We were running in the direction to get out, and I don’t know what happened. Hell broke loose. Out of nowhere, the lights came back on.
Over 60 years after the Holocaust, hatred, 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.
This podcast series presents excerpts of interviews with Holocaust survivors from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s public programFirst Person: Conversations with Holocaust Survivors.
In today’s episode Henry Greenbaum talks with host Bill Benson about his attempt to escape a slave labor camp near the Starachowice ghetto in July of 1944. Henry attempted to escape along with his sister, Faige, and a Jewish policeman.
While you were there, you were part of an attempt to escape. Will you tell us about that?
Well it took me a little time for that. I mean we were there working. You know, and it was almost three years when we were there in the slave labor camp, and helping them with the war machinery. And my sister being she knew how to sew, so she volunteered for a tailor shop that the, the high-ranking officers, the Gestapo, the SS, they wanted some uniforms either made or fixed or taken, let out. So there was about like 50 tailors working for them, and they, all of a sudden, after three years, one of the high-ranking officers walked into the tailor shop and told the tailors to hurry up with the, with the clothing. You have to have it ready by such and such date, because all of you are going be deported out of here.
So, that was a little question right there. The tailors started off. They said “If they going to ship us out after three years, now they’re probably going to kill us. They don’t need us anymore, but why would they leave us from a factory that we help them with the war machinery?” The other people, the tailors, the other ones, and so there were little questions. We were worrying about it. If we’re going to be deported, where we’re going to be deported. We didn’t hear from the others that were deported before. My sisters, my mom, or the other people’s moms and sisters, we didn’t hear anything from them.
So these tailors organized an escape. There was no way our whole camp can disappear. Whomever they could trust, a relative, a cousin, whoever was a tailor, who a good friend, and they organized an escape. They even, I understand, organized it somehow with the partisans to come and help them. Partisans were the freedom fighters who stayed in the woods. And they were supposed to come and help us escape or put the guards out of commission or knock the lights out and then we would leave freely. They would not…the fences were not electric wire. They were just plain barbed wire. So somebody brought a pair of clippers from the factory, which we were able to get it there, and someone cut out a hole and then we started to run out. And then, my sister did not tell me about the escape until one night before. I didn’t know anything about it. My shift was from three to eleven at that time. And she says, “When you come back from the factory, do not go into your barrack. Wait for me outside. It will be pitch dark, and I’ll come in and get you. We’re going to escape.” I was 15 years old already at that time. I said, “Oh, that’s good. I’m going to get out of this hell place here.”
The escape, I was looking forward to it. And my sister, all of a sudden, it was pitch black, pitch dark, and my sister came by like she said. She didn’t come by herself. She came with a Jewish policeman who she befriended, and he came, held her hand, and she grabbed my hand, and all us were running in the direction–the policeman knew where it was, where the hole was. We were running in the direction to get out, and I don’t know what happened. Hell broke loose. Out of nowhere, the lights came back on, and he started roaming around the search lights in every direction, until he found this spot where we cut the hole out, and then he opened up automatic fire, started shooting.
As he started shooting, a bullet struck my back of my head. With my sister, I was holding onto her by hand, and the bullet struck me and I dropped. And I don’t know how long does it take for somebody, I was out, like fainted and I woke in a couple seconds, I don’t know how long it takes, and I was full of blood. And I says, “Something got me. I’m sure it was,” I didn’t know what struck me, and I started screaming for my sister, “Faye!” Faige in Yid– Jewish. And I couldn’t find her.
She was the only one I had left. She was like my mom, my everything. I had somebody to hang onto. I had a sister. You know you feel better. You have somebody there, and all of a sudden, I don’t see her. I started screaming, “Faye, Faye, Faye!” And I said, no answer. In the meantime they were shooting everywhere from both towers. And I was, with my head lowered down, and I was running, and I said, maybe she changed her mind and ran into the women’s barrack. I went into the women’s barrack and the woman yelled at me, “You can’t come in here. You’re full of blood! You’re gonna get us all killed. Get out of here!” And I did not want to listen. I said, “I’m not going nowhere. He’s shooting out there.” He was shooting into the barracks. They had to jump off their, their, their, their bunks. They had to lay on the floor, otherwise a bullet was, wood don’t stop a bullet. So they all laid on the concrete floor in the barrack, and it was concrete or wood, I can’t remember that, but we were on the floor. And as I said, she kept yelling, “Get out! Get out!” I didn’t want to do it.
A first cousin answered, Ita. She was the same name as my sister, cousins, named [the same as] each other. There were two sisters, mothers, so they were naming them after their grandparents, I guess. And I, Ita showed up out of nowhere. She says, “What happened to you?” I said, “I was trying to escape with Faige and the policeman. I was injured.” And she was not even aware of the escape. She took some rags, put them in some cold water and put it on the back of my head. She took off her beret that she had. You could wear whatever you had at that camp. She had a beret and put it on top of my head, and the blood sucked into the rags in there. And the next morning, no that was, so I couldn’t get out of there, because they were shooting.
So, finally, before daylight started, I snuck out of there and I ran back into my barrack where I belonged, because had they caught me in the women’s barrack, the woman was right, they would’ve killed me, not them. But they would’ve definitely got me. But then, I got back into my barrack, and two hours later, they had roll call. "Everybody out." They had to count to see how many escaped. And as they were counting, I saw some guys say, “Jewish people, they didn’t fight back.” I saw them running on the top of fences. They got shot, yes. They were trying to get out. As he was counting, they were on the fences. They were not electric fences, just plain barbed wire, but nevertheless, there were two sets of wires, six foot tall. And then he says, it was counting, and then he told us to turn a certain way, and we turned, and there was the hole where we cut, where someone else cutted through. And there I looked. The policeman was sitting in an upright position. Other people were there, wounded. My poor sister was right near him, laying flat. She didn’t move, so evidently, I presumed, she was dead. And then, other people were moaning. You could hear them moaning and crying and screaming, and all of a sudden, he took his weapon out and he shot every one of the wounded people. I saw the policeman tilting over. You know, once he got shot, right next to my sister. And then other people got killed too, and this is the lesson you learn.
You have been listening to First Person: Conversations with Holocaust Survivors, a podcast series of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Every Wednesday at 1 p.m. from March through August, Holocaust survivors share their stories during First Person programs held at the Museum in Washington, DC. We would appreciate your feedback on this series. [Please take our First Person podcast survey and let us know what you think.]