Henry Joseph

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Henry Joseph - Germany


Henry Joseph was born on September 4th 1925, in Laufersweiler, Germany. Laufersweiler was a small town of around 800 people that was thirty kilometers south of Koblenz. The town had about twenty Jewish families. Henry's family had lived there for many generations. The family consisted of Henry's parents, sister, and grandparents. Henry's grandfather owned and operated a matzoh bakery, matzoh being the unleavened bread that is used as part of the ceremony of Passover - it is symbolic to the Jewish people of the bread the Hebrew slaves prepared in the desert for their journey out of Egypt. Matzoh is baked only six months of the year. The bakery was the family business. They also did some farming, and sold coal, flour and animal feed. They owned cows and chickens and several acres of land.


Henry was eight years old when Adolf Hitler came to power, appointed Chancellor of the German Republic on January 30, 1933. On April 1st of that year, the Nazis proclaimed a general boycott of Jewish-owned businesses. Signs appeared saying, "Jews and dogs not welcome." Stormtroopers stood in front of Jewish businesses and enforced the edict.


After Henry's grandfather retired, his father ran the bakery until his death on February 4, 1934. Thereafter, Henry's mother had to keep the business running during increasingly difficult conditions. The Nuremberg Racial Laws of 1935 discouraged the hiring of non-Jews by Jews and gave tacit permission to everyone so inclined to act out in anti-Semitic behavior. Henry's mother could only hire unskilled Jewish workers as new help as a result of these laws.


Henry's father died at the age of 44. He had two operations in one week. When Henry's mother consulted with the chief surgeon, whom the family had known for many years, he wore a Nazi uniform. His family could not help but wonder if his father might have survived under different conditions.


In 1934, Henry started walking to school only in groups, and still the newly formed Hitler Youth harassed him. They threw stones at him and hurled epithets like "Dirty Jew". Henry and other Jewish kids were part of a Zionist Youth Group, but as Henry was the youngest and smallest, he was often not allowed to participate with the other members.


In 1935, the Nazi Party legislated racial hatred: On September 15, 1935, the Reichstag passed the anti-Semitic "Nuremberg Laws". German Jews lost all their legal rights and freedoms. These laws gave Jews an official status as inferior beings in the eyes of many Germans. Henry's family could no longer employ a non-Jewish maid in their service. Jews lost all political voice and were not allowed to participate in organized music or sports. Jewish children could no longer use public swimming pools or parks. Henry's father and other relatives were World War I veterans who had fought loyally for Germany; now their country was disowning them. Anti-Jewish and other minority sentiment was consistently published in the newspapers, to indoctrinate the impressionable with Nazi ideas.


In 1936, the discrimination turned to violence. Everything for the Jews was steadily worsening. Jewish children had to sit in the front of the classroom at school, segregated from the other children. Some children would throw things from the back of the room at Henry, taunting him when he was unable to retaliate. The decision was made to tutor Henry at home until after his Bar Mitzvah. The rabbi from the bakery lived at Henry's house for six months and taught Henry and other Jewish children.


Many Jewish families began to leave Germany. Henry's Uncle Josef was arrested for carrying three dollars in his wallet while crossing the border into Luxembourg. The Nazis accused him of laundering money into another country. They closed his business and sent him to work at a stone mill as punishment; eventually he saved up enough money to escape to the United States. Henry's family was increasingly separating. An aunt moved to Palestine in 1936. She was part of the Zionist group. She survived the Holocaust and currently has eleven grandchildren in Israel.


Between 1935 and 1938, many other discriminatory policies were implemented. All Jewish males were designated "Israel" for the purpose of official identification. All Jewish women became "Sarah". Jews had the letter "J" stamped on their identification cards to distinguish them. Henry's family had to register themselves with the government, as all Jews did. They didn't know at the time they were being signed up to take part in the Nazi "Final Solution", the planned extermination of all Jews in Europe.


On September 8 1938, Henry had his Bar Mitzvah. This is when a Jewish boy "comes of age" and assumes the religious duties of an adult. 270 friends and relatives gathered to celebrate this achievement. This event was the last gathering of Henry's family and of the local community. It was also the last such celebration to take place in Henry's synagogue, as it was vandalized on November 10, 1938. That was the date of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. It was called Kristallnacht because on that night there was massive vandalization of Jewish property, and the shards of glass from broken windows littered the streets. Anti-Semitic riots took place in Germany and Austria on this night. Kristallnacht was a drastic event. Ninety one Jewish people were killed, hundreds of synagoges were burned, and thousands of Jewish homes were invaded and looted. All Jewish males from seventeen to seventy were arrested. Henry's synagogue was burned out and the interior totally destroyed, and the police didn't interfere because they received direct orders from Berlin to let it burn. In a town nearby to Lautersweiler, a family was burned alive in their home.

Stormtroopers invaded Henry's house and broke furniture and dishes; they pushed the family physically down the stairs, and Henry's 75 year old grandfather was beaten and thrown outside, left for dead. The local Catholic priest hid Henry's family in his attic. The damage to their home was immense. Much was stolen, 32 windows were broken, and everything was demolished. The family was ordered to make all the repairs at their own cost. Not long after, the house itself was taken in order to pay the assessment taxes the Nazis had imposed upon the Jews. The bakery was destroyed, and Henry's family had no way of making a living. Jewish people were prohibited from driving and using public transport, having bank accounts, and from living anywhere but certain prescribed areas.


On December 10 1938, Henry's mother sent him into Luxembourg as an illegal immigrant to live with his uncle. She left him at the border and they were torn apart forever. He still thinks about her every day.


On December 13 a decree of "Aryanization" was enacted. This was the compulsory expropriation of all Jewish business and shops.


Henry did not attend school in Luxembourg - it was considered too difficult. He worked in a neighborhood blacksmith shop.


On May 10 1940, the German army invaded Holland, Belgium, France and Luxembourg. The Germans occupied Luxembourg. At first things were not that bad; the Germans reassured the Luxembourgers that they were merely being absorbed into the Reich, were they belonged. Many families fled to France and Spain but were deported back as illegal aliens.


Henry and his secondary family from Luxembourg were deported to the Lodz ghetto in Poland in October 1941. The Chelmno death camp, 20 miles northwest of Lodz, started to gas people, using trucks at first, in November 1941. The first shippments of people from Lodz to Chelmno began in December 1941. From January till May 1942 there were massive deportations of 54,000 Jewish men, women and children from Lodz to Chelmno. Among them were Henry's cousin Arthur Meyer from Luxembourg, his fiancee Caroline, and her parents. All were killed in Chelmno on arrival. All this proves beyond any reasonable doubt that the 22,000 Jews shipped to the Lodz ghetto in October 1941 were under a death sentence from the very start to be exterminated in Chelmno. Only after the reversals the Nazis suffered on the Eastern Front did the Germans postpone the death sentences, and held off the killing of the reasonably healthy for a later date. The Lodz ghetto was the only ghetto with large factories in place and they produced items necessary to the military.


The wearing of the Judenstern, the six pointed Jewish star, was compulsory at Lodz. Henry first began wearing the Star of David in the Lodz ghetto. The punishment for any infraction in the ghetto was to be hanged. Henry lived in a single room in the ghetto with twelve other people. He was employed at a metal factory. This gave him an occupation as well as an extra bowl of soup every day. In December, the first large scale selections took place. Half of the people who came to Lodz previously were sent to Chelmno between December 1941 and the beginning of 1942. Those who hadn't found work were the first to go. This included Henry's uncle and family. It took longer if you were engaged in work producing things used by the Germans in the war.


The conditions at Lodz were horrible. Food was drastically rationed. People were starving to death and the apartments, besides being horrendously overcrowded, were dirty and cold. It was not uncommon to see people lying dead in the street. The ghetto was fenced in and sealed off from the rest of the world. The ghetto population lived on rumors. The starting population of Lodz was 235,000 people and it decreased steadily until the ghetto was emptied and closed in 1944.


In January of 1942, the Germans required 20,000 residents be deported from the ghetto. The Jewish Administration pleaded and finally the Germans agreed to take 10,000. In February the Germans required another 10,000. All of these people were killed at Chelmno.


Henry had been in contact with his mother by postcard. She was sending him ten dollars a week until February, when these mailings suddenly discontinued. Henry's family was taken away and never heard from again. His mother was deported to an unknown destination in the East, and his sister was among 10,000 people in Amsterdam sent to Auschwitz.


From January to May, 54,000 people were shipped out of Lodz. Henry lost four members of his immediate family to these selections. During the selections the residents were forced to undress, then stamped like animals, and had to submit to examination by a medical group to determine who would be shipped out, and who was fit enough to stay and work.


In September the Germans ordered 15,000 children under the age of twelve to be sent to Chelmno and gassed. Henry's seven year old cousin Ilse was one of these children.


On September 1st 1942 the Jewish police were ordered to close off all the streets where there were hospitals in the ghetto. Trucks would come in every month and empty out the hospitals. The Germans would throw patients into the trucks and send them to be gassed.


By 1943, Lodz was the last remaining ghetto. Most Jews were by now either in the concentration camps, or else on the run. Henry was able to keep working in the ghetto until 1944. At that time there were only 78,000 residents left.


As the Russian army was approaching Lodz in June 1944, the Germans arranged the round-up and deportation of the remaining 78,000 Jews in the Ghetto. They took people off the streets, from the hospitals, from jails or anywhere they could find them. The standard explanation given was "you will be resettled to another work camp away from the front line." As it became harder for the Nazis to convince people in this manner they began to advertise, "volunteer for resettlement and get shipped to a better place." It was of course another lie. As the ghetto was emptied they started to close down the still producing factories one by one.


Henry was deported on the second-to-last train leaving the Lodz ghetto. Also deported on that train was Modechai Chaim Rumkowski, in charge of the Judenrat (the Jewish Administration in the ghetto) and his family. He had been granted a protected existance in the ghetto but now he was being treated like the rest of them. The Germans were waiting for him at Auschwitz and he was taken off the train upon arrival and shot.


"Juden rauss!" or "Jews out!" was the welcome they received when the train reached Auschwitz. They were told to leave all personal belongings on the train. The prisoners were whipped and beaten as they were hearded off the train. Two lines were formed in front of a German officer. This was the first selection separating the men from the women. Then came the selection that separated out the weak and ill from those strong enough to work as slave labor. It all happened so fast, you hardly had time to think.


As they were walking, an SS guard tried to take a baby away from its mother. The mother resisted but the guard overpowered her, and took the baby and left. Henry wondered why this was happening, as the usual policy was for the women and their children to be sent to the gas chamber together. Was the guard trying to save the child's life, or did he have another motive for this action? Henry never got to find out as shortly he was separated from the group of women.


After the first selection they were marched out to a separate waiting area. While there a young Jew, evidently distressed at losing his family, screamed at the SS person in charge "You murders, you'll pay after all this is over for what you are doing to my people!" Several SS guards volunteered to "take care of him" but for some reason the one in charge declined their offer. Henry still wonders what ultimately became of this brave young man.


At the second selection, to find those strong and healthy enough to work, Henry was with a distant cousin, the only member of his family left with him. They were driven by guards with whips and dogs into a large funnel-shaped building, and rushed through a process of undressing, disinfecting, showering, and being shaved of all body hair. At this point their clothes were taken away and they received a thin, striped, pajama-like uniform to wear. They had been thuroughly dehumanized at this point and felt no better than animals.


At the selection they were asked if they had a useful trade. Henry stated "I was a mechanic." Henry then left with several other young men and was taken to a room with one guard. One young man started insisting that he be told what was going to happen to his family. The guard beat this man mercilessly with his whip saying, "No one asks questions here--let this be a lesson to you."


Thereafter their daily struggle for survival continued. They slept on the bare floor and were woken daily at sunrise. Those that didn't rouse immediately would be screamed at and beaten. Sometimes on a cold morning the prisoners would get sprayed down with a hose and made to stand around outside in the frigid air. Then there was a roll call to see how many prisoners had died during the night. People were physically abused and degraded for no reason. When someone's name had been left off a list, instead of changing the list, that person was sent to the gas chamber. The Nazis would joke about that and think it was funny.


In October 1944, Henry left Auschwitz with a group of 1,000 for Hannover, Germany. Professional killers were taken out of the jails and employed as kapos - prisoner supervisors. At first Henry was working underground, digging, but after several weeks of this work he was assigned to work above ground as a tool maker. There was a nice gentleman there who brought him some food during the day, saying he had a daughter around Henry's age. Every day Henry was up at sunrise for roll call outside in any weather. This roll call was used for daily announcements or punishments. One morning in January or February several prisoners did not get up fast enough for the kapoes' liking and they took three prisoners and hung them under the ice cold shower until they froze to death.


After roll call there was a light breakfast and then the group was marched for about a mile to the Continental Tire Factory where they were employed producing war materials. They worked until late afternoon or into the evening sometimes. Then they were marched back to the camp area. Another roll call would take place thereafter. In addition to a simple count of all the prisoners, this time was also used to give punishments out to anyone who might have been reported at work by one of the guards. The typical punishment was 25 or 50 lashes. All prisoners had to watch while this took place. It took hours sometimes for all the "corrections" to be administered. Now and then there was a special punishment given to the entire group where they were made ro run or march and they would be beaten as they ran. Before they were released for evening meal there was special work to be done in the camp at night so they would select some prisoners out for special assignemnts and work details. This kept on through April, 1945. On April 1st, Henry lost the last surviving person he had known throughout his whole experience.


In April Henry was taken with a group on a four day march. Anyone who couldn't keep up was shot immediately. At night the group would stop to rest in a barn. The barn was so crowded there was no room to lie down, only to stand.


After four days of marching they arrived at their destination of Bergen-Belsen, a German concentration camp. Typhus was rampant there, and the barracks were filled with dead bodies. Henry was given the job of pushing dead bodies into mass graves and burying them. If anyone lost the strength to move the bodies, they were buried alive.


The camp was liberated by the British Army on April 15, 1945. He entered the hospital, sick with typhus. He only weighed 80 pounds. He was 19 years old. Less than 100 people of the original 1000 who left Auschwitz with Henry survived. More people were lost later when the well-intentioned British troops fed the survivors with too much food that was too rich.


After getting some strength back, Henry returned to Luxembourg in hopes of locating any of his family who were still alive. He is still hoping and waiting today.



Photograph: Nazi supporters in the village of Laufersweiler sing in triumph, the day after Kristallnacht, November 11th 1938.


Related Resources for this Speaker:


Daniel's Story

Matas, Carol. Scholastic Books, 1993.

The fictional account of a young boy whose personal journey closely parallels the story of Henry Joseph.


Lodz Ghetto: Inside A Community Under Seige

Adelson, Alan, and Lapides, Robert, editors. Viking Penguin, 1991.

Kristallnacht: The Tragedy of the Nazi Night of Terror

Fischer, David and Read, Anthony. Random House, 1989.


With A Camera in the Ghetto

Sened, Alexander and Szner, Zvi, editors. Schocken, 1987.



Ghetto Life: Witness to the Holocaust

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Camera of My Family: Four Generations in Germany 1845-1945

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