by Roy E. Spears
© 2001 All Rights Reserved
edited December 17, 2016
It is only part of the story when I tell you that the Nazi’s, after conquering my hometown of Warsaw, Poland in September of 1939, stole from my family our house, possessions, car, and our family business. The story is still not completely told even when I tell you they murdered my wife, our three children, my mother and grandmother in the ovens at Auschwitz.
My name is Eleazor Hoffman. I am the only member of my family who survived the Holocaust. I was 29 years old when the events just mentioned happened—I am now 87—and this is the first I have spoken about them. Though many years have passed, the wounds to my soul are still open, raw and festering, still as painful as the day when they first occurred.
I inherited my father’s watch repair business when he died at the age of 76. I was 23 years old at his passing. By this time I was all ready a skilled artisan, being fascinated by watches since I was a small boy. Nothing gave me more joy than seeing the exquisite timepieces my father took in for repair and cleaning. I hungrily peered inside their shining metallic covers and stood transfixed by the gleaming wheels, cogs and springs, all moving together in perfect synchronization. Their soft, methodical ticking was more beautiful than symphony music; looking at the ornamental watch faces and studying the elaborately decorated watch covers brought me more joy than the architecture of any ornate church.
My father was an unusually wise man. I credit him for my skill and passion of the trade. An incident happened to me when I was eight years old that shaped my destiny. I credit my father’s behavior during this strange circumstance to why, at 23, I was the owner of Warsaw’s most prestigious watch repair business.
A frequent customer and wealthy Jewish professional who owned many expensive and rare watches brought three of his favorites to my father for service. One of them was of great value and held exquisite design and beauty. After noticing it laying on my father’s workbench, I gasped in wonder and awe.
“May I hold it, Father?” I begged, reverently running my finger over the smooth casing protecting the face of the instrument.
He smiled at me, put his arm around my tiny shoulders, and asked “Do you like it?”
“It’s the most beautiful watch I have ever seen!” I answered.
“Then you must hold it—but just this once. It is Mr. Frankle’s favorite, and besides its rare beauty, is the most expensive I have had in for service.”
Sitting down at his workbench, he placed me on his knees. “I will sit here with you while you take a few minutes to look at it. After this, you must never touch it again, for I will begin cleaning it and have it disassembled. Mr. Frankle is anxious to have it back, and I promised to have it to him by tomorrow.”
I sat with the masterpiece in my hands, feeling its great weight as I gently picked it up and turned it repeatedly to examine every detail. I became oblivious to the presence of my father as I worked the fine latch holding the watchcase shut. Another gasp escaped my lips when I saw the many jewels that made up the face. The light from the window caused the diamonds to sparkle and I was unconscious of the passing minutes, absorbing every detail.
I picked it up, placing it against my ear; I have always loved the ticking of watches and thrilled to hear their rhythmic accounting of time. It was warm to the touch from holding it so long and I closed my eyes while the booming echoed through my head. Suddenly, I pulled it away. Something was wrong. I placed it back against my ear and listened for several more minutes; the ticking was not right.
“Father, something is wrong with Mr. Frankle’s watch!” I exclaimed.
“Wrong? What do you mean?” he asked.
“The ticking…it is…not right.”
“Not right? What do you mean, Eleazor?”
I held the watch to his ear.
“I hear nothing wrong, son. I have been servicing this watch for years and it sounds no different from before. Mr. Frankle did not mention anything being wrong when he brought it in yesterday.”
Again I held it to my ear, and pronounced “Father, I am certain something is not right with this watch!”
My father looked curiously at me, staring into my eyes. He gently took the watch from my hands and held it again to his ear. “I hear nothing wrong, son.”
“But there is something not right, Father. I can’t explain it…”
He stared at me again with his strange, penetrating look; I blushed at the unfamiliar intensity of his eyes. “Since you believe so strongly about this, I will call Mr. Frankle and ask him if he has noticed anything wrong.”
He placed me gently on the floor, picked up the phone by his workbench, and dialed the number to Mr. Frankle’s office. When he told the secretary who he was, she put him through immediately.
“I am sorry to bother you, Mr. Frankle, but I am here with your favorite watch, and my son Eleazor insists there is something not right with it.”
The booming voice of Mr. Frankle came loud and clear through the phone, and it was simple to hear every word he said, even though Father held it close to his ear. He laughed heartily and said, “Eleazor is right. I have noticed in the last month the watch loses a minute every two days. I forgot to mention it to you. How did our young watchman find this out?” he asked, laughing again.
“We are at my workbench, and he had it to his ear enjoying the ticking. He thought the tick was not right. I listened and could not hear anything amiss, but he was certain. This is why I called you. He was insistent.”
“They say the parent’s greatness increases in the minds and hearts of their children. Perhaps Eleazor will be more famous than his father will when it comes to diagnosing the ailments of watches. He has a gift, Mordeci.”
“I hope you are correct, Mr. Frankle. I will have a look inside the watch and phone you when I find the problem. Good day.”
He replaced the phone gently, moving as if in slow motion. He stood there for several long moments with his hand resting on the earpiece, appearing deep in thought. Finally, he turned and looked at me, that faraway expression still in his eyes. When he spoke, his voice was full of tenderness. “Shall we open this up and find out the problem? With your help, we should still meet our deadline to have this back to Mr. Frankle tomorrow.”
I stood close by him as he opened the back of the watch. The inner mechanisms were more wonderful and exciting to me as the outside, and I looked with wonder and pride as he began using his miniature tools to take apart the innards.
The problem was soon discovered: a small speck of dirt or sand, invisible to the eye and seen only with proper magnification, became lodged in one of the cogs that worked the hands of the watch. It somehow became stuck in the teeth, and this was causing the occasional “skip” that could be heard when I placed the watch against my ear. This speck of debris in turn caused a blemish to form in one of the other tiny wheels that controlled the hands of the watch.
My father soon replaced this pitted wheel, cleaned everything else, then put the watch back together. The several hours that this took seemed only minutes to me, and when he placed the watch once again to my ear, he asked, “How does the tick sound now?”
I listened for several seconds to the booming of the ticking. Whatever had first disturbed my attention was no longer there. I felt a soothing peace as I continued to listen to the now healthy heartbeat of Mr. Frankle’s watch.
“Perfect, Father,” I pronounced, and he wrapped his strong arms around me, enveloping me in a gentle squeeze. Buried as I was in his warmth, I felt as secure and safe as I think I had ever felt before or since. From that moment on, the relationship that I had with my Father changed.
Before, I was not allowed to work on any of the watches, though he always allowed me to stand quietly beside him and observe, answering with patience the many questions I asked. Now, he began explaining each step of every process of repair or service he was currently working on. He began an almost non-stop description of the history of each of the timepieces: who made them, where they were made, the value of each, why one was better or more inferior than the other, etc.
His knowledge was spectacular, his skill at diagnosis flawless. Under his patient tutelage I became a master like himself, and absorbed his love for watches like a sponge. By the time I was eighteen years old, it was no longer unusual for customers to ask me to repair their watches. Their faith in my abilities was becoming as great as their faith in the ability of my father. I was proud of myself and my father, who never once expressed the slightest hint of animosity when many of his most faithful customers asked that I specifically work on their instruments. Where once I stood shrouded in his great shadow, it became clear to everyone that he would soon be eclipsed in mine.
For my twenty-first birthday present he had a new sign made over the entrance to the store. Where previously it had read “Hoffman Watch Repair” it now read “Hoffman and Son Watch Repair.” We were official business partners.
He death came unexpected, the result of a massive heart attack. I held him after he suddenly collapsed at our workbench, his face turning a deathly pallor as he clutched his chest, agony etched in his wrinkled, patient face. There was no time for words or for good-byes. He was here one moment and just as quickly gone the next. So sudden was the parting I only cried after his eyes fluttered shut and his breathing stopped. I rocked him gently in my arms, holding him as securely as he had held me ten years prior, when we had first worked on Mr. Frankle’s watch together.
My racking sobs intensified as I realized that while I had grown warmer in his embrace from so long ago, he was now growing colder in mine. I could not let go of his hand, and my mother had to pry mine out of his before they could take him to the hospital. Never before, or since, have I wept liked I wept then, not even when I knew that my family’s ashes, belched out of the chimneys at Auschwitz, were intermingled with the dirty snow falling down on the stinking yards of the death camp.
I kept the shop closed for three months after his death, unable until after this time to go in and work among all the memories. I was numb and lived in a daze, unable to eat for several weeks. I grew thin and pale, snapping out of my lethargy only when I learned that my grieving was causing my mother’s illness. My sister told me that she feared that I too, would soon follow in my father’s footsteps, and I made the immediate decision then and there to reopen the shop. Though I would find myself quietly sobbing several times a day as I labored alone in the workroom, time passed and soon I was able to completely focus on my work.
The business thrived again, necessitating the hiring of two assistants and a secretary to handle the ever increasing workload. We were prospering; growing wealthy as the fame of the shop spread throughout Warsaw and even Poland itself. At 26 years of age I was referred to as Mr. Hoffman, even by the local rabbi. Still, I never changed the sign. I was only the son. It was the years of hard work put in by my father for the last forty years that made the business what it was today, and I never forgot it for one moment.
Looking back, I see that success blinded me to the realities of the Nazi war machine. I was so busy running the business that I failed to take note of the warning signs. Even when all Jews, myself included, began wearing the mandatory and hated yellow star, I remained in my blindness. Perhaps if my father had remained alive I would have been far more concerned…
Like so many other Jewish families and businesses, we were tossed out without a moment’s notice, given hardly enough time to pack a few changes of clothes before we were herded like so much cattle into the Ghetto. They took everything my father had worked forty years to attain and what I had added to since I became his partner at 21. Everything.
When I vigorously protested, an SS officer smashed his rifle butt into my stomach; as I buckled over he grabbed me by the hair and hurled me into the muddy street outside. “Mouthy Jewish pigs are treated like disobedient German dogs” he sneered, and slammed shut the shop door. I lay gasping in the mud puddle, trying desperately to suck the air back into my lungs. I was covered in stinking mud, but the pain in my gut caused by the rifle butt was small compared to the shame and fear that I felt for the first time in my life. My wife, mother, grandmother and three children were all ready outside our home, having been ordered out just moments before I was tossed out my own door like a sack of garbage. They rushed to my aid, and I saw the same fear and shame in their eyes as I felt in my own heart.
Thus began the beginning of our sorrows and induction into the unfamiliar halls of shame, depravity and cruelty. Stripped of everything we had taken for granted, we were now clothed in disgrace and treated with utter disrespect. This was new to me, one who had lived his entire life under the banner of first his father’s respect, and then forging my own respect because of my natural gifts. Now I was forced to wear a badge of shame, the yellow Star of David, a proud and glorious symbol that now reduced all Jews to a sub-human class of vermin.
A man who loses his self-respect can be in danger of losing his life. One can possess little of self-respect and still have the respect of his peers; some may find this condition preferable to having self-respect but lacking the respect of others. In any case, lack of respect from those whom you have constant interaction with from day to day is to be in a situation that threatens to snuff out your very life.
I was no longer referred to as “Mr. Hoffman.” My new title was “Jewish Pig.” Sometimes it was “Jewish Dog,” or simply “Dog” or “Swine.” If I walked down the street with my head held up high like I was in the habit of doing, I was cursed as a highbrow and slapped in the head or in the face. If I walked too fast I was in danger of being beaten by the soldiers, the suspicion being I was hurrying to commit some crime; if I walked too slow I was in danger of the same, but now the suspicion was that I was trying to hide something.
One afternoon my wife and I were walking to the market together to receive our pitiful ration of food for our family. We passed by a group of drunken soldiers, our heads held down in the typical “Jim Crow” attitude of submission. As we walked past them, one reached out and fondled the breast of my wife, laughing as he did to the merriment and approval of his comrades. Incensed and without thinking, I grabbed him, cursing, and threw him against the wall, yelling at my wife to run. My action brought down the fury of the group, and they began beating me with their rifle butts, fists and clubs. Before it was over they had broken my arm, smashed out six of my teeth, punctured a kidney and fractured my shoulder. The top half of my left ear was ripped off. I felt fortunate, though, to have not been murdered; many others had been executed for offenses far less serious than what I had committed. I often mused that my life was spared because the soldiers perhaps thought that what I had done to help my wife was so uncommonly Jewish and so typical of the brave “Germans” that I should be rewarded with only a tender beating.
Events such as these have a draining effect on a man. Though I eventually recovered, I was scarred for life. My utter feeling of helplessness at not being able to come to the aid of my wife, or any member of my family, caused me to sink into a depression unlike any I had known before or since. My dignity was being systematically stripped away.
Around the dinner table one night, several months after this altercation occurred, the incident came back up for discussion. I was insistent that if it happened again, I would react the same, but this time my defense would be more lethal than simply throwing the perpetrator against a brick wall. My wife was aghast at this, and began to hysterically sob.
“Have you gone mad?” she shrieked. “They would kill you for sure, and for what? Does your male ego need stroking so much that you would have your family lose their father, and I my husband?”
Her eyes were terror stricken, as was the rest of my family. They begged me to promise them that I would never do such a “foolish” thing, that I would walk away and take no action whatever.
“And what if they do it to Anna? What would you have me do then…walk away?” Anna was our fourteen-year-old, just coming into her womanhood. Their response shocked me, and it was then that I knew that I may not make it to see the end of this twisted regime come to an end.
“For Anna you must promise to do the same. You must keep your head down, your mouth shut, and walk away.”
My body trembled as the sobs erupted from deep within. I was no longer a man, for I could no longer defend my family or myself. I felt as if I was falling ever further into a deep and dark abyss, and all emotion was suddenly drained from me. I felt the arms of my wife and family around me, and all of us were crying. I looked, tear stricken, into the innocent and pure face of Anna and said, “I’m sorry, Anna…please forgive your helpless father for not being able to protect neither you or your mother.” I hung my head in shame, knowing that I died a little more that day.
“Eleazor, there is nothing that any of us can do against this madman that threatens all of Europe,” whispered my wife. “We need you here, alive, far more than we need you dead in defending our honor.”
Defeated, I nodded my head in agreement, excused myself and went upstairs to bed. For many hours I lay there, unable to sleep even when my exhausted wife slumped next to me. My feelings of being trapped and caged like an animal increased. It is not possible, I thought, to let some German monster molest my daughter and that I should do nothing. But my wife is right; they would surely murder me as look at me, and then where would my family be? Better off with me dead? No, certainly this could not be better. And what if they came in the house and began raping my wife and my daughter in front of my very eyes? Am I to remain quiet even during this, too? God, this is sick! Surely this is a stench in the nostrils of a holy God, but why does He not speak? Why is He allowing this to happen? Perhaps there is no God, and we are all simply left to our own devices.
I wrestled with these thoughts until the first gleam of the morning peeked through the tightly drawn shutters. I feel into a restless slumber, and wondered what new horrors awaited each of us. Little did I know that the worst was yet to come, that horror unspeakable and unimagined by any of us awaited us just around the corner.
The same Polish children that used to come to my shop for candies now spit at me as I walked down the streets. They pelted my children and I with rocks as we walked to the store. It got to the point when we only ventured outside our apartment in the Ghetto when it was absolutely necessary. My wife continued to speak kindly to them, but I cursed them, chased them, but they only laughed and threw more rocks. The children’s phrase of choice was “Die Swine! Go back to hell where you came from!” These, the very same children that spent endless hours in the shop, watching me work and always replying “No, sir” or “Yes, Mr. Hoffman” to whatever question or request I may have presented to them. I shook my head, unwilling to even think, not wanting the shame and indignity to once again overwhelm me.
Interestingly enough, it was at Auschwitz that my partial liberation came, if one could conceivably call it that. When my entire family and I were herded into the cattle cars in 1942, I lost all hope of ever resuming a normal life. I thought it would be impossible to ever rebuild my father’s business, for the savagery and brutality of the German occupation forces had destroyed so much of Warsaw. With everything gone, it was not conceivable to me at this point to even hope of having my family and I resume anything that could remotely compare to what we had lost.
Before, so much of my time was consumed with improving and running the business. I thrived at it, effortlessly thinking of ways to improve how we ran things. Though my father was a skilled craftsman, rare in his gifts, he lacked business acumen, and this is where I stepped in and brought prosperity. Instead of simply running a watch repair and cleaning service, I began bringing in watches from all over Europe to sell at our cramped shop. Business exploded when this happened, and our sales from the watches in 1935 brought in more profit than that which we brought in from the service end. I purchased the stores to our immediate right and left of the buildings that we had occupied for so many years, made countless improvements, and relished in each of the new challenges that presented themselves before us. It was a happy, glorious time, and I basked in the respect that I received from virtually every one in Warsaw.
Now, in the winter of 1942, I was cleaning and emptying latrine buckets. Whereas before my hands rarely became soiled, now they were filled with the stench and disease of human waste. This intolerable situation was borne only because of the close proximity of my family members, and we derived great comfort from those few times when we could see each other.
All of us were growing dangerously thin and pale. Ten more of my teeth followed the way of the six that got knocked out by the drunken mob, and my appearance became horrid. With more than half of my teeth missing, my lips became shapeless as they rested on bleeding gums devoid of teeth. Many times I thought of suicide, but knowing the devastating effect my death would have on my family made it impossible for me to seriously contemplate such a thing.
Malnourished and growing increasingly weak, my pace in dumping the buckets began to slip. When I was diagnosed with scurvy, I became almost too weak to carry the full buckets of filth to the dumping hole located outside the barracks. This was not acceptable to the Germans, who demanded we work to the point of death but at the pace of an Olympic runner. No Jewish pig was going to skirt his duty to the Fuhrer by feigning illness, and only death would prove that one’s claim of sickness was valid.
My movements became slower and slower, until one guard became so infuriated at my snail pace that he lost control of his emotions and began screaming at me. “Damn you Jewish swine!” he shrieked. “Get moving or you will forever sleep in the dumping hole!” Pounding me with his fists, I began to crumble to my knees; the brimming bucket of urine and diarrhea began to spill. I set it down before the entire contents tipped over, and in his rage he kicked the foul contents of the bucket over me.
“Get up!” he screamed. “Get up, now and clean this mess! Schnell, Schnell!” and he began savagely kicking me with his shiny boots. I learned in Auschwitz the amazing power of the human body to rise to heights never before conceived, and to overcome the most unbearable suffering. Soaked through with human waste, I somehow commanded my body to rise, retching as I tried to find my footing in the overpowering stench of the muck. A healthy man would find the going difficult, for the spilled contents of the waste bucket had made the floor slippery. If not for the presence of a supporting wood post, which I grabbed, I would have been unable to rise.
When the guard saw that his boots were becoming soiled with the prisoner’s waste, he gave me one last kick to my groin and walked off. Again I doubled over, clutching onto the post with the last remnants of my ebbing strength. I feared collapsing on the floor again into the disease-ridden ferment that surrounded me. For several minutes I remained in that position, continually retching.
One of the other Jewish prisoners came to my aid. Unlike the guard, he had no shiny boots, but shoes that could no longer be recognized as such and were full of rips, tears and holes, held together with patches of string. He did not seem concerned that his feet were also becoming soiled with the spilled contents of the bucket, and he gently wrapped his arm around my waist and walked me out to the hose outside the barrack.
“You must clean yourself, Eleazor, and return inside. I will help you clean up. Shalom.” He shuffled back into the barracks, and I turned the water on to begin rinsing the filth from my body. I will always be grateful for this man, who risked a beating and torture to help me. We spent several hours mopping and disinfecting the area, and I am certain I could not have accomplished this alone in my weakened condition.
My deliverance happened by chance. Several months after the above incident, I was called into the Commandant’s office. By this time I was only a wisp of the man I once was, but I still felt self-conscious to meet such a high-ranking official in my miserable condition. By this time, all my hair had fallen out and the starvation diet that I was on had reduced my frame to a skeleton covered only by skin. I knew that my appearance was abominable, but what could I possibly do? I was a man in charge of cleaning latrine buckets, and I looked the part.
He did not look like the type of man who was given the task of overseeing the systematic slaughter of tens of thousands of Jews. His meticulously manicured hands seemed so out of place, for I knew that they were stained with the blood of countless innocents. Middle-aged and balding, wearing round spectacles, he appeared to fit the role of a banker far more than that of a mass murderer.
“I have wanted to meet you for a long time, Herr Hoffman” he said. “Your fame in your trade is known throughout Europe. We Germans, you may know, are aficionados of fine watches, and are well known for our own style of craftsmanship.”
I nodded my head in agreement. Some of our best customers were from Germany, and their passion for fine watches was well known. To say that I was not pleased at his recognition of my previous fame would be a lie, and for the first time in years I felt a blush of pride and dignity. He chatted for several minutes, displaying a knowledge of watches that was greater than most. In him I sensed a true lover of that which I had cherished for years.
“When I learned that you were in the camp” he continued, “I wished to meet you and to let you know that I am creating a new position in the camp for an individual of your abilities. As you may be aware, all possessions of prisoners brought to Auschwitz are impounded for the use of the Reich. Because of this law, we have quite a collection of watches that are in need of service before we can sell them. The finest ones I wish to keep, put back in excellent working order, and given as gifts to various members in the SS. This will have the effect of making myself higher in their eyes, if you understand my meaning.” His smile was as chilling as the cold blue eyes that looked at me from across the desk.
“I wish to have you in charge of this great work. A man of your abilities, talents and skills should no longer be emptying latrine buckets, no? I am offering you a way out of your present predicament and an opportunity to return to your previous passion.” My eyes fell on his jacket, and I could not help admire the watch chain that was draped across his chest. He noticed my gaze, and pulled the watch connected to the gold chain out of his vest pocket, unhitched it from the chain, and held the watch out for me to inspect.
“This was a…present…a gift given to me from the owner of this watch just before he died. It is the finest watch I have ever owned.”
I was looking at Mr. Frankle’s watch, the very one that I had held to my ear those many years ago back in my father’s shop. It looked the same; the years had no effect on the timeless quality of the instrument. Instantly I was transported back in time to those years with my father, and I could feel his warm embrace that he gave me when I was on his knee. The sting of forgotten tears immediately came burned my eyes, but I quickly blinked them away.
I knew that Mr. Frankle did not give this watch to this German dog. Like all of our possessions, it was stolen from him and ended up in the clutches of the beast before me. At least, I thought, it is with someone who appreciates its artistry. My hatred for this man was intense, but I hid my emotion.
“Yes,” I said, “perhaps the finest I have ever seen. An honor, I am sure, to be the recipient of such a ‘gift.’” His eyes flashed in anger at this comment, for the sarcasm behind my words was evident. I did not care at this point what effect my words had on him; I was too tired and ill to be concerned.
He quickly regained his composure. “You may begin your new position immediately.”
“Herr Commandant, with all due respect I cannot possibly accept your offer. You observe my appearance. I am suffering from scurvy, my eyesight is failing me; I have lost most of my teeth; my hands and fingers cannot possibly work the fine instruments needed for servicing and repairing timepieces. They are barely able to hold the handles of the latrine buckets.” I said all this without sadness or malice. It was a simple statement, full of truth. The man that I had been was no longer alive.
The fingers of the Commandant’s hands came together as if he was about to go into prayer, and he placed them near his mouth. His blue eyes bore into mine, and we stood there, looking at one another for several moments. Slowly he unfolded his hands, took out a pad and paper, and quickly scribbled some words. He tore the page off, folded it, placed it in an envelope, and handed it to me.
“Here is a pass into the infirmary for six weeks. You will rest there for this time, and be placed on full rations. At the end of this time I am sure you will be able to handle the instruments as before.”
I stood stunned, staring blankly at the envelope before me. What can a man say that has just been delivered from a death sentence? I made a slight bow, turned, and walked out into the yard. I felt suddenly chilled, though the sky was clear and the warm. Could it be true my nightmare on the latrine detail was at an unexpected end? Was it possible that I would be receiving full rations and medical attention for a month and a half?
Trembling with excitement as much as from my bout with scurvy, I decided to test this dream by walking directly to the infirmary and presenting the Commandant’s envelope to the orderly at the front desk.
Any Jew walking into the infirmary at Auschwitz was met with hardened, cold stares by the attending orderlies. Jews crawling in received the same stares, but perhaps with a touch less disgust and unbelief. Only dead Jews were met with smiles.
My reception was typical; I felt my entrance received the same reaction from the orderly as if he just observed a fat and bloated cockroach scurrying in through the door instead of a desperately ill fellow human being in need of assistance. His blue eyes bored through me, overflowing with undisguised hatred and murder, and when I handed him the envelope the viscously snatched it out of my trembling hand. He appeared to freeze as his eyes began reading the Commandant’s hurried scrawl, and he remained in this state for several moments, reading and re-reading the words he no doubt found incomprehensible.
“Wait here” he demanded, but I noticed an immediate softening in his manner towards me, his look no longer as malevolent. He disappeared into an adjoining room where I could faintly make out his hushed whisperings as he conferred with someone on the phone.
My weariness threatened to overcome me; I was deathly ill. A pounding headache that had not left me for several weeks made me feel as if my head was being squeezed in a vice. I closed my eyes, concentrating on remaining on my feet and willing myself not to faint.
A hand placed gently on my shoulder startled me. Opening my eyes, I looked into the face of a man who was obviously a doctor. “I am Dr. Wiseman,” he began. “You have been placed under my care by the orders of the Commandant. Come, let me walk you to the examining room where I can evaluate you and begin your treatment.” His face, lined by fatigue and lack of sleep, was filled with tenderness and compassion. He encircled his arm around my waist and we walked together to the tiny examining room.
I underwent an almost miraculous transformation during my time in the infirmary. After getting a bath and shave for the first time in over two years, I was treated to a bowl of soup, a glass of milk, and one small piece of bread. After eating, I slept like one dead for over thirty-six hours, not moving, lying on a bed with clean sheets and blankets.
My pattern for the duration of my time in the sick-ward was not complex, my scurvy was treated, and I was deloused. My pounding headaches began slowly subsiding, disappearing completely after I passed my third week under the care of Dr. Wiseman.
I gained twelve pounds in the six weeks I was there, hardly enough to show the slightest difference on my skeletal frame. When my family and I were thrown into the Warsaw Ghetto, I weighed 165 pounds; when I stumbled into the infirmary, I had dropped to 68 pounds. I was now 80 pounds. My hair began growing back, and my bleeding gums healed. Unfortunately, I lost another seven teeth.
For the remainder of my time at Auschwitz, until its liberation in 1945, I cleaned and repaired my fellow Jew’s watches, which were then given to countless SS officers and others whom the Commandant wished to impress and gain an advantage with.
A profound change came over me as I spent sixteen hours a day at my makeshift, but fairly well equipped workbench. Whereas before I had thrilled at performing my chosen occupation, the taste, the love, began to die. It happened because I was putting into service items stolen by the Nazi’s from Jews and which were then used as gifts to those that tortured and murdered them. I lost all joy in my work, and for the first time in my life I began to hate the very items I once so passionately loved and cherished.
Exactly two months before I was to be liberated from Auschwitz, one hour from ending my sixteen-hour shift, an overpowering feeling of terror enveloped me. I felt as if I was smothering inside a blanket of fear and dread. I was immobilized, and after several minutes in this state I got up to throw open the shutters and the window to gulp in some fresh, winter air.
I kept this same shutter and window tightly closed, for its view looked directly upon the belching smokestacks that never seemed to cease their infernal burning. It was when I flung the window open that I instantly knew that the ashes that were falling like dirty snow from the furnace chimneys contained the charcoaled remnants of my gassed family. All of them were now reunited with my father. I did not cry for them – their torment was over. It was not until twenty years later that I was finally able to mourn. I never returned to Warsaw, or Poland, for that matter. I immigrated to America, where I found a job as a taxi-driver in New York City. Several years later I obtained a position as a teller in a large bank that I held for the next thirty years until my retirement.
My entire family lost their lives in the Holocaust. I eventually remarried someone like myself who lost her entire family in Auschwitz. We were even in the death camp at the same time but never knew or saw each other. Both of us agreed not to have children again, aware that we could never face the loss of them a second time. Looking back, perhaps it was not the best decision.
We live quiet lives, occasionally visiting friends. Ours is a good marriage, but we seldom speak of what we suffered through in Auschwitz. For some, talking about those times brought healing, a venting of bottled up emotions. Not for myself. Since I could not escape the belching smokestacks, snarling dogs and the constant fear of death, murder and cruelty that I relived in nightmares when I slept, I could not bring myself to also relive the memories when I was awake.
Almost sixty years after I left Auschwitz, I have never held or looked at another pocket watch.