His Personal History
I was born February 27, 1931. Before the Holocaust I lived in Brigitenau, the 20th ward in Vienna, Austria.
Both my parents were born in Poland and immigrated to Austria when they were young. I was born into a close-knit Orthodox family. Although I was very young, I have some vivid memories of life in the Jewish community before the November Pogrom, often called Kristallnacht, or The Night of Broken Glass.
My father was the owner of a store selling linoleum floor covering and my mother helped at the store. I spent most of the first five years of my life with my maternal grandmother, Tourne Premitke. She was an important influence in my life and I carry warm memories of her with me today.
My paternal grandfather, Mechulim Blumenthal, was an Orthodox rabbi and a leader in the Jewish community in Vienna. He spent most of his time teaching children the Torah. I became his student at the age of three.
Life Begins to Change
I first experienced antisemitism in public school. One day as I was playing in the yard, a big kid threw me down off a stone and broke my left arm. He yelled: “You dirty Jew.” I came to believe that a Jew was meant to be persecuted. It was only after the war that I learned that this was not so—Jews are like everyone else!
In March 1938 the Germans marched into Austria bringing the Anschluss—the incorporation of Austria into Germany—which changed our lives forever. Laws against the Jews were implemented immediately and antisemitic acts became part of everyday life. Immediately, Austrian government officials began closing businesses owned or operated by Jews. Jewish children were forbidden to attend school by newly implemented German law.
These anti-Jewish laws were accompanied by ruthless terror, mass arrest and unspeakable atrocities. Jews were rounded up and were forced to clean the streets with their bare hands.
During the November Pogrom, many Jewish men were arrested. I recall my grandfather’s synagogue being completely ransacked. He was taken out and made to jump over the fire the way a young man would jump, as the Sturmabteilung (SA), the Stormtroopers, spat on him.
My mother and I watched in horror from our living room window. During the terror of that night, my father tried to defend his business. He came home with a wound on his head that never healed. His business was completely ransacked. After November 1938, I remember my father would peddle on the street so we could survive. He sold my mother’s fur coat, jewelry and any family belongings that he could. He had no other means to support the family since German laws robbed the Jewish community of any opportunities for legitimate employment.
After the November Pogrom it became painfully clear to the Jews of Vienna that there was no hope for life as they had known it before the Nazis took over. Now there was no alternative but to leave Vienna.
I ultimately went to Belgium with my parents and paternal grandparents in late 1939. My parents paid someone with their wedding rings and we escaped Germany. We spent a year in Brussels and I remember this as a very happy time, although I was not able to attend school. When the German Blitzkrieg of the West began, we moved on to southern France in the spring of 1940 to escape it.
By the summer of 1940, France was occupied by the Germans. My family was arrested and sent to Agde, a transfer camp located south of Toulouse, for a short time until we were deported to Rivesaltes, a concentration camp, in the cold Pyrenees Mountains.
The population of Rivesaltes included 3200 children during the summer of 1942. We were here from January 15, 1941 to May 8, 1942. Men and women were separated; however, since I was under 15 years old, I was able to stay in the barracks with my mother. Conditions in the camp were harsh—water faucets were frozen and the food consisted of corn, parsnips, potato peels and rotten potatoes.
The south of France was a free zone and my father helped to smuggle those Jews who had someplace to go out of the camp. Jews paid my father for doing this dangerous work and he used the money to buy food. We stayed in the camp because we had nowhere else to go.
As time went on, camp conditions worsened. People died of hunger and disease. However, deportations to the “East” had not yet started. On May 8, 1942, representatives of Oeuvre de Secures aux Enfants (L'OSE) came to the camp and asked parents if they wanted their children to be taken out of the camp and placed in a children’s home. My parents disagreed, but my father, who must have had an idea of what was to come, won out and the decision was made that I should go.
However, I was very angry and I hit one of the counselors at the home. Since I knew I was in trouble, I ran away to the countryside.
For many months I wandered about France. I ate berries and slept in barnyards or stables for the warmth of the animals when it was cold. I also slept in railroad depots. I am thankful today for those who were kind to me and showed compassion—the police commissar who gave me money and let me go, the priest who let me stay the night, and the good-hearted farmer who gave me food and refuge. Most of all, I am thankful for Joseph Buffet, the gentle shepherd who taught me to read and write. His influence deflated my anger at that time and he had a dramatic effect on my life even to this day.
When I left Joseph, I used the new identity given me earlier by L’OSE. I became Gerard Bomle from Vienne, France, and a messenger for the French Resistance. I was stopped many times by the Germans for violating curfew, but since I looked like all the other French boys they let me go. We survived by raiding French collaborator factories. We did everything we could to discourage collaboration with the enemy. A few months after I joined them, the group was denounced to the Germans by a traitor. Although I’d been hidden in a cave by the leader of the group, I was discovered and arrested.
We were taken to San Pierre prison for several days until we were deported from Lyon station. Jews were made to pay for their passage, so most believed that we were going to a work camp.
We arrived in Paris and were shoved onto a passenger train. We could not sit since there were 300 people in a car marked for 40. The train did not move until later that evening. For several days we had no food or water. The train stopped in isolated areas, and at one stop Belgian farmers threw apples into the train. The smell on the train was terrible due to a lack of toilet facilities and the smell of death as many people died on the trains. Whenever the train stopped, we threw the dead out. The train was not very full when we finally arrived at Mauthausen concentration camp.
Mauthausen - 11 months, 2 weeks, 3 days
I was nearly 14 years old when the train stopped about a mile and a half from the camp. Inmates in striped uniforms came to take the baggage. We marched to camp. Some people fell because they were weak or sick. They were shot on the spot! I was paralyzed with fear—I knew I must move or I too would DIE!
Inside the camp it was all grey—the bags of hair and piles of clothes were everywhere. There were barracks as far as the eye could see. They gave us tea which probably had a tranquilizer in it since suddenly everyone was calm. We were told to undress and then the selection started. The SS wanted to find strong men who could help them.
During selection I was lucky; I was put in the line for survival! I worked for the man who was in charge of the cafeteria and the elite guards. He gave me a tour of the gas chamber and the crematorium to harden me. As I looked through the peep holes in the gas chamber, I wet my pants—I was so young and I was in a place that was evil beyond anything I could imagine! I was assigned a number but I was not tattooed. I needed to know my number for the appel or roll call.
I worked as a busboy in the cafeteria and also as a messenger for the guards. When I worked service and cleanup in the cafeteria, I put extra food in my pockets or swallowed it without chewing. I had to get extra food to avoid starvation.
In the barracks we slept next to each other to keep warm in the winter. Sometimes we woke up to find that the body next to us was no longer warm—death was always present. Lice were a normal part of life in the camp. Not only were we bitten by the lice and miserably uncomfortable as a result, but lice carry typhus, a disease which killed many in the camps.
There were members of the Resistance in the camp and I reported back to them when I got information. As the Russians moved west, I was transferred to Ravensbruck Concentration Camp where I would spend the rest of the war.
Although Ravensbruck was primarily a women’s camp, a camp for men was established there in April 1941. I worked in the bakery in the kitchen. We made bread—black bread for the inmates and white bread for the guards. One day I peed in the dough that was prepared for the guards’ bread and, even today, I feel some satisfaction when I recall that act of defiance against my persecutors.
In March 1945 the camp’s evacuation was ordered and I began a death march with the surviving inmates who numbered about 24,500. On April 29th at 11 AM, we were liberated by a Russian tank division.
I met a French captain while in a hospital and convinced him to sneak me into France on the POW train he was scheduled to take to Paris. I hoped that my parents were alive and the first thing that I wanted to do was to look for them. I arrived in Paris—alone. I had not been to school since I was expelled from kindergarten in Vienna. I had no money. I was now 14 years old.
I went to school, learned a trade and became a die maker. Later, I applied for factory work and became assistant to the production manager. A man named Charlie Jordan, who was head of the American Joint Distribution Committee, helped me get started in the travel business.
When I turned 18, I moved out to live on my own. I traveled with the Jewish Choir to Israel and met Ginette Edel, also a survivor, who was traveling with the choir as well. Two months later, we were married in Paris.
After a honeymoon, we returned to Paris to live. Our son, Peter was born in 1954.
Immigration/Creating New Lives
On February 15, 1955, we left for the United States. Our first home was in Brooklyn. We moved to Queens, and in 1967, we settled in Manalapan, NJ, where our daughter Susan was born in 1956. We welcomed our son, Steven in 1960. At first, I worked in a factory stuffing dolls. After three months, I got a job with KLM airlines, where I worked until my retirement in 1990.
Ginette and I try to enjoy every day despite the challenges of growing old and the health-related problems that go with it. We are proud of our children and grandchildren, we revel in their accomplishments, and we enjoy the connection with family on a daily basis.
Although it is difficult for me to talk about my experience, I have spoken to classes in middle and high schools, as well as to community groups. The only thing that I can do is bear witness. Now that I have told you my story, you are my voice. Speak to others about the terrible things that happen because of hate. Speak to others about the terrible things that happen when we stand by and let others be put upon. We must speak for the victims, whether it is a kid in the hallway at school who is being bullied or a child in a refugee camp in Darfur.
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