Recently, my father was moved to try writing and publishing his story about Braunschweig, a German officer who saved his life. He wrote that story (and a second one about his father's experience) in German and I translated them for him into English. I hope to write some more memories/stories that family members have related to me, but for now these two will hopefully add to the record.
If you would like to communicate with my father, you can email me Carol Chaia Halpern and I will get the message to him by snail mail.
This is a photo sent by Bruce Reisch, a cousin of Mendel Halpern.
Bruce wrote: Going left to right we have Laurie Bernardo (my sister in law), Hilda Halpern (wife of Mendel), Mendel Halpern (the author), and Kim Stone Reisch (my wife). The photo was taken in early January, 1998, shortly before Mendel's 88th birthday
My family was among the multitudes who lived in one of these stalls. I am not sure what the name of the village was. Either Huston or Schemilov, but the exact location is not that important. It was at one of these huge gates that my father sat one day. He was sitting on a huge stone that was positioned to prevent the stall door from closing with the wind. This stone was a regular spot for him. He used to sit there day in and day out, hoping that one day he would be saved by the God sent Messiah. Avrum, his son in law, was the family care taker. He used to sneak out of the Kolchoz every day, in an attempt to exchange some clothes for vegetables and half a pail of bad soup (brihe) in the village. That was the nourishment for the day, and this was the way that days, weeks, months, and sometimes years passed by. One's life depended on finding something to put in one's mouth to still that deadly hunger.
It was on such a day that Avrum once again went to the village to exchange something for half a pail of bad soup. The soldiers were there to control the Jews who were living under these horrific conditions: not only not fit for humans but also unfit for animals. It was under these conditions that Jews died on a daily basis and eventually the dead and decomposing bodies were placed in a pile just outside the stall. On this day, as the soldier came to check that the people were there, Avrum arrived with the half pail of "nourishment" for the family. The soldier noticed him and said: "Hey, hey, hey, where are you coming from and what do you have there? Show me!" As Avrum put the pail down to show him its contents, the soldier kicked the pail, spilling the soup. The hearts of those who witnessed this, including my father's, cramped up with anguish about the loss of their long awaited meal. The soldier, however, was still not satisfied. He said: " You Jew, you know that for this I am supposed to shoot you?" Avrum suddenly saw a solution to his misery and said: "Shoot me".... and the worst in human form reached for the gun on his back, and shot Avrum. He was taken to the pile of dead when my father went over to him and Avrum uttered: "Daddy see what he did to me..." Then Avrum closed his eyes forever. The situation was dreadful. My sister Schendel who was Avrum's wife was dying herself and was barely conscious due to hunger and disease and was in agony, and my oldest brother Schaye was unconscious as he was beaten severely by a peasant who was trying to impress his girlfriend.
Hungry, and desperate, my father and those who were still alive went to sleep. The next morning, Avrum's body was eaten beyond recognition, and 2 days later, my sister's body was added to the pile of dead. Jewish flesh was the food for the local dogs as well as for other carnivors. The situation of my family was desperate. My nephews Lazer and Chaim who were 10 and 8 years old, took over Avrum's job. They took the pail, camouflaged it with a shirt that belonged to Avrum and went into the village to look for food.
These few days were the worst in my father's life there in the Lager and until the end of the war. The children who took over the caretaking job learned and were inventive. Soon they also learned to collect twig buds in the woods and these served as nourishment. This is how it went on until one day when cannons were heard from afar. Then, it was no longer dangerous to go into the woods, and the peasants made a better soup, and those who were murderers wanted to put on a different mask. It is no wonder that the Jews welcomed the Red Army, for they became the Messiah that my father had waited for on that stone in front of the stall.
Those Jews who could get up and follow in the foot steps of the red army
managed to get home. But my father and the remaining family were not capable.
They remained in the stall for another while. The stall was left with fewer and
fewer people and those remaining had so few clothes on that it was not possible
to appear on the street in this fashion. One day, an acquaintance appeared at
my residence in Sokolovka, and told me that he had seen my father and my family
and that they were not capable of getting to my place on their own. I paid him
to bring my family to me. After 3 days my loved ones appeared. They were all in
terrible condition. I recognized my father only by his beard. All the others
were unrecognizable. They were all starved and full of lice. Within 3-5 weeks
they were recovered, normal people and decided to go home. On the way from
Sokolovka to Krijopol, as I accompanied them on their trip home, I asked my
father about his hardships during the war and that's when he told me of these
horrific times I described above.
I am an old man of 88+ with trembling hands and health status leaving much to be desired. Besides I don't have much to write about regarding the holocaust since I didn't suffer nearly the way others did. My memorable recollections are that I was at shotgun point five times and like a miracle didn't get shot.
I would like to relate one particular such incident.
It was in Feb or March 1943 when I worked as a wood model maker in the sugar factory in Sokolovka (in the Ukraine), and was under the supervision of the local Jandarm (village police). One day the manager of the factory approached me and told me to "come". I was barely out of the door when I noticed that across the way there were 3 very tall horses with riders. As I came nearer, I discovered that there was an officer, a subordinate, and a soldier. I stopped about 5 meters from them, when the officer asked: "Do you speak German?" I said "yes". He said : "come along". I walked about 50 meters behind them, and at some point they stopped, they dismounted and the soldier took care of the horses. Then the officer told me that I will help them find housing for the officers. I said: "certainly". I took them to the houses where the white collar workers of the factory (such as bookkeepers and engineers) lived. This was the best housing available which also had vacancies.
After about an hour, when most of the officers had rooms, the subordinate officer looked at me and said: " What are you that you speak German so well?" I said: "I am a Jew". My response became my death sentence. He immediately had his revolver in his hand and as he cocked it and directed it to my head, the officer's hand pressed on his arm and pushed it down saying "No, no, no"... and directed him (the subordinate officer) to go help the others settle in. Then the officer said to me: "Now show me where you live". In that moment I almost lost consciousness as I believed that now I will not only lose my own life, but also that of my wife and young child. I followed the orders, bringing the officer to my apartment which was not too far away. I had a bedroom and kitchen in an apartment building that at the time was kept by the sugar factory for their specialists but dated to the days of the tsar. We climbed the steps to the first floor and I knocked my code knock on the door. This knock was a signal for my wife that it is me and it is safe to open the door. As soon as I knocked, she responded "zofort Mendel- coming". Hearing German astounded the officer. He walked in and saw the baby crawling on the floor and asked my wife: "How old is the baby?" She said: "9 months". Then he said: "The same as the time spent in the womb". He liked it here: everything was clean and neat and he said: "I would like to come visit some evenings for us to chat". Then he asked for a sheet of paper but as we didn't have one he pulled one out of his leather briefcase and wrote: "This apartment may not be taken over" and then signed Braunschweig. He said "attach this to your door and no-one will disturb you". The tight chains around my heart loosened up a bit and I could breathe a bit more easily.
The officer then asked me why my face was so swollen. I told him that I have an impacted tooth and he said that he would send me to a military company doctor. He told my wife that he would give orders to the field kitchen to provide food for us and special food for our son.
The officer, who was the head veterinarian, called his underling and told him to bring me to the doctor. A few nights later I was informed that he and a few of his subordinate officers wanted to come over to chat. The cook Fritz made egg liqueur and it was a very pleasant evening. We stayed together till 11 PM with no one getting drunk. We said good bye nicely/politely. This was the last time I saw Braunschweig though he left a powerful and deep impression on us.
Now I have to return to the time that he sent me to the doctor. As I told the doctor that I am in a great deal of pain and that I can barely sleep at night, he apologized and said that there was nothing he could do for me but that perhaps the dentist Munch could help me. So we went 3 houses away where the dentist opened his office just for me. He seemed helpless as he said that he couldn't give me an injection (anesthesia) due to my severe swelling and that the pain of extracting the tooth would be great. I told him that the pain was great anyway and that I am prepared to let him extract the tooth without any anesthetic. After he pulled the tooth, I sat on the chair semiconscious and the dentist said that this is the first time he saw such a case. The soldier told me that he had orders to to take me back to the doctor. After telling the doctor that my tooth was pulled, he sat me down and gave me a cup of strong black coffee and two pills to take on the spot and two for later. After I recovered a bit he told me to go home and rest. In the evening he said he would send his soldier to bring me back.
That evening he spoke about all kinds of topics including Hitler and his view of the Jews or rather the question/problem of the Jews. He told me that he has a jewish sister-in-law and how his colleagues moved her from one hospital to another where they repeatedly broke her leg bone in order to keep her "safe" and alive. This and subsequent conversations lasted late into the night. It was that way for about two weeks. One night the doctor put his hand on my shoulder and said: "tomorrow we are leaving/withdrawing take good care of yourself and if you survive write to me Dr. Ernst Hermann in Heidelberg". He shook my hand and that was the end.
About sixteen years later when I came to Israel I wrote to Dr. Ernst Hermann and got an immediate response leading to a regular correspondence until he died. I still have his last letter to me and the returned Christmas card that I sent him. I also have papers/articles that he wrote. When I went to visit Germany a number of years later, I went to Heidelberg and visited with his former landlady. She promised to help me find Dr. Hermans' grave. A year later we went to the cemetery but were unsuccessful in finding his grave. The cemetery overseer who had the plot map told us of the location where the grave should be. We worked hard until we found the grave stone which was overgrown with weeds. We washed the stone and placed the flowers on it. Then I recited the two prayers for the dead: "El maale rachamim and kaddish". I said goodbye as if it were my father's grave.
I didn't stop in my attempts to find Braunschweig. I wrote to the magazine "Stern" in Hamburg but with no success. My encounters with the police were also fruitless as they looked at me with the suspicion that I am seeking a Nazi criminal and disguising my search by saying that I am looking for a good man. All attempts failed until I contacted the "Red Cross" in the US. They contacted the Red Cross in Munich who made my name, address, and telephone number available to the public. One day I got a phone call from a German doctor named VonBraunshweig who knew that his father belonged to an organization dealing with horses but he didn't think that it was possible that the man I am looking for was his father. After numerous further conversations, Dr. Von Braunschweig recommended that I get in touch with the German Veterinary Society in Bonn. He gave me the address, I wrote a letter, and I got an answer. Once again I had to retell my story. The results were negative. The head of the society, Mr. Rosener said that there was one more possibility: "Let me translate your letter into German and to publish it." I agreed and sure enough I got a response fairly quickly form a Dr. Enzel who said that he knew Wilhelm Braunschweig, that he took the veterinary boards with him in Berlin and then was in the same military company with him. He also said that he knew that Wilhelm moved to California after the war. He asked that if I found out anything I should let him know.
This information led to a search that my son and I conducted over the phone during the summer of 1995. With tremendous excitement we found the veterinarian Wilhelm Braunschweig, the man who pushed down his subordinate officer's arm holding the loaded shotgun aimed at my head. He asked me for my address and invited me and my wife to come visit. He sent me smoked salmon which he himself caught in the Pacific. A short time after our first phone conversation, he told me that he had jaundice. I wanted to go visit him but he advised against it. I sent him a gift and after receiving it he called me and asked: "Mendel what did you do? I almost fell off my chair with surprise."
He traveled to Caracas and Mexico to specialists. He wanted to live. But on March 3, 1996 he died. He was cremated, and his ashes were strewn in the ocean in the area that he enjoyed fishing.
While Braunschweig was still alive, I contacted the Jewish organization "IAD VASHEM" which deals with holocaust related matters. Presently I submitted the paper work and requested that this Nazi officer be considered for the "Righteous of the Nations" award. This is currently in process.
This is where the story of Braunschweig ends, the story of a German soldier in uniform, a man who risked his own life to save the life of a Jew.
[ I feel that both Dr. Hermann and Braunschweig were pure minded/hearted. ( edler gesinung ) I am grateful to all the people and organizations that helped me find Dr. Braunschweig and am still in touch with some of them. ]
This story may be justly difficult and alienating for many Jews, after all that occurred during the Nazi regime. The horrifying scenes such as those that took place on Nie Wiederkehrs street in Treblinka were much more common place than the experience that I described. There, nude men and women walked to their death. This beautiful tree lined street was named so because when you walked it, you never returned.... it led to the gas chambers. The horror of that street went beyond the nude walking to their deaths. On that street stood a murderer who ripped babies out of mother's arms, grabbed them by their foot and spun them around above his head. Then, with great force he smashed the baby's head on a chopping block . This is the kind of horror that people wrought.
People were so hungry that when the general in Stalingrad came to the bunker to tell a man to go out and take over the command of the soldiers, he told him that he would go only if the general gave him half a loaf of bread. Numerous members of my own family were among the multitude of children and adults who died of starvation. Naftule Boiman, a religious God-fearing Jew, who was a friend of the family, told me of how he witnessed his daughter's death of starvation. That night, his child begged him to look again in the bread basket to see if he could find a few crumbs and then she died. How could God, if there is one, let so much horror come to pass?!
It seems that the Germans weren't forced into this. Professor Goldhagen
describes in his book, "Hitler's Willing Executioners", how in a
military company only two out of many decided to not go out and shoot Jews for
entertainment. In other words, most chose to murder while few found other ways
to occupy themselves. He describes how 300 Christian women demonstrated for 3
days in order that their Jewish husbands be released from prison. On the fourth
day they were released. Thus, some people made different choices but too many
were happy with the Nazi regime. Drs. Wilhelm Braunschweig and Ernst Hermann
were among them. These are some of the people that displayed a higher
consciousness and human decency. Many years will pass before the world will
serve justice and reckon with the atrocities of the Nazis and the suffering of
the Jewish people. With the analysis of WWII more and more people realize that
the solutions to our problems and human difficulties are only freedom and
respect for each other.
One day, my wife told me that Moses, an acquaintance of ours, told her that he saw her sister Rita with her son and mother pass by in a convoy and that they stayed in the Zibolovka Lager overnight. Since we hadn't seen the family in quite some time, we decided to find our way to Zibolovka to find them. Our landlady convinced me to take my ax along as evidence that I work in the Kolchoz. Zibolovka was not too far away, about 6-7 kilometers. We made it by foot just as it got dark, and managed to find the family. We embraced, and mother cried bitterly. She said that now that she saw us, she no longer wants to live. I don't know how long we stayed together, but soon we needed to return home in the dark. That was the last time we saw mother who died of starvation.
We had barely walked a kilometer and found ourselves in front of a soldier holding a rifle. Stop Jews, where are you going? As he looked at me he noticed the ax under my jacket. What do you have here? he asked. I told him that I work in the kolchoz and use this tool to shape the tree trunks for the bridge repair. The soldier believed none of it and while he hit me and kicked me said: Jew, you came to harm me with the ax. My wife placed herself between me and the soldier to protect me and that prompted the soldier to slap and kick her. I was on my knees when he kicked me in the chest and I fell on my back. Suddenly, I saw something horrifying: the soldier drew his rifle and pointed it at me. At the same time there was a deafening scream from the Lager. This prompted the soldier to sling his rifle over his shoulder and move swiftly in the direction of the screams. We got up and tried to make our way back as swiftly as we could, although it seemed to take a long time. I remember that at one point my wife asked me if we still have a long way, and I told her that we were just about there.
Our bed made of wood boards provided the recovery from this incident.
On my way to a coworker's house to get the key to the shop, I passed a yard in which there was a 17-19 year old teen chatting with a Russian S.S. soldier. The teen was leaning against the fence portal to this small house. I suspected trouble but could do nothing about it. I continued on my way, fetched the key from my coworker and returned. I was barely 10 steps past the soldier when I heard him load his rifle. I stopped, turned around and saw him aim at me. At that moment, I heard a gate screeching open and saw two children who were about 3 or 4 years old, walk out of a yard right in front of me. That put them in the firing line and it temporarily stopped the soldier from discharging his rifle. I had my arms up and offered the soldier to come closer to him when another miracle happened. A factory coworker came in our direction as I neared the soldier. The soldier stopped the man and asked him: Do you work in the factory? He responded: Yes. Do you know this man? Yes. What does he do? He is a carpenter/cabinet maker. Thus ended this tense situation.
I told the soldier that I am a Jew and that I was brought from the Lager to work here without proper compensation, barely able to feed myself and my wife. Soon the soldier told me to go home. Every step was difficult as I was in fear, and my body felt as if the bullets were coming at me and making holes in it. I got home and sat down on a low/child's chair and told my wife what happened to me. Even before I finished my story, my wife looked out the window and saw the soldier approaching. I tried to get up but couldn't, as my legs felt as if they were disconnected at the knees and couldn't support me. Soon we heard him knocking on the door in a civil fashion. My wife answered and opened the door. The soldier came in. What I mostly remember from my conversation with the soldier is that he said to me: You will live for a long time. I asked him why he thought so and his reply came as he pulled out the round of ammunition from his rifle. He said: You see this round with 72 bullets? This is what I was going to empty into you; and in that moment, an angel put two small children in front of you, causing my hand to freeze. He continued, now come with me, I will shoot that dumb teenager (the teenager had bad mouthed me and told the soldier that I am Romanian). I begged and tried to tell the soldier that I didn't think that this was a good idea because I had to live with the villagers after he left and this would make it quite difficult as the teen's family would take revenge. The soldier seemed convinced. He appeared very tired and his eyes were practically closing. I offered him my bed and he accepted as he felt safe in our apartment. He fell asleep with his rifle by his side and the round of ammunition under his body.
Neither my wife nor I knew when he left our apartment.
Even so, the situation got worse for me because most of the employees at the factory were against the Soviet Union. They feared that I badmouthed them, and therefore they mistreated me. The solution came one day. A military order arrived, demanding that all eligible men between the ages of 17 and 50 appear in the recruiting center in Krijopol. Since I had security in the factory in that I couldn't be moved, I didn't fall into that category. None-the-less, I volunteered. The factory could not stop me from this. Even at the train station, some people were wondering why I was going. I told them that I was going voluntarily. As I came in front of the committee and gave my name, they already knew that I was an essential employee of the factory. I told them about the goings on at the factory and how I was mistreated. They promised me that from now on things would be different, and told me that if I want to help the Soviet Union, I should go back to the factory. I left the recruiting center full of hope, and indeed it was justified, as I was treated better after this.
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