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Good afternoon and welcome to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. My name is Bill Benson and I am the host of the Museum’s public program, First Person. Thank you for joining us today. We are in our tenth year of the First Person program. Our first person today is Mr. David Bayer, whom we shall meet shortly.
This 2009 season of First Person is made possible though the generosity of the Louis and Doris Smith Foundation, to whom we are grateful for again sponsoring First Person.
First Person is a series of weekly conversations with survivors of the Holocaust who share with us their first hand accounts of their experience during the Holocaust. Each First Person guest serves as a volunteer for the Museum.
We will have a First Person program each Wednesday through August 26, and we will also have a First Person program each Tuesdays until the end of July. The Museum’s website at www.ushmm.org provides a list of the upcoming First Person guests.
This year we are offering a new feature associated with First Person. Excerpts from our conversations with survivors are available as podcasts on the Museum’s website. Several for this year are already posted on the website. David’s will be posted within a few weeks. The First Person podcasts join two other Museum podcast series: Voices on Antisemitism and Voices on Genocide Prevention. The podcasts are also available through iTunes.
This is our first, First Person program since last Wednesday, when a gunman came into the Museum and tragically took the life of Officer Stephen Johns. Officer Johns, in giving his life, and his fellow officers, stopped the gunman before he could cause more horror and harm more people.
We were just opening our doors to the audience when the shots were fired. We were able to lock our audience in this room and keep them inside this theater. Thanks to the courage and resolve of our First Person last Wednesday, Mrs. Jacqueline Birn, together with her sister, Manuela Mendels Bornstein, who was visiting from Atlanta, we ended up continuing with a modified version of our program, until we were able to leave around 2:30 or so.
I want to acknowledge the professionalism and fortitude of several people in this room for the way that they handled that situation. Despite our not knowing fully what was going on outside these doors, Carly Ward, our First Person program director, and Carly in the darkness I can’t see you back there, but if you are—I think she’s stepped out—but Carly Ward, who greeted you when you came in through the front doors.
Ellen Blalock, the Museum’s Director of Survivor Affairs—Ellen, if you would acknowledge the crowd please—two volunteers who come on Wednesdays, so they’re not here, Dora Yockelson and Harold Whitman, who help us each Wednesday; Josh Blinder who came in here to let us know that we needed to stay in here and he stayed with us.
Also, up in our control booth, I want to acknowledge Duane Brant and Dave Stolte, who were locked in up there, and we communicated by pantomime primarily until such time as they held a screen to their laptop with CNN on it, so that we really began to know more about what had happened, inside the Museum; and, fortunately, our interpreter, Vicky, had stepped out to go to the bathroom where she ended up being locked in the bathroom with a group of folks, so.
But the staff of this museum just performed tremendously, and our First Person last week stepped up to the plate, if you will, and said, “I want to go on and talk about what we experienced.” And so I would just like to share that and acknowledge the remarkable work of these folks. And I know that took place throughout this institution on that particular afternoon.
And David Bayer is our first person, our first, First Person, since last Wednesday. David will share with us his first person account of his experience during the Holocaust and as a survivor for about forty minutes. We will follow that with an opportunity, we hope, if time allows, for a few questions of David. Before you are introduced to him, I have several announcements and requests of you.
We ask that if it is at all possible, please stay seated throughout our one-hour program; that way we minimize any disruptions for David as he’s speaking. If we do have time for questions and answers at the end of the program, I ask that you make your question as brief as you can. I will repeat the question so everyone in the room including David hears the question, and then he’ll answer it.
If you have a cell phone or a pager, we ask that you turn that off now, if it hasn’t been turned off, although as we learned last week that they, for the most part, don’t work in here, but still, we’d like you to turn them off. For those of you who have passes to the Permanent Exhibition today, please know they are good through the rest of the afternoon so that you can stay with us comfortably until we end our program.
The Holocaust was the state-sponsored, systematic persecution and annihilation of European Jewry by Nazi Germany and its collaborators between 1933 and 1945. Jews were the primary victims; six million were murdered. Roma and Sinti, or Gypsies, people with mental and physical disabilities, and Poles were also targeted for destruction or decimation for racial, ethnic, or national reasons. Millions more, including homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Soviet prisoners of war, and political dissidents also suffered grievous oppression and death under Nazi tyranny.
More than 60 years after the Holocaust, hatred, anti-Semitism, and genocide still threaten our world, as shown so tragically just this past Wednesday. The life stories of Holocaust survivors transcend the decades and remind us of the constant need to be vigilant citizens, and to stop injustice, prejudice, and hatred whenever and wherever they occur.
What you are about to hear from David Bayer is one individual’s account of the Holocaust. We have prepared a brief slide presentation to help with David’s introduction.
And we begin with this 1945 portrait of David Bayer, taken after his liberation, and this photo was taken in his hometown of Kozienice. On this map of Europe, the arrow points to Poland, where David was born, September 27, 1922.
On this map of Poland, our arrow points to the approximate location of Kozienice, David’s hometown. For most of the 1930s, David spent his days going to school, playing sports, and working in his father’s shoe factory. Here we have a contemporary photograph of David’s home, in Kozienice.
Featured in this 1938 photo of a Zionist youth group is David’s brother Joshua, and he is in the third row, if I can put the cursor on it, but the third row, standing third from the left, third row, third from the left, and I think the arrow’s probably on him.
David’s life changed dramatically in September, 1939, when German troops invaded Poland. Nazis quickly began to implement anti-Semitic policies. In this photo, German troops march into Poland.
In 1940, the Bayers were forced to move into the Kozienice ghetto. This is a view of the Kozienice ghetto through the barbed wire fence that enclosed it. In September 1942, the ghetto was liquidated, and its inhabitants, including members of David’s family, were deported to the Treblinka killing camp, and the arrow points to the location of Treblinka.
David was taken to Pionki, an industrial complex that produced munitions. In 1944, he was deported to Auschwitz, where he was selected for forced labor in the coal mines. This second arrow points to the location of Auschwitz. Here we see a fence around the barracks at the main camp of Auschwitz I.
As the Soviet Army neared, David and other prisoners were sent on a death march. However, David managed to escape into the forest and was found by the Soviets. He spent two years in the Foehrenwald Displaced Persons Camp in Germany. Here we have a map of the major camps for Jewish displaced persons, with the arrow pointing to the Foehrenwald Displaced Persons Camp.
In this next photo, David, who is in the first row, third from the left—and there you have, dead center—we see David and his friends posing at an airport near the Displaced Persons Camp in 1946. And here we see David with a friend at the Foehrenwald DP Camp in 1947.
In that same year, David would move to Panama. We close with two photographs from Panama. Here we see David in front of the gate to a synagogue in Panama City, and here we have David by his employer’s horse, also taken in Panama City.
After a remarkable year in Panama, David would go to Israel, where he would see a great deal of combat as the State of Israel was created. Eventually, David returned to Panama before coming to the United States to start a family and his new life.
Today David and his wife Adele live just outside of Washington DC. The Bayers have two children: daughter Sandra and son Mark, and two grandchildren. David volunteers his time in the Museum’s Registry on Wednesdays. The Registry is the office where he researches and compiles lists of those who survived the Holocaust, as well as those who perished. Among other purposes, the Registry helps make it possible for survivors, family members, and others to find those who may have survived.
And with that, I’d like to ask you to join me in welcoming our first person, Mr. David Bayer.
David, thank you for joining us and for your willingness to be our first person today. It was less than a month before your seventeenth birthday when the Nazis invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Before you talk about your life during the Holocaust, let’s start with you telling us about your family, your community, and you, in Kozienice in those early years before the war began.
Well, I was sixteen years old when the Germans came into my town. Before that I was a happy guy, with a nice family, my father had a shoe factory, and we had about fifteen or sixteen people working for us. My sister, she was eighteen years old, my brother twelve, and my little sister eight years old. My parents were—my father about forty-two, my mother about forty-one.
And we had a nice home and a garden and everything else, and I was going to school and playing soccer and riding a bike, and having a nice young life. When the Germans came in, everything changed.
David, before you tell us about that, just a couple more questions. Tell us how large the Jewish population was in Kozienice. And didn’t you live in a Christian part of the own?
Well the town was about six or seven thousand people; the majority were Jewish people—five thousand Jews lived in town. We lived in an area with a Christian section, and close to a church, because my father needed more space for the factory, so that’s why we lived over there, with our backyard, and a shop.
The population was a lot of shoe factories, a lot of tailors, a lot of watchmakers, and all kind of craftsmen. And the area was farm, the area near where my hometown, all the farmers came once a week to deal with the Jewish people.
We were very friendly; we had no problems. And there was a colony of ethnic Germans living not far, and we were very friendly with them. And we had no problem. We lived our lives and they lived theirs, and that’s it. But the Germans changed the whole situation.
And once they came, things changed dramatically, right?
Everything changed dramatically. Like, when the Germans came in, we had to run away. We run to the forest. Everybody run out because they bombarded the town, and there was a lot of shooting. And when we came back, we find Germans ransacking our home, taking everything out, whatever they could—even the dishes.
And they were looking for shoes, for leather, for machinery, whatever they could take. We came back, after a few days [of] being in the forest, and there were Germans in our home. And my mother cried because one German pulled down a box of Passover dishes and broke it, from a shelf, broke everything, and whatever didn’t break, he took it.
And those dishes had been in the family—
They’d been there for hundreds of years.
Hundreds of years.
You know, porcelain and silver dishes. Well, the Germans left with laughter; they were making fun of us. One German even asked my father, “How come nobody likes Jews?”
And I was standing next to my father. My father said, “Because we don’t hit back.”
He made a gesture like, and I got so scared, I thought my father was going to hit that German. But [like] he said, we don’t hit back. And that’s why they don’t like us. And we never did hit back. My grandfather used to tell me if I had a fight in school: just don’t do it, put the other cheek. That’s what they always tell you.
And this is the problem we had. We were innocent people; we didn’t do nothing. We were only religious, we believed in God, we would pray every Saturday, you know, we had a good religious life. Then, the Germans start coming into our home, put a Star of David on our door, because we lived in a Christian area, they wanted to know we were living there.
And then one day they come in, one German came in, and he took me out—there were a few of them, but the one grabbed me—he pulled me out of the house to do some work for them. And there were a bunch of German soldiers standing there behind a church, and they wanted me to take out a battery from under the truck.
I never had a truck; I never saw a car in my town. We had horses and wagons. And I didn’t know how to do it. My hands were bleeding; it was cold already, there was snow on the ground, and I had to lie down in the mud to take the battery out. And they were standing and laughing, taking pictures.
Finally I got the battery out, and the acid spilled on me and burned all of my clothes, to the skin. I was crying; I was yelling and crying. And they were taking pictures and laughing. The humiliation was—I could have died there and I would have been happier.
Finally, I begged them, I said, “Let me go home. I will come back; I will change my clothes.” They didn’t let me go. So when it got dark they told me to go; no food, no nothing. My mother was home and crying, waiting for me.
That was one incident. Then there was hundreds more. One day they came in and got my father. And they made him cover up ditches where it used to be, for protection, ditches they were digging there, and they were beating them. And my mother was crying; she said, “Go and exchange yourself for your father.”
And that’s what I did. I exchanged myself and the Germans didn’t notice. My father slipped away and I took his place. They beat him; he was very upset.
David, tell us about an incident where you were seized by Germans while on a bread line, as I recall, and this one involved your brother Josh.
Well I always run out of the house—my mother didn’t want me to go nowhere but I would always go and get something. We had no food; we had to eat. So I went to a bakery and everybody at the bakery was standing in line to get bread.
So I stood there for a while, and it got dark already, and there was a curfew. And the Germans came and took everybody away and locked them up in the church, right across from my house. And my mother, my father, my family didn’t know what had happened to me.
The whole night I didn’t sleep. In the morning I came out from the church, on the courtyard, and I waved my clothes toward my house, [which] was not far from there, and my brother noticed that I was in the church locked up. So they felt better already.
Then a few days later they took everybody away, me and all the people there in the church, maybe three to four thousand people, to a military camp in Radom, a city about thirty kilometers from my hometown.
My father sent my sister—she looked like an Aryan, with blonde hair, blue eyes—she went to Radom and she bribed a guard to get me out. She paid him some money. He was a Polish [man], not a German. And I went back home.
And then, there was other thousands of things. For instance, there was a military camp, maybe two kilometers away from my hometown, near a lake. And we were starving; we had no food. So I went out of the house, my mother yelling at me no, and I went to that camp to get leftover from the soldiers. The soldiers had a field kitchen, and whatever they didn’t like, they would either spill it out or you handed them a can or a pot [for them] to give it to you.
And there were a lot of other people over there waiting. Most of them were Christian. I was the only Jew there. The Christian boys, who knew me and went to school with me, and we grew up together, thought of me as a Jew: “Jude, Jude,” to the Germans, that I’m a Jew. Some Germans didn’t give me the soup and some Germans with extra gave it to me. Just for spite of the snitch. And they were boys who went to school with me. They were my neighbors.
So that’s what happened. And we had double neighbors, double enemies: the one who came in, [and] the one who we lived with.
David you would eventually be forced, your family would be forced, to move into a ghetto in Kozienice. Will you tell us about that?
Our house was a big house. We had a lot of rooms. But the Germans chased all the people, all the Jewish people who lived outside the Jewish section, back to the Jewish section. We had to move out. I had to take a sled and pull everything that, whatever I could, to that ghetto, supposedly.
We got one room, and we left everything in our house: machinery, furniture, everything we couldn’t handle, we couldn’t take. We hid some leather and some shoes in the garden; I buried it before that. And that’s what we left over there. And every once in a while I sneaked out from the ghetto and went over there and pulled up some leather, a pair of shoes, from the ground so I could sell it and get food.
That’s the way we lived. And then I volunteered to go to work for Gestapo men. How did it happen? They called my father’s brother to work for a Gestapo man who was living in a compound of all these German officers. And he was like, you know, a house boy; you know, was cleaning his room, shining his shoes, washing his laundry. But he was a young man and he’d just gotten married, and he asked the officer if I could be exchanged for him.
So the German agreed and I went to work for that Gestapo man. He was a ruthless man but he treated me good. He gave me food when I came home, and he gave me marmalade, he gave me salami, he gave me bread, he gave me a lot of food.
I also was doing translation for him, because a lot of people who they locked up in the dungeon, there was one Polish young man, who they accused of having a gun. So the Pole was crying and yelling, “I don’t have no gun, I never had a gun, was not my gun!” So I was translating this for this German officer.
So one day he tells me, “Take him out.” So, he didn’t want to come out, so he says, “Okay talk to him in the dungeon.” It was a cellar; I opened up the door and there he was. He couldn’t get out. Only way to get out was with a ladder.
So I talked to him, I said, “He wants you to tell him how did you get the gun, where did the gun come from?” He says, “Well it’s not my gun, I never saw it before!”
The German pulled a gun and shot him, right there in the basement. That’s it. I had to take him out and bury him in the field.
Then another incident happened. A bunch of Nazis brought in about ten to fifteen Jews from town, brought them into on the plaza, and made them dance around a fire. And they put a Torah scroll, a Holy Book of Moses, parchment, unrolled it and put it on the fire, and made everybody dance.
When I came out, I was taking out the trash, or something, one of the Germans grabbed me and made me run around and dance around the fire. My officer, who heard the commotion, came out, and he saw me, so he took me away from there; he said, “Don’t bother him; he works for me.” This was one incident.
Then I told my officer who I worked for that in the group there was a doctor, a veterinarian. His name was Dr. Gonszer. He was a Jew who never spoke Yiddish, only Polish. He was a Jewish assimilated man. He only was the intelligentsia in my hometown. He had a wife who was a dentist, and one daughter.
The man was heavy-set. He couldn’t jump; he couldn’t run. They beat him very hard. So I told the officer that he is a doctor, he could go work in the stables, with the horses; they had a lot of horses and cows. So the German came in and took the doctor out from the group, and he put him in the stables. He was appreciative; he said thank you to me.
He came to work about two or three days. Then he never showed up. He committed suicide. He and his wife and his daughter cut their veins. That’s why he didn’t come back.
David, you would, before long, you would be forced to work on an irrigation project that ended up probably saving your life.
The Polish government, before the war, was building an irrigation project not far from my hometown, because the Vistula River overflows every year, so they were building canals. When the Germans came in, they continued that work. So they got volunteers from our ghetto, from the town. I volunteered to work.
We walked to the canal project every morning, we came home every night. They gave us food for that. This was good because we couldn’t buy no food, we couldn’t get no food—we were locked up in the ghetto. And I helped my family. And then, when you work in the fields, you get potatoes, you get farmers to who are coming in to help sometimes, and I used to go steal potatoes from the fields, myself.
Well, one day the Germans told us that we cannot go back to the ghetto; we had to stay on the job. They built a big, big barrack, for 400 people. And my family was in trouble. My sister, who was eighteen or nineteen already, she was a blonde, beautiful girl, she put on her nice clothes, and put a wooden cross, she hung up, which a Polish man had given to me one day. And she sneaked out from under the barbed wire with a pair of boots she had, and went to a farm to get food. She never came back, and I never saw my sister again.
After the war, I went to that farmer to find out what happened. He told me that she got food and everything else, and she left, and that’s it. She had a whole sack of food with bread and meat, all kind of food he said.
I found out later, after the war, that they locked my sister up in a Polish jail, and in 1942, September 27—my birthday, the day of my birthday—they took all the Jewish people from my town and transported them by train—80 wagons, almost 10,000 people, put them in 80 wagons—and shipped them to Treblinka: my sister and my whole family. So, I never saw them again. And I was working and I didn’t come home no more.
One day, I was sneaking away from the canal, and going to the field to steal potatoes again, and going to the farmers to ask for food. The potatoes were already harvested; there were no potatoes. But in Poland there’s a custom that the farmer leaves something in the fields, for poor people—this is a custom. In the ground there were always some potatoes left. That’s where I got a lot of [food]—some beets, some turnips.
And I was coming back to the working place. There was nobody left. All of my coworkers, all my friends, all my people, were taken away, and I didn’t know because I was away. Only the wheelbarrows and shovel were left.
I got so scared and panicky I didn’t know what to do. I started running to another village, called Brzeźnica, to a farmer. He hid me there for a few days. He told me that the Germans came and took everybody away to factories, because there was wintertime coming and they couldn’t dig no more. It was cold, so they took them to factories: ammunition factories and gun factories. One place called Pionki, one place called Skarżysko.
Well the farmer told me that there’s some Jewish people left in the ghetto, maybe thirty or forty people—a clean-up crew. So I will take you there, and you’ll sneak into the ghetto.
That’s what happened. He covered me up with vegetables; it was a Thursday, market day, and I sneaked in through the barbed wire into the ghetto. All my friends were there which I knew, my age, they took me in, they introduced me to the Germans: “Dave came in voluntarily, here.” “So good, stay here and work with them.” So that’s what we did: cleaned up all the empty houses from the people who the Germans took away.
One day, the Germans came in and took everybody away from us, from Kocienize and sent us to Radom. Radom, there was a ghetto there before, and the ghetto was liquidated, and there were only a few people, maybe two or three hundred people. I will tell you about what happened in Radom—it didn’t have anything to do with me, but it had a lot to do with what the Germans did.
One day the Germans came into Radom, German officers, and announced that we go and exchange some Jewish people for Germans who are prisoners, German prisoners, for Jews. The British will exchange them for any Jew who is able to leave Poland. So there were a lot of volunteers, and only people who have money, people who have positions like doctors or lawyers. I didn’t have no money. I was no lawyer; I was no doctor. So I was not selected.
There was about a hundred people who came out with their families, with kids. And some people who didn’t have no kids took kids [of] strangers. Some woman I still remember, she ran over to a man and said, “Please, take my kid. Save a life.” It was a couple, and they took two little girls.
So the Germans came with a Red Cross bus, a truck with the Red Cross sign, and they drove in there, and everybody was happy they were leaving, to be exchanged for German prisoners.
They took them to the cemetery and killed them. All of them. So I was lucky again I was not selected.
David, you would—
To take away their money. To take away their gold, and silver, whatever they had. And they already had a grave dug for them. And they didn’t know. So that’s what the Germans did: they lied every time. And then told us, the leftover, that we were going to Szydłowiec, another city, and telling us that there’s going to be a Jew-town, a special town for Jews, who we’re not going to be bothered, we were going to work, and tanneries, a lot of tanneries, leather-making.
So that’s what we marched, we marched 40 or 50 kilometers to Szydłowiec. In Szydłowiec, everything was destroyed. The Jewish people who had lived there were already liquidated. And I didn’t have nothing. I had only my clothes. I didn’t have my money, didn’t have nothing.
But in Szydłowiec, the German factories who were working, munitions factories in a place called Wolanów, Skarżysko, Pionki, sent German trucks to select young people from the ghetto, from Szydłowiec, to work in factories.
I volunteered—I went out to the truck and said, “Take me” but they didn’t want to take me. They only took people who had luggage, people who had suitcases, people who had possessions. I didn’t have nothing. One transport away.
Then, another day, some other Germans came, this time to Pionki. And I had known a couple, older people, and their name was—I have to mention their name because I don’t want to forget their names—Israel Korman and his wife, Korman their name.
He called me Duvtche, my name in Polish, he called me Duvtche. “Duvtche, take this, take this”—he gave me two bundles. Two bundles, and I went over to the truck, and the Germans took me. He threw the bundles in the truck and then threw me into the truck.
I never saw the bundles again because when I got to Pionki they took them away right away anyway. So that’s the reason they took me. Because I had something. They put me to work in an ammunition factory, making powder, for bullets. I very quickly learned how to do it, and was an expert at making powder.
And it was a very dangerous job, wasn’t it?
This was—the fumes killed everybody. The Polish people who worked the regular jobs, worked only three days a week, and they had to drink milk and eat pork and all kind of food, and us we had to work six days a week [with] no food. The soup was made of nothing, of garbage, and a piece of gluey bread, and coffee made out of grain, like from coal.
And that’s all we ate. Luckily, we worked with civilian Poles, who brought their lunches, and they gave us sometimes the leftovers. I sold them a jacket—the Germans gave us clothes sometimes, from people who they killed. And I didn’t need no clothes because they gave us special clothes for the gasses from the ammunition factory, so, because the gases eat up the good clothes. We had to have like felt, very hot. And the shoes were wooden shoes. So I had this other clothes to give away to the Polish civilians for food.
And then I volunteered to clean up a room for smokers, German supervisors and Polish supervisors who smoked there. Because in the factory [you] weren’t allowed to smoke, so they had special room for them. So I volunteered there to go in and clean it up. And I picked up all the butts, cigarette butts, and put them in my pocket, and when I got to camp, I exchanged them for bread [with] people who smoked.
Because whoever smoked in the camp, never survived. Anyone who’s a smoker in the concentration camps, in the labor camps, didn’t make it, because he’d rather have a cigarette than food. So I didn’t smoke and I was lucky.
So they would trade away their food for a cigarette.
Then there’s another incident happened at the factory. I worked the night shift one day, one night, and there was one smoker, one guy who smoked, at night. And he was working twenty four hours a day because he worked for bread. If somebody—for instance if I didn’t want to work and I had extra rations, I give it to him, say, “You do it; you work for me.” So he never went back to the camp. He always stayed in the factory and worked.
He was so tired that he would fall asleep. And he smoked cigarettes by the conveyer. And the conveyer belt was full of cotton, which we made powder out of. And the cigarette fell out of his mouth and ignited the conveyer. And the factory stopped and the Germans took us, all four guys who worked on that department, and they beat us up all night, because they claimed that we did sabotage, that we—they were going to kill us in the morning. They announced to everyone that they should come to the plaza; they were going to shoot us.
But there was a German supervisor who was in charge of my department. His name was Dr. Vitter. He came and he said, “I cannot allow you to do that. Punish them, do anything but don’t kill them, because I need these people. I trained them, it takes too long to train others and I need them. The factory cannot stay still; we have to have them.” So that’s how I saved my life again.
David, before we move on to what happened to you after Pionki, please tell us about your escape attempts from Pionki. You tried to escape, and then also about the locomotive fire in which you were so badly burned.
There was a young man; his name is Mosze Matis. He worked in the same building where I was working, but his job was to take out the liquid chemicals from the tankers that arrived to the building, so we could have what to work with. The powder is made out of all kind of chemicals: nitroglycerin, acid, sulfur, phosphorus, all kind of chemicals you had to mix [to make] powder.
So he worked with a Pole, a Polish man, who gave him a lot of food. And this Jewish boy, he was doing all the work for the Pole. He was constantly working. He was very good; he was a big husky guy, healthy. And he, the Pole, told him that the partisans, in the forest not far from the factory, which need people to fight the Germans, and you could join them. And he told him where to go and what to do.
So that’s what we did. He asked me if I wanted to get out. So I go, and we went under the wire, we went out in the forest, and we went maybe ten kilometers, we walked. We saw posters in every corner of the country road, big posters: 10 liters of vodka to bring in a Jew—10, in German and in Polish.
We saw that and we got scared, a little bit. I said, “I’m scared to walk.” He said, “Let’s keep on going.” We walked farther. We saw a farmer, cutting wheat in the field. He started motioning to us. We didn’t see if he was young or old, I didn’t see him.
He said, “I’m scared to keep on going. Stay still.” He was walking farther and then he started turning around, Mosze Matis start yelling to me, “Run, Dave, run back!” He attacked the farmer and the farmer attacked him, and Mosze Matis came back alive—bloody, but I don’t know if he killed him or anybody, or if he got injured or whatever happened.
He said, “Don’t talk nothing.” And I came back to the camp, I mean to the factory. So this was one attempt.
David, before you were taken from Pionki, I believe there was a locomotive fire in which you were badly burned.
I had a supervisor, a Polish supervisor, who was a nice man, and he—I bribed him. I said I wanted to get out from that place I was working because the gas was eating me up. My glands were blown up, I couldn’t breathe much. So he got me out of the job, working on a locomotive transport to process stuff to another department, another factory.
And it was a hot day, it was 1942, and a spark, something happened, and the whole locomotive blew up. And I got burned: my arm, my face, my legs. And then I didn’t go to work anymore; I stayed in camp. And I had a big crust on my face.
And that’s it. This was June, 1944. And the Germans were losing the war in Russia, and the Russians were pushing the Germans back, and the factory was closing, and the Germans locked everybody up in the camp. We didn’t work anymore. And I still had that crust on my arm. And we had no water, we had no electricity, no food, no nothing.
We started searching for food in the camp. And we find the tunnels where the Germans used to keep the explosives, and we went in there and we find a lot of cheeses—big, twenty-five pound cheeses—and a lot of sacks of rice, but no water. So we start digging for water, we couldn’t find no water. We finally hit the pipes, and then we got the dirty water in the pipes.
And imagine about three to four thousand people, and everybody was looking for something, a lot of people were eating the cheese, and stuffing themselves and dying, because there was no water. Well I had water, but it was dirty, I didn’t care, and I grind the rice, made like a flour, and made patties. I had something to eat.
Then, the Germans keep coming in and asking for volunteers to dismantle machinery. Well I will mention the good German—do you want me to mention the good German? Okay.
The reason I mention that is because I spoke to a school in Virginia, and there was young boy, thirteen years old, asked me, “Did you ever encounter a good German?” So I told him this story which I’m just going to tell you.
The Germans came in and asked for volunteers. It happened that good German, he was actually a good man. He never hit us. He was an engineer. He was very nicely, always talked to you like a gentleman. He didn’t beat you; he didn’t rush you. He came in to tell us to get to work. So everybody was running to him. We raise our hands, “Take me, take me!” People were stampeding towards the gate, where he was standing there. He got so scared, he pulled out a gun and shot into the crowd, and killed one German Jew.
So this was the answer I give the boy about the good German. He was a good man, but he still shot a man. So that’s what happened in Pionki.
And then, trains came to take us away to Auschwitz. We knew we were going to Auschwitz. There was one guy. His name was Max, Max Rosenblum. He was in Treblinka. He was deported from my hometown of Kozienice to Treblinka with all the people. He sneaked into Pionki camp where I was, because he had a sister who was there.
He told everybody that in Treblinka, everybody was killed, and we didn’t believe him. All the people who the Germans took to Treblinka: gassed them. And we called him crazy: “He’s crazy, he must be crazy. Why would they kill everybody, women and children, for nothing?” And he was telling us, “Believe it! I saw it. They killed everybody—nobody’s alive!”
So when the Germans were going to take us to Auschwitz, he said, “I am not getting on that train.” He walked up to the fence, climbed the fence, and he got shot.
David, tell us, you were taken from Pionki to Auschwitz. Tell us about Auschwitz.
Well they stuck us in the trains and we came into Auschwitz. It took three days to come to Auschwitz. They put in about a hundred people to a wagon, to a freight car, standing up. When we get up to Auschwitz there were about two, three people dead standing up. They couldn’t even fall, they were standing dead. Standing dead. They had no place to [fall]—they couldn’t lie down.
For three days and nights, from Pionki to Auschwitz, no latrines, no water, no nothing. Smell kills you. They were infected before that, and all this together, the humans, we couldn’t—whoever survived was lucky. And I survived.
And I had that crust, and when I came out from the train, one of the prisoners who was there, who was helping us get out, asked me what happened to me. And I told him, and he said, “Tell them you are a chemist and you make explosives. Tell them, if they ask you.”
A German officer came over to me and asked, “What’s wrong with you?”
These are all your burns that are still [inaudible].
From here to here was burned, and my face was burned. There was a crust already. So I told him, and he told me, “Stay aside.” So he didn’t send me to the gas chambers. I went aside.
And then he sent me with the other group to the Gypsy camp, where all the Gypsies were concentrated living. The Gypsies were nice people, happy-go-lucky. They were dancing, they were playing music, they had their family, their children, everyone together, in one barrack, where I was, it was only a few white boys, about forty or fifty people, that’s all.
And all this area was full of Gypsies. They come in, they help us, they give us some food—they got more food than everybody else—they were cooking. And one night—first of all they took all the men away from the Gypsies to go and work in Germany—and one night they came in there and took all the gypsies, women and children and old men, and gassed them too. And they didn’t bother us either.
So what happened one day, they came and asked for volunteers—not for volunteers, to come and inspect us. So they looked at us; my crust was already falling off, it was a week after the accident. And I was clean, and the inspectors took me to work in a coalmine, called Jaworzno, about ten or fifteen kilometers away from Auschwitz. It was a sub-camp, another big concentration camp.
And over there we worked in the coal mine. The coal mine was hell. You go in, 200 people to work in a shift, 170, 180 come out alive. About ten, fifteen, twenty die every night, every day. And sometimes they don’t let you out on time because they want you stay in longer because you didn’t produce enough coal.
If I remember right, David, you said that you had a quota: you had to fill eighteen wagons.
Yeah. Eighteen and a quarter. But we couldn’t do eighteen wagons; the shovel alone weights ten kilo without coal, a heart-shaped shovel. I couldn’t even lift it—how could I? I had no strength.
And then, whoever died in the mine, or got killed, they replaced him with a new prisoner. My group, they sent in a young boy, sixteen years old, his name was Reuben. He came in from Auschwitz to Jaworzno. And one day he come in and said, “I’m the new replacement.”
He had nowhere to sleep; they wanted to put him near, in a bunk near the door. Whoever slept near the door never survived; whoever slept near the door couldn’t make it. Especially in the cold; this was already cold, September, November, cold, snow all the time.
And three, four hundred people in our barrack, if you had to go to the latrine, you cannot go out. If you go out, they shoot you, because the lights shine in the camp and then you have to work like this or run, and they’ll be shooting anyway, without even warning you. So nobody wants to get out to the latrine, you do it right near the door. And if you sleep near the door, the door’s always open, and you die.
So I took Reuben next to me, in a high bed, you know, a bunk. Had no blanket, had no nothing. We just lie, like herring, next to each other, warm each other up.
We worked together in the mine. But he was a religious boy. He was praying, constantly praying, day in and day out. Whenever you look at him, he prays. He recited the psalms. He was constantly reciting in Hebrew, constantly. And I keep saying, “Shut up already.” [laughter] God will help, God will help, God will help. And he was really convinced. So a lot of times I didn’t bother him; I got used to it, you know.
Well I worked in the mine; there were about ten people in a group. And there was a Polish miner who was there. This was his profession; he’d worked in a mine all his life. And there was also a German supervisor [who] walked around the mine with a walking stick with a copper handle. He was supposed to check the coal, the ceilings, the walls, where to dig [the coal].
This guy was a murderer. He was a killer. He went over to a prisoner, if he didn’t work hard enough, hit him over the head [and] killed him instantly. He killed a lot of people. And we were so scared of him.
So this Polish supervisor told us one day, he said, “When I say not to say nothing, means not to say nothing. When I say fire in the hole, then you yell fire in the hole.” You know, he was a Pole; he was a nice guy. He was the one who was drilling and putting the dynamite.
One day, the German supervisor come by—he walked around—and we pretend that we [were] working, that we were pushing the wagons, we were doing this, and the Polish supervisor already set up the dynamite and everything else. And the mine is dark. It’s not like the miners here in this country, they have lamps. We had lamps holding in our hand with a smoke, called carbide lamp, made of carbide, and the water drip, drip, drips and made a gas, and it smells. So that’s the light.
This supervisor walked by the dynamite, and the Pole pushed the trigger and he got killed. He covered him up; “You didn’t see nothing.” A whole wall fell on him, killed him. They were asking us, interrogation. We didn’t talk. We pretended—we didn’t talk.
Guess what Reuben said to me? He came over to me and said to me, “Didn’t God help us?” [laughter] I said, “Thank God.” I never said a word anymore to him! [laughter]
David, our time is coming soon to a close, but in January of 1945, you were brought up out of the coalmines early and then forced on a death march. So in the time we have left, will you tell us what happened then, and about your liberation?
Well, the Russians were advancing, and the Germans were losing the war. And they didn’t want to leave no prisoners, they didn’t want to leave no witnesses, they wanted to kill everybody around. They took us out from the camp; everybody had to hook up—snow, cold, no food, no nothing—march. They made us march towards Germany.
All the roads were full with German soldiers retreating. Bombardment, you could hear miles away, the bombardment, the cannons, shooting. And we [were] marching: dead people marching—dead people, skeletons.
We couldn’t walk no more. The Germans shooting, shooting, shooting—killing people like flies. And they pushing us, thousands of people, and then they didn’t let us walk on the main highway. We had to walk on the country road because the big highways were full of German trucks and tanks and everything else.
We walked maybe three, four nights, I don’t know how many already. One evening, one night, they told us, “Everybody lie down.” And Reuben sticks to me like glue, me and him are inseparable. One evening, as I lie there—no Germans, the Germans all went in the houses to warm up, and we were freezing to death—I see dogs, a bunch of dogs, far away, maybe a hundred yards away. So I said, “There’s dogs, there must be food. They’re looking for something.”
I crawled over. Reuben said, “Don’t go, they’ll shoot you, they’ll shoot you.” And I said, “No, I’ll go.” I crawled over there; there was a dead horse covered with a lot of snow. I pulled up a piece of meat from the rib. The dogs had already torn up half of it. And I shared it with Reuben.
But Reuben was hesitating to do it, to eat. He is kosher; he don’t eat no meat. He chewed the bone. [laughter] I actually forced him; “All right, God will forgive me,” he says.
So this helped a lot. And then the Germans made us keep on going to a camp called Blechhammer, another concentration camp. The previous people already were evacuated. In Blechhammer everybody’s dying from hunger. There’s no food; they don’t give us nothing. But I will tell one more incident; this happened before I got to the dead horse.
One young man who was with me, in the same line as me, holding my hand, he became dizzy, hallucinating; he didn’t know where he was going anymore. We had to pull him, to schlep him. This guy saw a German officer park the car and pick up the hood—a German soldier, I don’t know if it was an officer or a soldier with a gun. And he said, “I’m a mechanic, I will fix your car.”
The Germans looked under the hood, and this guy went over to the car. Actually he went over to warm up. He was no mechanic; he didn’t know, you know, “Oh, I will fix it!” But he lied down and the Germans shot him there, right there.
And he didn’t go nowhere; he was right under the hood. And the Germans left the car anyway; the car was dead.
So that’s all; we went to Blechhammer, and Blechhammer was very bad. The Germans were running already. In the middle of the camp was a warehouse with food. They didn’t let us go close to it; they were shooting everybody who were close [to it]. And I was in Block 16 with all my friends who lie down on the bunks and say we won’t go nowhere.
The Germans yelled out, “Everybody out, we’ll give you your bread near the gate!” They never give us no bread, and I didn’t go to the gate. We went the other direction. We cut the barbed wire; there was no electricity in the barbed wire anymore because the Russians knocked out all the power stations, got no light.
And then we attacked that warehouse and I got a lot of margarine. I stocked up margarine under my pants and my shirt and my—I couldn’t even walk! [laughter] I walked like a—and then I was scared to walk, to run off from the warehouse, but the Germans were already running—maybe two three shots, but—
And I came back to the barrack and there was Reuben, and other guys, friends of mine. And I couldn’t take everything. I left a whole can of marmalade and some liverwurst and some hard bread, like a rock. And Reuben said, “Are you coming with me or not?” And I said, “Yeah, you go,” and he came with me.
So we went to that hole and I stick my head through that hole, and I couldn’t get back up because everybody was pushing, everybody wants to go to the same hole. And I fall down, about ten, fifteen feet, in the snow luckily, and then we went to the woods.
And I stayed six days and six nights in the woods. But, Reuben got hit somehow, somewhere, a bullet in his leg. He couldn’t walk no more. So at the edge of the forest there was a farm, and I pushed him into a barn that’s full of straw, tied him up, and left him there.
And I went with two Russian prisoners deep in the forest and we stayed there for six days and six nights—who knows how long, maybe more, maybe less, we didn’t count. But we ate the margarine which had melted on my body, full of dirt from the coal dust, and we dug for roots, for mushrooms, and that’s how we lived, and the snow we ate.
You described scraping the margarine off of you.
Yeah, that’s what we did, we scraped from my body. I took off my clothes and we [ate] the dirty stuff. It was dirty from the sweat, from the dust, from the carbide.
And [when] I came out I weighed nothing, practically, a skeleton, and the two Russians, I spoke a little Russian with them, and they were two Russian prisoners of war, soldiers. And one night I lied in the middle, and the next night the other one in the middle, so we warmed each other. And the snow was falling on us, and under snow is warm. On top of the snow it’s cold, but if you have snow, snow keeps you warmer.
And we decided to get out. We heard the cannons, heard the bombardment, but we didn’t know who was there, [whether it] was the Russians or the Germans. Finally we decided to get out. We come out, it was the Russians.
One Russian soldier picked me up; he carried me like a sack of potatoes. And he took me into a German woman’s house and told her to take care of me. She was there with her daughter; there was no man. And she made some soup. She didn’t have nothing to eat anyway. If she had had a lot of food I wouldn’t have made it. I would have died, from grabbing the food. But she didn’t have any. She made a cream soup, I remember. And she gave me a bath—my toes were all frozen up.
And I was free. The Russians told me, he said, “You’re free. Idi k’chortu: means ‘Go to hell, do what you want.’” [laughter] That’s what they said. They don’t have nothing themselves; the Russians didn’t have nothing. Not like the Americans—the Americans give you anything.
So you, from there you would make your way back eventually to Kozienice.
I went back to Poland. I walked, almost two weeks, and trains and railroad stations and this and that, to go back to nobody. I didn’t find nobody. My home was ransacked. [There] was no place to stay in Poland anymore.
David, we are past our time, so we have to bring the program to a close in just a moment.
I know, the time is not enough. We could talk for ten days. [laughter]
Well and I—we could—
[Audience member: Reuben!]
Yes, we will—
Reuben, yeah, you want to know what happened to Reuben.
Yes, that was my final question, and I think everybody in the room wants to know what happened to Reuben.
Reuben survived the war. What happened to him is this. The Russians came in, took him out, and they took him to a hospital where they took out the bullet, and that’s it. Then he was smuggled from American zone, from Germany, to Cyprus, by a ship from Italy to Cyprus, to a place called Famagusta. This was until 1948 he was in Cyprus, maybe two years.
In the meantime, I went from Germany to Panama. In Panama I was a year living with the Indians in the jungle, had a good time. The best place, the best year of my life was Panama. I didn’t have no civilization; I didn’t have no car. I didn’t need nothing. I lived primitive; this was the best. I wish I would have stayed there.
So I went to town, met a Jewish guy who had a store. He said to me, “You crazy, what are you doing here? Why don’t you go to Palestine and fight for your people?” I did. He arranged it, and I went to Israel and fought in the Israeli Army for one year.
But: how did I find Reuben? In Israel! I went to a place to look, a place where a lot of Jews came to look, for a friend of mine, from my hometown. And I give a look; Reuben’s staying in a tent. “Reuben?” [laughter] He looked at me and I looked at him and I couldn’t believe it!
Well, he became a rabbi, he got married, he had eleven children, and he’s still alive in Jerusalem. [applause] Eleven kids! And he became a religious teacher.
No surprise there. [laughter] David—
And I was in Israel for a year, and then I went back to Panama, and then I came here in 1955, so I speak Spanish and English and Russian and Yiddish and German and Hebrew and everything else. [laughter] And sometimes I talk to myself. [laughter]
And I wish we could keep you for another three or four hours.
There’s so many things that I already don’t use. I don’t tell you stories, grave stories, stories that—I want you to sleep. I don’t want you to have bad dreams. That’s why I don’t talk about it. What happened to us is not to describe.
I’m going to turn back to David in just a couple of moments to close our program. I want to thank all of you for being here. I wish there were time not only for David to have told us more about what he experienced during the war and the Holocaust, but his life after the war: Panama, going back fighting in Israel, and then returning to Panama. In fact he’s written in his memoirs, which is not for public use but it’s rather remarkable journey, and I believe that’s part of the title of the book.
I’d like to invite you back to another First Person program and remind you that we’ll have a First Person program each Wednesday until August 26, and every Tuesday through the end of July. Our next program is tomorrow, June 17, when our first person will be Mrs. Louise Lawrence-Israels—
May I say something? [laughter] The reason I cough sometimes [is] my uvula was taken out. I was operated [on] by the German doctor in the camp, for an experiment. Because when I worked in the mine, it blew up all the time, and I covered it up, covered it up.
One day during a roll call an officer saw me and said, “What’s wrong with you?” And I said, “Nothing, nothing.” He took me out, put me in a clinic, and put me on a table and operated on me: without an anesthetic, without anything, to see how I could still have the scar.
So that’s what happened to me. And the documentation, the Museum got the documentation from the doctor who wrote the report. We just got it last year, with my name and everything that happened to me. We found it right there in Germany. So, this is one horrible thing that happened.
And the other thing that happened, I got shot in my leg. Thousands of things—not only me, I could tell stories about people who are not here, and I wish I could talk about them, because they cannot talk, they’re dead.
There’s a woman who lives in Oregon. She’s a doctor now. Her father took her and gave her away to a Christian woman in Warsaw so she survived. A little baby, she was born in the ghetto in 1942. And she was raised as a Christian. And nobody knows what happened—the parents got killed, and she never knew that she was Jewish. I went to Warsaw in 1975, and I got connection with a guy, and she got in contact with her and told her, and she came here and became a doctor.
And she’s Jewish now. [laughter] She got married, her husband was an engineer, and he didn’t want to leave Poland, so she divorced him and came here.
David you’re going to stay for a few minutes afterwards, can you, for a short while?
My limousine will have to wait. [laughter] It’s true! They gave me a limousine to take me home!
And you deserve it! [applause] We very much hope that you can stay for a few minutes. We’ll let the car know and David will step down from the stage here, and anyone who wants to chat with him, ask him a couple more questions, because I know there are many you’ll want to ask him, feel free to, if nothing else, just meet him.
Again, tomorrow with Mrs. Louise Lawrence-Israels, who is from Poland and whose family made the decision to go into hiding, which saved her life. So please come back to another First Person program this year or next year if you can. Also remember that you can hear the entire broadcast of these programs on the website as well as excerpts in the form of podcasts.
It is our tradition at First Person, before we let you go, is that our first person has the last word. And so with that, David has the last word.
The last word? There’s never a last word for me. [laughter]
Okay, one more word.
Well, what can I say? I’m glad that you are all here, and probably the majority are from out of town, so they cannot keep coming back all the time, but this is the only institution which—I have no grave for my parents, I have no grave for my sister or brother, and here I have at least, talk my heart out, you know. Sometimes I cry [by] myself, and sometimes I cry in public, you know, but I’m not going to cry today.
So that’s all I can tell you. And I’m 86 years old, I don’t know how long I can do it. If the guy upstairs will give me a few more years, maybe I will.
Look for when David is on the website for next year, for First Person, and if you’re anywhere nearby, come back.
Is any people Spanish speaking here? De donde vienete? México? Mucha gusta.