I was ten years old when the war broke out in 1939, Henry Frankel was twelve and Sam Frankel was fifteen. Our father was a cap maker in Gombin. There were seven children in the family, all boys. Three of whom survived, the three mentioned above. The story about to unfold relates how myself and my two brothers managed to live through the period of the war, a period fought with peril for all Jews, without exception, and children in particular.
I remember when the Germans first occupied Gombin. During the first few days the German soldiers called for some young men for work detail. After a few days the Gestapo arrived, and everything changed. They chased all the Jews out of their homes and assembled them in the market place where they were guarded. Then they started to pour gasoline on the homes near the Temple (which was one of the oldest in Poland, artists came before the war from all over Europe to paint our Temple), and lit a match to start a fire. The Jews being surrounded by soldiers, watched as their homes and Temple burned down, and could not do a thing. At the end of the day they chased all the Jews back to the home’s which were not burned. Lucky for us that our house was not touched by fire.
From 1940 to 1942 the Jews had to leave their homes and move into a Ghetto where the Poles had moved out. The Jewish elders assigned each family rooms according to their needs, as best as they could. During that period whenever the Germans wanted something they notified the Jewish elders, and there was also a Jewish police force to send some young men to a work camp. Every now and then they called for 200 – 300 men to send to a camp. On March 9, 1942 the Germans took the first step that led eventually to the total annihilation of the Gombin Jews. On that day the Germans rounded up all adult Jews capable of work into the town (Remizia) fire hall assembly. They sent them all away to camps. All others were seated for deportation and annihilation.
Two weeks earlier an unexpected guest arrived at the Frankel home, a cousin of my mother, a Jew that lived in Gostinin. He had escaped from the Nazi camp Anze, and now he was telling us things that brought on a feeling of horror and disbelief. In attendance were my parents, six brothers and myself. In front of a flickering candle my cousin told us how he had witnessed with his own eyes the mass burning of Jews. When my youngest brother Michael had heard this he ran over to our mother and asked will they burn me too. We all started to cry. There had been rumors earlier of mass murders, but the Jews of Gombin refused to believe the horrible tails. But now after being confronted by a live witness who confirmed the unbelievable, the Jewish elders after hearing all this told my cousin to leave town and stop spreading rumors.
From that day onward it became clear that the Jews of Gombin would be made to share the bitter fate of the rest of Poland’s Jewry. Thus when on the ninth of March the German’s began rounding up Jews for work details, it was now apparent the Jews of Gombin became aware that death walked in their futures. The first act of the drama was now being played out. Soon the second act would begin which would lead to the destruction of a small town in Poland. The rounding up of able bodied men and youths had begun when armed Germans surrounded the Jewish neighborhood Ghetto.
I was twelve years old and the first to notice the Armed forces, because everyday I tried to bring customers for my father to buy caps. Then I noticed a truck with soldiers guarding the ghetto entrance, I immediately ran to another street entrance and noticed the same. I then ran home with the bad news, which soon spread throughout the neighborhood. In no time at all armed Germans invaded one Jewish home after another, seizing all males between the ages of eighteen and forty five. My eldest brother Beniek determined not to be taken had hid in the attic. The Germans took my father and (Chaim) Henry who at fourteen was the third oldest, but looked more mature. I (Jack) being twelve years old followed the men as they were assembled in the street. A Jewish policeman noticed me and pulled me out and tried to send me home, but I ran into a different line, and they led us away to the (Remizia) Fire Department Assembly Hall, which was very large. A man in civilian clothes screamed out that we should all sit on the floor and fold our hands. During that period, as we were sitting he went around with a whip and hit everybody over the heads, faces, etc. Finally he noticed a Jew by the name of Philip, one of the strongest men in town, and he told him to stand up. He asked him what are you, he answered “A Jew”, he then whipped him over the head and face, and said no you are a shitty Jew, a stinker, and kept hitting him for a few minutes longer. Next he made another man named Moishe stand up against the wall. Moishe happened to be a wood chopper, another strong man. “What are you” , he said “a Jew”, he kept hitting and hitting, whatever Moishe had said was no good. You could see the blood pouring from his face, they then took him into another room and we heard a shot, we all knew right then and there what happened. Next they took a young man named Eighel and also shot him. A policeman named Brown walked in and screamed out “Quiet”, an elderly man named Kerber could not sit still, Brown pulled his revolver and shot him. That kind of behavior went on most of the night.
Finally the morning arrived, I heard that a friend of mine (Hershal Schwartz) was sent home because of his age. I walked over to the policeman Brown because my father made hats for him, and I used to deliver them to him. I asked him if I could go home, he said no, you are better off here, and would not let me go home. At dawn the trucks arrived with armed German guards. Earlier Gombin Germans removed several of the detained Jews from the Hall because of need for their services. Among those temporarily freed was my father. He was a useful cap maker for them. Those from my family sent away were myself (Jack) 12 years old, Henry 14 years old, and Sam 16 years old, thus beginning the ordeal of the Three Gombin Brothers.
The younger two still virtually children, not only were we sentenced to death as Jews, we were also vulnerable as children. We desperately concealed ourselves from being kids by standing on the tips of our toes. This enabled us to perform the work meant for adults, therefore being excepted as grown-ups. The word child was anathema to the German Bandits. A Jewish child served no useful purpose to them, they were shot or gassed or clubbed to death with the butt of a riffle. The five hundred Gombiner Jews seized in the raid were taken to Gostinin, and put in freight trains filled with Jewish victims from other communities and transported to the Konin Camp. We were assigned to a barrack and also to metal bunks three high. It was already evening so we were given one portion of bread and told that this will be for the next day. So Henry and I ate one portion and saved the other for the following day. That evening we saw our fathers partner, he promised that he would look after us since we were so young. In the morning when we were awakened for work I noticed that the portion of bread was gone, this happened for a few nights. We found out the barrack that our brother Sam was in and told him about it. He went to the camp elder and told him about us, and they transferred us that same evening into Sam’s barrack. Later on we found out that my father’s partner was stealing our bread.
The Konin camp was one of work and death. The work consisted of carrying heavy boxes and blocks from freight trains, some Jews also worked on railroads by building tracks for a German company called Dst Deutche. Death was caused by murderous beatings, over work and starvation. There was only one way to fight death by starvation, and that was to leave camp Stealthily at night. Maneuvering past the barbed wire fences and coming back with some potatoes from neighboring village’s. For tasks such as this the best suited were children. At night a large number of us would disappear in the dark and return with a little food to keep the body and soul together. We were not all equally as fortunate, some made it and some did not. Those who did not make it would be found dead, lined up on the ground for the rest of the inmates to see. About 200 of the Jews(including the three of us) from Konin Camp were taken by train to the Guttenbrum Camp in the Poznan region. The three of us (Jack, Henry and Sam) had taken a vow that we would be one for all and all for one. Wherever possible we would stay together and share the last morsel of food.
Arriving in camp, we were greeted by a spectacle prepared by the Nazis for the new inhabitants. In the middle of an open area the Nazis had built four gallows, placing a Jewish boy of ten or eleven near each one. The Nazis informed all assembled that the four criminals had been caught smuggling food. A crime for which they were about to pay with their lives. The noose was then placed around the little neck of each child. German justice was then carried out (four helpless Jewish children swinging on the gallows). This was the picture greeting Jack, Henry and Sam on our arrival to the hell known as Guttenbrum.
We were fed once a day a watery substance called soup. The work consisted of loading freight cars with heavy sacks of cement. After the cars had been loaded, we were then made to unload them, then load them again and again. Scores fell dead while performing the work. Some died as they rose in the morning, others died in their sleep from starvation. From Guttenbrum some people were sent to the Stadium Camp in the Poznan area. Most of the inmates of this camp were Jews brought from Lodz and Ozorkov. Stadium was a death camp where Jews perished from blows, hunger and inhuman labor. The three of us stayed together, we were well aware that not one Jew was left alive in Gombin.
While we were being tortured and starved in the slaves labor camps, our father, mother, four brothers and the rest of Gombin’s Jews had been sent to Chelmno, which was the first camp where the Germans experimented with scientific methods of annihilating the Jews in gas chambers. The three of us stayed together and miraculously survived. A number of Jews from the Stadium Camp, including the three of us were assigned to a detail which was fairly good. We were taken to the village of Zbonshin where we performed irrigation work. We slept in camp under Nazi guard, but the work in the field was bearable. Most important of all, we were given enough to eat. Unfortunately this paradise did not last very long.
It was September 1943 when the order came for deportation to Auschwitz. Generally when a transport arrived, men, women, and children there were selections. Women, children, and elderly men were picked for the oven, only strong young men were spared. Since the three of us all came from a work camp, there was no selection. When we arrived they put us all on trucks and sent us directly to Aushwitz. In the morning they assembled all new arrivals. One of the Capo’s with a striped uniform and an SS guard screamed that all children and elderly to assemble in one place, and the rest in a different area. As we were standing, I noticed one inmate sweeping the street, I asked what this meant, and he pointed to the chimney, and said tomorrow the smoke will go up. I said what is there to do, and he said the better chance you have is to get a number on your arm. My brother Sam was already on line to get a number, and I said to Henry lets go to the toilets. Luckily no one was watching too close at that time. So Henry and I sneaked away and got in different lines to get a number. When we were in line I stood on my toes so I should appear taller.
After being in Aushwitz a couple of weeks they started to pick young men for work detail in neighboring camps, like coal mines. They picked Sam, and Henry and I were left behind. This went on for a few weeks, we were in quarantine and were not picked because we were too young. Finally they picked us to go to school for brick laying. After two months we were sent out to build stables for horses. Every so often they had selections, where Dr. Mengele stood, and looked at you. Pointing to the left meant no return, to the right meant you live for another selection. During one selection a young boy the same age as me, only a little skinnier than me came in front of Dr. Mengele and was asked how old he was? Next thing you know Dr. Mengele pointed to the left, and that was the death sentence, this boy was together with me in other camps.
The road Henry and I traveled was a long one, fought with peril. The road led from Aushwitz to Glaywitz, to Grossrosen, to Dachau to the Charnitz river where a desperate band of SS men assembled the skeletal remnant of Jewish inmates to execute us before the Russian armies, whose heavy guns rumbled in the distance, arrived on the scene.
In the early part of January of 1945 we arrived in Dachau from Grossrosen, we were no longer only Jews. There was all nationalities from Europe (Belgians, French, Polish, Germans, Greeks, etc.) assigned to work in shops where they made German uniforms. Henry and I were taught how to make button holes. After being there a few months we heard daily bombings in the neighboring towns. The rumors were going around that the war might be over soon. But Hitler was supposed to have given an order for the final solution to annihilate the Jews. One day an order was given for all Jews to assemble in front of the barracks, we were told that we were being transferred. Trucks came and took us to the train station. Some how they gave everyone one package from the Red Cross, we thought we were in heaven. The trains took us down to the Tyrol Mountains where we got off and started walking for a few miles until the SS noticed a floating river. They told us all to sit down as machine guns were being put up all around us. The SS was supposed to shoot us. Finally it was getting dark, Henry and I plus four friends put blankets over our heads and waited. But when we saw nothing happened, we started to move slowly away from all of them. We decided to hit the road. It was dark and we did not know where we were going, but we kept on marching, finally we saw a barn, so we opened it up and went to sleep. The next morning a farm women came in and saw us, she asked what we were doing there, and we told her we were on our way home as we were let go from the farm where we worked. She said come in and she will make breakfast. In all the years in camp we never had a better breakfast. Luckily for us we were in Dachau where we were given clothing, not striped uniforms. But on the backs of our jackets an X was cut out. The women noticed it and immediately told us to leave. When we got back on the road we noticed a few yards from there was a road block and soldiers. We had no alternative but to proceed. Luckily they did not care what we were doing, so we kept marching. There was loads of soldiers running up and down, also lots of civilians driving. No one bothered us, finally we noticed a barn in the next village, so we opened it up and went in. At night I went out to some houses and asked for some food. A women gave me some. I also noticed soldiers changing into civilian clothing. We stayed in the barn a few days and no one bothered us.
One morning a women came to the barn and screamed that the Americans are here, the Americans are here, a few times in German. We immediately ran to the corner of the village, noticed a soldier on a tank, and more soldiers around the area. We told them who we were. There was still a lot of sniping going on. The soldiers got a few farmers together and told them that they must take 2 or 3 of us to their farm to feed us and house us. For a couple of weeks we thought we were in paradise. Then some American soldiers went around the village to assemble all concentration camp victims. They took us to a DP camp where all nationalities were. This camp was a former German military camp. When we arrived we were interviewed by interrogators, they asked if we wished to go back to our country, and we told them that we had no desire to go back to Poland. We knew that none of our family was alive, but we were not sure about Sam our oldest brother, who was sent to a coal mine. After a few days we noticed some Jewish soldiers who were from the Israeli Brigade stationed in Italy. They had a meeting with us, and explained that they could help us, if we desired to go to Israel. They would show us the way. They told us that they would take us by truck to Innsbruck, Austria, and that every day trains go through with Italian prisoners of war. When the train stopped we should go aboard and sit down, and when it arrived in Verona Italy we should get off, and go to town. Then when we see army trucks with a Mogen David on the side doors we should raise our hands and they will stop. Sure enough this was the way it was, they picked us up and took us to their camp. We stayed there a few days, and they gave us clothing and fed us well. After, they sent us to Medna, then Bologna, then Santa Maria, Santa Cesaria, so that we would be closer to a port, which was Barry, Italy.
After being in that last camp, some Israeli soldiers came and picked some young men, of military age. This went on a few times, we were always left behind because we were too young. One day Zalman Tatarka came to us and told us that he heard that Sam is alive and lived in Frankfurt, Germany. We rushed to Frankfort, we were told that Sam lived in Hannover, in the British zone. We immediately went to Hannover where we met Sam, and his future wife, and we were all overjoyed with happiness. The rest is history.