I was mustered into the Polish Army in March, 1939, and served in the 21st Infantry Regiment, in Warsaw. During that period my family was spread out all over the world. My father, three brothers and one sister were in America. My mother died in 1934. I lived in Gombin with my older brother, Joseph, who had a wife and a little girl of two.
I served in the Warsaw Regiment till the end of August when general mobilization was instituted and Poland was expecting a momentary attack on the part of the Nazi armies. We were sent on foot in the direction of Malva, near the Prussian border. As soon as we arrived at our destination, war broke out. From that moment we did not have a moment of respite. The Germans poured fire on us – from their planes, tanks, artillery and armored cars. And we, armed with primitive weapons, were unable to withstand the pressure of their fiery gehenna. We began retreating from the start, not stopping even once to engage in a position battle. Their fire pursued us by day and by night and we retreated, in terror, in the direction of Yablonne and Warsaw, where we tool up positions behind the so-called “Miedszin Rampart.”
There we remained till the day Warsaw, surrounded by the Nazi armies, blazing from the enemy serial bombardment, without food or water, surrendered. The Polish regiment defending the capital, were forced to put down their arms and become prisoners of war.
The Germans packed us into trains and sent us in a westerly direction. But when the train arrived in Kutno, I jumped out and started for Gombin, my home.
I returned to Gombin during the intermediary days of Succoth. The weather had turned cold and the town was unrecognizable. A great many homes had been destroyed by the Nazi bombardments and fire and the Jewish population was in the grip of German terror. My brother who before the war had been cashier at the people Bank, was now appointed letter carrier by the Jewish community. He was one of the very few Jews in Gombin whom the Germans did not seize and press into a labor gang.
The half-mad German, his name was Shumacher, was put in charge of this bloody game; it was his task to seize the Jews and press them into work gangs. Aided by several others, he carried out the task in a barbaric fashion. The Jews who were kidnapped on the streets, were put to work cleaning up the debris which included the marketplace, the streets that were in ruins. The reward consisted of murderous beatings and curses. In addition, the Jews of Gombin, when caught, were forced to serve the Germans who went hunting in the surrounding forests. here, too, the reward consisted of humiliation and blows.
On more than one occasion I was seized on the streets and put to work and made to feel on my body the blow of a Nazi whip and stick.
One day, four weeks after my return to Gombin, an order appeared directing all former soldiers to report to the magistrate.
My brother, fearful the Germans harbored some dark designs, said I should not report but go instead to Warsaw, to hide. We succeeded in hiring a pole and his horse-and-buggy and I left for Warsaw. There, I went to see the Friedman family on Pavia 9. This was a family of weavers who at one time lived in Gombin. Their son had served in the Polish army with me.
In Warsaw, the fate of the Jews was no different from other cities and towns throughout Poland. There, too, the Jews were seized and put in work gangs; there too was the terror, the pain and hunger.
I managed, because of my “Christian” appearance, to avoid being seized to work.
One day, my brother, concerned about my fate, came to Warsaw and took me back with him to Gombin. My plan, in those days, was to follow the example of thousands of Jews who went east, to go to the part of Poland when occupied by the Soviets. It was my intention to go with a friend of mine from Zychlin, but I was too attached to my brother and family and could no see parting with them during these perilous days.
In Gombin, in the meantime, the Germans instituted the Jewish badge, a six-point Star of David, worn on one’s clothing.
I began working at tailoring and lived with my brother’s family till March 1942. I will not go into detail about Jewish suffering and pain during those long bloody months. Our life was cheap, worthless; it was in the hands of bandits and murderers, dressed in S.S. uniforms and those of the Wermacht. Day after day we were systematically robbed, beaten, humiliated and tortured.
At the beginning, we lived in our old dwelling, on Garbarska 2, in a house that belonged to a German brewery Pivo Okocimskie before the war. Driven out of there, we went to live in another place which was also taken from us by a German. Finally, we found a room in a house owned by a Pole. There were eight of us in this one room: my brother, his wife and child, her brother, Hershl Santsky with his wife and child, Hershl’s father-in-law, Shloime Frankel, and myself.
One day, this was during the Rosh Hashanah holiday, when a group of “worldly” Jews voluntarily took the places of the devout at work, I committed a “sin”; the mayor saw me saying a few words to a Polish acquaintance who was passing. He fell upon me with whip and stick and beat me murderously, forcing me to count each lash. In the process, he knocked out several of my teeth.
In the middle of 1941, when the German armies began moving toward the Russian border in the east, a rumor spread in town that a German soldier had been murdered by a Pole. Nobody knew whether this was true or whether the Germans, preparing to attack the Russians, didn’t simply decide to create an incident that would frighten the Polish populace. they seized a large number of Poles and drove them to the market-place; the leaders of the intelligentsia, they were locked up in the church. Later, they issued a command that all Gombiner inhabitants, Poles as well as Jews, assemble at the market-place, where they staged an execution. They took ten Poles out of the church and stood them against sandbags. A platoon of soldiers, brought from Kutno for the purpose, shot them. The bodies of the executed were left to lie on the ground till late at night; then they were taken away and buried somewhere. after the end of the war, the bodies were found under a road.
Gombin belonged to the part of Poland that was incorporated in the German Reich. It goes without saying Jewish life there was a constant gehenna; but even the Poles licked no honey. One day a large number of Poles were driven from Gombin and “tossed” into the “Government general.” Their homes were turned over to “folks-Deutche.” However, Polish suffering was nothing as compared with ours. Moreover, the Poles, disregarding their unenviable position, were filled with hostility and hatred toward their Jewish neighbors.
Early in 1942, we began receiving the first bits of disturbing news about Jewish extermination. There were some persons who fled from surrounding towns and they told us whole Jewish communities had been driven to Chelmno, where they were put to death by gas, and burning. We did not believe it; none of us wanted to believe that this could be true. Not only didn’t we believe it; we didn’t want to hear it told. Only after several Zychlin Jews who managed to escape, came to us with stories about their townspeople who had been taken away by horse and wagon to Kvuszniewic and from there by freight train to Chelmno, where they were gassed, only then did our eyes and our minds open to the full extent of the horror awaiting for us all.
At about Purim-time, the Germans began rounding up Jews in Gombin for the purpose of sending them to a camp. I was among the first to be taken and led to the firehouse, as assembly point. When my brother found out I had been taken, he came voluntarily with his father-in-law and surrendered to the Germans. Guarding the door of the fire-house, was a German policeman, Braun, with whom I had been friendly as a boy, He now guarded us with a cocked revolver.
When the number of Jews who had been rounded up, reached approximately one thousand, a civilian S.S. man who looked like Adolf Eichman, arrived. Armed with a revolver and a whip, he did not cease for an instant beating us. Those among us who were well-dressed he beat particularly hard and called them “criminals.” But “Big Moishe” got the worst beating of all. A giant of a man, Moishe who aroused the hatred of the S.S., as no other in crowd, was beaten so long and so mercilessly he died. Four of our number who pleaded illness, were led out behind the firehouse and shot to death.
After a night in the firehouse, the Germans released the older men and told them to go. The rest, surrounded by Gombin Germans and “folks-Deutche” police, were taken and loaded on trucks. I did not let go of my brother during the whole time, but when we were loaded onto the truck, I was separated from him. I found out later that the Judenrat intervened on behalf of my brother who was Gombin’s Jewish letter carrier, and he was released.
The rest of us were taken to the Konin work camp, where I found Jews from Saniki, Gostinin and a number who managed to escape the Zychlin massacre.
I spent a year in the Konin camp, till the spring of 1943. It was not a work camp but a gehenna. we slept on wooded boards, without straw. The prisoners fell like flies from starvation, unbearable work and beating. the camp was located twenty kilometers from Chelmno and each time a Jew became sick with a communicable disease, all the occupants of his barracks, were sent to Chelmno and death. We lived surrounded by hunger and dirt and were forced to do such hard labor, many collapsed at work. If one of us injured a leg or an arm, his path led to Chelmno.
However, the number of Jews did not grow smaller. New victims were brought from the surrounding towns or other camp to replace the dead.
One day, in the middle of winter 1943, ten Jews were caught near the railroad tracks where they had gone to steal a couple of potatoes from one of the cars. All the camp’s Jews were assembled in an open place to witness the execution of the ten. But this was not enough for the murderers. The German camp commander summoned a Jewish “elder”, a man named Zeif, who had a son-in-law in Gombin. He lived in Danzig. Zeif was a very refined person, educated, a Talmudist. The commander of the camp had chosen him, by some caprice, to be his assistant. But now the commander ordered the Jewish “elder” to select twenty Jews to be executed along with the ten. Zeif declined to do it. He took his place alongside the ten and declared: “If you are going to kill another twenty, let me be the first of them. As for the others, pick them out yourself.”
The Nazi commander was astonished. he had not expected such a response. In the end, he became “reasonable” and shot “only” the ten “criminals.”
At that time I was in a tailor squad and our situation was a little better than among the people who did physical labor.
There was in our camp a young rabbi from Saniki, named Arunzon, who was a very refined person. We saved his life by “making” a cobbler out of him. the rabbi kept a diary which unfortunately, disappeared.
Secretly, we in camp, formed a self-defense. We collected knives and were determined to be ready, when the day to liquidate the camp arrived, to defend ourselves and prevent them from taking us to be exterminated.
Among the people in the camp administration, there was a German socialist who treated us like humans. He would relate to us – always in deep secrecy – what was going on in the outside world. Once he told us that the Jews of Warsaw had risen against the Germans and were fighting with guns and that Nazis too perished in this unequal struggle. This bit of news filled us with courage and determination to strike at the Nazi bandits before dying.
And that day did in fact arrive. One morning our contact, before leaving for work, informed us that a deportation was imminent. When later in the day Germans informed us there would be a “delousing,” we knew the socialist had told us the truth, the end was coming.
There were at the time no more than sixty of us in camp. All others had either been sent away to be put to death at Chelmno, or they died of starvation, diseases, blows, or the gallows. Soon after the Germans announced the “delousing,” two Jewish camp policemen set fire to the bathhouse and hanged themselves. (One of them was from Gombin, names Kamlavz, the other from Saniki – Getzl Kleinat). Philip Kranz, the “Juden-Eltster,”, also hanged himself. Zeif, who was from Danzig, poisoned himself. Dr. Klappe, a German-Jewish physician who served as an officer in the German Army in World War One, as well as an elderly Gombin Jew by the name of Neidorf, died of poison.
My good friend, Tabacznik, committed suicide by letting flames that were slowly consuming our camp, burn him to death.
While all this was taking place in camp, we were away attending to our various tasks. In the middle of the day, we were suddenly surrounded by the German police who led us back to camp. All the buildings were on fire. The ground was strewn with Jewish dead. we, the survivors, were assembled in one place and held there. The number of dead was eleven; no more than forty-nine of us survived.
We fully expected to be sent to Chelmno on the following morning. But the Germans had different plans. We were kept in camp several weeks longer. The Germans left us alone; they did not even force us to work.
One morning, when we came out of the barracks, we were surrounded by S.S. men who ordered us to leave everything and take along only a slice of bread. They led us towards waiting trucks and forced us to get inside. We started out – certain our destination was Chelmno. Inside the truck, a rabbi said confession with us. On the truck’s apron several German soldiers sat, rifles in hand. As it made little difference now, I asked one of the soldiers for a cigarette.
To my great astonishment, he took out a package of cigarettes from his pocket and gave me one. I took a deep puff and passed it around to others. Realizing the German soldier was not such a villain, I asked him: “Where are you taking us?” “In an easterly direction,” he replied, to a punitive camp – Hohensaltz (Inovrocrav). And so it was.
On arriving at Hohensaltz, we realized from the start the meaning of a punitive camp. There were in this camp “sinners” of many nationalities – Poles, Russians, Germans, but chiefly it was crowded with the remnants of Pomeranian Jewry who were sent from there to the death factories. One of the focal areas in the camp was the “Black Wall” where people were brought to be shot for the smallest infraction.
Inmates in the camp were not permitted to walk, only to run.
On the day of our arrival in the camp, they brought a Jewish couple, boy and a girl who had been hiding on the “Aryan” side. The young man’s name was Dovid Moshkowitz. He had been an “obervirde” in another camp and the S.S. themselves helped him to obtain false “Aryan” identification papers. As soon as the young man was brought to the camp, two S.S. began flailing away at him with heavy clubs. They beat him so long and hard, both of them tired and replaced by another pair. But the young man withstood all the blows.
On the following morning, a chilly one, (it was around Tisha B’av), they took me, along with several others, among them the young “Aryan” couple for the purpose of “evacuation.” each one of us was permitted to take along only one slice of bread.
It was clear to us all that our end had come. They flung us inside a freight train. The car was so crowded, there was barely any room to stand. Every car was guarded by S.S. men, armed with machine-guns.
In this manner we rode – for several days. I cannot remember the exact number of days we traveled. But the train was brought to a halt suddenly in the middle of one night; the doors were flung open and we heard the loud barking of dogs and wild shouts: “get out!”
We emerged from the cars to be confronted by S.S. men armed with machine-guns and clubs.
We had come to Auschwitz.
Everything happened at a lightning tempo. Driven by the S.S. men, we passed a man who pointed with his finger towards the right or towards the left. Women, children, elderly people, the infirm, were directed to go towards the left. The men, the young, those capable of work, motioned towards the right. I was directed to go right and chased, with the others, toward waiting trucks. I climbed inside a truck with two other Gombiner men, Mechl Behr and Mendl Wruble. We did not know where they were taking us – to work or to our deaths.
Wruble, who had a slice of bread, said to us: “Let’s eat it up; at least let’s die sated.” After a half hour’s ride, the truck stopped. We got off and saw people running around wearing striped clothes. I mused: Our Hevra Kadisha…
But it immediately became apparent that we were not fated for a quick death. We were driven into a large hall and told to undress, leaving on only our belts. The place looked like an ordinary bathhouse, with pipes running across the ceiling, unlike any bath I’d ever seen. We were all certain this was a gas chamber.The door suddenly opened and two camp-leaders entered, wearing black uniforms with red stripes across the back of the shoulders. We held our breaths but the camp-leaders said we were there “only” for the purpose of washing.
After we’d finished washing, inmates cut all our hair. Not a word passed between us. Our bodies anointed with salve, each one of us received a striped garment and a pair of wooden shoes. This ordeal required a whole night. In the morning we were driven out early to the square where a band supplied music. Lining up on the square, we gazed at groups of inmates who were being led off to work. In the meantime, nothing was required of us.
Soon afterward, our names were called out, according to the alphabet. Then everyone of us had a number tattooed on his arm. Mine turned out to be 144-212. This took place in the autumn of 1943 and I was the 144 thousandth, 212th “work-capable” person in Auschwitz.
At noon, one of the camp-leaders chose two of our group who would bring us the food. We were then broken up into smaller units, each one of which was assigned to a tent. I was placed in tent 4.
Slowly we began to take a closer look at our surroundings. Auschwitz consisted of three parts: Birkenau, Buna, and Auschwitz. We were in Buna whose only positive feature was the fact that it did not possess gas chambers and crematoria. This did not mean that death was not a constant companion. But all those marked to die were taken to Birkenau where they were gassed and cremated.
Those of us who were from Gombin, tried in every way possible to stay together. In my tent, besides me, there was Mechl Behr, Yankl Altman, Hersh Zeideman, Hershel Blawat and Shmulik Frenkel. Wrubel had been sent away to another camp to work in the coal mines. We, in tent 4, were assigned the murderous task of loading coal, Buna being the center of feverish factory-building activity.
The inmates here, in addition to Jews, were Poles, Dutchmen, French, Italian, Greeks, Germans and Hungarians. The non-Jews were for the most part criminal types, brought here from maximum-security prisons. But there were also political anti Nazi “sinners”.
At the beginning, there wasn’t any difference between the groups in the types of work assigned and performed. The only difference was that the Jews wore a six-point star of David made of a red and blue triangle; political prisoners wore red triangles and criminals – green. There was one more difference: the Jews, every couple of weeks, underwent a selection. This happened in the following manner: a “doctor” came and looked over the inmates; those who were sick or looked too emaciated, were forced to surrender their cards and they were dispatched to Birkenau for “zonderbehandlung” – to be gassed. Later, the Poles and Germans were sent elsewhere.
After working for six weeks on the coal pile, a kapo sent me away to work in a punitive-commando, to carry stones. The work was so fearfully heavy, the inmates assigned to it dropped like flies. At the end of every work-day, there were scores of dead among the rocks. On the rock-pile I met Blawat who broke his leg carrying stones. It was necessary to keep this fact from the Germans or they would send him to Birkenau. Therefore, we, the Gombiner group, took Blawat into our barracks, and in this manner succeeded in saving him.
I was fortunate that in the end they put me to work in a tailoring detail where conditions were better and the food rations larger. I prevailed upon the block leader, a Pole, Vitek, to take in Blawat those leg was not healing properly. For this favor I sewed clothes for the Pole.
A year passed. Nearby, the death factory called Auschwitz, worked ceaselessly. Every day trains bearing Jewish victims arrived at the camp. The infirm, the elderly, the women and children were taken directly to the gas chambers. The ovens were active day and night. During the night when the thick smoke poured from the chimneys and the wind blew it in our direction, one’s nostrils filled with the stench of human flesh burning.
Elsewhere in the Auschwitz empire, another kind of a gehenna prevailed. There, tens of thousands of Jewish inmates performed bone-crushing labor to the accompaniment of beatings by bandits and hooligans.
The food they gave us was calculated to reduce us all to cadavers within a period of three months. Every couple of weeks there took place a selection and the “unfit” were led away to Birkenau and death. Their places were taken by victims newly-arrived in the freight trains.
Those who ruled over us, beginning with the lowliest kapo and all the way to the camp commandant, were bloody bandits and the cruelest kind of barbarians who could do with us as they pleased. The symbol of their power was the whip, the club, revolver, rifle butt and gallows. Their concern was to make their victims die the most gruesome and painful death, inflicting as much pain as possible.
Many months passed in this fashion. The millstones of Auschwitz did not cease to grind. Each one of us was daily exposed to the peril of the stones of death.
I the middle of 1944, young Leizer Bocian arrived in Auschwitz. A native of Gombin, only a boy when they had brought him to the Konin work camp. I treated him at the time as one would a younger brother. Now, when on arrival in Auschwitz he was told I was in camp, he sought me out. Our meeting was a source of momentary happiness for us both. While it was not possible to have him assigned to our block, I made arrangements to supply him with a little extra food; I also did what I could to keep him from being selected for the Birkenau crematoria.
We suffered and endured in this manner till the Russian armies drew neared and we could hear the distant rumble of their heavy guns. Every now and then a shell fell inside the camp.
Then, on the first of January, 1945, we heard the rumor that the camp was about to be evacuated. We didn’t know at the time whether it served our purpose better to be evacuated or to hide somewhere till the Russians arrived. But the S.S. men did not give us much time to worry about the matter. We were driven with whip and cudgel to fall into line and marched out of camp. It was a time of numbing frosts and deep snows.
We were made to walk in the middle of the road, flanked on both sides by S.S. men who killed any one lagging behind. At night, we arrived at a brick factory where the march was halted. at dawn we resumed, walking over frozen ground and wading in deep snows. Our march lasted several days. Hundreds fell by the wayside and were left to die in the snow. Finally we arrived at Camp Glayevitz, whose inmates had been evacuated earlier.
Here, we were subjected to a selection. We were divided into two groups, one that could continue marching on foot and the other – including ours – to be taken the rest of the way by open railroad cars.
I tried, all this time, to stay close to the Gombiner group. Mastboym, Bocian, Sam Frenkel and Mechl Behr.
We rode in the open cars for two weeks. Scores died from starvation and cold. The dead were thrown out on the road, along with others who still had a spark of life in them. Each time the train halted, the dead were gathered up and tossed into the last car. During this whole period we did not receive food even once. We ate snow and sucked ice.
As we were passing through Czechoslovakia, there were instances of people tossing bread at us from the roadside. But this happened seldom. We passed through Austria and stopped briefly in Vienna. Everywhere people gaped at us, living skeletons, with a shudder.
The train stopped at Camp Dora, situated in a forest. A large detachment of “Shutz-Politzei” was waiting for us, greeting our arrival with fearful blows.
Camp Dora had underground workshops where the v-1 and v-2 rockets were being manufactured. We spent all our time in these underground tunnels. The number of dead was so large, the cadavers were placed in front of the barracks like planks of wood.
On the fifteenth of March, each one of us was given a bread and a can of conserves and we were marched to open railroad cars with tarpaulin covers. Inside, it was so crowded, we could hardly breath. Realizing we would all choke to death unless something were done, I fell upon the notion of hanging a woolen blanket between two poles, in the manner of a hammock, for Bocian and myself. Others followed my example. In addition, we cut little “windows” in the tarpaulin.
On the way, we were subjected to aerial bombardment and each time this occurred, the S.S. who escorted us, hid. Two weeks later we arrived in Bergen-Belsen. And again the Gombin group managed to stay together. We moved into an attic of a house that at one time served officers. Our group consisted of the brothers Shmuel and Mendl Laski, Shmuel Frenkel, Abraham Mastboym, Leizer Bocian and myself. At Bergen-Belsen we were no made to work. This was a camp where hundreds of thousands of inmates slowly expired from starvation and epidemics.
On the fifteenth of April, the advancing British Army stormed into Bergen Belsen. Entering, after they broke down the gates, the allied soldiers were transfixed by the sight greeting them. Mounds of dead were before their eyes and those about to die moving around like shadows. Immediately, the British issued an order to the S.S. men who failed to make an escape to carry away the cadavers to a proper burial site. When the inmates, slaves only recently, saw with what meekness and submission their former masters obeyed the British commands, they were seized by a fearful anger. They flung themselves at the assassins and beat them to death. The British made an effort to stop the inmates, arresting several of them, but the bandits who spilled so much Jewish blood, did not escape their proper fate.
Later, Germans living in the vicinity of Bergen-Belsen were rounded up and brought to the camp to bury the many dead. They were made to dig graves with spoons, if nothing else was available, or with their bare hands – to make them experience, if only for an instant, the meaning of hell. But for the large majority of the inmates there was neither the feeling of joy at being liberated, nor of vengeance. Skeletal, weak, disease-ridden, we wandered aimlessly about the camp, prisoners of our own night-mares.