It is not so easy to do this interview. Last night I did not have a minute's sleep. When I sleep, I dream, I dream, I dream. We did not know who was going to be left alive. "Don't forget, tell the world" was the last thing our friends said before they were taken to their deaths. You cannot keep it inside.
I met my wife because of Freida. My wife lived nearby in the city of Czestochowa. She came to Krzepice for the summer. When she saw my sister Freida walking on the street, she stopped her and said, "You are such a beauty. Do you have you a brother?" That is how I met Rachel. From then on we were involved.
My father specialized in making clothing for priests. He was asked to make an outfit for a cardinal. I went with my father to deliver it. Before you delivered a job, you pressed and pressed it to make it nice. I had the garment draped over my arm. I was 13 years old. We went into the cardinal's house. We saw so many crosses on the walls. We took our hats off as a sign of respect.
When the cardinal tried on the vestments and looked in the mirror, he got excited. "It looks the best," he said. "Mr. Sher, what can I do for you?" He took my father's hat off the chair and put it back on his head. "Mr. Sher," he said, "you respect my religion; I have to respect yours."
There was no future for Jews in Poland. Jews were second class citizens. The church taught that the Jews killed Jesus. This is where the hate came from. In public school I could raise my hand all day, but they would never call on me. In the street a Jew could get beaten up. My mother, not just my mother, every Jewish mother had to go pick up her children at school because it was not safe for them to walk home alone. Women got a little more respect.
In 1936 I was reading in a Yiddish newspaper that had been included in a package of used clothing sent from America. It told how Mrs. Roosevelt helped in all kinds of cases. I sent her a card written in Polish. I wished her a happy birthday and asked if she could help bring me to the United States. "I have a good trade. I'm a good tailor. I can make a nice living," I wrote. I thought maybe she would help me. Maybe I would be the lucky one. It was a cry out for help. I was waiting, waiting, until the war broke out. I never got an answer.
Hitler was building a highway in the east and needed workers. Each city had to supply so many men between the ages of 20 and 30. In Czestochowa each family had to give up 1 man. My older brother, Abe, was married. My younger brother, Leo, was not yet 20. Leo was afraid for me because I was little. Leo was strong. He asked if he could take my place, but my parents would not let him go. They just looked at me, and I knew I had to go. You cannot imagine what my mother went through.
When you went to the toilet, you had to drop your pants and sit over a big ditch. There was no paper; you used leaves. All of the sudden from the distance a bullet would knock you down. The Ukranian and Lithuanian guards took their guns and they played with us. They tried to shoot close to us. If they got you you fell in the ditch. I had to sit and do my business. You got diarrhea from the bad food. Someone sitting next to me got shot and fell in. I could hear him saying the Shema Yisroel. For myself, I did not care. What happened, happened. We just lived from moment to moment.
We cut down trees. We dug up hills. We filled in trenches. There was a hand cart that ran on rails that we used to move earth. Four of us would push it up the hill, and it was more dangerous to come down. The cart did not have any brakes; you used a 2 by 4 stick to put under the wheels to stop it. People got killed every day. People got beat up. I was careful not to let them hit me because when they beat you up, that was it. If you could not work, you were worth nothing to them. One day I was pushing a full barrel. A Ukrainian guard passed by with a stick, and he hit me right in the head. I was crying. I told him I was pushing with all my strength. I was careful to do exactly what they wanted, but you could not be safe. Some tried to escape. The next day they brought the bodies back tied to a horse.
I survived because of two German Jews that I knew from the big ghetto in Czestochowa. They moved into an apartment across from ours. One was a doctor and one a professor, and they worked in the office with the Germans. They had come to Czestochowa with only 1 suit a piece. Every morning I would put a crease in their pants. I would fix what needed to be fixed. When they heard that I was being sent to the labor camp, they promised my mother, they swore to her, that they would do their best to bring me home. They were crying, "We have to do something to get Joseph Sher free." It took them months. One night as I was sleeping, 2 Ukranian guards came in and called me. I thought they were going to shoot me. Instead they took me to the infirmary.
In the infirmary I was put in bandages up to my neck. It looked like I had been injured at work. I was taken to a horse and buggy and brought to a little village nearby. The two men, the doctor and the professor, were there waiting for me. They took off my bandages and gave me clothes. They gave me a ticket and put me on the train. I do not know how they did it. I had been in that slave labor camp 9 months. The other people never came home.
When I came back, they had already made the big ghetto. In September 1942, during the holiday of Yom Kippur, there was a big deportation from the ghetto. In our building someone had gotten a torah and set up a small room to pray in. I was wearing a tallis I was praying with twenty-five people when the Germans surrounded the building. They told everybody to leave their apartments and to go down to the courtyards. I threw down my tallis and started to leave the building.
My grandmother said she wouldn't go. We told her, "You better come down." As a young girl my grandmother had worked in a dress shop in Germany, and she had learned to speak beautiful German. In Krzepice she owned a bagel bakery. Everyone knew her as Szandle the Bagel Baker. She made all kinds of bagles. Her father and her grandfather had been bakers. After her husband died she kept the shop open.
My grandmother thought she was going to talk to the Gestapo officer in her beautiful German, and she was sure he was going to release her. She talked to him very nicely. She told him, "Officer, look, I'm 92 years old. Where are you going to drag me? Leave me in my home."
My brother Leo saved ten people with the help of the Chief of the Gestapo. He and his wife did not have any children; instead their dog was like their child. He sent an order to the Judenrat. He wanted a little, neat boy to take care of his dog. They picked Leo. Leo was nice and neat, and he could speak good German. Leo walked, washed and fed the dog. The dog was close to him. And they loved Leo so much that they treated him like he was their own son.
So Leo picked me, my cousin and eight other people, and we went to the factory. In the evening we climbed up a tree and looked out at Czestochowa. We saw that although most of the city was dark, the ghetto was lit up. They used searchlights to light up the ghetto during the deportations. A couple of nights later the ghetto was completely dark. This meant that the deportations were over.
We survived for ten weeks at the factory. Our job was to go barefoot and dance all day long in a swimming pool filled with cold water and clay. This would soften up the clay. The director of the factory was anti-Semitic, and he called us dirty names. One day, when the Gestapo chief left for a week, the director said that he had ten Jews that he didn't need and sent us back to the ghetto. A German Gestapo chief tried to help us, and a Pole tried to get rid of us. Out of the 45,500 people in the ghetto 39,000 had been sent to Treblinka extermination camp. After the deportations the Germans moved the remaining Jews to the small ghetto. There were only a few people left.
We moved into a room with another couple. For our needs we had 1 bucket. You could not go out at night to use the toilet; you had to do it in the room. One morning I would empty the bucket, and the next morning he would empty it. The 2 couples got so close. When you have to do everything in front of one another, it is something.
We spent the rest of the war from May 1943 to January 1945 in the HASAG slave labor camp making ammunition for the German army. There were 4,000 Jews working at this factory. I was lucky: my job was to be a tailor working for the German officers. My wife's job was to carry boxes of ammunition to the trucks. The women whose job it was to fill the shells turned yellow from the powder they breathed in. After they turned yellow, the Germans took them away and they disappeared. But we knew where they went. They took them to the cemetery and shot them there.
In the beginning we trusted in God. A miracle was going to happen. But no miracle came. My wife was afraid every minute that I was going to die. I was afraid that she was going to die. We asked God, " Eli, Eli why us?" We still believe in God.
While I was working on the officers' uniforms, I saw the Germans kill the Jewish policeman. The Germans did not run the ghetto themselves. They picked Jewish policeman to help run it for them. These Jewish policeman thought that they were going to be safe. Not everyone could be a policeman. Most had been doctors and lawyers. They had paid bribes in gold to get those jobs, and they wore beautiful uniforms.
The Jewish policeman helped the Germans in the deportations. They did whatever the Germans told them to do. After the ghetto was liquidated, they brought the Jewish policemen in one by one to a building next to where I was working. I could see out of the keyhole, that there were forty or fifty of them. They called them in one by one. They walked in with their heads held high. Perhaps, they thought, they were going to get a medal. After what I saw, I lay down because I was afraid for my life. Each man was led in and hit in the back of the head with a sledge hammer. The bodies were put on a truck and taken to the cemetery.
At 2:00 in the afternoon the Germans came back. But they were acting differently. They pleaded with us, "Jews, come with us. The Russians are going to kill you because you have been manufacturing bullets to shoot them. They are going to kill all of us. Come, we are going to save you."
A train with cattle cars came near the factory. You had to walk over a little bridge which crossed the Warta River to get to the train. We talked back to the Germans as we would never had done before. We told them that we were afraid that the bridge was mined. We said that we would not allow ourselves to be killed by the mine. A German came back and he picked up my wife by her collar and carried her across the bridge and back again to show that it was safe.
It was January and the snow was deep. We ninety people divided up into small groups and I was with my wife in a group of ten people. We went into the woods. In the distance we saw a farm house. We knocked on the window and told the farmer who we were. He said, "I am afraid to help you. You know what the Germans would do to us. Go to the empty house over there. Rest for the night, and I am going to see what I can do." In the morning the farmer came with a kettle of hot water. He said, "This is all I can do for you. Jews, go back to the city. The Jews are dancing in the streets with the Russians." We did not believe him, but we had nowhere else to go.
We were ten miles from Czestochowa. When we got there we saw that it was true. They were dancing in the streets. My wife and I, and my brother Abe and his wife, took a room in a building that had been a German office building. Two Russian captains came into our room. One was a Jew named Zalman Brodsky. He was six feet tall and had a beautiful uniform. We told him we were Jews out of the concentration camps. The captains let us share the room with them. We gave them the beds and we slept on the floor.
They had to go back to the front. Captain Brodsky said to us, "We have no tailors. The soldiers have no underwear. Their uniforms are torn." He asked me, "Joseph, will you come with us? We are going to treat you well." I wanted to help him. I had nothing else to do. He promised my wife to bring me back and kissed her hand. She was not happy to let me go because she had nobody, but she said, "If you want to go, go."
One day Captain Brodsky told me he had to go away. He told the cook to give me my meals. So I went in the morning as usual and sat down. The cook brought me my hot chocolate with a biscuit and beautiful soup with white bread. I could not eat everything. The soldiers were sitting around me. All knew me, all appreciated me. But three or four steps away the other Russian officers were sitting behind a glass door. One officer of high rank called over to his man and asked, "What is that silly man doing?" He told him, "He is our tailor, a civilian. Zalman Brodsky brought him." The officer did not believe him. Two soldiers came over to my table and took me by the arms. In this town there was a prison camp for 5,000 German prisoners-of-war. They were being sent to Siberia. The soldiers opened the big iron gate of the prison and pushed me in. I fell on my face. When I looked around I saw 5,000 German soldiers. I thought, "This is my freedom?"
When Zalman Brodsky came back in the evening, he asked, "Where is Joseph." They told him the whole story. It was pitch dark. He came into the prison and called, "Joseph." I started crying, "Zalmen, what happened? Look what has happened to me!" I was dirty and filthy. Zalman was a big man with size twelve boots. He opened his double-breasted overcoat. I was little. I put my feet on his boots and he buttoned up his coat with me inside, and that is the way we walked out. When we came to the gate, the guards asked for a paper. He argued with them. They said they were going to shoot. I will never forget this. Zalman said, "If you are going to shoot him, you will have to shoot through me." They did not like it.
He got a truck and put me in a uniform. He hid me and drove me the 200 miles to Czestochowa. When I walked in, my wife saw the way I looked in a uniform. Zalman told me, "Joseph, do what you want now." I took the uniform off and burned it. That was my freedom, my second freedom.
My wife had a big family. We lookedno one had survived. Her parents were well off. They owned a big apartment building with stores on the first floor. We went back to her house. When the janitor opened the door, she saw her furniture there, the beds, the covers, everything in his apartment. The janitor said, "You still alive; I thought they killed you." We did not say anything. We did not trust him. Jews were being killed after they came back home. So we left the house.
After the war my brother Leo enlisted in the Polish army. Because he could speak Russian he worked assisting the Russian staff. His job was to help uncover the Nazis who had gone into hiding after the war. There were 50 Jewish children who had been hidden away with Christians that the Jewish Agency wanted to bring to Israel. This was against the law because of the British. There was this illegal organization called Berichah that smuggled people to Israel despite the British blockade. A man from the Jewish Agency came to Leo's house at night and they talked it over. Leo got a Russian truck and a chauffeur to drive it. He sat next to the chauffeur in his Polish uniform. Leo risked his life to bring those 50 children across the Czechoslovak border. God forbid, if the Russians would have stopped that truck. All 50 children got to Israel.
In 1946, in a nearby town called Kielce there was a pogrom. There was a rumor that the Jews killed a Christian boy and sucked out his blood to use in making the Passover matzoth (Ed. note anti-Semitic fallacy known as the Blood Libel). A mother was howling, "My child did not come back." Some people said, "Maybe the Jews killed him." They said that his body was in the basement of the Jewish community building. Forty-two Jews were killed.
At that time everyone used cloth diapers. Our child was eleven months old. There was nowhere to wash his diapers so I emptied out a suitcase and put them inside. I had plenty of diapers. When we got to New Orleans we had to go through customs. They wanted me to open the suitcase. I was ashamed. The smell would be terrible. I thought that if they would open it they would send me back to Europe. I couldn't speak English and tell them my reason. A member of the Jewish Federation came over. She could speak good Yiddish. I told her that my wife was sick and I had put all the dirty diapers in the suitcase. When she explained it to them they laughed and let me go.
Some mornings I wake up and I am so worn out I cannot go to work. I am free but I am still in the concentration camp. You go through it again and again.
Whenever I hear singing, "God Bless America" I have to repeat several times: God bless America. That's freedom. Nobody is going to bother me here anymore.