Alfred

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Alfred - Poland / Auschwitz

 

Alfred was born in Oswiecin, Poland. His father was a grain dealer and his mother was a teacher. His parents were fluent in German. His father served in the Austrian army in WW I. He had three sisters and one younger brother. At this time it was very common for Polish Jews to give their children German names because the Germans were such a respected and cultured people. Even though Poles had heard that Hitler had written a book Mein Kampf, no one believed what he had written would be allowed to happen to the Jews.

Poland had always been a weak nation. Prior to 1918 Poland had been divided and ruled by its neighbors : To the east were the Russians ruled by the Czar , to the west the Germans, and to the south the Austrian-Hungarian Empire ruled by King Franz Joseph.

 

When Alfred was growing up the Polish army- 73rd infantry division- was housed in the barracks in his town-- they held their exercises on his family's land- These barracks were later to become the concentration camp Auschwitz.

 

Even prior to Hitler, anti-Semitism was rampant in Poland because 98% of Poland was Catholic, and there was no separation of church and state. All minorities suffered as a result. The Jews were suppose to be protected by the Polish constitution but the enforcement people did little to help them, even if they saw Poles beating them up on the streets.

 

Alfred had finished seventh grade when the Germans occupied Poland on September 1, 1939. He was attending the Hebrew Academy. After the occupation all Jews had to register and ID cards with a red "J" were issued. Jews were forced to wear white arm bands with a blue Jewish star and also a yellow star of David on their lapels. Travel for Jews was restricted and Jewish businesses were confiscated, books and synagogues were burned and Jews could not further their education. There was a curfew and Jews were restricted to a certain area of Auschwitz to live. Daily Jews were taken off the streets and taken to forced labor camps where they had to convert the barracks that had been used by the Polish army into a concentration camp. Many times Alfred went to forced labor to spare his father being sent.

 

In 1940 the Jewish Council (Judenrat) had to deliver a quota of Jews daily for forced labor to the Germans or they were killed for not obeying an order. In 1940 - Placards were posted by the Germans around city hall - offering to allow Jews to emigrate to Palestine. Alfred's parents paid for him to go. He got as far as the Tatra mountains, which were part of the Carpathian Mountains which border Poland and Czechoslovakia , and then they were all arrested and returned to jail in Auschwitz. Alfred has no idea why. He was in jail for 18 days but because the gas chambers were not ready, he was released and felt "lucky" to have survived.

I

n 1941 this family was sent to Sosnowitz which was 50 kilometers from his home town as part of a German plan to make Auschwitz "judenrien"- free of all Jews. They did not want the Jews to know that they were building an extermination camp at Auschwitz. Alfred feels that " they did not want this to leak out".

Sosnowitz was a ghetto. It was the worst time of their life so far. Before this Alfred's family had been able to grow their own food but now they were forced to live in one room, and his father suffered because he could not feed his family or make a living.

 

In the Ghetto all Jews had to register and were given different colors of ID cards, the blue color was the best which Alfred had which meant you were working for an important German industry. Alfred had a job working for the Germans- draining oil drums - the oil was sent to the front- Alfred thought he was safe with this "important German work".

 

In 1942 all the Jews in the ghetto were sent to the soccer stadium where there was a "selection" which determined their fate. His mother and little brother were sent to the "left" for extermination as unproductive. His father and two sisters were sent home to the ghetto and Alfred and one sister were sent to a forced labor camp. He felt that this gave him, his chance to survive. He was then sent to Blechammer, another forced labor camp where his head was shaved, and he was given striped pajamas. Here he met Jews from Holland and France. They were not used to the hard life, like the Jews of Poland, who were poor and used to having little food, and they were the first to die from starvation and depression. Because he was young Alfred still thought he was "invincible".

 

He was next sent to Bunzlau, where he was assigned to a manual labor task group. The other more skilled workers were made to build barracks , and "dummy wooden planes" . These "planes" were purposefully placed on airfields to confuse the Allied forces into thinking Germany had many more planes than they really had. There was a demand for building more factory space and that was where the unskilled workers were assigned to of which Alfred was one of them. His job consisted of mixing mortar, and carrying bricks .

 

Their daily diet at this time consisted of a piece of bread and "soup" which was barely enough to survive. Many died of starvation.

 

One day another inmate approached Alfred , and asked him to help him steal potatoes from the German warehouse. Alfred figured it was death from starvation or being caught stealing so he joined him in "organizing" -stealing potatoes.

 

At this time the camp was run by German civilians, who were known to steal food from the inmates.

One typical day in the camp consisted of:
roll call in the morning and at night; food was given out once a day in the evening ,
they were able to wash briefly and then were sent to the barracks to sleep and get ready for another day of work. At roll call everyone had to be accounted for- they were made to stand in line until the numbers matched.

 

In 1943 the camp was taken over by the elite German SS. The inmates were treated much better and the SS did not steal the food. The SS picked new camp personnel.

 

At this time Alfred was very sick and was considered to be a "musselman"- a walking skeleton" ready to die. Because Alfred was sick, his work was not good enough and he was hit on the ear by a "kapo". He went to the "infirmary" to get ointment for his ear. There as no real medical treatment in any of the camps. There he was approached by an SS officer who wanted him to work for him. He told Alfred to go to the end of the "roll call" line and he assigned him to work in the laundry which was next to the kitchen. Alfred said this was like "winning the lottery" because he was inside where it was warm, and he got extra food by doing the wash of the kitchen workers. This saved his life. He had this job for one year.

 

At one point the SS from area camps came to where Alfred was - and all the inmates had to go through a "selection" . Those who could not work were sent for extermination. Alfred feels that the key to survival was : You had to be lucky to be taken to a forced labor camp and not to an extermination camp; if you were young and naive it helped because you did not realize the seriousness of the situation; if you were a skilled craftsman (such as tailors, carpenters or bricklayers) you had a chance to land an easier job and were rewarded by the German overseers with extra food.

 

For Alfred, many aspects of the Holocaust are hard for him to understand to this day.

He feels that it is hard to believe what the Germans were capable of doing to other human beings - Alfred and his family had all looked up to the Germans before the war. In 1939 Alfred's father had the opportunity to leave Poland for Russia. He decided to stay because he had more faith in the educated, cultured Germans than in the Russians.

 

Alfred points out that before the war 3 million Jews lived in Poland and only 10% survived the war. The Germans wanted a "pure race". He still does not understand how "cultured Germany" could let this happen. His own analogy is: The Germans considered Jews as rodents. So they called in an exterminator to kill all of them just like rats. The Nazis first killed large numbers of Jews by shooting and hangings- many others died from disease, the elements and starvation. After a while this was no longer efficient enough for the Germans, and In January 1942, at Wannsee, the leadership of the Nazi party came up with the Final Solution to the Jewish Problem:

 

Alfred points out that a problem for the Germans was the railroad cars were being damaged- because the cars were not heated- and the bodies would freeze - when they tried to take the bodies out- the wood would be damaged.

 

In 1945 the order came to evacuate the camp. The Russians were approaching from the East and the Americans from the West. They were ordered out of the barracks and sent on a "Death March". The inmates served as horses- to pull the wagons with supplies. Bread was stolen from some of the wagons.

 

When they stopped at a village called Waldau , 6 people hid in the barn. The next night , at the next village 50 people tried to escape by hiding in a barn, in the straw. The SS discovered that they were missing and ordered them to be found. The SS searched the barn and brought the missing people back to the line - they were to be shot- but they ran towards the line and tried to mingle . 12 were shot and Alfred had to bury them in the snow because the ground was frozen.

 

The SS man in charge was named Schultz. When Schultz recognized one of the prisoners who had tried to escape he shot the man himself.

 

Next they came to Dora Nordhausen where Alfred worked at the crematorium carrying dead bodies to be burned.

 

He next was sent to Bergen Belsen where he worked in the kitchen. Many people died in Bergen Belsen after the liberation because they ate the wrong food too soon.

 

On April 15 1945, Alfred was liberated by the British. Alfred and his sister are the only members of his family to survive.

 

After liberation lists of survivors were listed in Displaced Person camps- Alfred and his sisters names were not on the lists. Neither knew the other had survived. A friend of Alfred's who had been in camp with him- found his own sister 's name on the list - she was in Austria- he went to visit her- it turns out that she was with Alfred's sister in the same camp. Alfred's sister asked him if he knew her brother. He at first said "no". She insisted that he was in the same camp -Alfred's friend admitted he knew a man with the same last name but a different first name- that name was Alfred's nickname- It took three months for Alfred to find out she was alive in Austria-

 

His message to students today is to appreciate the country you live in - with its freedom of religion and freedom of speech. He asks students to fight bigotry and hatred and get involved. If not you will be doomed to have history repeat itself. Always be on guard against another Hitler.

 

Related Resources for this Speaker:

 

Books

Fragments of Isabella: A Memoir of Auschwitz

Leitner, Isabella. Dell Publications, 1983.

A survivor of Auschwitz recounts the ordeal of holding her family together in the death camp after the mother is killed. Includes a glossary of death camp language. Recommended for High School reading level.

Night

Wiesel, Eli. Bantam Books, 1982.

Eli Wiesel's best-known work on the Holocaust. The book traces his own experience in Auschwitz, and is considered to be essential reading for students studying the Holocaust. Recommended for Grades 6 and up.

Survival in Auschwitz

Levi, Primo. Macmillan, 1987.

Primo Levi was an Italian Jew captured in 1943 who spent the rest of the war in Auschwitz. His memoir reconstructs daily life inside the camp, as well as his inner life as the travesties that occurred there took their terrrible toll on both body and spirit. Recommended for High School reading level.


Videos

Auschwitz: If You Cried, You Died

28 minutes

Chronicles the journey of two Holocaust Survivors as they revisit the hell they knew as the Auschwitz concentration camp.

The Sorrow: The Nazi Legacy

33 minutes

A group of six teenagers embark on a journey to Auschwitz, in an effort to comprehend the incomprehensible: The Holocaust. Addresses the questions many students have about "How could all this happen? How was it allowed to happen?"

The Triumph of Memory

29 minutes

A PBS-produced documentary on the resistance fighters who were sent to the concentration camps. Acccounts are given of what they saw and experienced inside several camps, including Auschwitz.