Jack Heisler - Czechoslovakia / Auschwitz
Jack Heisler was born in 1924. In 1938, he was a fourteen year old Jewish boy
who had just finished the 8th grade. He lived on a farm with his family in the
small town of Bilky in Czechoslovakia. He was the youngest of ten siblings.
Everyone in the family worked on the farm, except for two of his sisters who
were already living in America, in Buffalo, New York. Jack's father was a
building contractor prior to World War I. He constructed things that were used
on the farm. He served in the Austria-Hungarian army in the war, and afterwards
did not continue in the contracting business. Transportation in the area in
those days was very limited; everyone traveled by horse or carriage. To people
then, five miles away was like another world.
In 1938, Czechoslovakia was divided into four
sections or states. From West to East the sections were Bohemia, Moravia,
Slovakia, and Ruthenia. Bilky was located in the section called Ruthenia. Bilky
is in the far eastern part of Czechoslovakia, close to Poland, Russia and
Germany was pressing Czechoslovkia to give up
the Sudetenland, which they claimed belonged as part of The Reich. War was on
everyone's lips. The people wondered, should they stand up to the Germans, or
placate them? The army was mobilized at this time. Jack had two brothers join
Shortly after, Germany annexed the
Sudetenland. A peace treaty had been signed between Germany and the
French-English alliance, which promised peace by giving the Germans what they
wanted, with no intervention. Hungary took possession of the other side of
Czechoslovakia, right to within 10 kilometers from Bilky. The country was being
dismantled and the government was in chaos. Law and order was falling apart.
Jack's father would not let him go to the
closest gymnasium (a school which is preparation for university), so his aunt
took him to try and get into another gymnasium; it was filled and would not let
him in. The only gymnasium he could get into was in Russia. Jack could read and
write some Russian, but he didn't feel comfortable going there. He stayed on
with his aunt for a time and learned the trade of goldsmith. He wasn't happy
there, so he returned to Bilky to again work on the farm. His older brother
Bernard left the army and moved to the United States to join their sisters.
Everything seemed to be going all right for a while.
In 1939, Germany decided to take the rest of
Czechoslovakia by force. Poland and Hungary also claimed more previously Czech
territory. Hungary took over the lands that included the town of Bilky. Troops
came into his town and took fifteen or twenty teenage boys and machine gunned
them down for all to see. They made an example of them and said this is the fate
in store for any who resist. They got little word of what was happening in the
outside world. Newspapers were hard to come by, and little was said on the
In late 1939 Jack's sister Rose left for the
United States on the last voyage of the Queen Mary. She came to live with
her three siblings in Buffalo. Jack's brother Emanuel was drafted into the
Hungarian army. They had two older brothers who were already in the Hungarian
forces, where they were denied weapons, and instead trained to use shovels.
Basically they were used as cheap labor to perform "unmilitary" jobs, as nothing
more than extra pairs of hands. Hungary was an ally of Germany, therefore they
fought beside the German forces.
In was sometime in 1940 that identification
cards were issued. A Jewish ID card was imprinted with a large red "Z".
The "Z" stood for Zsido , which meant Jew in Hungarian, and it was easy
to distinguish from the others. This way it was simple to tell if you were
Jewish. The Czech Jews were harassed, but not that often as yet. Then they were
forced to wear the Star of David on their clothes, so that they could be seen as
Jewish instantly. In Bilky, the community was so tight-knit that there were no
real problems between the Jews and non-Jews. There was no segregation based on
religion and everyone was dealt with fairly. Czechoslovakia had been a very
democratic country. Their government was based on American principles of freedom
Their town had no policemen, and no jail. There was nothing to steal, and
very few crimes committed. Jack was able to do some traveling because his family
owned horses and a wagon. He had friends and cousins in other towns that he
visited, some of whom owned night clubs. Jack tried to enjoy himself, and
overall, life was not bad. The Germans were close by, but as yet they were only
Jack remembers one time when he rode his bike
out with some baked goods from his mother to where his brothers were stationed.
He stayed at their barracks with them, and then with some relatives in a nearby
town for a few days. From the house he was staying in he could see some black
shirts (fascists) gathering in the town. He soon returned to Bilky, and found
everyone there suddenly becoming very religious; people turn to God when faced
with trouble. Jack worked very hard on the farm, plowing, planting and
harvesting as usual.
Then, in 1944, one day all the Jews had to pack up and leave. They were
packed onto a train with no explanation and taken to a nearby ghetto. In the
ghetto, not much happened, and not much news filtered in or out. Several times,
Jack could have abandoned his family and escaped the ghetto, but he never left,
because his family was very close. He knew they needed him, the oldest child
still with them, so he stayed, locked in from the outside world.
In April of 1944, they were taken from the ghetto in cattle cars. They stayed
in the cars, cramped in without food or water, for three days. They were taken
to Auschwitz. Upon arrival, they were driven out of the cars and lined up for
selection. Jack and his younger brother were separated from his parents. His
younger brother was 14 at the time. There at Auschwitz, they would lose
everything. Their parents were most likely gassed and their bodies cremated. The
two brothers were also stripped from everything they owned and were lost to all
that they knew. The first thing they lost was their clothes. They were given
blue and grey striped uniforms to wear.
In Auschwitz, Jack, his brother and two other
relatives lived in the Birkenau camp, where they slept in three-tiered wooden
bunks. They were tattooed with identification numbers on their arms. Because
they had worked on a farm growing up, they were put to work as slave labor on a
farm. They were forced to cut grass, and later, wheat. Later Jack was put in
charge of the stables.
One day in the winter of 1945, a lot of the people in Jack's barracks decided
that if they were going to die, they would rather perish lying in bed than
working for the Germans. They remained in their barracks and to their surprise
no one forced them to get out and work. The Germans just left them in their
barracks, and for a week they did not have to work. During this time they
ventured around the camp because the Germans were starting to flee. They
absconded with food from the kitchen and brought back what they couldn't eat
right away. Jack found some clothes for his brother and gave them to him.
It was on January 25th when all the rest of the Germans fled and the Russian
troops entered the camp. They didn't really care all that much about the
prisoners, as far as the prisoners themselves could tell, but at least they were
liberating them from the Nazis. Jack and his brother went into town, into the
city of Auschwitz. There they were able to stay with an old woman. She couldn't
give them any food, but that was fine as they had brought their own from the
camp. After staying for some time in Auschwitz they gained enough confidence
that they were truly free, and they left for Krakow. They took an apartment and
stayed there awhile before moving on again.
They got some blankets and supplies from some Czech soldiers and made their
way back home. Along the way they were accused of poisoning a public well, and
in fact were imprisoned under this accusation for about one week.
Jack's life was forever changed as a result of this religious and racial
persecution. His family was treated as outcasts and subhuman slaves because of
organized prejudice and bigotry -- degraded for no other reason than being
Jewish. Jack was fortunate in one respect, however, as six million people just
like him did not survive the Holocaust - among them, many close friends and
family whose lives were taken away. He is someone who witnessed, and survived,
one of the most tragic events in history, and lived to tell how it happened.
Related Resources for this Speaker:
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.
Auschwitz: If You Cried, You Died
Chronicles the journey of two Holocaust Survivors as they revisit the hell
they knew as the Auschwitz concentration camp.
The Sorrow: The Nazi Legacy
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?"