< What I Learned Teaching Sunday School: Memories of a Holocaust Survivor

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Memories of a Holocaust Survivor

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 clothes.

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 and 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 guards.

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 wasn’t assigned.

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 65 pounds.

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 to Paris 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.

He loves America.

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At 7:52 AM, Blogger Fran said...

Wow, Nancy, what an amazing story!! My son and I visited the Holocaust Museum in DC when he was in his teens and it was very moving. That same weekend we attend the Bat Mitzvah of a friend we knew when we lived in DC, so it was even more meaningful.

At 10:58 AM, Blogger Nancy said...

Hi Fran,

Thank you for your comment. We've been to the Holocaust Museum in DC too - only had 3 hours and only made it to one floor! We'll have to go back!


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