Abe’s Story: Excerpts & Synopsis, by Joey Korn
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My story begins in 1939 when I was 16 years old. Air raid sirens and church bells woke us in the night, tolling the danger and destruction at the hands of Hitler’s air force, the Luftwaffe. So war minded were these pilots, they destroyed a group of covered wagons, not knowing–or caring–that they contained simple building materials for our town’s railroad station.It was September 1, 1939, the first day of what is now referred to as World War II. Even though the number of injured in this initial attack was relatively small, the bombing foreshadowed a war that would destroy millions of people and would touch uncounted lives with misery.
So begins my father’s story. Abram Korn survived more than five years in Nazi concentration camps and ghettos. He was liberated by the American Army, but he was still imprisoned by his memories of those horrible years. He couldn’t bring himself to begin writing his story until almost 25 years after his liberation. He chronicled his testimony from 1969 until his death in 1972, finally liberating himself of those locked in memories.
I didn’t read my father’s story from cover to cover for several years, after I had married and entered our family business. Dad’s first draft detailed his life in the Holocaust, his liberation, and the rebuilding of his life with other survivors in post-war Germany. His original manuscript ended with his arrival by train in Augusta, Georgia, where I still live. I continue my father’s story, telling how he raised our family and built our family business in his cherished USA. Abe’s Story: A Holocaust Memoir was released by Longstreet Press on April 11, 1995, fifty years after Dad’s liberation from Buchenwald Concentration Camp in Germany. I am honored to share a synopsis with excerpts from Abe’s Story with visitors in the Cybrary.
Abe lived with his parents and two sisters in Lipno, Poland, not far from Warsaw. They owned a small lumber yard on the outskirts of town, and were prominent members of their community. Abe and his father tried in vain with other Poles to protect their homeland, but it was soon evident that the war was against the Jews more so than against Poland. Nazi soldiers soon confiscated their lumber business and took all property and valuables from the Jewish citizens of Lipno. They announced that all Jewish families would be evacuated to the Warsaw Ghetto. Abe’s parents decided to abandon their home to live with family members in a nearby town.
Abe’s family was soon deported to the Kutno Ghetto, actually a walled-in prison. Living conditions were horrible, with only one open pit toilet and one hand water pump to serve the needs of about 2000 imprisoned Jews. Life became a daily routine of waiting in lines–for food, for water, and for use of the pit toilet. Because of the accumulated waste and sewage, which the Nazis would not even allow the prisoners to remove, a typhus epidemic plagued the ghetto, spread by the lice. Many innocent people died simply because of man’s inhumanity to man.
Even though Abe was still with his family in the ghetto, he soon understood that they would all die if he did not try to escape. Maybe he could save himself and be able to help his family from outside the ghetto walls. Abe and a friend bribed a guard to arrange the escape. The following is an excerpt from the chapter entitled “Our Final Farewell.”
Within the ghetto, four Jewish doctors had improvised a hospital, which was no hospital at all. There were no facilities, no medicine, no stethoscopes–nothing except makeshift beds and the doctors’ dedicated wills to help and to heal. Within hours, the eighteen beds quickly filled with the living, who were dying. Others had no choice but to die at “home,” and it made little difference.Still, the lines seemed endless. One either waited and waited for bread, for water, for toilet facilities . . . or waited in line to be buried. Such disaster brings out the best, the worst, and the dark humor in people. The sight shocked our teacher, Reb Mottel. Over and over and over again he would say, “You see this line for bread . . . people want to be first. You see that line of the dying and the dead . . . people want to be last!” Such was his lament.
Doom stared us in the face. Our only hope for survival was to escape–if our feet were able to carry us. But how? Some of the German guards had a spark of pity left. If we could offer some inducement to compensate them for their risk, we could possibly arrange to escape. I learned that a friend of mine, Garfingal, was planning to escape.
“Garfingal,” I said, “I would like to escape, too. Is it possible for me to go with you?”
“What do you have to offer as a bribe?” he said.
“I don’t have much. I have a wrist watch,” I said, as I struggled to think of something else. “And I have a throw rug that my sisters hooked from the remains of sugar sacks,” I said excitedly. “It’s very pretty and unusual.”
The next morning, Garfingal brought me good news. His contact would be on guard duty from midnight until 6:00 a.m. At about 4:00 a.m., I would be able to barter the watch and rug for my life. Of course, I could be bartering for death at the hands of another Nazi guard who might observe our escape. Even my friend’s contact, who agreed to blink for a price, might turn on us. There was no guarantee. I gave him the watch and the rug.
Even more trying than facing death itself was facing my parents and sisters with the news. I shall never forget my mother, sobbing and saying to me, “Son mine, Abe, listen to me! Do you think that you are any different or better than us? Don’t act in this selfish way. You should want to stay with your family and share the same fate with us. What will befall us will, with God’s will, befall you too. Don’t be selfish. Don’t desert your family.” My mother convinced almost everyone that she was right–even me.
My father had the courage to think differently and logically. After reflecting on the problem that confronted us all, he said, “Do you want Abe to stay here and die, God forbid, with us? Or would you rather he escape and live–and possibly help us later to escape and live also!” My father’s wisdom prevailed and convinced us all that escape was the right thing to do.
Without waiting for calm or normality, we immediately put our nervous energy to good use. My mother placed my one pair of underwear, a towel, a shirt, socks, and a pair of trousers into a rucksack. This was my only luggage. My father, who had been following the events silently and without participating, now reminded me to pray often, and to remember–I had somehow forgotten to take my best pair of shoes with leather soles that I had been saving. I thankfully took them from him and hurriedly placed them inside my pack.
Now my family stared into empty space with me, waiting for the zero hour–when I was to attempt my escape. My father was calm and collected, despite the tension that gripped us all. “Don’t forget to remove your Jewish star insignia from your coat,” he said. Even though they displayed our revered Star of David, these yellow badges of shame identified us easily to any German, even from a distance, as Jews to be abused.
My heart broke as the moment of departure and separation from my family neared. I ran to meet the outstretched arms of my mother. Her frail, weakened form convulsed with sobs as she embraced me and kissed me good-bye. She held on to me with a grip that expressed volumes. It said, “Go.” It said, “Stay.” It said, “How sad.” It said, “How much I love you, now and forever.” It said, “God, please watch over my son.” It said the unspeakable. It spoke of a mother’s love for her only son. My sisters cried and held on to me as if to hold on to the memory of this moment–and to life.
My father–who had always been my strength and my shield–waited until last to come over. He had a rugged face with a simple, short mustache and a head of premature gray, borne of pain. He removed his pinch spectacles, fell on my shoulder, hugged me with all his might, and then abruptly let go. “Don’t ever forget us,” he said. “Don’t ever forget who you are and what our religion teaches us. Watch yourself, and may the Eternal, who watches over all of us, mercifully protect you.” I had to summon all my strength to make my feet take me away. I was never to see my family again.
Abe and his friend successfully escaped the ghetto in the fall of 1940, but where were they to go? They walked to a nearby town, Krosniewice, which was also a Nazi ghetto for Jews. At least the Nazis allowed some freedom of movement. Abe stayed with his aunt and immediately went to work trying to help his family. He learned to deal in the black market, and he smuggled goods into the Kutno Ghetto to help his family. On one of these smuggling trips, two gendarmes caught him. They beat him terribly and left him to die. Abe’s uncle took him in. Two of Abe’s good friends helped nurse him back to health.
In April 1941, Abe was deported with about one hundred other Jewish men. They were hauled in railroad cattle cars to Camp Hardt, his first of many concentration camps to come. At first he was pleased because he saw newly built barracks to live in. He thought that things were finally improving for him, but he soon learned the harsh realities of life in the camps. The prisoners were beaten sadistically, fed meagerly, and many were literally worked to death. They had to risk their lives, stealing coal, just to keep from freezing to death. Abe learned the lessons that his life was cheap, and he must always work hard if he wanted to survive.
In February 1942, Abe found himself, once again, packed with other prisoners in a cattle car. They were destined for Gross-Rosen Concentration Camp, near Breslau, Poland. As bad as things had been at Camp Hardt, Abe was shocked at the conditions at Gross-Rosen. The following is from “Survival in the Camps.”
We heard a whistle and shouts of schnell (hurry),as the Nazis ordered us to line up. My eyes beheld an unbelievable sight. Men were running around barefoot in the snow, as though they were going out of their minds. With emaciated bodies, they did not look like human beings anymore. My thoughts went far afield. What has happened to these people? What will happen to me? Why did they send me here, and how did I get into this position?To keep us in line, the Nazi SS guards whipped us like cattle. When we lined up for our supper–it could hardly have been called supper–they permitted one man at a time to go forward in the line and receive his portion of bread. The guard then whipped the next person, which was his signal to go forward and receive his ration of bread. This whipping deeply hurt our exhausted, frozen bodies. Will this small morsel of bread have to do me from now on? Who knows when I will get my next meal?
While walking back to the barracks in the snow, with bread in hand, my mind wandered back to Camp Hardt. My God, that camp was like heaven compared to this one. This camp was hell; that much I knew. Upon entering the barracks, my supposed new home, I saw that there were no provisions for heating this cold, dreary building.
No human being could have remained healthy under the conditions existing in this camp and in others like it. Our bladders were weak and not functioning properly. As a result, we found ourselves needing to go to the latrine many times during the night. Four times, five times, and sometimes more, we had to trek through the snow to urinate, as there were no toilet facilities in the barracks. Our only course of action was to use the latrine facilities a block away to get relief. I thought that if this were how I must live, then I would learn to survive.
Like animals, we become cunning when faced with hardships. We found two large bowls in the building. We used them to pass our water and get relief, without making the long walk through the snow to the latrine. When these bowls filled, one of us had to empty the contents on the snow outside the barracks. We staked our lives against the possibility of being caught.
To our great sorrow, we soon learned that we would have to eat out of these same bowls. We cleaned the bowls as best we could with just the snow outside our building. My God, how any of us survived is beyond my comprehension. Six men to eat our food from one bowl. Animals had it better.
After a short stay at Gross-Rosen, Abe bribed his way out. He was sent to Camp Dretz, near Berlin, Germany. For the first time, he traveled in a passenger car rather than a filthy cattle car. Dretz was a civilian work camp, not a concentration camp. He was treated much better there and had the good fortune to work with several good German civilians. Abe fortunately stayed at Dretz for a little over a year.
His relatively good treatment at Dretz helped him endure a two-day cattle car journey with no food, no water, and no toilet facilities. The prisoners were packed so tightly in the cars that they could not even sit down comfortably, much less lie down to rest. In April 1943, Abe arrived at Birkenau Concentration Camp, part of the Auschwitz complex that held as many as 300,000 prisoners at one time. Auschwitz is known as the “mother of all concentration camps.” Estimates of those murdered at Auschwitz range from one to four million people. As horrible as conditions were in Auschwitz, Abe learned to survive. He learned the ins and outs of life there and soon joined the resistance movement.
Auschwitz prisoners were beaten, tortured, starved, and worked to the point of death–if they were not selected to die in the gas chambers upon arrival and go up the chimneys of the crematories. As many as 10,000 prisoners a day were killed at Auschwitz. Abe remained in Auschwitz for almost two years, an almost unthinkable length of time to survive such incredible adversity. The average prisoner only survived eight weeks in Auschwitz.
In January 1945, as the Russian front was nearing, the Nazis evacuated Auschwitz. Only those too sick to march were left behind. Abe and thousands of other emaciated prisoners were marched out of the three Auschwitz camps. Abe was in a group of about 2000 who marched in the customary rows of five for 180 miles through ice and snow. They marched for about 45 days in tattered clothes, with very little food, and then rode in open train cars for two days with no food, no water, and no protection from the bitter cold. Of the original 2000, only about 200 survived the march.
In March, they finally arrived at Buchenwald Concentration Camp near Weimar, Germany, the cultural center of Germany. They marched into the camp on bare, frostbitten feet, with snow still on the ground. Conditions were a little better for him at Buchenwald, but he suffered greatly from his gangrene infected left foot. Abe had prayed for over five years for a little miracle that was about to happen.
On the afternoon of April 11, 1945, I was resting in my barracks. My body was extremely weak from fighting off my foot infection without nourishment or medical attention. I heard something that I couldn’t quite believe. I raised my head to listen. Was it my imagination? Was I losing my mind? I heard singing. The singing became louder and more distinct.The huge barracks stable door now swung open. I finally believed my ears because my eyes saw a sight I shall never forget. I beheld a miracle. Some of the same German SS officers from whom we had taken orders but moments before, now marched into our barracks with their hands and bodies bound in rope. Some of my fellow prisoners were pricking them and goading them with the Nazis’ own rifles and bayonets. They shouted to the Nazi officers, “Aren’t you proud of your accomplishments?” as they pointed to the half-dead bodies that lay on the wooden shelves in our barracks.
Fear replaced German pride and authority. With this wonderful turn of events, we saw German SS officers cringing before former Jewish prisoners. They must have asked themselves, “What will the future bring for us now?”
Behind the singing prisoners came the American soldiers. It was unbelievable, but it was true. We had done everything in our power to stay alive long enough to see Liberation, despite so many designed traps to annihilate us. We were finally seeing the miracle happen.
The American soldiers stood there like giants, in their net-covered helmets and camouflage uniforms. Seeing them look upon us with heart and feelings turned the clock back to my childhood–I was human again. They assured us that everything would be all right.
We had had to keep stiff upper lips and dry eyes through many years of persecution, of being pushed around, of hunger and deprivation beyond description, of whippings and psychological torture, of being treated worse than animals. We had learned to shut down our emotions and our pain, to turn off our tears. We had ceased to be human. We now began to feel again, to react again, to be human again. We had been resurrected–brought back from a life worse than death–and our American heroes were there before our eyes. All I could do was cry and cry and cry, and I was not alone. Prisoners and soldiers cried together.
By the time Abe was liberated, gangrene had almost claimed his left foot. With the loving attention of the doctors and nurses, he slowly recovered and began seeking out friends who had also survived. Abe and a friend decided to stay in Germany in the American Zone, and they began to rebuild their lives together in Wetzlar. More friends joined them, old and new, in a house provided by the American military. While other survivors were intent on enjoying life, Abe immediately enrolled in school and found a job. Work had helped him survive the camps, and he wasn’t going to stop working now. He was ready to put the past behind him and get on with his life.
In 1946, Abe met the woman who was to be his lifelong mate and the mother of his children, Ellie Mueller, a German Lutheran. Abe struggled with his feelings for Ellie, because he was raised in the orthodox Jewish tradition, but he felt he deserved some happiness and Ellie made him happy. Slowly but surely, Abe persuaded Ellie to marry him, but he had three conditions: she must convert to Judaism, they must raise their children in the Jewish tradition, and they must leave Germany. They wanted to emigrate to America, but they needed an American sponsor. In 1948, Abe met some friends of Ellie’s family, the Schweitzers, who had emigrated to America in the 1920’s and lived in Augusta, Georgia. The Schweitzers eventually agreed to sponsor them. Abe came over in 1949, and settled in Augusta. It took another year to get Ellie over.
When my father died in 1972, he had gotten to this point in his story. I pick it up from here. Dad had worked hard all his life. He worked with his family in their lumber business before the war. Hard work helped him to survive the camps. After Liberation, he went right to work and to school. Now that he had arrived in his cherished America, he was ready to go right to work again.
After Dad had fulfilled his required year of service to the Schweitzers, he set out to find his first real job. A newfound friend, Louis Ehrlich, convinced Jack and Agnes Platzblatt to hire my father for their small downtown store, Agnes Auto Parts. “Mr. Jack” and “Aggie” loved my parents and took them in as their own family. The Platzblatts never had children of their own, and when my brother, Jack, my sister, Helen, and I were born, Mr. Jack and Aggie considered us their own grandchildren.
Even though Dad could speak very little English when he arrived in America, he quickly learned both the language and the auto parts business. He started out delivering parts on a bicycle and soon worked the parts counter. Before long, Dad was helping to manage the business, giving Mr. Jack more time to be on the road, selling. By 1955, they had outgrown their downtown location and opened Parts Warehouse Company, Augusta’s first warehouse distributor of auto parts, selling only to auto parts stores. By the time Mr. Jack died in 1962, Dad was running the business. Together, they had built quite a successful business and had helped many other small businesses get started as their customers. Dad continued to run the business for our beloved Aggie until she died of cancer in 1971, leaving the business to my father. Though this had fulfilled his long-time dream of owning the business, it was like he had lost his mother for the second time.
Dad was only able to bask in the glory of business ownership for one short year; he died of a rare and incurable disease on August 7, 1972. Mom ran the business with my brother, my sister, and myself. Mom died in 1985, and I ran the business with my brother and sister until we sold it on December 31, 1992. This gave me the opportunity to do what I had planned for many years–to prepare my father’s memoirs for publication.
My father loved America like no native ever could. He knew what it was like to live in an oppressed society, without the freedoms that we enjoy. He expressed his patriotism in his Dedication, where he wrote:
I dedicate this book to the memory of Mr. Jack Y. Platzblatt. I came to America as a displaced person. I wanted to succeed in life through my own individual efforts and not from the charity of others. Mr. Platzblatt gave me the opportunity to do just that. I wrote this book because I am proud to be an American. I want to show my own children and whoever reads this book why I feel so grateful to be part of this great country, the United States of America.
Editing and publishing my father’s story has been the most meaningful and important work of my life. It is my small way of preserving a bit of history, to remind the world of what we allowed to happen just 50 short years ago.
Dad never lost his dignity or his love for his fellow man, even though he lived through some of the most horrible life experiences imaginable. Abe’s Story is about life–not death. It is uplifting–not depressing. Reading Abe’s Story gives us hope that we too can overcome all adversity and can accomplish the high goals we set for ourselves. I hear from people every day who tell me that they are able to apply my father’s story to their own lives today. It changes their lives, and they don’t expect that from a Holocaust memoir. I am deeply honored to share my father’s story with the world. I hope you will choose to order your own copy of Abe’s Story today.
Adapted from an article in the April issue of Augusta Magazine.
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