Memoirs of a Holocaust Survivor
Written by Ichac Weizman (Wajcman) in 1995
Annex A 1997
Annex B August 2003
Translated from Hebrew by Dikla Weizman née Yeffet
I am not a professional translator and English is not my first language. I have never lived in an English speaking country; I just had short visits in England and North America, so I am sure that the translation is far from perfect. Still, the facts of the memoirs are accurate and I hope that I succeeded to capture the feelings and emotions expressed in these memoirs.
I thank my young neighbor and friend Mrs. Erga Cohen, who is a South African University graduate and English is her first language, for reading my translation and correcting my mistakes.
August 2003 Dikla Weizman
MY LIFE STORY
Since the end of World War II written testimonies of victims and survivors of the Nazi Holocaust have been discovered and published. It seems as if there has risen from inside the personal will to tell. A will that erupted like a perennial spring, to tell the world, to the next generations, to tell the Jews, to those that were not touched by the destroying Nazi storm. It is well known that only a few of the people that went through the atrocities, agonies, despair, struggle and war fire survived. And those who seemed to survive mentally and physically well are still inwardly scarred.
Whoever think that they are able, thanks to the information accumulated, or by their own judgment to get to the truth about the Holocaust, or, allegedly, to understand the meaning of the existence and to suggest a solution to the riddle of human motives, it is doubtful that they understand and comprehend the magnitude of the Holocaust.
I have no doubt that those that were in the Holocaust have all these years the feeling and worry about the blurring of the memory of the Holocaust and its inferences. We have to understand that it is not too late, that the Holocaust is not the obsession of the few survivors, and the inferences are not only the business of those that suffered the horrors personally, it is part of the long collective memory of the Jewish people wherever they are. That is why, in spite of the many years that passed since the end of the war, I feel an inner need to tell to the best of my humble ability what I went through in the war.
For many years I repressed the memories, did not tell even to those closest to me, even not to my children. First because I was worried about causing them mental shock, a fear that they could not absorb hearing about such so cruel deeds. Also the Israeli environment and society was not ripe and ready to hear and understand that we did not go like “cattle to slaughter”. The people in Israel did not understand and comprehend, that just the day-to-day struggle through many years for survival in nonhuman conditions was a first grade super human heroism. The pain was multifold, when in an Israeli-Jewish society the survivors were met by non-confidence, non- appreciation, especially by the old-timers that came before the war and had their own illegal fight and defense organizations. During the years the atmosphere has changed, that is why it is much easier now to open up and tell the story for the next generations.
At the age of sixty six – forty years after the end of the second world war, I try to sum up all the events and experiences that I went through in the war and to put in writing, in the memory of the extended family that was exterminated in the Holocaust and for the new family that I raised in Israel.
For many years, like other survivors, I repressed the memories. I had felt guilty because I could not understand why I was the only survivor of my big family.
The only photograph of the family given to Ichac by his aunt in Paris who located him after the war through the Research Relatoves Bureau of the Jewish Agency.
From right to left: father Menachem Mendel Weizman, Ichac Weizman, the only survivor, Helcia the sister, and Hanna née Kerber, the mother.
I was born in Poland on July 13th 1928 in a small town called Gombin (Gąbin), near Płock, (Plotsk) the district town, in central Poland, where my father’s family lived. My mother’s name was Hanna née Kerber, my father’s was Mendel (Mena’hem) and my sister’s was Helcia. My sister was one year older than I. Half of Gombin’s citizens were Jews who were craftsmen or traders. Our family on my mother’s side was considered as one of the richest families in the district. My grandfather, my mother’s father, Leibl Kerber, was the owner of a leather-processing factory. The factory was quite modern and technologically developed for those times. Several hundred of employees worked in the factory. The factory itself was a street long, and had tens of buildings, warehouses and yards.
In the yards there were fruit orchards and a factory for dried fruit, jam and marmalade. In the midst of the orchards flew a deep river in which we swam in summer and skated on winter. In addition to the factory the family had a wholesale national trade in furs. My father had a relatively small glue factory, which was located out of the town in open fields because of the unpleasant smells that were spread by the factory.
As a child I remember having a close family who convened very often for discussions, accounting and decision making. I understood parts of the arguing. From quite a young age I understood what was happening around me, especially because my grandfather, as well as my father, asked me to sit at the discussions table (that were usually held in the evening), to listen and learn the trade secrets, because they saw me as the intended heir. I learned how to think carefully, quickly if needed, and that helped me later on when I had to deal with all the horrors by myself as a very young lonely boy.
In our immediate family we were two children – my sister and myself. My mother married my father relatively late, because it was a second marriage (I heard about it only in Israel from a distant relative). Her first husband died suddenly shortly after the wedding and they did not have children. After I had learned of this I was able to understand why my mother was so anxious, kept us near her and spoilt us with the best of everything and lots of hugging which was really somewhat exaggerated. For example: I was supposed to go for a yearly class trip in a boat on the Wisla river to the capital city Warsaw. My mother categorically refused to let me go, out of her anxiety for my fate. I was deeply disappointed because I was supposed to meet in Warsaw with a pen pal girl that I corresponded with for quite a long period (the correspondence was started by the order of the homeroom teacher). I learned from that experience that over caring is not a virtue. The right balance should be found and anxiety and fright must be overcome.
Our small family lived separately from the extended family, in the west part of the town, which was mostly a Christian neighborhood. I spent most of my childhood years at my grandfather’s who lived in a Jewish neighborhood. There, in the yard I met with my classmates, we played and devised means and ways to deal with the Polish boys who badgered us on our way to school.
They beat us, set their dogs on us and shouted: “Jews – go to Palestine, your place is not here, you killed Jesus our Lord”. As children we did not understand what wrong we had done and why they hated us, we were sure we had not harmed anyone.
The situation described above caused us to think. From a very tender age we started to wonder who we were, why were we hated, in what way were we different from others and what wrong had we done.
In order to find answers to those questions I joined the youth movement of “Hashomer Hatsayir” (young guardian), which was very active in our town. The best youth were members and the best youth guides were the leaders of the club. Most of the leaders went to Eretz Israel (Land of Israel then called Palestine) before the war and founded or joined Kibbutz Evron, Ein Hachoresh, Negba, Eilon, Galon and others. Some of them are still alive today.
Hashomer Hatsair in Gombin, group Kfirim, collection of Meir Holtzman
Very soon I understood that there was an answer to all my questions, and that was going to Eretz Israel – but at that time it was a dream that might one day become a reality – who could know?
My mother had one sister - Rachel. She lived in a town named Zychlin near Gombin. Her husband Ya’akov Bol was a merchant. He had a wholesale business of construction materials. The business was located on a railroad junction that enabled him to trade widely all over Poland. They also had two children – a boy and a girl. The girl’s name was Fella (Tzipora) and the boy’s was Shlomo. (The boy was 11 years older then me, and the girl was a little younger than the boy.) In 1938 their family moved to the city of Lodz and my uncle opened there a textile business. I visited them when I was a boy and I remember that they were quite well to do.
My father’s family was larger – one sister and five brothers. It was a poor family.
My grandfather (my father’s father) had a small grocery store and had a hard time raising and educating his children. His name was Meyer and my grandmother’s was Sim’ha. They were good, simple and cheerful people.
I used to visit them on school vacations and was warmly received. My memories of those visits are pleasant. On my visits to Płock I met my cousins – the children of my uncles Shlomo and Tzvi. The rest of the uncles already left Poland at that time (1937-1939). Uncle Leon immigrated to Chile and uncle Moshe Aharon (Maurice) and aunt Anna to France.
Gombin school, 4th grade. Ichac sits second to the left, among the teachers, third to the left is Ichac's cousin Sala Magnes. Israel Magnes gave the photograph to Ichac.
So life was pleasant and I had the best of everything until September 1939 – the beginning of World War II.
THE BEGINNING OF THE WAR
It is well known that Poland was very quickly conquered. It took only several weeks. Jews started running away – eastward to the other side of the river Bug, lands that were still under Soviet rule. Our town was conquered after a relatively strong struggle of the Polish army and that was why it had been heavily bombed, as a result of which many people were killed and wounded.
During the bombings the four of us stood hugging each other – my mother, my sister, my father and I. We had decided that either all of us would stay alive together or we would die together. The only place where we could hide was in the cellar of a wooden house. In that same house there were two cellars and both of them were full to capacity. The one in which we were staying, fortunately was not hit. A bomb had directly hit the other one and most of the people were killed or wounded.
After that bitter experience, we decided that we would not go down to the cellar but run to the open field or to the wood, so that we could watch the airplanes movement and run accordingly. The bombings went on incessantly for two days. At last the Polish army was broken down and started withdrawing. We saw long caravans of tired Polish soldiers, running away humbled. Many of the soldiers asked for civilian clothes to replace their uniforms so as not to be captured by the Germans. Their rage and frustration was, of course, turned on the Jews by curses and beatings. They found a culprit – the Jew.
From the moment the Germans occupied the town life was completely changed. The town had been mostly destroyed.
Somehow my grandfather’s house was not hit; so all of us stayed with him. It is not by accident that I do not mention my maternal grandmother. She died at the age of 54 and I remember her only vaguely, and with my grandfather’s second wife I did not have a close relationship.
Life became very hard. There was no regular supply of food to the town and the Jewish population was deliberately prevented from getting it. Jewish children were not allowed to go to school.
We were ordered to wear a yellow Star of David patch, forbidden to leave the town or send letters. We were cut off from the family and the world. Getting caught keeping a radio, or even listening, meant death penalty. (We did not have a radio; radios were rare in those times). The Germans confiscated property – houses, shops and factories. All trade was stopped. Our factory, the warehouses and stock were immediately confiscated.
Fortunately for the family the Germans entrusted the management of the factory to a man that had trade relations with us since before the war. His name was Schneider, a Pole of German origin. The Germans called those Poles – "Volksdeutsche". The humane way in which he treated us was praiseworthy. For a long period he took care of getting us food supplies to the best of his ability. For us it was lifesaving. For him it was a great risk and took great courage. If he was caught he could lose his job and be heavily punished. Later on he was appointed by the occupation authorities to be the town mayor and we lost contact with him.
At that time my grandfather and my father decided to hide all the valuables that were in the house. I helped my father to destroy a concrete floor in one of the warehouses that were in my grandfather’s yard. We hid there three huge brass kettles filled with glass jars full of gold, diamonds and U.S. dollars. If that warehouse was not later destroyed and dug up for new building – it may be assumed that those kettles are still there. We hid valuables in any possible place. My father filled the pipes on which the curtains hang with foreign currency. Each of us carried on his body gold and diamonds sewed in the pockets and the stocking holders. It was very heavy but there was no other choice. We were tense all the time. Any minute there could be an unexpected command about a search, deportation, or transport to forced labor camp outside the Ghetto.
About a year after the town was occupied, the Germans started to relocate the Jews. We were forced to move to a new place – several families in one apartment. It was terribly overcrowded and there was no minimal privacy. The streets in which the Jews lived were fenced. Guards were stationed. No entrance and no exit. We were in the Ghetto.
A daily war for survival started. The whole family stood in long queues in the rain and cold to get a loaf of bread, with ration cards distributed accorded to the size of the family. In that situation all thoughts and energy were only about how to manage, and with whom to associate in order to survive.
The Germans started to exploit the Jewish labor force. In disgraceful conditions, under strict guard, a small handful of Jews were allowed to go to work out of the Ghetto. In return for the labor the workers were given on their way to work when passing the gate, a daily ration of food. My father managed to get a job in a leather factory, which we once owned. Due to that, he received in the morning his food ration that he saved and in the evening we all shared. My father worked physically very hard, but still he overcame the hunger and took care of all of us. I have no doubt that he suffered heavily from hunger all through the day, but although he had some food he overcame the hunger for the sake of all of us. Only those who know real hunger can understand the strength of mind it takes.
My grandfather Leibl was too old and did not get a job. I was too young for them to be included in the laborers list. My grandfather could manage in any situation. He created roundabout relations with non-Jewish acquaintances and friends that he had known since before the war. Through people that went out to work and with his money he got from time to time food for the family. Thanks to that we existed, really a bare existence, but better than others that could not get even the little we had, and they deteriorated physically and mentally because of lack of food.
In 1941 my grandfather became ill. His leg had been badly infected (Erysipelas) and he was bedridden. His suffering was terrible and we were helpless. There were no medications to help him. We did our best to help him but to no avail. After several weeks of horrible pain he passed away. My mother was just then bedridden because of a broken leg and could not come to the funeral. I remember how sorry she was about that.
With my grandfather’s death a central dominant figure left the family. We felt orphaned. There was a void accompanied with a feeling of insecurity and helplessness. My grandfather had the money and the connections.
After the death of my grandfather my father took charge. My father had connections because he was an active member of the Bund party before the war and in the war; he built a wide connection web with people outside the Ghetto. The connections were with Jews who lived hidden on the Arian side and Polish activists in the Polish Labor Party, which of course was illegal during the Nazi occupation. There were secret activities at home. My father succeeded with different and dangerous means to get food for the family, even more than my grandfather, and that was in an indescribable hard time of suffering and humiliation as a result of the hunger.
In the Ghetto there was a Jewish committee called “Judenrat” who cooperated with the Germans. The Germans established the Judenrat and they were forced to perform all the orders of the Germans.
In the course of time the Jewish population was physically weakened. The number of sick and disabled people grew. The Judenrat received an order to prepare a list of old, sick and disabled people for transportation.
The Ghetto was in turmoil. Rushing around, pleading, arguments and lobbying started. The list was not submitted at the appointed time. The Germans gave an ultimatum to the Judenrat – if they would not submit the list in 24 hours they would be the first deportees.
The list was submitted. I want to assume and believe that the Judenrat did not know then that the transport was intended for extermination. The Germans claimed that the transport was to hospitals and sanatoriums. Not one deportee returned back.
It was 1941. Two years after I stopped going to school. In spite of my mother’s objection I volunteered to work as an apprentice helper in a smithy that was near our home in the Ghetto. A local Pole (Volkdeutsche) ran the smithy that worked for the Germans. I worked from dawn till late at night. Although I was not paid and did not receive any benefits, and in spite of all the troubles, I enjoyed the work. It seems that I learned a trade that probably was right for me. There was another reason for my dedication to the job – escaping home from the trouble and pain in the family. In a short time I progressed and became a part of the work team. My diligence paid off and my contribution was recognized. I started getting rations like a regular team member. For the first time I became an important factor in my family and started contributing my share in the survival struggle. My parents were proud of me and praised me more than once. I was happy with my work. For the first time in my life I felt independence and self-security. I started to believe that I could deal with the situation in spite of all the difficulties.
It was the beginning of 1942. We, especially me, had no idea what was happening in the front and the world at large. There was no information source. We became used to a life of poverty and hunger but we were still together as a family. We took care of each other.
In the winter of 1942 my father received, together with a small group of men, an order to report in 24 hours at the Firemen Hall that was outside the Ghetto. That order caused a great grief at home. My mother cried terribly and could not reconcile with the decree. My sister was also very sad and both of them were helpless. I tried to get help through my work connections but to no avail. My father was transported to Germany to an especially hard labor camp (I don’t remember its name). We received two letters from him – a very rare phenomenon in those times because the Germans did not allow any correspondence (maybe that it was a German deception trick?). We sent him clothes packages, but it was very doubtful if he received them.
About my father’s fate I learned later. When I was in Birkenau (Auschwitz) I met several Gombiner Jews who came to the camp from Germany. They told me that my father died in the labor camp as a result of severe illness. They did not want to tell me more specific details. They said that he suffered terribly before his death. I could not accept that story. I tried to make them tell me the truth. I knew that my father was a very healthy strong man. He had been in the camp only several months. It was not possible that such a drastic change took place. After I persisted with my questions they told me that he had died from beatings and torture.
My father could not agree with the camp conditions. He was one of the rebels and paid for it with his life.
My father had strong political views. He was prepared to fight and also to pay a heavy price if it needed. I was told that he had wanted to go to Spain when the civil war was going on there but my mother fiercely objected. He used to voice his opinions. He was an active member of the Bund party (the rebel – a Jewish socialist party) and had political arguments with people that held different opinions. My father practically sacrificed his life. He fought for his strong opinions that were strictly forbidden in a German camp. Friends that were with him in the camp said that if he was less extreme in his opinion and especially more discrete in voicing them he would have had a better chance to stay alive.
My father married the daughter of a very wealthy man but in spite of that he did not change his political views. He grew up in a poor home full of children and started supporting himself quite young. I can definitely understand him and the choice he made in the last chapter of his life.
When my father was taken from home I was almost 14 years old. We remained the three of us: my mother, my sister and me. I felt then a manifold need to prove to my mother that I could take care of the family. I put more effort in my job, working day and night without counting work hours or benefits just for getting by any means some addition to the needs of basic existence.
It should be remembered and known that the Germans brought us in the Ghetto to such a mental state that all our senses and thoughts were aimed at only one thing: how to get food to lessen hunger. All other activities characterizing normal civilized people vanished from our life. That is how they succeeded in neutralizing our power of resistance.
The only means I had then was will and labor power. My mother told me:” You have become a man before your time”. I was happy and proud to hear that.
That situation only lasted for a short time. On March 8th, 1942, the Judenrat was ordered to submit a list of all the men from age 15 to 50. I was not yet 15 so I did not report.
In the middle of night while we were in bed German soldiers with Polish civilians (Volksdeutsch) broke into the house, turned over every thing, broke articles and beat us. They demanded to know where my father was and where the able-bodied men were. My mother explained that my father was already taken to work and that he was in Germany and proved it by showing the postcard from Germany. She said that I was not yet 15 years old but all the explanations were to no avail. They yelled and went on breaking and hitting with the riffles butts.
My mother held me in one hand and my sister in the other. They fought, cried heart-breaking tears and did not let them take me away. They were beaten until they fainted and were thrown on the floor. I was also beaten and they took me with them. They decided that I was big enough and fit for work in the concentration camps.
I shall never forget that tragic shuddering event – how I hugged my mother and sister, their heart breaking cries and their pleading to be taken with me and how I was taken from them forever.
Mother Hanna Weizman née Kerber murdered in Chelmno
When I left home with the Germans I met outside a big group of Jews surrounded by strict guarding. We were led to the Firemen Hall in the town center. In the hall there were hundreds of men, over crowded, tired, nervous and irritated. I met many acquaintances, relatives, classmates and older friends. Suddenly one of my friends said: “I have seen here Meyer Laski with a German officer conducting a search among the people”. Meyer Laski was the owner of the smithy where I had worked and studied in the Ghetto. He was also a member of the Judenrat. “You should go and talk with him, he knows you, may be he is even looking for you to set you free”.
I tried very hard to find him so that he could see me but he ignored me – as if I did not exist. He did not even say ‘hello’. That hurt me dreadfully. I could not forgive him throughout the war. When the war had ended – looking back – and I stayed alive, I forgave him and if I could, I would thank him for not leaving me at home - otherwise I would be led to extermination like all those that stayed in the Ghetto, including my family.
For 24 hours we stayed in the Hall without food or water. The Germans made an accurate muster roll. Fortunately they accepted my oral statement that I was over the age of 15. We heard that the transport was intended for a labor camp. I understood that it was better to go to work than to stay with the old and sick people.
After long hours of overcrowding, noise and shouts an S.S man dressed in black uniform with a red sleeve band decorated with Swastika stepped on the podium and shouted: “Quite!! Sit on the floor in horizontal lines, so that we shall be able to count how many people are in the Hall!”
Of course it was not achieved accordingly as quickly as he had wanted. He shot in the air and announced again:” If in 2 minutes you are not settled in columns I will shoot anyone who is out of the line”.
Several minutes later we heard another shot. The bullet passed near me and hit my relative – my mother’s uncle (Hershl Kerber, the brother of my grandfather Leibl Kerber). He fell bleeding on me. The bullet hit his head. I shivered all over. I was covered with blood.
I was ordered, together with three other men, to take him out dying to one of the corridors. Not far from him his two sons were sitting witnessing him being murdered. They were helpless. We were not allowed to utter a sound. Not to shout and not to cry.
That was my first meeting with S.S men.
After 24 hours we received a cup of hot water that was supposed to be soup and we were loaded on to a truck – standing, crowded like cattle. We left under heavy guard to an unknown destiny. When we passed through the town the Polish citizens expressed joy feelings. They clapped their hands and passed their hands on their throats as a sign for slaughter. We were trapped between two camps that hated us blindly.
After a long tiring uninterrupted drive we reached the Forced Labor camp in Konin (a small town near the district city Poznań). Most of the men that had been taken to forced labor from Gombin were brought to that camp. The camp was far from the town, on open land far from villages, population and unwanted observers. The camp was fenced and in it were some rickety wretched neglected shacks, and the worst of all – they were leaking. Each man got one army blanket, a wooden plank and some straw. The planks were arranged in 5-6 stories. In order to get to “bed” we had to climb and crawl inside. The space between the planks was small so that we could only lie down. It was impossible to sit up.
From the first moment that we were under the trampling German boot, every action was done by orders, according to an allocated schedule and under strict guards. In an hour the shacks had to be clean, washed and tidy. When we came to the camp we did not meet other Jews. We thought that we were the first. We were ordered to report to the camp’s square for roll call ("Appell"). After the camp’s commander’s explanation about the camp’s procedures and what was intended for us in the future, each of us received a prisoner number. We became numbers without name or identity. 12 hours after we reached the camp we received “supper”. First we got a cup on which the prisoner number was written. We were ordered to guard the cup “with seven eyes”. We stood in a long line in order to get “soup”. We were shocked to discover that it was just warm water without taste or smell. It had to be enough until the next day’s morning. Hunger troubled us. We could not fall asleep and we started feeling faint. At dawn when we went out to work we received our daily quota of bread – a fifth loaf of bread. In fact we were rationed a quarter of a loaf but the persons on duty who had cut the bread stole some of it.
When the first night fell we suddenly heard a lot of noise. The camp was filled again with people. We saw that there were Jews in the camp that had come before us. They just then came back from work. Among those people I found acquaintances, friends and also an older respected man that was once a business partner of our family. His name was Avraham Neidorf and he was from Płock. His son and his son-in-law were also in the camp. They were among the first camp prisoners. They already had key positions in the camp, such as some influence on work schedule, and a say in food distribution, which were two important roles. I was lucky again. From time to time they managed to give me more soup and sometimes more bread. Although it happened very seldom, those additions definitely helped me through the first crisis until my body adapted – so that I did not reach exhaustion immediately.
Our work was physically very hard, from dawn till nightfall. We worked for a German civil contracting company that employed prisoners. The company’s name was Hoch-Tif which means "High-Deep". We were mostly employed in laying and
building railways. We were watched very strictly, both our physical attendance and our production.
Two German soldiers accompanied by dogs guarded each group of 10 men. We were not allowed to rest for a moment; we were not allowed to talk with each other, and even not to go to the so-called toilet without permission and a guard.
I shall never forget my first workday. We had to transfer wood logs for the railways. A pair of men carried each log. On purpose I was paired with an especially tall man, so as to create an imbalance. Most of the weight fell on me. I suffered very much. I asked to change my partner. The answer was punishment by lashing and yelling because I dared to ask for a “privilege”. On the next morning I did not receive my daily bread ration as an additional punishment for my “insolence”. I learned my lesson and having no choice I had to submit to the so-called rules.
Later on, better relations with the guards were established. The Germans recognized the fact that I was a useful element. We dared to ask permission to go to a village near our place of work and ask the Polish farmers for food. After deliberation and consulting the Germans agreed that one member of the group would go, but there was a specific condition – if he did not return the rest of the group would be shot by a fire squad. We agreed. From time to time one member of the group went to get some food. It was definitely an outstanding humane and courageous gesture of the German guards. They endangered themselves just like us, because if discovered, they faced a severe military trial. There were very few cases like that. There is no doubt that it was an outstanding one.
The food that we managed to bring from the village enabled us to survive and for the time being to hold on. In return for the gesture we had to increase our productivity and the guards were proud of having the best group.
Every evening on our way back to the camp we passed a small railway station. The wagons that were parked there were always empty. Those were load-carrying wagons that had been moved for rail changing. One evening we reached the station and what did we see? We saw wagons full with carrots, potatoes and other vegetables. We jumped on the wagons like crazy and started filling our pockets and any available place with the vegetables that were worth for us more than gold. The guards yelled, shot in the air and objected to our taking the vegetables without permission. They demanded that everything should be returned. Of course – we were not ready to give back such a treasure so quickly. The guards partially gave up and went on leading us to the camp.
When we reached the gate of the camp a surprise was waiting for us. By the gate we were forced to take off our cloths, to throw the vegetables aside and to report to the gate guards stark naked in the snow and cold, holding our cloths in our hands. After a strict checking, accompanied by yelling and beatings, each one was ordered to enter the camp and to run naked to the shack. By the shack’s door several S.S. soldiers were standing and they hit each one several cruel lashes. Those that shouted were lashed some more.
We returned to the shacks wet, tired and frozen. The additional punishment was that we were not given that evening the hot “soup” that we so much expected. We went to sleep hungry, tired and frightened – but the Germans decided that we were not punished enough. After midnight the guards accompanied by the camp commander
and dogs, broke into the shacks and took us out half naked, without shoes. The temperature was (-) 22 degrees Celsius (about –44.4 degrees Fahrenheit). We stood in the snow for roll call, standing at Attention without moving for a whole hour. The camp commander who stood in front of us announced that anyone who moved would be executed. Some of the men collapsed and were shot. The feet of some others froze and they could not use anymore the wooden clogs that were our footwear. In order to survive they bound their feet and legs with rags and went on functioning.
We knew already then – whoever could not work was doomed.
I had horrible frostbites – my feet skin peeled. My big left toe was frozen and paralyzed; it was numb for a long time. Compared to others I went through this event with slight injuries because I managed to stand on a bare stone and not on ice and snow.
There were also long-term results to our “sin”. We were watched more closely. The guards had been changed and our life conditions became worse. After several weeks in the Konin Camp, life conditions started affecting the men. Fat people who had used to love to eat a lot were the first to collapse. Some of them became insane and committed suicide by cutting their veins or hanging themselves. Others collapsed as a result of exhaustion.
I was never a big eater. My constitution probably had adjusted to the camp’s conditions and I went on functioning in the new conditions. I became weaker, lost lot of weight, but probably not near death. The fact that I was not deported then with the weak and sick confirms that assumption.
Every several weeks there was a selection - Selektion. The sick and weak were sent to an unknown destination. Only much later I learned where it was. Winter went on. The year of 1942 was coming to its end. Winter was hard. There was no heating in the shacks. The toilets were far. At night the cold was terrible. There was nothing to get covered with. It was impossible to fall asleep. Because of the cold we had to go to the toilet several times each night. It was tiring, irritating and exhausting. We became apathetic. We stopped being interested in what was going on around us and of course in the front and the world.
We had absolutely no connection with any source of information. We lost human image. One survival instinct was sharpened – the feeling of hunger and how to get over it.
We went on going out to work even on heavy snow days, sometimes without any purpose because the snow piles made regular work impossible. But Germans, by nature, have to follow procedure. We had to go out to work even if we stood idly all through the day because of the down coming snow and the terrible frost. The main point was to humiliate, to weaken and to trample our dignity so as to completely exhaust us. It was a deliberate system of extermination in which they succeeded.
In the beginning of 1943 the representatives of the Jewish prisoners in the camp were ordered to submit a list of men for deportation. Among the representatives were the acquaintances I had mentioned – the Neidorf family from Płock. The list should have been of men who were unable to work anymore.
To the representative the purpose of the deportation was obvious. They collectively refused to cooperate even if they would be deported instead of the weak and sick. The same evening we were ordered to come out from the shacks in the cold and snow for roll call. The camp commander raved. He could not understand how they dared to disobey him. He gave an ultimatum that if by the next day the list was not submitted the representatives would be executed by hanging in the camp’s square. That was the German policy. The despised job of preparing the list they left for the Jews. The Masters nation conceived the idea of extermination but in order to trample, and humiliate they forced the Jews to do the dirty work of selection.
The representatives called a meeting. They decided to ask to be excused from work the next day in order to prepare the list. The camp commander agreed. The next day while everyone was at work, the representatives set the camp on fire with the kerosene that they took from the kitchen. The camp was completely burned down. Afterwards all of them committed suicide by hanging, including Avraham Neidorf and his son-in-law Kamlaz. It was a courageous deed that was an obvious act of resistance to cooperation with the Germans. For us they were heroes worthy of esteem and admiration.
The camp was burnt down. We had no roof over our heads. The Germans did not give up; they had conducted a selection according to their choice and deported a large group of men. Only few of us stayed in the camp. We went on going to work. The shacks deliberately were not built again, so we slept beneath the skies.
That situation went on for several days and then we were transferred to another labor camp near the city of Lodz.
It was only half a year since I was torn from my mother’s and sister’s arms. I was completely changed not only physically, but mentally as well. I was totally immersed in one thought – how to get over the hunger torture by which I was troubled constantly. The suffering was terrible and there was no room for any other thought.
We were bound by an unwritten pact that was forced on us by the Germans. If one of us ran away the whole group would be executed. That pact changed my thinking process and my resistance strength. The bitter truth was that even if it occurred to me to run away there was nowhere to go. The people who lived in the vicinity of the camp were anti-Semitic and also frightened. There was no way that someone would take the risk of hiding and feeding a Jewish refugee. Polish young people had been also taken out of their homes and sent to forced labor in Germany. The Poles knew that if a Jew was found hiding with them, both would be executed. There were Poles who informed the Germans about other Poles who had hidden Jews. It was done because of anti-Semitism but also out of fear. That was also a result of the German policy – if a Jew was found hidden in a village the whole village was punished.
There was no choice except staying in the camp. We were trapped without any way out. The alternative of staying in the camp and belong to a work group was the most reasonable. I had also to consider my looks. I looked typically Jewish. No one would take the risk of hiding or employing me.
The camp to which we were transferred was near the small town Andrzejów not far from Lodz. There were only a few of us left, about one hundred men. We were in a new forced labor camp. It should be emphasized – forced labor camp, not a concentration camp. We went on working for the same company ("Hoch-Tif") doing the same work.
The camp was far from the town, adjacent to a larger camp where English prisoners of war were locked up. Only a fence separated us from the P.O.W.’s camp. Compared to the Konin camp our conditions were better. First of all, after a long time of isolation from the world we received information from the English prisoners about what was going on in the front and in the world. The English prisoners did not work and were treated according to the Geneva Convention. We were treated at work in same way as in Konin. The food ration was also the same, but there was one qualitative difference: in Andrzejów our guards were Volksdeutsche and not Germans. They were less strict and more considerate. More than once the guards brought us food and sometimes - even clothes. That kind of treatment strengthened us physically and morally so that we could overcome our troubles and hang on. Nobody could keep going on our meager food ration and the hard physical work.
In Andrzejów I met for the first time German civilian workers that came from Germany to work for the company. We got in touch with them and held many conversations. They were frank. Most of them said that they opposed the Nazi régime. They also helped us quite often with food.
All that was done covertly because the Germans did not trust each other. They encouraged us to hang on. They said that the Germans would be defeated on the Russian front and the Russians would advance towards Germany. I did not understand much of the geographical descriptions and strategic analysis but they gave me faith and hope.
In Andrzejów I went back to work in the smithy. There also I was an excellent worker. My craftsmanship was highly appreciated. It should not be forgotten that I was not yet 15 years old. I realized that I had acquired quite a lot of craftsmanship skills when I worked in the smithy in Gombin.
The manager of the smithy (a German civilian) treated me with respect and appreciation. He gave me enough food so that I would not be hungry, and I even shared food with my work mates.
I worked very hard physically. More than once I had to stand for a whole day in the smithy and strike with a 5 kg hammer together with German craftsmen who were strong, healthy and skilled. I had no choice. I had to keep up with their work pace because I was a member of a team. I was required to make an enormous physical effort.
The men who worked outside and not in the workshops, suffered in Andrzejów from hunger, torture and humiliations. They had no contact with anyone except the guards (that were also supervised). The guards were responsible that the daily work quota would be unconditionally filled. It was impossible for the workers to get any help.
We were constantly struggling to keep going on and not to reach the stage of complete exhaustion, which was the Germans’ goal. The guards used to say:” How can the German Reich afford to feed people who do not contribute to the war effort?”
The German machine performed with extraordinary accuracy. They knew for how long a person could hang on under conditions of hunger and physical effort. The periodic transports of the weak and sick men left the camp accurately and according to the German schedule.
I did very well at my job. I became the assistant operator of a bulldozer and was in charge of the daily maintenance of the machine. The German manager said more than once: ‘Ignatz (Icchak in Polish) is your model. He is not a merchant or thief. He is a respected artisan who knows how to work. He should be respected and appreciated. Follow his example and you will be better off’. I learned and understood very quickly that I had the means that could be used for survival. I became known and accepted by the German civil workers and many of them wanted me to be their assistant, I heard them arguing about me. The end result of the discussions was that I went back to work with the head Meister (the manager), an older man that to me he seemed old. He was responsible for me. We went to all kinds of places without any special guarding. Whenever we went out of the camp he told me that his life depended on me. If I ran away 10 people would be executed, including him. Again I was bounded by the same unwritten pact. I could not betray the old man and my work mates.
I was quite naďve and believed in people. I hoped that the Germans still had a glimmer of humanity considering the way I was treated by the German workers.
One of the German workers used to hold long conversations with me. He was a young civilian, extreme left wing – anti-Nazi. It was not clear why he was not in the army. He worked for the company as a locksmith. He was outstandingly courageous. He used to give voice to his opinions openly in public. People like him were then in danger of being sent to a concentration camp as political prisoners for opposing the régime (Later on I met such political prisoners in Auschwitz). His name was Hans Schmidt.
Hans encouraged me to hold on. He said that he wanted to keep in touch with me after the war. I quote him ‘After the crushing defeat of the damned Nazis’. It was the beginning of 1943. He kept on regularly and persistently: ‘you should know, the Germans have already lost the war. The question is only how long it will be before they finally surrender. They have no chance to recover. They are hated in all the occupied territories, and they try to occupy more and more. They are doomed. The resistance power in the occupied countries is strengthening. It is harder and harder to send men and supplies to the front. The resistance groups bomb the railways, and what do we do? Try to fix. Whom with? With prisoners and captives that are not able and do not want to work. I understand and know the naked truth. Hang on. Do not give up. We shall meet after the war as free men at the home of one of us and have a glass of beer together’.
Those words still echo in my ears. In the beginning I did not believe him. I doubted him. It could be that he wanted to set me up. Fortunately I had enough sense to keep my mouth shut and not to voice my opinion. Then he added: ‘I understand your silence. It is obvious what your opinion of the crazy Nazis is. Their megalomania has driven them crazy’. Hans’ words affected me. I believed him because I felt he had spoken honestly and out of his heart. It seems he was wise, reliable and intelligent. He thought in terms of a worker who believed in the workers’ rights and was convinced that his opinions were right. That was a strong foothold of hope under the conditions we were in. Hans was an outstanding case. He was exceptional, courageous and honest. I learned to appreciate him even more later when I met with German political prisoners in the Birkenau-Auschwitz camp. Their fate at that time was not different from that of the Jews.
To my regret I did not meet Hans after the war.
We were in Andrzejów for three to four months. Then we were transferred to a nearby camp called Jędrzejów. We went on working for the same company.
Before the transfer there was a selection and the sick and weak were not transferred to the new camp. They were sent to what was then an unknown destination. None of them stayed alive. Among those sent were two of my classmates with whom I grew up since the day I had been born. I stayed with one friend of my age. His name was Lajzer Bocian. He survived like me but did not go to Eretz-Israel; he went to America to his uncle.
Only a few men from my town came to Jędrzejów. Our conditions changed for the worse. We were no longer attached to the English P.O.W.’s camp. We were disconnected from a significant source of help. We lost touch with them and were again isolated. I no longer worked in the smithy. We had new guards, a new manager and worked in unskilled labor. Mostly we unloaded gravel from freight cars. The gravel was for railways’ foundations and construction. It was as if we were back in Konin and even worse.
I remembered that Hans had said that the way the guards treated us was a function of the events at the front. After every defeat at the front the guards took revenge on us. There was a lot of truth in what he had said.
We were guarded very closely. We worked in a railway station and the guards were afraid that we would run away. The daily food ration was the same as in Konin – some hot water called “soup” and a quarter of a loaf of bread which the distributors stole part of. Fortunately for us and especially for me, the few months that we were in Andrzejów strengthened us and that was why we did not weaken immediately.
In that camp I also experienced an interesting incident. One day a high rank S.S. officer and a company commander came to the camp. They came in an army vehicle similar to a command car. The guards ordered us to work quicker without stopping in order to impress the visitors. Suddenly the S.S. officer asked loudly and mockingly if there was among the dirty kikes someone who knew how to change a car wheel. There was silence for several minutes. Our guard repeated the question. I whispered that I knew how to do it. He was standing near me. The truth was that I had never done it, I had just seen in a garage in Gombin how it was done. The guard approached the officer and told him that there was someone who could do it. The guard told me to go to the officer. He looked at me, asked how old I was and from where I knew how to take care of a car.
I saw that he doubted my words. After a short deliberation he warned me: ‘If you fail you will be punished in front of everyone. I warn you - I shall consider failure as an attempt on my life. Now your life is in danger, is it clear?’ ‘Yes sir’. ‘So now, to work!’ I asked the officer to kindly show me where he kept the jack. In the beginning he did not understand what I meant. I explained that in order to change the wheel the car should be lifted up. There was no jack.
I recruited all the prisoners that were near by, we lifted the car and put it on the wooden logs that were lying around. I changed the wheel relatively quickly and we put the car back down. As a token of gratitude my face was slapped twice and I was kicked in the belly. The beating was accompanied with another speech: “Your life was saved together with several others like you. You are lucky that you managed to lift the car and did not fail in your task. Why should I carry a jack when we have dirty Asses like you?”
He told the guard that I had done well and if the guard had a spare slice of bread he should give it to me. The next day the guard brought me a whole loaf of bread with a herring. Our whole prisoners’ group celebrated my success in the task by eating those delicacies.
The next day the guard told me that my life had been saved. I was truly lucky because the officer really meant to carry out his threat. The guard thought that I did not understand the extent to which the danger was real and how much I played with my fate. The guard said: ’The honor of an S.S. man binds him to keep his promises’.
On the same day I was transferred to the workshops to do more skilled labor, less stressing, no daily quota and the most important benefit – the possibility of getting additional food from the gentiles that worked there.
The incident I described shows how cheap was the value of our lives then. I was sure about my skilled ability. I did not think for a moment to risk my life. But the German was prejudiced: ‘The Jews do not tell the truth and there are no technical professionals among them’. That I heard from the guard when he quoted the officer. That was the reason why he was surprised.
In the small Jędrzejów camp we had an additional trouble that we had not had before: laid on the wooden planks on which we slept were threadbare straw mattresses that were full with bugs, fleas and lice. The situation was unbearable. The insects sucked our blood and we were covered with sores and scabies. We could not sleep at night. We weakened physically very quickly. Many prisoners became fully exhausted. One day, out of the blue, the camp commander decided to burn all the mattresses and disinfect the shacks. We were sent to the Lodz Ghetto to be disinfected and take showers. Lodz was not far from the camp, just a few kilometers.
We were taken to the Ghetto heavily guarded. We were not allowed to get in touch with the Jews we saw there. We saw women and children so we understood that not all the Jews had been deported from the Ghetto until then. When we had returned to the camp we were not allowed to enter the shacks. We were led straight to a truck in the cold and rain and driven to an unknown destination.
After a short drive we arrived at a railway station where cattle freight cars were waiting for us. We were shoved in quickly accompanied by shouts and beatings until the car was overflowing with no more standing room. The guards locked the doors from outside but first they threw inside half an empty barrel to serve as a latrine. For long hours the cars stayed at the station without making a move. We did not receive any food and drink. With dawn the cars were maneuvered until they reached the destined railway and we started our journey, which lasted a day and a half.
Every several hours the train stopped at some station. Through the cracks we could see open spaces and forests, which we passed on our way. It was hard to accept the fact of being locked in a cage like animals while outside there were green fields, grazing cows and farmers toiling their land. The longing and will for freedom strengthened, we wanted to be like them.
The overcrowding in the car was horrible. The stench from the density and secretions caused people to swoon and faint. People were so tired that they fell asleep standing up, leaning on each other. Some of those that had fainted did not wake up - they died and we did not have room for laying them. As time passed the situation worsened.
At one of the stations we started shouting loudly asking to open the doors a little so that the dead would be taken out and the barrel emptied. The guards shot warning shots in the air in order to make us stop shouting and when the shouting did not stop they shot into the cars and wounded several prisoners. In our car there were also several wounded men. The floor was covered with blood.
We took off the clothes of the dead and used them to bandage the wounded. It was clear that the S.S. men meant to exhaust us to death. There was no other explanation. They could add more cars and give food and water but they did not do that. They wanted to bring us to a concentration camp in a weakened and exhausted state as much as it was possible.
We came to the conclusion that our end was near although we did know yet unequivocally by eyewitness evidence that there were extermination camps, or to be more precise, that there was a detailed extermination industry planned carefully according to the German precision.
After torture and suffering we reached an unknown destination. The train stopped and the doors were opened. At that moment trained dogs jumped on us and started tearing our clothes and flesh. We had to jump very quickly from the cars and stand in a row of trios outside the cars. We were shocked by the noise and the tumult. People were rushing around looking for each other. Children were crying and looking for their parents, women were looking for their husbands and others were looking for their relatives. S.S. officers were yelling, ordering the people to stand in three rows, one for men, the second for women and the third for women with children. We did not understand the language those people were speaking but we were sure that they were Jews because they wore the yellow Star of David patch on the left side of their chests and on their backs.
We found out that at about the same time as us a transport of Jews from France and Belgium arrived that spoke French. We were standing near the cars as we had been ordered to, anxiously awaiting what would happen next. Suddenly we saw a small cart loaded with queer looking men approaching, they were dressed with striped clothes, round flat hats and wooden Dutch clogs with which we were already familiar. Each of them had on the left side of his chest a triangle-shaped patch with a number written on it.
It was a new bizarre sight that we had never seen before. It was a work-team that dealt with moving and loading luggage and sorting it. The Jews brought lots of luggage. The prisoners who arrived on the small cart were a sorry sight. We understood immediately that we had to expect very hard times. From what we heard the prisoners who passed us say we learned where we were. We arrived at Birkenau (Auschwitz).
 Known as " CZARKÓW" -
Continue - Part II
Last updated October 26th, 2005