Before the war, when I was a boy going to Hebrew school, my older brother went to the university, and my older sister was married. We had a sleep-in maid who stayed with us. She almost raised me. When I was young and would fall and get hurt, she would take care of me. It was between us, she would just take care of me. If I told my mother, she would say things like be careful, don’t run.
Shavl was a city with beautiful Shuls (Synogogues), Rabbi Bakst was the name of our rabbi. It was a nice city. There were about 5000 Jews, about 25,000 was the total population. We were more regular Orthodox Jews, like Young Israel, we kept the laws of Judaism.
Shavl had a large leather factory which employed about 1000 people. It made leather goods which were sold to Russia.
My father used to say, there will be no more wars anymore. The League of Nations will help countries settle their disputes peacefully.
My parents lived in Moscow before the Bolsheviks came in. Afterwards, they went back to Lithuania. I remember they had beautiful candlesticks that they brought from Moscow. They would take out during Pesach (Passover).
I always had a talent for painting. Back when I was ten years old, I remember having talent as a painter.
When World War II broke out, my brother lived with us. My sister was married and out of the house. My parents thought that the war would be over very soon. We went to the Russian border with money and watches to use for barter.
But the Germans moved faster than us. My brother-in-law paid a Lithuanian farmer to take us back to Shavl, the road was full of German troops.
My parents went through World War I. My mother used to say the Germans aren’t as bad as the Bolsheviks. But my father would hear Hitler on the radio and would hear what he would say.
When the Germans captured Lithuania, restrictions came out everyday against the Jewish people. We had to move into a ghetto. The ghetto was in the worst part of the city, very rundown section. We were allowed to trade with Lithuanians, we gave up our beautiful house for a house in the ghetto.
We had to wear a Star of David on our clothes, first on the front, then on the front and back, and then we had to sew it onto our clothes.
We could only walk on the road, not on the sidewalk, this was 1941.
Then the biggest tragedy took place in the ghetto, they took away the small children. The Germans said that the children will be better in a nice home. A man Katz, knew what was going on and spoke up. He was told you are challenging my honor, you will go with the children, you will see. He never came back. I think they took about 100 children.
My father passed away in 1943 in the Ghetto, he was buried erev Pesach, the day before Passover. He died from kidney complications; there was no medication to give him. The hospital was run down. I was angry at the world and angry at the doctor when my father died.
I arranged for my father to get cranberry juice, I thought it would cure him. Before my father died, he said whatever will happen, be honest in your life. He then fell asleep and never woke up. I was sixteen years old.
In the ghetto, we never knew what would happen. One time they came and took out the old people. They liquidated the old nursing home.
The rations of food were terrible. They gave us stale bread and in the wintertime, frozen potatoes. Some people got horsemeat. From the beginning, 1942, our Christian maid would bring some bread and butter to the fence of the ghetto. Then they put guards there and we couldn’t exchange things anymore.
Being young it was hard to believe what was happening. I remember before the war broke out, in 1938, I was the only one in the house, I heard my parents talking loud at each other, my father said bad times are coming, let’s sell the house and go to Palestine. My mother said you mean you want to give up all of our silver and porcelain, get and go up. I heard them yelling and I got scared, maybe my father will run away, who should I go with, who will support us. After a while, my father gave up, arguing that the Germans were not as bad as the Bolsheviks.
Hygiene in the Ghetto was bad, how do you wash yourself and clean your clothes.
I had to sleep with my brother on a narrow couch.
My mother always had something to give us, she would trade with somebody for food; Lithuanians took advantage us. She would trade valuables for a bag of potatoes.
I realized that my mother was losing weight; she used to tell us, oh, I ate already just by tasting the food. She didn’t eat, it was all just for the kids. She was a “Yiddisher Mama,” a Jewish Mother.
I worked carrying lumber, later digging ditches for electrical cables for a big German hospital that was there for the German soldiers injured on the Russian front.
In 1943, they started liquidating the ghetto. They told us that we will be given the same rations as in the ghetto. They put us in the cattle cars, 70-80 people in each boxcar.
On the boxcar, were a bucket for water and a bucket to relieve yourself. We knew we were in Germany because the landscape was nicer.
We arrived at Stutthof, my mother, brother, sister, brother-in-law, sister-in-law, and me.
They first separated the men from the women. Getting on the train, we were allowed one suitcase each. First a German started yelling, any jewelry you have, give it to me, you won’t need it any more.
The day we arrived at Stutthof was the last time I saw my mother and sister.
When we came in, we had to go the bathhouse. We were scared about what’s going to happen to us. We saw people running out of the other side of building, naked. We saw people with striped clothes.
When we walked into bathhouse, they shave all of the body hairs of all of the older ones, then they sprayed us with something for delousing. Then they sat us down on special chairs to see into our rectums, they used a knife to see if we had any jewelry hidden. It was very scary.
An amazing thing happened; my mother gave us gold bracelets and a gold watch to use to trade for food. Those things were not as important to me as the watch I was given for my Bar Mitzvah. I would not give that watch up for anything! I put my watch inside the lining of my cap.
At one point, during the commotion, I lost my cap. I noticed that while we were standing at the morning Appel, the roll call, there was a fellow in front of me who was wearing my cap!
I didn’t know what to say, that he had my cap and there was a gold watch in the lining of it.
My brother said to him, that the cap he was wearing was my cap and could we exchange the cap with him since there was a picture of our family in its lining. The fellow said take it!
I had my watch back!
Also, my mother made us promise to always stay together, my brother, brother-in-law, and me.
At Stutthof, they announced they needed 1000 prisoners for work. My brother-in-law said let’s volunteer, its so bad here, let’s get out of here, we saw the chimneys of the crematorium.
To count the 1000, they lined us up six in a row. My brother and brother-in-law were in front of me. They hit the 1000 mark, I was cut off. I thought of my mother’s words, stay together.
I saw that they were leaving in a truck. As soon as the truck started to move, I started running after the truck. I jumped into the truck! They could have shot me in the back. My brother yelled at me, I told you to stay with us.
After six months, my boots fell apart, weather was bad already. My brother worked at a job oiling electric motors. He asked the German foreman for a pair of old shoes for me. The German was fearful that he would be sent to the Russian front.
So my brother and I tried exchanging shoes. We arranged to work different shifts and when we would pass each other, I would put on his shoes. It’s very hard to do, to walk and jump and put on shoes. The weather got bad and I needed shoes.
I thought I have a men’s watch, my Bar Mitzvah watch! I decided to trade my watch for a pair of shoes. I got a pair of wooden shoes with burlap on top; but they were shoes. That watch saved my life.
The shoes covered my feet but my feet were frozen as well as my hands. To this day, I have problems with circulation.
Buried gold in the ground. Raise your hand otherwise you ll be shot.
My mothers wisdom, always stay together,
One day I became very, very sick, with a high fever. I couldn’t walk anymore. I was ready to give up. I didn’t want my ration of food, I didn’t want anything anymore. I became a Musselman, prisoners who were near death due to exhaustion, starvation, or hopelessness, I said I’ll just go the concentration camp hospital. I didn’t want any water or food, I just wanted to lay down and die. When my brother came back from work, he yelled at me and grabbed me and said come with me. I was sick and was sweating unbelievably. Somehow my brother was able to exchange a ration of food for two aspirins and gave it me. The next morning, I got up and I felt much better, the fever had broken.
Another incident I remember was one of the other inmates when he went out to work, found out that a German farmer had potatoes in a little underground cavern. We were all starving. I said I was going to the latrine but went over to where I was told the potatoes were. I brought back twelve potatoes!
The next day I went back with my brother. When we were coming back, we were spotted. They let go a German shepherd who started chasing us. We dropped the potatoes. I said you run to the right and I’ll run to the left. The dog stopped not know where to go. Without G-d’s help, we would have been killed.
Another time, I saw the Germans unloading white bread. I was caught trying to steal some bread. They put me in a small area between two electric barbed wire fences. I remember seeing when they hanged eighteen people who took a blanket. They hanged them in front of us to teach us a lesson not do it. I was in between the barbed wire fences and I started praying. I said Shema Yisroel… I thought to myself, they’re going to hang me.
I looked up at the sky, the sun went down and I prayed. I looked in the sky and I saw G-d, whether it was G-d or a hallucination. I visualized G-d. There was a beautiful sunset, what I saw was a big face and shoulders that filled the whole large horizon.
I asked G-d to please don’t let me hang, let them shoot me, but I don’t want to be hanged. I thought about touching the electric wire instead. I looked up in the sky wondering if I touch the wire or not. I didn’t want to take my own life.
Then a guard came to give me 25 lashes with a whip. He said if I yell, he’ll give me another 25. I thought to myself, G-d heard my prayers!
As he was nearing 25, I didn’t know if he knew the exact count, so I told him. He told me because I talked, he was going to give me another 25 lashes, which he did.
I’ve been to Israel, quite a few times, I’ve visited the Kotel, the Western Wall and Yad Vashem. I’ve never been able to find any artwork about the roll call, the appel. I was always good at art. I hired someone to helped teach me more. So, I’ve been painting about my memories in the Holocaust. A lot of my work is now housed at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, Michigan.
From Stutthof we were taken to Dachau. At Dachau, we built underground factories to be hidden from Allied bombings.
The Germans didn’t care if they fed us or not. If we died, we would be replaced by others.
We were on a Death March, they didn’t feed us. We marched; some people ran away, we heard shots.
I said to my brother; let’s try to run away, the Americans are close to us. Without food or water, we are not going to survive. I decided one night; I’m going to try to steal food from a German’s knapsack. I crawled on my belly until where the German guards were sleeping. I grabbed a bag and pulled back. I crawled backwards. I looked inside the bag; there were three breads and four cans of condensed milk.
I got rid of the bag and we drank the milk. I thought I was in heaven. Later though, I thought that my stomach was going to explode. I walked very slowly and started feeling guilty.
I thought I that I was becoming a hindrance to my brother and brother-in-law because we were falling behind. I thought we would be shot. I thought that I would just run away.
In the fog, I saw beautiful homes, I didn’t care. I went to a nice house and rang the doorbell. German woman in her 40’s answered the door. It was a beautiful home.
She brought me coffee, salami and bread. I couldn’t believe it. I was wearing my dirty, concentration camp clothes.
I was scared to death, she was scared of me. She brought a neighbor over. She suggested that I change clothes. She had her husband’s clothing; they were my size, a complete outfit. When the Americans came later, I was the only one in civilian clothes.
I asked her not to call the police; I told her I would leave. Her husband came home and told me to get out.
The road was filled with German soldiers retreating, German motorcycles and trucks from Munich.
I heard footsteps behind me; it was the woman from the house. She asked me if I needed anything else. I asked her for a newspaper which she got for me.
I made a hole in the newspaper and pretended for an hour to read. I looked through the hole in the newspaper to see when there would be a break in the procession of the retreating German soldiers.
Finally, when there was a break and I crossed the road. I felt guilty; I had promised my mother to stay together with my brother and brother-in-law.
I became afraid that because I was wearing German clothing that I would be mistaken for a German. I started singing a Russian song; it was a matter of time before the Russian soldiers would find us. I went to find my brother and brother in law, which I eventually did.
After the war ended, I went to Munich. I looked for a Jewish soldier who could help us find a job. I washed the pots and the remains from the pots.
For the first time, I tasted pancakes; I fell in love with them. We were good workers and we did a good job. We slept in the same barracks with them. The American soldiers loved us. We knew the language and helped get them schnapps.
I went to a trade school in Germany. The instructor taught me how to repair airplane engines.
He told me that “the Fuhrer promised us a uniform, boots, and how to fly a plane. I was overwhelmed. I had a nice uniform, I had a good life.” He said, “you would do the same thing.’
No one liked the Jews, maybe because we were so educated. They like to drink a lot.
I remember when I was ten or eleven years old, I was called a Christ killer. How can you kill a God? I was told, “You killed our God.”