What work did you do in the ghetto?
In Warsaw I worked in a laundry for the Germans–they had a laundry in the camp–I worked in a street gang. And then one day they took five of us in a truck and we went on the other side of the river, there's a major river going through Warsaw, and they took us to a German army camp and we had to dig ditches. And there were, I don't know who arranged it, but they were were so brutal, of the five, three of the boys never made it, they beat the hell out of us, and 3 of the boys got killed, one there and then two that died a couple days later. That was about 1944. But we did road gangs. It would be better if you could get a job in the kitchen, but I never had that luck, because that's where at least there was some food you could steal.
Then I worked for quite awhile on the railroad yards to load and unload material for the German army. This was within the camp, right at the camp where we came in, there were the railroad yards and the Germans– we had to fill the trains with material we salvaged. The people who were on the trains were Polish citizens, they used to throw us some bread sometime and they could see what was happening to us. We worked all the time, but if you ask me if it was anything constructive? No.
Tell us more about the work did you did in Warsaw?
In Warsaw I worked in the laundry for a while. They took us outside of Warsaw in trucks to the German defense lines because they were preparing for the Russians, for the breakthrough, digging trenches. What else did we do in Warsaw? Polish bricks, a lot of polish bricks. I was also on a team for about two-three months, where we had to find transformers, you know like you see them here hanging on the telephone poles and the wiring from house to house. But there these were bigger ones and smaller ones. But we had to take these transformers and take them to the railroad yards to send them to Germany. And then to find scrap iron, and copper, and tin. It's all part of the war industry.
One day – and we burned thousands of bodies when we got there first – and a guy comes to me and he says, "Look what I found." You have to visualize a bombed building, and then it burned after the bombing, and he said, "I have some diamonds," he found on one of the bodies. He had four diamonds, and I said, "How many carrots?" He said, "It's about ten carrots." He said, "You want to buy it?" I said, "What do you want for yourself?" He said, "I want your bread for two days," or three days, I forgot. I said, "Uh uh [no]."
I had been there for a while, obviously, but the Hungarians would come in fairly recently, they were still "green" we called it. So, he goes and he finds someone from Hungary, and this guy hadn't been in the camps very long, and he saw these diamonds. So he says to this guy, "I'll give you these diamonds. I want your bread for three days," and I was watching, listening. So, he gave him the diamonds, he took the bread, the guy was eating, but the guy who got the diamonds died because he had no food for three days. So, I couldn't eat the diamonds, I was smart enough at that time that I knew it didn't do any good for carrots or diamonds. Almost ten carrots, four diamonds.
We always saw money on the streets constantly. People just lying there. Valuable art, whatever art people had. And money on the streets, sure, diamonds and gold. We found them in the rubble sometimes, on the dead bodies. What are you going to do with it? You can't eat a piece of metal, you can't eat diamonds. That didn't mean anything, there was no value. That's why there's no one who came out of the camp who brought any value with them because there was nothing, we didn't have anything. And you couldn't use it, it wasn't trading material.
In Warsaw, did you ever have any contact with non-Jews?
Yes. In Warsaw in the ghetto, we were there to demolish the ghetto. It was huge. There were 360,000 people, 375,000 people in the ghetto, even though before the war, that part of town had about twenty percent of that, but they brought them in from all over.
So the Germans made us salvage anything they could salvage, from transformers, to metals. And the bricks – these were all brick buildings – we had to polish bricks and they sold the bricks to Poles who came in there with a horse and buggy, long carts with a horse in front of it. You sold it to them. So, we saw them, and every so often they gave us piece of bread as long as the Germans didn't see it. But that was rare.
So there was contact but none of us could speak Polish. The first transport to Warsaw from Auschwitz I was on was 200-300 hundred people, and the condition was that none of them could speak Polish. They only took people in Western Europe – Holland, Belgium, France, Denmark, and parts of Germany – language wise. And then later on the Hungarians came there, there were some Greeks there, but no one was there who could speak Polish, so we had no way of talking to the civilians who came into the ghetto, but they were also controlled with armed guards.
And let's remember one thing, the biggest money maker for the German government was the Holocaust because we take six million people, they have wedding rings, they have gold teeth, they have clothing, they have money in their pockets, a little bit, and then all these buildings to demolish. That was the biggest moneymaker. I would venture to say that the Second World War would have been finished within a year and a half to two years had it not been for the Holocaust because that financed the Germans. That's why you hear today about all this gold they took to Switzerland. That's why the insurance companies, are the biggest thieves on earth because they sold the insurance companies [policies], and people came after the war and said, "My father had insurance, I know that." They said, "Where's your death certificate?" Well Auschwitz didn't give death certificates. So, this is still going on now.
The Holocaust was the biggest money making event for the Germans. If you had gold fillings, you were destined to be killed immediately because there were whole teams who did nothing else in the gas chambers after the Germans gassed them to take the gold out. Bags, and bags, and bags of gold. And the clothing – six million people, there're six million shoes. That's a lot of shoes for a country. The clothing, they sold them all over the world including South America. This was a big, big money making event for the Germans. That extended the war, in my opinion, by probably two years. Nobody talks about it but believe me.
We left our home twice, in Germany and Holland, we left our home. Everything was left there, the food and the closet. We couldn't take food with us because you could only take one backpack – they called it a work-sack – one backpack. That's it! No suitcases. Other parts of the world they had, maybe, suitcases but they didn't have this backpack.
I remember my father had to go to the bank with whatever little money he had, he had to take to the bank, and it was gone. I never got it back, I had no documentation. When I went there, they said, "No, we don't have anything."
How did you feel burning the ghetto where you knew a rebellion had taken place?
We didn't burn the ghetto, the ghetto was burning when we got there. We had to dynamite the ghetto, destroy the buildings. We had to salvage, like I said earlier. We had no choice. You're told what to do and you did it. The toughest part for us was burning all those bodies. And then the other issue. Last week was the 60th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and I spoke about it at Temple Emanu-El at the ceremony. The uprising was instigated by very few people. They knew that they didn't have a chance to live, they knew that. So they decided, "If I'm going to get killed, I'm going to take a few with me," Germans, they must have thought. When we got there all the bodies we saw was only part of it. I don't know how many but I would guess there were maybe a couple of thousand – at the most – young people in their late teens-early twenties, and some a little older, who dug bunkers two and three or four stories deep in the ghetto in Warsaw. And they took on the Germans. They killed as many Germans as they could. They held the Germans back a little bit, a few days, a few weeks at the most, not even a few weeks.
There was a war going on and when we were dynamiting the buildings to level it – I was in a dynamite team, and I remember vividly – then all of a sudden people came out from out of the bunkers because the dynamite – we had to place onto the tall walls, and they were four, or five, six story buildings, a lot of them – they came out and the Germans shot them immediately. We had to burn them. But there were several thousand who were in the bunkers who had some connection with the Polish underground, but it didn't do any good. There are books written about that, about the Warsaw uprising. That's a vivid story. Very heroic.