Bernard

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 Bernard - Lodz Ghetto / Auschwitz

Bernard in Auschwitz camp uniform

 

Bernard was born in Lodz, Poland. It was the second largest city in Poland. His father manufactured clothing.

 

After the Sept. 1, 1939 invasion of Poland by the Germans, the military came through Poland, forcing Jews to do their dirty work. Jews were treated very badily, they were forced to clean the streets and many were beaten daily.

 

When the Germans entered Lodz on September 8, 1939 they came in with many orders for the Jews to follow. These included the wearing of the Yellow star of David by all Jews. Food was distributed in food lines and Jewish children were often sent to bring food and bread home for the family. Jews always had to go to the end of the food lines.

 

After the occupation a poor area of Lodz was designated as the site for a Ghetto. The Polish people were made to move out of this area and they were given the homes of the Jews who were forced to leave their homes and possessions and move to the new ghetto. Jews were given an hour to pack - Bernard and his family left a comfortable home in Lodz and were forced to walk with their possessions to a marketplace where Jews were gathered to be assigned to a room in the Ghetto. Bernard's aunt - his father's sister - lived in the area of Lodz that became the ghetto. She was able to give his family one room in her home. Each family no matter the size was allowed only one room in the ghetto. Bernard, his parents and younger brother and sister moved into the Lodz Ghetto in May 1940.

 

In the fall of 1940 Bernard's father became ill. He went to the hospital in the ghetto. The family was notified that he died. When they went to get his body for burial Bernard was told by a man who shared his room that he died from an injection that was given him by a German doctor. His father was 53 years old when he died.

 

A few weeks later an announcement went up on the walls of the ghetto. There were no newspapers in the ghetto. Jews aged 17-30 were asked to register to work in Germany, building the autobahn (a new German highway system.) Bernard discussed it with his mother and family and he decided that he would register because the money he earned would go to his mother in the ghetto and that would help them survive.

 

On December 13, 1940 the first group left for Germany. They were put on a regular train, they took their own clothes, but they had few possessions because when they were forced to leave their homes in the city of Lodz they could only take what they could carry. The had to walk carrying their possessions into the ghetto.

 

The train (which was a regular passenger train) took them to Germany. The camp where they were sent was called Brutz Bri Schwibus. This camp had electric wiring around it, and SS men were the camps security force. The men were assigned to work on the autobahn. Bernard was assigned to building overpasses. His first job was to build a bridge over railroad tracks. He worked 10-12 hours a day. In camp they were given just enough food to survive.

 

After one year he was sent 10 kilometers down the road to Kroitzbei Rapin, also to work on the autobahn. After three years- with materials and supplies running out- the Nazis sent Bernard to a smaller camp- 30 kilometers from Berlin- Abuswalder bei Berlin. He worked there in an ammunition factory, making threads on covers for big bombs. Bernard was little in stature and he could not do heavy work and survive. The foreman of this camp had been injured at the front and took it out on the Jews even though they had nothing to do with the fighting.

 

In March 1943, again short on materials the Nazis took a group from the camp and sent them to Berlin. Here at a hotel, the Nazis concentrated Jews from all over Europe . They were loaded on buses and taken to the trains. The cattle trains-with SS guards- were headed for Birkenau- Auschwitz. Upon arrival the SS shouted "OUT, OUT" and the Jews were told to throw all their personal belongings in a big pile along the train. If you disobeyed you were hit with the ends of guns or shot. Men and woman were separated and Bernard was paraded before Dr. Mengele, who decided by looking him over whether he would live or die. Being sent to the right meant "life" and to the left - death in the crematoria and gas chambers of Birkenau. Those sent to the left were put on trucks and taken away.

 

Bernard was assigned to build barriers around the camp. This dirt areas separated the prisoners from the barbed wire fence which was electrified at night to prevent escape. At night many people chose to go "to the wires" and in the morning their dead bodies were found . Also at Birkenau Bernard saw "Red Cross" trucks pull up to the crematoria and let off very well dressed men and woman. The SS led them down the stairs to their deaths. Told not to watch, Bernard observed this happen many times. If seen he would have been shot. When visitors came to Birkenau an orchestra would play near the front gate to give the impression all was well inside. Nothing could be further from the truth. In Birkenau, Bernard was assigned a barrack where he was to sleep. He was given a striped uniform and his own clothes were taken away. After they were dressed his group was taken to get numbers tattooed on their forearm. Bernard's number is 122536.

 

Bernard made friends with the man who put his number on his arm. His name was Leo. He was a Greek Jew who before the war had been a banker. Leo and Bernard became friends.

 

In his barracks Bernard had 120 men who lived and worked together. Leo disappeared one day but in the camp that was not unusual. In 1944 after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, a group of Greek men were sent to clean up the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto. Buildings had been burned to the ground during the resistance effort. Men were taken to clean up the burnt buildings, and to load and unload trains that came to Warsaw with food and supplies for the Germans.

 

From Birkenau the Germans first sent a group of 500 Greek Jews. They did not send any Polish Jews because they feared they would try to escape because they knew the language and they could be familiar with the Polish countryside. The Germans had sent Bernard to Birkenau from Germany. His file in the camp showed him as a German Jew. (They did not realize he had gone to Germany from Poland to build the autobahn). Bernard was sent in the second group to Warsaw. Upon arrival he saw his friend Leo inspecting the new arrivals. Leo had been sent to Warsaw to run the new camp. He pulled Bernard out of the line and asked him what he wanted to do? Leo made Bernard the secretary of the Greeks. The Greeks lived in two blocs and it was Bernards job to report if any were missing. Besides Greek, the Greek Jews also spoke Spanish. Bernard had to learn Spanish very fast but since he already spoke Polish, German, Hebrew and Yiddish he was able to learn quickly. Leo protected Bernard and kept him in the camp. He was not sent with the Greek Jews, to work unloading the trains.

 

Bernard worked very hard to make life easier for the Greek Jews. They gave him food they had "organized" to hide and he always gave it back to them. He dug holes to bury the food so the SS would not find it. He was soon given the job of interpreter in the camp. Whenever there was a problem with the SS and the Greeks he was called on to translate. He tells of a time when the SS caught the Greek Jews carrying food under their clothes when they came back from work in Warsaw. The SS were very angry. Bernard remained calm and asked the Greek Jews why they had taken the food. They told him it was because they were hungry. He explained to the SS that the Jews had only taken food that had fallen to the ground. They had not opened new boxes. It was common for people caught taking food to be hung. Bernard risked his own life many times. In 1945 typhus broke out in the camp Bernard worked very hard to help others. Many people died that winter. In March 1945 Bernard got sick with typhus. He was taken to a "hospital" where the beds were just wooden boards. No one was allowed near the hospital because it was so contagious.

 

In April 1945 the camp was to be evacuated. The people in the hospital were to be liquidated. Bernard had developed an abscess on his face and with the help of his friends the medical personnel were made to drain it and save his life. These three friends - one man from France and two older men he had befriended - later broke a window in the hospital and got him out. People in the hospital who were sick were ordered to climb onto trucks but Bernard knew from past experiences not to go on any truck. His friends brought him clothes, and helped him march in lines of five. When the SS checked the lines his friends made sure they could not see how sick he was. Because he was still sick the SS would have shot him. They helped him walk over 90 kilometers.

 

At Lowicz, in heavy rain, they came to a forest. Bernard found a tree and laid his head on it - even though his body was submerged in water he was able to survive. From here he was placed on another cattle train. Even though the war would soon be over the train went back and forth with no place to go - the Germans hoped to kill those on board. They were given no food or water.

 

Ten days before liberation, knowing they were losing the war, the Germans were still trying to kill all the Jews they could. Since they did not want to kill them in the city or heavily populated villages they chose to put them on trains and starve them to death.

 

On May 5, 1945 the train ended up near Dachau. The German soldiers guarding them told them they were free. Bernard was too sick to leave the train. German air force personnel at a base near the train tracks would not let the Jews leave the train. 200 more Jews were killed as the war came to an end by these German soldiers.

 

On May 8, 1945 the war was over. The Americans liberated Bernard. Afraid that the Germans would still kill him, Bernard did not seek freedom in German homes.

 

In a group of six former prisoners Bernard hid in a barn for 3 nights after liberation. Assured by the Americans that they were safe, Bernard started living again when he went to a Displaced Persons Camp near Munich. With no clothes or possessions he had to start rebuilding his life. Bernard had been 19 years old when the war started. Now he was 25.

 

Lists of survivors were available in the DP camps. Bernard found no one from his immediate family alive. A cousin who survived told him his family had all been killed. Not wanting to return to Poland or Germany Bernard went to Palestine. He married in December 1945. Bernard had a chance meeting with Leo after the war in Israel. Leo was a Medical Major in the Israeli army. He offered to help Bernard any way he could. Bernard's wife's family had come to the United States after the war. Going from Israel to Italy to Canada, Bernard and his wife and baby daughter arrived in the United States in 1956.

 

 

Related Resources for this Speaker:

 

Books

The Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto 1941-1944

Dobroszycki, Lucjan ed. Yale University Press, 1984.

Survival in Auschwitz

Levi, Primo. Macmillan, 1987.

 

Videos

Auschwitz: If You Cried, You Died

28 minutes

The Jews of Lodz

55 minutes