When I tell people that my father was imprisoned in Auschwitz, the question that invariably follows is: “How did he survive?”
As is the case with most of “The Boys” (732 child and teenage holocaust survivors admitted into Britain after WWII), the fact that my father survived is almost inconceivable. And as we know from Martin Gilbert’s book, The Boys: Triumph Over Adversity, survival depended on a combination of factors: kind acts by others, chance and luck against improbable odds, the will to live in the face of all that was happening; and physical and mental strength and stamina.
Since Transcarpathian Ruthenia, where my father, Abraham, lived, was occupied by Hungary in 1938, Jews in this region were not subjected to deportation until 1944. However, by this time, the Nazis were in a hurry to complete the job of exterminating the Jews. This was their priority.
Deported from Mukaçevo not long after his Bar Mitzvah, Abraham was among the youngest concentration camp survivors, and the only survivor of Birchashof Birkenau – one of the camps – a farm complex – at Auschwitz. Almost all of his entire age group were exterminated with all the other children upon arrival at Auschwitz, but as is the story with many of the other “Boys”, he observed the advice of one of the Polish inmates upon arrival, given in Yiddish: “Say you’re 18!” As his family were being selected either for work or for immediate extermination, he insisted that he was 18. It seems someone wanted to believe him, and so he was steered in the direction of those selected to work and starve to the point of death, as his father did, rather than face immediate extermination in the gas chambers, as his mother did.
The photo shown is the earliest photo I have of him. It was attached to his form held by the Jewish Refugees Committee, and seems to have been taken immediately upon his arrival in England, when he was 16. This is more than three years after someone accepted his insistence that he was 18, and let him live.
In the Auschwitz barracks where he and his father were imprisoned, there were two kapos: “a nice one and a nasty one”. The “nice” kapo was a German man called Peter: “a very tall fellow: 6’6” or thereabouts” – who had been serving his sentence in a German prison after being caught just after robbing a bank. The “nasty” kapo was a brutal, heavy-set Ukrainian man called Otto. When Otto hit a prisoner, that prisoner never got up again:
“He was a real criminal. He was a murderer. He must have murdered at least one a week there – beating him to death – giving him twelve lashes – and from him, they didn’t last long. He was doing all the beatings – you know – during appell. He was always doing it. People were really shuddering.”
Peter, the German kapo, took Abraham under his wing, looking after him, bringing him extra food, and protecting him from the brutal kapo: “He told this Otto that if he does anything to me, he’ll kill him!” When the SS there wanted fruit that had ripened on some trees, Peter recommended Abraham for the job of climbing the trees and picking the fruit, and while up in the trees, he was able to eat his fill of fruit.
“So I remember we went with a horse, a German guard with a gun, there was this German kapo [Peter], and me. We had lots of baskets. So we went, and I picked fruit for them….That was in [the summer of] ‘44.”
Abraham derived food from other sources:
“…there were the Polish boys – Jewish, who would go and work on transports. They’d bring some extra food back. Often it was green [with mould]…but it doesn’t matter. It was still good enough.”
Another source of food came from a Hungarian guard who had “ …some German-speaking girlfriend”.
“He asked if I would write a letter in German for him. I said: “You write it in Hungarian, and I’ll write it in German.” I had learned German…. before the War. I started German, I think I must have been five or six, I started to learn German – at school. And my father spoke German, and I was writing the Gothic German… the reason I was doing the old-fashioned German was because my father knew the old-fashioned German. Of course I learned it at school as well.”
I understand that this demand for Abraham’s translating skills was an ongoing state of affairs, as was the extra food he received in appreciation.
Although Abraham would give some of the extra food he received to his father, instead of eating it, his father would give it to the Mukaçeve rebbe (rabbi) who was with them, since the rebbe would not eat the food they were given apart from the bread, as it wasn’t kosher.
There seems to have been a relationship of trust between Abraham and Peter, the German kapo, as Abraham discussed with him the possibility of escape.
“I was in situations where I could have escaped, but I didn’t know in which direction. I did discuss it with Peter, I remember… He said there’s no way. I’m in the middle of things. Right in the middle. If I manage to get through this wire, which is easy enough….because we did get out… but you’ll not get through further. There were wires within wires within wires within wires. There’s no way. At least not from there, and with this tattoo, I’d be recognized anywhere. Yes, the only other thing I had was prison uniform. Not a very good thing to cover it with.”
Abraham’s father grew weaker and weaker with starvation and labour; he was taken to the hospital, and Abraham never saw him again:
“….he was writing notes for two weeks. And then they stopped, finished.”
In my father’s dossier, a summary of Abraham’s background provides the information that his mother (Rachel Rosza) was sent to the gas chambers in May 1944, and his father (Chaim) was sent to the gas chambers in July 1944.
When Auschwitz was being evacuated and the prisoners were forced to go on their first “death march”, the German prisoners were free to join the German army and head for the Russian front (which I doubt Peter would have done!) or to go wherever they wished or could get to.
Recently I have been wondering about Peter.
“….he looked after me – the tall fellow. He told me his story: he was robbing a bank, so he said, on a motorbike, and they were chasing the robbers, and he said: ‘Over there! Over there!’ So they didn’t believe him. They arrested him.”
I have been wondering what kind of person he could have been, to plan and embark on a bank robbery, and then, in Auschwitz, to make it his mission to protect and look after a young Jewish boy. My father assumed that his own father had asked him to do so, but Peter must have wanted to help Abraham regardless. He obviously hadn’t been susceptible to Goebbels’ anti-Semitic crushingly heavy-duty brainwashing and propaganda campaign.
Having lost his father, and without Peter to protect him, it seems Abraham wasn’t completely alone: during his first “death march”, he walked alongside a Hungarian doctor who kept himself alive with pills for as long as he could. Abraham, having been based on the only farm in Auschwitz-Birkenau, (along with his father who had declared his trade as “farmer”), had to walk with the horses and carts containing agricultural machinery which he and the other prisoners helped to push.
“We were in Birchashof farm complex, and the Germans decided they were going to save the machinery and take it to Germany with their horses, carts. And it was winter, December, 1944…. or maybe even the beginning of 1945….
“So there was a long line of people, about four or six abreast…I remember it was about six….and that line must have been miles long because they had been evacuated from other camps at the same time. Only we were at the end of the line because we had these carriages, horses, carts, machinery….and we were marching – starting to push it. Now it appears that the Russians were advancing pretty quickly, so we were going day and night….. And anybody who couldn’t keep up just sat down and he was shot. There were soldiers at the back who would shoot them. Nobody could escape. Every time somebody sat down you would hear a shot after, as we passed. And in any case, as we were at the back, there were other transports in front of us, who had marched before us, half an hour or so earlier, and the sides were littered with dead prisoners shot all along the line.”
“While we were marching, walking, the soldiers would take it in turn to sit on the carts and have their sleep. As we were pushing uphill …..there was a road once upon a time there, but there was a little track – a snow track – we had to push the carts uphill, and there were always the Germans with their truncheons: “Los! Los! Aufgang! Los! Los! Los!”, and hitting, always hitting – some of them were just hitting in any case for no reason at all….that if you were on the outside of the line, you had a very good chance of being hit….and one hit of that on the head, you’d fall down, you’d stumble, you’d stay there, you wouldn’t get up anymore. In any case, many people couldn’t keep up so they just sat down, they just gave up.” (1984 interview)
“We were marching for two weeks. At that time, all the horses…had to be shot. The horses couldn’t march any more either. They can’t go on forever….People couldn’t push anymore.” (1989 interview)
During the last stretch of the journey to Buchenwald, the surviving prisoners were squeezed into open-top train carriages, exposed to the elements. At the last stop before being forced onto these carriages, Abraham’s Hungarian doctor companion encouraged him to try to grab some carrots from the kitchen, which he managed to do without being shot, as others were. In the absence of any other food, these carrots kept him alive.
“Now I’m going to give you an episode which sticks out in my mind. Now where I come from there were two brothers. They were hardy people – they were selling coal….they must have been 19 or 20 – and to carry coal in sacks to sell – so they were really used to hardship. There were two brothers, and they were with me on one of these open trucks…. railway carriages. After a number of days – since the total travel was only about two weeks – without food – all we had was snow for water – one of the brothers died. Then all of a sudden, somebody saw the other brother eating the flesh of his brother. And then he was pointed out: ‘Look what’s happening! Look what’s happening!” And this person all of a sudden stood up – we were all huddled together in an open carriage – stood up as if to walk on all of them: “I’m going home for Shabbes! I’m going home for Shabbesl!” As if to walk over the people, as if nobody was there. And the guard shot him. Others died, but more calmly. Just fell asleep and they never woke up. But that was something which…. It’s not that he was shot – that he was ‘going home’, that his mind had gone. [It’s] that he had eaten of his brother.”
The Hungarian doctor did not survive this stage of the journey. My father noted that about 10% of the prisoners on the death march from Auschwitz survived the journey to Buchenwald.
Upon arrival at Buchenwald:
“We get food there, and it seems to be a bit better than the others, but every day I see people pulling carts – skeletons – dead people – to the crematoria to burn – all the time they’re pulling them, pulling them. Therefore this event of people dying there like flies seems to be an occurrence wherever we were. However I’m told: ‘Look, you’re a young boy, you’re under 16, you can stay in the children’s ward. And you will be all right.’ I said: ‘No. I’m 18 and I want to go to work.’ I thought to myself: If I work I’m all right. If I don’t work, I’m useless and we die…I was healthier when I left Buchenwald than when I had arrived there. Because we did have regular food. And not only that, the person who was serving the food, seeing I need a little bit extra, he gave me the extra little bit…he just gave me the bit which just had a bit of meat in it. These are these little perks which made the difference between people surviving or not.”
From Buchenwald, Abraham was taken to Rhemsdorf to work in a factory which was serving the German war effort, and which was being bombed by the British, day and night.
“…There were 30,000 prisoners, and for the first time I saw American prisoners, British prisoners, Russian prisoners….all there, trying to work, trying to … rebuild the factory after it had been bombed. And the bombs kept falling almost any time.”
“So there [in Rhemsdorf] they did give us food simply because we were doing a useful job….so to speak, but not very much of it. People still kept dying all the time. There were always the ‘musulman’. The ‘musulman’ is the person who was skin and bone.”
In the case of the American, British and Russian prisoners of war, however, “…we were not together. They were looked after better…..they were demoralised, but they seemed to have been fed well. But there’s no comparison.”
In Rhemsdorf, he found his brother, David who was carrying out carpentry work. “…the point is, he was there. That is important. And now we were two together.”
The allies were advancing.
“We were told again that we were going to be evacuated, and I saw people were running to the kitchen to find some food for the journey. I also ran to the kitchen, and I found, and I took, three carrots, and I ran away. But others managed to get shot for their troubles. I did get away with three carrots.: Now, we were put on the trains….after one or two days, their locomotive was bombed….The train came to a sudden halt, and as the aeroplanes came and our guards were frightened, they ran away. And many of us, prisoners, started to run away into the woods, only to be rounded up by local Germans – old people and young people, and most of those running into the woods – not knowing where to go – they were all shot by the local people, local Hitler Jugend. All young people were taught how to handle guns in Germany. Therefore I don’t think anybody will have escaped that.”
“After that we had to walk, and we were walking….I think a couple of weeks ….maybe even longer – through German towns and villages, and most of our shoes had long worn out. Some had rags [on their feet]. We did stop now and then, for a bit of soup….”
“They didn’t shoot the prisoners in the towns, but as soon as we got a certain distance from a small town or a village, we’d stop, and those they thought unable to continue were shot. Or they would just take a group of people and shoot them in any case because they wanted to reduce some of the guards. Some of the guards wanted to go away. Some said they wanted to go to the front to fight, others who had other reasons. So since there were too few guards, they reduced the number of people in the march.”
During this “death march” to Theresienstadt, Abraham and David shared the carrots Abraham had managed to take from the kitchen at Rhemsdorf – one between them each day:
“…and it kept us going: half a carrot for me, half a carrot for my brother, and it makes all the difference between whether you live a few days longer or not – whether you make it or not.”
They would eat grass along the way, and then would get stomach cramps, and want to sit down and give up. If they had done so, they would have been shot by the German guards. But neither of them would allow the other to give up – mercifully, it seems, their stomach cramps were not simultaneously severe. David and Abraham enabled each other to survive the “death march” from Buchenwald to Theresienstadt, which alone, each would not have survived.
Part of the story of my father’s survival is a Czech woman who gave him bread when the “death march” was proceeding through Czechoslovakia. While they had been marched through Germany, my father recalled that women, old people and children – the Hitler Youth – would smash bottles at the prisoners’ bare or rag-bound feet in order that they should tread in the broken glass.
By contrast, when they were being marched through Czechoslovakia, the Czech people were throwing bread. However, for every piece of bread thrown, there was such a scramble that the bread would get broken into little pieces and no-one would get any. One of “The Boys” said it was a form of sadism: that bystanders were deriving amusement from these scenes. Whatever the case, one woman wanted to be sure that my father received bread, and ran out to place it firmly in his hands, even though the German guards were threatening to shoot anyone who gave food to the prisoners. The Czech woman who wanted my father to live, to the extent that she risked her life to make sure he got his piece of bread, then had a rifle butt slammed down on her head by a German guard as she was running back out of the line of prisoners.
When I was in Prague in the summer of 1998, one day, as I stood waiting for my friend to turn up, an elderly woman kept staring at me. When my friend arrived, he noticed how she was staring at me. I wondered: was she the one who helped my father? Did she recognize my father in me? Recently, it dawned on me that the woman who had given my father bread probably never got up again after the rifle butt crashed down on her head. I had always assumed that she had lived on, but it seems, in all likelihood, she gave her life to make sure my father got some bread. That the last thing she did in her life was to hand my father the bread, and then try to run back out of the line of prisoners.
This act of hers obviously made an enormous impression on young Abraham. The German Nazi Reich was focused on hunting him; its military machinery was designed to exterminate him and other Jews; German women, elderly people and children smashed bottles under his feet; and suddenly, here was someone, a gentile, who not only wanted him to live, but probably gave her own life to this purpose.
As with Peter, I have recently been trying to imagine this woman and the kind of life she came from. For her, we do not even have a name. Probably she was fairly young, as she was depending on her speed and agility to get swiftly in and out of the line of prisoners, and out of reach of the guards, which she didn’t succeed in doing. A kind-hearted, brave and defiant young woman, as the Czechs in general were defiant at having their country occupied by the Nazi imposters.
The Hungarian Jewish doctor who had walked alongside Abraham during the first “death march” had told him: “After the War, when there is food, don’t eat too much. Just have a piece of bread and a piece of cheese.” Once he was liberated from Theresienstadt, and able to go out of the concentration camp and find food, Abraham remembered the words of the doctor. Abraham was obviously someone who took advice very seriously – whether to say he was 18, or to eat moderately after starvation. Others found food and died from eating more than their starved systems could take. One of Abraham’s uncles, having survived up to that point, went out and found a piece of fat which he ate, and then, after everything he had gone through, contracted typhoid and died.
“People still kept dying, because it doesn’t end at a certain point. People got used to not eating. They couldn’t take food anymore. And when they got food, a little bit of food, [they] got typhoid. [They] died of it.”
Abraham, as advised, ate a piece of bread and a piece of cheese. As long as I remember, my father always ate in moderation, despite having been so severely starved at such a young age. After Yom Kippur, he would break the Fast with bread and cheese.
The net result of all these factors is that – against all the odds – my father survived.
“…..one day we saw the first Russian motorcyclist, and that was the end of the war. And we weren’t allowed out straight away, but as soon as we heard there were no more Germans, some of us found a hole to climb out of Theresienstadt, and there were strawberries there. Some of us had some strawberries.”
An interviewer once asked my father: What kept you going mentally? And my father replied:
“Oh – the war will end and then everything will be fine, and one day I’ll have enough bread, butter and milk…. If I keep alive long enough, the war will end and I’ll still be there.”
Having survived all that he survived, he then faced the task of living the rest of his life having experienced and witnessed the horrors of Auschwitz and the “death marches”. This, it seems, he achieved largely through music. In Munich DP Camp where he spent a year waiting to go to Palestine before deciding, instead, to join his brother, David, in England, he sourced two lots of food rations. He would exchange the extra food (with the exception of chocolate which, as far as he was concerned, was not extra and not exchangeable!) for piano and violin lessons from teachers who taught at the Handel Conservatorium. In a letter to the Jewish Refugees Committee in September 1950, requesting help with fees for continuing his piano studies at the Toynbee Hall, he wrote:
“I began to play the piano at Handel Conservatoire in Munich four years ago. There, not possessing a piano, I walked every morning three miles to the street-car where I continued my journey, by street-car, for another 30 minutes to the Conservatoire, and there I was allowed to practice on one of the College pianos (if I bribed the school-keeper) until 9 a.m., when lessons started.
“Since then I have been keeping up my studies in music.”
In fact, my father’s recently released dossier kept by the Jewish Refugees Committee during his early years in the UK, is full of documentation relating to the urgent nature, and great priority, of his need for piano lessons (and his depression before accessing these), a piano to practise on, piano repairs, further training in piano.
Abraham’s brother, Zruli, while he was in the DP camp together with Abraham, studied opera at the Handel Conservatorium, and my father seemed disappointed that he did not become a major opera singer, which he felt was within the range of Zruli’s abilities and talent.
I have no doubt that it was largely through playing the piano that my father returned to humanity, received healing, experienced the sublime, and rose from the ashes.
Thus, my father survived. Because of someone who accepted his insistence that he was 18 when he looked and was in fact only 13; and thanks to Peter – the German bank robber; thanks to his fluency in German and Hungarian; thanks to the advice of the Hungarian doctor and to my father’s strict observance of his words; thanks to the person serving food at Buchenwald; thanks to joining forces with his brother, David; thanks to an unknown heroic Czech woman; thanks to the carrots he found; thanks to his ability to eat in moderation even after having been so severely starved; thanks to the piano, and to Schubert, Chopin, Mozart, Beethoven, Grieg, Mussorgsky, Manuel de Falla; thanks to his physical and mental constitution and his will to live. And with all this, essentially, thanks to remotest chance, and luck, my father survived.
* * *
Note: Except where otherwise stated, quotes are from interviews conducted with Abraham Herman in May 1984 and March 1989.
Postscript: From an interview in 1984, my father talking about his time in a DP camp in Munich: “And for studying I had extra rations. Now I had two lots of food , and for two lots of food I could pay for some of my private lessons in food, to a German music teacher, because music was not provided as part of the learning. All the other lessons I had free….I attended Handel’s Conservatorium …….there was a woman teacher who gave private [violin] lessons in exchange for tinned food…..She invited me to her home and she had very many musical instruments: violins and others. So I said: “You have very many musical instruments. Where do you get them from?” She said: “Oh, my nephew was an officer in Poland. Whenever he came home on leave, he always brought me something.” And I remember particularly that she showed me: “This is an Amati,” and then she mentioned the others….. And if you think about it, there must have been between thirty to forty musical instruments in that room, it will give you some indication of what was going on.
“Well, after that I left her. I didn’t go back to her anymore. I didn’t want to know her….”
“So I went down [to]…a place who arranged the administration of people leaving. So I said: ‘Look, I think I should go to England now.'”
Map showing route of train journey from Mukaceveo (Munkacs) to Auschwitz. (Martin Gilbert: Atlas of the Holocaust )
Maps showing route of Death March and train evacuation from Auschwitz-Birkenau to Buchenwald (Martin Gilbert: Atlas of the Holocaust [216-7])
Map showing route of Death March from Rehmsdorf to Theresienstadt (Martin Gilbert: Atlas of the Holocaust /. According to Abe’s brother, David, they crossed the border from Germany into Czechoslovakia at the Czech town of Chomutov (David Herman: David’s Story).