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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. This is our tenth year of the First Person program. Our First Person today is Marcel Drimer, whom we shall meet shortly.
This 2009 season of First Person is made possible through the generosity of the Louis and Dora 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 firsthand accounts of their experience during the Holocaust. Each First Person guest serves as a volunteer here at the museum.
With few exceptions, we will have a First Person program each Wednesday through August 26th. And just yesterday we began holding First Person programs on Tuesdays which we will continue through July. The museum’s website at www.USHMM.org provides a list of our upcoming First Person programs guests. Just click on the First Person program.
Before I go any further, I would like to do two things that are out of the routine a little bit. First of all I would like to acknowledge that the gentleman who gave up his seat and is standing right there is Mr. Marcel Drimer, who will be our First Person today.
But I also understand that we have with us a group of veterans from both World War II and more recently, I believe, the Vietnam War. We have veterans who served in the battle of the bulge. But there are two veterans in the group I would like to identify by name and the reason for that is because they were liberators. These were part of the armed services that actually liberated the concentration camps toward the end of WWII. And with us we have Evangeline Quemine who was a nurse who was part of the liberation of Mauthausen. Evangeline if you would stand for us. And Mr. Don Burdick, who was a liberator at Dachau. Thank you all of you, and particularly you two for joining us today. We really are greatly appreciative to have you in our audience.
This year, we are offering a new feature associated with First Person. Excerpts from our conversations with survivors will be available as podcasts on the museum’s website. Several are already posted on the website, and Marcel’s will be available within the next 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 for those of you who are very current with technology.
Marcel Drimer will share his First Person account of his experience during the Holocaust and as a survivor, for about 40 minutes. We hope we’ll have time after that a few questions of you to ask of Marcel. Before you are introduced to him, I have a couple of announcements and requests of you.
First, we ask that if it is at all possible, please particularly given how large of a crowd we have today please stay with us throughout the entire hour program that way we minimize any disruptions for Marcel as he speaks. Second, if we do have question and answers, a period for that, and you have a question, I ask that you make your question as brief as you can. I will repeat it so everyone in the room, including Marcel, hears it and then he will respond to your question.
If you have a cell phone or a pager that has not yet been turned off, we would ask that you do that at this time. For those of you who may have passes to the Permanent Exhibition this afternoon, please know they are good for the entire afternoon, so you can stay comfortably with us until we conclude the program.
The Holocaust was a 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, and antisemitism and genocide still threaten our world.
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 wherever and whenever they occur. What you are about to hear from Marcel Drimer is one individual’s account of the Holocaust. We have prepared a brief slide presentation to help with Marcel’s introduction.
We begin with a photo of Marcel Drimer and his mother Laura in taken 1934. Marcel Drimer was born in Drohobycz, Poland, a small town now part of Ukraine. The arrow on this map of Europe points to Poland. Marcel's father, Jacob, worked as an accountant in a lumber factory while his mother raised Marcel and his younger sister, Irena.
In this photograph we see Marcel's paternal grandfather, Isaac Drimer. Germany invaded Poland in September, 1939 and WW II began. This is an historical photograph of German soldiers parading through Warsaw after the surrender of Poland. Marcel's town fell under Soviet control under the German- Soviet Pact. On June 22, 1941 Germany violated the German-Soviet Pact and attacked Soviet territory.
Within a few weeks Drohbycz was occupied by German forces. In 1942, members of Marcel's family, including his grandfather, whom we saw pictured earlier, were deported to concentration camps where they were murdered.
Soon after, in the fall of 1942, Marcel and his family were forced into the Drohobycz ghetto. In the ghetto they often hid in hopes of escaping deportation. And here we see an historical photograph of Jews being deported from the Drohboycz ghetto.
Before the liquidation of the ghetto, Marcel’s father was able to bribe a guard and the family escaped to a small village near their hometown. In August, 1943, Marcel went into hiding with a Polish-Ukranian family. In August of 1944 the Soviet Army liberated Marcel and his family. Marcel's family is seen in this photograph taken in 1947 or 1948. From left to right we have, Marcel's uncle Abraham Drimer, his parents, Laura and Jacob, and Marcel's Uncle Abraham Gruber.
Marcel remained in Poland and finished his schooling. He emigrated to the United States in 1961. We close the slide show with a contemporary photograph of Marcel and you can see a very distinct likeness.
Today, Marcel and his wife life in Burke, Virginia, which is very close to Washington D.C. In 1957, before leaving Poland, Marcel got a degree in mechanical engineering. As I mentioned earlier he emigrated to the United States in 1961 where his wife, Anya, joined him in 1963.
Soon after arrival in the United States he was hired by the US Post Office Department to work on the design of mail sorters and conveyors. After a very successful period with the Post Office Department, as it was known then, Marcel transferred to the United States Army as a civilian in 1972. He then worked as a mechanical engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers.
Although Marcel officially retired from the army in 1994, he remains a consultant to the army to this day. Anya trained as a pharmacist in Poland and continued her profession after her arrival in the United States in 1963 and retired just this last month.
Marcel and Anya have a son, Adam, and as a result of Adam they have 2 grandchildren; Mary, age 7 and Jack who is 9 and ½. Both Marcel and Anya are volunteers with the museum. Marcel translates documents written in Polish and is presently translating portions of Emanuel Ringelblum’s “Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto,” a 25,000 page collection of diaries and other documents detailing the events and lives of those who lived in the doomed Warsaw ghetto. Anya edits Marcel’s translations. They are quite a team.
And I’d like to acknowledge that Anya is with us here today. Anya, if you wouldn’t mind waving and letting people know you are here [clapping]. And with that I’d like to ask you to join me in welcoming our First Person, Mr. Marcel Drimer.
Marcel, thank you so much for joining us and for your willingness to be our First Person today. We are very pleased to have you with us and what a wonderful audience we have. We are going to jump right into it immediately. Marcel, World War II began in September, 1939 when Germany attacked Poland from the west and the Soviet Union quickly followed by attacking Poland from the east.
Early in the war, you, your family, and your community lived under Russian occupation. Before we talk about that time and the events that followed why don’t we start by you telling us a little bit about your family, your community and what life was like before the war began.
The town where I was born, Drohobycz, was a town of about 120,000 people and it is currently Ukraine. At that time the population of Drohobycz was about 1/3 Poles, 1/3 Ukrainians and 1/3 Jews. The Jewish community of Poland was quite vibrant. There were Jewish schools, there were religious schools, non-religious schools and a lot of Jewish theater. Not necessarily in Drohobycz, but it was visiting Drohobycz. It was a nice town to live.
You told me, Marcel, when we first met, given that there was a fairly large Jewish population in Drohobycz, that generally relationships with the rest of the Polish community were fairly decent.
The relationships were fairly decent. You know we were real neighbors. We spoke the same language, although my parents spoke Yiddish at home, this is Jewish, but with the neighbors they spoke Polish. It was just, everybody was part of the community and it was quite friendly
There were signs of antisemitism, from the top there was discrimination. Admission to colleges was regulated. It was called Numerus Clausus. The Jews were not allowed to get into college in numbers, you know it was regulated, but in Drohobycz it was not an issue.
Tell us a little bit about your parents.
Let me tell a few words about my grandparents, if it’s okay. My grandfather that you have seen on the picture, Isaac Drimer, was a master craftsman at a refinery, an oil refinery. There were oil wells in a little town near Drohobycz, Boryslaw and he was working there as a craftsman and my other grandfather was a butcher, a kosher butcher of course. They lived in the suburbs, you could call it suburbs, of Drohobycz, little villages.
My father, both my parents, were born in 1904. The funny thing about it, they were born in Drohobycz, but this was at that time Austro- Hungarian Empire. So, you know in one family people were born in Austro- Hungary, Poland and now it’s Ukraine, but that’s the geography of Europe until the World War II.
My father was an accountant. Our family was middle class. My mother stayed at home. We had a nanny, which took a bit part in our survival. I have a sister who now lives in Israel, Irena. She is doing the same thing that I am doing here, in Israel, she is talking to high school kids there. And, that’s about all…
One other question before we move on to the war. Marcel, tell us about your extended family. Was it a large extended family?
Oh yes, of course. Both my parents were the oldest of all their siblings. My father was the oldest of 5 and my mother was the oldest of 4 siblings. Since they were the oldest, the younger ones were not married and they were…during the Russian occupation of Poland they got to know what was going on in the western part of Poland. The western part of Poland was occupied since 1939. Of course there was no radio, radio was confiscated and so forth. But, we did get some information of what’s going on in the western part of Poland.
The younger ones, when the Germans attached later, they just managed to retreat with the Russian army. 2 sisters and a brother of my father and one brother of my mother went to Russia and they survived the war. The others weren’t so lucky.
Marcel, now that we are talking about when the Russians occupied after attacking Poland. You would live under the Russians, under their occupation, until June of 1941. During that period from the fall of 1939 until June of 1941, what was life like for you, for the family for the community under the Russian control at that time?
Times were tough. The Russians confiscated a lot of food stuffs and other things because Russia was always very poor and they took in back to Russia. But, we were not treated differently than the rest of the population
The Russians were not real good guys. When they attacked Poland on September 1939, they have taken prisoners of war. They have taken about 20,000 Polish officers. Most of them were civilians in uniform. Quite a substantial number of them were Jews. The Russians took them to a forest, Katyn forest, and they shot them all to death. Very, very few of these people survived. But, as I said before it did not really affect our family to any great extent.
Did you have to go to school under the Russians? What happened to your education?
I was not ready for school. I was sent to a kindergarten. This was a Ukrainian kindergarten and I just didn’t fit very well. So I just, after a few days, I quit my education at that time and went back home and stayed with my parents, my mother, and my sister.
You mentioned Marcel, the relatives that would eventually join the Russian army and they would return to Russia after German attacked the Russians. If you wouldn’t mind saying a little bit about the political leanings of the family, if you wouldn’t mind.
At that time because of the Polish anti-Semitism and the persecution of the Jews under the German part of Poland, my young uncles and aunts became enamored the communist theories. They joined the army or the Komsomol [Soviet youth organization] youth groups. This really in hindsight was their savings that they did go to Russia.
Both of the uncles that went to Russia volunteered for the Russian army but the Polish Anders army that was stationed in Russia they left Russian and went to the middle east, Palestine and so forth and they joined the western part of the war effort. So the Russians did not trust any Poles that were still there so both of my uncles they sent to labor brigades to work. They did not have a chance to fight even though they wanted to fight real real bad. They knew that their families are going through hell, but the Russians just didn’t trust them.
So they made them work in labor battalions.
They make them work in labor departments of course my aunts were trying to survive in Russia.
Marcel, when you were telling me this when we first met, you also mentioned your birthday was coming up, May 1, and I said well May 1 was a prominent holiday and you told me a very interesting story.
I was actually born in my grandparents house 15 minutes before, 30th of April. But my father figured May 1 is a communist, socialist labor day and maybe it is going to be celebrated sometime worldwide so it will be celebrated as his birthday, May 1.
So they moved it up 15 minutes.
So I was 15 minutes short of my real birthday. But it was okay. Since I wasn’t born in a hospital nobody took any notes.
Soon after Germany turned on the Soviet Union in June, 1941 German troops occupied Drohobycz and life for Jews obviously changed dramatically and tragically. What did the Germans do after they took control and what impact did it have immediately and after that on your family and your community?
During the Russian occupation my father was sent to Lvov to take some university courses. I really don’t know what kind of courses, whether they were accounting or brainwashing, but he was sent there. My mother’s younger sister who was in her early 20s, mid 20s, was also attending some university courses in Lvov. Lvov was the nearest big city near Drohobycz.
When the Germans came in, they started rounding up people in Lvov. My father had some problems with his legs, he couldn’t walk very well. So she, my aunt Rivke told my father to hide in the bed. She covered it with down coverings and when they heard the Germans coming, Germans, Ukrainians, those that were selecting people. She said I’ll go and I’ll work, do whatever they want me to do and I’ll come back and then we’ll go back to Drohobycz.
Well they took her to the Janowska street camp and nobody ever came out of that camp, Lvov. It’s a well known camp. So my aunt disappeared in Lvov in the very first days of the war. My father made his way back to Drohobycz on foot. We were very happy and surprised, but very happy that he came to be with us.
When the Germans came they started with confiscating all the things that they wanted to confiscate. You had gold you had to give it to the Germans. You had arms, nobody really had arms, but they confiscated whatever people had. They confiscated fur coats. They confiscated silver. Just about everything that they could use.
Oh well this was the first thing that they confiscated. They didn’t want people to know what was going on in the world. Any dictatorship, North Korea not excluded, doesn’t let heir people to know what is going on in the world and the Germans were the first to impose it.
The other things that they did, the forced the Jews to wear the Stars of David, yellow stars of David, and arm bands. If you were a working person you could wear a band that said A, “Arbeiter.” That means that you are a worker and that you work for the war efforts of the Germans so they shouldn’t shoot you on the street just like that. But there were always exceptions. There were no punishments for shooting Jews on the street like that.
We were hungry all the time from the very beginning. There was a ration system but you know a person would get 100 grams of bread. Working people would get 200 grams of bread. But what my father did is he just decided that we will not try to save our worldly possessions. He would barter for food with the farmers that came to town with their food to sell because we didn’t have any money. He would take off his ring for example for a bread or two. This is the way we managed to keep alive from starvation. Of course we were always hungry, but we managed to live.
They also did something called, Raup Aktion [pogrom] so that they would allow the Polish and Ukrainian hoods to go to Jewish homes and take whatever they wanted. It was just like open season on Jews and Jewish property. At one of these Raup Aktionen a group of hoodlums came to my grandparents house, to my maternal grandparents house, and they beat up my grandfather just for being a Jew.
They took everything they wanted and among other things they took the albums, the picture albums. They had no use for the pictures so they just shook out the pictures and took the albums away. After the war my father went there to look what’s left of the house and the neighbor came to him and said Mr. Drimer, in Polish it’s Drimer and in English it’s Drimer in case you see different pronunciation of my name. But, so the gentleman came and said here is a few pictures and explained how he got these pictures.
The picture you have seen of me and my mother was one of them. This was a blow up, but if you see the spot here on my mother’s arm this was mud that was picked up from the ground. We tried to clean it but it just didn’t work.
Marcel, almost no pictures survived except for those few.
Of course, because we did not worry about pictures when we had to run. We ran like 18, 19 times from one place to another to hide so pictures were not of great priority. So these pictures survived in that way. There is a couple more of these, in the way that I was just explaining to you.
Marcel, during that time you had several close calls, miracles, would you tell us about some of those, including about your nanny?
Yes, a few weeks after the war my grandfather, whom you have seen in the picture here, his wife died of natural causes. He came to live with us because he just couldn’t manage by himself, preparing food and all of that. My grandmother whose husband was beaten and died as a result, she also came to live with us.
And my father’s sister, Rivke, with two small children one was an infant and one was about my age, also came to live with us. My grandfather was strictly keeping Kosher, he was a pious man as I said, but food was very hard to get and my mother told him, “Look I cannot tell you that I’ll keep a Kosher house, we just have to eat what we can get.” So he says, “You just put whatever you have in front of me and just don’t tell me what it is and I’ll eat it.” So you have to survive.
It was a small place that our family of four could live, not comfortably, but live. But with the additional four people it was very very hard to live. And my nanny, Jancia she could come every once in awhile and bring us something to eat. One day she came and she looked at that place and she said, “It’s terrible. You are walking over each other. Let me help you by taking Marcel to my house for a few days. He will be with me and you won’t have to worry about one more mouth to feed.”
So I went with her and I stayed with her a few days. She was pregnant, quite advanced. After a couple days my sister started complaining that she wants to be with me, she would like to play with me. She misses me. So my mother said to everybody, “I’ll go for a few days and I’ll bring Marcel back home.”
When she came to my nanny’s house the woman went into labor. There was no telephones, there was no getting a doctor so my mother helped her deliver the baby. The baby was born stillborn. We stayed there for another overnight. Her husband worked the night shift somewhere. He came home and he said, “There is an aktion going on in town. They are rounding up Jews for deportation and if they come here and they see you here the Germans will kill us. You have to leave the house. Do whatever you need to do to survive.”
So my mother took us, the two of us my sister and me, and we went to, there was a forest about 300 meters from the house and there was a wheat field. It was August 1942, and it was brown, regular color. My mother had a rain coat the same color so we went close to the forest and we all laid down there. My mother covered us with her rain coat and we stayed there. An hour or so after we got the place to hide we could hear the Germans shouting, the dogs barking, people screaming, shots, you know people dying. My sister and I call that the “concert of death.” It lasted three or four hours and then it started raining and it sort of quieted down.
We waited another hour and we just got up and started walking towards the nanny’s house. As we were approaching the street where her house was we saw a German. I don’t know if it was an SS man or Wehrmacht, most likely Wehrmacht the regular army, a guy with a dog walking the street. He looked at us. He saw my mother, my sister, and me. He just stopped for a moment, turned around, and walked away. This was a miracle. If there was two of them this wouldn’t happen because one German would be afraid of the other that he helped Jews, that he didn’t do his job properly.
But, he was by himself with his dog. He just turned around and walked away. Miracles like that were countless. Each one that was not positive would lead us to the Belzec concentration camp. We came to Jancia’s and stayed there over night and it quieted down. We didn’t know what happened to my father, but he was at the factory. There was a dormitory there where the laborers could stay. So we went back to our house.
We came there and the house was empty. Everybody was gone. Everybody who was there was gone. The house was a mess. I don’t know why the Germans did it, but they always tore up the pillows and the feathers were flying all over the house. It was just an unbelievable site.
After the war somebody told my father that the groups of Germans, and Ukrainians, and Polish police men just passed our house and a ten year old boy ran after them and said, “There is a Jewish family hiding in this house there.” And they turned around and took my family back.
The picture that you have seen here, the deportation from Drohobycz, I think it was the one that took my family to Belzec. I don’t know. This was the biggest aktion in Drohobycz which many thousands of thousands of people were taken.
Marcel, I am mindful of how much more there is for you to tell us so if you don’t mind I’d like to now have you tell us about what happened next when the family was forced into the ghetto, and what your life was like in the ghetto, and then what your father did to get you out of there.
We knew that the ghetto was not going to be forever. We knew that in order to survive we would have to leave the ghetto and try to survive outside the ghetto. My father worked, as I said before, he worked in the lumber factory. As a Jew he was not allowed to work in the office. He had a little booth there.
But it was a mixed blessing. He could come and go wherever he wanted. He built stacks of wood for drying. There was no air conditioning or heat drying. For floors like that you had to dry the wood naturally. So my father built a construction, so wood was laid like this, but he left an opening inside that two or three people could hide. He also made a very elaborate door that could open and close.
He bribed the “street car,” they called the gentleman that would take people from the ghetto to work outside the ghetto and back we called them tramwaj, “street car.” He bribed this man and my mother, there wasn’t much to take with us because everything was robbed and taken away. My mother put my sister under her arm. She had clothes like a man, a man’s coat.
Your mom dressed up like a man?
My mom, yeah. And my father took me under his arm and we just walked out. The bribed guard let people off whatever factories where they worked. We just stepped out of the marching order. My father took us to the fence. He also left a few planks at the fence loose so that we could enter there. We hid behind some bushes and my father said, “I’ll take mother and Irena with me first. You stay here.” Because there were guards walking around, “And then I’ll come for you in a few minutes.”
While in ghetto I heard stories about people abandoning children, about things like that happening. I was only 8 years old. Iw as very scared and I just ran out screaming, “Daddy, Daddy don’t leave me here.”
And of course as it always happened, the guard came walking, maybe he heard me screaming or something and he said, “Mr. Drimer, you can’t be here you have to be in the ghetto. You shouldn’t be here. Why are you here?” So my father said, “You know we are going to be taken probably. The family is going to be taken to the concentration camp so I wanted them to see the world for the last time, so please don’t take us to the Germans.”
He took his jacket off his back and gave it to the guys and said, “Let us be. I promise you we will go back to the ghetto.” We went in, of course we didn’t go back to the ghetto. We stayed in that structure that my father built. In the dormitory where my father stayed there was another Jewish man or two and they together built, dug a hole under the dormitory floor and we stayed there.
My father did not give up the idea of having us hidden with some Christian families. So he walked around and found the family that were neighbors of my mother as a child. The lady said to him, “I can take your wife and the daughter. I cannot take Marcel,” because the Jews in the world were the only ones, especially Polish Jews, that were circumcised.
So if a German, if a Nazi would catch a person pretending to be Polish, there were a lot of people that looked blonde, blue-eyed. I am even blue-eyed too. So they would just tell the man “Just drop your pants,” and this was the death sentence. And my father and mother agreed, I don’t think my mother ever agreed with it, but my father decided we’ll save whoever we can. If we can save mother and Irena then so be it, I’ll stay with my dad. We’ll take the fate as it comes.
So this woman came once at night, because we couldn’t, there were no cars, she had to walk through woods and rivers and so forth. She came and my mother started saying goodbye to me. Did anyone see here the movie Sophie’s Choice? The movie Sophie’s Choice? This was the movie about the woman having to make the decision between which child should survive and which child should not. So this was my mother’s “Sophie’s Choice” and as you can imagine it wasn’t an easy choice.
There was a lot of crying of course. This woman said, “You know what I can’t take it anymore, just take him with you. Whatever will be will be. God will help.” They were very religious. We went to the village, Mlynki Szkolnikowe, and we stayed there.
This was I think 43, August of 43. Ghetto was one year and in the last year we were hiding in that place. The situation in that place was quite hard. People could not go to a store and buy food. Farmers were not allowed to kill any animals because the Germans had records of all the animals and if a pig was going to be slaughtered the Germans would take it. And if you have 3 or 4 more people in the house and there is no cards for food you starve.
In this case my uncle, Abraham, the tall handsome one in that picture. Gruber, Abraham Gruber. He was a butcher and he worked in the refinery, where my other grandfather worked. In the refinery there was also a cafeteria where the workers ate. There was a boy who was two years older among the children of the Polish family who we stayed with. So he would take a milk container and go to the factory cafeteria and take the scraps, the food scraps that were thrown away, supposedly for the pigs. We had the first choice of that before the pigs got the choice of that food.
Furthermore, my uncle, every time the this Tadzio came there he would sneak a piece of meat to him or give him some cooked food. So this was a great help. But we were terribly hungry, we were terribly dirty. We would bathe once a month. First we went to stay over a stable. But it got cold because the fall was getting cold. So they dug up a hole.
The house was a thatched house with a dirt floor, but they dug up a hole in the house behind a room divider. Part of us would stay in the hole and some people also stayed in the attic. There was no chimney in that house. The smoke would come out into the attic and get out of the ends of the thatched roof. So we stayed there.
When the time came that they would, my uncle….I’ll digress a little to tell you about this uncle. He was married and had a 3 year old daughter and they lived, this was even before the ghetto. He was working as a butcher and the German officers would come and he spoke German. He was also a veteran of the September 39 war. The Germans came and he would sort of ingratiate himself to these Germans so they became sort of civil to each other.
One day the Nazis came and took his wife away and the child, the 3 year old child. Somebody came and told him that so he got quite frantic and found one of these SS men and asked him, “Please help me my wife is being taken away.” So the German took his motorcycle. He said, “Jump on the backseat and we will go and take your wife. Try to save your wife.” As they were coming towards the forest where the truck went with the people the truck was coming back with the clothing.
The Germans asked people to take their clothing off before they shot them. So my uncle was desperate. He was young and the child, and you know, you can imagine how tragic it was but a few months later he saw a little girl playing at the yard at that place, the refinery. Obviously she was Jewish, and of course this was very dangerous. So he came out and he said, “What are you doing here. You are not supposed to be here. Take me to your mommy.”
So she took him to her mother. Her mother was working there. She was a seamstress. He told her, “Lady you can’t let the child play because this is dangerous.” She says, “I can’t control it.” Anyway, they became very friendly and she thought that she was a widow and he knew that he was a widower and they started living with each other.
She was a seamstress and one day a German officer’s wife comes and says, “I need the dress that you are sewing for me I need it for tomorrow. So try to make it by tomorrow night.” “Well I can’t do it.” “Yes you can do it I have to have it.” Well of course this was a sign for us and for my uncle and everybody that this was going to be the day that there is going to be no longer us, this is why the woman wants her dress.
So he contacted our host, the Polish family that he wants to come and hide with us. So they said, they were very hesitant but they said, ”Okay come. Come and live.” He says, “But I have a woman and a child with us.” Well after some negotiations and promises and so forth the woman and the child came in too. Then my father came, then some other people. I don’t remember the details, but there were 12 of us in that family hiding.
And Marcel I think you described, and this was with the Sawinski family.
So obviously this was not a large house.
Oh my gosh, it was a nothing.
Tiny house, thatched. You are rotating 12 people hiding in there in this attic space and in a hole and just trying to rotate and in those circumstances for you for a year. For a year. And you said hygiene was….
Hygiene was absolutely terrible. We were infected with lice, with anything you can imagine. We were in a situation where my sister was bleeding from her nose and ears and so forth. She was very very sick but there was no way to get a doctor or medication or anything. So we were worrying how are we going to get rid of her body without any neighbors seeing.
And then of course my father also came after the capitulation of Italy. So we thought it was going to be another month or so but it turned out that it was several months. We bathed the whole family in one big tub. First the children, then the parents and this was once a month. I was full of lesions, my body was full of lesions. I didn’t walk. I did not run. I did not live like a normal child.
My sister was in the same situation. She would look up when we were on the roof over the stables, looked down and said, “Why can’t we be chickens? We could run around and be in the fresh air and live a little longer.”
Marcel, we are unfortunately going to skip over a great deal but you would remain with the Sawinski’s until liberation came.
Which was August, 1944.
Tell us about that.
When the bombardments of Allied forces and Russians…the Allied forces somehow managed to get and bomb the refineries. The Russian Air Force would come and bomb. This was the only time that we could come out and be outside because everybody was hiding. We were very happy we were seeing the end of our misery.
So everybody else was in hiding because of the bombing. That’s was your opportunity to come out in the open air.
This was our opportunity to come up in the open air. We were not allowed to talk loud. We were only allowed to whisper because we couldn’t walk. So you can imagine our
physical condition after the war.
I just read somebody’s dissertation about the Jews after the war. 80% of the survivors were extremely sick or very sick. People were just, tuberculoses and all kinds of things. Luckily we did not have any major sicknesses. Of course we were completely outgrew our clothing. Of course I only maybe grew one inch in all these years because of lack of food and exercise. But we survived. We were very happy to see the Russians come in. This sort of started another chapter in my book of my life.
If we have time to talk about it I would like to.
Please tell us a little bit about it.
Of course Poland became a Communist country, Communist controlled. In the beginning there was still hunger and problems with food and clothing and so forth. My father became the director of that lumber factory that he was working before the war, during the war, and after the war. And he was barefoot. Can you imagine, a big nice desk and he was sitting there barefoot?
The front was within a few kilometers of Drohobycz, and so the Russian officers would come and order some lumber for front efforts and the Russian officer looked at him and he says, “That’s unthinkable that the director in a Socialist factory sits there barefoot.” So he says, “I don’t have any shoes and there is nowhere shoes to buy. And I don’t have any money to buy even if there were shoes to buy.” SO he got some Russian soldiers boots. I also got a small pair of boots, maybe lady soldier’s boots.
We stayed in Drohobycz until December of 1945. As a result of international agreements, this part of Poland would become Soviet domination and Poland would get Lower Silesia, Pomerania, and parts that were German before the war. So we were given a choice to either stay there or go to the territories that were German. These territories were quite nice, Lower Silesia. They had well-built buildings and infrastructure. Much improved from what the territories that we left.
The choice was very easy. We did not want to stay under the Russian regime. We did not want to stay under the Communist regime. So we packed up, boarded cattle trains and two or three weeks later we arrived in Lower Silesia, where life was much better. We got a nice apartment there. I went to school there.
First I went to a public school and being Jewish I was the only Jew in my class and they taught religion and I felt very uncomfortable. So they opened a school where religion was separated from the government and I went there to that school. Of course, there were certain conditions that were imposed on you. You had to join the ZMP (Zwiazek Mlodziezy Polskiej) the Polish Communist Youth organization. I was not so inclined because I belonged to a Zionist organization.
One day the director, assistant principal comes to the class and says, “I see two names here who are not member of the ZMP.” And one girl, her father was an officer in the army that escaped Poland, Army Anders and I was the second one. He says, “I give you three days to join or look for another school.” So of course I had to volunteer to join.
Other volunteering they made us to do. This was a coal mining city. In my graduating class they came from the coal mines and they said, “Which boys are here 18 or over.” And I was 18 at that time. They said, “Well we urge you to volunteer to work in the coal mines.” So what would be if we don’t volunteer? Well, you wont graduate , that simple. So we volunteered to do all kinds of things in the name of Socialism and things like that, because we had to volunteer.
Marcel, I know we are getting close to the end here. You clearly had a tremendous amount of education to make up. You had lost, as you put it to me, you lost your childhood. So you had to move at an accelerated pace and yet eventually you would end up getting a mechanical engineering degree, and come to the United States and have just a tremendous career here. You overcame all of that.
You also told me that one of the teachers complained about the fact that you weren’t keeping up with the other kids but your legs has atrophied so terribly from being hidden in cramped quarters for so long that your muscles couldn’t deal with it until you fully recovered.
Plus I didn’t play with other kids because I didn’t talk loud. I was only whispering. This was still in Drohobycz and my mother just told the teachers, “Give him another few months and he’ll catch up.” In 1944 I went to the second grade even though I didn’t know how to read and write. But I did okay. They my parents hired a tutor and they let me skip the third grade so I went to the fourth grade.
But at that time most of the Polish people went voluntarily to Poland and they did not want to keep a Polish school there so they put me in a Ukrainian school. The only thing I learned in Ukrainian was, ”Ja nie rozumeyu” which you can guess means, ”I don’t understand.” I so spent about two or three months there and then in the fall of 1945 went to Poland and did quite well in high school and did quite well in college. I was a completely different child. I was a grown up when I was ten years old.
Marcel, I am going to thank the audience for joining us. Obviously we could only get just a glimpse at what Marcel experienced with his family. I spent a great deal of time with him amd I felt I only got a glimpse and there were many things he couldn’t share. Marcel, can you stay afterward for a few minutes?
Yes, sure, sure.
When we come down from the stage if anybody wants to come and ask Marcel a question or just meet him please feel free to do that. He’ll step down off the stage over here. I want to thank all of your for joining us and for being here for First Person and before I…[applause]
Don’t go quite yet. Before I turn back to Marcel to close our program just remind you that we have First Persons on Wednesdays through August and on Tuesdays from April through July. We won’t have a First Person program next week due to the commemorative events for the Days of Remembrance regarding the Holocaust but we’ll resume again on April 28 when our First Person will be Mr. Michel Margosis who is from Brussels, Belgium whose family went into hiding and then fled and were able to escape through Portugal and Spain then come to the United States.
It is our tradition at First Person that our First Person has the last word so with that I’d like to turn to Marcel to give us his closing thoughts for today’s program.
First of all I am very proud of myself that I didn’t break down because I usually lose my composure, but today…and that’s thanks to Bill because he is a good interviewer. Why do I do it…do what I do. I think that its very important that the world knows that the Holocaust did exist. There are some deniers of the Holocaust, but the Holocaust did exist. There are several Holocausts or Genocides going on in this world and we as a human species cannot allow this to happen anywhere in the world.
I think that the Holocaust Museum is in the forefront of fighting genocide in the world and I hope that I’ll put a tiny part of it. And I would like you to be part of the witness corps. I would like to quote Elie Wiesel who is a very famous writer about the Holocaust and a wonderful person. He says, Wiesel has said, “Whoever reads or listens to a witness becomes a witness.” So you are one of the witnesses, you listened to me.