Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Israel Gutman Interview: Part 2

The following is the second part of a three-part series of interviews with Israel Gutman.  

In addition to being an historian of the Holocaust, Israel Gutman was a leading fighter in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising; a survivor of Auschwitz (where he was a member of the Jewish underground), two other Nazi camps, and the death marches; he helped create Yad Vashem, edited the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, and was a key witness at the Eichmann trial and an important advisor to the Polish post-war government.  

The interviews were conducted by Breindel Lieba Kasher.  The Introduction is by Yehuda Bauer of Yad Vashem.

(You can read the first part by clicking here.  Israel Gutman Interview: Part 1.)

Personal Interviews with Professor Israel Gutman
by Breindel Lieba Kasher

Introduction by Yehuda Bauer
Edited by Charles Fishman

1942/ A Complete Change
In 42, the organization changed its direction completely. It had to change its  focus from   education, cultural events, and aid to the Jewish youth, in order to deal with the realization of the Nazis’ intent to annihilate all of the Jewish People. Besides the newspapers you were sending out, was it the intent of  your movement to inform as many Jews as possible about the plan of mass destruction?

It is a very important question you are asking now. Before the war, the youth movement was a marginal thing in the rich framework of Jewish society. It was a group of youngsters with an ideology. We were a Zionist youth movement with a clear perspective. We were going to Palestine. We would be members of a kibbutz. This was the  dream. We were young. This was our goal.

The change occurred, not only during expulsions, before that. More and more, the youth movement became involved with the problems of the whole Jewish society. There were two reasons for this: One was because the former leadership fled, leaving the leaders of the youth movement with a responsibility to act. Secondly, there was this feeling that the whole structure had collapsed. There were now but a few organizations that still existed. They felt they must do something.  

Was one objective of the leadership informing the Jews about the intent of mass destruction?

I was not in the leadership. I knew a little then; I know more today. First of all, there was unification, a kind of umbrella organization, all youth movements merged into one body.
Secondly, there was the press, which was an underground press, originally for the youth movement. This changed. The articles, and the language and the challenges were directed toward  the whole society. The whole society read the paper. Information spread. Our influence became more and more important. The youth organizations voiced their opinions on the Judenrat [and] informed on groups that were collaborating with the Germans — there were such groups and individuals in the ghetto. The youth movement, little by little, began to take responsibility and  influence the whole Jewish society  living in the ghetto.

What was the attitude of the Underground in terms of the Jewish Police, and, in particular,  Szerynski, commandant of the Jewish police in the ghetto?

The Jewish Police were created during  the time of the ghetto. Among the police were many of high intelligence. They did not receive money. They had to keep order in the ghetto. At first, they were very nice people who tried to help. Then their work included sending Jews to forced labor, outside of the ghetto. There were these provinces Jews were sent to. The Jews did not  volunteer to go. They did not want to. The Jewish Police ran around capturing Jews, forcing them  to go. It was at this point that the Jewish Police was viewed as an enemy. Some of the policemen believed they were better than the ordinary Jews. The Germans promised them their lives. They wore uniforms, with caps. Szerynski was not a Jew. He was of Jewish origin but he converted to Christianity. He was, in fact, a member of the Polish police in the pre war period, an occupation off limits to Jews. He was not the commander of the Jewish Police during the great deportation; this was another man, Jacob Lejkin. Lejkin was eventually killed by the Jewish fighting organization. There was a decision within the fighting organization to kill traitors. This was decided shortly before the uprising. The Jewish police tried  to wipe out their past and no longer appear as policemen. They felt a serious threat from the Jewish fighting organizations that now  became a strong force in the ghetto. The Jewish Police and all collaborators feared for their lives.

I am thinking about one of the most horrible of speeches Rumkowski made in the Łódź ghetto.  Rumkowski, head of the Judenrat, asks the Jews of Łódź ghetto to give up  their children and their old people. Do you think, at that point, Rumkowski should have said, ‘They are coming to take your children, your elderly; hide,  fight, resist, any way you can’?

This is the main difference between the youth movements and the leaders. There were differences in the leaders in each ghetto. Leaders like Gens in Vilna, Barasz in Bialystok, Rumkowski in Łódź. They believed, almost until the end, that the only recourse, in the face of annihilation, was to keep alive as many Jews as possible. Rumkowski’s speech was a reflection of the tragedy of the time more than the cruelty of the person. He was not a cruel person. How a man was able to arrive at this speech was indicative of what was happening at this time. I believe he really thought there was a chance for him to save a part of the Jews, but he had to take such an abnormal step of victimizing part of his society.

If the Russian soldiers, situated by the Vistula, would have come quicker, much of the Jews still alive in the Łódź ghetto would have been liberated and Rumkowski would have been a hero.

There were such things in Bialystok. The youth movement confronted a similar situation in terms of the expulsion of the Jews. They knew expulsion meant liquidation, but they hoped that the Russians would come quickly. They decided not to start a revolt. They believed they had a small chance to save Jews by waiting for this right moment when the Russians would come. You see, it was also an illusion because we know that the Germans were able to liquidate the Jews in a few days. When the Russians came closer, the Germans did things like take full camps of Jews in Trawniki, in the neighborhood of Lublin, and kill tens of thousands of Jews in a few days. The same thing could have happened in Ghetto Łódź or the ghetto in Bialystok. There was not a real chance. The real chance, of course, we can only speak about afterward. There were survivors. I am also a survivor. How did this happen? It happened.

Nearing the end of the war, a situation appeared that some of the most hardened Nazis came to the conclusion that they had lost the war. It not only made no sense to keep killing Jews, but some people, even Himmler, thought that perhaps they could  save themselves by creating an alibi. This was why a small part of Jews survived. You have to remember that this was such a small percentage of the Jews. This was not a result of the policy of the Judenrat; it was a result of the whole situation of the war, or the outcome of the war.

Were there  leaders of the Judenrat who said ‘Resist all German orders and do anything to try and survive’?

There were, but resist, what is the meaning of the word “resist”? You have resistance in the ghetto. The resistance in the ghettos was completely motivated by the idea that the Jews were prepared to die. It was a small way to feel revenge against the killers, against the murders, but it was without any perspective for rescue. There were other forms of resistance, like the Partisans.  The Partisans still believed that, through resistance, they had a slight chance, a hope for rescue.

You were so young. Were you involved with smuggling in arms?

Not personally. All the ways to get a hold of arms were part of the Underground organizations. It was the responsibility of one or two youth movements. Later, the Jewish Fighting Movement became  a combination of youth movements. The whole thing of arms, this was of course the aim of the Jewish Fighting Organization. There were people in the ghetto, on a private basis, who bought and acquired arms, small pistols. The meaning of arms, by today’s standards, was not the arms of the ghetto.

Preparations for an Uprising

What did you do when there was an action and the Germans called the Jews to the Umschlagplatz?

We were concentrated in one place. Because I had no family, it was easier for me. For others with families, they found it difficult to leave and go with the organizations. Abraham Gepner situated us in a shop run under the auspices of the Germans. Gepner’s daughter was a member of the Underground and he was willing to hide many people.

What kind of shop was it?

It was the ostdeutsch Bau Wekstatte, a German construction shop. In the back were the skilled workers. We, the members of the fighting organization, were able to hide out there and live in the shop undercover, with fake documents. We had  places to live. We were on the famous street, Mila Street, 55, 6, 8, 3, 1. During an action, we hid in the cellars. I remember, at first, I went to the selections. I had papers. Then we decided we would no longer participate. This was an order.

Did you have a pistol?


It was official. The youth movement was now armed and became a resistance movement. Is that correct?

Yes, we understood what awaited the Jews of Poland and perhaps all the Jews of Europe. The idea was now to organize a Jewish fighting organization. We understood that defense meant no chance of rescue. When the leaders started to plan their strategies, it became clear that we had to be united. The first meeting took place in ’42.

Were you at the meeting?

No, the meeting was made up of a small group of leaders. They did not succeed in coming to an agreement. The delegates of the Bund were against creating a Jewish Organization. They believed the Polish Jews were a part of the Polish Underground. If there was to be a fight, it would have to be a united one, Poles and Jews. This is what happened. The Jewish organizations were very interested in a partnership with the Bund because everyone wanted the support of the Polish Underground and the Polish resistance. This was the only way to get hold of weapons and information on what was happening with the Germans. This first meeting was a failure. Another attempt was made with the Communists. An anti-fascist committee was established in the ghetto with leftist organizations — Zionists and Communists. The Communist Poles were weak. They had no support from Polish society. The Germans arrested Communist activists in the ghetto.  After a few weeks, the whole structure collapsed. It was shortly before the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto.

The deportation began on the 22nd of July. All the attempts to do something were in vain. We had only a few pistols. The Germans were brutal. People were shot on the spot. The tension, the dynamic of the expulsion, what was happening day to day, is beyond description. We had almost no connection with each other. Every day, a part of the population, a part of the Youth, was taken to the Umschlagplatz and then to Treblinka. Close to the end of the deportation — I remember this well — there was a meeting with the whole group, including the youngsters like me. There were many complaints, many arguments. Some people said that it made no sense to plan for an uprising. They saw no possibility for people to go into battle on the streets of the ghetto. The organization should stop counting on the Polish Underground for weapons. They clearly didn’t care about us. We simply had to respond with our bare hands, with anything we had, attack the Germans. Everyone would be killed, but this was the only chance. The elders, those with experience, were against all this. They believed things should be done in an organized way —  make an action that would be remembered, a great Jewish uprising. One of these leaders was Arie Wilner. He was a Jewish delegate on the Arian side. He succeeded in acquiring weapons, not too much. They also thought the deportation would stop. Part of the Jews, around 35,000, would remain. Wasn’t it our duty to remain alive? Between deportations, we would organize. We saw no sense to making a desperate attempt; it would be suicide, and nothing more.

You were 18 at that time?


What were your thoughts about what action or inaction to take?

I was convinced that we should wait to organize something that would be more effective.

And when you spoke of orders not to take part in actions, who gave the orders?

From each organization, the leadership, the elders from before the war, gave the orders. From the Hashomer Hatzair, there was Josef Kaplan and Shmuel Braslav and Arie Wilner. In the Dorr, there was Zukerman, Zivia Lubetkin and Tuvia Buzikovski. In Akiva, there was Israel Kanor.  Each of these leaders made the decisions.

During the big deportation you were in the shop?

Yes, we all were. We lived together. 

What was the address of the shop?

First we were on Gensha Street. After, we moved to Mila Street. The turning point for all the preparations was, in fact, when Mordecai Anielewicz, who later became the commander of the Fighting Organization and the Uprising, returned to Warsaw. He had been sent to the area of Silesia, organizing the youth movement. At the end of the deportation, he returned. He was the most qualified, with the ability to organize and lead. He had not been in Warsaw during the deportation, so he was not broken from frustration and pain. He came with some energy, confident that we would succeed. There was a great change in the atmosphere. We felt we could do it. Weapons came into the ghetto. Anielewicz organized small groups.

After the deportation, there was a change in most of the people in the ghetto. Some 50,000 or 60,000 people wanted to be a part of the Underground. As long as the deportation lasted, it was impossible to do anything but think about what was happening, hour after hour, to think about how to save themselves and their dear ones, but after the deportation, a period of  “normal” returned to the ghetto. Those who survived were without families. Their pain and desire for revenge, the feeling of this tragedy, influenced them very strongly. The slogan we used was: “Never again!” We would fight!

Was this slogan said in Yiddish?

Yes, because even though we in the youth movement spoke in Polish, the masses in the ghetto spoke Yiddish.

Did Mordecai Anielewicz speak in Yiddish?

No, he spoke in  Polish.

At the meeting with all the leaders, what language was it conducted in?

It was Yiddish.

When did the deportation stop?

It was from the end of September 1942 until January 1943. We returned to the shop. Some kind of normalcy resumed. On January 18, 1943, a new action and deportation began. Here we started the first act of resistance. It was implemented by small groups from the Hashomer Hatzair on Mila Street, under the leadership of Anielewicz. It was the first confrontation between Jews and Germans in Warsaw on the way to the Umschlagplatz. The first Germans were killed in the ghetto.  

The Germans then changed their tactics. They lost confidence. They saw that the Jews have weapons and their lives were threatened. This seemed to bring a sharp change in their behavior.
The  last deportation took 6 weeks. They sent 300,000 Jews to their death. The second deportation would be the final one. There were no more than 50,000 to 60,000 Jews left alive.  This second deportation stopped after 4 or 5 days. They took out 3,500 to 4,000 Jews. Despite the killing, we felt there was a victory for the Jews. The Polish Underground reported that the resistance forced the Germans to retreat.

Of course, this was a mistake. The German plan was to take out a small group, 8,000 Jews. It was not that the deportation stopped because the Jews were defending themselves. In the ghetto, the feeling was that our resistance stopped them and it gave us hope that perhaps we could rescue the Jews.

Were you with Anielewicz on the 18th of January?

No, I was not.

It must have been amazing for the Jews in the ghetto to see the mighty conquerors could be killed.

The fact is that in those January days, it was the first time the Jews decided not to go to the selection, not to respond to the German order. They went into hiding. In the ghetto, there were many places to hide, to disappear. It was difficult for the Germans to find them. What happened in January influenced the whole Jewish population. There was no other event like this in any other ghetto. The Jews began to believe; perhaps resistance could be a tool to make the Germans stop the actions. Only in Warsaw was there a partnership between the fighters and the people.  Only in Warsaw was there a communal agreement and a readiness to fight and resist. The Jewish fighting organization grew. The different underground groups joined the fighting organization with backing from the elders. We confiscated more weapons. The fighting groups spread throughout the ghetto, so fighting would occur in every part of the ghetto. The people started to build bunkers. The last months were devoted to defense and the battle against the Germans. If they tried to make another deportation, we were preparing ourselves for an uprising.   

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

The last deportation and the uprising of the ghetto started the l9th of April, l943. It was the first day of  Pesach, so poignant. The Jews prepared themselves for Pesach and the meaning of Pesach. The knowledge and information spread by messengers. I cannot tell you exactly how the Jews were situated in the different areas of the ghetto, but the main area of the ghetto was mobilized for the fight because all the other Jews were in bunkers. The fighters were in their places.

And it was known that on the first day of Pesach, April l9, something would happen?

Yes it was known. We received information from the Poles that, on this particular day, it would start.

What were you doing?

I was in charge of a bunker for the wounded. We kept one bunker for this. I was there with another two or three people. The place was Franciszkanska 30. It is interesting that the first man who came there was this Wilner that I mentioned already. He was wounded and captured by the Germans, on the other side. Finally, he was brought to the ghetto. His foot was wounded. He could not take part in the fighting. He was the first.

Where you up all night waiting?

I remember it very well. We were not outside. There was not one living Jew on the streets. All the people were either in bunkers, or in their positions, waiting. I will not tell you the story of the fighting. It was written and described many times. In any case, there was the first real uprising that took place in a town in Europe. It lasted until 15th of May. It was an official battle reported by the Germans, and we have the daily reports from the commander of the German force. He sent the description of the battle to General Stroop. It was a daily battle with an army. The reports from the Polish Underground were more explicit. They were used to thinking about the Jews as a kind of population, a sort of people, who are always submissive, who were not able to defend themselves, who were always afraid. This act of fighting was something not only unexpected, but also unbelievable for the Poles. Some of them wrote that perhaps a few Germans or Russians came to the ghetto and they were the ones fighting. They could not comprehend Jews fighting. In any case, after a few days of fighting, face-to-face combat, the Germans started to use fire and bombs to liquidate the ghetto. They went house to house. The people came out of the bunkers choking from the gas. They captured the bunkers with a fight. The situation was, thousands killed on the spot. Many who remained in the bunkers committed suicide. Some were sent to Majdanek. I was among those who were sent to Majdanek. It was a paradox: during the great deportation, all the people were sent to Treblinka and killed immediately. During the April action, part of the people was sent to a camp in which, after selection, they remained alive and worked. The conditions in Majdanek were so terrible that there was no real chance to remain alive for more than two months’ time. This was the maximum a human being could survive.  From Majdanek, a small part, a few thousand, were sent to Auschwitz and another camp.

What happened to you during the battle in the ghetto?

I was wounded in the battle. There were rumors of a fire on Franciszkanska 30. I went to the roof with a few of my friends to put out the fire. It was night. The Germans were never in the ghetto at night. All of the actions took place in the day. Suddenly, a few soldiers or police appeared in one place on the roof. We had pistols. I fired. They threw a grenade. I was wounded around my eye. Another friend of mine was also wounded. I went to the bunker. After a few days, the Germans captured the bunker. We went out, everyone in a separate way. They guarded us. They took us to the Umschlagplatz. Then they took us to Majdanek. I was with three very close friends of mine. We had been friends for a long time. When we came to Majdanek, they separated the men and women.

How many people were in this bunker when the Germans came?

I cannot tell. There were some people they brought out and killed immediately. Because I was wounded, they did not suspect I was a fighter. The people who looked better, they killed.

So you went to Majdanek with these few friends?


You were a fighter, a part of the uprising, one of the Jewish warriors; were you able to hold on to this feeling?

I will tell you, as a matter of fact, I was rescued in Majdanek only because of this. I came to Majdanek and I was not only weak; I was ill because of the gas and the wound. They sent me to the hospital in Majdanek.

Why did they have a hospital in Majdanek? It seems so incongruous.

It was not a hospital. It was, in fact, a place for people who were no longer able to work. They could rest a few days.

But that sounds so contrary.

This was the structure of the concentration camp. There was a Polish doctor there in the hospital.  He asked, “What happened to you there?” I was afraid to tell him. He said, “We know exactly what happened in the ghetto. I will try to help you. Don’ t be afraid.” And it was a fact that he brought me some medicine that didn’t exist in Majdanek for the prisoners, and he rescued me.
Majdanek was not only a camp for Jews; it was also a camp for Poles. Officially, it was a working camp. So if somebody was ill, it made sense to help him in some way so he could continue to work. It was also a continuation of the liquidation of the Jews. Officially, they were interested in the working people. They were a part of a working camp. It was a concentration camp, but many of the people there worked for the German war industry.

The gas chambers were for those no longer able to work, for the elderly, for the children.
Which barrack were you in?

I was in a field called the fourth field. The number they gave me in Majdanek, I don’t remember.    It was not that way.

You mean not a tattoo, like in Auschwitz?

No, it was not this way. They gave us a small thing from metal to wear. It had a number here [he points to his wrist].

It was impossible for anyone to say that the Polish people of Lublin did not know what was happening in Majdanek, since Majdanek is only twenty minutes from the center of Lublin.

Yes, of course they knew, but Majdanek was not only a Jewish camp. It was also a Polish camp.  In this particular place, the new place where I was, it was exclusively Jewish; but before we came, the Poles were the majority of the prisoners in Majdanek.

Have you ever returned to Majdanek to see it again?

I was there one time. Majdanek is very difficult. For someone who was there, it is a shock to see it.

In Majdanek, what were you forced to do?

We had to work, but there was no work. They did not know what to do with us. It was clear for all of us that our lives in Majdanek, it was a matter of months. There was no food, no clothes.  We were in barracks that were not made for people, but rather for horses. What was supposed to be a place for 60 horses held 500 people. The only objective of the work was to torture and kill the people. There was no constructive work. We took rocks from one place to another and back again, all the day. The kapos and block guards were so cruel, Jews among them. After some time, a German delegation came, officers among them. They made an inspection of Majdanek.  It seems they came to the conclusion that Majdanek was not a working place. They would send those still able to work to another place. They sent me to Auschwitz with a transport.

How many people survived Majdanek?

I don’t know. You know, at the end of November, l943, they took all the Jews of Majdanek and the Lublin area and they killed them, 42,000 people in one day.

How long were you in Majdanek?

I was in Majdanek for more than two months

Then you were sent to Auschwitz?

It is a long story. From Auschwitz, I was sent to a place called Buna. I was there for some time.  I was no longer able to work. I was out of my [mind]. I was a muselmann. They sent me from Buna again to Auschwitz 1, the main part of the camp. There, I was sent to a hospital. It was not a real hospital; it was a block called “ The Hospital,” in which they concentrated people for liquidation. Every week, a German physician came and made a selection — who could work — and who could not, was killed. And who rescued me, again — a Pole.

Yes. He did not know anything about me; it was by chance that when he wrote down my name, he exchanged a few words with me. He said he was a schreiber, a man who kept the list of the prisoners. He asked me what school I went to?  Who were my teachers? It was completely strange. The same day, he brought me a soup. When the German physician came for his selection, I was simply not on the list. [The Pole had taken] me off. I stayed a few weeks there, and he cared that I came back to my more-or-less normal self.

Did you ever see him after the war?

I tried, but I could not find him after the war.

And what about the doctor in Majdanek?

This was only for one time; but the other man, we spoke, we had relations. He cared for me so that I was able to return to [being] a human being. I could work. Then he cared for the work I would get, better work.

What kind of work was it?

It was a kind of factory in Auschwitz; it was called Union. There I was among thousands of prisoners. I worked there for a year, more than a year. I had friends. There was even resistance.

Did you find friends from Warsaw?

Not from Warsaw — from Warsaw I was the only one — but from other places, Jews from Poland, Jews from other places. There was also resistance there in Auschwitz.

What resistance?

The resistance was an international organization, mutual help, even preparation for fighting, but it was not carried out. 

During the Eichmann trial you said that you could never look in the face of a German, and when   you did look, you couldn’t believe that they took pleasure in all of the misery and they laughed when they murdered the Jews. After all of these years, have you been able to understand how the Nazis could have behaved so cruelly?

I will tell you; there is a difference between knowledge and understanding. I am dealing with this history of the Holocaust for so many decades. During this long time, I have a wide knowledge of what happened — how the Germans organized the whole thing, who were the Germans, what happened in every place, all the details. I can say, that the more I know, the less I understand.   How can one understand? I do not go often to Germany. I was there one or two times. I asked myself how it was possible that these same human beings were able to do the things they did, but they did. They not only murdered, but many of them did it with a kind of enthusiasm.

When you were liberated from Auschwitz, did you go back to Warsaw?

I was not liberated in Auschwitz; I was liberated in Mauthausen.

You went from Auschwitz to Mauthausen?
The Russians were close to Auschwitz. They liquidated Auschwitz in January, l945. The Germans took us on a death march. We came to Mauthausen. I was liberated in a camp close to Mauthausen. 

Where did you go after you were liberated?

I did not go back to Poland. I decided, naturally, to go to Israel. It was impossible. So I worked with the Birchah, and close, before the establishment of Israel. I came here illegally. 

I wanted to ask you one last question. We spoke about l933, l935, and you said, well it was happening in Germany and we in Poland, we could not really know what effects it would have on Poland. Now you read about Heider in Austria. One out of every four Austrians voted for the right wing party. Antisemitism seems to be coming out of the closet in Europe again. Do you have any idea about what kind of influence it could have on us here in Israel?

I will tell you, I believe that you cannot compare the antisemitism today to what happened then, between the wars. The inter-war period was the most antisemitic period in the history of the Jews in the Diaspora, not only in Germany, but also in the majority of the countries in Europe.  And we cannot say that the Holocaust did not influence what happened in Europe after the war.  It was a shock. The Holocaust was the holocaust of the Jews, but it was also a bitter war for the non-Jews, and they learned something from the hatred. How people arrived at such a level as to do what was done to the Jews — it was not only a mentality, a human vicious cruelty against the Jews; it brought out the beast, the barbarian, in the human being. This is what happened to the Germans. They brought antisemitism to such a state that it became anti-human, not only in regards to Jews. It was such a force, not only a danger for Jews but for human beings in general.  After the war, there was a change, a very substantial change in antisemitism. They understood that antisemitism was a danger, not only for Jews, but for themselves as well. The fact that you say Heider — but Heider was responded to immediately. After all, in no country in Europe was a fascist regime created. One of the reasons was, perhaps, the lesson of the Holocaust. It had its influence on the European countries. 

What about the pogrom in Kielce, immediately after the war? What about the antisemitic purges in Poland in 1968? Jewish graves are still desecrated. Neo-Nazis are alive and thriving.

You are right, but it is still different.

I just want to say that I have been traveling to Poland for the last 12 years. I have seen anti- semitic graffiti, swastikas on trains, on walls, on buildings. Jewish gravestones are still being desecrated. It seems to me that since the end of the Communist regime, when people are free to be, both the good and the bad come out in the open. 

I know the press, and I know the mentality and I know the people, and there is a tremendous change. There are still antisemites. Among the Poles, there is no lack of antisemitism, but the general trend is not the same. They also suffered in the war. They paid with many lives. We cannot forget this. We must not forget it. Of course the antisemitic trends in Poland are very strong, but there is the intelligencia and the young people; they are not the same.

I have one last question for you. I travel with my camera. I go all over eastern Europe, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Slovakia, and the Ukraine, searching, looking for Jews, survivors still living there. In your opinion, what is most important for me to record?

The only thing that we are able to do is  gather the remnants of Jewish life. There will not be, and there should not be, a renewal of Jews in these places. Jews lived in eastern Europe for hundreds of years. And now there is barely a trace of our Jewish existence left. When I am in Warsaw, a city that had such a large concentration of Jews, it is not the same Warsaw, not the same buildings, not the same streets. From time to time, you have the same names of streets. Now there are  streets named Anielewicz and Ringelblum, but the people do not know who Anielewicz or Ringelblum were.

What should I be looking for?

You know, the only thing that we are able to do is gather each document, each testimony, each diary, remnants of Jewish life, bring it together, try to; it is also not an easy task. We must educate and make people aware.

Thank you.

Thank you.

Oral Torah from the Warsaw Ghetto

Oh God,
It was hard
To feel
In the ghetto.
Jews asked
“Where is my God?”
This was the question.
No one had the answer.

Professor Israel Gutman

Yad Vashem, Jerusalem
January 9, 2007 until the end of March, 2007

Death March

The words  used when speaking of the war are “Hurban, ” “ Holocaust, ” and “Shoah.” 
Which word do you find most correct?

I am against this word, “Hurban,” because a hurban describes what happened in the Land of Israel, with the destruction of the Beit Hamigdash [The Temple]. The tragedy of the Holocaust was the attempt to liquidate the entire Jewish People, throughout Europe. This was quite a different situation. I use the word “Shoah.” It is our Hebrew word. “Holocaust” is an international word.  

When we left off in our interview in l999, we were at the point of your liberation. If I may, I would like to go back in time, to ask you some questions about The Death March in Auschwitz, January, l945. Given that  you had been a prisoner for so many years, were you able to hold onto a belief that one day you would be liberated? Were you aware, in January, l945, that the Allies were close by?

Yes, of course. I was a part of an underground in Auschwitz. We were a small group of Jews. I had a very dear friend, Yehuda Laufer, a Slovak Jew, who was like a brother to me. In Auschwitz, he was an old prisoner, and I, a new one, but our friendship was close, until the last days of his life in Israel. Our group was made up of mostly Polish Jews. We worked at the Union Factory in Auschwitz. A small group of women worked with this "pulver" [gunpowder], making grenades. Little by little, they smuggled small amounts of this powder to us, and to the crematorium in Birkenau. We received a message from the Underground, telling us to bring this powder into camp. It was in preparation for an uprising. The sonderkommandos successfully blew up a crematorium.

Did you have any idea, in l945 that the war would soon be over?

We knew what was happening in the world. We knew what was happening at the front.


In the last few months, we knew more about the situation of the war between the German and Soviet armies. In the last days, we heard the Soviets were very close. We believed there would be an uprising, a battle, in Auschwitz, by the prisoners who belonged to the Underground —  leftists, including Zionist Jews. We hoped for an uprising, but it did not happen. This group went out together on the Auschwitz Death March. 

It is very difficult to give you a picture of what the situation was. It was winter. We went, mostly on foot. Some days, we rode on open freight wagons crowded together, without food, without anything at all. We went in the direction of Austria, to Vienna, to Mauthausen. We marched on the back roads. When we began the march, we were, more or less, in a better condition because Auschwitz, in the last days, it was somehow better. We had more to eat, we were a bit freer. We began to feel optimistic; perhaps there was still a chance we could survive.
It is difficult to convey how we arrived at Mauthausen. We were no longer the same people. We had been together, helping one another. Help meant holding up someone who could no longer take a step. Those who could not march were shot. The whole way was strewn with the dead who were simply shot on the spot.

I do not understand how you heard news that the war was coming to an end while you were in Auschwitz.

German prisoners, not Jews, were servants going in and out of the living quarters of the SS, who were listening to the radio. So they heard what was happening, and they gave the information to us. I remember I wrote it, and I cannot remember how I had something to write with, but I wrote down exactly what they told me. More or less, we knew what was happening.

In Majdanek, you gave up the will to live, and, in Auschwitz, again you were a part of an underground, as you had been in Warsaw.

It took time. The story of Auschwitz is a separate story. I was there from August ’43 until January ’45. That was a long time to be a prisoner. But I must say that the last months, despite that it was a concentration camp, and it was Auschwitz, in comparison to the conditions in Majdanek, it was easier.

During the Eichmann Trial, Abba Kovner said he was very offended by people asking, “Why didn’t they fight back?” The miracle, he said, was that anyone was able to resist at all. How did it happen that you were always involved with underground activities?

I was brought into the group. As you said, I came from Warsaw, with the belief that one must do whatever one can, if possible. I found out about the Underground. I talked about the Warsaw Uprising, and it became clear to the others that I would join the group.

Did everyone go on the Death March?

Everyone was forced to go, except for the prisoners who were in a bad condition, or in the hospital. Almost all the prisoners went.

Why did the Germans have this march? Why didn’t they just kill everyone?

You know, they were in a situation of collapsing. The Germans were unorganized. They had orders to take the Jewish prisoners, and go.

But why? Why didn’t they want to murder all the Jews who were left?

Why? They received the orders; that is why. Their policy was no longer “normal.” It was the last chapter of time. They [had] lost control of what was happening. Perhaps they thought it would be beneficial for them to keep some Jews around; maybe it would help them. Perhaps they thought it could appease the American army. We have no documentation of this, so it may not be exactly right, but even Himmler thought in this direction.
So, everyone marched?

Yes, the whole group went. On the sides of the road, SS soldiers stood. If someone could no longer stand on his feet, he was immediately shot.

Did you have shoes?

Shoes, what shoes? By the way, the people in the Underground, in the last moments, got shoes.  Some members took shoes from the sorting barracks. I even received two pairs of shoes and gave one pair to someone. This is a very difficult story to tell because it was, again, the beginning of a very difficult time in Mauthausen.

Besides the shoes, did you wear any clothing that could keep you warm?

No, nothing but the uniforms. It was very cold.

Was it snowing?

Of course snow, cold.

How long did the march take?

I don’t know how many days, perhaps ten days, perhaps more, until we came to Mauthausen.  These last months were, perhaps, the most difficult time of all the war years.

When you were on the march, did they let the prisoners stop to sleep?

Sleep? Yes, outside, on the cold ground, with nothing.

Were you given any food?

Before we went out, we received some bread, perhaps something more along the way, but really, all this time, we were without food, without drink.

What happened when you arrived in Mauthausen?

When we arrived, our group was no longer together. Each of us was sent to a different place. I was sent to Viener Neurshtadt, very close to Vienna. What was interesting is, there were no Jews there, or perhaps there were a few, but I did not know of any. There was no work. We had nothing to eat. I was in this place for a month, perhaps two, and then they brought us, again on a death march, north, to Mauthausen, but this was a camp, for Jews only. This place made Auschwitz look normal. We did not work. It was difficult to walk ten meters. It was impossible for us to stand on our feet, but we had the feeling that we were close to the end of the war, until the American army came in.

What happened when the American soldiers arrived?
When they came, I remember, some people celebrated their freedom. Many people began to eat.  Their bodies could not handle the change, and they died. I did not eat. I was not able to be glad.  I was not able to feel anything. I remember we went out of camp to the small town. It was a few kilometers away. We could not go without holding on to each other.

When the American soldiers came in, did the German soldiers run away?

No, in a moment there were no more German soldiers. We were free.

Do you remember your first thoughts at that time?

No, I don’t.

When you went into the town, how did the townspeople react to you?

Some of the villagers gave us food, but mostly, we had no contact with the townspeople. I was soon taken to the hospital.

Where did you sleep, when you came to the town?

We had a place.

For years, you were a prisoner, struggling every moment for your survival. When you were finally liberated, was it then you began to feel the depth of pain of losing an entire family?

I knew exactly that I had no family. Not even for a moment did I think that I would go back to Poland to look for anyone. I knew no one was alive — no family, no close friends. Nobody remained.

So what did it feel like, these first moments of liberation?

I was not really fully aware of what was happening.

Can you understand how you survived all those years of suffering?

You know, a human being in a concentration camp had no influence, no feeling that he was able to do something to stay alive. It was like we were not human. We existed to work, and nothing else. Until today, I do not understand how I survived. From the millions of people, I am one of a few who remained. I had no part in this. It happened, without any possibility for me to influence or do anything that would help me. It happened; I survived.
What did you do after you were liberated?

After liberation, I remained in a small town named Wells. I was there a week, maybe two. I was still not able to eat. I was sent to what had been the German Army Hospital. One day, a friend came to tell me there were a few soldiers from the Israeli Brigade who were connected to the British Army in Austria. They were coming from Italy with a plan to take us back with them.   From Italy, we would go to Israel. Immediately, I decided, I am going. I got up from my bed and left, taking nothing but the clothes on my back.

Where did you go in Italy?

Modena, a place filled with Jews. I was sent from Modena to the South of Italy, to an area called Bari. My friends and I began creating a kibbutz. This was the beginning of my involvement in illegal Aliya [smuggling people into Israel]. I remained in the area of Bari until the time close to the beginning of the state of Israel. When it was clear to me that there would be a war in Israel, I went and joined a kibbutz. I was a member of the kibbutz more than 20 years.

And then Israel says:

This will be enough for now. You know, it is so hard to think back to this time, to all those people I loved, and lost. 

The first interview, January 9, 2007 is over.

Breindel Lieber Kasher was born in New York City and has lived more than half her life in Israel. She is a documentary film-maker and published poet. Her work has been translated into Hebrew, Polish and German and can be found in Midstream, Prism: An Interdisciplinary Journal for Holocaust Educators, 21st Century Journal, Cyclamens and Swords, International Poetry Journal, Poets West, Seventh Quarry, and Palabras. She has twice been a winner of the Reuben Rose Prize from Voices Israel.  

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