We come to this world as human beings and we should stay human beings until our death – Part 1 of 2
Dr. Leon Weintraub was born into a Jewish family in Poland in 1926. In 1944, he and his family were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Dr. Weintraub was later transferred to Groß-Rosen and Flossenbürg Concentration Camps, and survived the Death marches that followed. After the war, he became an obstetrician-gynaecologist and moved to Sweden, where he now spreads awareness about the horrors of the Holocaust.
‘We have to do every possible thing to never forget the Holocaust,’ he says in this special two-part interview for Minority Rights Group International (MRG). ‘Today, we see a growing rise in the right-wing groups who call themselves Nazis – an ideology that has caused so much damage to humanity. But there is only one race of people called Homo Sapiens, and all the racist theories were built on the wrong premises.’
An alumna of our Media, Minorities and Migration programme, journalist Sara Cincurova, spoke to Dr. Weintraub about his story, keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive, preventing violent extremism, and the importance of protecting the human rights of all people, no matter which ethnicity or what background.
In this first part of the interview, Dr. Weintraub talks about his story and surviving the horrors of Auschwitz. Click here to read the second part.
Note to readers: This interview contains content that may be disturbing.
Can you tell us your story?
I was born in the Polish town of Łódź on 1 January 1926, the youngest child and the only brother to four sisters. I had a very nice childhood. My mother and my sisters took very good care of me, but it wasn’t always that nice to have five mothers to always check what I was doing. [laughs]
My father passed away in June 1927, so my mother became a young widow with five children. In the early thirties, the Great Depression hit us all, and my mother had to sell everything she had so that she could open a small laundry in the city center. You cannot imagine the poverty we lived in. The entrance to our laundry was from 2, Kamienna street in Łódź. There was only one desk and a shelf, and behind it, three working tables that would become beds for my sisters at night. In the next room, me and my mother slept.
At the age of seven, I began public school and I was very happy that I could learn. At that time, I didn’t have the right conditions to read or to write at home, and I was spending most of my time in the streets with other boys, playing Indians and cowboys. After sixth grade, I went through psychological tests and I scored very high. I was offered a high school scholarship at a prestigious school that was supposed to begin on 1 September 1939. But on this day, the Nazi German Army began its aggression against Poland, and my access to education suddenly turned very difficult.
What happened after the war broke out?
After the war broke out, the Wehrmacht conquered our town on 8 September 1939. We saw many young German soldiers marching through the streets and the memory of the sound of their metal-soled boots on the cobblestones still gives me the shivers. These endless lines of soldiers gave us the impression that nothing could stop this army, that it would destroy and overrun everything on its way. This memory alone makes me feel uncomfortable.
After a few days, the restrictions came. It was forbidden for Jews to leave their home after 6 pm, and we had to give up everything of value, like jewellery or cameras. As a young boy, I had read a lot of books and imagined a lot of things about war, based on what I had read and seen in the movies. I had imagined the gentleman-like approach of officers towards other officers, but also towards the victims and civilians.
And then, one day, I left our little laundry and I saw a group of German soldiers surrounding a few older Jews at the opposite side of the street. When I came closer, I saw a terrible thing. One of the soldiers tried to cut off the beard of one of the old men with a bayonet. But not only his hair – he had also cut off his skin, and the man was bleeding heavily. I was shocked, and I thought: is this what war is really like? Is this how soldiers treat civilians and old men?
Within the next week, the mayor of Łódź publicly gave out information about a ghetto for Jews. He said that the creation of the ghetto was a preliminary decision and that he had a right to decide when and in what way they will free the town ‘of this plague’. By ‘plague’, he meant the Jews.
Where was the ghetto situated?
We were moved to the ghetto, which was in the Northeastern part of Łódź called Bałuty, a poor, slum area, in December 1939. We lived in a place called Rembrandtstraße – at that time, all the names had been changed to German, and Łódź had been called Litzmannstadt. The ghetto was closed hermetically. We had no contact with the world on the other side of the barbed wire. Many years later, I read that in the area of four square kilometres, the ghetto had housed nearly 200,000 people. The chairman of the ghetto, Hans Biebow, was a businessman. He saw the possibility to make money out of it. There were thousands of skilled people in the ghetto: academics, doctors, craftsmen. So he transformed it into a big working camp and built factories. I was ordered to work in a factory called ‘Metal resort one’. I worked for twelve hours a day. At noon, we got soup, and once a week, we received one piece of bread – about two kilograms of food per person per week. My elder sister Lola would cut the bread into eight parts. Everything was Ersatz – a poor substitute to food. Even the memory of the swedes soup makes me feel sick. For weeks, months and years, the only thing that we could think about was how to get something to eat.
How did you cope with the constant hunger?
I can imagine that you, just like everyone else, might sometimes have been so busy that you didn’t have time to eat throughout the day. In the evening, you felt like you were hungry, but believe me – what you experienced was no hunger. It was a somewhat greater appetite.
Because when you are hungry, you can’t sleep: your stomach hurts. You wake up in the middle of the night: it hurts again.
As for me, starting September 1939, and lasting to about 20 April 1945, I was hungry, hungry, and hungry. It lasted five years, seven months and three weeks.
What happened next, after years you have spent in the ghetto?
In 1942, we witnessed a day called Große Sperre. The Germans had declared that sick people, elderly people and children couldn’t work, and it was unthinkable for the Nazis to feed non-useful, non-working people. So they surrounded a block of houses and put apart all those who were sick; those above sixty; all children under the age of ten; and even the newborns. They tore them away from the arms of their crying mothers, with absolutely no consideration. Within a few days, about a third of the ghetto inhabitants disappeared.
We had no information about what was happening outside. But my mother would tell us: outside, the armies are killing each other and civilians. But we, at least, can stay together here. That’s how she tried to comfort us.
What happened next?
In the spring of 1944, rumours came that the Red Army was on the river Vistula, close to Warsaw. We could see signs on the walls of the ghetto saying the officials worried about us because the front line was coming closer. It said they would evacuate us and transfer the whole ghetto – including factory equipment – so that we can continue our work for the Wehrmacht in the safety of the Third Reich in Germany.
They summoned us on 18 August. We were assembled on the Umschlagplatz, a place close to the train station where the deportations took place. My young sister Roza decided not to join us and told us that there was a group of young socialists who were waiting for the Red Army; she wanted to join them. After the war, I found out that the German Nazis discovered their group, sent them to Auschwitz, and my sister was transferred to Stutthof concentration camp, and later perished near Königsberg.
The next morning, a train came to pick us up; they put us into cattle wagons. It was a shock. In one corner, there was a bucket for natural needs, and the whole wagon was overcrowded, with nowhere to sit. They closed the doors and the train left. We were travelling for days, nights, days, and nights.
I can still remember the silence. Nobody cried, nobody protested, nobody showed any signs of disappointment. We suddenly understood that everything they had told us about our work for the German Army had been a lie. We knew that this was no way to transport people who were meant to work. We had no food, no water, and travelled under inhumane conditions. In the morning, the train stopped, the door opened, and we saw people in striped, pyjamas-like suits, shouting ‘Raus! Raus!’ – meaning: ‘Out!’
What happened after you got off the train?
I jumped out of the train, and an older prisoner ripped my rucksack away – it is only afterwards that I understood that he was a kapo. I was begging him and saying: ‘Please, please, there is my stamp collection.’ And the man shouted: ‘You didn’t come here to stay alive!’
I thought: what is he talking about? They had promised that they would bring us to a new place where we would work; they said they were worried about our jobs and our health. This didn’t make any sense.
I waved goodbye to my mother. She looked so young. She wore a dark blue suit with a white blouse and had a little rouge on her cheeks. I shouted: ‘We will see each other inside!’ That was the last time I saw her.
My sister later told me that when they came forward to the group of SS officers, my mother was with her older sister Eva. The SS officer bent down to my mother, asked something, and it became clear that there were two directions where they were sending people. My aunt Eva was sent to the right – to the gas chamber – and she was holding my mother’s hand. She took my mother to the right side with her.
This is pure speculation, but I can imagine that my mother with her three daughters would have had a chance to survive if she had lived. But she perished on this first day in this place that was Auschwitz-Birkenau.
I saw the fences and together with the barbed wires [were] insulators with wires. For me, as an electrician, it was clear that these wires were electric. That was the second shock. I suddenly thought: where did I end up? What kind of place is this?
What did you have to go through next?
As for me, they told me to go to the left – that meant that I would stay alive. They took us to a place where the procedure of dehumanising began, changing human beings into a kind of one-way tools, useful as long as we could work, killed once we were not useful anymore.
They took us to the shower, and took away all of our personal belongings. After being rubbed with terrible smelling disinfectant, we received prisoner clothes and we went to another building, called a block.
How old were you at the time?
At the time, I was 18, but I looked very young. I was put in the Block number 10, a block for youngsters. We didn’t have to work like the other prisoners; in the morning there was the Appell; we had to stay outside the block, and wait for the SS man who would come to count us. This was in August and September 1944 and at that time, I was in a bad state mentally. I was suffering from not being with my family. And then, in addition to this big sorrow, came the terrible smell of the burned flesh. Breathing it in and having our clothes smell like it was absolutely terrible.
One day, maybe at the end of September, I was walking in the street between the blocks and suddenly, I saw a group of naked men. After a while, I dared to ask them what they were doing naked. They told me that they had been registered, got a number tattooed, and that they were waiting for new clothes before they would be transported to work outside of Auschwitz. At that moment, there were no kapos or SS officers, so I took off my clothes and sneaked into the group, naked myself. I can thank my lucky star, because the kapos and SS-man did not find out that I was not registered within that group.
This was pure luck because after the war, I found out that the youngster Block number 10 was not useful for work, and the Nazis took all the children and killed them in the gas chamber. If I hadn’t sneaked in within that group of men, I wouldn’t be here today, and I couldn’t be talking to you now.
The second part of this interview is accessible here.
This interview was carried out with the help of the Maximilian-Kolbe-Werk Foundation.
Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Leon Weintraub.
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