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Surviving the Holocaust

Walter Plywaski was just 10 years old in January 1940 when he was forced by the Germans into the urban concentration camp of the Lódz Ghetto in Poland. After hiding with his family for about one month, he was forced to endure both the Auschwitz and 7 Dachau Nazi concentration camps, where he experienced first-hand the horrors of life during the Holocaust. 

Plywaski, whose original Polish name is Władysław Pływacki, today lives in Boulder, Colo., shared his story with the Anythink community during a special presentation in September 2013. He has kindly agreed to put some of the details of his experience in writing for this issue of SPARK to help create awareness and urge readers to confront prejudice thinking. 

The following essay details part of Plywaski’s journey from the Lódz Ghetto to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp, and the people who played a role in his life during this time. 

(photo: Mark Leffingwell/courtesy of The Daily Camera)

Disclaimer: The following content contains adult themes that may be disturbing to some readers. 

Poland, 1944 

Stanisław Jakobson was my cousin by marriage to Janina Fajertag, the daughter of Felicja Fajertag née Pływacki, my father Maks’ sister. Janina was tall, slim, blonde and blue-eyed. She was well-educated and a very graceful woman whom I adored, while I greatly disliked the cold and self-important Stanislaw. Felicja was very active in the Lódz Jewish community’s orphanage work before the war; this put her in contact with Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski who was ordered by the Germans to become the ghetto’s head one month after they invaded Poland in 1939.

The Fajertag and Jakobson families lived together in the same nice house (like a small villa) with a small garden and fruit orchard at the edge of the ghetto’s  Marysin district. It is obvious that the two families belonged to the “nobility” of the ghetto, all due to the connection with Rumkowski through Felicja, who was named as the director of the ghetto’s orphanage. Similarly, Stanislaw was named to be the chief judge of the ghetto and member of its governing body (Beirat), as well as a member of the deportation commission. Stan was corrupt and unfaithful to Janina by having several female lovers whom he “bought” with protection – extra food and good quarters.

Felicja fairly often allowed me and my adopted brother Wlodzimierz to pick some fruit from the trees in her orchard and also would smuggle us into the orphanage she was running, which was receiving a great amount of food in comparison to the ghetto rations of 600 calories per person per day. We would stay there at most two days, completely filling our bellies.

At the end of July 1944, my father, mother, brother and I hid ourselves in the attic of an abandoned house very near my aunt Felicja’s house. The proximity to her house gave us an additional advantage of not being a target for the Jewish police who were assisting the Germans hunting us “to be to the East.” Her house, under orders from Chaim Rumkowski’s head of the Jewish police in the Lódz Ghetto, was not to be searched by the Jewish cops. And so we made very sure to make it look even more abandoned than it was by leaving broken glass and dried human feces on the staircase. We also never cooked inside the house since the Germans would come in and put their hands on the top of the stove to see if it was warm; this would definitely give us away.

When they tried to look through the square opening into the attic with their very bright flashlights, they could not see us because we were lying flat without any motion or sound between very thick beams of the attic where we had previously emptied of insulation to create the room for us. Nevertheless, this was a terrifying experience because the temperature in the attic was somewhere on the order of 115°F, and we didn’t dare to sneeze, fart or cough. We only relieved ourselves at night after the German hunters and their Jewish police helpers quit for the night.

Eventually, by the end of July or the beginning of August 1944, Felicja told us that her protection was gone and that she, together with Stanislaw and Janina Jakobson, were giving up and marching over to the Radegast (Radogoszcz) railhead especially created by the Germans for this mission; it was ready and waiting for everybody to be taken to Auschwitz.

For us, the Plywacki family, this meant the end of our hiding out – we were running out of physical and psychological strength. Thus the Plywackis, Stanislaw and Janina Jakobson with their adopted daughter from Prague, and my aunt Felicja Fajertag, took a few belongings and a little bit of food and marched to the horrible fate that awaited us at the end of the rail journey. 

It was probably the first week of August 1944 when we arrived at the Radegast station. There were many Jewish policemen here and there, all of them thoroughly mixed in with German SS troops and officers with dogs for whom the Germans carried very cruel, leather-covered, steel rod whip-leashes. My family and I mounted the freight car before the Jakobsons and Felicja Fajertag. As I remember it, they were delayed by orders of a Jewish policeman on the platform of the rail station. Eventually, he allowed Janina with their 15-year-old adopted daughter Anna Marie, Stan’s brother Jakub and my aunt Felicja on to the freight car but kept back Stanislaw, whom he started to whip mercilessly with a dog whip he borrowed from an SS trooper. This lasted somewhere on the order of five to 10 minutes, and by then Stan looked like a bleeding beefsteak. He was then thrown into the freight car with us, and the doors were slammed shut.

Together with my relatives in that freight car were some people we didn’t know personally, a total of about 80 people in a car designed for a maximum of 40 soldiers. I remember feeling a strange perception of crazy relief as the train pulled out from Radegast, especially when looking out through a small rectangular window near the roof of the car, laced by barbed wire, and for the first time in years seeing green grass and breathing the fresh air from the outside. After a while, both Anna and I were holding hands and looking out through that tiny window, standing on bundles of clothing. Anna was about a year older than I, taller with brown hair and eyes, well-built and muscular. She was at the time suffering from a broken out gland underneath her chin, possibly from a TV infection; that cost her her life in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

It took us two or three days before we arrived at night on the selection platform of Auschwitz-Birkenau. When the door slammed open, the scene before us was that of Hades populated by SS troopers, dogs and strange people with shaved heads dressed in blue-and-white-striped uniforms. The air was full of horrifying stench of burnt meat, and the sounds were those of the Germans screaming, “Raus, raus, raus!” – Out, out, out!

We had to jump down from the freight car, some of us with assistance from the uniformed prisoners. There was bedlam all over the place; screams and shouts, shots, barking dogs, barking Germans and loud wailing among us, the new arrivals. In the distance I could see two huge dark red pillars of fire. Within minutes of getting out of the wagons, the order from the Germans and their assistants was: “Women and children left, men right!” There was no way to avoid it.

My father Maks, who already had some information as to the procedure at Auschwitz, had previously told me that I must not go with the women and children since most of them would be murdered. Although I was tempted to do so, I did not run to say goodbye to my mother (!). I remember that one of us asked a blue-striper how we are to get out of here; he simply and mutely pointed at the two pillars of fire and shook his head.

My father, brother and I stood in a row of five to be “examined” by an SS officer, a physician, standing in front of the very long column of people. He would point at someone to go to the left or to the right and, if someone was too slow-moving, he would hook the top of his walking stick over the man’s neck like a sheepherder and pull him aside, thus consigning him to be murdered by cyanide gas in the gas chamber. As I looked around, I realized that Stan Jakobson was not with us; he was obviously too damaged for the Germans to think they could further exploit him by their program of “death by starvation and overwork.” I do remember seeing Jakub Jakobson standing with us in a five-man row ahead of us.

It is logical to assume that the reason my father, brother and I were not selected for death during this procedure was that we still had some fat and muscle on our bodies, due to our advantages in the Lodz Ghetto. Instead, we were chosen to be processed into the quarantine barracks of Birkenau. Prior to that, we were marched into a huge building where they stripped us naked and then turned us over to quite a few clumsy “barbers” clipping off the hair from our heads and body completely. We were then run into very large room with many steel pipes and showerheads. I, like several others, wondered what will come out of the showerheads: poison gas or water? To everyone’s relief, it was water.

While still quite naked, we were run out of the shower room to be given our prison clothing – really old used shirts, jackets, and pants with streaks of red paint down the back and legs. Many of the jackets revealed their origin: They were unfaded by the sun areas on them in the shape of a Star of David. We didn’t really need to have anyone point out to us that the previous owners of the clothing were by now quite dead. We were also given some pieces of rags to use as socks on our feet and protect them from the mainly wooden-soled boots. There was no way to get the right size for the right person; later on, in the quarantine barracks, people started swapping different pieces of this clothing with each other to make a better fit.

The next morning, we were forced outside the barracks quite early and simply stood around looking at our surroundings and trying to orient ourselves. About the same time, across from us, was the women’s camp beyond a shallow ditch with barbed wire on both sides. We could see a very large group of women staring at us as we were at them. After a while we noticed among the women one whom we knew from the ghetto, and Maks took me and my brother by the hand and got closer to the barbed wire. Then, making a space between me and him, he pointed at it while moving his head up and down and the side, thus asking what happened with my mother Regina. The woman drew a hand across her throat, shook her head from side to side and then covered her eyes. Thus we found out that my mother Regina was murdered by cyanide in the gas chamber. We also couldn’t see Anna Marie Jakobson or my aunt Felicja, and therefore assumed they were also dead. A bit later on we ran into Jakub Jakobson who told us that Stan was sent to the gas chamber. 

Editor’s note:

Walter Plywaski’s presentation at Anythink coincided with the display of “Fighting the Fires of Hate: America and the Nazi Book Burnings,” an interactive exhibition produced by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Plywaski’s speech drew over 300 people, and highlighted not only his time in the Polish ghetto and concentration camps, but also his escape and transition to the United States. This essay provides a glimpse of just one piece of that long journey. Plywaski continues to share his story at presentations and with journalists, comprehensive versions of which can be found online. To the crowd at Anythink Wright Farms, he left us with the following message:

“Don’t be an evildoer, and don’t be a bystander to evil.” 

Want to know more?
To access resources that help students, parents and educators learn more about the Holocaust, please visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website at ushmm.org. The museum provides materials and guidance to help individuals gain information and a better understanding of this important historical event and its impact on our world.