recalled the sarcastically witty story of "The Good Soldier Schweik" written by the Czech satirical writer Karl Capek. Having read this book in the ghetto, I felt a kinship with the Czech desire to show up the folly of imperial wars. Well, the stay in Prague promised to be a good way to start a new way of life, quite different from the one I was leaving behind. As much as I longed for and felt a strong attachment to the past life, I also felt a powerful pull towards new horizons. By walking through the streets of Prague in the summer of 1945, I was already walking into the second chapter of my life.

As newly liberated prisoners, we enjoyed a few benefits in this city. One very good such benefit was the ability to travel freely on the streetcars and trains across the fair sized city. We made good use of this freedom to roam around and see the wonders that were there to admire. The weather was good. We felt able to keep up all day long escapades to everything that we knew to be nice. We did not bother too much about food. There were too many absorbing pursuits about. I, alongside most of the Polish youngsters, understood the Czech language when spoken slowly. It was similar to Polish. Our stay in Prague was supposed to have been a three-day affair. The British government was sending the R.A.F. planes to Prague to pick us up. All was ready, but somehow the planes could not land easily in Prague. I am not sure what exactly it was, that made this operation difficult to accomplish. Maybe the Russians, who were the supervisors of the airport, had some things to hide from the British squadron. Maybe real technical difficulties of weather or refueling or some maintenance or the state of the landing facilities were not proper. The fact of not being able to keep the timetable for our departure made us eager to spend our time around Prague in a much more thorough way. I discovered the road leading to the PLTAVA river and it being already midsummer, this gave us a good chance to have a real vacation at this stopover.

 

October 10, 1993

The many attractions of this city with its medieval parts and modern parks and squares, provided a continuous source of joy in the transition to life from the abyss of existence. Not only was Prague a world renowned city for its combination of old and new. It was also a welcoming city for the newly reborn part of humanity. Having been given this opportunity to roam around its many attractions, the whole transport as far as I recall, went for the thrills with a rapacious appetite. I remember going once to three cinemas in one day. I went to the riverside to enjoy for the first time a boat ride, where I held the oars. Of course we went many times to the Old Jewish quarter. That was something to behold. By sheer luck, this medieval, historical Jewish part of old Prague was left untouched by the vandals. In my life, I had by that time already seen total destruction of all Jewish visible symbols.

Although Lodz was never a city on the scale of Prague, it had nevertheless quite a number of synagogues of distinction. All those synagogues were blown up almost as soon as the German occupiers entered the city in September 1939. We just learned very early in the war to cherish the memory of visible signs of the fairly diverse yet very old Jewish life. After all the witnessing of the eradication of our existence, both physical and symbolically spiritual, this visit to the preserved Jewish quarter of Prague was a real balmy event. I had heard from many quarters before the war of the wondrous Rabbi Maharal, who created the defender of the Jewish ghetto out of raw clay. The ghetto was at that time in constant danger from its hostile neighbours. The Golem, as the clay defender was named by Rabbi Maharal, performed as the legend goes, fantastic deeds in defence of the Jews. He was, however, cut off from active work when he went out of control. The Rabbi who breathed strength and determination into the Golem withdrew it upon learning of his misdeeds. The pile of dust that we found in the attic of the old Jewish synagogue was there to bear witness to this event. Both those that took it as a truth and those who saw in it an imaginative tale, were pleased nonetheless to see with their own eyes this spot. The other items of interest were also very worthy. The old tower clock with Hebrew lettering, the grave of Rabbi Maharal in the very old Jewish cemetery and many other relics. plaques and street signs, pointing to the life of an old established community, were a very poignant boost to our morale.

We visited the old part of Prague, with its city hall, palaces, churches and its busy streets. Everything was exciting. We went to the centre of the city. We saw there German prisoners doing some work, guarded by Czech soldiers. The sight of imprisoned German soldiers was, with all the remainders of an only too recent past, an inner satisfaction. They were often verbally abused. Nobody tried to harm them... Just to shame and insult them. What a change from our status.

We even discovered places where we could go in and order cakes and coffee. We did not have much money. But the temptation was enormous. For me it was the first such visit to a cafe. We really started to like the hustle and bustle of Prague.

When the time came to say good-bye to this window to the world, we parted from there with a visible, already clear nostalgic twist. The squadron of bombers that was supposed to pick us up, finally landed in Prague. The roar of about 20 heavy aircraft over the skies of Prague probably brought back many memories to the also freshly liberated citizens of Prague.

We were assembled outside the school and were driven by army buses to the airport. So it was good-bye to a friendly city and its pleasant people. We were soon enough engrossed in the excitement of the first time flying prospect and the sight of those huge machines, which did not allow us to linger too much on the just ended escapade in the capital of Czechoslovakia. The crews of the planes and the presence of many officials at the airport exuded an air of accomplishment. We were about to fly to Great Britain. We were not told where the planes will land. It was the first transport out of the recently liberated European continent.

 

October 11, 1993

The very first contact with an airport and aircraft was dazzling. Runways, all sorts of aircraft, crews in and around the planes, Russian and Czech soldiers and a lot of people at the fences around the airport, just watching and exchanging ideas and knowledge of each aircraft that comes into view. It was certainly what we thought it should be. A gate to other lands. There were not many other passengers, save some military personnel and government officials. The Red Army dominated the scene. Our whole group was treated to a friendly parting attitude. We all felt excited and thankful for this opportunity to fly out, almost the first in the gathering quest to go westward and generally to leave continental Europe. The crews of the British squadron were young and friendly. We could not communicate with them. Not one of our group assigned to the airplane that I was in could speak any English. The whole crew of the bomber could maybe muster a half dozen words in German. We communicated by gestures and eye contact. It was not great, but it was possible to feel a basic friendliness. We were assigned about 15 passengers to each plane.

There were no seating arrangements. A bomber aircraft has room for the crew and for the payload of bombs and front and rear guns. We were told to sit on some empty crates and we were also utilizing the bomb bays for the purpose of resting. Of course we were too busy to watch the crew, to think of sitting somewhere. It was very exciting. All these buttons and flickering lights and the guns. The crew offered us some biscuits and candy. We were not allowed to smoke. Somehow smoking had crept in our lives as we tried to enter the mainstream of life.

I had never until then been in any elevated spot, higher than a four-storey building. Flying inside an aircraft was not even in my dreams. Altogether, the idea of crossing lands and stretches of water, was still a subject of wonderment for me. I could feel the pulsation of my system, when reading the stories of undersea travels and adventures. To soar up in the skies and be above the clouds was not even a real possibility. Well, mentally in a state of extreme excitement, I watched with awe as the huge plane turned towards take-off. The noise was great and the crew kept a watchful eye on our reactions to the never experienced adventure. Somehow we flew out and gained height. Before we looked around, we were already above Prague. We were able to point out known landmarks. The river Pltava was just a thin string of silvery substance. The plane reached the layer of clouds very fast. Before long we could only see a feathery bed underneath us. We turned our attention to the inside of the plane, grey and sombre and full of wires and radio equipment. We really felt inside a flying fortress. Because we could not ask any pertinent questions, we just looked and admired the efficiency of these machines. I am not sure whether all the other aircraft were doing what our plane did. We noticed in a very short time after takeoff, that we are seeing houses and roads as little dots and lines, that were getting bigger by the second. We did not know why we were coming down. The looks on the crew's faces were reassuring. Out of the lowest clouds we could see an airport and we felt the landing wheels spring into position. Upon touching down on the tarmac we saw a huge sign: Arnheim, on the control tower. Since we had been aware, via the German papers which now and again managed to get through to the camp, of the drop by allied paratroopers on two Dutch airports, we immediately concluded that we are in Holland. Exactly why we stopped there I don't know until today. It was still a military aircraft, under a semi-wartime regime. We just pranced around on the tarmac and before long, we were in the air again. The crew offered us tea and sandwiches. I even tried to play a chess game on a portable little set bought in Prague.

As the trip further involved crossing the North Sea and flying over turbulent air pockets, we actually saw very little on the second lag of our flight to Great Britain. We arrived in the afternoon, on a bright day, somewhere in the English midlands. Our reception party consisted of some Jewish relief workers and some Polish airmen from barracks nearby. They, the Polish airmen, offered themselves as translators for the predominantly Polish Jewish group of refugees, as we were then designated. It was all so new and a bit out of sorts. We were spoken to in German and now and again in Polish. We did not hear any Yiddish at all. It looked however friendly. We passed the immigration procedures without being asked too many questions. Just the travel document from Theresienstadt was our identification. After a quick cup of tea and another sandwich, we were ushered into waiting buses. We had arrived in Great Britain.

 

October 12, 1993

The designation of my new country of residence was named well for my state of mind when I realized that those islands are a good place to live in. After all, great it certainly was. It is still now engraved in my brain as a haven. It certainly was that then. The second part of the name for my place of domicile was not quite clear to me. I was not much of a historian then. But it seemed proper and fitting to add the other part, Britain, to the first. After all, one has to realize what is great. I think that this musing over the introduction to Great Britain was well in tune with my feelings when the first steps were made in a land, scarred by cruel bombings, but great in spirit and very tender in feelings and sympathy.

The whole transport, which consisted of about 300 youngsters, was taken in buses to our new place of residence, which was to be a place of convalescence. We passed pleasant hills and many lakes. I remember clearly a big sign on the road with the name of "Windemere" on it. The sign itself was not of any significance to me. It soon became very significant, though. This was the place that we were driven to. It was a large collection of low houses, all identical in size and colour. There were some trees and flowers on the tiny plots of land between the buildings. The administrators of the project were German Jews. The whole operation of bringing us over from the camps in liberated Europe was an initiative of the Central British Fund and the Refugee Committee. The German Jews who managed to get to Great Britain before the outbreak of the war were the natural element for this kind of effort. There were many young people among those refugees. Quite a number of them became our group leaders and teachers. I remember clearly the words of some of those people that took charge of us. They spoke to us, of course, in German. Their references to the doings of the vandals and barbarians were continually designated as the Nazis and not the Germans. To us, this was a little strange. Previously, we all used to call the beasts just Germans. It became clear, though, as time went by, that there was a deeply ingrained sentiment by the German refugees for their former land and also for some of their neighbours, who showed them sympathy before they left their country. For us, it was strange behaviour. Didn't those Jews know what befell us? That sort of question came up often when we talked about our immediate past experiences. It probably would never be answered totally one way or another.

We were assigned about 30 to a house. It was of course very clean and peaceful in those modest but quite comfortable places. There was a central area for dining and assembly which also served as the place of entertainment. As we were not confined to a separated area, we started exploring the neighbourhood. It was very picturesque. We were positioned on the banks of Lake Windemere. The collection of low buildings that comprised our residences was a previous hostel for workers of a seaplane plant. It was comfortable enough to feel good and hopeful. Just behind the perimeter of the housing complex where we lived, there was Lake Windemere. In the background there were fairly high hills. Not far from where we lived, there was the town of Windemere. It was a quiet sleepy place. It did not take long at all before the town woke up to the presence of strangers who stared at everything and could not speak a word of English.

The whole enterprise to bring us over to the U.K. was hammered out just before the end of the war. The parties concerned were the representatives of the Jewish Community and the British government. It was meant to be an attempt to take care of large numbers of orphans. The authorities concerned figured out that an exceptionally large amount of homeless children will be left in the liberated camps. The official permit was issued for one thousand young boys and girls to enter Great Britain. They were to be cared for by a joint fund, of which 25% was to be donated by the government. The U.N.R.A. was called in to help find the youngsters. The U.N.R.A. was the newly formed United Nations Relief Agency. The administration of the whole enterprise was given to the predominantly German Jewish Refugee Committee. So, we found ourselves in the middle of England, in the well-known area for its beauty, the Lake District. It was really nice and heart-warming to find yourself in such a tranquil place after so much recent turmoil and degradation.

 

October 13, 1993

Prior to our flight to Great Britain, I got acquainted with an important bit of news. There were elections to parliament. The Labour Party won an absolute majority of members to the lower house, i.e. the House of Commons. For me this bit of news was very important. I had heard a lot about the Labour Party before the war. They were a member in the Socialist International. The Bund, the party that our whole family supported, was also a member in the Socialist International. We followed closely the politics in the U.K. Somehow all of us at home felt a kinship with their strivings and ideas. It sounded very good to my ears. The war was over and the U.K., the classical country of the Socialist movement, was at the helm of the far flung British Empire. It boded well in my opinion for the postwar strivings of the tired and impoverished British masses. It also beckoned to me with excitement. I would be able to be in the midst of new experiments in social justice and equality. I also felt instinctively that my uncle and his family, whom I had never met before, but just heard of from my mother, father and uncles and aunts and grandfather and grandmother, that they would still be in London, which was the place that they had been just at the outbreak of the war. If all the other considerations of a safe and friendly country were not enough, these two things added great weight to my expectations.

The war was over in Europe. Japan was still holding on in its own country, having lost already the extensive territorial gains that they made when they entered the war in 1941. Although not fully acquainted with the latest news of the European scene, I nevertheless got glimpses of events. People were talking about new realities. Visitors kept bringing the latest bits of news. All countries in Europe were trying to come to grips with the state of affairs that developed when Germany surrendered unconditionally in May 1945. We did not have easy access to newspapers or radio which were available only in foreign languages. But it was forever a boiling cauldron of changes and newly found human strivings in an atmosphere of expectations and hope. We had within this whirlpool our own deep thoughts and trepidations. The war was over, already several months. We started feeling again well and energetic. Our food and basic needs were provided by a number of relief agencies. The quest for a safe haven seemed to have come to a reasonable solution. What remained now was the realization of the immensity of our personal tragedies.

It did not come all at once. It had to come, though. As soon as we became aware that the war is really over, everybody that I knew around me started talking about their parents and siblings. There were no adults around whose thoughts and words went to their children or close relatives. We were a large group of youngsters who by one miracle or another survived against overwhelming odds. Together with an instinctive quest for food and shelter, went along a nagging quest for anybody that was family or relative. But how could one make the first step in this seething sea of constant movement of people around you? We were not liberated in our own towns, villages or cities. We were in a strange country with just rudimentary knowledge of language or customs of the people around us. There were no leaders to guide us. In a way, one still had to employ all of one's faculties to make a way in this postwar period of searching for prospects to find accommodation amongst the new realities of life. Actively, to look for family and relatives and old friends, was hard, because of the still chaotic conditions around.

When we touched down in the U.K. we became painfully aware of having gone away from the continent of Europe. Very few of the crowd around me had one or more siblings. Mostly we were alone. Together with the lectures given to us by our supervisors and teachers, we were forever making inquiries from whoever crossed our path re family and relatives. I too tried to find out all I could where to look for avenues leading to possible clues. When the news of our arrival spread in Great Britain amongst Jews and gentiles alike, all kinds of people started coming to visit us. There were journalists from London and from the United States. There were religious lay leaders and rabbis. Zionists came in droves. Among all those constant visitors came a group of Yiddish speaking journalists. For very many of the youngsters crowding around those journalists, this was a heart warming affair. To hear Yiddish spoken loud and clear was for me too a real joy. Of course we wanted to know where these newspaper people were from. They in turn wanted to know how we felt and where we were from. At that stage, there were not too many questions about the wartime experiences. The token assertion that we came from concentration camps sufficed. I did find among those Yiddish speaking journalists a man who was like an angel to me. His name was Lucjan Blit. He was from Warsaw. His name was already known to me from prewar days. He was the general secretary of the "Tsukunft" (Future). That was before the war, the well known Bundist youth movement. They numbered in the thousands across Poland. My brother David was a member in the Tsukunft. Of course I immediately made my way to meet him. I found in him a wonderful friend and good conduit to the scattered Bundist activists the world over.

 

October 14, 1993

When I came to Great Britain, the customs and immigration officer passed me along with just a glance at my document. It had no picture and it stated what I told the issuing official. This set of details of my name, age, country of birth and where I wanted to go, was all true to reality except for my birthday. In order to be eligible, I had became younger by six years. Somehow, nobody questioned it. It was only a few days later when the Jewish Refugee Committee was compiling its own list of arrivals that I began to feel uneasy. The director of the administration made a speech. He stressed the fact that to his knowledge, some of the boys and girls offered personal particulars which were not correct as to the real birthdays. He suggested correcting it as soon as possible. He did not think anybody would make too much fuss over that matter. He told us that the full quota of visas had not been issued yet. They just could not find enough youngsters to fulfill the promised issuance of 1000 young immigrant visas. It was just a matter of keeping correct records. I took the director's plea seriously and came forward with my story. I survived the ordeal with a burden off my chest. I never regretted it. Nobody really minded. As an indirect result of this disclosure, I started feeling and acting my real age. It made a difference to my self-image as a young man and not a boy.

The visit of the Jewish journalists produced results. I got a letter from Lucjan Blit. He gave me some names and addresses of a few Bundists that I knew well and others that I had heard of. Some were in the Polish forces in Italy and Scotland. Others in New York. I also received some money and the address of the Bund headquarters in New York. I got really excited. The possibility of finding out more about comrades and maybe even family began to look real. I also got a copy of the Bund magazine from the States.

In the process of all this excitement, I got to befriend another young Bundist. He was from a small town near Lodz. His uncle was a close friend of my family. That uncle was also a very prominent member of the Bund. We drafted a letter in Yiddish and sent it off to the magazine of the Bund in New York. It all created an atmosphere of great expectations. We knew instinctively that we would not be alone much longer. All sorts of conjectures were flying around us. Maybe we would find out about our family soon? Maybe some survived? The imagination was working overtime, It looked like the pent-up longings were dominating all our thoughts and feelings. It was a time of great mental fervour. It is hard to describe the state of mind then. Maybe poets would find the words to express them. I know that I felt as though I am somewhere on a different plane.

We started getting replies to our letters. The excitement grew as the first letters were followed by others. News of the whereabouts of lots of survivors prompted me to start a virtual mail service. There were lots of younger boys who had difficulties with writing. Whoever could lend a hand in this did. I also helped draft letters to Jewish newspapers all over the world with inquiries as to the whereabouts of relatives and friends. It was really extremely exciting. Every day there were other revelations as to the whereabouts of people. Nothing stood in the way of correspondence to any place in the world.

I got a fantastic letter shortly after this letter avalanche got going. The friends of my family who were on the other side of the Atlantic received an inquiry from my sister, who was in Sweden. She survived Bergen Belsen in Germany. The news was stunning. Could it be that my little sister was among the lucky ones? I could not quite believe it. It was too good to be true. How did such a miracle take place? I must have acted like a possessed individual. It just could not enter my conscious mind for a while. But before long I settled down to the knowledge of indeed not being alone. Everything seemed different now. I received soon an answer from my sister. Her state of mind was similar to mine. She told me a bit about her miraculous survival in the typhus ridden camp of Bergen Belsen. She also told me that a number of mutual friends were with her in Sweden. We exchanged knowledge about the search for other members of the family and relatives. Each of us started looking for clues. My sister was not too well. She was very exhausted. The Swedish government was very helpful in caring for the refugees. It was, however, very heartening to get her long letters. Life became filled with mutual care and concern.

 

October 15, 1993

As I entered a period of agitation over the possibility of being together with Ester, and her state of health, I also came upon a very pleasant discovery. A list of youngsters was pinned up in our dining hall, containing the names of those who would be coming to Great Britain with the next party. To my great joy I saw the name Dajch listed there. The first name was Rozka. I immediately inquired as to when they were coming. It was going to be shortly. R. Dajch is the youngest member of that same family who offered us shelter when I jumped from the second storey window in the ghetto. Our whole family was taken in then by the generous family who lived themselves in cramped quarters. The oldest daughter in that family was my personal friend from the SKIF. I always had warm feelings for that family. I knew them from before the war. To see Rozka again was very exciting.

The life that was going on around us in the convalescent home was also getting to be interesting. We had classes going for English and some classes for arithmetic and history. Sporting events were being arranged. We were taken to local theatre shows. They were the light entertainment kind, where the language barrier was partly overcome with the use of odd German phrases and hand movements. We ventured on our own outside the hostel. We paid visits to Bowness and other spots in the beautiful Lake District. The state of health was generally not too bad. There was a doctor in the hostel to supervise the care still needed for some youngsters. I remember fondly an outing that was offered to me with a group chosen by Dr. Ernst, our doctor. Our doctor's husband who was himself a doctor came visiting one day. He took great interest in our welfare. He asked for permission to take a group out into the nearby mountains. It was exciting and for me a new experience. I had never been in a mountainous region before. The day was warm. The doctor spoke to us in German. He and his wife had immigrated to Great Britain from Germany sometime before the war. Both were wonderful people. Compassionate and caring. That excursion was really great. We talked with Dr. Ernst about all sorts of things. Very little was brought out about the war's atrocities and personal experiences of the ones who were in that group. We had seen this phenomenon many times before. Hardly ever was this the topic of conversation. But we spent a nice afternoon in the mountains around Windemere.

The war with Japan was not over yet when we arrived in Great Britain. According to what we could gather from the English newspapers, the allies were ready to occupy Japan itself. The atom bombs that were dropped over two Japanese cities created real hysteria there. A short while after we arrived in Windemere we saw bonfires lit in several spots around the hostel. We were told by our supervisors that the war is over. What a relief it was to realize that nations were not fighting nations any more. Now was the time to take stock. Who was going to rule in all those countries, where brutal gangs were lording it over their own populations and also over lands that they had conquered? What kind of world is it going to be? Soon enough we may find out the full truth about the fate of our people. So many thoughts crowded into our brain, that we simply could not answer. Time will have to do the sorting out of our mental anguish. There was no more war. Our little community in Windemere got really going as a youthful group, with all sorts of activities taking place all the time. We put together a bit of a revue on stage. It was organized by our teacher with the help of the administration. It was a spoof on our own crowd. My part was to act out the part of a 15-year old girl, who collapses in disarray when a syringe is applied to her arm. The girls took offense and kept on calling me by the funny stage name that I was called when performing. It was fun, though. We also started having debates on current issues. Zionism started to be given to us in large doses.

All this was shaping up to be interesting, when rumour at first, then official notice, was given to all of us of the impending splitting us up into smaller units. It was to be done according to gender, religious tendencies and otherwise just according to any criteria that the administration saw fit. We started to be very inquisitive as to who will be with whom and where. According to the announced plan, we were to be strewn across the length of the U.K. There was a group that went to Scotland. Another to Manchester. The bulk, though, was concentrated in the area around Greater London. My place of residence was halfway between London and Southampton, in the county of Hampshire. The nearest town was Alton. We were located in an old farm house about 3 miles from Alton. Again, we went out exploring the neighbourhood. Of all things to be close to our house, was a real country pub. It promised to be exciting. Overbury Court was a real retreat into country living. Where that high-sounding name came from I never found out. For me Overbury Court was home for a nice few months.

 

October 16, 1993

The group that lived in Overbury Court came to be known as the Alton Boys. I am not absolutely sure but I think I was the oldest of them all. I had a fair sized group around me at all times, eager to learn about all kinds of things. They were mostly from traditional homes. Their education was very minimal. The world was moving forward. They were mostly very adept to fend for themselves. They came from many parts of Poland and two brothers were from Germany and one came from Hungary. We had several supervisors who were the administrators and teachers and counsellors to the 30 boys. Most if not all of the staff was made up of German Jews. They were pleasant and understanding. The food was reasonable in quality and quantity. Great Britain was still strictly rationed in most staples and meats. But we were not ever hungry. We started getting a small amount of pocket money for personal needs. There was a younger couple there amongst the supervisors who were ardent Zionists. They organized a group of followers of the Hashomer Hatzair Youth Movement. Not being a Zionist, I resented the division that was created amongst us. It prompted me to start organizing a small group of Bundist oriented boys. We had debates and tried to persuade each other as to the importance of our respective outlooks. Although I was not able to get current literature about the ongoing debates among all other Jewish survivors and amongst Jews in general, I had a certain knowledge from my contacts with the representatives of the Bund in the U.K.

When we settled down in Alton, we were once taken on a trip to London. The trip included a visit to the Jewish Theatre in the East End of London. It was a heart warming experience. Not only were we allowed in free of charge; a reception was laid on for us after the show. Of course it was all in Yiddish. Both the show and the speeches by the director and administrator of the theatre and a few actors, were a real balmy experience. Of course everybody stressed the happiness of seeing such a nice group of Jewish boys enjoying the light entertainment that they provided for us. Present at the theatre were also some of the London-based boys. We were a fair sized group. After tea and cakes and general socializing, I was invited to acknowledge the welcome that we received. I was not told in advance, so it was an impromptu speech. It must have sounded not too bad. I got an applause and a rejoinder from the director. He said that to hear a young survivor speak about Yiddish theatre and Jewish writers was pleasant music for all those Yiddish speakers who were in Great Britain in the war. I got out of it the impression that the element that supported the Yiddish-speaking cultural and linguistic side of Jewish life in London was genuinely happy with our arrival in the U.K.

That event opened the way for many of our boys to get close to the Yiddish-speaking Jews of London. I was one of those people. Our tour of London included some sightseeing and a visit to the offices of the Jewish Refugee Committee. We stayed overnight with a Jewish youth club, that arranged our sleeping quarters. On that occasion I made contact with a journalist from the only Yiddish daily newspaper in the U.K. I inquired if it could be arranged to have some names inserted in their "search for relatives" column. The journalist asked me to send him on a list of those who wanted such a service. I availed myself of this opportunity. I was looking for news about my mother's oldest brother and his family. I was hoping that they were still in the U.K. I also inquired about a brother of a friend of mine, who left Lodz before the war and lived in Great Britain at the beginning of the war. Filled with lots of impressions and glad to have seen London and part of the Jewish cultural life, and some of the boys whom we knew from Windemere, we returned to Overbury Court in good spirits. This was the start of many trips that followed fairly soon.


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