The Young Soapmaker
Immediately upon arriving in Mielez everyone was tatooed on their right wrist with the letters KL. This stood for concentration camp in German. Mielez was an aeroplane factory like Budzin. This camp was also manned by Jewish overseers and they also had “money deals” as in Budzin only not as much. There was no negotiation for job assignments in Mielez. Everyone was assigned to the factory. There were limited opportunities for special privileges. Luckily people weren’t starving. You could survive with your rations and you could also buy food but you could not buy jobs. I was assigned to the night shift working with aeroplane bodies. I liked my work and I was good at it. I also saw work as a way to survive. A good worker was valued and not as expendable.
One incident related to my job in Mielez stands out in my mind. My job was to drill seven holes into the body of the plane. Through an inspection it was discovered that one hole was defective. The foreman accused me of sabotage. This was punishable by fifty lashes on the backside. Luckily another foreman who was German and known as the “master” translated from German, realized that there was a way to repair the problem. He came to the office of the factory where I was being prepared for the beating. “Come Leo, let’s go fix that hole in the plane” he said and with that whisked me back to the factory. The workers on the night shift were already assembled to return to camp for the evening but now had to wait to finish the job with the German master and myself.
Other memories of Mielez are dim. This may be due partly to the fact that we were only in Mielez for three months and partly because I worked at night and slept during the day. This kept me out of the mainstream activities. During this period I had no social life and little social involvement. In fact in subsequent periods of my life I met people whom I learned were in Mielez during the same period I was and I have no recollection of ever seeing them there.
Even without specific news reports we had a feeling that the Russians were moving closer. Most of the inmates felt that none of us would survive the war. At times it felt that I always lived like this, relocating every few months, having to use every bit of strength and wit just to stay alive from moment to moment. I tried not to dwell on these things. It was better to keep moving, to keep doing. The effect of the war on my father, however, was dramatic. From a vigorous family man, a business man and a respected community member he was greatly diminished physically and emotionally. He was now a shadowy frail old man in his fifties desperately immersed in religious thoughts and ruminations trying and hoping to believe that there are higher human values, that there is order and compassion somewhere in the world or at least in the universe. While in Budzin and in a less vigorous routine my father spent much of his free time developing a Jewish calendar by listing dates and holidays up to the year 1995. This was an activity that kept him mentally absorbed during this terrible time but now I wonder about it and think about possible messages this project might mean to me now to help me understand my life and these events now and the fact that he choose this activity that links him to now and the future.
In the late summer of ’44 we were loaded into trains again without warning and without any indication of where we were going. The journey was lengthy and we lost concept of time. We eventually wound up in a salt mine called Welicka which was actually only a short distance from Mielez. We learned later that the original destination was Auschwitz and we at first arrived just outside of Auschwitz but because of overcrowding we were not let in. It was a relief to learn that we avoided Auschwitz although we didn’t actually know anything specifically except that it was not good there. We didn’t know anything about crematoriums. Although Auschwitz was not a death camp as Sorbibor was, a death camp, it got its reputation because so many people did die there. However, it was not until after the war that we knew these facts for certainty.
Welicka became a stop for us where we sat around waiting for our next destination. We spent a week there. The salt mines was a work site but the intent was not for us to work there but rather served as a way station. We were free to wander around and observe which is how I spent most of my time during that week. Welicka was the last time that men and women were together and after we were separated from my aunt and cousin in Welicka, I never saw them again. At the end of that week the men were herded into tightly packed cattle trains. The cars were completely enclosed, locked and heavily guarded. We travelled this way for three days. I have no recollection of food or water rations but there must have been some minimal sustenance for any of us to make it. People were dropping and dying all around us. We hardly noticed. No one made a fuss. Some people groaned deeply and some sighed heavily and this is how we came to Bavaria, Germany to Camp Flossenberg. On the platform of Flossenberg my uncle collapsed. He foamed at the mouth and there seemed no sign of life. A Ukrainian man was standing nearby and I offered him one of my few remaining gold pieces for a bottle of water. I poured water onto my uncle’s face and miraculously he revived. The three of us then drank the remains of that precious water. We arrived in Flossenberg in the summer of 1944, the beginning of the worst year of my life.
Flossenberq was my last camp experience. The summer we arrived was extremely hot. Initially we were relieved because the first question in our minds was “Is this a death camp?” Seeing people walking around the grounds was somewhat reassuring but not too much. The first procedure at Flossenberg was delousing. This was a prevalent problem by now because of the terrible living conditions and it became routine in most camps. The procedure at Flossenberg involved a period of isolation to allow for showering and delousing the clothes. Entering the showering area was a fearful experience. Until we actually saw water run down we could not be sure we wouldn’t be gassed. Since we had to disrobe and give up all our clothes there was nowhere to hide my few remaining bills. I felt lucky that no one noticed my clenched fists as we filed through naked with our arms raised to get to the showers. It seemed surprisingly easy but when I got to the showers I was again confronted with the problem of what to do with my money. I somehow found a private moment in which I stuck the rolled bills into my rectum where they must have disintegrated because I never found them again. Now I was totally without money. This made me feel helpless and worthless.
After the showers we were again led naked into barracks located in a corner of the camp grounds designated for new arrivals and isolated from the rest of the camp. We were the first Jews to arrive in Flossenberg which was already populated by an array of European nationalities including Germans and including what was considered deviant groups such as gypsies and homosexuals. In the three days that we spent in that barrack we were left to wander around naked amid a myriad of strange groups with a multitude of strange cultures and strange languages. At the end of that time a group of official looking middleaged Gestapo authorities entered the barracks and seated themselves in an arranged group of comfortable looking chairs while the prisoners were ordered to file past them slowly with their naked bodies. As we marched through the group each person was marked on his face with red pen with X1, X2, or X3 markings. I don’t remember the marking on my face but it was apparent that I was with the younger, more vigorous inmates while my father and uncle were put into a different group. My fathe.asked me if we could do something to stay together. I couldn’t think of anything but a young man in my father’s group overheard us and offered to switch places. This is how I became Avrum Sher for the next nine months. The real Avrum Sher was transferred to camp Lite Miritz where they had a ninety percent death rate. This surpassed even Flossenberg. In the meantime I had to concentrate very hard during roll call to remember to respond to my new name. We were given striped uniforms with a number on a red triangular label sewn onto the uniform. I still remember my number, it was 16842. These labels identified us as political prisoners. We were then assigned to regular barracks.
Our group was sent to barrack number eleven. Again, there was a vast mix of different nationalities from Poles to Russians as well as Germans. The camp was wired with electric power. There was no way out. Foremen and policemen were called Kapos in this concentration camp. There were no Jewish kapos although there were Jewish kapos in other camps.
After we arrived in barrack number eleven we gathered for roll call and we were asked if anyone had a special trade. My friend Shea and I volunteered as carpenters. Since we knew nothing about carpentry, we were met with angry rejection by other workers who were skilled while we couldn’t even hold a saw except in a very clumsy way. As punishment for this deception we were assigned to the heavy labor group and their work was stone digging. This group did not last long because it was so strenuous that most of the people died within a short period and once again we were reassigned.
Flossenberg also had an areoplane factory and eventually I ended up in the areoplane factory working on the wings riveting and drilling with a power hammer. Here I had former experience and I had become pretty good at it. My father and uncle also worked in the aeroplane factory but I never saw then during the day. We met at night at mealtime. The food rations were very meager and of a very bad quality. Rations consisted of a small piece of bread and watered coffee in the morning, thin soup for lunch and margerine and a piece of bread evenings. Not enough to maintain health. We were always hungry.
Inmates at Flossenberg became known as “the musselmen” or skeletons. This was the last stage of starvation. The will to live was so strong that you risked your life for that chance to live. I tried to save breadcrumbs in my pocket in the hope that I could satiate those pangs of hunger that always knawed in my stomach but it didn’t help. When we saw the containers of soup being brought to the barracks Shea and I hit on a plan in which one of us would switch off the lights for a minute. In that confusion one of us would stand by to scoop up some soup with an extra container until they figured out what was happening. It worked that one time, we were not caught but we never tried it again. Another time we tripped the person carrying the vats of soup. Our plan again was to scoop up extra soup during the commotion. This time Shea was caught while I got away. As punishment Shea had his hands tied to a broomstick and he was hung with his hands from the broomstick. He was left this way for many hours and after that he couldn’t move his arms for days.
Along with the food each prisoner was given cigarettes and canteen money. Those who smoked and traded food for cigarettes did not survive beyond six to eight weeks. We traded cigarettes for food and still could not supplement enough food to quiet the hunger pains. The canteen money intended for canteen use had nothing available. The canteen was open for one hour a day after work and sold only chewing tobacco and beer. Realistically there was always five hundred or six hundred people waiting in line. I don’t know of anyone who was ever able to get these items legitamately. Occasionally I managed to sneak to the front of the line. Usually I got thrown out. But if you did get chewing tobacco or beer you could always trade it for bread. Bread was the most valued commodity although everything was tradeable. You could trade cigarettes for bread and bread for cigarettes. The German prisoners somehow had more access to food and they would often trade their ration of soup. All these transactions took place in what was known as the camp marketplace which was merely an open area by the barracks where people congregated. You needed these maneuvers to keep yourself from getting to the musselman stage. The minute you got to that you were a gonner.
We went to the barracks for our night meal and after finishing our meal we went to sleep. We slept two on a bunk bed which was a narrow cot. We slept head to feet and feet to head. We had to rise early for morning roll call and no matter how cold it was we were expected to wash outdoors. Stripped to the waist we were led to a barn where they had shafts of water. Many people died from the lack of food and exposure. There were no burials. The bodies were disposed of in the crematorium.
There were times when I worked nights and my father and uncle worked days. At those times we hardly saw each other. It was during such a period that my father surprised me with a visit on my night shift. It was a day before Yom Kippur. He said that he had extra bread for me and asked that I fast on Yom Kippur. I wasn’t surprised that he asked me to fast but, I wondered how he got the extra ration. He wouldn’t tell me. I was puzzled because my father was a quiet, reserved man unlike my uncle who was a master “wheeler dealer” and who played all kinds of tricks on his overseers and unlike myself who jumped in and took risks. I took the extra bread and I can still remember the good feeling of that little extra on that pre Yom Kippur meal. I worked that night and hoarded the rations I received on Yom Kippur day. I had such concern that my bread might be stolen that I could not sleep that night. It was at sundown after Yom Kippur that made it all worth while. All the stored up rations made me the envy of the night crew. I ate it all that evening, with great gusto and then almost immediately became ill.
We had no contact with the outside world but somehow through rumour and word of mouth we knew that the Americans and the Russians were moving closer, were nearing the borders. We knew that the Germans were losing the war. Shea and those I talked to had no vision of surviving. Time passed, the winter was cold, daily people around us died. Everyday we struggled only to stay alive one more day.
Spring came, then Passover. My father insisted on observing Passover and the strict compliance of holiday food restrictions. Immediately after Passover my father became ill. He was taken to the infirmary. This scared me. I visited him nightly after work. It looked like he was getting sicker. One day in the middle of April all the prisoners were greatly surprised by a startling upgrade of food quality.
On that one day we received excellent food. We couldn’t believe it. We learned later that a group from the International Red Cross from Switzerland came to inspect the camp conditions. We knew that there were visitors there but we didn’t know who they were. The following day after the morning roll call instead of going to work we were put on trains to an unknown destination. The Jews in camp were evacuated. There was no explanation. This was Monday morning, April 15, 1945.
“We died so that you should live.”
Once again we were directed into a closed cattle train. We learned later that all the prison inmates were to be sent to Dachau, the well known death camp, but this never materialized. As we boarded the trains I did not know where my father or uncle were but I had no time to think about it because as the train pulled out of the station British and American jet fighters started to shoot on the locomotive. The shooting continued for two days. During this time the Germans changed the locomotive car about three or four times.
We travelled only a short distance to the town of Schwartzenfeld. In Schwartzenfeld the doors of the trains were opened. Everyone was given a ration of bread and we were allowed out of the cars. It was then that I had an opportunity to mingle and inquire about my father and uncle. I found out that they were also in this transport and set out to look for them. This time my uncle was also separated from my father. When I found my father he was barely able to respond or recognize me. While I was with him the planes arrived again and the shooting began again. Everyone ran for cover. I was sitting on the floor beside my father who against the wall of the wagon facing the door when I was hit in the knee by a shrapnel fragment. There was so much going on I barely noticed it. There was no bleeding so I paid no attention. It was then that the Germans decided that it was pointless to continue travelling by train in this way so all the able prisoners were assembled to march on foot.
After the second day of marching my knee became very swollen and the wound opened. My friend had a safety pin which I used to dig into the wound. With the head of the pin as a hook I excavated the shrapnel. I then washed it with my own urine because I remember hearing somewhere that the acid in the urine would act as a disinfectant. It seemed to help momentarily but the pain was unbearable and I refused to go on. A German guard whom I had never seen before approached me and said “you’d better go on because if I leave you here someone will surely shoot you.” He reached towards a tree and broke off a branch. As he handed me the branch, he said “do the best you can if you want to go on living.” I never saw him after this interchange. One of my fellow townsmen offered me his shoulder to lean on and this is how we continued on.
The march which started Wednesday afternoon lasted for four days until Saturday afternoon. Saturday morning it began to rain. The rain became heavy and many people lost their shoes as they waded through the mud and puddles. We walked through the small village of Nounberg. Some of the villagers threw food at us, but we couldn’t get any of it because the German guards wouldn’t permit it. By Saturday afternoon we came to the edge of Nounberg where we entered a large barn. I have dim memories of this period. There may have been several barns. My weariness and my knee pain was tremendous. We found a space on the floor between the straw and the hay and just rested. I think we stayed here Saturday night and all day Sunday. On Monday morning the march resumed again. This time we were headed towards the woods. Most of us without shoes had to manage the dense growth, splintered wood and pebbles in the mud paths with our bare feet. Before the end of the first hour of this difficult trek we began to hear sporadic shooting. We didn’t know what was happening, it came about so quickly. The first odd thing that I noticed was that some of the prisoners were eating food out of a German knapsack. I still didn’t understand what was happening. Then I realized there wasn’t a guard in sight. Others must have become aware of this too because suddenly everyone started to run including myself. We ran without knowing where we were going. This is how liberation day was for us.
I ran with some others who ended up with me in the same farm house. The farmer led us into the attic to hide because he was afraid the SS guards might find us. I don’t know whether he feared for himself or for us. Some of the SS guards had gone on a rampage searching and hunting for as many Jews as they could find. Forty Jews were shot and killed in cold blood on liberation day. The farmer gave us a liberal supply of fresh bread which we ate instantly. That was an indescribable experience. The farmer cautioned us to stay where we were because the Germans were still looking for prisoners but the following morning we walked out on the road and were greeted by cheering American soldiers in tanks, jeeps and automobiles. They threw packages of crackers and chocolate at us. It was an amazing scene. An amazing moment. Even at this point my knee was throbbing badly and was very swollen. I could no longer walk.
A farmer in a wagon took me to the hospital in the nearby town of Kam. It was there that I received my first hot meal since entering the camps. While I was resting in a nice clean bed in the hospital room, I overheard a Hungarian doctor talking to a German doctor telling him in German that my leg would have to be amputated. I was panic struck. I didn’t want to live like that, not now after all this. I couldn’t sleep. At five in the morning I got out of bed, I grabbed a coat from a nearby rack. I realized later that I had taken a woman’s coat and that I didn’t know where I was going. I met a farmer with a horse and wagon and asked him to take me to the nearest village away from the town of Kam. He took me to the village of Pemkling. There I was greeted by some of the former fellow camp inmates. A group of about twenty Jews had collected in that village. Others spread to other villages. We were treated well by the villagers. The American army had temporary stations in most of these villages and they did what they could to make sure that we were well provided for by the farmers. My knee was still very sore and badly swollen. I found a woman in town who was a midwife. She said she could help me. She gave me a green ointment and within a few days the wound healed and I was able to walk normally again.
It was now a week after liberation. I started to search for my father and uncle. A man from an adjoining village told me he saw my uncle. I immediately set out to meet him. I found him in a farmer’s house. He was reciting his evening prayers in a small room with a large cross hanging on the wall behind the bed. He told me my father died a day before Liberation. I was not surprised. I expected this. My uncle also told me that while we marched he and my father and other older prisoners were transported by truck to the outskirts of Nuonburg to a big barn in the same area I had been. We might have been in the same barn at the same time and didn’t even know it. It was there that my father died.
I returned to Pemkling with my uncle and helped set him up with a comfortable farm family. In the meantime the young Jewish men and former prisoners who were with me in camp had gotten enough food in their stomachs, were feeling rested and were feeling inexpressible feelings and a need to do something about it. I was part of this group feeling what they were feeling. This outrage was not directed at the villagers. The intent was to get back at the German SS men. Many of the Nazis who belonged to the Nazi party fled or went into hiding. Some pretended they were innocent villagers such as the Burgen meister or the Meyer of Kam who was extremely solicitous of offering us anything we wanted. It was revealed later that he was a Nazi who belonged to the Nazi party. He was arrested three years later. When we did find an SS man it was easy enough to validate his identity by the “O” tatooed under his arm but we were warned by the American soldiers not to take the law into our own hands and to turn captives we might find over to the American army. We had no ammunition. We had no bayonnets. We were a wild disorganized group who couldn’t believe that what we waited for so long to happen was now happening. Now the capturers cou ld become captives and the captives could become capturers.
We managed to capture some German SS men and we beat them, we hit them, we slapped them, we tied them up, but we didn’t kill them. I remember wildly punching one such captive. “This is for my father.. This is for my mother…,” and then it was all so meaningless. It didn’t help the years of systematic dehumanization, it didn’t change anything. After all this we killed no one. The villagers were in chaos. Most of the townspeople remained at home cautious and guarded. Their businesses remained unattended and abandoned. Banks were left open with paper money in plain sight for everyone to see. We burned the German money with contempt believing it had no value because they lost the war.
This anarchy did not last long and the Germans with the help of the American army mobilized themselves to bring some order to the area. After about four weeks it was made clear that former prisoners living with local farmers were expected to work for their room and board. About one hundred Jews left from these small villages and boarded the train from Nuomberg to Frankfort-on-Main. My uncle and I were part of this group. In June 1945 when we arrived in Frankfort-on-Main we were met by the UNNRA who gave us shelter as part of their resettlement program. Both my uncle and myself almost immediately began to work for the American army until we left Germany together for the United States on June 1948.
This picture was taken in Germany on the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Flossenburg camp.
In 1991 Leonard Lerer spoke about his experiences as a victim of Hitler’s war against the Jews at the Marathon Jewish Community Center in Queens.
“ZACHOR LO TISHKOCH”
Until September 14, 1939 my life in a small town in the Polish section of Eastern Europe was typical of a young Jewish boy in that part of the world in that period of time. I lived in a Jewish community surrounded by gentiles. Aside from my immediate family, I had many relatives and knew all the town people, both Jews and gentiles, not too unlike my children growing up here in Little Neck. On September 14, 1939 almost two weeks after the outbreak of the war and shortly after my Bar Mitzvah, my world exploded. In the course of the next five and a half years I lost my entire family and almost everyone I ever knew. Death, violence and brutality became a daily occurence in my life while I was still a young teenager.
Let me give you a few examples. In December 1939 some of us were told to gather in the market place for an important meeting. Instead, we were immediately surrounded by the police and led to a “march” towards the Russian border. I was at the march separated from my family. On that march about fifteen hundred Jews were killed. The Russians did not let us in, so on the return trip back I was reunited with my family until 1942. In 1942 we were ordered to assemble in the market place to be shipped to a labor camp in occupied Russia. Everyone was boarded onto cattle trains. When I saw a woman stabbed to death because she didn’t surrender her jewelry fast enough, I and some of my friends decided to escape. We cut around the window until the pane of glass fell out and then we jumped. As far as I know I was the only one who survived. On that train I also left my mother, two sisters, a brother, cousins and other relatives. We learned later that that train went to Sorbibor.
After jumping the train I returned to town where I joined a group freed after “the infamous selection process.” This group consisted of two hundred people whose job it was to sort the belongings in the homes of Jews taken by the Germans. There was a continuous search by the Gestapo for Jews who hid and did not join the transport. These Jews were taken to the outskirts of town and shot. This search went on for weeks. I personally witnessed many of these mass shootings.
I lived this life for nine months until we were taken away to the concentration camps. Stories of concentration camps have been documented by many. Everyone who lived through it has a special story of their own. I and those who iived through this suffered many losses and have seen people lose parents, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, children – the very young and the very old. During those terrible years there was no time to say Kaddish, there was no time to mourn or ever to cry. We were all involved in trying to stay alive, to survive, because those who didn’t have the tremendous desire to live certainly died. Fortunately, I was young and strong and I wanted to live. The cost of life, however, was at a high price because I am a witness and I cannot forget. As a witness my greatest fear is that you will forget. As a witness I am a symbol so that you will remember. As a witness it is my responsibility to tell this story so that you do not forget and that you make sure that your children will not forget. I wish to conclude with the words from the Bible, “Zachor Lo Tishkoch”. Remember: Do not forget. The question arises why the double wording. My interpretation is “Zachor”: “You” remember. “Lo Tishkoch”: make sure that “your children” do not forget.
This is a monument where my father is buried among 613 people who the Nazis killed one day before the liberation. This photo was taken in 1946. The tombstone reads:
Brothers of the children of Israel who were killed by the nazi murderers because they were Jews are laid to rest here.
Copyright © 1999, The Young Soapmaker by Gertie Lerer.