My Ziedi's story was videotaped by the Holocaust Research Center in Buffalo, NY on March 29, 1993. I've transcribed his interview below, these are his words.
I was born March 3, 1925 in Bilgoraj, Poland. I was the third born, and had three brothers and five sisters. My father was a baker and owned a bakery. Considering the situation in Poland at the time, I had a good childhood. I was never hungry, I was dressed well, went to a good school, and lived comfortably. We had a nice extended family with many cousins, aunts, and uncles. My grandfather was a prominent businessman, who worked for a Jewish bank..
The Germans arrived in 1939. Our town was surrounded by forests and there was a forest ranger, who turned out to be a German spy. The Polish army had set up several hiding places in the forest and caught the forest ranger taking photos of their lairs. The Polish officers shot him. The very next day, our town was in flames. There must have been other spies because from all four sides our town was burning. Fortunately, there was a well in our backyard and a pump into our family’s bakery. Town members started gathering water to put out the fire. It saved our family and our bakery.
That September the war started. The Germans came into Bilgoraj and chased everyone out of town. Shortly thereafter, a few German officers came into the bakery and called out, ‘Who is the baker?’ My father stepped forward and said ‘I am the baker. But there’s no yeast or flour.’ One German replied, ‘We’ll give you what you need.’
The Germans paid my family for the bread. Two weeks later though, the Germans came in and said they were leaving and that the Russians were coming. Our town was right in the middle of a German-Russian disagreement. The Russians came in and we did the same for the Russians. We baked them bread. Then two weeks later, the Russians said that they were leaving and that the Germans were coming back, but said they were no good, so whoever wanted to leave town, the Russians offered transports to leave. My aunt and uncle’s family house had burnt down, so for them it was a logical decision. But my father said that we still have a home and a bakery, maybe the Germans won’t be so bad, so we’ll stay. My aunt and uncle and their six children went deep into Russia. In 1945 when they returned to Bilgoraj there was nothing left. In 1948, they immigrated to the U.S, and still reside in New York to this day.
After the Germans came back, they took the bakery away from our family because they explained that Jews can not own any businesses. They gave the bakery to another Polish family, whose bakery had burned down in the fire. The Polish baker had worked for our family, so he offered my father and older brother a job – my older brother went to work there, so fortunately there was bread for us, we had food. But my father, he started baking bread on the black market from our kitchen.
When I was 15, I began working for a roofer and we worked for the Germans building a field hospital. We nailed down the tar paper as fast as we could—the Germans made things quickly and cheaply, so they used the tar paper for the roof, but the cold winters caused the nails to pop up. So every summer, we came back and nailed down the nails again and re-tarred the roofs.
My family was considered fortunate. We had beans, potatoes; we made noodles, but didn’t have much meat. We had food to supplement our bread. The bread was made with sawdust, which was mixed right into the flour. And we survived three deportations. Before the Nazis, there were 4,000 people, while it was a small town, it was a Jewish town. There was a Jewish mayor. My grandfather was a ludvik, he was on the city council. And the fact that we worked, we were productive, it helped save us from the initial deportations. We were aware of the concentration camps. In 1941, there was a very well-known Polish man who was arrested and a few weeks later a little box of ashes was sent to his family.
The fact was we were not in hiding during the first or second deportations. Where would we hide? There was no one to take us in and there was nowhere to hide. Then, my mother, may she rest in peace, my five sisters and my brother went into hiding before the third deportation. The Germans couldn’t find them. There was an old house with a basement; the entrance to the basement was from the outside, which was covered up with dirt and couldn’t be seen. The house had a wooden floor and few boards were taken out so that they could hide under the boards.
At the time, I was in the Lodz ghetto, I went to the Polish baker who we knew and I bought bread from him. Another boy hiding in the basement with my family would meet me in the ghetto at night and pick up the bread. My family was there for six weeks. They couldn’t go to the bathroom during the day, so they had to go in pails. But at night they went out to the outhouse. Then when it began to snow, the Germans saw the footprints and discovered my family hiding. The Germans took them outside and shot them. The boy, my friend who was also in hiding, was in the outhouse at the time and saw what happened. The next day, he came to the ghetto and told me the whole story.
On January 8, 1943, the ghetto was liquidated. They took all the men out and put them in jail. The women and children were shot right there in the ghetto. From jail, the Germans took us to SS barracks located near Zhamish. At these barracks, the SS learned how to ride horses, so we built stables for their horses. I continued to work as a roofer. Each day the local farmers brought stones and wood for the building supplies and they used to bring bread to sell. Fortunately, I had money from the ghetto, so I was able to buy bread and eat. The conditions in the camp were not very good, we slept in the stables on the floor with a little bit of straw, even in the winter. There was one wood burning stove in the middle of the stables. We had a little soup everyday and the extra bread we purchased from the Poles. There was no luxury, but I could survive on what I had.
One day, a German went out and shot a dog and brought it to the cook. He instructed the cook to serve it to us. He said, ‘If you tell any of the Jews what you’re cooking, tomorrow we’ll cook and serve you. At dinner, the officers sat us down at the table and served us portions of the meat. We ate it hungrily. Then a few of the Germans came in with cameras and began taking pictures. ‘Do you know what you’re eating,’ they asked. ‘No you don’t? Does it taste good?’ We replied, ‘Of course it tastes good.’ That made the Germans laugh, and they said ‘Well, it’s dog. You’re eating dog.’ We didn’t care, it was good and frankly, we were starving. So the joke was on them. When you are hungry, you will eat anything.
By then the work on the stables was finishing. There were 80 of us and one-fourth had to be liquidated. The Germans simply went around pointing until there were 20 Jews and the Germans shot and killed them by the stables. After, they liquidated the whole camp by putting us on trucks to Majdanek, another concentration camp where conditions were bad.
By the middle of 1943, around May or June, the Germans were running out of workers. There was a need for laborers, so the killing subsided. When we arrived at Majdanek we were forced to remove our clothes. There was a German there to shave off all our hair, all over our bodies. Once done, there was another German who looked us over. If someone looked sick they went one way, if they looked healthy you went another. The ones in the sick line were killed. The healthy ones were sent to the showers and we were sprayed with a very strong smelling solution, probably chlorine. We were given striped pants and a jacket, made out of some sort of very thin paper. There was no underwear, no socks, nothing other than the clothes and clogs we were given. I was at Majdanek for eight weeks. It was bad, in the morning we were given a little burnt coffee and during the day a little soup with a piece of bread. The bread was baked with all sawdust; there was no flour at this point. And there were thousands of prisoners per barrack; we were all cramped in together.
One day, the Germans came in and said ‘Whoever knows how to work with sheet metal, step outside.’ So I stepped out, I knew how to work with metals from my time as a roofer. All of us that stepped out were put into an empty barrack. The next morning, we were put on a train, more like cattle carts, given blotworst, a piece of bread and cheese. We arrived in Skarżysko Kamienna, Poland, where there was an ammunition factory that made bullets and grenades. The Germans did not have enough brass or copper to make bullets, so they used steel. I was assigned to work in the “laundry.”
In the laundry, I cleaned the rust off of thimbles. There was a machine that had a strong acidic solution that cleaned off the rust. Every day, I was inhaling this very hot, strong smelling solution. I put the thimbles into this machine to clean them. After, the thimbles went into cold water, then hot water with soap, lime, then this cycle was repeated. Once dried, they came out twice the size and eventually became bullets. The factory had to make a million bullets a shift, 12 hours a shift.
During the day, we were given soup. The Germans for some reason liked me, and if there was any soup or milk leftover, I would get some. One night when I didn’t have much to do, I went in between the machines and took a nap. Another German officer came over with a hose and sprayed me with cold water. My boss yelled to the other German, ‘What are you doing?’
‘The swine is sleeping can you believe it,’ the other officer said.
‘Leave him alone, he did his job, he is fine where he is.’ My German boss protected me, I was lucky.
Sometimes there was extra clothing from dead prisoners. I stood in line and got a nice winter coat. A Polish civilian approached me and asked to buy my coat. I said ‘Well, if you have another coat to bring to me, and I’ll sell you this one.’ The man brought me his old winter coat and gave me 600 lutus. Considering for only 60 lutus, I could purchase 2 kilos f bread, I thought this was a good deal. So I sold the coat for bread money. My friend in the camps, we were partners, whatever he got was ours, whatever I got was ours. I worked the night shift and my friend was the day shift.
At this point, it was January 19, 1945. We kept a calendar with us to keep track of the days. The Germans wanted to run away, they were losing the war. That evening, the night shift workers, including myself, were put on another train and sent to Buchenwald. Two days later, January 21, 1945, the day shift workers, including my friend, were liberated by the Hungarians. My friend was free, but I continued work in the labor camps.
At Buchenwald, I worked in an airplane factory for small fighter planes. I had to shoot rivets into the planes; each had to be done exactly right, perfectly. If it was wrong, it had to be drilled out and redone. I had an air gun, but the kick-back from the gun was so powerful. I didn’t think I would be able to work with it. But ultimately, the pressure was on my boss, who was in charge of us. He taught me how to use the air gun and gave me extra bread and soup. I worked there for about three and a half months.
Then, one night, my boss came into the barracks and yanked me out. Those who worked stood in the factory, those in the barracks were taken out, half were missing, and I had no idea what happened to them. We heard canons and rifle shooting in the distance. We were forced to march, about five to six kilometers, towards Magdeburg. While we were walking, there were street fights going on, so we turned around to start walking back to the barracks. At night, I saw people starting to run away, even the SS. The SS had civilian clothes under their uniforms. I decided to also run away, so I lay down quietly and rolled into a ditch. When I thought it was clear, I went into the field and pulled away a bale of hay and snuck inside. I fell asleep and the next morning, I heard people talking. I realized that we were all hiding in the bale of hay, there were dozens of us. We lay there till noon then noticed black people driving trucks. We knew they weren’t Germans, they had to be Americans. From the trucks, the Soldiers were throwing chocolate. Truthfully, I wanted bread, but I ate the chocolate.
It was April 12, 1945. When I was liberated, it wasn’t the happiest day of my life. I wept. What was I going to do? Where was I going to go?
I remember so clearly the day I left my family to go to the Lodz ghetto. My mother took me to the gate and she turned to me and said, ‘Sam, you go, maybe you’ll survive.’ I did what I had to do.