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Joseph Sher’s Survivor Story

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.

Joseph Sher

I was born in the little Polish town of Krzepice. My father, Simon, was a tailor. He always dressed in a coat, a tie and a hat. My mother, Felicia, raised the children and kept the house. She was a so gentle. They called her gentle Feigele (little bird).

At the Photographer’s

There were 6 of us, 3 boys and 3 girls. Abe was the oldest. I was the middle son. My brother Leo was the youngest. The girls were Leah, Manya and Freida. Freida was the youngest girl and such a beauty.

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.

Manya and Her Father

My father was an educated man. He could write in Polish, Russian and German. In Krzepice he was a secretary to the court dealing with contracts and property. This was an unusual job for a Jew to work for the government.

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 hatHead Covering:in the Jewish tradition it is a sign of piety to keep the head covered. The most familiar form of head covering is the yarmalke, a skullcap. The word “yarmalke” comes from the Aramaic phrase meaning “fear of the king.” One is supposed to constantly be mindful of God’s presence. Source: Binyomin Kaplan off the chair and put it back on his head. “Mr. Sher,” he said, “you respect my religion; I have to respect yours.”

Stefa Kneeling

While we were still living in Krzepice my sister Manya moved to Czestochowa to get a job. There she met a Gentile girl named Stefa. They both worked in the same delicatessen and lived together in the same apartment. When I got back after the war, my brother Leo and I went to see Stefa. She had opened a store. All she said when she saw us was, “You still alive?” She did not offer us a glass of tea. I thought she was going to hug us and give us something. There was no warm feeling for us. She did not ask if my sister was still alive. After 5 minutes we left. And she and my sister had been very close friends.

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 YiddishYiddish: the language of East European or Ashkenazic Jews. Yiddish is to be distinguished from Hebrew, which is the language of Jewish prayer and the official language of Israel.

Yiddish is descended from the form of German heard by Jewish settlers who came from northern France to Germany a thousand years ago. Almost all East European Jews before WWII understood Yiddish and many would have spoken it at home. Some East European Jews attended schools taught in Yiddish. It was estimated that in the 1920’s about two-thirds of the Jews in the world could understand Yiddish. Although Yiddish used to be a lingua franca or common language for Jews, this is not true today.

Yiddish possesses an incomparable vocabulary to express shades of feeling and a rich storehouse of characterization names, praises, expletives and curses. A Yiddish literature developed that matured into a diverse and sophisticated body of work. Perhaps its most famous exponent was Sholem Aleichem (the pen name of Sholom Rabinowitz 1859-1916). The musical “Fiddler on the Roof” is based on his stories. YIVO, the Yiddish Scientific Institute, was created in Vilna and continues in New York City to further Yiddish research and culture.

The Holocaust had a devastating effect on the Yiddish language because it destroyed most of its speakers. Isaac Bashevis Singer(1904-1991) won the 1978 Nobel Prize for literature for his Yiddish novels and short stories. In 1980, the National Yiddish Book Center opened in Amherst, Massachusetts. Source: Rosten, The Joys of 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.

Two Jews

The family moved to the city of CzestochowaCzestochowa Ghetto: established on April 9, 1941, it was sealed off on August 23, 1941. The ghetto population suffered from overcrowding, hunger and epidemics. On September 23, 1942 a large scale deportation (Aktion) began. By October 5, 1942, about 39,000 people had been deported to Treblinka extermination camp, while 2,000 had been executed on the spot.

The now diminished ghetto within new borders was called the “small ghetto.” A Jewish Fighting Organization was set up in December 1942. On January 4, 1943 it rose in armed resistance to the Nazis. The next day the Nazis shot 250 children and old people.

On June 26, 1943, the Germans began liquidating the “small ghetto.” The remaining 4,000 Jews were transferred to two slave labor camps organized at the city’s HASAG factories. Before leaving the city on January 17, 1945, the Germans managed to deport almost 6,000 inmates from the HASAG factories to concentration camps inside Germany. The 5,200 inmates who succeeded in hiding were liberated by the Soviet army.Source: Encyclopedia of the Holocaust.
. When the German army came in, they put placards up in the street. Every male Jew between the ages of 15 and 80 had to gather in the market. We lived in a third floor apartment. I was frightened, so I hid in the attic. I said to myself, “If they kill me, let them kill me here.” My father and my brother Leo went to the market. All the Jews were told to lie face down in the street. The sun was hot. There was no food or water. If you raised your head, you were killed. They shot every tenth or twelfth man to scare us. This is when we found out what Hitler means. We called it Bloody MondayBloody Monday: a infamous pogrom. The German army entered Czestochowa, Poland on September 3, 1939. The next day, later called “Bloody Monday,” a pogrom was organized in which a few hundred Jews were murdered. On December 25, 1939 a second pogrom took place and the Great Synagogue was set on fire. Source: Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. because they shot hundreds of people.

Great Synagogue of Czestochowa I

They burned down the synagogue. They made a ghettoGhetto: an enclosed district where Jews were forced to live separate from the rest of society.

The concentration of Jews in ghettos was a policy implemented by Germany in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The establishment of ghettos was often the first stage in a process which was followed by deportation to concentration camps and selection for extermination or for forced labor. Forcing Jews into ghettos required their ingathering from surrounding areas and their segregation from local populations. Source: Encyclopedia of the Holocaust.
. We wore the yellow star and the yellow arm band. We were ashamed, but we had no choice. We felt the way a dog feels. The Germans picked out a number of rich Jews and made them responsible for the community. This was called a JudenratJudenrat: a Jewish council created under German orders which was responsible for internal matters in a ghetto.

It was required to provide Jews for forced labor and to collect valuables to pay collective fines imposed by the Germans. The members of the Judenrat believed that by complying with German demands that could ameliorate the harsh realities of German administration. Frequently, they were able to set up hospitals and soup kitchens and to try to meet basic sanitary needs in the ghetto.

In the beginning the members tried to resist German pressure. However, as time went on, the Judenrat was forced to deliver Jews to the deportation trains that were bringing them to their deaths. Under pressure many members of the Judenrat cooperated with the Germans. However, there were many cases of resistance, of resignation, of support for the partisans, and of committing suicide rather than bending to German pressure. Source: Encyclopedia of the Holocaust.
. The Jews had to do to the dirty work for the Germans. They shoveled snow, cleaned horses, shined boots and dug ditches.

Couples at a Well

I had a close friend, Isaac Blitz. When we heard that young people were going across the border to Russia and that it was safe there, we decided to go. I wanted to go with my girlfriend and Isaac wanted to go with his. Rachel and I told our parents about it. They said that it would be nice if we got married and could go as a couple. We listened to them, and we got married. They were glad. But at the border we got stuck. Thousands of people had already gone across. Thousands of people were waiting to cross. The Russians saw what was happening and stopped it. We held up signs that said, “We want to go to work.” It did no good. So we went back home.

Lipman Israelovicz

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. They took us in cattle cars to Lublin. From there we went to CieszanowCieszanow: in August 1940 about 1,000 young men from Czestochowa between the ages of 18 and 25 were sent to the forced labor camp in Cieszanow (Lublin Province); almost none survived. Source: Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. and from there to the place where we were going to build the highway. Out of the 1,000 young men who went there from Czestochowa, only 3 survived. I am one of the 3. Even strong people could not survive. We had to be at work at 5:00 o’clock in the morning. When we got up at 4:00 am., we had to be counted. We got 2 kilos of bread, which had to be divided between 4 people. Some people finished their bread in five minutes, but I crumbled my bread into the pocket of my coat. All day long I ate a crumb at a time.

Lipman’s Fiancee and Rachel

We slept on straw in barns, 70 to 80 people to a barn. We wrapped sacks around our feet to stay warm. We got lice, and some people scratched at the bites all night with their nails. Many got infections and died. Once it was ten degrees below zero, and we had to cut holes in the ice to wash our bodies. We took off our clothes and stood as naked as when we were born. We put our clothes on the ice, and in 5 or 10 minutes all the lice got frozen. Then we put our clothes back on. But in a couple of days the lice came back.

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 YisroelShema Yisroel: (Deuteronomy 6: 5-9, 11:13-21, Numbers 15:37-41)the primary credo-statement and affirmation of monotheism in Judaism.

Its opening verse reads, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” Since the Shema itself mentions the obligation to recite it “when you lie down and when you get up,” i.e., in the morning and evening, it is included in the morning and evening prayers and recited upon awakening and retiring. It is a Jewish custom to recite it in times of danger and also to endeavor to make it one’s final utterance before death. Source: Binyomin Kaplan.
. 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 got home, everybody lied. They said I looked so good, but I looked terrible. My face was swollen, and I was dirty. My mother heated hot water, put me in a tub and soaped and washed me around. Two days later I got sick with typhus. This was dangerous because if you got typhus, you had to report it to the Germans, and they would finish you off. My sister had a friend who was a doctor, and he came to see me. He told my parents to build a wall in the apartment and to put me behind it. Every morning he sent a nurse to give me a shot. I was in that corner for four weeks until I got better. So I survived another time.

When I came back, they had already made the big ghetto. In September 1942, during the holiday of Yom KippurYom Kippur: the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the year. The prohibition against work is similar to that of Shabbos, and additionally the day is spent fasting, even when Yom Kippur falls on Shabbos. It is the only day of the year in which there are five prayer services, and the day is particularly asociated with the forgiveness of sin. In Temple times it was distinguished by the unique service of the High Priest in the Holy of Holies. Source: Binyomin Kaplan. , 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 TallisTallis: a prayer shawl worn during religious services. Source: Rosten, The Joys of Yiddish. 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.”

Szandle the Bagel Baker

The Gestapo officer was a young man, maybe 23 years old, and so proud. He got excited. He said to her, “You old goat, you still want to live.” He got his gun and put just one bullet in her. She wasn’t dead. He wouldn’t put two bullets into her. He said, “We have to win the war. We can’t afford more than one bullet.” He wouldn’t waste the other one. We were all standing around, but there was nothing we could do. That was all. She was 92 years old.

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 JudenratJudenrat: a Jewish council created under German orders which was responsible for internal matters in a ghetto.

It was required to provide Jews for forced labor and to collect valuables to pay collective fines imposed by the Germans. The members of the Judenrat believed that by complying with German demands that could ameliorate the harsh realities of German administration. Frequently, they were able to set up hospitals and soup kitchens and to try to meet basic sanitary needs in the ghetto.

In the beginning the members tried to resist German pressure. However, as time went on, the Judenrat was forced to deliver Jews to the deportation trains that were bringing them to their deaths. Under pressure many members of the Judenrat cooperated with the Germans. However, there were many cases of resistance, of resignation, of support for the partisans, and of committing suicide rather than bending to German pressure. Source: Encyclopedia of the Holocaust.
. 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.

Taking A Walk

One day the Chief of the Gestapo said to Leo, “It doesn’t look good. Tomorrow, they are going to send the Jews out of the ghetto. I have a porcelain factory. I cannot keep you here in the ghetto, but you can go stay in that factory.” The Chief of the Gestapo had confiscated a porcelain factory owned by a Jewish man. He gave Leo a pass for ten people. When Leo came home, he told us he could help ten people. My mother said, “You are young boys. You go. You got a chance; Save your lives. Maybe you can help us later.” I was crying, and my wife was crying. Everybody cried. It was our last goodbye.

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.

Leah Holding Her Child

When we got back, my mother wasn’t there. My sisters weren’t there. I did not know where my wife was. People told us what happened during the selections. My mother had been sent to the side with the old people because she was 52 years old and too old to work. My 2 younger sisters--one was 18, one was 16--had been sent to the side with the young people who were going to go work. But my sisters decided they could not let my mother go alone. They chose to join her. My older sister, Leah, had a baby. Like most mothers, she went with her child. They did not know that they were going to be killed.

Under the Star of David

I could not find my wife. When a neighbor told me, “I saw your wife yesterday,” I thought he was kidding me. Thank God, my wife was still alive. She was living in a room with four other women who had lost their husbands. For a year my wife and I lived in the small ghetto.

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.

Seven Friends Link Arms in the Ghetto

They tried to organize an underground fighting organization. It did not work. My wife’s brother-in-law was supposed to go over the wires. We saw him hanging on the barbed wires with the legs inside and half outside. One beautiful day in May 1943, while we were waiting to go to work, they surrounded us with machine guns and trucks. They were liquidating the small ghetto. I remember the words of the Gestapo officer. He said, “You are not going to live to see another beautiful May.”

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, EliEli, Eli: “My God, My God,” reminiscent of Psalms 22:1, “My God, My God, Why have You forsaken me?” Source: Psalms why us?” We still believe in God.

While I was working on the officers’ uniforms, I saw the Germans kill the Jewish policemanJewish Police: (Judischer Ordnungsdienst), the Jewish police units organized in the ghettos by the Judenrat. The Jewish police collected people for forced labor, guarded the ghetto fences and gates and eventually seized people for deportations.

There was often misconduct and corruption among the police, and they were regarded with apprehension by the ghetto community. They and their families were, at first, exempt from deportation, but this exemption was rescinded when their usefulness to the Germans ceased. Source: Encyclopedia of the Holocaust.
. 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.

Rites for the Dead

It was January 1945. When the Russian army came near our camp, the Germans left. Around 10:00 in the morning a Russian came into our camp, said we were free and left. We were all by ourselves for the first time. We started howling, “We are free! We are free!” We started jumping and kissing. We went crazy. Suddenly we were free.

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.

Rites for the Dead II

Most of the people went with them in the cattle cars. My wife and I were in the last group of ninety people. A man said, “Don’t go with them. They are going to kill us. That is what Hitler promised.” This man was an officer in the Polish army, a Jew. He said, “If Hitler is going to lose the war at 12 o’clock, he is going to kill us at 11o’clock.” He was talking sense, and we believed him. The train got full and went away and never came back.

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.”

Sewing Class

He gave me a Russian uniform. We traveled I do not know how far, maybe 200 miles, deep into Germany. At night you could hear the bullets and the fighting. We stopped in a town. They brought me a sewing machine from one of the German houses. They brought in sheets. I cut the sheets out in a pattern to make new underwear. The soldiers threw away their torn underwear, dirty and filthy from the front. I worked day and night. I was so happy. And they appreciated me. They brought me chocolate. One brought me a golden ring with a beautiful stone and placed it on my finger. Every morning, Captain Brodsky brought me in with him to eat breakfast. I was still hungry from concentration camp. There was so much food, and I had to be careful not to overeat.

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.

Pierwszy Aleja No. 8

My family lived on the main street of Czestochowa at Pierwszy Aleja No. 8 (First Boulevard No. 8). Today the street has been renamed after Jasna Gora, the Black MadonnaBlack Madonna: the popular shrine of great national and religious significance to Poland. It is located in the city of Czestochowa in the monastery of Jasna Gora (Bright Mountain). The Black Madonna is a painting on wood that depicts the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus. Its origins are ancient and obscure.

The monastery was founded on the mountain in 1382, and the painting came there soon afterwards. The icon was damaged in 1430 by Hussites who slashed the face of the portrait. The painting is credited with the miracle of having protected the monastery from the invading Swedish army in 1655-56. The shrine continues to be the focus of pilgrimages and a site for confirmations and marriages. Source: Dydynski, Poland, Lonely Planet Travel Survival Guide.
. It was a courtyard building of about 90 apartments. Our apartment was on the third floor on the left. The Poles who moved into our apartment and the apartments of the other Jews who lived there threw down what they did not want into the courtyard. It lay there in a big pile for several years. Nobody bothered about it. The pile was six feet high. On top of the pile everything was moldy and rotten. Deep down everything was like new. I dug in it with my hands and saved our family pictures. Today, after fifty years, I would not know how my grandmother looked without these pictures.

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 AgencyJewish Agency: a leadership organization within the Jewish community in Palestine (Yishuv).

During the war it was concerned with the rescue of Jews in Europe; however, because of lack of resources, the indifference of the Allied powers and because of internal political divisions it was largely ineffective.

Some of its plans involved cash payments to Nazi controlled countries in return for the permission of Jews to emigrate. Negotiations took place; however, the Germans has no intention of allowing this to happen.

Of note were two proposals: In the summer of 1944 the Jewish Agency made repeated appeals to the Allies to bomb the extermination facilities at Auschwitz; the appeals were rejected on technical grounds. The Jewish Agency proposed to the British that Jewish parachutists be dropped behind enemy lines to promote partisan activities. Thirty-five men and two women including the heroic Hannah Szenes, were infiltrated into Europe.

In 1945, the it changed its objective to aiding war refugees. Source: Encyclopedia of the Holocaust.
wanted to bring to Israel. This was against the law because of the British. There was this illegal organization called BerichahBerichah: (Or “Bricha”--Hebrew “flight”), the movement after WWII which organized groups of Holocaust survivors to escape from eastern Europe to the West and from there to reach Palestine.

Abba Kovner, partisan fighter and poet, was one of the early organizers. Jews fled from eastern Europe through Czechoslovakia and Romania to Italy, Austria and Germany. In the wake of the pogrom in Kielce, Poland on July 4, 1946, when 42 Holocaust survivors were murdered, a large number of Jews, around 95,000, fled Poland. This flood overwhelmed the Bericha organization. The approximately 250,000 Jews who used the Bericha routes made it the largest organized illegal mass movement in modern times. Source: Encyclopedia of the Holocaust.
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 KielceKielce: site of a pogrom in 1946 where 42 Holocaust survivors were killed by a mob. The massacre at Kielce convinced most survivors that they had no future in Poland.

a medium-sized city in southeast Poland. 22,000 Jews lived there before WWII. When the city was liberated by the Soviet army, only 2 Jews remained. Gradually, about a 150 former residents came back, and they lived in the Jewish community building.

At the beginning of July 1946 anti-Semitic rumors spread through the town. It was said that a missing Polish boy had been killed by the Jews to use his blood to make matzot. His body was said to be in the basement of the Jewish community building. On July 4 a mob gathered outside the building. The mob attacked and killed 42 Jews and wounded 50 more. Order was restored by the central government in Warsaw. Seven of the main instigators and killers were tried and executed, and the missing Polish boy was later found in a nearby village.

The pogrom was a turning point in the attempt to rebuild a Jewish community Poland. Kielce convinced most survivors that Poland had no future for them. Of the 244,000 Jews who had returned to Poland after the war, only 80,000 remained by 1951. Sources: Encyclopedia of the Holocaust; Steinlauf, Bondage to the Dead.
there was a pogromPogrom: (Yiddish from Russian “devastation” or “destruction” from the roots po “like” and from gram “thunder”), the killing and looting of innocent people usually with official sanction, most often applied to Jews. Source: Webster’s Third International Dictionary Unabridged.. 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 LibelBlood Libel: the accusation that Jews kill gentiles to obtain their blood to use in Jewish rituals. Commonly it was asserted that the blood of children was used to make matzah for the Passover seder. Source: Dawidowicz, The War Against the Jews. ). 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.

ORT Certificate

When we heard this the next day we went to the Swedish Consulate to get Swedish passports. We went to Czechoslovakia and stayed there with the Red Cross for four weeks. We had to crawl across the border to get across the iron curtain into Germany in the US ZoneUS Zone: After the surrender of Germany, Great Britain, the United States, France and the Soviet Union divided Germany and Austria into 4 zones of occupation.

The cities of Berlin and Vienna were similarly divided. The Western zones became the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and the Soviet zone became the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). In 1990 West and East Germany were reunited. Source: Historical Atlas of the Holocaust.
. We lived in a Displaced PersonsDisplaced Person: (DP), one of approximately 1,500,000 to 2,000,000 persons who had been uprooted by the war and who by the end of 1945 had refused to or could not return to their prewar homes.

When the war ended, most Jewish DP’s were housed in camps behind barbed wire in poor conditions. Until the State of Israel was established in 1948, legal immigration to Palestine was blocked by official British policy. Immigration to the United States in meaningful numbers was also severely restricted until the passage of the Displaced Persons’ Act in 1948. Between 1945 and 1952 approximately 400,000 DP’s immigrated to the United States, of whom approximately 20 percent, or 80,000, were Jewish. Between 1948 and 1951, almost 700,000 Jews emigrated to Israel, including more than 2/3 of the Jewish displaced persons in Europe.

Displaced Persons camps were set up at the end of WWII to house the millions of uprooted persons who were unwilling or unable to return to their homes. By the end of 1946, the number of Jewish DP’s was 250,000, of whom 185,000 were in Germany, 45,000 in Austria and 20,000 in Italy.

The Jewish survivors languished in camps primarily in the Allied zones of occupation in Germany. At first the DPs lived behind barbed wire fences under guard in camps that included former concentration camps. For example, in the British zone the survivors were held at the former Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Some DP’s were housed in better conditions in residential facilities. Eventually, the Jews gained recognition as a special group with their own needs and put into separate facilities. Sources: USHMM, Historical Atlas of the Holocaust; Encyclopedia of the Holocaust.
camp. I worked for ORTORT: (Organization for Rehabilitation through Training), an international organization for developing skilled trades and agriculture among Jews. ORT established a vocational training network for Jewish Displaced Persons. Source: Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. teaching 22 girls to sew. They paid me beautifully. David Ben-GurionBen-Gurion, David: (1886-1973), the first prime minister of Israel. As head of the Jewish Agency in October and November 1945, Ben-Gurion made a tour of the DP camps in Europe. He encouraged the survivors to join in establishing a Jewish homeland in Israel and calling world attention to their plight.

Ben-Gurion’s attitude toward European Jewry during the Holocaust has been the subject of controversy. As one of the leaders of the Yishuv (the Jewish community in Palestine) Ben-Gurion’s actions appear to have been based on the conviction that the Yishuv would not be able to rescue many Jews from the Nazis. In conflict with many members of his own political party, he opposed broad-based rescue programs and public demonstrations. He supported small scale and what he regarded as more realistic rescue plans.

In May 1939, Jewish immigration to then British Palestine had been severely restricted by a White Paper issued by the British Government. The White Paper prohibited refugees from Hitler from seeking refuge in Palestine during the war. When Ben-Gurion spoke to the DP camps in 1945 the White Paper still prohibited the survivors from starting new lives in Palestine. The state of Israel was proclaimed on May 14, 1948. Source: Encyclopedia of the Holocaust.
came to speak to us in the DP camp. He cried so hard. He said, “I know you don’t know English, but let me talk to the world in English. On your behalf, I must tell them what I have found here.”

In the USA

My wife had an aunt in New Orleans. We wrote to her and she sent us packages. We had our first child in Germany. In 1949, we went to the United States by ship. We were one of the first survivors to come to New Orleans. It was March and the weather was rough. The boat went up and down. Most of the women were seasick. My wife was so sick that she was in the sick bay for ten days.

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.

New Immigrants Settle in New Orleans

When we arrived at the dock a reporter from the newspaper wrote up our story. In a few days I got a letter. Because I could not read English I gave it to my cousin to read. I asked him what it said. He said don’t ask. He gave it to B’nai B’rith. They came and asked me questions. Nothing happened. Years later I found out what it said, “If Hitler did not get you over there we are going to get you here.” When there was a Nazi march in New Orleans the survivors got together and formed a group. The New American Social Club has stayed organized all these years.

New Americans in 1952

When our children were young we were afraid that what we had been through would affect them. As they grew up we told them little by little.

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.

Audio Files

  • Burying the Dead After the War

    • Duration: 185 seconds
    • Copyright: ©1999, John Menszer
    • Transcript: In 1945 or 46 after the war we lived in a small little town, Neunburg vorm Wald. We lived DP, DP, displaced persons, they live in one building, all of them. And we got the UNRRA, they called the UNRRA, and they give us, they feed us and they give us every month packages. We got little shul and we got little sewing. So one day was a Yom Tov, a holiday, I don’t remember the holiday, either Pesach or … after a meal, a good Shabbos … a good Yom Tov meal, two boys from the house went … took a walk and they walked … they walked … In the Neunburg vorm Wald was a woods, forest, forest, and they walked in the forest and they got little dog with them. They got raised a little dog … and all of a sudden the dog got crazy started scraping, scraping scraping, and they didn’t know what it is, and they start to help, and they saw an arm from a … So they came back around and they find a dead man. And we went to the police, and the police call us, and we have our leaders, you know, and we went over there to start … they brought shovels and start grabbing … it was dead people… about maybe 50. Big, big, big … And we find out when I came here, somebody ask me how did you know they were Jews. We find out … we find tefillin in the pockets, most, not most, some got tefillin in the pocket. Some got little Jewish book, little book, a little bencherle, a siddurle and that’s we found out they were Jews. So we with the Germans’ help, with the German, with the Burgermeister, they all felt bad, and they gave us … the Burgermeister told us he can give you a way to bury them, he gave us on the cemetery a corner, you can see here crosses, so we was satisfied. We took piece by piece, and some arms fell off, and some limbs fell off, and we took big, big, what you cover up with, blankets and we put piece by piece, and we all worked, worked a couple days and brought them to the cemetery, and we make, we give them the rite. And we said Kaddish after them, we give them a El Malei Rachamim. And even a Rabbi, a Rabbi came, came to give them the rites. And this was 1945 or 46, I wouldn’t remember the months. And we all felt that we done some good deed to get the Jews a good burial.
  • El Malei Rachamim

    • Duration: 115 seconds
    • Copyright: ©1999, John Menszer
    • Transcript: El Malei Rachamim shochein bamromim,
      hamtzei menuchah nachonah tachas kanfei hashechinah,
      bema’alos kedoshim,
      kedoshim utahorim,
      kezohar harekia mei’irim umazhirim,
      es nishmos acheinu B’nei Yisrael hakadoshim,
      hakedoshim vehatahorim,
      shenaflu bidei rotzchim venishpachu demom
      be’Auschwitz, Majdanek, Treblinka
      usha’ar machanos hashemam beEuropa
      sheneheregu,sheneheregu, veshenisrafu,
      shenisrafu venishchatu
      venikveru chayim bekol misos meshunos ve’achzorios
      al, al, al kedushas Hashem
      ba’avur she’anuchnu baneihem, ubenoseihem, acheihem,ve’achoseihem
      nodrim tzedakah be’ad hazkaras nishmoseihem
      beGan Eden beGan Eden t’hei menuchasam.
      Lachein Ba’al Harachamim yastiram beseiser kanafav le’olamim,
      veyitzror veyitzror betzror hachayim es nishmasam,
      Ad-noi hu nachalasam, veyanucham beshalom al mishkavam,
      venomar Amen.

      English Translation:

      God, full of mercy, Who dwells on high,
      grant proper rest under the wings of the Divine Presence—
      in the lofty levels
      of the holy and pure ones,
      who shine like the glory of the firmament—
      for the soul of our brothers the Jewish people,
      the holy and pure, who fell at the hands of murderers,
      whose blood was spilled
      in Auschwitz, in Majdanek, in Treblinka
      and the other camps of destruction in Europe,
      who were slain, burned, and slaughtered,
      and who were buried alive with extreme cruelty
      for the sanctification of the Divine Name.
      For we, their sons, their daughters, their brothers, and their sisters,
      will contribute to charity in remembrance of their souls.
      May their resting place be in Paradise—
      therefore may the Master of Mercy shelter them beneath His wings for eternity;
      and may He bind their souls in the Bond of Life.
      God is their inheritance,
      and may they repose in peace in their resting place.
      Now let us say— Amen.
  • God Bless America

    • Duration: 59 seconds
    • Copyright: ©1999, John Menszer
    • Transcript: When I came to America, I saw it’s a new life, an open, open world: I can go where I wanted, I can do what I wanted. It’s so different life in Europe we have in Poland or in Germany. So I got, I was 30 years old. I got young, I got little boy, and I know you have to get him a nice …nice … nice life. And we, we was very glad … we was like, like in Gan Eden [Garden of Eden]… we was we got everything. Next day I came here. I got a job. I brought home, I remember the first week I brought home 40 dollars. And this was plenty money. I went shopping to Canal Villere on Freret street and I spent 15 dollars and I got 35 dollar in my pocket. And I bought oranges, I bought apples, and I bought pears, and I bought what I couldn’t afford it in Poland. And this was a new life, thank God. I always say, “Thank God, God bless America.”
  • Together Through Everything

    • Duration:54 seconds
    • Copyright: ©1999, John Menszer
    • Transcript: She was 18. I was 22. We wouldn’t get married in the war at this age. But this make us … But thank G-d, I am … we went through concentration camp, we went through the big ghetto then through the small ghetto … And for ten weeks I lost her … I lost her altogether. I didn’t know she’s alive. When I came back I found out she’s alive. We was together through everything. I’m good natured, she was good natured, we fit in. We never argued, whatever she say … I loved her. I say “your way,” sometimes she gave me my way, too. She wasn’t … has to be my way … no, no … She was a good mother, and a good wife. Everybody who will know Rachel will know this, she was, she was … I thank G-d today, 54 years married to a wife like she was. I enjoyed every minute. I miss her now. There is nothing I can do about it. That’s life.
Shep Zitler Jeannine Burk Joseph Sher Isak Borenstein Solomon Radasky Eva Galler