My mother was born in the United States in 1908. Her father owned a bakery. He was called into the Russian army. He had some money, so he got someone to fix it so that he was deferred from his service. His service date came up, he spoke to the guy who was fixing everything for him. He told him to flee the country. He locked up the bakery and took his family to America.
My mother was born in New York. When I was a little kid she used to sing Yankee Doodle Dandy to me. My father told me once, right after the war broke out, that she got a letter from the U.S. Consulate in Warsaw advising her to leave the country because it wouldn’t be safe for U.S. citizens. My father figured since he was too old to be a soldier, that it would all be fine. But we got stuck there and that was it.
I was a kid when the war broke out, only seven years old in 1939. We were probably considered upper-class. There really wasn’t anything we couldn’t afford. My father had a good business and that’s why we stayed in Poland during the war.
When the war broke out they started the shootings. My father knew a lot of the famers in the villages so we spent a few days with one of them. Then we came back home and after that we didn’t stay long before they started to move us into the Ghetto.
First they made us wear yellow bands, then the yellow stars, front and back. You didn’t disobey. You did it or you got killed. Before the Ghetto, they would grab people for work if they saw you walking down the street. Sometimes you came back, sometimes you didn’t. Forget about the Polish army, what army? It took the Germans three days to come in. The Warsaw uprising lasted longer than the Polish army.
The non-Jews were good to us. My first language was Polish, I learned Yiddish in the Ghetto, but all of my friends were Polish. We had a maid who was Polish.
They didn’t take us to the Ghetto, we had to walk. We took all of our furniture and gave it to a friend of my father’s for safekeeping. I guess its still there.
By May 1, 1940 we were hermetically sealed in the Lodz Ghetto at Mlynarska 4. It was where my grandfather had lived. But he had died on January 11, 1939. We moved in with my father’s step-mother and siblings. There were twelve of us all living in a tiny room in the Baluty, where the Ghetto was.
They put all of the people from Lodz into the Ghetto, about 150,000 people. But then they started bringing in even more people from outside of the city.
We lived with my father’s sister and her husband and their daughter who was a year younger than me and also with my grandmother, three uncles and an aunt. There were twelve of us all together in that tiny room.
By 1941, I went to work the night shift on a lathe in a metal shop. I was nine years old. I wasn’t tall enough to run the controls; I had to get a box to stand on so that I could see the numbers on the controls. But it was what kept me alive. If you didn’t work, they sent you out.
My father worked to process vegetables because his background was in farming and that’s how we survived. Conditions got gradually worse in the Ghetto. When they brought in more people into the Ghetto, they didn’t last long. They couldn’t cope with the bad conditions there.
But by 1942, the situation in the Ghetto was very bad. There was better food in the concentration camps than in the Ghetto. Every morning there were people lying outside of buildings, their bodies swollen from starvation, and we would bury them. Maybe only 20,000 survived from the Ghetto.
By the time we left Lodz on August 17th, 1944, there weren’t many people left. We were on one of the last transports, but I really don’t remember much of that day.
I remember being on the train, looking out from the cattle car, those tiny windows. My father was pointing out all of the farms as we passed by.
My grandmother was gone by then, but my father, mother, sister, aunt, uncle, cousin, three uncles and an aunt were with me in the cattle car.
It was only one day and then we were in Auschwitz.
It was like coming into hell. There was screaming and yelling, and the dogs. Then I wound up in Birkenau with the gypsy camp.
When we got off the train, Mengele was there. We lined up, men and women separate. When I went through he grabbed me by my right arm and put me in with the working people in the camp. I was a big kid so I got lucky. I was almost 13. They put me into a youth barracks. I was separated from my father and uncles, but I used to go and see them, it was like across the street.
All of the women in my family died there probably the same day that we got there. Except for my aunt, who was single then.
They had head counts every few hours and you had to be back to be counted. One morning I woke up to see my father and the barracks was empty.
There wasn’t anyone to ask about it. Auschwitz was a big, big camp. I had my uncle and father, and then suddenly I was alone. I started to walk and look, then I saw a fenced off area, so I went in to see what it was. I jumped the rope and got in there, it took me a few hours to find them. They were all going to Germany. There were 3,000 of us. They did it so fast there wasn’t even time to tattoo us.
I said “I’m going with you.” My father said “you can’t, we already gave our names and you’re not on the list.” But I couldn’t go back because I’d already missed a few head counts. They didn’t care if you were dead or alive; they needed a body for the head count. They started calling names, and people were lining up in groups of five. We were in our striped uniforms. They called someone’s name and no one answered, so I answered. They chased me, but I got mixed up with 1000 people or so and they couldn’t find me. That’s how I survived Auschwitz. I was there for two weeks.
It was three days in August traveling to Germany. Not a drop of water. A lot of people died.
I was in Kaufering #7 for a day or two. Then they took us to camp #4 for a few months.
Then they took us to Muhldorf, these were all camps around Dachau. This was in 1944, I was twelve. Then they took our names and ages, but I lied about my age, I said I was seventeen.
In Dachau my papers said that I was born in 1927. I was afraid to tell my age because I would be separated from my father again. They gave us numbers; I have a Dachau number, 95071.
In Kaufering I worked to build an underground factory. I carried fifty kilo (110 pound) bags of cement. My right shoulder is still lower than the left, but I’m healthy. I was also in Landshut between Kaufering and Muhldorf. It was winter and I used to wash myself with snow. We worked at an airport there; it was a very cold winter.
In Muhldorf I got sick, I had Typhus. My uncle got sick as well and wound up in the hospital. My father offered to take me to the hospital as well, but they closed the door and said come back tomorrow. I went back to work but I couldn’t stop drinking.
We worked in a Catholic hospital and the nuns were good to us. We did any kind of work that they had for us. By then I was with just my father and my uncle Sol. When Sol got sick, they shipped him back to camp #4 where they kept sick people until they died.
I didn’t go to the hospital, because they closed it. After I got better, my father had dysentery, that was when we were in Muhldorf. There was a Russian POW camp, and we used to see each other across the fence. They had some Red Cross packages and if I could get some cocoa for my father he would get better. I traded bread for cocoa with the Russians and my father got better.
The will to live helped me survive. I was a kid, what did I know? And I was with my father all of the time. He tried sometimes to “organize” a potato or some little food. If we got lucky we would work on a farm and take whatever we could to eat. In the winter we had a coal fire in the barracks where we’d heat the food up.
They used to bomb Muhldorf. We liked it because they didn’t hurt us and then we didn’t have to work. I would see planes touch down and take off, I hoped I could hop on one and get out.
At the end, they emptied the camp and put us on the train for 4 or 5 days, going back and forth. Then the air force knocked out our train and we were stuck in a town called Seshaupt, near Munich. A few days before we were liberated we all started to walk around out of the train, but the SS came and started shooting, killing about 200 people. We stayed on the train.
They wanted to take us to the Tyrol Mountains; we were about 25 kilometers away. They already had ditches dug to put us into mass graves. They couldn’t take us because the locomotive was knocked out.
We were about one hundred people in the small railroad car and by the time the trip ended, there were about thirty of us left. I was talking to some redheaded kid and all of a sudden the planes came down and hit the locomotive, which was close to us. We were standing and talking and all of a sudden we hear shooting and we duck. After the planes went by I called for him to get up, but he was dead from a bullet in the back of his head. People died like flies on the entire trip from starvation and dehydration.
The last car was an open car, stacked with dead bodies. The first American soldiers I saw were two guys in a Jeep. They came to the train. One of them was black and I showed him the car with the dead bodies. He almost fell off of it.
When I saw the soldiers, they were like angels. We were finally free!
We were liberated May 5th. Then my father wound up in the hospital with typhus.