Reflections on the Holocaust
Marcus David Leuchter
When World War II broke out on September 1, 1939, I was 29 years old and, like the entire population of my country--gentiles and Jews alike--I was totally unprepared for the things to come. My main assets were a high degree of education, a well-developed brain capable of fast thinking, and a deep basic belief that any human being has something good in him or her. If all of us have been created by God, then God's fingerprints are all over us, and no ing is entirely devoid of kindness; and to me, kindness means humanity--a realization that all of us are members of an enormous human family called the human race.
Armed with this and hardly any financial resources to speak of, I survived
the Ghetto in German-occupied Kraków
Having escaped from the Ghetto, I assumed a Polish gentile identity. While everybody around me knew, or at least suspected, that I was a Jew, nobody betrayed me. On February 1, 1945, or two and a half months before the war ended, I was even able to fool the Gestapo [Geheime Staatspolizei, Secret State Police famous for atrocities and torture] into releasing me from the Sachsenhausen concentration camp and sending me to a survivable slave labor camp. And all the time, I was able to maintain contact with my wife who was incarcerated in the Ravensbrück concentration camp famous for medical experiments on prisoners.
It is impossible to describe all the "happenings" of this horrifying period which ended with my liberation on May 8, 1945, without turning this lecture into an autobiography. I will limit myself to describing only those events which will given the reader the "feel" of the situation and appreciation of the most unexpected outcome.
Before the Kraków Ghetto was established on March 4, 1941, I decided to visit my parents who were landowners in a small village near Tarnów, some 60 kilometers from Kraków. Thanks to my pre-war connections with an Austrian (now German) factory for which I did legal work before 1939, I was able to get with them a job and a permit to use trains, from which Jews had already been barred. A Jew picked up on a train without a permit was executed on the spot. The problem was that the German police did not even want to look at the permit. When they picked me up on the train and I tried to produce my permit, the young SS-man [Schutzstaffel, Blackshirts] hit my face with his fist and started leading me to the place of execution.
At that moment I got a crazy idea: since any effort to talk would have led to further blows on my head, I started singing a German song which I learned attending a German school in the Sudetenland during World War I: "Wenn du noch eine Mutter hast / So danke Gott und sei zufrieden. . . " This startled the SS-man and he asked me, "Wer bist du?" This gave me a chance to start talking, and he put his gun away and listened. He even stamped the travel permit that was not valid in his district, and let me go. He had a semblance of a smile on his face when he did that. The [Nazi] Law of the Land mandated him to execute me, but he disobeyed it. I survived because I was able to reach something good in him that changed his mind. I had the feeling that he felt good about the whole incident. For me, it was quite an experience that repeated itself many times later on during the war.
I reached my destination without further trouble. Since the SS-man did not confiscate the package I was carrying, I was able to treat my mother to some good coffee, and the local Catholic priest to a bottle of sacramental wine which was still available in Kraków.
Shortly afterwards, the Germans announced that the number of Jews in Kraków has to be reduced, and urged voluntary evacuation with the right to take along all belongings, up to a certain date, after which mandatory evacuation with only 44 lbs. of personal belongings would be allowed. Since neither my fiancée nor her mother could hope to get a residential permit in Kraków, it was decided that they should move to my parents' village which appeared to be a paradise of peace and tranquility at that time. Since trains were too risky, I had to find alternate means of transportation to that village.
The solution was simple but still risky: in the factory in which I worked, I organized a bicycle club that included two ethnic Germans. Since the Germans had the right to display swastikas on their bikes, the Polish police would not dare stop them, while the German police just waved and smiled. Of course, had they stopped us, I would have been executed on the spot, and my companions would have been sent to Auschwitz. Considering the fact that it took six hours of pedaling to reach the village, I obviously had devoted friends helping me.
On March 1, 1941, a new announcement came: by March 20, every Jew had to move into a Ghetto created on the east side of the River Vistula. A very poor suburb of Kraków named Podgórze had been inhabited by some 3,000 Poles and had only 320 houses. The Poles were ordered out, and 15,000 Jews (those with permits to stay in Kraków) were ordered in. The houses were mostly in bad condition, some without floors or sanitary facilities. In other words, slum conditions. The Jewish Community Council had a difficult time in allocating living space: at first, it was three persons per window, later, four persons. I found myself living with three other men. But it was unprecedented camaraderie. We discovered that even under these miserable conditions, life can go on. Social life was easy in this small area, and we had some unexpected pleasures listening to some well known popular entertainers, among them poet and singer Mordecai Gebirtig (murdered on "bloody Thursday," June 4, 1942).
I had a permit to work in my Austrian factory. At that time, permits to work outside the Ghetto were relatively easy to obtain, owing to the cooperation of the Director of the Jewish Labor Force in the Ghetto, an Austrian named Szepessy. Because of his help to Jews, Szepessy was later arrested by the SS, sent to a concentration camp, and hanged.
The "thinning out" of the number of Jews continued; we suffered continuing raids by the Jewish police arresting all Jews who had no residence permits. The brutality of the Jewish police force was unexpected; in the number of people they caught, they even exceeded the demands of the Germans. Many times, with the permission of my bosses, I stayed over at my factory sleeping on a desk or on a pile of cardboard, but without fear; I also listened to the radio which the factory was permitted to have as a German- owned enterprise. As a matter of fact, it was my own radio which I brought to the factory for safekeeping, instead of turning it over to the German authorities as ordered.
During one of the bicycle trips to visit my fiancée, I learned that by October 20, 1941, she would have to move to a nearby Ghetto (by then, ghettos had been set up in the countryside as well). It became necessary to move Theresa and her mother back to Kraków and into "my" Ghetto, a formidable task because Jews were not allowed to leave their district under penalty of death, and of course using a train was also punishable by death.
I decided on a flimsy, almost laughable plan: to hire a Polish policeman, a certain Mr. Mazurkiewicz, who would "arrest" us and bring us back to Kraków. While the policeman's authority was limited to the Kraków area only, his uniform was the same as in any other city [under German occupation], and his presence eliminated the danger of being denounced by Polish passengers on the train. But there was absolutely no protection against the German police, except that I had a train permit and also a letter showing that Theresa would be permitted to enter the Ghetto as soon as she reached Kraków. If we ran into a German policeman, the presence of a Polish policeman would prevent the German from shooting us on the spot, and we might have an opportunity to talk and persuade him. . . a tremendous gamble not only for us but for the Polish policeman as well.
Theresa's mother left one day before our arrival. Our neighbor, Jan Konarski (the grandfather of Grazyna Wojciechowski who now lives in Houston, Texas), provided for my future mother-in-law a fake Polish ID card, so that she was able to disappear from the village. Mr. Mazurkiewicz decided to take the two o'clock night train, and we went to the train station several kilometers away. I was flanked by my mother and by Theresa, while Mr. Konarski walked with my father who was sobbing all the way. My mother did most of the talking, assuring me that I was getting the most wonderful girl who would never fail me. She was so right. When the train showed up--and we had but one minute to board it--both my parents kissed my hand and my mother said simply, "So I will never see you again." And she never did.
We completed the journey without the slightest difficulty and went straight to the German office where a brand new ID was ready for Theresa with her married name, compliments of the German official, Mr. Grün, who did not even ask for our marriage license which we did not have because we were not married yet. He even handed Theresa a special present secured by my factory: a pass to enter and leave the Ghetto freely. Mr. Mazurkiewicz insisted on getting us into the Ghetto, carrying Theresa's suitcase so that it was protected from being confiscated at the Ghetto gate. When time came to pay him, he refused to accept any money. Thus we received a wedding present from a total stranger whose soul we were able to reach.
I failed to mention earlier that I was able to secure living space for us: one half of a kitchen, with enough space for a single bed, one small table, one chair and a small closet for our belongings. A low wood partition separated us from the ever-burning stove located just a couple of feet away. There was no running water in the kitchen, and the only toilet facility was in the apartment of the Zajdner family, who owned the place. Before World War II, the Zajdners owned a metal ware factory that later became the backbone of the Schindler plant.
Almost all my friends were of the opinion that one must be crazy to get married "in these days of terrible uncertainty," as they put it. But we stuck to our plans and decided on a wedding date: October 21, 1941. The Zajdners and some other friends made all the arrangements: the Rabbi, dinner, etc. Some humor crept into the preparations when our landlady, Ruhele Zajdner, decided to bake a wedding cake. She diligently gathered all possible recipes and followed them to the letter, except for butter. When the cake arrived at the table, it was literally floating in a sea of butter. Ruhele simply remarked in Yiddish, "Butter cannot hurt." The cake tasted so wonderful that we finished it up in no time, and we licked our plates so clean that they did not have to be washed after the meal.
But we received two reminders of our grim situation. As I was walking home before the wedding, I heard a man's voice calling me by my nickname known only to very few people. I had trouble recognizing the man because of his shabby appearance. He was Izzy Bauminger who worked closely with me when I served as Secretary General of the Students' Union at Jagiellonian University. I invited him to come to the wedding and helped him to wash up for that occasion. My landlord permitted him to sleep on the floor at the entrance of our house, and I gave him one of my two pillows. When leaving next morning, Bauminger left the pillow on the floor, but I would not even touch it: it was crawling with lice.
Then the Rabbi reproached me: "You are all rich people, and I and my students are starving. Please help us." He told us that he was teaching several Talmudic students who came to the Ghetto illegally after their small Jewish communities had been destroyed. Those kids were searching for a place to continue learning, because that was all they knew how to do. Of course we did help for some time, but it did not last long: the Jewish police picked them up on one of their daily raids. Except for our landlord who was really rich, the rest of us led a hand-to-mouth existence. I was able to buy for Theresa only one rose; I could not afford more. But I did buy one because what is a wedding without at least one rose to make HER happy?
The situation in the Ghetto was getting tougher by the day because the Germans were constantly pressing for more deportations to reduce the Ghetto population, and the Jewish police were in charge of finding illegals. Many a time they even tore up residence permits to get their victims, and in some cases they blackmailed legal residents.
On December 1, 1941, the Jewish Post Office was closed. This cut off the flow of food from the Polish [gentile] side [of Kraków], and food prices skyrocketed. On December 27, 1941, Jews had to give up fur coats, allegedly needed to keep the German army from freezing. Fur coats for us were not a luxury but a necessity, but non-compliance was punishable by being shot on the spot.
Early in 1942, the Jewish police were ordered to prepare lists of women aged 14-25. These women were then marched off to the German Health Center for anthropological and gynecological examinations. I was able to get my wife off that list by bribing a policeman.
In March 1942, another resettlement order came, and our police delivered 1,500 persons. But this time, we received a horrifying report from a dental technician--his name was Bachner--that the entire transport had been gassed upon arrival at Belzec. Bachner escaped by hiding at the bottom of a latrine for several days. His main complaint about those days was not the smell but the flies swarming around his head. With the help of a Polish gentile farmer, Bachner returned to Kraków and shared with us the news of our impending doom. The time came to run but we were not quite ready yet. We still had to wait for our "Aryan" papers.
The next deportation period began on May 28, 1942. It turned into the first real pogrom in our Ghetto. On that day, the Ghetto was sealed off by heavily armed German police units, and unprecedented acts of brutality unfolded before our eyes. Everybody had to get a stamp in his ID to be saved from deportation. Receiving a stamp depended entirely on the whim of the SS-man. Logic no longer applied. Suddenly, I saw Mr. Spira, the Chief of the Jewish police, running around like mad and yelling, "I need 5,000 people for resettlement and I only have 2,000. All stamps are now invalid ,and you have to get a blue slip permitting you to stay in the Ghetto." Everybody had to go through a building to get the blue slip. Many people entered; only a few came out with the slip. The rest were detained for immediate deportation, and they were brutally pushed to the assembly place.
It was already early afternoon and I was still outside, hesitating as to when to enter. Suddenly, a young woman came out, obviously for a work break. I recognized her immediately. She was Yanka Reinhold, a fellow [Jewish] student from the Law School at Jagiellonian University. The SS recruited her for that day to work as a secretary. Yanka told me that her SS-man was an "angel" who listened to people, and she advised me to come to her desk. It worked: I presented my case properly, she gave him a nod and slowly, very slowly, he reached out for a blue slip. It looked as if he was savoring every movement of this life-giving action. The same procedure followed when I asked for a slip for my wife. He had every right to refuse, but Yanka gave a nod and I got a slip for Theresa who had been waiting outside. When I came out, both of us thought that Heaven had smiled on us.
After this "action," everything calmed down in the Ghetto, and we continued our preparations for the escape. Our Polish ID cards were ready to be picked up on June 21, 1942, in the City Hall of Kraków. Accompanied by our Polish friends who made all the arrangements, we took the risk of picking them up personally, and Theresa's mother also got her card: she had been living with Polish friends in Kraków waiting for our escape. We gave our new cards for safekeeping to a Polish friend of mine, Mrs. Flora Ostrowska, who lived close to the Ghetto. My new name was Feliks Lednicki. Finally, the moment to run away came. We learned that another "action" [deportation] would take place October 28, 1942. On October 25, we walked out of the Ghetto with a group of workers, and met my mother-in-law at Mrs. Ostrowska's place where we also picked up our papers. Then, we took a night train to Warsaw. When we arrived there in the morning, I was picked up immediately by a Polish [gentile] policeman who blackmailed us, but let us go after he took everything we had including my overcoat.
I knew only one Polish gentile in Warsaw: Waclaw Smolec. We went there; he greeted us very cordially, but made it immediately clear that he could not help us because helping a Jew was punishable by death [of the entire family]; and he and his wife had a child. Since I remembered the Polish name of a friend of mine who had escaped from the Ghetto before we did, I sent my mother-in-law to the registration office to find out where he lived. It turned out that he lived nearby. We walked over to his place at curfew time. He greeted us very cordially, but then his Jewish girlfriend showed up; she was a personification of fury, and wanted us to leave immediately. Without her knowledge, the [gentile] landlady allowed us to stay a couple of days, until mother found a room in the apartment of Mrs. Eugenia Sawicki, who had three children aged 12, 16, and 18. Her husband was living in their country home near Warsaw. Since all schools were closed by the Germans, and the children were quite anxious to continue their education, it looked like we found a good teaching position. A miracle: they did not even realize that we were Jews.
Unfortunately, this did not last long. Our landlady's nephew, who had been released from a POW camp in Germany, had to pass through Warsaw on his way home, and he decided to stay for a few days at his aunt's place. When he saw us, he immediately realized that there was a chance to make some money. He brought in a gang of blackmailers who robbed us clean and took our Polish ID cards. Now Mrs. Sawicki realized who we were, but she never told us that she knew we were Jewish. Most probably she was influenced by her children, and she informed us that we could stay provided we got back our ID cards. A heartwarming offer but quite meaningless, because we did not know how to go about getting back those IDs.
But something unexpected happened. Two depressing days later, there was a knock at the door, and an unknown woman came in to advise us to move to a different location because the police knew who we were, and we had to move to save our lives. Suddenly Janusz Sawicki, the 16-year-old son of our landlady, grabbed her handbag and found our ID cards right there. I then saw that, again, I reached the soul of a stranger who decided to help me. Further proof came when Mrs. Sawicki, who was getting scared, decided [some time later] to give us a month's notice. Janusz then took a train to see his father who had never met us; before World War II, that Mr. Sawicki was an anti-Semite who used to chase Jews away with dogs. Janusz came back with an order from the father: "They stay." The Sawicki family suffered with us for two years, risking their lives for us without any financial advantages.
On August 1, 1944, the Polish Underground Army started a revolution in an effort to liberate Poland's capital so that the advancing Russians would not get credit for it [and Poland would have a chance to regain independence after World War II]. The revolution failed; the Germans squashed it by burning down every house and evacuating everybody in Warsaw to the town of Pruszków. There, we were all guarded by Latvians and Ukrainians who were part of the German army. All of a sudden, we saw that brutal treatment was not reserved for Jews only. Killings and rape were the order of the day. I saw a frightening scene. A boy and a girl ran up to a wagon loaded with bread for soldiers. Two shots rang out. The boy escaped, but the girl fell to the ground lying still and lifeless. A soldier came by, kicked her with his heavy boot, and shot her in the head. After that, he grabbed her leg and dragged her to a garbage pile.
The Germans announced that we [Poles from Warsaw] would be taken to Germany for work, and that we would be housed temporarily in a concentration camp where we would get food and shelter, and then we would be sent to free labor camps. Women were separated from us. Of course I was scared that someone would denounce me as a Jew. Somehow, probably because everybody had his own troubles, this did not happen.
When I was already in the camp, I started looking around and came across a young man trying to mend his pants. He told me that he had learned to do it when he was a boy scout. Since Jews were not admitted to the boy scout movement, I sensed that he did not like me, and I began to walk away, saying that I hoped that he would have enough thread to fix his pants. Suddenly, he called me back asking, "How big is your hole?" And he sewed my pants too. Somehow I got through to another human being who undoubtedly knew that I was a Jew.
All of us in the camp had one question on our minds: where were our wives? Soon I found out that as a prisoner, I had the right to appear before the camp commander. I took that risk and was startled when he asked me, "Was wünchen Sie?" This unexpectedly polite question filled me with hope, and I rattled off our thanks for saving us from the Russians; I ended up asking, "For God's sake, what did you do with our wives?" This touched him, and against all camp rules and regulations, he gave me the unheard-of permission to write to the women's camp in Ravensbrück asking about my wife. He provided paper, pen, and postage. I expanded this privilege and squeezed on that piece of paper 200 names of my fellow prisoners.
After two weeks, I received a reply from my wife. It listed the names of wives incarcerated at that camp. I suddenly, I became a Polish hero. One of my fellow prisoners, Mr. Szelazek, who had been a well known publisher in Warsaw, asked me whether I was related to a Professor Lednicki at the University of Warsaw. I said he was my cousin. Mr. Szelazek immediately discovered family resemblance: Professor Lednicki had some oriental ancestry, and his friends called him "Bedouin."
Other similar things followed. Once I went to the camp hospital to get some help. The hospital was manned by French prisoners. Talking to them, I said that whenever I got sick before the war, I followed certain procedures and was cured by them. When translating the word "cured" into French, I mistakenly said "J'etais curé." Little did I know that this meant, in French, "I was a priest." I realized this only after the Frenchmen around me bowed their heads. The benefit of this error was great: I was able to get help and also some extra food for some of my sick fellow prisoners.
When a typist was needed in the camp office, I was assigned to this job and worked with a Norwegian. When I learned that the Norwegians did not eat camp food because they were getting Red Cross packages, I got their permission to take their portions of camp food to my Polish block. Again I became a hero, and nobody would even think of denouncing me.
This situation did not last long. When the Russians were already reaching Auschwitz, the Germans evacuated some of the surviving inmates, among them the engravers who printed counterfeit dollars and pounds, and the Gestapo informers. They all came to our camp. One of these informers came to the camp office and yelled out my real [Jewish] name. I was in mortal danger, and so I asked my friends in the office to transfer me back to the [Polish] barracks as a Schreiber, so that I would not have to go out to the camp grounds and be seen.
While evacuating us from Warsaw, the Germans promised to use us for work in a labor camp. One of my fellow prisoners was Herbert Kloehn, a German from East Prussia. He headed a building commando that was constructing a luxury home for the camp commander (with whom he had a very special relationship in spite of the fact that he was a prisoner). Herbert agreed to discuss with the camp commander the following idea: during our evacuation from Warsaw, a promise was made that the stay in the concentration camp would be only temporary, and we would be soon moved to a free labor camp. The Sachsenhausen [concentration] camp was getting crowded: over 70,000 prisoners with only 400 guards, most of them being older men not fit to fight at either the eastern or western fronts. The camp population was getting restless sensing the [approaching] fall of Germany. Why not alleviate the tensions by releasing some prisoners from Warsaw as had been promised? The idea worked, and I was put in charge of preparing a list of workmen in professions like carpentry, masonry, automobile repair, etc. Since I could not find even one butcher--and at least one was needed--I put down my own name in that category; this almost tripped me because the question arose, why a prisoner whose documents showed that he was a lawyer wanted to get out as a butcher. When interrogated about this by the camp Gestapo, I gave them a plausible story: born into a butcher family, I did not want to stay in this "stinking" profession. I was able to fool them and was released from the camp on February 1, 1945--two and a half months before the fall of Germany. I am the only Jew in Houston who succeeded in leaving a concentration camp before the end of the war.
Looking back, I came to the conclusion that there is something good in every human being, and because of that, the mind of a human being can be changed. Above all, I discovered that the human mind has no limits and it can produce unbelievable achievements.
The revised text of a lecture given to Rice University's Central Europe Study Group, February 3, 2000.