Joe Diamond / Czechoslovakia / Auschwitz
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.
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?"
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 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.
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
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
didn't want to do the dirty work on their own land.
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Then Joe mingled with the remaining prisoners, and went back to work with the
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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:
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.
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?"
The Triumph of Memory
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.