The Pre-War Years
The War Begins
My Parents Are Killed
Jatkowa Street Camp
Murder of Remaining Jews
Liquidation of Half the Camp
Wieliczka, Flossenberg, and my Sister's Fate
I Switch Fates
Augsburg and Stuttgart
Evacuation from Dachau
Zeilsheim and Kibbutz Ichud
Reunion with Shlomo
America, Aunt Frances and Uncle Lou
Marriage, Children, and Grandchildren
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There were many Jews in our town that lived in poverty, and they were helped by the more fortunate ones. I remember that the town merchants established a Beth Lechem (House of Bread), the main purpose of which was to find out which of the Jewish families in town were the needy ones, and distribute Challah to them each Friday for the Sabbath meal. The recipient's names were kept in confidence. My Father was a vice president and one of the founders of the organization.
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The War Begins
In September, 1939 Nazi Germany invaded Poland and the fate of European Jewry became sealed.
The morning of September 1, 1939 was a memorable one. After many tension filled days came the announcement over the radio that Germany had attacked Poland with an overwhelming military force. The Polish army with its cavalry turned out to be no match for the German armored divisions, which were advancing rapidly.
We experienced a slight ray of hope when on September 3 England and then France declared war on Germany. We hoped that their superiority of arms would result in a quick end to the conflict and have Hitler down on his knees pleading for peace. However, our hopes began fading rapidly when refugees that were jamming our roads told us that Warsaw, the capital of Poland, was surrounded and preparing to surrender.
The Germans occupied our town on September 14, and began looting most businesses. Our wine and liquor store was one of the first they cleaned out. They arrived with two trucks and confiscated all the merchandise, but did not physically harm anyone in our family.
On September 23 the Germans suddenly evacuated Hrubieszow and our town found itself under Russian occupation. This occupation turned out to be short-lived. Hitler and Stalin had apparently concluded a pact agreeing to divide Poland between them. The Russians would occupy the entire territory East of the Bug river and the Germans all the territory West. Since our town was located on the West side of the Bug, its fate was determined.
After several days of Russian occupation, the Russians told us that they were leaving our town and that the Germans would be returning. They urged the Jewish population to leave with them to towns East of the Bug river.
Since our town was located only a few kilometers from the established, but not yet closely guarded border, some isolated avenues of escape still remained open. A small portion of the town's Jewish population took the advice of the Russians and, leaving behind most of their worldly possessions, sought sanctuary in border towns on the Russian side. This was a very difficult decision to reach for most Jewish families. My immediate family, after a lot of soul searching, decided to remain -- especially when news reports began reaching us of the deplorable conditions the refugees in the Russian border towns were subjected to. The towns became overcrowded and many of the newcomers were suffering from lack of food and no place with a roof over their heads. There were also instances where Jews attempting to cross the border were stopped by the Russian border guards and sent back. Even if we could have succeeded in crossing the border, my Parents were reluctant to leave behind a comfortable home and expose the family to all the hardships awaiting us as refugees in a nearby Russian border town. My Mother kept referring to her recollections of the German front line soldiers of WWI. She remembered them as being brutal, and feared the most by the population. Since we survived the first German front line onslaught, she naively hoped that a German civilian administration would restore and maintain law and order. None of us at that time imagined the suffering of the Jewish population that followed -- culminating in the "Final Solution".
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One of the first changes we experienced under German administration was the lack of access to public schools for Jewish children. Even though we youngsters were barred from public schools, our educational opportunities did not cease entirely. Some Zionist leaders formed underground groups, and in an informal manner offered instruction in a variety of subjects to those who desired it. A young man, a former leader of Hashomer Hatzair -- a Zionist youth group -- used to come to our house to teach Hebrew and other academic subjects to several of my friends and myself. He tried to instill in us a hope of survival and a longing for a homeland in Eretz Yisrael. However, these informal meetings soon became too risky to continue.
The German authorities began issuing numerous edicts aimed specifically at the Jewish population, and intended to curb and limit our daily freedoms. We were ordered to select a Judenrat -- a group of elders to act as intermediaries between us and the German authorities. Essentially, their main responsibility consisted of implementing the Gestapo edicts relevant to the Jewish population. The Jewish police was created as an arm of the Judenrat to assist them in this task.
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My Parents Are Killed
On December 1, 1939 we were informed by the Judenrat that the German authorities ordered all Jewish men ages 16 to 60 to appear at a specific time in a designated place in our town. There were rumors that a resettlement might take place and that the death penalty would await anyone ignoring the order. My Father, just like many others, called the Judenrat seeking their advice, and was told that we must comply. So the following morning he, and about two thousand others in that age group, appeared as ordered. The only reason I did not go with him was that I was too young and did not have to comply with the order.
I vividly remember that morning when my Father, barely able to hold back his tears, bid goodbye to all of us and left our house -- never to be seen again.
We found out later that a selection took place and approximately 400 tradesmen, considered essential to the Third Reich, were sent home. The others were soon joined by a group of other Jews assembled the previous day and marched from the town of Chelm. They were split into two groups. Surrounded by special units of SS, the men were then marched at a very brisk pace to two different towns near the Russian border Sokal and Belz. Those who could not keep up with the pace set by the SS, were shot on the spot. When the surviving men, totally exhausted, finally reached the designated border towns, they were turned back by the Russian guards who began firing at them. Only then did the SS guards abandon the few survivors who later returned home to tell their horror story. My Father was one of the victims killed on the march to Sokal. My Uncle Azriel, the husband of my Mother's Sister Adele, was only one of two victims shot twice in the head who survived. Apparently a Polish peasant found him wounded and notified the family. We brought him back to our town and nursed him back to health. He survived another two years and later died of typhoid in the Sokal ghetto where he had sought sanctuary.
My Mother, upon learning of the fate of my Father, had a nervous breakdown and had to be hospitalized. Since our town was lacking proper facilities, we arranged to have her admitted to a hospital in the nearby town of Chelm. My Aunt (her sister) visited her there several times. A few weeks later we were informed that my Mother had died there. We strongly suspected that she did not die of natural causes but was poisoned as were many others in that hospital.
So, before reaching my fourteenth birthday, I was suddenly faced with the grim reality of an existence without my parents. My sister Pearl, was barely twelve at that time. We both went to live with our Aunt, who was seriously ill, but anxious to look after us to the best of her ability. The sudden loss of both our Parents apparently affected my behavior to a point where it became quite noticeable. I, who always depended on my Parents for advice and guidance, began feeling and acting in a grown-up manner. I felt that caring for my younger Sister, became my responsibility. This SS action, resulting in the killing of so many innocent victims, dispelled any illusions we may have entertained about our favorable chances of survival under Nazi occupation. It became apparent to most of us that the Germans, time permitting, were prepared to carry out the threats against the Jews so openly expressed by Hitler in Mein Kampf. In Poland, where anti-Semitism flourished, the willing help of many Poles made the task of achieving Hitler's goal that much easier.
Soon after the Germans occupied our town, the wine and liquor business my Father and Uncle owned was confiscated by the Nazis. My Uncle and I were able to continue to operate the soft drink business until the summer of 1940, when it was taken over by a Ukrainian. The building where the soft drink factory was located also contained a spacious apartment once occupied by my paternal Grandparents -- long deceased .
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During the Summer of 1940, we were ordered to move to a designated part of town. We were forced out of our apartment, but were able to move into my Grandparent's apartment located in the Jewish quarter. During that time we had an influx of Jews from nearby small towns; they also came from Western Poland and even from as far away as Germany. The Judenrat was given the task of finding shelter for the new refugees and we were ordered to share the apartment with two other families. The husband of one of the couples, Rabinowitz, was a member of the Judenrat, and the other husband was a member of the Jewish police. He was a rather good natured fellow who on one occasion saved us by forewarning us of a round-up, which gave us time to go into hiding.
We lived in this segregated part of town in crowded, deplorable conditions until 1942. During this period we were constantly exposed to round ups by the SS for various labor battalions. We performed daily tasks under the watchful eyes of the guards known for their brutality. The Polish and the Jewish police always performed a vital function, assisting them in those round-ups.
In June 1941 it became obvious to us that the Germans were getting ready to attack the Soviet Union. Since our town was located in close proximity to the Russian border, we noticed an enormous concentration of German military forces heading for the border. The night before the attack, I recall seeing a great concentration of German troops as they were receiving their final orders.
On June 22, 1941, the Germans attacked Russia. We believed that the Soviet army, large and well equipped, would be an equal match for the Germans and hopefully could deliver a crushing blow to them. However, Stalin apparently was not prepared for such a massive attack from his new found ally. Within several days the Russian soldiers were fleeing East in a disorderly retreat.
Many of the Jews who had found a temporary asylum from Nazi persecution in the Russian occupied territories now fell victim to the advancing SS Einsatzkommandos that followed the advancing German army. The SS, assisted by Ukrainian henchmen, stepped up the persecution and liquidation of the Jews in the conquered territories. Actual eyewitness accounts of mass killings of tens of thousands of Jews, including women and children, were forthcoming from Russia.
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On June 1, 1942 Einsatzkommandos of SS arrived in our town and, assisted by Polish and Jewish police, went from house to house in the Jewish quarters rounding up all the Jews they found for deportation. Anyone the SS found in hiding was shot on the spot. My Uncle, his daughter Tziporah, Pearl and I were forewarned about this action by the Jewish policeman who lived in our house and we went into hiding. [My Aunt had died of natural causes about a year prior to that]. The round-up lasted about seven days. All this time we were hidden in an attic with a well-disguised entrance, in my Grandfather's house . We, as well as many other Jews in town, had anticipated this action and prepared hiding places stocked with some basic necessities such as food and water supplies to last us for several days. News had reached us of similar actions in other communities and they were all of short duration. We were hoping not to be discovered and then, as was the case in other towns, to be granted a further extension on life. However, not all the people that chose to go into hiding were able to save themselves. About 400 of those were found by the SS and shot. In addition, at least 3400 other Jews from our town and the surrounding communities were rounded up during this action. They were all marched to the train station, loaded into freight cars, and sent to Sobibor where they were gassed. We were just fortunate that our hiding place was not discovered during the round-up.
We were faced, after this action, with the awareness that it was only a matter of time before Hitler's aim for total liquidation of European Jewry became a reality.
There were very few avenues of escape that remained open to us. One option was to obtain false identity papers and try to blend in with the Polish population. The Poles however were quick to recognize and identify for the Germans those who tried that path. Only a few from our town managed to survive the war as Poles, and most of them were women.
Another option was to find a Polish family willing to hide a Jew. Since it meant risking their own lives, very few Poles were prepared to do that. A very few did it out of compassion or true friendship. Others agreed to do it for money or valuables. In either case, these were isolated instances and only a handful of Jews from Hrubieszow survived by hiding in Polish homes.
A third option for the young and healthy ones was to join the partisans in their fight against the Germans. That goal was not easily achieved. Those few that managed to reach the forest and tried to join the Polish partisans found them reluctant to accept Jews into their ranks. In numerous instances the partisans killed the Jews who reached them.
We realized that all the choices available held out little or no hope for survival.
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Finally, on October 28, 1942 the Gestapo advised our Judenrat that Hrubieszow, like many other towns in Poland, was to become Judenrein. We were ordered to appear at the central square of the town on the aforementioned day for "resettlement". Each person was permitted to bring a small bundle of personal belongings and some food. We were told that those who did not show up would be shot. Several thousand showed up as ordered. Among them were all the members of the Judenrat and also the Jewish police. Apparently, they were nurturing the hope that a small group of Jews would be permitted to remain and that they would be among the "chosen" few. Many of us, however, suspecting that our ultimate destination was not a labor camp as we were told, but the gas chamber, decided to go into hiding.
My cousin Tziporah and my Sister chose another option in their attempt to save themselves. Dressed in the attire of Polish peasant girls, they boarded a train for the nearby town of Sokal where a Jewish ghetto still existed.
My Uncle and I and six others went into hiding in the same attic at my Grandfather's house where we saved ourselves during the first action in June. We brought with us food supplies that could have sustained us for about 2 - 3 weeks.
One of the couples hiding with us were the parents of a leader of the Judenrat who also lived in my Grandfather's house. This Mr. Rabinowitz decided to appear with the others from the Judenrat as ordered by the Gestapo, but hoped to be saved from deportation. Acting upon his request, we agreed to let his elderly parents share the hiding place with us. Frankly, we were faced with a hopeless situation. Our only ray of hope was the contact with the outside world, through his parents, if Rabinowitz managed to save himself from deportation. We had his assurance that he would try to help all those in hiding if he saved himself.
Through a small opening in our hiding place we watched groups of Jews carrying bundles going to the center square of town as ordered by the Gestapo. The SS and Ukrainian Sonderkommando, who came to town to take charge of the action, and the local Gestapo assisted by the Polish police were all busy directing the Jews to the train station, where they were loaded into cattle cars. About half of the remaining 6000 Jews in Hrubieszow were shipped during this final action to the gas chambers of Sobibor. Approximately another 3000 Jews remained in town, as we did, in hiding.
Julek Brandt, one of the leaders of the Judenrat, dealt directly with Obersturmfuhrer Ebner of the Gestapo. Ebner led him to believe that when the final action came he would allow Brandt and a small group of other Jews to remain in town. Rabinowitz, whose parents were in our hiding place, hoped to be saved from deportation in reliance on Ebner's promise to Brandt. However, their hopes faded when Ebner personally made certain that Brandt and the others of the Judenrat were put into one of the cattle cars of the train destined for the gas chambers of Sobibor.
After the train left our town, Brandt, Rabinowitz, and several others succeeded in breaking open a few of the wooden slats in the cattle car and jumping out of the moving train. Some were shot by the guards, but Brandt, Rabinowitz, and about twenty others managed to escape. A few days later they were captured by the Polish police on the outskirts of Hrubieszow and taken to Gestapo headquarters in town.
Ebner was surprised to see Brandt and the others in jail and no doubt was prepared to shoot all of them. Brandt then told him he knew of a large treasure of gold hidden by the Judenrat. He offered to turn the treasure over to Ebner if he permitted Brandt and his group of Jews to remain in Hrubieszow. Since Ebner needed people to clean up the part of town inhabited by the deported Jews, he agreed to it. That was how the Jatkowa street labor camp got started in our home town.
The labor camp encompassed about ten to twelve houses assigned by the Gestapo to that group. There was no barbed wire fencing around the camp perimeter nor did the people in the group have to wear any identifying garments -- not even the compulsory arm band with the star of David. The Gestapo made it clear, however, that the people from the camp were only permitted to leave it to carry out their assigned tasks on the outside. They were warned that anyone caught outside the camp, not on a work assignment, would be shot on the spot.
The camp, consisting initially of Ebner's group, numbered approximately 25 people, both young men and women. A few days later, however, realizing that more workers were needed to remove and assort the belongings left behind by the deported Jews, the Gestapo authorized Obersturmfuhrer Hans Wagner to pick another 25 young Jews and form an additional work battalion for the Jatkowa labor camp. Wagner selected his group from the Jews held in the Gestapo prison.
The Jews kept in that prison were those found in hiding soon after Hrubieszow became Judenrein. Assisted by the police and the Polish population, the Gestapo kept uncovering hiding places and the people found in them were gathered in the Gestapo prison from where they were taken later by truck to the Jewish cemetery and executed. These executions were taking place daily; Brandt and Rabinowitz, who were in charge of the Jatkowa camp, were ordered to provide the labor force needed to dig the graves and bury the victims.
Our group spent about a week in our hiding place totally isolated from the outside world and with our food reserves depleted. The situation appeared to be totally hopeless when suddenly through an opening in the wall of the attic where we were hiding, we noticed a few Jews walking the street freely -- one of them a friend of mine. Jews were permitted to remain, we thought. We did not realize that they were from the Jatkowa street labor camp; the chosen few that were permitted to remain for the purpose I described earlier.
One evening, soon after we discovered the presence of Jews on the outside, Rabinowitz appeared at the concealed door of our hiding place and asked his parents to come out. He informed us that he was taking them somewhere to another hiding place and that he was powerless to be of any help to the rest of us. His statement, and what we construed to be an unfriendly attitude, only antagonized the rest of us. We felt that he used us and now was not making an honest attempt to help us. We feared that with his parents gone, our contact with the outside world will be severed. We told Rabinowitz that we would permit his parents to leave only if two others from our group leave with them. Reluctantly, he agreed to it, and a friend of mine, Leib Papier, and I were selected to go out with them. Since my Uncle and my friend's Father remained in the hiding place, the rest hoped with our assistance to enhance their own chances for survival.
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Jatkowa Street Camp
We followed Rabinowitz and his parents to the Jatkowa street camp located only several short blocks from my grandfather's house which contained the hiding place. Upon entering one of the houses, we noticed Julek Brand, a former Judenrat official, now in charge of the camp. An irritated Rabinowitz told Brand what transpired, and soon thereafter left with his elderly parents -- taking them to another hiding place he apparently hoped would be safer. We remained with Brand, who did not appear to be annoyed at us over the incident that occurred at our hiding place, as related to him by Rabinowitz.
Brand knew both of our families quite well and he informed us that he heard from my cousin Tziporah. The good news was that she, my sister Pearl, and my friend's sister Sarah, who also left with them, all managed to reach the Sokal ghetto where they appeared to be safe for the moment.
As for my friend's and my own fate, Brand did not appear to show a great deal of optimism. He explained to us that the camp existed under strict supervision of the local Gestapo, and that he was powerless to do much to help us or anyone else. The people in the camp, he told us, did not know from day to day what awaited them, and he suspected that their days were numbered.
Brand told us that the day before, the Gestapo Obersturmfuhrer, Wagner, brought to the camp another 25 young people from the prison and ordered Brand to assign them to work. Any Jew found hiding, if not shot on the spot, was first brought to the Gestapo prison. The victims were gathered there and then taken in trucks to the cemetery where, after they undressed, they were shot by one of the Gestapo henchmen. People from the labor camp were always ordered to stand by, witness the executions, and then bury the victims.
The 25 people brought to the camp from prison had been at least temporarily granted a reprieve by the Gestapo.
Wagner would habitually come by the camp each evening, and Brand suggested that we appear with him before Wagner and that he would then try to persuade Wagner to let us remain in the camp to work.
We were fully aware of the risks we would be taking, and that a refusal from Wagner to grant Brand's request would spell a certain death verdict for both of us. However, we told Brand that we were both prepared to risk it.
Soon after, someone informed Brand that Wagner had appeared in the camp and was approaching the house we were in. Brand immediately went outside and we followed him. We were surrounded by total darkness and I was able to make out the silhouette of a tall and broad-shouldered fellow in uniform flashing a light at us.
Brand greeted Wagner and then said: "Herr Obersturmfuhrer, these two young fellows just came in from a nearby forest and are looking for work. They are strong fellows, and, with your permission, I would like to put them to work with the group you brought here yesterday." Wagner then turned to us and asked: "Were there others with you in that forest?" We assured him that we were all alone and decided to come back to town because we were hungry. He hesitated for a moment that seemed to me like an eternity, for I knew his decision would spell life or death for my friend Leib and I. What a momentary relief we both felt when we heard him say to Brand: "OK, show them where the others are, feed them, and assign them to work in the morning."
This was how my friend Leib and I were admitted to the Jatkowa street labor camp.
We were assigned to a group whose main function was the cleaning of all the Jewish homes left vacant, and collecting their contents in warehouses set up by the Gestapo exclusively for that purpose. We would go from house to house in the part of town formerly occupied by the Jewish population, remove all the furniture and belongings found there, and transport it to the assigned warehouses. From there, the assorted items were then loaded on trucks and carried to its ultimate destination -- the German Reich.
Any food found in the abandoned homes we were permitted to bring to our camp for our own use. Many of the vacant homes had a variety of food articles left in them. It enabled us to bring some of that food to people still remaining in hiding. My friend and I, risking our lives at night, would leave the camp perimeter and carry food to the hiding place where my Uncle and his Father still remained.
Soon after our arrival in the Jatkowa camp, the Gestapo apparently decided that more people were needed to speed up the clean up task of the vacated Jewish homes. Reluctant to entrust the Poles with the job, knowing that it would lead to a great deal of theft, the Gestapo began freeing more Jews found in hiding for clean up work. They also admitted to the camp Jews that possessed specific crafts (e.g. tailors and shoemakers) that the Gestapo found useful. Before long, we numbered approximately 200 people -- both men and women.
All the remaining people in our hiding place somehow managed to get into our labor camp during that period. Only my uncle Azriel remained there -- since he possessed no trade and was too old, I was afraid to risk his appearance before the Gestapo. A refusal on their part to admit him for work would have meant a death verdict.
Survival in any hiding place in town much longer was not feasible. They were being uncovered daily with the help of the Polish police and the assistance of some Polish civilians greedy for the monetary rewards promised by the Gestapo. While at work, I was able to observe daily the Polish police searching and finding Jews in hiding places. They would transport the victims to the Gestapo prison, while showing no sign of any remorse for their hideous acts.
Both my Uncle and I decided that his hiding place could not be safe much longer.
In the nearby town of Sokal, a Jewish ghetto still existed. His daughter Tziporah, and my sister Pearl, managed to get there after they escaped from our town when it became Judenrein. He longed to get there, and fortunately an opportunity availed itself soon. In one of the houses I was cleaning, I found several gold coins which I kept in hiding. I turned the coins over to a Pole we knew, and he transported my Uncle to Sokal where he became reunited with his daughter. He was granted a reprieve -- even though it was only a temporary one.
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Murder of Remaining Jews
One of the most gruesome tasks we were called upon to perform was the daily burial of the Jews found in hiding and then executed routinely by Ebner, the Gestapo chief executioner, at the Jewish cemetery. Usually, the group assigned to do the burial would be standing nearby and witnessing the executions.
I recall the day when my roommate, a boy my age, returned from a burial assignment. Unbeknown to him, the Gestapo uncovered that day the hiding place of his two older brothers, their wives and small children. They were all taken that day with some others to the cemetery and executed by Ebner. My roommate had to stand there, watch the execution and later help the others with the burial. Words simply fail me to fully describe his agony when he returned from this assignment. It took a long time for him to regain enough composure to be able to function again. I doubt if he ever fully recovered from this ordeal; he finally succumbed from malnutrition in one of the camps we were sent to later.
I vividly recall an incident that occurred while I was working with a group going from house to house and removing the furniture and belongings of the Jews who once lived there. Suddenly, Alex, a member of the Gestapo, appeared. The amazing thing about Alex was that he spoke perfect Yiddish. He must have been brought up among Jews to speak the language so fluently. He even knew many Hebrew expressions and used them frequently. Alex approached our group and ordered my friend Leib and I to pick up some shovels and follow him. We followed him a short distance to a house containing an outside enclosed staircase with a side door in it. Alex kicked the door and barked a single-word order. Raus he shouted. The door slowly opened and out came a disheveled man with an agonized look on his face. A frightened little girl of about 8 followed him holding on firmly to her father's hand.
Alex ordered them to march forward and motioned for us to follow him. The man apparently guessed the ultimate outcome of their ordeal and while marching, began pleading with Alex for their lives. I overheard the man telling Alex that he had in his possession some jewelry that belonged to his wife and then offered it to him. Alex took the jewelry and put it in his pocket while we continued marching in the direction of the Jewish cemetery.
Upon reaching the cemetery, we observed a heap of corpses a short distance away. Alex motioned for us to remain behind and ordered the man and child to continue walking in the direction of that location. As he followed them, he slowly removed his gun from the holster and, aiming it at the two victims, shot them both in back the of the head. He then ordered us to bury all the victims -- about ten of them, that were executed there. Lighting a cigarette, he pointed to the boots of the man he had just murdered and ordered us to remove them and bring them to him. As we were carrying out Alex's order, the man, apparently still alive, began moaning. Alex heard him and said to us: Oh, der wohl noch aufstehen (Oh, this one still wants to get up). He then slowly took out his gun and shot the man again in the forehead saying: Yetzt gehst du zu Moshe Rabeinu (Now you go to Moses). He then picked up the boots and left us.
We remained there digging, when suddenly several Polish women appeared and like vultures, descended upon the victims trying to undress them and rob them of their last piece of dignity -- their clothing. We raised our shovels menacingly and got them to leave in a hurry. We realized however, that what we just witnessed must be occurring daily and there was nothing we could do to prevent it from happening in the future. Whether we were dead or alive, apparently, many Poles welcomed the opportunity to rob us of our worldly possessions.
It was nightfall when we finally finished our burial task and returned to camp.
Both my friend and I were 16 at that time and this was our first experience witnessing the cold blooded murder of innocent victims. They were destined to die only because they were born Jews. Many similar incidents followed later which only underscored the hopelessness of our situation and the meager chances for our survival.
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Liquidation of Half the Camp
One morning shortly thereafter, Julek Brand and Rabinowitz were summoned to the Gestapo headquarters. A short time later Demant, a short, fat member of the Gestapo who sometimes filled in for Ebner as executioner, appeared at the camp during the morning roll call. He selected about half of the camp people, both men and women, by simply pointing his finger at an individual and ordering him or her to step out. My friend Leib, and his Father were among those selected. They were all ordered to get on a truck that would take them to work at the Gestapo building. When the truck pulled out, the rest of us were told to proceed with our daily assignments.
That afternoon we were ordered to return to camp early, where Demant was waiting for us. He informed us that Julek Brand, Rabinowitz and the others were all executed. The Gestapo apparently learned from someone found in hiding that we from the camp were bringing food to them, which enabled the people in hiding to sustain themselves a bit longer. This turned out to be our punishment for disobeying Gestapo orders.
Demant dispatched a burial crew to the cemetery where they found the nude bodies of all the camp victims. About a week prior to this incident, the Gestapo ordered us to dig an enormous pit -- about 20 feet wide by 40 feet long and 10 feet deep, at the cemetery. The executed people from the camp were the first victims buried in that pit. Eventually, more people found in hiding were executed and buried there, until that pit was filled to its capacity. Some of the camp inmates assigned to the task of digging that pit never realized that they were destined to be the first victims to be shot and buried there.
After Brand was executed, Dr. Fred Orenstein was appointed the new head of the Jatkowa camp.
Soon after, the population at the camp began growing again. Since we constituted a pool of free labor for the Gestapo to draw upon at will, they permitted some other Jews in hiding to join us. It was then that I began contemplating bringing my Sister and Cousin Tziporah from the Sokal Ghetto to our camp. I got in touch with them and they both agreed to come if I could arrange it; the conditions there were deplorable. They also heard rumors that the ghetto was about to be liquidated and were most anxious to leave. Unfortunately, my Uncle was too old to leave and resigned himself to remain there.
The same Pole who smuggled my Uncle into the Sokal ghetto agreed, for a price, to go there and bring my Sister and Cousin back to our camp. He came
back with my Sister and a note from Tziporah telling me that she could not leave her Father since he was very ill. She assured me that she would join us as soon as her father's condition improves. Only a few days after my Sister's arrival at the camp, we learned that the Sokal ghetto was liquidated and I never heard from them again. As I mentioned above, my Sister arrived at a time when the Gestapo was admitting some Jews from hiding to the camp. She too was permitted to join me there and we were thrilled to be reunited.
Wagner was a frequent visitor at the Jatkowa camp. He was at least six feet tall, well built, blond, with blue eyes and a deceiving appearance of being rather good-natured. I remember him as a cold blooded murderer who without any hesitation killed even children.
I vividly recall one Sunday when the Gestapo, acting upon a tip from a Polish "patriot", uncovered a hiding place in a vacant house near the camp. Wagner, carrying his automatic rifle, ordered the five women and nine children to come out of hiding and marched them to Jatkowa street inside the camp. He had a smirk on his face as he proceeded to execute them while we were helplessly watching in despair. We knew that any interference from us on their behalf would only have resulted in further killings. Wagner ordered Orenstein to designate a burial crew that transported the murdered victims to the cemetery for burial. Their blood penetrated the blanket of snow covering Jatkowa street at the time and turned it red. In days that followed, it served us as a constant reminder of this horrible deed perpetrated on innocent victims only because they were Jews.
One day, in December we learned that Ebner, the Gestapo chief executioner, had been killed. I was working that day at Gestapo headquarters when suddenly I noticed a sled pulling into the yard and on it appeared to be a body covered with a leather coat, the type usually worn by an SS officer. Later that day, we learned that this indeed was Ebner's body brought back after he was shot by a Polish partisan. The Gestapo was tipped off that a partisan, Baran, could be found hiding in his mother's house in a nearby village. Ebner, apparently confident in his invulnerability, drove out to the house alone to capture Baran. Not finding Baran who was hiding in a barn, he killed the partisan's mother. When Baran heard the shot, and saw from his hiding place what had happened, he came out armed and killed Ebner.
After a long manhunt that lasted several weeks, we learned that the Gestapo found Baran's hiding place and killed him. His body was strung up and put on display in his village for everyone to see.
Soon after Baran was captured and killed, the Gestapo brought to our camp a very sick young Jewish man whose fingers and toes were badly frostbitten. Wagner told Dr. Orenstein to do his best to restore the young man's health. This was rather unusual for the Gestapo to be concerned with the well-being of a Jew and to want to restore him to health. At first, we were greatly puzzled by the Gestapo's unusual action but we soon learned the reason for it. It turned out that this young man was also a partisan caught by the Gestapo during a routine round-up. He was the one who led the Gestapo to Baran's hiding place and was responsible for his capture. The Gestapo rewarded him by sparing his life and ordering Dr. Orenstein to cure him. When we at the camp learned the truth about this man, we wanted nothing to do with him. Orenstein, however, complied with the Gestapo's order and nursed the man back to health. One day, apparently afraid that the Gestapo would eventually kill him, he disappeared and we suspected that he went back to rejoin a partisan group in the forest. We heard that the Gestapo later caught up with him and killed him.
As time passed, our work of cleaning and collecting the contents of the empty Jewish houses was coming to an end. We continued with a variety of assignments for the Gestapo but we were running out of work and the Gestapo could find little for us to do. We were beginning to suspect that an order to liquidate our camp might be forthcoming any day.
Fortunately for us, a new chief of Gestapo, Waldner, arrived and we realized immediately that he tried to be as fair and just as he could under the circumstances. When in July, 1943 the orders came for our camp to be liquidated, he assembled us all for a roll call at the Gestapo headquarters’ camp yard. He told us not to worry, and that we were being shipped to a labor camp called Budzyn, near Lublin. Conditions there were good, he told us, and there would be plenty of work for us. We were then loaded on trucks and taken to the train station. There, the last 200 of the Hrubieszow Jews not in hiding, were put into cattle cars, and about eight hours later, arrived in Budzyn. My only consolation was that my sister and I were still together.
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As soon as we arrived, we were ordered by the SS and the Ukrainian guards that accompanied us to leave the cars and form a column. They marched us toward a camp surrounded with rows of barbed wire and guard towers. Over the gate was a sign that read Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Makes One Free).
Was this a labor camp as promised by the Gestapo chief, I wondered, and not an extermination camp? Its appearance was quite different from the one we left behind. The Jatkowa street camp had no barbed wire surrounding it and we lived in houses sharing the same quarters with the women. Although we lived with the constant fear of death and violence, we still looked civilized and had sufficient food and clothing.
I was able to see some of the prisoners inside the Budzyn camp. They wore civilian clothes with yellow patches on their jackets -- a designation that they were Jews. As we came closer, I noticed that many of them were emaciated and their hollow eyes had a look of despair. Judging from the appearance of the Budzyn inmates, it became apparent to us that we were now exposed to a new kind of fear -- the fear of slow death from filth, sickness and starvation.
We marched through the gate and were met by several men in black Polish army uniforms, except for one who wore a brown Polish army uniform. We found out later that this man, Stockman, was in charge of the Polish army prisoners of war who were all Jewish and also wore yellow patches. These prisoners wore clean uniforms and appeared to be well fed. We soon learned that the camp internally was run by them and while Stockman appeared to be quite decent, some of them could be rather brutal in their treatment of other prisoners. One of them, Szczypiacky, always carried a stick and used it frequently on the prisoners while they were marching to and from a work site.
In addition to the SS men, there were Ukranian police in black uniforms to guard us. They were mostly an illiterate and brutal bunch content to do the SS's dirty work. They enjoyed beating and kicking us and could kill any of us at any time without the slightest provocation and with complete impunity.
After entering the gate we first had to register at the camp office where they assigned to each of us a number and gave us a yellow patch to be attached to our jackets. Later we were assigned to one of the seven wooden barracks within the camp perimeter. Each barrack held about 400 inmates. All the women were housed in the single women's barrack also located inside the camp. A small separate room inside each barrack was occupied by the prisoner in charge, the Stubenalteste. The rest of the space was filled with three-tiered bunks which had just enough space to sleep in but were not even high enough to sit up in.
All the prisoners had to share the latrine located in back of the barracks near the wire fence, and the stench emanating from it was overpowering. After the doors of the barracks were shut for the night, we were not allowed to leave the premises -- not even to go to the latrine. Anyone that needed to urinate during the night had to use the can stationed inside the barrack.
At about 5 o'clock in the morning we would be awakened by a sharp whistle, get dressed and use the wash basins outside the barracks to wash our hands and face. Some of us, without bothering to get washed, would push and shove to get in line for the bread and "coffee" distributed in the morning. Each of us was handed a slice of bread (approximately 1 / 10th of a loaf) and about 1 /2 of a liter of "ersatz" coffee. Some of the older inmates, I noticed, already had reached the Musulmen stage and appeared so weak that they could barely lift their feet off the ground while walking. They would usually devour their portion of bread all at once, leaving themselves with nothing to eat for the rest of the day till the evening soup. This consisted of a hot liquid with an occasional trace of a piece of carrot or potato in it -- hardly nourishing. I was a bit more fortunate since my sister Pearl was assigned to do cleaning chores in the kitchen and would occasionally bring some additional food to me. It enabled us to preserve some of our strength and "if we could just hang on", I kept telling her, "maybe we still had a chance for survival".
At 6 a.m. the morning appel (roll-call) would take place. Prisoners from each barrack would line up on the appelplatz (roll-call plaza) in columns five deep and regardless of weather conditions would remain standing at attention till we were all accounted for. The counting was conducted by SS men and Ukranians who then reported to the camp commandant. His name was Axman, and we learned that just before our arrival he replaced the previous commandant, Feix, described by the inmates as a "mad killer and sadist". Axman, we were told, was not as bad as Feix, but nonetheless managed to terrorize the inmates during the appels.
Upon returning from work each day, we were again ordered to line up to be counted in the evening appel. At times the weather was freezing and we would have to remain standing at attention for an hour or even longer until the SS was satisfied that we were all accounted for.
Soon after our arrival, I was assigned to work at the Heinkel Werke -- an airplane manufacturing company that had a plant at Budzyn making wings for planes. A portion of the camp inmates was assigned to work there under the supervision of German engineers. In this respect, Budzyn appeared to be a safer place than the Jatkowa camp since it was a productive labor camp where our work was really needed.
With the onset of the cold and rainy weather, my Sister and I were fortunate not to have to work outdoors on construction jobs like many of the other prisoners did. We were spared from doing heavy physical work, regardless of weather conditions, under the watchful eyes of the SS and the brutal Ukrainian guards. The guards frequently administered a beating to a prisoner if they thought he was moving too slowly.
I worked inside one of the Heinkel factory barracks performing simple tasks on an airplane wing assembly line under the supervision of German technicians. Our food ration continued to be the same, but I was able to spend the day working under almost normal conditions in a somewhat clean environment. At night, however, I would return to the filthy camp and be exposed to all the brutality and degradation there.
More and more of the camp inmates were dying from malnutrition and disease and the number of Musulmen kept growing. The occasional Entlausung (delousing), consisting of a hot shower, did not help much and sometimes it only served the SS to have some fun at our expense. I vividly remember one such incident during the winter months. The temperature outdoors was freezing and there was snow on the ground when we were ordered to get ready for an Entlausung. We undressed in one barrack and then ran naked to the next where the showers were located. After the shower, wet and shivering, we were chased by the guards outside in the snow to get back to the barrack for our clothing. I somehow survived this "exercise" without serious side effects, but numerous prisoners caught pneumonia and later died as a result of this harsh punishment.
As 1943 was nearing to an end, we suddenly heard rumors that several of the surrounding camps, including Maidanek, Travniki and Poniatowa were liquidated. The Jewish workers there were either killed on the spot or sent to the Sobibor and Treblinka extermination camps to be gassed.
When the unofficial news reached us that an SS extermination group arrived in Budzyn, it became clear to us that we were about to be liquidated the same way as the others.
Was all the suffering worth it? I began wondering; is this the fate awaiting me -- after having survived all the uncertainties of hiding, selections and
running only to be mercilessly killed in the end? The high voltage barbed wire surrounding the camp perimeter and the towers with machine guns mounted on them only accentuated the hopelessness of our situation. The possibility of a successful breakout and escape, I realized, did not exist. We suspected that the "invincible" German army was suffering defeats on all fronts. With the Russian front nearing, it appeared that the Gestapo was doing its utmost to make Hitler's wish for total liquidation of European Jewry a reality.
During the ensuing days we remained in the camp and were not permitted to go out to our usual work stations. Each morning, after the Appel, we were ordered to return to our barracks and remain indoors. We were forewarned by the SS that should we hear any shooting during the day or at night, we must remain confined in our designated barrack. From all indications it appeared as though our end was nearing.
After about a week of this uncertainty, suddenly, after the morning Appel, we were ordered to form our usual work commandos and were marched out of the camp to our previous work assignments. A great sigh of relief swept through our ranks that day as we were marching. For the moment at least, it appeared that we were spared.
Rumors began circulating about what actually happened in order to save us. It appeared that the local Gestapo in Lublin was prepared and in fact gave orders to liquidate Budzyn -- just like the other camps in the area. However, the head of the Heinkel factory appealed to the Gestapo headquarters in Berlin and they apparently countermanded the Lublin Gestapo order. This is how the Budzyn camp -- the only one of those in the area, was spared. We suspected that Heinkel fought hard to save the camp, so as to prevent the German civilians working there from being inducted into the army. I suppose they were reluctant to go to the Russian front and fight what already appeared to be a losing battle.
Most of us remained in Budzyn until February, 1944. As the Russian front was nearing, the management apparently decided to close the Budzyn factory. One morning, after we were all counted at the appel, we were informed that the camp was being closed. Surrounded by the SS and Ukrainian guards, we were marched to the nearby train station where we were ordered to board cattle cars for an unknown destination. Since we were not allotted any food provisions, we could only hope that our journey would be a short one.
Fortunately, about 4 to 5 hours later we arrived at our destination. It turned out that we were shipped farther West to camp Mielec, where another Heinkel factory existed.
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We soon learned that this labor camp in many ways was similar to the Budzyn camp we left behind.
Upon entering the camp we noticed that the camp perimeter was fenced in with high voltage wire and there were watch towers with machine guns manned by the SS guards. The men and women were separated and assigned to different barracks filled with three-tiered bunks -- the same as in Budzyn. Before we received our meager food ration, we were ordered to undergo an Entlausing. After the shower, we all received ill-fitting blue and white striped uniforms. Each of us was given an ID number printed on a narrow patch of white cloth and attached to the upper left side of our jacket. A yellow star of David, sewn on the upper right side of our jacket, also had to be prominently displayed.
The Heinkel factory, located near the camp, consisted of several barracks. Most of us were assigned to work there assembling airplane wings under the watchful eyes of German engineers.
The meager food rations we were receiving daily consisted of a thin slice of bread and "ersatz coffee" in the morning. Lunch time we would receive a half liter of "soup" -- a hot liquid hardly containing any nourishment in it. I recall one exception when an SS horse accidentally ran into the high voltage fence and was electrocuted. For several days after this incident we experienced a rare treat -- we found an occasional piece of horse meat in our soup.
The starvation diet we were exposed to resulted in the continuous increase of the number of Musulmen among us. Death from malnutrition and related diseases became a daily phenomenon.
In May 1944 we suddenly learned that the Heinkel Werke connected with the Mielec camp were closing and that we were being evacuated. However, before we left this camp, the Nazis apparently decided to brand all the inmates with a permanent identifying marking. We were ordered to form a single line before an SS guard who, using a pen and blue ink, expertly tattooed the initials "KL" (Konzentratzion Lager) on our right arms above our wrists. Again we were loaded onto freight cars.
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Wieliczka, Flossenberg, and my Sister's Fate
After a brief journey West, we arrived in the Polish-German border town of Wieliczka, known for its salt mines. Apparently the Germans planned to establish an airplane factory inside the mine caves, but the machinery began rusting and the Nazis never reached a production stage there. In Wieliczka we were separated from the women and sent in cattle cars to Flossenburg -- a concentration camp in Germany.
The women, I learned after the war from a survivor, were sent to Auschwitz. I was told that my Sister managed to survive the selection there and was sent East to an all women labor camp in Stutthof. Several days before the Russian army reached that camp, the Nazis evacuated all the camp inmates and forced them to march East until they reached the Baltic sea. The women were ordered to embark on several boats that were then sunk by the retreating Nazis. There were only a few survivors who managed to swim to shore and escape. Most of the women, my Sister among them, drowned -- just days before the Russians liberated that territory.
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After spending about one week in Flossenburg, we were subjected to a selection. Most of us were sent to Leitmeritz (Litomiezec), a labor camp in Czechoslovakia, located about 65 kilometers from the Theresienstadt ghetto established in 1941. We arrived there in June, 1944 and were immediately assigned to work on an excavation project. The Germans wanted to build an aircraft factory inside a mountain that would be camouflaged and not detectable by Allied aircraft from the air. We worked side by side with Czech engineers who were setting the fuses that upon explosion resulted in the creation of underground tunnels and caves. Our job consisted of loading the fallen debris and rocks on carts and removing it from inside the mountain. Needless to say it was dangerous and hard physical work. It appeared that we were fighting a losing battle for survival -- especially considering the meager food rations we were receiving. It did not help my state of mind to watch the people I knew dying daily from starvation.
As we were marched daily to work, surrounded by SS guards, we passed POW barracks. We noticed that the garbage cans in front of their kitchen contained potato peels. Our SS guards forewarned us not to touch those cans -- that anyone caught helping himself to the potato peels would receive a lashing. This could not stop the starving inmates from doing it. We would hide the potato peels inside our shirts until we returned to our barracks.
Each barrack contained a small iron stove with a pipe extending from the stove upward through the roof to the outside, permitting the smoke to escape. Upon return from work to our barrack, those of us who managed to get some potato peels would line up in front of the stove and wait for his turn to bake the peels on its hot top before devouring them.
There were others near the stove awaiting their turn for a different purpose. The hygienic conditions in the camp were deplorable and some of us were near the stove because our shirts were infested with lice. We were waiting our turn to hold the shirt over the hot pipe and by moving the shirt back and forth we tried to rid ourselves of the lice in it. This ritual was taking place simultaneously while the potato peels were baking on the hot stove top.
We did not always succeed in helping ourselves to the potato peels unnoticed. I remember the day when one of the SS guards caught me grabbing a few potato peels from a garbage can. He made me put them back in the garbage can and wrote down my ID number. The next morning during the appel my number was called and, before departing for work, I received 15 lashes from one of the SS guards.
Occasionally we were able to supplement our meager diet with a sugar beet found abandoned in a field we were passing on the way to and from work.
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I Switch Fates
One day, in November 1944, we were informed that our camp was being evacuated -- destination unknown. The following morning, as we gathered for the appel, we noticed two lists conspicuously posted, with the numbers of all the camp inmates appearing on them. We soon learned that we were being divided into two distinct groups according to the lists. As we were taking our assigned places, I found out, much to my dismay, that I was separated from a friend of mine assigned to the other group. A fellow inmate from my home town, Bob Berger, picked to go with the other group, noticed that I was hiding two sugar beets inside my shirt (I found them the day before in the field on the way from work). In exchange for the sugar beets, he offered to change jackets bearing our numbers with me and switch places. I agreed, and we changed places and also our destinies.
His group, I found out later, was sent to Mauthausen -- one of the most infamous concentration camps in Nazi Germany. To the best of my knowledge, most of them, including Berger, perished there while working in the punitive stone quarries.
Our group was transported under guard to Dachau and from there we were moved to one of its sub-camps in Augsburg.
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Augsburg and Stuttgart
The Nazis were planning to build an aircraft factory camouflaged in a forest on the outskirts of Augsburg. From our labor camp in Augsburg the SS guards transported us daily in cattle cars to a forest, where we commenced the construction of barracks that were to house the aircraft factory. To emphasize the urgency of the project, we were ordered by the SS to work without being given a day of rest. Our first task was to excavate the foundations for the barracks. It was a most difficult assignment since the ground was frozen and we were lacking the strength to do our jobs properly. The SS guards were constantly beating us and ordering us to work harder but to no avail. We were all starving outcasts reduced to skin and bones, and had we remained longer, we would have all died there.
Many of us did perish before the Nazis abandoned the idea of erecting a factory in that forest.
In January 1945, we were sent from there to Stuttgart, another Dachau sub-camp, where an aircraft factory actually existed. It was totally camouflaged inside a mountain and contained complete facilities for the building of airplanes.
Our labor camp, located a short distance from the factory, consisted of several barracks with three tier bunks in them. Each barrack had a Stubenalteste -- a person in charge who had a separate room inside the barrack. I was assigned to one where a man from my home town, Majer Kornblith, became the Stubenalteste.
Each day, after the appel, the SS guards marched us to the underground airplane factory where we worked side by side with Russian civilian prisoners under the supervision of German engineers. We were performing simple tasks under the watchful eyes of the Germans who did not hesitate to report us to the SS if they thought we were neglectful in our performance. The penalty was quite severe, usually consisting of a number of lashes administered by an SS guard during the appel.
Our food ration continued to be very meager, and more and more of us were succumbing daily. I too began noticing increased swelling in my legs and that my strength was gradually diminishing. This starvation diet appeared to rob me of the basic human instincts, and my thoughts were constantly preoccupied with a strong desire for food. Nothing else seemed to matter any more; I too became a Musulman and was losing my fight for survival.
The SS guards often entertained themselves during our lunch break when the kettles of soup -- our main meal for the day -- were brought out. The portions distributed seldom contained more than a piece of a sugar beet or some other vegetable; it hardly contained the nourishment we needed to sustain ourselves. The guards would dish out the soup and purposely leave a handful at the bottom of the kettle. They would then tell the inmates that they may help themselves to the remaining soup in the kettles. The SS guards enjoyed the spectacle as they watched the prisoners fight like animals to get close to a kettle and scoop out some soup on a finger and lick it.
Quite often they photographed those scenes -- I guess indicative to them that we were nothing but vermin whose extermination was justified.
The severe swelling of my legs prevented me from going to work daily. In April 1945 I reported sick on several occasions to the Kapo in charge, and received permission from him to remain in the barrack. One day, around April 20, 1945, 1 reported sick and remained in the barrack. Suddenly, I noticed two open trucks driving through the front gates of the camp with several SS guards in them. Their first stop was the sick-bay. I watched as they loaded all the inmates from the sick bay on to one of the trucks. They then proceeded from one barrack to another ordering the Stubenalteste to bring out anybody that had reported sick that day and remained in the barrack.
I watched this through our barrack window and it occurred to me that this probably spelled the end for all the inmates the SS guards were gathering. Following my first impulse, I hid under one of the barrack bunks, hoping not to be discovered.
As soon as the trucks pulled over in front of our barrack, Majer Kornblith, the man from our home town who became the Stubenalteste, began carrying out the SS guards orders very diligently. He searched the barrack for anyone in hiding and soon found me. I remember pleading with him and saying to him: "Please leave me here. You see what is happening and where they are probably taking these inmates". He ignored me and began dragging me out from under the bunk where I was hiding. I remember the last words I uttered to him: "What if we survive and you have to face me some day?". "Don't talk about survival. You surely will not make it", was his response as he pulled me outside and turned me over to the SS guards.
I was handed a slice of bread and ordered to get on one of the trucks. Seated next to me was a Polish inmate who came from the sick-bay. I began talking to him and we were wondering aloud about our ultimate destination. Suddenly, he stopped talking and I realized that he was dead.
It occurred to me that he would not be needing the bread he received, so I reached for it, removed it from his pocket, and hid it in my shirt. Before we left the camp compound, the SS guards were informed that there were several dead inmates on the trucks and we were ordered to remove them. As we were doing it, the guards told us to search the dead, find the bread they received, and return it to them. When they found out that some of the bread was missing, the SS guards threatened us with severe punishment unless they were told who took the bread. One of the inmates pointed a finger at me and said: "He took a slice of bread". Immediately I was ordered off the truck. Upon returning the slice of bread I had "illegally" obtained, I received ten lashes and was then thrown back on the truck. This was my parting memento from camp Stuttgart.
Finally, the two trucks loaded with sick inmates left the camp. Two SS guards carrying machine guns accompanied us in each of the trucks. I suspected that this was our final journey; at any moment, I thought, the trucks would turn off to some nearby forest where all of us would be executed. However, my fears did not materialize. After a suspenseful journey that lasted several hours, we arrived back in Dachau.
I eventually found out that the Jews that remained in Stuttgart were later evacuated from the camp in a forced march, with many of them dying in the process.
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The trucks stopped in front of one of the barracks and as we got off, we realized that some of the sick inmates did not make it. They simply died before we reached our destination.
We, the survivors, were told to enter the barrack and get undressed. It turned out that we actually underwent a delousing and bathing process. After taking a shower we had to line up in a single row and march before a man in a prison uniform who must have been a doctor. He briefly looked at every one of us and separated us into two distinct groups. I found myself assigned to the group that was put in the Dachau hospital. The people in the other group, I found out later, ended up in one of the regular barracks.
I found myself in a hospital room occupied by eight to ten prisoners in two tier bunks. It turned out I was the only Jew in this room. In the bunk under me was a German political prisoner, and the bunk next to mine was occupied by a nice Czech political prisoner. Every day a doctor in a prison uniform would make the rounds and look at us. When he noticed the swelling in my legs, he had them elevated so that the swelling would go down. Some of the prisoners in my room were receiving food packages from home and they shared them with me.
At one point I reported to a doctor that there was an infection in my finger. Amazingly, I was taken to an operating room, given ether, and had my finger fixed and bandaged.
After about a week in the hospital, I noticed that the swelling in my legs had subsided and I was beginning to regain my strength. One morning, as I was resting on my bunk and wondering what might happen next, the doctor came in to make his usual morning rounds. He examined my legs, looked at my chart and said to me: "I am checking you out today, since we need the bed for another sick person." I pleaded with him to let me stay a bit longer, but to no avail. That same day, I was transferred to a regular barrack.
The barrack housed several hundred inmates of various nationalities -- some of them political prisoners, others interred there because of criminal activities, and still others, like myself, incarcerated for just being born Jewish.
In the days that followed, we remained locked up there, wondering what fate was in store for us.
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Evacuation From Dachau
This uncertainty only lasted a few days. On or about April 30, 1945, a written order was posted in the barrack proclaiming that all the Jewish prisoners must assemble the following morning at the Appel place for resettlement. The following morning, several hundred of us gathered as ordered and were told that we will be leaving by train -- destination unknown. Each of us received a striped prison coat and a blanket. We were then marched under SS guard to the train station located in the vicinity, where a passenger train was awaiting us. Upon boarding the train, we each received a small Red Cross food package -- a most welcome gift for all of us. Surrounded by SS guards, we left Dachau that day, not knowing that the Allied Army was only a short distance away and arrived there soon after our departure.
Not all the Jews of Dachau were evacuated by passenger train -- some remained to be liberated by the American Army, while many others perished in forced evacuation marches.
I recall that it was a sunny, warm day when we left Dachau, and many of the inmates, unwilling or unable to carry extra baggage, left behind the coats and blankets we received. I must have been guided by some inner instinct not to part with those items as others did. As it subsequently turned out, the coat and blanket I kept helped me survive that last night before liberation -- when so many of the other inmates perished.
After riding on that train a good portion of the day, we reached the Tyrol region of Germany -- a cold terrain covered with a blanket of snow. At one point, the train came to a sudden stop and rumors began spreading that the Nazis just capitulated and the War was over. The rejoicing that followed was indescribable. The SS guards -- mostly of an older generation -- began speaking Hungarian and embracing some of the Jewish Hungarian prisoners. They were crying together as the guards were telling them that they were not the true SS volunteer soldiers but were forced into this guard service. The guards opened the wagon containing the food provisions and were distributing them generously to all of us. It was a spectacle I never even dreamed that I would live to see -- and here it was unfolding before my very eyes.
This period of rejoicing only lasted about one hour. Suddenly, a truckload of young SS arrived and started instructing our guards to restore order. It turned out that the rumors we heard were not yet a reality.
We were soon assembled on the nearby road which was covered with snow, and ordered to proceed by marching, while guarded by both the old and the newly arrived SS guards.
As nightfall approached, our guards ordered us to stop at a roadside and descend to a shallow incline covered with snow. We were informed that we were going to camp there, in the open, for the night. Surrounded by the SS guards who lit camp fires to protect themselves from the cold, we were compelled to sit in the snow, with temperatures below freezing. Many of us, weakened from malnutrition and exhaustion, succumbed that night to the merciless weather conditions that prevailed. What apparently saved me that night from the fate of many others was the coat and blanket we were given before we left Dachau, which I carried with me. When ordered by the SS guards to sit in the snow, I obeyed and covered myself with the blanket.
Another thing that apparently saved my legs from freezing were the rags they were wrapped in and the shoes I wore. They consisted of "ersatz leather" uppers and thick wooden soles. They prevented my legs from getting frost bitten. I do not remember if I was dozing or just sitting there with the blanket covering my head. Suddenly, and it must have been late at night, I heard someone screaming that the SS guards were gone. I removed my blanket and looked around me. The camp fires were still lit, but the guards had disappeared. Some of them even left their SS uniforms behind.
About 200 of us survived this eventful night and suddenly I realized that the end of our suffering was nearing and that I may yet live to see the day of the total defeat of the Nazi oppressor. "I must not give up now" I kept thinking as I mustered all my remaining strength and joined the other survivors back on the road again. In the distance, we noticed an outline of a town ahead of us and we decided to go there. We kept walking towards the houses we saw from a distance and soon discovered that we were in Mittenwald -- a small community not far from Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a well known ski resort in the Tyrol area.
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Upon entering the town, we noticed that many of the men wore white arm bands -- a sign, we were informed, that the town was preparing to surrender to the American forces that were nearing. The people turned out en mass to greet us. As we approached them, they realized that we were totally exhausted and that we could barely continue walking much further. They expressed shock and bewilderment upon learning that we were Jewish concentration camp survivors. When we related to them some of the stories about the torture and suffering we experienced, they kept insisting that they knew nothing about it. Amazing how suddenly millions of SS members and their sympathizers suddenly vanished from their midst.
Realizing that we were tired and very hungry, some civilians asked us to enter the town hall where they began feeding us hot soup and bread. We had barely finished eating, when suddenly a group of soldiers from the Wehrmacht (not the SS) showed up with drawn guns and ordered us to vacate the hall. An officer in charge then informed us that we must leave the town. We heard the civilian population pleading with the soldiers to leave us alone; that we were sick and lacking the strength to walk any further. We sat in the street while the soldiers, unwilling to antagonize the population, were deciding what to do next.
For a while it appeared that they were leaving us alone when the Wehrmacht suddenly disappeared. They returned after a while, however, with two trucks and began lifting us on those trucks one by one. We were told that we are being taken to a safe place where we can await the approaching American army. Upon hearing that, the civilian population raised no further objection to our removal from town.
We were taken by truck to the outskirts of the town, where the trucks stopped and we were ordered to get off. The officers in charge informed us that if we continue marching straight ahead, we will reach the approaching American army. They warned us, however, that if we attempt to enter the town again, they have orders to shoot us. They left us there on a road covered with snow and went back to town.
Many of us were totally exhausted and lacked the strength to continue walking. They simply gave up the fight for survival, laid down in the snow on the side of the road and succumbed to the harsh environment. The sight of their frozen bodies must have revitalized some inner strength within me. I kept thinking that I must not give up now, when the long awaited freedom appeared to be nearing; I owed it to all those
that perished, to bear witness to the true events of that period. Supporting myself with a stick I found on the road, I joined the others and slowly we kept on marching.
At nightfall we came across a barn in the field near the road and decided to seek shelter in it. At least, we thought, it would offer us some protection from the freezing weather that persisted. As we were entering the barn, we could hear the sound of artillery from the not far away distance an indication that the front line was nearing.
It was past midnight when our stay in the barn was suddenly interrupted by the appearance of a sizable group of Hungarian soldiers who forced us to abandon our shelter. These were German allies, apparently retreating from the front line and also seeking shelter for the night. They did not harm us, but forced us to leave the barn, and compelled us to spend the rest of the night in the field.
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The early morning hours found us staring in disbelief at the road in front of us, which was crowded with motorized columns of the long awaited American army, heading in the direction of Mittenwald. Finally, the long awaited freedom became a reality. May 2, 1945 was the unforgettable day of our liberation; three days later Germany surrendered.
Now that I regained my freedom, I was at a loss as to what to do next. The strong will to survive that sustained me during the final days before liberation now gave way to total physical exhaustion. I weighed about 70 pounds and my legs were swollen again as a result of prolonged periods of malnutrition. The American soldiers gladly made available to us their food rations. However, our stomachs, exposed for so long to a starvation diet, could not readily get accustomed to digesting the "K" rations and canned foods given to us in abundance. Quite frequently that diet resulted in acute cases of diarrhea and even death.
Since I had no desire to return to Poland, I decided to join other survivors in one of the Displaced Persons (DP) camps in Feldafing, near Munich. The camps were organized under the auspices of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Organization (UNRRA) to provide shelter, food, clothing and medical aid to the survivors.
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Upon my arrival in Feldafing, I found myself among several thousand others freed from various concentration camps. I spent numerous hours studying the names from compiled lists of survivors published at the camp, hoping to find my sister Pearl's name among them. Much to my dismay, my Sister's name did not appear on any of the lists. I soon met a woman survivor sent with my Sister to Auschwitz and later to a Stutthof labor camp. From her, I learned the gruesome truth of how the retreating Nazis liquidated the Stutthof camp. As I mentioned earlier, before the Russians liberated that area, the women were marched under guard to the Baltic sea where they were ordered to embark on boats that were then sunk. Several hundred women, my Sister among them, drowned; only a handful managed to swim to shore and save themselves.
My sister Perla's Auschwitz registration card, showing "Perla Migdal, Hrubieszow, #85-513"
(obtained from microfilm at US Holocaust Memorial Museum)
Since I suffered from total physical exhaustion, I was admitted to the camp hospital. The hospital, located within the camp perimeter, was staffed with Hungarian POW doctors and nurses. How ironic, I thought, that we the patients -- the liberated ones -- were depending on POW's for our medical care and food rationing. While no longer deprived of the basic food necessities, I was constantly asking for more bread which I kept consuming in great quantities. It must have been a psychological carry-over from my days in the camps when, exposed to a starvation diet and with hope for survival fading, I was constantly obsessed with a single thought -- to have enough bread at least once more before I die.
After spending about a week in the hospital, the swelling in my legs went down and I began regaining my strength. I then checked out of the hospital and moved to one of the camp barracks where I remained for several weeks.
When I found out that several survivors from my home town were in Zeilsheim (Salzheim), a DP camp near Frankfurt am Main, I decided to join them there.
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Zeilsheim and Kibbutz Ichud
Upon my arrival, I learned that not far from there a Kibbutz Ichud (meaning "unity" in Hebrew) was being formed. It consisted of about 200 survivors -- both young men and women -- of different Zionist ideologies, but united in a single purpose and desire to leave Germany as soon as possible and settle in Palestine. I became a member of the Kibbutz and was anxiously waiting for an opportunity to get out of Germany. The Zionist movement was gaining momentum, and our demands for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine found expressions in the form of demonstrations that were taking place all over Germany. Some of the Allies were sympathetic to our demands, but the British were still reluctant to leave Palestine, and were intercepting the boats with refugees attempting to reach its shores illegally.
While I was at the Kibbutz waiting with the others for an opportunity to leave for Palestine by whatever means became available, something happened that altered my plans completely.
I mentioned earlier that my cousin, Shlomo, returned to Palestine in September 1939 where he joined the Palestinian Brigade. He fought with the British in North Africa and later participated in the invasion of Italy. When the War ended, while stationed in Belgium, he went to Poland to search for any family survivors. There he met someone from our home town who was liberated with me and later returned to Poland. He told Shlomo of my whereabouts in Germany.
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Reunion with Shlomo
One day, during the Summer of 1945, I was informed that a Palestinian soldier was asking for me at the gate of the Kibbutz. I was simply overjoyed when I saw Shlomo there, and was overcome with the feeling that I am not left all alone. We spent the next several hours telling each other about our experiences during the War years. I related to him whatever I knew about the fate of his immediate family. I told him how his Mother died of natural causes in our home town before it became Judenrein, and how his Father and sister Tziporah escaped to the Sokal ghetto, where they apparently perished when it became Judenrein. I also told him briefly about my own experiences in the various Concentration camps. Shlomo in turn informed me that the news of the December 1939 massacre of the Jews in Hrubieszow reached them in Palestine and that they knew my Father was among those that perished. I was moved to tears when he told me that his brother Jehuda's son was born at that time, and they named him Dov after my Father.
My extended family living in the Hrubieszow area at the start of the war was large and diverse: There was of course my father Dov Behr, my mother Brucha, my sister Pearl (11), and myself (13). My father's sister Sarah, and her husband Shulem Richer, had three children, Frieda (17), Majer (16), and Gitel (12). My father's oldest brother Usher Migdal, and his wife Ethel had three children, Frieda (28), Sonia (24), and Gitel (23) all living in a nearby town, Wlodzimierz. My mother's sister Adele and her husband Azriel Friedman had a daughter Tsiporah (22) (her older brothers Jehuda and Shlomo had moved to Israel). Many of my mother's cousins lived in the same building as us, the building having been built by my mother's grandfather. These included the Boxenbaum family (two sisters Hinda and Toba, and a brother Akiva (35)), the Levenfus family (Itzchak who was married to my mother's cousin Brucha (she was called "tall Brucha"), and their children Mendel (23), Henja (16), and Dolek (13)), the Efrus family (Munish and Balcia, and their son Itche (21)), and the Eisen family (Saul and Sarah, their daughter Regina, and her children Olek (13), and a daughter (16)).
Of these 33 family members, only three survived the war -- Frieda Migdal survived in hiding, Akiva Boxenbaum survived in Siberia, and I survived the camps.
Shlomo strongly advised me to go to the United States if an opportunity availed itself. He pointed out that the life awaiting me in Palestine would be full of hardships. After all the suffering I had experienced, he said, I would be much better off if I were reunited with my family in the United States. He reminded me that my father's four brothers and a sister resided there, and he offered to put me in touch with them.
The decision to abandon the idea of going to Palestine with the other members of the Kibbutz was a difficult one for me. However I decided to follow Shlomo's advice, especially since the illegal immigration to Palestine was progressing very slowly, with many obstacles in the way.
Shlomo contacted my Uncles in New York, and one of them immediately proceeded to prepare the necessary affidavits for my entrance to the United States. In May 1946, the first two ships with Displaced Persons left the shores of Germany for the U.S.A. One of them was the Marine Perch, and I was on it.
I had to undergo a complete physical before my visa for the United States was granted. It was then that the examining doctor discovered that I had hypertension. In order for me to be able to enter the United States, my family in New York had to submit an affidavit guaranteeing that I would not become a burden to the United States government if I became disabled.
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America, Aunt Frances and Uncle Lou
Upon our arrival in New York about fifty of us with various health problems were separated from the others and not permitted to go ashore where our families were anxiously awaiting us. Instead, we were taken to Ellis Island where we spent the night. The following morning, after our papers were examined by Immigration Officials and cleared, the long awaited moment of freedom finally arrived, and our relatives were permitted to pick us up there.
The night we spent in Ellis Island was a memorable one for us -- the new arrivals. We were told to share the sleeping quarters with some German undesirables who were being deported back to Germany. When they found out that we were Holocaust survivors, we could not escape their sarcastic remarks expressing doubts about our suffering at the hands of the Nazis. Our appearance, they said, does not bear out our story. A year after we were liberated, most of us had regained our strength, and at least our outward appearance no longer conveyed the permanent scars we sustained as a result of our suffering in the camps. Judging by our appearance, the Germans kept telling us, we could not have suffered much in the camps -- as we maintained we did. It was most aggravating to have had to spend the night in the same room with them.
It could not escape me how well those German undesirables were treated there while awaiting deportation. They enjoyed various planned activities, including baseball and other games. There was also a generous supply of food to take care of the three meals they were served daily. No one ordered them to perform any work while they were there. A far cry, I thought, from the treatment we received from their fellow countrymen.
The only satisfaction I derived was when I answered their inquiries about conditions in Germany. It was satisfying to notice the dismay in their faces as they listened to our stories describing the total destruction of their cities and what they can look forward to upon arrival home.
When we were given permission to leave Ellis Island, my Father's brother, Uncle Lou, and his wife, Aunt Frances, were there to pick me up and bring me to their home in Brooklyn. Soon thereafter I met others from my family there.
I soon found out that Uncle Lou and Aunt Frances were childless and they told me that they would like me to stay with them. While others in the family showed an interest in me, it was the two of them that really cared for me from the moment I arrived. Not only did I find a home there, but also, like two caring Parents, they were determined to guide me and help me achieve my goals. My Aunt Frances was instrumental in opening educational opportunities for me. When the neighborhood high school refused my admittance to day school because of my lack of knowledge of English, she found one that did admit me. She spent many evenings with me, helping me with my homework until English was no longer a barrier. When two years later I received my high school diploma, it was she that encouraged me to pursue a college education and guided me till I graduated. The love we shared was mutual and I will always cherish their memory as devoted and loving Parents and later as loving Grandparents to my children.
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Marriage, Children, and Grandchildren
Several months before my college graduation I met Selma Roseman -- the girl I was destined to marry. Although born here in the United States, Selma had lost family in the Holocaust, and nurtured a deep understanding of my own past experiences. As we were drawing closer each passing day, we began seriously contemplating spending our lives together.
In December 1953, soon after I graduated, we were married. When two years later our son was born, Lou and Frances were just overjoyed with the birth of their first grandchild. His name, Barry Bruce, as well as his Hebrew name, Dov Baruch, are after my Father (Dov Behr) and my Mother (Brucha).
My Mother's brother Nate, who lived in California, and attended our wedding, came again to visit with us in New York when we informed him of the birth of our son.
When I met him at the hotel, he explained to me the main purpose of his visit, which was destined to bring about a complete change in our lives. Since he and his wife Florence had no children of their own, he said he wanted to help me, his Nephew, get established and achieve financial security. He proposed to move us to Los Angeles, where he planned to build a business that I would manage and have an interest in. The following day he came to our house for dinner, where he outlined his plans to Uncle Lou and Aunt Frances who were also there. After he departed, Aunt Frances, quite upset about his proposal, said to me: "Where was he all these years when you could have used his help? Why did he not offer to help you when you needed it the most?". I could tell that she just could not face the thought of us moving far away from her. Uncle Lou adopted a much calmer attitude, and pointed out to us all the benefits I could derive from Nate's offer. Furthermore, he said, Los Angeles is only a few hours away by plane, and we will be able to visit each other frequently.
After a great deal of soul searching both Selma and I decided to accept Nate's offer. I gave notice to my employer, the Ripley Company, where I worked as an assistant controller, and in November 1956 we moved to Los Angeles.
Soon after our arrival in Los Angeles I discovered that Nate's motives for bringing us here were far from altruistic. He was reluctant to entrust the management of the service station and car wash he built and owned to a stranger, and counted on me to run it for him and look after his interests. His ultimate aim, I learned, was to build up the business and then get an oil company to lease it from him. When at one point in time he thought he succeeded in doing it, he made it clear to me that I would receive a nominal sum from him for my efforts, and would then be free to choose either to remain here in Los Angeles or move back to New York. My family's future welfare ceased to be of further concern to him at that time.
When the anticipated lease with the oil company did not materialize, Nate assured me that I would be well compensated if I remained and continued to manage the business. He even promised that I would some day inherit the business and the property if I agreed to stay a promise he did not keep.
I accepted Nate's proposition and we remained in Los Angeles.
In June 1958 we were blessed with another addition to our family. Our daughter Rochelle Pearl (named after Selma's mother Rose and my Sister Pearl) (Shelly) was born here, and Aunt Frances came to visit and help Selma with the children. What a joy it was to have her here to share this happy occasion. I vividly recall all the other good times we shared with both Aunt Frances and Uncle Lou here in California, and also during our annual summer visits to New York. It is hard for me to describe the love and affection they felt towards their two grandchildren, and how happy they were when they spent time with them. All this came to an abrupt end when our beloved Aunt Frances suddenly passed away in September 1964. Three months after her untimely death at age 58, Uncle Lou also died in New York from injuries resulting from a car accident.
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As of the start of 1994, our son Barry has been married for 11 years, and he and his wife Myrna have three children: Deborah Frances, 8 (Hebrew name Tsiporah, after my Aunt Frances), Sarah Pearl, 6 (Hebrew name Pearl, after my Sister), and Celia Maria, 1 (Hebrew name Brucha, after my Mother). Our daughter Shelly has also been married for 11 years, and she and her husband Mark Schwartz have two children: Brian, 7 (Hebrew name Ephraim Shulem, after his Father and Great-Grandfather), and Joshua, 1 (Hebrew name Hillel Eliazer, after my Uncle Lou and Brother-in-law Larry).
They are our pride and joy, and our greatest pleasure is spending as much time as possible with them.
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