- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Joseph Kiersz
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 15 April 2005
I was born in 1926 in Unijow a small town near Lodz. My family consisted of my parents, myself, a brother and a sister. I was the middle child. My father died when I was two years old and was buried in Lodz. My father was a cattle dealer who transported cattle to Lodz. There were 350,000 Jews living in Lodz before the war. I had a normal Jewish upbringing. Times were very hard and the only way we could live after my father died was through the help of my uncle who came to England at the age of 13. He regularly sent £1 a week to his mother, my grandmother, and this kept her, her single daughter, my mother and us. My grandmother wore a sheital and the family was greatly respected in the town.
The poles were viciously anti-semitic — it was drummed into them by the church and Jews suffered consequently
I was barmitzvahed in 1939 — I didn’t have a barmitzvah like boys have here. After Synagogue I was given an extra piece of butter cake and lemon tea by my grandmother.
At the beginning of 1939 cousins of my mothers arrived in our town from Permazenc, Germany, and told us that the Germans had come into a Jewish home, took away the prettiest little girl, and came back the following day with a little box with the child’s ashes and gave it to the mother. You can imagine how every Jew in town panicked.
When the Germans entered my town my grandmother was dying. Her children were gathered around crying and she said that sad times were coming and there would be times when they would envy the dead.
Our town was bombed and the Germans entered. We had to wear yellow stars, front and bhack, and yellow armbands. Even our windows had the word Jude written on them. Jews were now allowed to walk on the pavements — all Jewish women had to bow if they saw a German soldier. The men were made to sing a song taught by the Germans “ O G-d shenk unds dem Moses weider” which means “God spare us our Moses again”. The Germans made the men run around the square at speed on cobblestones, made them fall to the ground, get up, run, fall and hit them with gun butts. I was hiding among the bombed ruins and looking on at what was happening and I was crying bitterly. That was the beginning of the destruction of our people.
I was taken with other men to work in the fields on the farms to cut turf. I incurred many beatings. We lived in stables. Food was scarce and we were given scraggy dead horses to eat. We had to skin them and boil them in large tanks over wooden fires. For religious people, this was terrible.
After several months, the men returned home and a ghetto was formed. One night the Germans went in during the night to a family called Jacobivitz, made the mother and daughter strip naked and dance on the table holding a hot paraffin lamp in their bare hands, while two sons looked on and could do nothing.
In my neighbouring town called Podenbice, the son of the Rabbi had to hang his father in the town square and the community had to watch silently. In Dobra, another neighboiuring town, the Rabbi was taken out, made to put on a tallis and tefilin, then strapped him to a cart, instead of a horse, to pull a cart of manure. As it was too strenuous and he couldn’t do it, they beat him so much that he fell to the ground and they continued until they beat him to death. In Auschwitz I was told by other inmates how little babies were torn apart by their little legs.
By this time the first transport of men were sent to forced labour camps in Posnan
In 1941 all Jews from the surrounding towns were gathered together into one ghetto made up of 18 very poor villages. The Germans recruited a Jewish police force. My family was given one room, formerly a stable, with a sand floor. We put planks of wood over it, and that was our living quarters. Five people lived thin this room.
There was no work in the ghetto and after a while the Germans asked the Jewish Police, who were formed by the Germans, to round up 500 people from the ghetto — old, crippled, anybody. A Jewish committee was formed but they refused to make the selection and told the Germans to do it themselves — they knew they were probably going to kill them. As a result one night the Germans invaded the Ghetto and took everybody out into a big field. They separated the men from the women and made the selection themselves. Old people and mothers with little children, pregnant women, on one side, others suitable for work on the other. I remember watching one girl aged about 16 who was separated from her mother, being beaten and dragged on the floor but she was not allowed to join her mother. We thought that they were going to take the young people and send us away somewhere to work, but instead they left us there and they took away the old ones, mothers with young children and pregnant women who were taken to a neighbouring town, and put in a church for 3 or 4 days. By the time I , and some other men, were allowed to go into the church with water, lots of people had lost their sanity, including my lady Hebrew teacher who was walking around naked, singing and dancing. There were no toilet facilities, After three days in the Church they put the people into closed lorries, one old lady was taken out from the Church and buried alive — she was 90 years old. There was gas in the lorries and when they reached their destination — a place called Chelmno — they were all dead and were buried in a communal grave. Chelmno is a place with lots of forests and the reason the Germans buried them there was that the roots of the trees could such out the moisture from the dead people. We later got this news from a man named Podchlebnik who managed to escape, and was one of the men made to bury the dead including his wife and child.
Because of these incidents and the night raids on houses we tried to hide in the ghetto forest. We dug trenches camouflaged them with earth and bushes and every night my mother and I went there to hide. There were about 20 of us. One night the Germans came on horseback and prodded the earth with long daggers and found us.
My mother and I were taken with a lot of people on a train. My brother and sister remained in the ghetto. The women were taken off at Posnan and it was there that I said goodbye to my mother — she was 35 years old. I cried bitterly — would I ever see her again. The train carried on to Mogilno with the man and there we worked building roads for the German army. I worked barefotted in the summer to save my only pair of shoes for the winter.
One day I was called to the German Police. I walked three miles to the police station and was given a letter that was sent to me by my aunt who managed to hide as a non-Jewiess because she was blonde and blue-eyed and didn’t look Jewish. They asked me to translate the letter in which she had written that three of my young cousins, aged seven, nine and ten had been given up to different Polish farmers and that if I survived the war I should go and look for them.
How could I explain anything like this to the Germans even if they would have killed me and because I would not give them a clear translation they put me across two chairs. I was held by the head and by my legs and two men with wooden batons hit me across my back. When they eventually let me go I could not straighten up and had to crawl on my hands and feet like a dog back to the camp because my back was cracked, my body was swollen and one of my hands was knocked shapeless and I was bleeding. When the Poles saw me crawling in the street they crossed themselves. I had to work with one hand only.
In 1943 the Jewish labourers were collected from various camps and I was sent to Buna in Auschwitz. We went in closed trains with no windows or seats, and one loaf of bread for the five day journey. In Auschwitz we were tattooed with a number and then we were sent into a huge washroom with loads of sprinklers on top, our clothes taken away, the big doors were shut and we thought we were going to be gassed. The screams and cries of “Shema Yisrael” I can still hear. What actually came from the sprinklers was water and we were relieved.
In Buna I worked for IG Farben making the Zyklon B gas which was used to gas the people. I was beaten and tortured at work, prayed to God at night not to wake up in the morning, and I wondered if I lived would there ever be a day when I would have enough bread to eat — then I would be the happiest man in the world. I found a lump of dried bread in a box of machinery and I broke three teeth trying to break off small pieces to soften it and chew in my mouth.
Conditions were so bad that inmates committed suicide daily by walking into the electric fences. There were continuous hanging of people. We had to march by and look up and all you could here was “Shema Yisrael” — but it did not help. There was no G-d for us. The soap we used to wash ourselves was made from the dead inmates. Jews were singing “Ani Ma’amin” which means “I believe” as they marched to the gas chambers
At the end of 1944 the Russians closed in and we could hear the bombs. At this time I contracted Scarlet Fever and was put in a makeshift hospital where I shared a bed in shifts with three other people
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