Walter Feiger

ImageVery Few People Survived Fifty Lashes.

I was born in Krakow, Poland. Life was very good when I was a young man there. I was born into a privileged family from the upper middle class. My father had studied at the University of Vienna and had a degree in chemistry, and we had a small factory that produced household products. In my early years I actually had two mothers: my maternal mother and a housekeeper, who was also my governess. My mother was a socialite lady, so wherever our housekeeper Marta went, I went. And, her being a devout Catholic, every Sunday she would go to church and so did I. The Priest knew me by my first name, and every time I was there he put holy water on my head. Maybe that helped me to survive, because it’s good to have two angels with you when you’re in the death camps.

But it didn’t start with death camps. My early recollection is that the war between Poland and Germany was officially started on September 1, 1939. September 8 was my 12th birthday, and my father had promised that he’d be there for my birthday. Then I received a phone call from my father that he was very sorry, but he was drafted and had to report immediately, being that in World War I he served in the Austrian Army, where he was an officer, and that part became Poland so he automatically was an officer in the Polish reserves. That was the last time I had the opportunity to talk with my father, a few days before my 12th birthday. Soon enough the German Army entered the area.

We had moved out of Krakow, where I was born, and were living closer to the German border in a town that was called Katowice, Kattowitz in German. Evidently my father decided to have the factory there because there was greater opportunity for it. We lived in a very nice apartment, in a building, and when the German officers came and visited our place they decided they wanted to make their headquarters there. So we were required to leave our place. Every one of us in the family had the opportunity to take one suitcase with personal belongings, and we moved into a smaller town where we lived in a ghetto.

The reason we had to leave Katowice is because Katowice belonged to Germany before World War I. So when the German occupation started, they called it the reunification of greater Germany, the actual reunification, and Jews were no longer allowed to live in that area. That’s why we had to move in with my family’s relatives in a smaller town which was actually between the city of Katowice and Krakow, called Chrzanow, 18 kilometers from Auschwitz. You could see the chimneys working hard later on, when the weather permitted.

Every young man at the age of 12 had to have an occupation, had to have papers showing that he was working for the German authorities in some capacity. My father and older brother were the two in our family. He was three years older than me. At the age of 17 he was sent to work for Germany in a Forced Labor Camp. My mother, fearing that I might be next, drove me into a work commando that was doing highway repair and canalization. Supposedly if you worked for that detail you were safe. They wouldn’t send you to Germany. But, like so many other things they said, they were just lying about it, because one day when returning from work we were ordered to go to a local gymnasium where there was supposed to be a briefing. While we were there SS Storm Troopers circled the building. We had to undress and stand in front of a commission of German officials and a German doctor.

Officially you had to be 17 to be sent to Germany, and I wasn’t quite 15. But the doctor said I was strong enough, and it was okay. I should be sent to the camp. So we were marched to the railroad station. My mother, who was originally born and raised in Cologne, Germany, had some connections with the local German police department, and she was able to hand me a small suitcase with personal belongings and some German marks.

We were sent to a transitional camp in Poland before going to Germany. There I went to see one of the officials, a Kapo.[2] A Kapo was a surveyor, somebody who was in charge of the prisoners, because that’s what we were then. I told him that I had a brother already in Germany, in a forced labor camp, and if he could send me there I would hand him all the German money that I had and would be very grateful. I was very lucky: he was able to send me to Sakrau, which was in Kreis Oppeln, Germany. I can still see the expression on my brother’s face when he saw me coming in. He never thought in his wildest imagination that his 15-year old brother was going to come.

For me it was a salvation, because my brother was there already for a whole year, and he was an experienced guy, he knew the ropes. He knew what to do and what not to do. So he was a great coach. He was able to tell me how to behave and what to do.

The first thing when we got to the camp is we had to undress. They checked our clothing. If anyone had money or jewelry it was confiscated. They said that they were going to put it in safekeeping, that we had nothing to worry about, that when we went back home we were going to get all of our personal things back. Of course, we had to have a yellow star indicating we were Jews. Normally, in the ghetto, you just sewed it on. But once you were in the camp you had to cut it out and sew it on in the event you ripped it off and tried to escape in some way, which rarely happened because in Germany where would you go? Everybody hated the Jews in Germany, so no one would be willing to help anyway. We then had to go to what they called entlausung.[3] It seems that they thought we all had parasites and lice, so we had to get rid of them. They sprayed you with chemicals.

They shaved your head, very close to a crew cut, and you’d have to get up early in the morning for an assembly in front of the barracks. They counted everybody, and if everybody was present they dismissed us. We were able to go to the barracks where we could wash our faces, and then you would get your bread rations, a half a pound of bread a day and an imitation cup of coffee, called ersatz café, mostly chicory and no coffee there at all. That was supposed to last you until you came back.

Mostly the work consisted of highway work at that particular camp. It was infrastructure, as Germany was efficiently concerned about infrastructure so they could move their military might from one place to another in a hurry. Infrastructure was very important.

The work was very hard. A good thing that happened to me was that when I worked when I was still home I learned how to use a shovel. I was a quick learner, and I spoke perfect German because that was the first language I acquired. My mother spoke to us children in German. But imagine someone who never did that kind of work, that didn’t know how to use a shovel. And then he became the joke of the German hierarchy that was in charge, and they start beating and insulting. If you were subject to beatings, you would deteriorate much faster than the rest.

In that particular camp, and then at night, for instance, 9 o’clock was curfew, you couldn’t get out of the barracks. So if you had to go to the bathroom they would set up a big pot in front of the entrance, and that’s where you had to go to urinate. There was always somebody in charge of that urination pot, because they would come and inspect it in the middle of the night. They would come, and if there was urine outside the pot the one that was in charge of it would get a severe beating. The other thing was the bunk beds, one on top of the other. There were no mattresses, just a bed filled with straw, and if they found straw underneath the bed, which you obviously couldn’t help but have, then that was enough reason for punishment and you got beaten. So life was not easy, but labor camp was not the worst thing. The worst things happened when the labor camps were liquidated.

One of the good things that happened, coincidentally, was that I was sent to Germany at the age of 15. Eight months after I was sent the town was liquidated. All of the Jews of that particular town, in that ghetto, were required to go to the marketplace where there was a commission of German officers and doctors. They all had to undress. Women, children and senior citizens were automatically sent to Auschwitz, where they were gassed. Younger people that they felt were physically in good shape who were useful were sent to labor camps. So, me being only 15-years old at the time, I would have most likely been sent with my mother. She was helping a neighbor with small children. Even though she was only 38, and spoke perfect German, she was sent to Auschwitz. That probably would have been my destiny too. Once you got to Auschwitz you didn’t last very long. The rotation trains were arriving there every single day with Jews, and so you didn’t have a chance to remain alive for very long.

The labor camps were liquidated in 1943. One day, coming back from work, we were told that something was going to happen that day. They said there was going to be a transition where we were going to be moved into concentration camps. I remember at one place I would occasionally see a truckload of men in stripes, and I knew they were from the concentration camps.

In the first labor camps there were Jews only, there were no other nationalities or religions. Just Jews. At the very beginning there were even a few females that would work in the kitchen. I forgot to mention that when you came back from work, late in the evening, you would get a bowl of soup. That was your complete nourishment for the day. Most of the time the soup had cabbage in it, or potato peels. There was never any meat in it. Except on Hitler’s birthday they would have a special occasion and there would be chowder. That was the only time you had something different.

So obviously, there was physical deterioration because of malnutrition. Every once in a while somebody would just give up because he couldn’t handle it. Once you gave up (and you could tell just by looking at people that they gave up, you knew that they’re not going to last very long) between malnutrition, starvation and beatings. One of the worst possible punishments is starvation. If you have experienced starvation – and I don’t mean being hungry from one day to another but starvation – you know it’s something that happens after a while, it doesn’t happen immediately. Your body deteriorates, and your mind preoccupies itself with one thing: food. You come to a point where you’re demoralized, nothing really matters. Your only thought is: “how can I get some food?” Believe me, this is one of the worst feelings that you can have. Anything that moved would be eaten. You couldn’t find any cockroaches because that was nutrition.

But the worst was yet to come when we came to that camp the day that they decided to liquidate all the forced labor camps. Again, we had to undress and stand in front of the commission. Those who were weak were sent to the left, those they felt they were still able to work were sent to the right. Another thing you didn’t want to do was wind up in the infirmary, because if you got sick with some kind of illness and went to the infirmary you might be good for a day or two, but there were inspections where the SS would come in and send everyone in the infirmary to Auschwitz, or to some other neighboring camp that had ovens. You didn’t want to be there. One time I had an infection on the bottom of my foot. I had a piece of glass and operated on it myself, because I knew that if I went in I’d never come out. You never wanted to go there.

This particular night when the camp was liquidated, those designated to go to the camp were marched in columns of 50 with one SS officer in front and one in the back with rifles loaded. The concentration camp Gross-Rosen, where I went, was about eight kilometers. It was winter time and snowing, it was very cold. I remember the moment we approached the camp. I felt a feeling of panic, a feeling of severe pain in my stomach just looking at it. Suddenly I heard this deep voice that sounded like somebody from…I can hardly describe it “ein, svei…”. We got into the camp and looked around.

At labor camp there was barbed wire, but it was single barbed wire, and the labor camp guards were German soldiers from World War One. There [at Gross-Rosen] was double barbed wire: in front, in between, and maybe about 30 feet further there was more barbed wire. The inside barbed wire was electric, so if you approached it you got electrocuted. There were towers with machine gun mounts every few hundred yards and SS officers walking around with dogs that were ready to rip you apart. If you got into this place, and if you were greeted by one of the Kapos and his greeting was, “Welcome you SOBs,” I give you six months to live. The camp that I was presently in had about 2,000 Jews. Six months later there were 500 left. I should also mention that your chances of surviving after that were maybe another six months. You didn’t give anybody any allusions that you were going to get out of it.

In a concentration camp there were all nationalities you can think of. Wherever the German army occupied, any country in Europe, there were prisoners. There were Russians, Poles. There were Germans who were communists or criminals. But they were the hierarchy; they were the Kapos, they were in charge of the camp. There were French, Italian, Greeks, Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Greeks; anything you can think of. The conditions were very difficult. Every barrack had 600 members with a Kapo in charge of it and his assistant. There were daily inspections daily, and there were what they called Stube-ältester, [the person] in charge of a table. A table was 12 people. You had a stool that had no back to it, just a little stool that wasn’t painted. I would keep a piece of glass at my back so I could shave whenever there was a spot on it. Because when they had inspections and they found a spot on it, it meant that you were getting 50 lashes. Very few people survived 50 lashes because it was an iron covered with leather. The Kapos administered the punishment with gusto, with all their force. I was once a recipient of it and for weeks I couldn’t sit down because it penetrates your skin. So I couldn’t sit down for a while.

It was the same situation for inspections during the night. If they found straw there was punishment, if there was urine outside there was punishment. Sunday was a day off. Figure you’re in the yard and there’s a mountain of debris. This is your day off, so what you’re supposed to do is take the debris from here to a few hundred yards, and when you’re finished with it you sweep it up, make it nice and clean, and then bring it back to where it originally was. This was how they tried to demoralize you, to keep your mind on things. So you had starvation, torture, humiliation, and you froze in the wintertime because in the concentration camp you’ve got the stripes, they took away all your personal things away, and they weren’t like pajamas. They looked like pajamas, but the material was quite //1m at 12:42// on your skin. And you didn’t have any underwear. In the wintertime you just froze. There were fires, but for the German masters. Jews were not allowed to get near the fire.

At 5 o’clock in the morning you got up. You assembled in front of the barracks, they would count everybody. Then, if everyone was present, you got dismissed and you were able to go wash up. Then you got your ration again, the same thing: imitation coffee and half a pound of bread. You hoped that the bread was stale because you eat fresh bread too fast. Stale bread at least lasted longer. Then most of the time you would eat it right away because you were afraid somebody might steal it from you. That happened too, and when they caught someone who was stealing he was finished, because they would kill him. And then when you came back again you’d get a bowl of liquid, very liquid soup. Again, punishment, starvation, and people would die and sometimes you’d stand in an assembly outside and somebody was missing. They didn’t know where he was. It was wintertime and people would die just standing.

In the morning, when you had the assembly, people that died during the night were just piled up one on top of the other, and they would come together with the rest of them. And so the surviving ratio was very small. I remember an incident where they were washing up, and there were two Russians arguing over a piece of soap and a Kapo came and gave them a few karate chops and they fell on the floor. He had one boot on one of their throats, and his other boot on the other’s throat until their tongues came out, and they were finished. That was routine, and you became so accustomed to that, to people dying, that it didn’t mean a thing. It didn’t mean a thing whether you lived or not. Most people gave up. You could tell very easily. My brother and I hung on and helped each other, we did what we could.

But now, if things were bad, they got worse. Now the Russian front was getting closer to Bavaria. The thing the Germans feared most was being captured by the Russians; they figured if they were going to be captured by the allies, the English or the Americans. So we had to evacuate, and that was called the death march, because if you couldn’t keep up you were shot on sight. Most of the SS we had were Ukrainian; they couldn’t speak in German, but they hated Jews with a passion.

We walked and walked, and people were shot. They would fall and couldn’t get up and were shot. We spent nights in horse stalls, and that was another problem because horses were infected with lice, with horse lice. We called the crusaders, because they actually had a cross on their back. We called them the kreuzes. They infected people with typhus, and one of the unfortunate ones was my brother. He got infected with typhus and six weeks before the liberation he died in my arms. That was the worst time for me because we’d managed to be together for over three years, and now I no longer had a desire to live. There was no reason for me to survive.

But somehow I did, and one day I went down to the barracks and the guards were gone. Before we know, a battalion of Polish soldiers came into the camp and told us we were liberated. They interviewed us, and gave us a piece of paper and said “go home.” That was easier said than done, because most of us, like me, were just skin and bones. I was in no condition to go anywhere.

If you were liberated by the allies, you were sent to a DP camp, a Displaced Persons camp. You were careful. You got clothing, medical help, and nutrition. You chances of survival were good. One of the bad things was that if you were getting too much food you died too. You were in no capacity to do that, you had to go on a gradual diet. But I didn’t have to worry, because on the Russian side they didn’t give me any food anyway. I had to care for myself.

So I was walking on a street and started a conversation with a German, who invited me to his house. I said to myself, “what a nice German for inviting me to his house.” He said, “if you want to stay with us you’re welcome.” I figured out the reason why: he obviously figured that if he had a prisoner in his house, maybe he’d be spared by the Russians. One day one of the Russian officers walked into the house and started to interview me. He said, “I’m going to interview all the members of the house. I’ll be upstairs in the bedroom; you send them up one by one. When one comes down send another one up.” The last one to go up was a 17-year old girl, who he raped. He didn’t have any intention to interview anyone; his objective was to rape someone. Stalin said that 48 hours after occupying a territory or town you can do whatever you want. You want to rape and kill, you can do that. They extended that a little bit, so they made it 2-3 months instead of 48 hours. Your life was never sure.

When I finally felt that I was able to go back home, I befriended this guy who used to be an adjutant, or some high ranking officer, and he took me into an area where there was a secret door. He opened the door and there were uniforms, nice clothing, a bike and an accordion, and he said to take whatever I wanted. I took some nice clothing, the bike and the accordion. I was parading around the street with my new bike and was all proud, and I got stopped by a group of Russians. They said in Russian, “give it here.” In the camp it was international, and I learned some languages out of necessity. They said they’d have to take me to the police department. I said I’d shown them my papers, and he said no, that they’d have to take me to a police department. Instead, they took me to an abandoned home, where he took his boots off and said, “I’ll give you mine, I’ll take yours.” Mine were brand new and his had holes. Then he took my bike and gave me his dilapidated bike. That was the Russians for you.

Going back to Poland wasn’t easy, because transportation was very hard. You could find a train that could take you maybe 50 kilometers, and then you had to look for another one. I had a suitcase full of things I’d acquired, but every time you stopped there was an inspection by the Russian soldiers. By the time I got to Poland my suitcase was empty.

I got to Poland, and the first thing that happened was I got arrested. When I asked why, they explained to me that it was because I was wearing German clothes, and they thought maybe I was part of the Hitlerjugen[4] or something. They read my documents and released me.

Nobody else came home, and there was nobody there. I found out where my old governess lived; she’d been married since I left. I visited with her and we cried together. Then I found out that in a neighboring town the Poles had killed a dozen Jews. I couldn’t understand that; my father was an officer in the Polish Army. I was born in Poland, I considered myself Polish. It turned out that those gentiles, the Poles who killed the Jews, now owned their homes and stores and weren’t willing to relinquish them. To get rid of it was the best thing to do in their opinion. So I really didn’t feel safe there anymore, I didn’t feel like I was wanted there. It was safer to go back to Germany, where the Germans claimed they never knew anything about the atrocities. So I went back to Germany…

In Germany, I joined the Palestinian Jewish Legion, a Zionist organization. I was eventually smuggled from the Russian to the American side in Europe, and eventually went to Marseilles, France, to wait for transportation to Palestine. 600 of us were on a boat made for 50, and when we arrived at Haifa, the English turned us away because the camps there were over capacity. We went to Cyprus, and I joined the Israeli underground. I was finally released to go to Palestine, worked for some time in construction, then went into the Israeli Army as a Lieutenant. Not long after, I decided to move back to France, where I met and married my first wife. When President Eisenhower created a special “political refugee” category for Holocaust Survivors, my wife and I moved to America. I say, God Bless America.

This text is taken from a speech by Mr. Feiger.

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[2] A kapo, or prisoner functionary, was a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp assigned by the SS guards to supervise forced labor or carry out administrative tasks (self-administration).

[3] Delousing.

[4] The Hitler Youth was a paramilitary organization of the Nazis made up of German males aged 14 to 18.

 

Walter Feiger