In World War II, over 55 million people were killed. 11 million of those were prisoners of the concentration camps, 6 million of them being Jews. More astounding is the fact that over 1.5 million children were killed. About 1.2 million of them were Jewish. 10,000 of the children were Gypsies. The remaining children were mentally or physically handicapped. (Children of the Holocaust Statistics) This is the story of 6 of those Jewish boys…
I was racing Isaac home from school. We were late for chores, and going to be in trouble for that. As we rounded the last corner quickly, I grabbed Isaac and pulled him back between two of the buildings. Two of the German police were walking down the street, and the last thing we needed was to be seen. They would make us even later than waiting for them to pass by and continuing. It was too late, however, and we found ourselves trapped in the alleyway with the two of them. Their gaze was automatically drawn to the stars that were sewn onto our shirts, and they both sneered.
"What are your names?" The taller one asked, smiling evilly as he did so.
"Aaron, sir, and this is my brother Isaac." I was afraid, but knew that not answering them would only make it worse for us both.
"You are Jews, are you not?" It took me a second too long to answer as I was contemplating the point of this question. Surely he could see the garish stars, and did not need to ask. My silence was of course seen as defiance, and I was cuffed upside the head by the shorter soldier, for that is really what they were.
"Yes sir, we are."
"And why are you running down the street like animals? There is no need for you two to be running."
"Yes sir, we apologize, we won't do it again." I looked over at Isaac who nodded, and unconsciously blocked the blow to his head, earning another of my own. Isaac is not that much younger than me, only ten months, but he is still my younger brother, and even if it annoys him, I will look after him, no matter what.
Isaac finally spoke up. "No sir, we won't run anymore."
With that, thankfully the Germans left, and we started walking slowly for home, me rubbing the side of my face, and Isaac glaring.
"I am twelve now, you know Aaron. I can take care of myself." I couldn't help it, and laughed at him, causing Isaac to stick out his tongue and run off towards home, our bout with the guards already forgotten. Laughing, I gave chase, and we reached home shortly thereafter, only receiving a small lecture when our mother learned of what had happened.
It was only a few days later that we found our parents hurriedly packing when we came home and our neighbor Mordecai was scowling. Mord had just recently returned from school, and Isaac and I knew that if he was sullen, something bad was happening. Without asking us why we were late again, or even explaining what was going on, suitcases were shoved into our hands, and we were herded off down the street, falling into a line of our friends and neighbors that, in our haste, we had not even noticed. In front of us, a small boy, Matthew, was clinging to his mother's back and waving. We had been to his third birthday only a few weeks beforehand.
Before I knew what was happening, we had all been crowded into an area of Warsaw, and I watched as the road behind us was closed off. Some of the people behind us turned to leave, but they were beaten back, and Isaac and I were herded as far away from our captors as possible. Taking up new residence in one of the homes in our 'ghetto', we met a set of twins, James and John, and shared our room with them and Matthew. That night, our parents sat us down and explained what had happened, and that we were safe here.
As conditions became worse, we found ourselves scrounging for food, stealing it where we could and going hungry when we couldn't. Mordecai was talking with our parents every night, and soon I started to hear rumors of what was happening to the Jews who were 'relocated'. With this knowledge, Mord started the Z.O.B. (Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa, which means Jewish Fighting Organization) and plans were made to resist the Germans the next time they came to take us away. Knowing that we could be little help, and still wanting to fight alongside our parents, the four of us made a pact to protect Matthew as the adults were determined to protect us.
Few days passed between our pact to protect the toddler and finding Joseph. A boy of my age, Joe had lived on the other side of Warsaw, and we only found him after he had been abandoned to fend for himself. We would only hear much later that his parents were killed in the uprising. Welcoming him into our group, I took charge once more as the twins were only ten and Joe was younger than me by about three months. Unofficially supporting the Z.O.B. when our rebellion finally commenced, the boys and I brought what food and water we could find to those who needed it.
It was April 19th of that year that we officially began to resist the SS, and it was a gruesome time. Too young to fight, and too protected to be allowed to roam the streets, the six of us were locked in the basement with Matthew's mother, told to make no noise and not to come out for anything. We, of course, crowded around the one window, and watched for almost a month as the death toll mounted. All of our rations had been stored with us, so we did not go hungry for possibly the first time since entering the ghetto, but what we wanted more than anything was to be able to run around freely once more.
On May 10th, I was on watch at the window when I saw Mordecai lead a group of the freedom fighters to the last bunker, and I prayed for their escape. The last thing we heard from him was "we won't give up without a fight." It had been the motto of the Z.O.B. since the start. As had been more and more clear as the weeks had dragged on, they were not spared, and I could only watch as the SS gassed the bunker, knowing that besides Mordecai, all of our parents were holed up in that bunker as well. We were truly in the care of Esther.
Later that day, once I had recounted what happened, comforted those who understood, and joked with Matthew, we contemplated what to do. Isaac spoke up, saying that we should wait a few more days before venturing out, and we all agreed. Feeling as though we were safe, I relaxed my guard, and then the SS found us. Pointing their weapons at our hearts, we were motioned out from behind Esther's back, and lined up. Prodded out of the basement, we found ourselves loaded into the cattle cars, on our way to Auschwitz.
Isaac, Joseph, and I were among the first into one of the cattle cars, and the twins, Matthew and Esther, and then a group of orphans and their guardian followed us. As each child followed us in, I wondered when the SS officers were going to start filling the next car, and held tightly to my brother's hand. No matter what, my mother had made me promise to watch over him, and I wasn't going to lose him; he was all I had left. Taking in our surroundings, I noticed that there were no windows, or anything to look out of and breathe fresh air from, there was a simple bucket in a corner that already smelled horrible, and I tried to keep from being pushed to that side of the car, and there was no more food or water for us.
By the third day of our journey, over 30 of the children traveling with us were dead and piled in the corner. The task of moving them had fallen to Thomas, their guardian and myself. Without food or ventilation, these souls had passed on from starvation or suffocation. The youngest was only 18 months old. With a lurch, the car stopped, but we had long since hoped to see the doors opening. I looked to one of the few other adults in the car as he looked to the door, still clinging to some faith that God was watching over us and that the doors would open. Holding onto that faith would serve to save his life, and he was later quoted as saying that "the worst part was knowing that the train was stopping for water, yet we were not going to get any of it." (Chronicle, p 439)
It was two more days before the doors were finally opened, and our numbers had been cut from 124 Jews to 58. I looked out apprehensively, and thought that we had stopped at a prison to pick up more passengers to be relocated. Instead, the men in striped garb pulled us from the train and pushed us towards an ever-growing line. Finding the rest of our group, Isaac and I had no choice but to wait in line, afraid of the large rifles that were expertly trained on us once more. As we neared one of the officers, we heard him asking the younger of our group how old they were. It seemed to me that anyone under 15 was sent to the left, along with the women and old. Knowing that being grouped with them was not a smart idea, having been told so by Mordecai, I whispered to the twins, Joe, and Isaac to tell the man that we were all 16. They nodded, and we slowly approached, avoiding the growling German shepherds that were also guarding our lines.
More than once, I shielded Isaac's eyes as one of the prisoners broke from the line and raced for freedom, only to be shot down in cold blood or ripped apart by the dogs. Before I knew it, Esther and Matthew had reached the German, and were sent to the left line. I knew very well that we would never see them again as they were led to a short line that led to the 'showers'. Turning away from the sight, I could not block my hearing, and heard Matthew's last words to his mother before they were shoved inside a building.
"Mommy, why does Hitler hate me? He doesn't even know me. I am a good boy, Mommy." (Dekel, p 98) The words would haunt me until the end of my days. He didn't deserve this, he hadn't done anything besides enter this world, but that didn't matter to these Aryans.
So it was that we lost the first of our band of boys. With much trepidation, I stood before the officer, and barely heard when he asked my age. He had to repeat himself, and James poked me.
"Sixteen, sir." I held my breath as he paused for a moment and then pointed to the right. Taking a few steps, I waited to see where Isaac would be sent to, and only let go of my breath when he followed me. As James and John were about to tell the officer that they too were sixteen, a man in a doctor's jacket rounded the corner and caught sight of them.
"They are twins. Send them with my
group." I didn't know if this was a good or a bad thing, and could only
hope that I would see them again in a few hours or days.
When Joseph had been sent to the right as well, we moved onto the next station where we finally managed to be rid of the Stars of David. Of course, we no longer had clothes, but there was nothing we could do about that. Sent running around a circle with a group of men, we tried to keep up and blend in so as not to be singled out. When the guards were satisfied, we moved on to a barber, and soon found ourselves with shaved heads, and then were finally given clothes.
Our last stop outside was a dentist; a stop that I would long wish had been skipped. One of my back teeth had rotted out a couple of months back, and as my parents did not have the money to pay for a filling, my father melted down one of his gold rings to take my tooth's place. I did not even think of it until I heard the man in front of me reach for a tool. Seeing that it looked like a pair of tweezers, I did not know what was happening until a searing pain erupted in my mouth, and I could taste the coppery blood. In the man's hand was my tooth.
Finally allowed inside the building in front of us, me quite unaware of what was going on as I fought through the pain in my mouth, I didn't notice when I was sat down again. I looked to the man in front of me once more and saw what looked like a branding iron in his hands. He asked me a number of questions, and then suddenly grabbed my arm and began to carve a set of numbers into it. I bit through my tongue, determined not to scream, and soon heard my 'kid brother' lose that battle. With that, we finally entered Auschwitz, passing under its gates and noticing the words above it, "Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work Brings Freedom).
Looking at my grandchildren today, I realize that if not for Isaac and Joseph, I would not have survived, and so they would not be sitting here either. We spent the remainder of the War in Auschwitz, battling disease, dehumanization, and selections, relying on each other to retain our humanity and keep us alive. We were finally liberated by American soldiers on January 27th, 1945, half dead and clinging to rumors that Hitler was losing ground. I was 15 when the Americans broke into Auschwitz, raiding the hospitals where the three of us had taken up residence when the Nazis blew up the 'ovens' and forced those who could walk to make the death runs away from the camps.
My oldest asked what happened in the camps, but that is another story, one for when he and his brothers are much older. His father Matthew and his uncles, James and John, have only recently heard my tales, and perhaps it will be up to them to keep our history alive, as I kept the twins and our 'baby brother' alive in my sons. All I tell them is that when the Americans came, they separated the lot of us into different vehicles to be transported to hospitals. They loaded me onto one of their jeeps, and were about to take off when Isaac cried out that he didn't want to be separated from his brother. The men stopped and crowded him on, preparing to leave again when I caught sight of Joe, alone and wandering among the soldiers.
"Wait, he's our brother too."
Ayer, Eleanor. In the Ghettos: Teens who Survived. New York: Rosen Publishing Group, 1999.
Children of the Holocaust Statistics. , June 6, 2001.
Dekel, Sheila. Children of the Flames. New York: Penguin Books, 1992.
The Holocaust Chronicle. Lincolnwood: Publications International, 2000.
Stein, R. Warsaw Ghetto. Chicago: Children's Press, 1985.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The History of the Kovno Ghetto. New York: Little Brown and Company, 1997.