Why I Fasted

By Nathan Grubman

Yom Kippur is over. We all are ready to start with the challenges of the new year. Gone are the flickering Yahrzeit candles. The long fast is just an unpleasant memory. Most Jews fast on Yom Kippur. Some fast because the Good Book says so, others because everybody else does so.

To me the Yom Kippur fast always had a special meaning and the Yom Kippur of 1944 was particularly special. I fasted on that Yom Kippur too. I was then prisoner number 86619 in the slave labor camp of St. Valentin, far in the mountains of Austria. On Yom Kippur eve I put the heavy brick like “bread” under my shirt and kept it there until next evening. It was an act of defiance against the German persecutors. Although I was only seventeen years old, it was my way to proclaim that I was not yet reduced to a number. I was still a person. A person desperately trying to cling to the very last bit of control over my life. It was the ultimate test of will power to carry that bit of bread on my body, a whole night and a full day, without as much as touching it. This, in spite of the perpetual hunger, which the camp’s starvation diet never satisfied.

 

My maternal grandmother inspired that power of will when she and I spent a few months together. We were hiding from the Nazis in the small village of Wieliczka in Poland, about twenty kilometers south of Krakow. There were nine of us including my mother’s sisters and my grandmother. All crammed into one small room. Any resemblance to normal life was long gone. Life in my hometown of Katowice became just a faint memory. Day by day, the Germans were coming up with new oppressive restrictions. We have been already deported several times. All of our meager belongings were with us in that one small room.

 

During the day all the adults were going out to do different chores. I, then in my early teens, stayed with my grandmother. Grandmother was in her late seventies. A small, frail woman always dressed in her, ankle long, black skirt and a sparkling, white blouse. Always with the ever present shitel. Grandmother was devotedly religious. She constantly prayed and chanted verses in a language I did not understand. She lit Shabbat candles making each Friday a special day. She firmly believed that in the end God would save us from all evil. She never gave up hope.

 

Her advanced age did not stop her from cleaning, cooking and mending for all of us. Always busy doing something; she never sat down to rest. I specifically remember, how in those days of scarcity, when there was no flour to bake bread she made potato bread. It was sticky, it was heavy, but hunger made its taste heavenly.

 

From her I learned how to convert things that did not even look edible into wonderfully satisfying meals. Her ingenuity seemed limitless. I learned from her to mend socks and patch holes in my pants. While she cooked and cleaned, I fetched buckets of water from the well outside or was digging up potatoes in the nearby field. She also taught me to recite the Shmah. In the horror years yet to come the Shmah became my life-saving mantra. She taught me basic survival skills, which I am sure, in the end saved my life.

 

My thirteenth birthday was coming up and just like every Jewish boy I looked forward to my Bar Mitzvah. Grandmother took upon herself to teach me our religion and told me about our ancient traditions. I recited after her and memorized the prayers. She prepared me for the passing from boyhood into adulthood, which among other things meant fasting on Yom Kippur.

 

But, it was a Bar Mitzvah that never was. Soon after, we were expelled to the ghetto in Krakow and then herded into the infamous camp in Plaszow. One by one the family perished. I ended up alone in the St. Valentin slave labor camp in Austria. The Nazis worked us in twelve-hour shifts, seven days a week, making tank parts. All day long I monotonously pushed a lever on a huge machine and kept reciting the Shmah.

 

Then came Yom Kippur of 1944. It was bitter cold. The family was gone. The already meager food rations deteriorated further into “soup” and “bread” twice a day. The long starvation and deprivation have taken their toll. I kept my mind from going numb and kept reciting the Shmah Israel that my grandmother taught me.

 

And, on Yom Kippur I fasted. I saved the brick like “bread” from the last evening meal. I kept it all day close to my body, safely tucked in behind my striped prisoner’s jacket. To fast on that Yom Kippur day was an act of defiance. It was to prove to myself that in spite of all the German atrocities I still controlled at least one aspect of my life. They took away my family, they took away my freedom, but they could not take away the Yom Kippur fast. It was a desperate effort to cling to the last shred of self-esteem and preserve the last bit of personal dignity in an upside down world, which went berserk.

Of the nine people who lived in that small room in Wieliczka I am the only survivor. The rest perished into the mass graves of Plaszow or in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. So today, well into my twilight years, I fast on Yom Kippur to remember those who perished, with a special place in my heart for my grandmother who taught me how to survive and how to recite the Shmah.

Nathan Gutman, a Holocaust survivor, has written fiction and nonfiction short stories about the Holocaust, lives with his wife in Simsbury, Connecticut. They have three children and thirteen grandchildren.

Voices of Hope was recently given permission to share articles written from Holocaust Survivor Nathan Gutman, of Simsbury, CT. During the Holocaust he was in the ghetto of Krakow, and camps of Plaszow (Poland), St. Valentin and Mauthausen (Austria).


Hiding in Wieliczka

By Nathan Gutman

 

The summer of 1939 passed like most of the summers. School vacation was almost over and except for the annual pilgrimage to the mountains, nothing exciting or unusual was happening. No one was paying much attention to the rumors of war. There were a few days of summer vacation left so mother decided to visit her sister, aunt Stefa, in Krakow. Krakow was only an hour’s train ride from our home in Katowice, so we packed a small suitcase with some necessities and off we went.

 

Aunt Stefa was thrilled to see us. She lived in the city in a small apartment. Those were beautiful late summer days. We slept with the windows wide open. The cool night air felt wonderfully crisp. One night, just before dawn, I awoke to the whining of airplane engines. Not the steady grind of an occasional passing but the penetrating whining sound of diving and climbing. There were loud, thunderous explosions. I jumped out of bed and saw them through the window. They were barely noticeable but I saw them, three or four or maybe five. I could not tell. One by one they dove over the roofs of still sleeping city, each dive followed by an explosion and a small cloud of smoke. Within a few minutes slowly, a siren started to whine. Then another and another, till their frightening cacophony completely filled the air. Nazi Germany had attacked Poland. The city woke up to the start of World War Two. It was Friday, September 1, 1939.

 

Trains were disrupted. We could not return home. We were stranded in Krakow. A few days later father and Albert, our chauffeur, arrived in the Daimler. The Germans quickly converged on Krakow from both west and south. Most of the Jewish population, somewhat but not fully aware of what happened to Jews in Germany, tried to flee east towards the Russian border. So did we. We packed as much as we could into the box-like Daimler and started east towards Lublin. Normally, the two hundred and fifty or so kilometers would have been a short journey. But it seemed like the whole city was on the road. A faint sound of airplanes came from the sky behind us. At first, there were just two small, silver specs. They quickly caught up with us and made a few passes above our heads. They looked so harmless, some of us waved. They made a few more passes then dove and opened fire on the unsuspecting column of refugees. From everywhere screams of the wounded rose to the sky. Father quickly threw me from the car into the roadside ditch and jumped on top of me almost smothering me with his body. The two planes made a few more passes and disappeared north. This was our first real encounter with the war.

 

Father knew that we would not be able to outrun the Germans. He decided to go back towards Krakow. We abandoned the Daimler laying helplessly in the ditch. Taking whatever we believed we could carry we started back to Krakow on foot. Some still tried to press east but most turned back towards Krakow. We walked several days till we came to the small village of Wieliczka, about fourteen kilometers west of Krakow. Father knew a farmer there who, for a sum of money, agreed to shelter us in his house. He gave us one very small room. It had no running water, no toilets. Water was brought from a well outside. There was an outhouse in the back. There was a small iron stove in the corner, a old bucket with some coal in it, one high bed and a small, rickety table next to it. We spent our evenings clustered around a small kerosene lamp speculating when the war would end and what might happen next.

 

Every morning father disappeared into the city. He came back, usually just before dark and like a magician pulled out from under his coat, sometimes a small chicken, a chunk of bread or a few raw potatoes. I did not know where all that came from. But it was obvious that if anyone could outsmart the Germans he could. Sometimes he would come back with a relative or two. One day he came back with aunt Stefa and grandmother. The small room became crowded. There were eight of us here now. There was grandmother from mother’s side, aunt Stefa, uncle Jacob, his wife, their little girl and the three of us.

 

During the day all the adults were going out to do different chores. I, then in my early teens, stayed with my grandmother. Grandmother was in her late seventies. A small, frail woman always dressed in her, ankle long, black skirt and a sparkling, white blouse. Always with the ever present shitel. Grandmother was devotedly religious. She constantly prayed and chanted verses in a language I did not understand. She lit Shabbat candles making each Friday a special day. She firmly believed that in the end God would save us from all evil. She never gave up hope.

 

Her advanced age did not stop her from cleaning, cooking and mending for all of us. Always busy doing something; she never sat down to rest. I specifically remember, how in those days of scarcity, when there was no flour to bake bread she made potato bread. It was sticky, it was heavy, but hunger made its taste heavenly.

 

From her I learned how to convert things that did not even look edible into wonderfully satisfying meals. Her ingenuity seemed limitless. I learned from her to mend socks and patch holes in my pants. While she cooked and cleaned, I fetched buckets of water from the well outside or was digging up potatoes in the nearby field. She also taught me to recite the Shmah. In the horror years yet to come the Shmah became my life-saving mantra. She taught me basic survival skills, which I am sure, in the end saved my life.

 

My thirteenth birthday was coming up and just like every Jewish boy I looked forward to my Bar Mitzvah. Grandmother took upon herself to teach me our religion and told me about our ancient traditions. I recited after her and memorized the prayers. She prepared me for the passing from boyhood into adulthood, which among other things meant fasting on Yom Kippur. But, it was a Bar Mitzvah that never was.

 

Every day new Nazi edicts were being announced. Jews were not permitted to do this, and not permitted to do that. Jews must wear a yellow star of David. Jews cannot walk on the sidewalks. On and on. The list of restrictions was getting longer and longer.

 

Jewish children were not permitted to attend schools. A Jewish woman named Idzia Kornfeld, a former school teacher, defied the German edict and risking execution organized a small underground class in her cellar. I was in that class.

 

We heard that in Krakow the Jews were being herded into a small dilapidated area of the city declared as the Jewish ghetto. All Jews had to move out of their homes and into the ghetto. Only a few personal belongings were permitted.

 

Life in the Wieliczka hideout became very difficult. The Germans swept through the village every few days to drag out any Jews they could find. Helping and hiding Jews became a crime punishable by death. The farmer, our host, had become very frightened. He insisted that we all leave, but father convinced him to agree to hide just me. With my light, blond hair and blue eyes, I could pass for a non Jew. He could tell his neighbors that I was his nephew from a distant village so that they would not inform on him. Father was going to pick me up after the war.

 

On August 27, 1942 almost all Jews of Wieliczka were assembled at the local railroad station and taken away.

 

My whole family left. For a few weeks I lived with the farmer and his family helping with the daily chores. I fetched water from the well, collected eggs from the chickens or weeded the vegetable patch. Most of the time, though, I tried to stay out of sight.

 

One day the Germans came to Wieliczka and searched door to door looking for Jews. The farmer put me in the barn and covered me with a pile of hay. They did not find me, but after they left we knew that we had to come up with a more secure hiding place.

 

In one corner of the house we lifted a few floor planks. Underneath, next to the foundation wall, we dug a small hole. The hole was just barely large enough for me to squeeze in. We made a small opening for air. Every time the Germans came to look for Jews, the farmer would lift out a plank, let me crawl in into the hole and put it back in place.

 

The Germans were not satisfied that there were no Jews left in the village. They were making surprise raids day or night and started using dogs to find Jewish hideouts. The farmer kept me now in the hole for days at a time, daring to let me out only at night. When I had spent in the hole an entire three week period, day and night, the farmer gave up and told me that he could no longer hide me. I had to leave.

 

One crisp, quiet night he pulled me out from the hole, gave me a chunk of bread and scribbled, on a small piece of brown paper, an address in the Krakow ghetto where supposedly I could find my parents. In the dark of the night he took me to the nearby railroad tracks and told me to walk along them till I reached the city. I was supposed to pretend that I was a poor Polish boy collecting pieces of coal which fell off the trains. I don’t know why he did that. It was either fear or greed. Many of the Poles in Wieliczka helped the Nazis to find Jewish hideouts. As soon as the Jews were forced out many locals immediately moved in and looted the properties abandoned by their Jewish neighbors. It was incomprehensible how these seemingly peaceful, God fearing and church going people so quickly turned into a lowly informants and greedy looters. The Germans supported the looting calling it the “sequestration”. But then, there are still many things from that era that defy any rational explanation.

 

It took five full days to walk the ten or so kilometers to the city. I knew that I could trust no one. I walked for a few hours by night hiding in the fields during the days. On the fifth day I sneaked through the streets of Krakow into the ghetto section and miraculously located my parents. For the next few months we were united again. In October of 1942, while father and I were at “work” my mother was deported to the Belzec extermination camp. She was never seen or heard of again. My father and I were deported the infamous camp in Plaszow. From there it was to Mauthausen, where I was separated from my father. My father was sent to the Gusen camp where he died on February 3, 1945. I was sent to St. Valentin, then back to Mauthausen and then the war ended.

 

By the way, the Polish government never made any real attempts to compensate Jewish survivors or rightful heirs for the properties looted from Jews during the war. Before the war there were about three and half million Jews in Poland. They left behind everything they owned and all that went to looters.

The photo:

underground-class-wieliczka-02-17-42-300x257

Picture of kids from a classroom in Wieliczka 02-17-42

 

A childhood friend of mine Romek Leaton (Licht) visited Wieliczka, and miraculously found this photo of us taken in February 17, 1942. Romek says it was taken on hisbirthday. As told by Romek, standing from left to right are:

 

Osi, who refused to leave his mother and sister Edith. On August 27, 1942 went with them on the train to the Belzec death camp where they all perished. Lulek Friedman, who survived the war and died of cancer in Paris in 1988. Next is Uri Shmueli (Szmulewicz). Myself – I was about fourteen at the time. What’s partially visible behind my head is a small bird cage with Romek’s pet canary. The photo was taken in Romek’s home. Sitting are: Alisia Kleinberger – whom the Germans found hiding with her mother and brother Maciek in Wieliczka in August 1944. They took them to the Plaszow camp and shot them there. Rita – we don’t know when and were she perished. The photo was taken by Natan (then Sandek) Kleinberger.

 

One of our friends from those years, not shown on this photo was Bernas Grunhaut who survived St. Valentin and ended up in Israel. In 1992 he decided to go back to his native Krakow. He arrived to Warsaw and died of a heart attack at the Warsaw train station before ever reaching his hometown. As matter of fact I know of several people who got heart attacks when visiting their home towns in Poland. Strange.

 

Nathan Gutman, was born in Katowice, on July 24, 1927. He was in the ghetto of Krakow, and camps of Plaszow (Poland), St. Valentin and Mauthausen (Austria). After liberation the Jewish Brigade smuggled him to southern Italy where he joined the Irgun Zvai Leumi. He arrived to Israel in June 1948 as a crew member of the ship Altalena. He volunteered to the Israeli Navy. After the discharge he worked as a welder, tool and die maker, superintendent of a machine shop and a machine shop owner. In 1961 he was admitted to the University of Bar-Ilan to major in physics and mathematics. In 1963 he was admitted to the College of Engineering at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg, Virginia. He graduated in 1966. At the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, he completed requirements towards an advanced degree in management. He lectured at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute branch in Hartford. He holds eleven U.S. and foreign patents on inventions related to the heavy construction industry and Diesel engine controls.

 

Nathan Gutman, a Holocaust survivor, has written fiction and nonfiction short stories about the Holocaust, lives with his wife in Simsbury, Connecticut. They have three children and thirteen grandchildren.

 

Voices of Hope was recently given permission to share articles written from Holocaust Survivor Nathan Gutman, of Simsbury, CT. During the Holocaust he was in the ghetto of Krakow, and camps of Plaszow (Poland), St. Valentin and Mauthausen (Austria).


Basia Must Survive

It has been 66 years since I left my birth town of Krivichi, Poland (now Belaruss). It was a shtetle, a small town, of no great distinction. Only about 50 families; a census showed little over 400 Jews lived and thrived here under difficult conditions and governments. In its more current history, Krivichi was governed by Belaruss, Tzarist Russia, Poland, Soviet Russia and by the killers of Nazi Germany. The nearest large town, 21 miles NE of town, was Vileyke. Krivich, as the Jews called it, had one synagogue, a mikve (ritual bath) where mother and I enjoyed the luxury of a hot bath every Friday and a “shochet”, a kosher religious slaughterer, a special butcher. I, Beatrice (Basia Poliskin) Sussman, was born in 1933 and I believe that I was named Basia after a maternal great grandmother. My baby brother, Avremel, was born 7 years later in 1940. My father, Sholom Poliskin, was one of four children. Brothers Morris and Harry came to the United States before the first world war, and a sister Libe lived in town with her husband and 3 children. They were killed in the Shoah. Father’s parents died when he was a young boy. Somehow he managed to establish a life on his own, became a dealer in lumber and provided a comfortable living for us. He was a respected, good and kind man. He was charitable and generous to needy to the point that mother complained that his generosity will drive them into the poor house. His work took him away on business trips often. I awaited his return home with pleasure and expectation of a gift for me. I remember a special gift was a large bouncing ball peeking through a woven net bag. Mother, Libe, was one of four daughters, Hane, Libe (mother) Haske and Basie. They were raised by my widowed grandmother, Asne Leahe Weisenholz. Only Chane and Haske and children survived. All were married with children. My cousins were often my playmates in games of hopscotch, jumping rope or jacks, which were played with small stones. My grandmother, whom I called Bobie, spoiled me with her treats, especially potato pancakes, which I love to this day. My parents married, introduced by a matchmaker, and even though their temperaments were opposite, they were a good match. Father was easy going and followed rules, while mother was full of spirit and stood her ground when necessary. She was the disciplinarian


Angels of St. Valentine

By Nathan Grubman

Usually reminiscences from the Holocaust mean tales of terror and of brutality, which can never be properly told because no language in the whole world has the words adequately to describe what has happened. Some forty odd years have passed since. One would think that all stories that possibly could have been told have already been told and there is nothing more left to say. Not so. This is a yet untold story about a speckle of individual compassion and humanity, which sparkled in that time of darkness and indifference. It is a story about one nameless hero who, in his own ever so small way, while putting his own life on the line, eased the agony, and saved the life of an equally nameless victim – prisoner number 86916. It was early summer of 1944. I had not yet turned seventeen and already was a veteran of several concentration camps. My left hand, badly injured in a factory accident, was wrapped in old papers and rags. It was a painful reminder of the last slave labor camp, the infamous Plaszow camp in Poland.

 

If the war was winding down, I certainly was not aware of that. We were in transit to still another camp. Stuffed into freight cars with their doors sealed, we were not allowed out for any reason. Without food or water, many were getting weaker by the hour. The heat and the stench made breathing difficult. I lay on the floor, jammed against the door with my face down, gasping for the little fresh air which was coming from a crack between the floor and the sliding door.

 

Nathan Gutman, a Holocaust survivor, has written fiction and nonfiction short stories about the Holocaust, lives with his wife in Simsbury, Connecticut. They have three children and thirteen grandchildren.

Voices of Hope was recently given permission to share articles written from Holocaust Survivor Nathan Gutman, of Simsbury, CT. During the Holocaust he was in the ghetto of Krakow, and camps of Plaszow (Poland), St. Valentin and Mauthausen (Austria).

Finally, after days of standing on sidings or slowly moving from one track to another, we must have arrived at our destination. The train had not moved since the night before and when morning came, noises of increasing activity could be heard from outside. The door of the car opened with a thunder like explosion, and we poured out into the cold, fresh morning air. Some, either dead or to weak to move, remained motionless on the floor of the car, but no one paid any attention to them. We arrived to Mauthausen in Austria.

The day was bright and getting warmer. After days in the darkness of the freight car, my eyes slowly adjusted to the brightness of what appeared to be a harmless and peaceful place. We were standing in the middle of a wide, clean street lined with a few low, neatly painted white, buildings. Colorful flowerbeds in front of each building added to the deception. Then the selection started. Armed guards herded us, single file, toward a uniformed Nazi officer. With a barely noticeable wink of his white glove, he motioned some to the right and others to the left. Those who seemed stronger were moved to the right and the weak, the old, the women and children were moved to the left.

 

I was slowly approaching the point of selection. When my turn came, I looked briefly into his eyes. They were cold and indifferent. A faint nod of his white glove has sent me to the right to join a slave labor unit. When a sufficiently large group had formed, we were shoved into a covered truck. Truck after truck was being loaded this way until the selection was over. The group on the left, surrounded by screaming and jabbing guards was being moved toward one of the buildings. The trucks formed a long convoy and started moving out of Mauthausen. When I looked up, a huge smokestack began spewing a column of black, acrid smoke. The smoke hung in the still air like a giant black mushroom.The truck, swaying wildly from side to side, ground its way up a mountainous, winding road. The human cargo in the back sloshed around with every turn. Through a small hole in the canvas, I could see that we were passing through some village. Later it turned out that it was the village was St. Valentin, somewhere in the Austrian mountains. Nearby the Germans have set up a factory to manufacture tanks and a camp to house the prisoners who worked there.

 

After a few days, the life in St. Valentin settled into a debilitating routine of twelve hours of work in the factory and twelve hours off. Every morning at dawn, we were marched to work surrounded by armed guards with dogs. The route took us through the principal street of the village, which was usually empty that early in the morning. Just here and there, I could catch someone’s curious gaze from behind drawn curtains. What a strange sight this must have been. A slow procession of human skeletons, six abreast, dressed in strange striped suits, was winding through town in an almost total silence. The peaceful serenity of the morning was disturbed only by the clutter of hundreds of crude wooden clogs dragged on the cobblestones and by an occasional bark of one of the dogs. The same scene was repeated in the evening, but the return walk always seemed much longer. Occasionally there were some too weak to continue. Those who fell and could not get up immediately were shot on the spot by one of the guards. Their bodies were left in the ditch, by the side of the road, to be collected later by a special prisoner detail. In the evening, back in the camp, we stood in line to receive the only meal of the day. It consisted of something resembling heavy, dark bread and a cup of watery, cabbage-smelling, “soup”. Grabbing my portion, I headed for the barrack where we were locked up until morning.

 

The factory was relatively comfortable. As far as the eye could see, there were rows of dark grey machines that, with a relentless clutter, turned out hundreds of different parts. I was assigned to large turret lathe. My job was to move a big wheel two revolutions clockwise then two revolutions counterclockwise, catch a finished piece and advance the bar stock. I was repeating this cycle every minute or so for the entire twelve hour shift. Around noon, a screaming siren was announcing a short break. The factory quieted down for about one-half of an hour until another siren signaled the return to work. Immediately, one by one, the machines were starting their usual clutter until the evening siren announced the arrival of a shift change.

 

The monotonous movement of the wheel helped me to live through the shift in a trans-like confusion between daydreaming and reality. Flashbacks of family, parents, home, and food were constantly mixed with the stark reality of the big, dark grey machine in front of me. Months of starvation were taking their toll on my mental and physical ability to feel and to react. The initial hope and will to live were slowly giving way to a feeling of numbness and indifference.

 

The winter came upon us quickly. The factory siren was now used more often to warn of air raids than to announce breaks and shift changes. When the air raid warning sounded, we were rushed to a densely packed underground shelter with standing room only. We could recognize a hit by the flickering of the sparsely located lights and by cloudlets of dust falling from the ceiling. When the bombs exploded closer to us, we could feel the tremor of walls and we cheered. Toward the end of the winter, the raids became more frequent and the accuracy of the bombing increased. The factory was badly damaged. The gray winter sky peered through gaping holes in the roof. Entire sections of the walls collapsed. Not all the machines worked anymore, and it was very cold but the factory continued to operate. In spite of the successful bombings, the end of the war did not seem near. For us, there was no sign of relief, and a feeling of total resignation was setting in.

 

He must have been in the late sixties and looked it in spite of his closely cropped, completely black, hair. He wore blue work clothes. A black dilapidated jacket hung loosely from his shoulders. His shoes were old, oil soaked, of nondescript brown with worn down heels. He walked the aisle, between the machines, his gait slow and heavy. From time to time, he picked up one of the finished pieces for inspection. He looked at it critically, bringing it closely to his eyes and peering at it from behind his wire-rimmed glasses. His glasses were always sliding down his very small, somewhat tipped up nose. He was constantly pushing them back up with a quick, impatient motion of his hand with an expression of annoyance on his face.

 

Most of the time he just threw the inspected piece back into the tray and continued down the aisle without even looking at me. Never in any way did he acknowledge my presence. As a civilian, he was not permitted to talk to the prisoners and we were warned not to speak, under any circumstances, to the civilians. If he found that there was something wrong with the inspected piece, he would just motion me to move away from the machine. He worked on it, adjusting its controls and sometimes taking out the cutting tool to sharpen it. I watched him bent over the grinding wheel, fascinated by the stream of brilliant sparks coming from under his hands like a tail of mysterious comet. I watched him carefully set the tool back in the holder. His hands were big with long strong fingers, somewhat out of proportion with his thin, slightly stooped body. Their skin, crisscrossed with many black lines, indicated years of exposure to factory dust and cutting oils permanently embedded in its pores. When finished with the adjustments, he would just step back and motion to me to resume work.

 

Once, upon finishing his inspection and just about ready to leave, he gave me a short glance. He was much taller than I was, so I had to look up to him to catch it. Our eyes have met for the briefest of instances. He looked at me sternly, from above, with watery blue eyes through his wire rimmed glasses. The eyes of the guards have always projected hostility or cold indifference. His showed a spark of interest so short that I was not sure if it was only my imagination fed by a craving for some signs of friendliness in this inhuman, hostile environment.

 

Just as he finished adjusting the cutting tool and was ready to leave, the siren went off announcing the noontime break. It was a bitter cold winter. The walls of the building were partially destroyed and the wind was enveloping us with frigid, numbing gusts. A few steps from me, an old oil drum with some charcoal glowing in it was set up. I went up to that makeshift stove to soak up at least some of its warmth. The old inspector was now in his corner, slowly opening his lunch box as if following some sacred ritual. From it, he took out a small package wrapped in brown paper. He opened it with great care and with that unhurried motion, characteristic of someone very tired, took a small bite.

 

I could smell it! It was fresh bread! I could not take my eyes off him, sitting on his toolbox with the open lunch pail balanced in his lap, slowly, bite after bite, eating away his sandwich. When the last bite was gone, he slowly crumbled the brown wrapping paper into an almost perfect ball, got up, and walked up to a nearby trash barrel. When he raised his hand to throw in the paper ball, he held it in the air just an instant longer than necessary. At that instant, like commanded by an irresistible force, our eyes have met. He threw the paper ball in, closed the lunch pail, and slowly walked away without giving me as much as another glance.

 

An unexplained urge drove me toward the trash barrel, but a guard was watching me. In a moment of opportunity, I darted to the barrel, bent down into it, grabbed the brown paper ball, and quickly shoved it under my striped prisoner’s jacket. Within a second, I was back at my workstation. The guard did not notice anything. With one hand on the wheel of the machine, I tried with the other to pry open the paper under my jacket. I felt something soft. I smelled it before realizing what it was. It was a big chunk of soft, fresh bread.

 

From that day on, every day, the old Austrian tool setter brought with him two extra thick slices of bread, thinly covered with lard. Every day he wrapped it in paper and at the end of his lunch break threw it into the trash barrel. Every day I darted to retrieve it as soon as he moved sufficiently away so that no one in any way could suspect that he was helping a prisoner. Never did he speak to me, and never did I dare to speak to him. Between us, there was a form of a silent covenant that continued for the next four months. More than once did I wonder who he was. Did he have a family or did he live alone? What made him help me when no one else tried? Why did he pick me from the hundreds of prisoners working in the factory? Was he really just an old tool setter or was he a God-sent angel trying to save me from dying of starvation?

 

One day, the following spring, we were not marched to the factory. Instead, a line of covered trucks rolled into the St. Valentin slave labor compound. We were herded into the trucks and taken back to the Mauthausen death camp. We were unloaded in front of barrack number six and shoved inside the wooden structure. There, weakened by the prolonged starvation, most of us just fell on the rough-hewn boards of the bunks. The doors slammed shut plunging us into total darkness.

 

Being locked there day after day without food or water, I lost track of time. Next to me was a young boy faintly mumbling something in a language that I could not understand. I think it was Hungarian. He was very weak. Sometimes he tried to speak to me, but most of the time he just lay there, breathing shallowly, semiconscious. A few days later, he stopped moving altogether and his shrunken body just lay there motionless, cold and stiff, next to mine.

 

The air in the locked barrack grew very bad. It became harder and harder to breathe. As days passed more people quietly expired. It was impossible to distinguish between those who were still alive and those who were not. Like most of those who still showed signs of life, I stayed half-delirious and half-awake. The vision of the tall, old tool setter was keeping me up not allowing me to take the plunge into the final sleep. I almost felt his presence, right next to me, looking at me sternly from behind his wire-rimmed glasses.

 

Suddenly a loud explosion shook the wooden structure of barrack number six. The huge, barn-like doors at the end opened with a reluctant screech. The interior of the barrack was flooded with light brighter that the sun itself. I had to raise my hand to cover my eyes; the light was painful. I wanted to get up but could not muster enough strength. I have just succeeded to raise my head a little.

 

In the sunlit opening stood a tall, helmeted figure. The backlit silhouette looked like some supernatural creature from another world. Through the constant hum in my ears, as if coming from a great distance through dense fog, I heard the words, “Oh my God” spoken in English. At that moment, for me, the war had ended. Political prisoner number 86916 has made it.

 

Now, many years later, the physical injuries have healed. I have regained the use of all the fingers in my left hand but one. The visible scar continuously reminds me that prisoner number 86916 and the camps were all real. The struggle to survive in the now “normal” world has suppressed any attempts to unlock memories of the past. Occasionally though, uninvited, they race through my head and I can clearly see the slightly bent figure of the old tool setter peering at me sternly from behind his wire-rimmed glasses.

No memorials have ever been built for him, his name is nowhere engraved, there have been no speeches made in his honor. Let this short story commemorate this unknown hero’s determination to try to save a life and be a witness to his quiet defiance of the Nazi oppressors.

Nathan Gutman, a Holocaust survivor, has written fiction and nonfiction short stories about the Holocaust, lives with his wife in Simsbury, Connecticut. They have three children and thirteen grandchildren.

Voices of Hope was recently given permission to share articles written from Holocaust Survivor Nathan Gutman, of Simsbury, CT. During the Holocaust he was in the ghetto of Krakow, and camps of Plaszow (Poland), St. Valentin and Mauthausen (Austria).