I went to hear Manfred Katz speak at an assisted living home
the other day. Mr. Katz is a survivor of the Holocaust and his story was
enlightening and very moving.
He was from a very small town in Germany
with only about 800
inhabitants. Hitler came into power around the time he started school, in 1933.
This was the first time he realized he was “different” because of his religion.
The Jewish children sat in the back of the room while everyone else was in
alphabetical order. Also school was six days a week and any Jewish person was
not allowed to go to school on Saturdays because that is their Sabbath. So he
missed every Saturday making him unprepared and therefore punished on Mondays.
Rations started with the beginning of the war and Jews
received less. They also could only shop in certain stores and at certain
times. In 1938 laws were passed and now Jewish lawyers and Jewish doctors could
only help other Jews. They were also required to wear a yellow star on their
On November 9th of that year rocks came through
their front windows and people entered the house smashing and stealing. His
family hid in the garden and then went to a neighbors’ house behind theirs to
try and hide. But that family was afraid and wouldn’t let them in.
They left their town for another where his mom, dad and younger
sister stayed with a Jewish family they knew in a single room, but there was no
room for him so he moved into a Jewish orphanage and only saw his family on
weekends. He had an older sister who was working in another city by this time
and who in 1940 moved to America
One time his younger sister got sick and his mother went to
a drug store to buy medicine. The sign on the door said No Jews Allowed. She
didn’t know what else to do so she tore off her yellow star and went in. She
was arrested and taken to jail for 5 months. Mr. Katz said when she returned
she had lost a great deal of weight and most of her teeth.
Around the day Pearl Harbor
was bombed his family got a message that they were being moved to an
undisclosed location. They were to bring only what they could carry. They
boarded a train early one morning and three and a half days later the train doors
were finally opened again. By this time they were starving and the elderly
people couldn’t even stand up. There were guards waiting for them and they were
given a choice to walk or get in a truck.
They were in Latvia
on the northeast coast of the Baltic Sea
since it was December the walk for those who could was icy and cold. They later
found out that right before they arrived, the camp (or Ghetto) they were going
to had had 25,000 men and women staying there, but all but 2500 had been taken
out to the forest where a mass grave had been dug and they were murdered.
This forest was also where the truck from the train went.
Life in the Ghetto was harsh. There was no indoor plumbing
or running water. Rations were small and everybody went to work; six days a
week all day long. He was 13 years old when they arrived and he worked in both
a slaughter house and a fish plant. He tried to scavenger food even though he
knew if the guards caught him with anything he wasn’t supposed to have they
would kill him. Most of the people felt like they had the choice of either
dying a long slow death from starvation or a faster one at the hands of the
In early summer of 1943 he got word he’d be moved to a
different place. Without his family. They spent their last days together in
prayer, in tears and with his father giving him advice. On the day when he got
on the truck to leave his family waved goodbye.
And that was the last time he ever saw them.
He was taken to a concentration camp also in Latvia
Concentration camps were very different from the Ghettos. In the Ghettos
families were still together. They still had civilian clothing. In the
concentration camps everything was taken from them, their hair was shorn and
they became a number instead of a name. Mr. Katz was processed in a main large
camp and then sent to a smaller satellite camp where the German army needed
workers. He found his uncle there who had been taken from the Ghetto several
months earlier and that was a bright spot.
He was assigned to work in a German laundry and his uncle
was assigned to unload provisions for the army. Somehow his uncle smuggled him
food and he believes that’s the only reason he is still alive today.
By the end of 1943 the Russian army was on the move and
their camp was “in the way”. They were put on a boat and taken across the
Baltic Sea to the south to what is now Poland
. This concentration camp had
no gas chambers, but it did have 2 crematoriums which were kept busy 7 days a
week 24 hours a day. At this camp he was assigned to a boat yard, but his uncle
This wasn’t good. One day in November of 1944 he came back
from work and his uncle wasn’t there. He was told he’d been sent to the
infirmary. But there was no infirmary; that was just a transit point to the
crematorium. He was alone again.
In January of 1945 they needed to move the people from this
camp again. Only now there were no trains or trucks, so they walked. 350 – 400
people moving very slowly. For two months. They slept in abandoned barns. Some
people couldn’t go on and lay down to die. Others who couldn’t keep up with the
even snail pace were “helped” to die by the guards. By mid-March they had about
100 people left.
One morning they woke up in the barn and no one opened the
doors like usual. After a while they opened them themselves. And the guards
were gone. Mr. Katz said, “Their own hide had become more important then
guarding these walking skeletons.” At this time he was 17 years old and weighed
Even though they seemed to be free they didn’t know what to
do. For 3 and a half years they had been told what to do every minute of the
day and also were given a half loaf of bread a day to eat. Little though it was
it was something. Now they searched abandoned farmhouses for food. They ate
almost anything and many more got sick and died because most of what they found
was rancid. There number went from 80 to 70…
They finally made it to Berlin
. People from camps from all over Eastern Europe
were there and the questions were always
the same, “Where were you?” “Did you know so and so?”
From there he went to Frankfurt
and got a job with the US Army. He knew his older sister was in Wilmington, Delaware
and sent letters to the Jewish agency there to try and locate her. She had
gotten married and had a different last name, but finally someone saw her first
name, thought it was unusual enough and contacted her. It was his sister.
In September of 1945 a friend talked him into going to the
bombed out synagogue to celebrate a Jewish high holy day. It took some
convincing because, as he said, he was “pretty mad at God.” During the service
someone tapped him on the shoulder and said there was a man in the back looking
for him. He went back there and an American 1st Lt. in the US Army
Air Corp said, “I’m your brother in law!”
He had flown from Delaware
and caught a hop to Frankfurt
to look for him. And as he said, ‘Where do you look for a Jewish person on a
high holy day? In a synagogue of course!”
It took awhile, but his sister and her husband managed to
get him to America
where he not only finished high school, but college and became an engineer. He
married and had 4 sons and now has 9 grandchildren.
Labels: Holocaust, Jews