Joe Diamond

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Joe Diamond / Czechoslovakia / Auschwitz

 

Joe Diamond was born in the eastern part of Czechoslovakia, in the Carpathian Region, in 1929. The first 1O years of his life were spent peacefully in Seredne (which means "middle" in Czech), a small town of 15-20,000 people, located between Uzhorod and Munkacevo. After World War I, the Austrio-Hungarian Empire split into many small countries, forming Yugoslavia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Germany. In addition to the official language, Czech, Joe and everyone in town could also speak Hungarian, German, and Russian. People of many different religions lived in his town, including Roman Catholics, Greek Catholics, Protestants, Baptists, and Jews. His country's government was a democracy, modeled after the U.S. Life was normal, probably very similar to the way we feel about life today.

 

Looking desperately for allies after losing in World War I, Germany began to rebuild itself, and their hatred toward the Jewish people grew. Anytime something went wrong, the German people looked for a scapegoat. They blamed the Jews for everything because they were different. Joe said that at first he didn't pay any attention. He and his younger brother attended local schools. Since they were Jewish, they observed the Sabbath, and they didn't cross themselves like most of the other people. After being called "a rotten Jew" at school, all Joe did was come home and ask "why?"

 

Joe lived with his mother, father and little brother, Arie. His family owned a farm, where they grew grapes and made wine. His father, a good businessman, also had a small grocery store and clothing store. In 1939, when WWII began, Czechoslovakia was still an ally to the U.S. and England. Then, Hungary occupied Czechoslovakia and the government became a German Nazi puppet government. Laws against the Jews began and there were pogroms. Since the Jewish people were Caucasian and looked like everybody else, they each had to wear a yellow star or armband to mark that they were different. Joe was proud to wear a star because he was proud of his country and proud to be Jewish. One of the laws was that Jewish people had to give 50% of their earnings to the new government. This didn't please them, but they hoped the war would end and things would return to normal soon. Joe went to religious school in the morning, then public school and then back to religious school. Conditions continued to worsen and he had to fight his way to and from school, all because he was Jewish. Even his teachers sided with the German government, which especially disappointed him.

 

As Germany rose into power, Hitler could frequently be heard making speeches throughout Europe. People thought he was the Messiah. He believed in a pure race and began rounding up Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and anyone who opposed him. In 1943 the German army passed through Joe's town on their way to Russia. He said they looked like "Roman heroes -- tough." One year later they returned "undernourished, and frozen." It was apparent that the Germans were not doing well in the war and the more the Germans suffered, the tougher they were against the Jews.

 

In 1944, the town crier announced that anyone that is Jewish or has any Jewish descent, must be packed with minimal belongings in the next 24 hours in order to be taken away. All Jewish people were declared a security risk and were told they would be taken to a German farm to work on the harvest. The next morning, Joe and his mother, father and brother were dressed in their best clothes. Two storm troopers came into his house with guns and fixed bayonets to take them to a local school for processing. The 600 people there, including Joe's family were now prisoners. The soldiers searched them for valuables. Joe recalls an officer sticking his hand in a baby's mouth to check for any hidden gold. Thirty German soldiers surrounded the group as they walked down the streets. The whole town was watching, like it was a parade, with no concern or anxiety. Joe vividly remembers a man chewing tobacco, spitting on the ground and saying, "It's about time to get rid of these Jewish people." Joe reminds us that these onlookers, and soldiers were college educated people, who had families and children, just like the Jewish people they were persecuting.

 

Joe, his family, and the other Jews were taken by train to Uzhorod - to a brick factory, a temporary ghetto, where they spent four weeks. Life there was primitive. They went from nice homes to sleeping in tents and no running water. No one knew where they were going. They prayed to the Lord to take them to a better camp. After four weeks, Joe, his mom, dad, and brother were all called over the P.A. and told to report out front, where they would be transported to a permanent camp. While climbing aboard the truck Joe saw an 80 year old woman having trouble. A soldier threw her on board like a piece of meat. He saw small children being kicked and beaten. If a person fought back, they were shot in the head.

 

After a 20 minute truck ride, they arrived at the main railroad station of Uzhorod, full of active soldiers and trains. When Joe saw the cattle trains, about 40 of them lined up, he thought, along with everyone else, that they were for cattle and supplies for the war. The long cars had tiny 2 ft. x 4 ft. windows for air. Then they found out that the trains were for them. The people were packed in like animals, with no room to stand or even breathe. By 3 O'clock that afternoon the train moved, and by nightfall, they realized that they were not heading towards Germany, but to Poland. Germany didn't want to do the dirty work on their own land.

 

As the trains made their way west through the mountains they stopped in Krakow, Poland to unload the dead. Joe noted it was at least 12 people. Everyone was screaming out for water and Joe saw a Polish woman approaching them with a bucket of water in each hand, but a German officer kicked them out of her hands. He told her the orders are that these people do not get water. The train moved and at about 4 a.m. arrived at it's mysterious destination, where it's passengers saw an orderly camp with barracks, barbed wire, and even some grass, since it was April. Joe's mom, full of hope, said to him-"This must be the farm for us until the war ends."

 

When the doors opened they were faced with three German officers, who said, "Good Morning. Welcome to Auschwitz." They had never heard of this place. There was a large sign in German which had the saying, "Arbeit Mact Frei" which meant "Work will make you free." They were told to stand in line, that they would be interviewed to see what kind of work they could do, which made sense to them. The men were in one line, and women with children under age seven in the other. Joe's family reached the front of the line and the interviewer asked his mother, "How old is the boy?" "Seven years old," she told him." You and the boy go to the residential camp." Joe and his father were sent to the labor camp. They were told they could visit his mother and brother on weekends. This sounded good to them and they hoped things would get better. They hardly had a chance to say good bye. This was the last time Joe saw his mother and Arie. Later, he learned that within 3 hours they were sent to the gas chambers and killed.

 

After a week in Auschwitz, Joe and his father were separated in order to do different work. His father was sent to the concentration camp, Buchenwald, where he did slave labor on railroads, carrying rocks and wheeling coal. Joe didn't see him again, until after liberation.


While being quarantined for three weeks, Joe had the chance to take the garbage out of the barrack. As he came outside, he noticed the place was filled with smoke and a terrible smell. He approached a prisoner standing nearby and asked what it was. The man said, "You are very fortunate. We are in the area where there is the largest German bakery on the Western front. The smoke is from the chimney of the bakery." Joe went back in and told his friends how lucky they all were to be so close to a bakery. He said they would never be hungry. At that time, Joe had never heard of a gas chamber, which is what it really was.

 

While Joe was in Auschwitz, every day he witnessed 80% of the people go up in smoke. After about 3 weeks they noticed the same situation. Every time people were brought in, the chimney started smoking within 3 hours. The Germans invented a way to eliminate people quickly. Gas on the stock market was going up because they were using so much, due to it's effectiveness in killing. The German's thought it was a great thing. Joe notes, "Everyone blames it on Hitler, but Hitler alone could not do this. The people supported him; cheered him. They were murderers like Hitler..." Left as an orphan Joe was surprised by how intelligent one becomes when starving and faced with making quick, life- altering decisions on your own. The camp didn't have vitamins or enough food. The food was brutal. In the morning they were given black coffee, and black, moldy bread. For lunch they were fed thick soup made of rotten vegetables and sawdust. A spoon could stand up in it, Joe said. At night, if they were lucky they got horse salami. At first they hated it, but when starving they ate it. Many people starved to death, but most saw their end in the gas chamber, because once you got too weak you were taken there.

 

Along with 3,500 other boys ages 14-17, Joe was put to work at Birkenau. He carried bricks and stone everyday, providing labor on a new gas chamber, because the one that was already there could not handle the large number of people rolling in everyday. As he was carrying bricks, Joe witnessed a transport of trains coming in from Amsterdam, and Paris. Each time, the people got off the train, and were separated. Men, who looked like workers, went to the right, and women with small children, or that were pregnant, along with senior citizens, and handicapped people, were sent to the left to be gassed.

 

After 2 months of work the boys were ordered to report to the main field of the camp. The rumor was that they were going to be sent to brick laying school to learn the trade. All 3,500 of the boys lined up to meet the Gestapo. Among them was the famous Dr. Mengele, looking like a normal guy, even though he was called the "Angel of Death" because of the experiments and killing crimes he committed. As Joe nervously stood in this line, he thought that the tale of bricklaying school didn't make sense. They were choosing the weakest guys. A total of 650 were chosen, luckily Joe wasn't picked because they were taken to the gas chamber that night. The weak needed to be exterminated in order to make room for newer, stronger people to do the labor.

 

Another selection was made two weeks later. Dr. Mengele looked the boys over as if they were some kind of animals, in order to see what kind of shape they were in. He was sizing up how much work they could get out of them. The Gestapo picked out at least 800 more, put them in a barrack and then a truck came and took them away, never to be seen alive again. For the last selection there were only a few left - 520 out of 3,500. Dr. Mengele and his colleagues looked Joe over and didn't like what they saw. By this time he looked like merely a skeleton. Joe knew this meant his time was up. He thought to himself that within 5 hours he would be dead. The people that were selected out were put in two barracks with bunks. Everyone expected to be killed by midnight. "It's the worst feeling in the world when you know that somebody is going to kill you, in a matter of hours," relates Joe.

 

Waiting in the barrack that night, Joe recalls one fellow who got some of the other Jewish people to start crossing themselves. "They thought that if they changed their religion that maybe G-d would help them. All of a sudden, when you're in trouble, you start talking to G-d," explained Joe. Many people were crying, carrying on. "I was scared, worried. I forgot about my family and just started thinking of myself. You become very selfish when you want to stay alive.." Some Red Cross officials came to the barrack to take some information from the prisoners. They had a desk and Joe and his fellow condemned stood on line. It is questionable whether the Red Cross knew these people were about to be killed. If they did know, they gave no indication. Nonetheless, in case of inquiry as to what happened to them, the Nazis would say they died of disease. The Germans were prompt, efficient, and thorough. Joe was standing in this line, upset, his whole body shaking. They asked him his name, and where he was from.

 

All of a sudden there was an unexpected tap on his shoulder. He looked back and this gentleman says to him, "I'm going to save you." "It was like somebody sent from G-d," described Joe in amazement. "I asked him why," Joe recalled, and the man could only reply with, "I don't know." Joe's only explanation for this miracle is, "I just feel like maybe I reminded him of his kid." The man who saved his life was in charge of the group Joe was part of. He was also a prisoner, because he had murdered two women, but was still put in charge of the Jews. "Even though this guy was a killer, it seems like he had a heart too," says Joe, remembering the moment he was told that his group would be killed by midnight, yet he would be saved.

 

Joe said the man made him go up high in the barrack and hide, and by midnight he gave him a signal and he had to jump out of a window 20 feet above the ground. Joe didn't get hurt and continued to crawl on his stomach until he got to a row of outhouses. Outside this structure, he saw a Russian prisoner, who was in charge of the latrine. Joe said, "Could you hide me because if you don't I'm going to be taken away." The man told him to get into the hole of the latrine. A fifteen foot hole, where waste is taken care of, helped save Joe's life. Joe went down there and the man nailed the top down in case the Germans came in. Joe was sealed in with no air, and the bad smell, hoping to G-d that the next day, the man would let him out.

 

He did. Then Joe mingled with the remaining prisoners, and went back to work with the group.

 

Not long after that, they found out that the Russian army was approaching Auschwitz. The Germans did not want to be liberated by the Russians. The Russians were known as cruel people, who would be ruthless and take no German prisoners, because of how many Russians were killed by the Germans in Stalingrad. They were known for shooting their artillery at close range. As a precaution, the Nazis evacuated the camp. There were only around 430 people left out of 3,500.

 

Once again the prisoners were loaded on cattle trains, and taken by German guards to a new area to avoid the battle. Joe's train headed towards Berlin, but along the way they had to evacuate the train and walk. They began a long, difficult march, with many struggling to even stand up. A fellow next to Joe, who he had known as one of the richest men from his hometown, said, "Joe, please help me. I can't walk anymore. I don't have he strength." Joe tried, but couldn't help him. He dropped out of line and was shot.

 

They walked through many small German towns, but Joe never saw anybody come out of their house to bring water or show any concern to the emaciated people. In fields, they ate grass, raw potatoes- anything they could find. They crossed water and Joe had stolen a milk can to drink from. As they marched further, a German soldier in a jeep came up and wanted to know who stole the milk can. "I did," said Joe, and the officer told another man in charge to beat him up. "He knocked the hell out of me, but didn't kill me," told Joe.

 

They arrived at the Sachsenhausen camp near Berlin, and waited there for three days to learn of their final destination. They continued walking through towns and villages throughout Austria and endured many months of starvation. They ended up in Gunzkirchen. Kirchen means church in German. There were around 40,000 people in the camp and not even any room to stand, let alone sit down. They didn't know where they would sleep and were starving. A young guy, a prisoner, took his blanket and tied it to the rafters to sit on it. Joe saw a German soldier take out his luger, and as if he was target practicing, "saw that guy up there, like a bird, and shot him right down." By this time, all of Joe's friends and people he knew were dead. He felt like he was going to go any day. They heard rumors that the battle was getting closer to them. Within three days they found that the Germans had left the place. There was no food, but guns all over. Shortly after, a Red Cross train arrived and they found food. As Joe was walking through the fields he saw a truck full of German soldiers who were the prisoners of a group of American soldiers. Joe was liberated by U.S. forces of the Third Army. The Americans. Joe recalls one of the American soldiers from New Jersey, staring at him in disbelief that a human being could look like that. Joe and the other living people were taken by jeeps and trucks to the next town, called Linz. After many months in the hospital, he still didn't know where his family was, or where he was going.

 

Joe returned to his hometown in November 1945. To his surprise his father was waiting for him at the railroad station. Evidently he had been informed by some of the townspeople who had seen Joe at the stopover that his son was on his way home. It was a shock and a pleasant surprise to see his father alive. His father's health had not been good before the War and Joe didn't see how he could have survived. Aside from his father there was hardly anybody he knew left. The neighbors thought he was his younger brother because he looked nine, not sixteen. Shocked to see him, they told him they thought they were all killed. His old house was occupied with the same people the Germans gave it to when Joe's family left. Joe went to the local police, who were Russian, and said that it was his house and he wanted to get back in there. The police said they could get the people out in three hours, but Joe felt they deserved more time. After a short while, Joe moved back in his house and was reunited with his father, who had also survived, but wasn't the same person he used to be. He told Joe to leave and go west in Czechoslovakia or to England. His father felt there was no future for him in his hometown because Czechoslovakia was going to be taken over by Russia. "I'm old," he said to Joe. "Leave here and go west."

 

Joe moved on. He went to work as an electrical engineer after learning the basics of the trade. He worked with all different kinds of people, of all different religions. A guy at work said to him one day, "I'm shocked that there's still any Jews left. I thought they killed them all." At this point Joe was tired of wandering around and always having to ask people for favors. He felt it was time for the Jewish people to have their own country. He wanted a land where they could live in peace, but of course, it would never happen without a fight. Joe was eager to fight the war for Israel. He contacted an underground group in Czechoslovakia, who then sent him to England to train for the liberation of Israel. Before leaving for Israel, Joe learned that he had relatives in Buffalo, New York. He contacted them, and found out that he and his father were the only survivors out of 34 family members. A 19 year old girl cousin had been taken to the German troops for their entertainment and then killed.

 

In 1948, through an affidavit from his relatives he came to New York and to Buffalo with five dollars in his pocket, and very little education. He didn't know what he was going to do. There were no jobs in Buffalo, and after buying a sandwich, had only $3.50 left. After much pleading with the Greyhound bus driver, he was allowed on the bus to New York City without paying. He worked various jobs there for minimum wages.

 

When the Korean War started, Joe was drafted into the U.S. Army. He went to Fort Dix, New Jersey for his basic training. He felt proud to be a soldier in the United States Army. He loves America because we have a good constitution and a lot to offer. Since Joe could speak German, he was sent to Stutgart, Germany of all places. Joe was glad. He wanted more than anything to get even with Germany for what they had done. When he got there he realized the only way to get even would be to kill. Joe was not a murderer.

 

After all the atrocities Joe witnessed and endured, including the senseless murder of his family and attempted annihilation of his people, he didn't have it in his heart to take his revenge through killing. Instead, Joe has vowed to get even by telling his story, letting the whole world know what ordinary people are capable of doing. He wants people to realize the dangers that arise when conditions in a country worsen, and the minorities, who can do little to defend themselves, are blamed.

 

In 1990 Joe returned to Seredne, his old hometown. His family's home was still standing, though his father had passed away in 1963. The town had changed dramatically since the War. All evidence of any Jewish community was gone. When Joe asked around if there were any Jews left, he was directed to a man on the outskirts of town. Joe eagerly went to see him and he told Joe all about his history, how he had converted to Christianity, married and had a family. He said he had done the best he could with his life after the tragedy of the War. The man did not consider himself to be Jewish anymore, but to the townspeople there was not a moment's hesitation in identifying him as a Jew. He may not have been to a synagogue in over 40 years, but small towns have long memories.

 

Through his living testimony, and also by building a family, a new generation of Jewish children, Joe is saying that, "Whatever the Nazis tried to do, they didn't succeed, even though we lost the majority of our people."

 

 

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.