My life was very happy and peaceful as a child and a young man. My family, particularly my father was very religious. I studied construction engineering in my late teens through my high school. I was in my fourth year of engineering when I became aware of what was happening. Prior to that, life was what we called normal. I was not aware of the political situation until 1938 when my father had a radio, which was very rare at the time. You could hear Hitler barking every day about the annihilation of the Jews. I had to leave school in 1939. I was 18 years old.
On September 1, 1939, the Nazi’s invaded Poland. It was horrific. They were rounding people up and randomly shooting. The Nazi occupation lasted about four weeks when suddenly one evening, after we emerged from our basement after Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) services, we weren’t allow to pray in shul (synagogue), we saw strange looking vehicles with Russian flags all over them. The Nazi’s reached some sort of treaty with the Russians, which obligated the Nazi’s to withdraw while the Russians took over.
The Russian occupation lasted twenty-one months. During that time, things sort of returned to “normal.” I returned to school for three more semesters, but then I needed to come home and find work. My father was no longer allowed to teach, and he was given a job as a clerk in a government office. I found a job with a Russian engineering firm. Several Russians were working there that were agents of the Russian Secret Police. One day a man showed up for work. He claimed he had a degree from an engineering/mining school in Prague. He worked for a few months. A friend of mine that had a job with the Russian Secret Police told me that she had overheard a conversation wherein they were speaking about this man. She told me that the Secret Police suspected him of some ‘irregularities’. I had nothing against him; we had spoken to each other on occasion. The next day I went into work and passed his desk. I whispered to him “They are watching you.” He only blinked in response and when I showed up the next day for work, he was gone. I did not know what happened to him, but I found out eventually.
Then one night in June 1941, we heard airplanes overhead. Suddenly the Russians were heading out of town and the Nazi’s had returned. Within three days, the real horror began. They ordered all of us to wear armbands, obey curfews, and limit movement to just a few areas. Then, the first pogrom came. The Nazi’s gave the Ukrainians permission to go after the Jews. Anyone who didn’t manage to hide was captured and slaughtered. They were killing people right on the spot with axes and pitchforks. (Nazi’s did not allow the Ukrainians to have firearms at the time.) After killing at least 300 people, the Nazi’s finally called it off. The next pogrom came in October 1941. They were killing women, children and elderly who could not do heavy manual labor for them. They took the people to a slaughterhouse and forced them to dig a mass grave. Then they executed them. A few who managed escape told about the heaving earth, because many were buried alive.
At the same time, people from neighboring towns came to Boryslaw thinking it would be safer. All able body men and women were organized into work brigades to do manual labor. The first winter was very rough. No heat, scarce food. There were my parents, my two sisters, my widowed aunt and her baby. My brother was missing and presumed dead. My father was given a job at the Judenrat in grave registrations. He became more and more depressed.
He committed suicide on June 22, 1942. My father walked into a pond and drowned himself. Once I found out what had happened, I went to the pond and dragged my father’s body out of the water and carried him home so we could give him a burial. This happened on a Friday before Shabbos (Sabbath). We could not bury him until Sunday. Once my grandfather found out what had happened to my father, he died heartbroken the next day. They were both buried on that Sunday. My father was 54 and my grandfather was 68.
There were more pogroms, filling the Nazi quota of killing 3000 people at a time. We were forced to move out of our home and into the ghetto, squeezed into two rooms. We survived on one meal a day.
On October 21, 1943, my uncle and I snuck our whole family out of the ghetto in the middle of the night and returned to our old home. I still had a key to the attic, and there were still things left over from previous hidings such as blankets and dishes. The Ukrainians who had moved into our house were not aware that we had returned to the attic. My uncle and I returned to the ghetto at about 2 AM.
At 6 AM. another nightmare began. We knew that something horrible was happening. My uncle and I hugged each other and said goodbye, hoping we would see each other again. We hoped and prayed for the safety of our family. I went off to work. Dodging the police, I could see from a distance that women, children and older people were being rounded up. There were babies in their mother’s arms and old people with canes. The cries were horrific. Somehow I was able to reach my job. Once there, we hid in a construction shanty, some escaped into the woods, others stayed with me. Eventually we all tried to do our work, although no one could work, we were all thinking about our families. I was with about twenty men. We couldn’t leave, so we spent the night in the shanty. The next day suddenly a truck with several Ukrainian police guards and some Nazi officers barged in. People tried to escape and they were shot in the back. They eventually got to me. They took all of us who were left to the train station in town and threw us into a huge warehouse filled with a great mass of people. A lot of people were on the floor, either dead or dying. To keep us from escaping, they herded us from one end of the warehouse to the other, back and forth, over and over. People were falling and being trampled on or suffocated. It lasted till the next morning.
Then they started separating families. It was then that I last saw my family. It was the most horrible moment of my life. My mother was 44, my sister Toni was 20, my sister Amelia 16, Aunt Mania 40, and the baby was 3 or 4; Grandma was 60. All the men were lined up against the warehouse wall, the women and children were loaded into boxcars. After lining up all the men, they picked out a few stronger, younger men and placed them into a separate line. I was not chosen. I had heard that everyone was headed to Treblinka or Belzec for extermination. I knew it was over.
Suddenly, I looked up and my eyes met the eyes of a Nazi officer who had been staring at me. It was the man I had whispered to at my work earlier during the Russian occupation. He walked over to two of the SS guards, pointed to me and whispered to them. The guards motioned for me to step out of the line and join the small group of men that were separated from the rest. It turns out that by whispering to him at the office that day long ago, I had saved his life. Now he was saving mine.
I returned to the ghetto, I was totally alone. I met a few other people and invited them to move in with me. At that time Clara moved in. Clara had lost her whole family also, except for a younger brother. It was very quiet. The survivors were mostly young people, whose skills were helpful to the Nazis. We didn’t know what would happen next, we knew the end was near. Clara was a friend before the war. She had briefly married a man who had been drafted into the Russian army. She had gotten word that her husband had died. We exchanged vows in front of a few witnesses and considered ourselves married.
Clara’s younger brother, 15, worked as a personal valet to a Nazi Police commissioner. It was through her brother that we given advance notice of pogroms. We would go into hiding for a few nights. In December 1943, the Nazi’s surrounded the ghetto and deported more people to the camps. Some were shot trying to escape. The rest of us were moved into barracks. The night we were moved to the barracks, the Nazi’s grabbed a couple of young men, one of them my school mate, and beat them mercilessly. Then they shot them both in the temple while we all watched. They wanted to deter any of us from escaping.
Life in the barracks was like prison. We were escorted to work everyday. A group of us started thinking about building an underground bunker. At night, five or six of us snuck out past the guards, and carried tools we had stolen into the woods. We walked for a couple hours to a place where we decided to build. We repeated the same routine for several weeks and in January 1944; we started moving people to the bunker.
There was deep snow and it made it difficult to walk. There was always someone who would walk backwards and sweep the tracks of our snow. We repeated the routine for a couple nights until we had escorted about twenty people out of the barracks and into hiding with us. We had built the bunker into the side of a hill, and made it completely out of tree branches and leaves. In the beginning the bunker was tall enough for us to stand. As time went on, the snow became so heavy that we could barely crawl.
Conditions were horrible, but at least we were surviving. One day in April we heard a lot of noise outside. We had been discovered. There were Ukrainians and German officers outside. They started shooting into the bunker. They were laughing as we crawled out. They shot and killed a father who was there with his son. They walked the rest of us back to town and into a jail at the police station. After a while, a Nazi officer came in and screamed in a rage, “Tomorrow, I will shoot all of you. You think you can out smart us.” Then a couple of guards came in and very strangely brought us back to the barracks. We didn’t know what was happening, but we settled back into our routine and went back to work.
A few days later on my way back to the barracks a jeep pulled up suddenly. I was grabbed and thrown into the back seat by two SS guards. I thought they were going to take me into a field and shoot me. Instead, they took me to the army headquarters and brought me into the office of a Nazi captain.
He said to me: “Come closer. Your name is Langerman. You graduated high school, started college and worked with the Russians in the engineering office. Then you worked on an irrigation project for us and you have knowledge of topography, read maps, and speak fluent Russian, Polish and German. You have a pretty wife named Clara. You love her very much. You were in hidden in the bunker with her and she is still with you we have a proposition to make. I am sure that you know there is a German community in the hills that are left over from World War I. The Russians dropped paratroopers there and are keeping these people hostage. They established themselves there for sabotage work. They also recruited quite a few of your friends that managed to escape. They use these people to carry out their orders for them because they are familiar with the territory. I will tell you a few names of people that are there and they are doing us a lot of harm. They have come down to sabotage oil wells and other facilities with explosives. We have to stop that by any means. Here is my proposition. You are Jewish. You know what your future is here and it is not good. We want you to penetrate that community and enlist with the paratroopers, offer your services and do their dirty work for them. They will trust you. They will know you are Jewish and escaping from us. They will train you and then send you on an assignment; at that point, you will come back and tell us what their plans are and what their strength is. You will be performing a service for us, for that we will reward you. We will provide you with Aryan papers (of non-Jewish decent, Caucasian) and you and your wife can go to another city and live as Aryans. You will be relatively free and safe. We will take Clara into protective custody while you are gone and when you return, she will rejoin you. I hope and assume you will accept this proposition. It is the only way you can survive.”
I finally told him that I needed time to think it over. I was overwhelmed. He told me, “Tomorrow you will give me your response. On the way back from work tomorrow when you come back into the barracks, the guard will look at you will nod a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. Nothing else.”
I was driven back to my barracks by a guard. I met Clara there, she knew that I had disappeared and thought I had been kidnapped and shot. We sat there for a couple hours in silence. We decided to tell them “no.” I could not be a traitor to my fellow Jews.
We knew for sure that we were doomed. The next day as I passed the guard, I shook my head “no.” Then we just waited until we would be carted off to the concentration camps. This was in June, 1944.
Within the next few days, SS Guards surrounded the barracks. They loaded us on trucks and told us they were taking us to the concentration camps. They were taking us to Plaszow. When we arrived, they separated the men and women. Clara and I were able to speak occasionally through the chain link fence. I did not know while I was there that this was the camp that Oscar Shindler was able to save several Jewish prisoners.
Then in late August I was evacuated again. We found out we were going to Mauthausen in Austria. It was about a five day train ride. People were dying all over the place from suffocation and starvation. Once we arrived, I could see the smoke stacks in the foreground of the most beautiful snow peaked mountains. We were forced to unload several hundred corpses from the boxcars. I never saw Clara again and assumed she had been killed. However, when the war was over, I found out that not only had she also survived, but so did her husband whom was presumed dead. They made their way to Israel after the war.
When I arrived at Mauthausen, we were immediately put to work. There was a stone quarry with about 200 steps. They would have us carry rocks up and down from the bottom of the pit to the top of the steps. If people weren’t strong enough to do the work, they would drop the rock. Then the guards would come and shoot them. At the end of the day we were to carry the dead bodies to the crematorium.
Then in October 1944, they started evacuating again. I was already outside the gate waiting to board the boxcars when I was suddenly pulled out of line, again. They asked me for my name, and then they told me to go back. They found out that I was a registered as an engineer. There were about four other men with me. Once everyone left, over several thousand people, they escorted us back to barracks. I wasn’t allowed to speak to the others and did not know what was happening. In fact, they put me in my own barrack. I was all alone for at least a day.
The next day the Nazi’s brought in a transport of French resistance fighters. They also brought in Russian political prisoners. They filled up the barracks with the French and Russians, but for two weeks just kept us in the barracks without working. Then after two weeks, they transported us out. They gave us some ‘winter clothing,’ torn pants, socks, potato sacks for shirts, and wooden or plastic shoes, and moved us to a refinery where they were experimenting with oil shale. We were now at the Schomberg Concentration Camp.
The conditions in the barracks were filthy and horrible. There was no sanitation and no heat. It was bitter cold. They packed us in there, three people to a bunk, three tiers high. The Russian prisoners were extremely hostile to me. I was the only Jew in this barracks. Although it was not an extermination camp per se, the diet, the cold, and the unsanitary conditions killed many people. The French could not get acclimated, and a lot were dying. Periodically they would pull out a prisoner, assemble all of us in the courtyard and execute him.
Work was very very hard. It was winter and we had no gloves. Our shoes had fallen apart and we used paper and cement bags to try and protect our hands and feet. Food was nonexistent. We ate rotten potato peels or grass or wheat that we picked. That was it. Every couple weeks we got one slice of bread. I survived working at this camp for six months. Our job was to crush rocks on the railroad bed.
In April 1945, we began hearing planes overhead and artillery fire. One morning the Nazis told us that we were being evacuated. Their plan was to deport us all to Dachau for mass extermination. We formed into groups and started walking. We walked for at least two days. People began walking away. Most were caught, shot and left in a ditch. There was nothing to eat. People were just dropping dead. Out of the 1000 people we started with, there must have been only 200-300 people left. After walking hours and hours we stopped to rest in a swamp with lots of tall weeds. We all hit the ground; we were lying in cold water with snow and sleet.
I could not see anyone around me because the weeds were so tall. I fell asleep. After about twenty minutes, I awoke and looked around. I was alone. I saw the group I was with in the distance. They had left me for dead. I panicked; I had not been by myself in years. I tried to stand, and kept falling. I finally grabbed a stick and was able to slowly begin walking. I walked toward the road. I kept falling. I was cold, weak and starving. I didn’t know what to do. I walked into the woods and just collapsed.
I must have slept through the night and part of the next day. When I awoke, I began to walk again. I thought I was going to die, I was so weak. I was only about 90 pounds then. I saw a farmhouse in the distance. Somehow I managed to sneak into a shed, and I lay down in the straw. I fell asleep till morning. I heard a young man come into the shed. I also heard someone speaking Russian and calling his name from outside. His name was Shasha. I whispered to him in Russian. He started backing out. I told him not to be frightened, that I was a Russian prisoner of war. I told him I was dying, and I begged him to save me, to get me some food. I told him that I had been in a concentration camp for the last couple years and I was too weak to move. He left the barn and came back with a bucket of potato soup.
It was the best meal I had eaten in my whole life. I drank the whole thing without stopping. I became very sick, and almost died as the soup went right through me. I cleaned myself up with the hay as best as I could. I asked Sasha to bring me some clothes. I stayed there about a week, getting a bit stronger every day. I could peek through slats in the barn. Things were changing, the German soldiers were disappearing.
One day, a French motorcycle with a sidecar pulled up with two French officers. I knew the war was over. I walked out of the barn and over to them and tried to tell them that I was a Jewish prisoner. They didn’t understand what I was saying. I showed them the numbers on my arm and my shaved head. They took me into town where I stayed in a Catholic hospital for over a month. Eventually, I found that there were a few more Jewish survivors there.
When I left the hospital, I was shipped off to Stuttgart. After a few months I enrolled in college. Within a year, I left for America, first landing in Philadelphia, then Detroit.