As we visited Stutthof yesterday, we learned that it was the very concentration camp where one of our friend’s mother and sister were. It was an especially emotional journey for him. Many of those with us spent time in concentration camps, but not this particular one.
It is hard to describe the Survivors as we walk through the camp. Although some of them do shed tears, most are simply very somber. As Sonya (one of the short term workers from Savannah) pointed out, their physical demeanor changes and you can feel the grief among them. This gentleman was no exception. I never saw an actual tear, but he was clearly wrestling with a lot of emotion. Later, after our final session, he met with the American teams to tell his story. He spoke for an hour and half and I’m certain he could have continued all night. I won’t be able to share all that he told us, but I’ll do my best to give you a summary of his story. I can’t promise this is a perfectly accurate account, as there are many factors that can compromise the communication of details, but this is what I took from his dialogue. It will be long, but I hope some may have the endurance to read it. It is so important that we are educated about what happened, remember those who were lost, and make sure this never happens again.
He was 14 years old when the Nazis invaded. He spoke of seeing streets covered in bodies and Jews being forced to go clean them up. “Those people never came back” he said. He talked about being ordered to wear the Star of David to identify him as a Jew, not being allowed to use the sidewalk, and signs posted forbidding Jews and dogs from being on the beach. He remembers being moved from his home with his family to the Ghetto and the beginning of systematic killings that constantly reduced their numbers. His father was an artist and was bold enough to ask the Germans for a job when his family was starving. They didn’t believe that Jews were capable of much of anything, so they mockingly told him to paint the room to prove his skills. When he painted a beautiful mural they were impressed enough that they gave him a jar of soup and papers that would allow him to come and go from the Ghetto. He recalls on day when his father started tearing bed sheets into small pieces, and his mother thought he was going crazy. But his father painted lovely flowers on the pieces and made them into ladies’ scarves, which they could sell or trade for food. (He had a picture of one that is framed in his house, which he passed it around. So beautiful. I wish I could show it to you). His father taught him and his siblings to draw, thinking it might be a skill that could help keep them alive.
He said the people were killed everyday, and the Ghetto was constantly getting smaller. He remembers Germans pulling children out of hiding places with big hooks. Eventually, his family was moved from the Ghetto and sent to separate destinations – his mother and sister to Stutthof and he was with his brothers on their way somewhere else. He said it is hard to describe how it felt to be on a train car for cattle – hot, tired, hungry and afraid. Soldiers with guns and dogs forced them to lie down. They started choosing children to take away, including his 12-year-old brother. He felt he couldn’t handle knowing his younger brother was all alone, so he said goodbye to his father and his older brother and found where they were keeping the younger children in the night. His brother pleaded with him to go back, knowing they were going to die, but he refused to leave.
The children were taken to Dachau by truck. When they arrived, they were told to undress to get a bath. The children cried out that they knew it would be gas and they were going to be killed. The German soldiers undressed as well, trying to prove to the children that they were really getting a bath, but there became so much disturbance that they just put the children in barracks and left them there for two weeks. As the one of the oldest of the group, he started teaching the children some discipline – how to stand at attention, march, turn left, turn right. He thought this might help them avoid beatings and torture. They were later transported to Auschwitz in train cars. He organized the children into rows and marched them past the soldiers as they arrived. The Germans were impressed and allowed them to live as an example to the other prisoners of how to behave.
He and his brother received their prisoner number tattoos, which he showed us. They lived on a daily bread portion the size of their hand and “soup”, which was basically water and cow feed. Once a week they got a “real meal”, which was a thick sort of porridge. One boy would carry his bread portion around with him offering it to anyone who could help save him because he knew that the number on his arm meant that he would eventually be killed.
After some time, he was separated from his brother and moved to a work camp. There he worked in a factory. One day US aircraft started flying over and bombing the factory. He hid under the rail storage by the train tracks and prayed aloud to God. His friends laid down in front of him to protect him, and escaped with his life and a little shrapnel in his leg.
Eventually, the war was over. He and the other prisoners left the camp on foot. There were several instances in which he had to pretend he wasn’t a Jew to say alive, even after the war had ended. He would hide the number on his arm and bathe with snow because undressing would reveal that he was a Jew. He would sleep on cans to lift him off of the frozen ground and snow, and steal food whenever he could. Eventually, he came to an abandoned town and spent some time sleeping in an empty apartment. He wrote letters to his old address and, after several attempts, he heard back from someone living there that his parents had survived. (I’m not entirely clear on his point, since I had previously heard that his mother died at Stutthof as well as his sister.) He worked as a translator and entered a technical school, where he graduated with honors. He later was accepted to college under a Lithuanian name. But when it was discovered that he was a Jew, he was rejected. The college said they already had their 7% quota of Jews. He said it didn’t matter that he had an honors degree then.
Our friend grew weary in his talk and brought it to an end, thought I’m sure there were many more stories to share. As I listened to him, I just kept thinking that there were so very many times when his life was spared. I don’t know where his faith stands, but I believe that there is a reason he survived the war. Please pray with me for him and his family.
Many of you know that God has gifted Ben with artistic talents. He often sketches in his journal, which is as effective as note-taking to him. Here is a picture of a drawing he did of this precious dear gentleman and Kazik as they walked together through the concentration camp.