Jack Heisler

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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 Hungary.

 

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 up.

 

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 radio.

 

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 and equality.

 

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 rumors.

 

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:

Books

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?"