My Experiences under the German Occupation of Poland

A personal reflection by Rabbi Ben-Zion Gold, discovered posthumously

On September 8, 1939, the German armies occupied my hometown, Radom, in Poland. At that time I was sixteen years old. My immediate family consisted of my father, Leibush Mendel Zyserman, my mother Hannah, and my three sisters; the oldest, Reizl, born in 1917, Beilah, born in 1919, and my youngest sister Esther Rachel, born in 1927. We lived in an apartment in a middle class neighborhood, at Zeromskiego 23.

My father had a wholesale beer and soft drinks business that served the city and district of Radom. The business was located at Kilinsgiego 8. My father was also active in public life as a city councilor for many years. Shortly after the occupation my father’s business was taken away from him.

In 1941 we lived in our pre-war apartment but were subjected to all the restrictions imposed on Jews, including food rationing and wearing armbands with the Star of David marking us as an easy prey for German soldiers looking to capture Jews to do their work without pay. Often we were also beaten up into the bargain.

At the beginning of 1941 we were ordered to move into a ghetto. We remained there until Passover 1942, when we moved then to a smaller ghetto, where the family, including my brother-in-law, lived in one room.

In the summer of 1942, information about deportations reached us. My father was under the impression that this pertained to young males who were being sent east to work. He therefore found me a job at a farm run by the German army several miles away from Radom, hoping that this would save me from being deported. Several days after my departure, the ghetto of Radom was “liquidated.” The elderly, the sick, and children were shot on the spot. Close to thirty thousand people, among them my father and older sister Beilah, were shipped in cattle cars to the Treblinka extermination camp. After I war I was told that my father died on the way from a massive heart attack.

A few days later I returned to Radom, where I found my mother, my oldest sister Reizl, her husband Rachmiel, and Ester Rachel. They were among the several thousand permitted to stay. All who stayed were housed in a couple of squares in the middle of the town, which were now empty because their inhabitants had been either killed or sent to Treblinka. The area was fenced off with barbed wire and guarded by the S.S. and Ukrainians. Each camp inmate was assigned to a workplace outside the camp and marched to work and back under guard.

Several days after my return, the following episode took place. I had not yet gotten a work assignment, and that day mother was not feeling well and stayed home. All of a sudden the people who were not at work were rounded up. There were about fifty of us lined up for counting. The S.S. officer ordered the Jewish policemen to select every tenth person. I realized what that meant. I remember my knees quaking under me at the thought that either I or my mother might be a tenth. It was the longest moment in my life. Five people were selected and all of us were forced to watch them being shot. To this day I can see the young woman who was struggling with the S.S. man who shot her in the temple, and her body falling limply to the ground. Shortly after this episode I was assigned to work at cutting turf.

In December 1942 mother and I, together with 800 people, were marched to Szydlowiec, a small town 15 miles from Radom. There we spent a week in an abandoned factory. We were rescued by the efforts of Rachmiel, my brother-in-law, who used all the valuables in his possession to bribe a German who brought us back to Radom. Three days later the people Szydlowiec were sent to Treblinka.

In January of 1943 information reached us that the number of people in the camp would be reduced. On the day of the “selection,” Mother and I hid under the roof at an inaccessible part of the attic. Reiyzl, Rachmiel, and Esther Rachel, who supposedly had “indispensable” jobs, went out for the line-up. After a while the S.S. searched the houses, including ours, and when they were near our hideout we simply held our breath. In the evening we came out of hiding, expecting my sisters and brother-in-law to return from work. We waited until late in the evening but they did not come. They too were sent to Treblinka. The shock of their disappearance was so powerful that for several days I was unable to talk, nor did I weep. An involuntary whine, like the sound of a wounded animal, was all I could utter.

In November of 1943 the camp was liquidated, and we were transferred to barracks on Szkolna Street, located near the munitions factory, where we henceforth worked. There we were handed out the regular concentration camp striped uniforms and were given numbers. Mine was 26382, which I wore on the left chest of the uniform.

In June of 1944 the Russian army invaded much of Poland and came close to the Vistula, some 35 miles east of Radom. All the prisoners of our concentration camp were lined up and marched west, to Tomaszow under the “protection” of 500 S.S. guards. In Tomaszow, men were separated from the women, and all of us were sent by train to Auschwitz. That was when I last saw my mother. The women were taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp. After the war an eyewitness told me that she was murdered there. The men remained aboard the train overnight and were shipped the next day to Vaihingen A/Enz, not far from Stuttgart, where we were put to work on building an underground factory. Several months later some of us, including myself, were transferred to Unter Rixingen, and shortly afterwards, we were shipped to Kochendorf. In one of these places, I no longer remember which one, I worked in a salt mine.

Towards the end of March 1945 all the prisoners of Kochendorf were lined up and sent on a march to Dachau. Because of American or British air raids, we were made to march at night. On the third night, I realized that I was running out of energy and would not survive the night’s march. I took advantage of a sharp turn in the road, and under the cover of the night, managed to flip over a low fence. I lay there, covered by my blanket, until the convoy had passed. On this rainy, pitch-dark, spring night, I miraculously escaped the vigilant gaze of the murderous guards. The state of my health at the point can be gauged from the fact that an hour later, when I tried to up, my feet would not support me. After crawling for a while, I found a stick on which I pulled myself up and regained balance.

Late that night I was recaptured by the local militia. After a night in the village prison, where I slept on a bed for the first time in two years, I was escorted to the nearby town of Gaildorf and from there to Heidenheim, Allen and Ulm a/Danube, where I spent sixteen days in prison and was liberated on April 23,1945, by the U.S. Army, that had captured the city.

In this description of my experiences in the ghettoes, labor camps, and concentration camps I have deliberately refrained from describing the many instances of maltreatments, cruelties, and beatings that I was subjected to during the six years of the German occupation. Ever since liberation I have made a strong effort not to think about the horrors I had experienced. To preserve my sanity I had to distance myself from that tragedy. The few episodes I mentioned are so powerfully etched in me that they visit me without invitation. While I have been fairly successful in refraining from thinking about the Holocaust experiences during my waking hours, I cannot banish them from my dreams. Even after so many years, I sometimes wake up bathed in perspiration, my heart beating violently because of a nightmare in which I find myself trapped in one or another concentration camp situation. These nightmares often are so powerfully realistic that it takes several minutes for me to realize that I’m a free person.

© 2017 Jane Myers

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