Horrors of Buchenwald still vivid after 47 years

by Bill Sarnoff

Article published on March, 1th 1992 in "The Register-Guard", Eugene, Oregon, U.S.A.

Buchenwald: A pile of corpses near the crematories

I met him only once, for no longer than 30 minutes, yet his image remains as clear to me today, 47 years later, as though we had lunched together only this afternoon.

His name was Avram Lewin, and we met on a mild afternoon in late April 1945. A former rope maker from Antwerp, Belgium, Avram had only recently been freed from the Buchenwald concentration camp, liberated earlier that month by American troops of the 80th Division. I was one of a small cader of volunteers assigned to help interview and classify survivors of the camp. Like me, my compatriots were all second generation Americans still fluent in our familie's native languages. Most numerous were those who spoke Polish and Bohemian, followed by Italian, German and one chap who spoke a peasant's Russian. In our volunteer group, none spoke French, or Flemish. I spoke Yiddish, as did Avram.

Avram learned rope weaving from his grandfather and father, who had established themselves as quality ropemakers to the French and Belgian shipping industry. Their hemp curing and weaving shop was located in Antwerp, where the Albert canal empties into the North Sea. Local ship chandlers know and relied on their ropes, and the family enjoyed a good reputation for quality products. Like his father, Avram had the physical strength to hand-weave thick hauser line, and at age 17 showed strong promise for carrying on the family business.

When he first shuffled into my interview cubicle, the only distiguising feature I noted was a dispirited soul with a lower jaw radically askew. His accompanying medical chart stated he was 6 feet 2 inches tall, had tuberculosis and weighed 81 pounds - exactly 100 pounds less that his original weigh when taken prisoner. Avram was my first interviewee. He had two traits in common with the scores who were to follow. He responded in a monotone and never smiled.

This was Avram's story:

On a cold sleeting night in late November 1941, Avram and his family were hearded out of their home by the German platoon that had invaded his village the morning before. His parents, two sisters, an older brother and he were taken inland by truck to Aachen on the easter border of Belgium, and then by cattle car to Buchenwald concentration camp.

"When they prodded us into the truck, my father demanded they be respectful of my mother," recalled Avram. "He was a large and powerful man, and fearing he could cause trouble, the Germans clamped heavy handcuffs on his wrists. During the two-day trip to the camp and for the two days following, when we were being processed, those restraints were never taken off."

When he mentioned the word "processed," Avram held up his right forearm to expose his green prison tattoo number.

His parents and older brother were shopped out a day or two later, never to be heard from again. Older sister Shana vowed she would rather die than be used in the field, and younger Tsivia trembled with her own comprehension of what lay in store.

"I went to their barrack at the end of the following day's working in the camp factory," continued Avram, "and what I saw turned me insane with rage".

"Both sisters were sitting in their coats on the lower metal cot they shared in a large unheated dormitory. Younger sister Tsivia had her arms around Shana's waist trying to comfort her older sister. Tsivia's eyes were screaming with fright," was the way Avram described the scene.

Despite the lone dormitory light, Avram immediately noticed that Shana's face bore heavy deep red-blue welts on the left side. Her right eye was bruised and swollen shut. Her blonde hair was caked with mud, and blood was trickling down one leg into her shoe.

"Who did this to you?"

"The guard in the brown uniform with the red nose," responded Shana through swollen lips.

"I went looking and found him," droned Avram. "I had large, strong hands from much rope weaving. I jumped on him and clamped my hands around his neck and squeezed with all my strength. He fell, and on his way down kicked my leg so that I lost my grip and, in that brief moment, screamed for help. Two other guards heard and came to his rescue and beat me with their clubs. They tied me to a fence post, and with truncheons, broke my jaw. I was not allowed to go to the infirmary, and as you see, it remains broken. I was the only experimented rope maker in that camp, else they surely would have shot me dead. The following day, despite my beating, I return to my sister's stalag. They were gone. I never learned where they were sent," concluded Avram.

That was the beginning for me, and while I was groping to comprehend that scene and that place, I was comforted to learn that two other interviewers in my billet were equally as naive. None of us knew then that Belsen and Buchenwald were "gentler" concentration camps where inmates were used for slave labor on minimal rations until their strength dwindled, and then shipped off to Auschwitz, Chelmno, Treblinka, Sobibor and Belzec, which were specifically designed and used as extermination camps.

I had heard the descriptive term "vacant eyes." Well, I saw it first hand, and when you experience it directly, the look smoulders in your brains and stay there. Those hollow eyes had such an impact on me that I forgot, I mean I totally forgot what I was expected to do next. Yes, we all had pads or regulation questionnaires and merely had to fill in the empty spaces. As for me, I had difficulty paying heed to pencil and paper because that diabolical world came on too fast.

"Be strong, stay with it," I said to myself. I tried, I really tried, but my eyes continued to puddle up and made embarrassing telltale stains on shirt, desk and printed forms. I wondered if Avram noticed.

"Haver, haver - friend, friend," I said to Avram, "What kept you going these terrible three years?"

"My mother's cooking," he responded. "Among the devastation that surrounded me," he explained, "to survive, I put my mind into a dream and recalled the dark, rich, thick beef stews amid the crisp vegetables my sisters picked from our garden and prepared that every day. My mother's thick blackberry pies, the sweet whipped cream and peach cobblers my brother, father and I enjoyed after a long stint at the family rope works. The fat goose with unlaid eggs in its belly that cooked firm during a long slow roast. That was all I had to cling to."

The rest of the interview remains a blur for me, although I think I managed to complete the remaining spaces on the formal US Occupational Forces questionnaire.

The initial fact-gathering interview was now over, but I couldn't let go. I felt an overwhelming kinship toward this poor soul and wanted, eagerly wanted, to do or say something to show him there were people in his world now who cared. In my service locker I had a carton of Camels, extra socks, candy bars, a turtleneck wool sweater, a silver picture frame purchased in Salerno and a leather-bound writing kit sent to me by my parents with matching pen and pencil. Any and all of it would be his if he would express any interest in them.

"Is there anything I can give you? Is there anything I can get for you? Is there anything I can do for you?" I asked as he rose unsteadily to leave. He looked beyond me with the same vacant stare and paused, lost in thought for what seemed like a long time.

Hesitantly, and with mounting difficulty, Avram's eyes made a fleeting contact with mine; I could only wonder what was going through his mind. He stammered, paused momentarily as though to gather his thoughts again, and finally spoke.

"Mr. Amerikanski, sir, would it be at all possible, do you think, and if it wouldn't trouble you too much, might I be able to have a hot cinnamon bun, with an extra spoonful of sugar?"

Bill Sarnoff