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The German occupation of Sosnowiec brought both drastic and subtle changes to Jews' lives there. As a kid, t couldn't understand all of the problems we were facing, and my parents didn't want to talk about them. Still, I knew that every day brought bad news, and every knock on our door made us jump.
By now, we all wore yellow stars, identifying us as Jews. Jewish synagogues were destroyed or seized. Jewish businesses, including my parents', were shut down. There were no more Jewish markets - we Jews lined up, often in the middle of the night, at warehouses to receive food rations. The Nazis controlled the newspapers, and because they had seized our radios, we had no outside news sources.
Meanwhile, with no jobs and no real freedoms, my father and mother stayed at home. We observed Sabbath in secret, as best we could. And I'm sure we prayed for the best. Some Gentiles even volunteered to hide my father - he had many Gentile friends - but they didn't have enough room to hide my mother too, so, of course, Father turned down their offers. I'm sure my parents felt that there was little chance for escape.
My brothers and sisters had more hope. In 1940, my sister Guta, a well-known local opera singer, married. So did my sister Mania, who worked in sales. Mania and her husband escaped, crossing the border into the Soviet Union. So did my brother Schlomo, a furrier, and his wife, leaving their son behind with her parents. By this time, there was no place else to go. Austria had fallen to the Nazis in 1938, then the Sudetanland (part of Czechoslovakia), then all of Czechoslovakia, then Poland. Of course, my siblings didn't know that Hitler and Stalin had made a pact to help each other.
Back at home, things were getting worse. One day, we heard a knock, my father opened the door, and there stood two German soldiers. They ordered us to leave while they took an inventory of our possessions. We had little choice but to go. When we returned, our closets, all large pieces of furniture, had each been sealed with a German wax stamp. We had orders not to open them - or else. The soldiers returned the following week, also unannounced, with assistants to take nearly all of our possessions, including our piano, Adam's drums and percussion instruments, rings off my mother's fingers, silver candelabras and a large cedar chest filled with insurance policies, foreign and local investments, a collection of gold coins and local bank-saving records. They left us our beds and a couch.
We never did know who turned us in as a well-to-do family. But we knew of other families too, pointed out by Gentile citizens (perhaps for an extra bag of sugar), being evicted from their homes, with all of their worldly goods seized. Our eviction was yet to come.
Not long after our possessions were seized, my life dramatically changed.
It was a spring day, roughly eight months since the German invasion, and I was walking along Targowa Street, near my house, when suddenly both ends of the street were blocked by German trucks. Every man and boy, Jew and Gentile alike, was ordered into the trucks and driven to a large building a couple of miles away. I had heard rumors of such arrests and had good reason to be scared. Quickly, the Gentiles were separated from the Jews and sent home. But we Jews, old and young, a hodgepodge of 30, were kept overnight, refused food and placed on a train the next morning. I would never again see my father and mother, my sisters or two of my brothers.?
We were forced to travel on a regular passenger train, but separated from paying passengers, and were guarded by German soldiers. None of us knew where we were going.
Eventually, our train stopped near Breslau, Germany not that we knew this. By now, filled with fear and still unfed, we 30 men and boys stumbled off the train into Sakrau, a small forced-labor camp surrounded by 10-foot-tall, electric fences. French Foreign Legion officers, also prisoners and likely from Morocco, served as our willing guards. Called KAPO or Concentration Camp police, they spoke French and broken German, wore black suits, walked smartly, carried bamboo sticks and seemed not to mind their cruel work. Their first order was forcing us to strip so they could make sure that we weren't hiding jewelry or gold. Of course, I had nothing. Then they took our clothing, gave us striped uniforms and round hats, and sent us to disinfecting showers.
I'll never forget our first meal: Cooked pumpkin and other vegetables served so hot that the food burned our tongues. Three minutes after we sat down, the KAPO began yelling, "Razes! Razes! Razes!" or "Out! Out! Out!", and forced us out of the mess hall. Minutes later another group filed in, was forced to eat the same food off the same plates in the same amount of time. This would be the routine, day after day.
Hustled out of the mess hall, we were sent to sleeping rooms, each with three-level bunk beds, about 12 prisoners to a room, with a total of about 300 in the camp.
We didn't wait long to learn why we were there. The second morning we were sent into town to begin digging ditches along the street curb. We were never told what they were for. Perhaps for electrical wires? We never knew. German civilians drove and walked by but paid us no attention. If any had ever thought of helping us, the idea soon was dropped because their lives would have been in jeopardy.
So sure were we that we would die or be killed soon that we didn't bother tracking the days, the weeks or the months.
I'm guessing that I was forced to work at Sakrau for about six months. Then one morning, about 50 of us were called out of our barrack to line up and be counted. Signaling the guard with a clenched fist and his thumb, a German civilian selected 20 of us, me included. A head hunter, he wanted able-bodied men for a new assignment. The next day we were sent by train for seven hours, again having no idea of our destination: a huge steel mill in Czyniec (pronounced Trin-yets), Czechoslovakia.
Czyniec was a divided forced labor camp, one side for Jews, the other for French Christians, with the entire complex surrounded by electric fences. German soldiers lived outside the camp and selected prisoners to be in charge. Soldiers only entered the camps for each morning's headcount and to dole out punishments. In the Jewish camp, two barracks, each stacked three wooden bunks to the ceiling, held 200 or so prisoners - all overseen, sometimes cruelly, by a Judenelster, or Jewish leader.
French prisoners on the other side of Czyniec worked only eight hours a day, were treated well, required no guards and were fed far more. But this was war, and Hitler didn't care about killing French Christians. His goal was Judenrein, a world free of Jews.
part of our introduction to life in Czyniec was a "haircut" that consisted of shaving each head 1-1/2 inches down the middle, basically a reverse mohawk. That way we would be easy to spot if we tried to escape. Among the prisoners, we called this haircut the Laussenstrasse, or Lice Street - a bit of humor in the midst of so many indignities.
Surviving Czyniec was much more difficult than Sakrau. Here, our work meant taking apart an old steel mill, removing brick after brick, carrying the bricks 300 feet, and placing them on railroad cars. We were literally tearing down old steel ovens, each four or five stories high. A line of prisoners stood two to three feet apart, not on the ground, but high up on the structure of the mill, chopping the bricks off the ovens with hammers, removing the excess cement from the bricks, and then throwing the bricks through the air to the next man. We had no gloves and soon our hands grew raw and bled. Eventually, I found some fabric to wrap around my hands while I worked. All the while, they drove us, drove us, drove us, forcing us to work 15 hours a day, with no breaks.
Our daily meal was one-quarter pound of bread and some thin soup with vegetables. If the prisoner in charge of the soup liked you, you might get more vegetables. This rarely happened for me. But I did become acquainted with another boy, who lived in the same room and who worked doling out the dreaded haircuts, and we sometimes shared our meal. But usually, getting any additional food was out of the question, unless you stole it - or worse - from a fellow prisoner.
Among the prisoners, crimes against one another at Czyniec were far worse than Sakrau. There were daily robberies, even murders. Many prisoners turned to suicide, killing themselves by running into the electric fences, rather than live through another day of this hateful place.
I remember one sunny Sunday morning sitting on the grass singing - singing for self-preservation. I kept hoping for a better day, which seemed nearly impossible. But if I didn't have hope, I knew I would never survive.
Later that day I was sent to a warehouse where empty suitcases were piled high, suitcases that had belonged to Jewish prisoners. Of course, they were all empty everything stolen by the Nazis or by individual officers It was my job to break them up and throw them on pile to be burned. Among these suitcases, I found m, own, with my name and address, sent to me from m, parents. I had never received it.
Meanwhile, time had not stood still in Sosnowiec. Al the Jews, nearly 30,000, were evicted in 1942 from their homes and herded into a ghetto called Shrodula. This included my parents. Hitler's goal was complete Jewish liquidation. But why rush with this town when it was located so closely to Auschwitz? Better to ship Jews in from farther away first. Eventually, in 1943, all the remaining Jews from Sosnowiec were sent to Auschwitz, which became perhaps the most well known of the death camps.