Can you talk a little about what the hunger was like?
Oh, I don't know what it was like. We didn't have food, and like I said, people died of hunger. I felt very strong that I had to preserve, I didn't eat the bread all at one time, it was about a piece like this, everyday if you're lucky. We had soup bowls, they put some soup in there which had sometimes some potato peels and some potatoes even. I was probably spoiled as a child because I had good food at home and I was a little chubby when I was arrested. I was healthy.
But I remember I used to have asthma when I was a child, usually in the summer during the hay season, it was hay-fever and asthma, as a child. When I got to the camp, the first camp, Westerbork, I had it one night, the first or second night in, and never had it again. If you ask me why, I can't answer why. I never had it again, I never had hay-fever, I never had any asthma again, but I had it every year as a child, not heavy but for a couple of weeks. I'm giving you all my secrets, but that's how it was, I can't explain why. I do, that's why I believe in God too, I have to believe in God. He helped me through all this.
Did you witness any type of resistance movement in the ghettos or camps?
In the camps? No, well there was the uprising in Warsaw, and I got there at the tail end. That's what you see in that movie, "The Pianist." No. Which in retrospect, why didn't we? We had no weapons, we had no strength, we were so hungry. I weighed 85 pounds when I got out, so there was no strength there. And we were scared to death, they had weapons, we had nothing, we had a soup bowl, you couldn't have a knife, you didn't have anything. On the other hand, there was no resistance, I never saw it. The only time there was some resistance was in Warsaw. And then there was once a resistance in one of the other camps – I think it was Sobibor – and they killed them all because there wasn't such thing as having weapons. People were weak, you don't have food, you're weak. You can barely walk. So there never was resistance, I never saw it.
Good question. I happen to believe very strongly in hygiene which I learned from my mother. She was very clean, I mean "household-wise" scrubbing all of the time and washing all of the time. When I got to Auschwitz somebody said to me, the same friend, he said, "Don't drink the water, the water has typhoid in it." So, what do you do? So he said, "Pick up a pebble," there was a pebble in the street, a little stone pebble. I picked up that pebble, I wiped it and I put it in my mouth. I had it all the way through the camps and that created enough saliva that I didn't get dehydrated. But we never drank the water there was an enormous amount of typhoid. The other thing, which was very prevalent, that's why a lot of people died, too, because of the type of food we got and the water we drank, diarrhea was a big killer.
To go back to Auschwitz – could you go into more detail about the rats, and what you did to try to stay clean?
In Auschwitz you had very little chance to do anything out of the ordinary because it was so controlled. The rats were because we slept in bunks and there was filth. There were no toilets, they had big barrels–like if you take a wine barrel and cut it in half, that kind of barrel–sitting in the barracks. They had always...two or four guys had to carry it out during the night, they made them sit there during the night. There was no hygiene. I know we never had showers or anything like that. Of course, like I said, there was no toothpaste or toothbrushes or anything. There was no such thing.
I remember more in Warsaw, which was the same situation, but we had a long period of snow there, because it's colder in Poland. I used to sneak out, and others too, sometimes, whenever we could and go out in the snow and roll ourselves in the snow, and wash ourselves down with the snow. If you had enough strength, you did that, as long as the Germans didn't see that. But if you didn't have enough strength, people died because of hygiene. Hygiene, to me – and I talk about it even outside of this milieu – people don't realize how important hygiene is. It saved my life.
My mother was very typical. Think about your grandmother [talking to a specific student], she was 105, right? Your great-grandmother, I mean. She was a very neat person. She taught her children, the same thing my parents taught me and my grandmother taught me – hygiene. Even though they didn't have fancy bathrooms like we have here, and even though in the olden days you didn't change your underwear and your shirts every day – which we all do – even once a week. I remember when I was a child, we didn't have a bathtub, we had a metal bucket – huge. Every Thursday night my father and mother used to take it into the kitchen and we kids were put in there. It was our bath – once a week. That's how people lived. That was hygiene. Now we take a shower every morning – which wasn't known, because there were no so-called 'showers' – you had a tub, a metal tub. I was taught – and it had to have helped me – how to stay clean.
The other thing that saved me, probably – there was – the water had typhoid in it. We knew that. By having that you also got immediately – and it happened a lot – a lot of people had diarrhea. My friend – the one I mentioned, the magician again – he had some experience, and he said, "Don't drink the water." What do you do? Cause you need [water]. He said, "Pick up a pebble." I picked up a pebble off the street, a little stone. I had that stone for three years. I had it in my mouth, all day long. It activated my saliva gland. He taught me that. That's why I never got that thirsty. That helps. Why do you think you guys take to chewing gum, right? What's the reason you take chewing gum? To activate your saliva gland, but they don't tell you that. They tell you it tastes good. It's because you activate your saliva gland. It's probably healthy. I don't like chewing gum, it's personal, I don't know, it doesn't mean anything to me. But young people, you see it more than older people. That pebble saved my life, I believe, because I didn't drink the water. If you drank the water you got typhoid and there was lots and lots of typhoid. Hygiene. I feel very strong about that.
Did you keep the pebble?
No, I lost it. When the war was over, we were liberated, I wanted to get rid of everything that reminded me of it. No. I wish I had. I thought about it. I wished I kept that pebble. It was a little stone and it worked. Others did too, I wasn't the only one. But not everybody did, apparently.
And I say, "Why did I survive?" I wanted to tell the story, I really had that will to live. That was all I wanted, to get out and tell the story. And hoping that I hadn't seen what I had seen with my parents and my sister. I went back when we went back to Holland, the Dutch government picked us up, the Dutch army in Dachau, I went back to Germany within weeks to see if my parents maybe had come back and were going to the old town where we were born at, instead of the new town where we had moved to, but they didn't come back. So, you hope. I am still hoping. I want to be 100 years old.
I believe that all of us, and I mean this sincerely, and I want to leave this message with you, everyone of us can make a difference in the world and in life, you got to try, even if they have no part in it. Every person can make a difference. I hope I have done a little bit of it, a minute little bit of it. You can make a difference by doing what I do with you. I wanted to tell the story. Now, there were lots of other people who wanted to tell their story but they didn't have a chance. I kept always, I never stood on the outside, I stayed on the inside of the columns, invisible. Now I am too visible at times, but I tried to be as invisible as possible. I think that may have saved part of it. And being at the right time, I mean on those marches, the death marches, I was on three death marches. But you keep on going and keep on going and there's will to live. I think even today people who have illnesses like cancer and others, some of these people live longer than others because they have the will to live. It's mental, it's all mental. I feel very strong about this and to encourage people to be strong.
Were there any particular rituals you did each day to survive?
We had to get out of the barracks, they woke you up at four in the morning, you had to get out and stand outside. We stood for days sometimes just to weaken your physical being and mental being. You stood there for days standing, and if you didn't stand up, you sat down, they'd kill you or beat you up, one or the other. It was total degrading you, from A through Z, from morning 'till night.
But they also did, and it's not too well known, in Germany it was against the law to be homosexual, so the homosexuals were arrested in Germany, they were in prison, the federal prisons. And the people in charge of our camps, in our work-teams, were German Christians who were homosexual. Some of them were decent and some of them were not so decent. They got different food, they didn't live with us, they lived in separate barracks. Some of them were very cruel, because the nature, I don't know what it is, but some of them were not very good or very nice. Some were nice just like us.
Now the guy who was in charge of the barracks, he was a decent guy, he was an older man, he was not a homosexual as far as we know. He was caught being a car thief, you know, they used to steal automobiles and smuggle them into Czechoslovakia and other parts. All federal criminals in Germany were in the federal prisons, and they were used as what's called the Kapos. And each hundred people had a Kapo above them who had to keep us lined up and march, etc, etc. Some were OK, but a lot of them were not OK. You know they wanted to make a point with the Germans because they were German. And they used to beat us up, they had a stick. The majority were homosexuals who had been in the federal prisons. And the same for the women's camp next door. They were lesbians who had been arrested for being what they are, and then they emptied the federal prisons and put them in charge of the camps.
Were there any religious rituals that people followed while they were in the camps?
Not to that extent. People who were religious stayed religious. They prayed by themselves or within their families. There was no such thing as a temple or prayer services – organized, everybody did their own. Holland by itself was a fairly religious community.
Would you say you remained generally optimistic during the time of the Holocaust?
Then? I don't know if you call it "optimistic"- I just wanted to live. A lot of people lost it, they couldn't handle it, they couldn't handle it. But then also, depending on where you were, what time, some camps at least you tried to survive and it worked for me and others. There were plenty of people who were saved, but the majority were killed. But a lot of people lost the will to live, a lot of suicides.
I imagine there was a lot of depression in the camps?
the camps, oh definitely, a lot of suicides. Depression. You either
were with it or you died real fast. That was if you were in a work
detail. If you were destined to go to the gas chambers, that was another
In thinking about surviving, did you think you were going to survive and that there was a future and that you'd be liberated?
We didn't think that far. We were always told by the Germans, "We'll never let you stay alive. If we keep you alive, you'll kill us." Which we did when we were liberated, we killed all the guards we could find. You didn't think that far, it was day by day. And of course the big thing was hunger and the beatings. But I wanted to see my parents again, I was hoping I would see them again, and my sister. And then the will to live to tell the story, I wanted to tell the story. But if you ask me, "Did you think about it hourly or daily? I don't think so because we had bigger problems around to stay away from the beatings and from the dogs.
How were religion beliefs influenced or changed from the experience you had in the Holocaust?
That's a very good question that's an important question for me, in the recent years more so. I was born up to believe in God, my parents were religious, like I said a little earlier, and I would say deeply religious to the point that they believed in their religion, they would not marry outside their religion, I do not know anyone in the family who did, that was important I believe. In Auschwitz, where I saw the biggest tragedy of humanity, people were still screaming and praying to God while they were marching to the gas chambers. I still pray almost every day, I may forget one day maybe, but I still I pray. I pray at night before I go to bed.
I think about it more so in recent years when I said, "Is there a God?" And then I think, and I still pray, and I believe that if we don't believe there is a God this world would be in trouble. I believe you should have respect for God, you should believe there is a God. And then I ask the question, "Why do You let this happen? Why are so many people being killed constantly because of their religion, their ethnicity, their color, their beliefs?" But on the other hand, in as much as I think about it a lot, I also believe that without believing in a God, life would be very difficult. I think an atheist is a person who is, to me, an atheist is someone who really doesn't get the point because the world had to be started by someone in life, in history. So I believe in God.
I must tell you that survivors, I'm talking about people who went through the same similar situation like I did, I know very few, if any, who don't believe in God. They may not be religious, they might not go to temple all the time, but they do believe in God. My answer basically is yes, there is a God and I believe in it and I don't want to change. I question Him, sure I question Him, I say, "Why did you let this happen?" But then I also know that He is not going to talk to me, God. But then He has talked to me, He has. And that is He's kept me alive, he has made me a successful business man, he has given me a fantastic family. So there's got to be a God. I didn't do it all by myself, had to have a God somewhere hanging over me. So I believe, yes, I don't want to lose that.
No, I don't think that changed it. First of all there weren't many left. Like in Holland there were about 140-145,000 Jews in the entire country. In those days Holland had about eight million people. Out of the 140,000, a 120,000 were killed, including my family. The remnants were not whole families, the remnants were one person, maybe a husband and wife here and there, who were hidden, hidden by Christians. But, no, I don't think so. I felt a different thing, however. There was a point in my life right after when I said, "Why do I want to keep that religion when they killed all those people? Maybe I shouldn't have this religion." I'm telling you guys what I'm not telling other schools, but I'm telling you something. And I thought about it. It took me one day. I said, "Maybe I should change religion?" And that one day–and I remember where it was, I was in Switzerland, I was working there for a Dutch chemical firm–I said, "That's not doable." And the answer I gave myself was, "If I would do that, that would be spitting on my parents and my family." And I said, "They were killed because of their religion. I want to stick to that." So I wanted to keep it.
And the other issue that I felt very strong about, very strong and that is that I wanted to rebuild a Jewish world, I wanted to be part of it. That might sound self-serving but it wasn't. I got involved immediately. In Holland it was very difficult because there was no community left and we helped here and there where we could. When I went to Switzerland I got involved in the Hagganah, the Israelis, I helped them there. I became a courier for them. I can't go into details on that because it was in the middle '40's – '46, '47, until '48, and '49 I came here.
I felt very strong, especially after I came here to San Francisco in January 1950 and after I came out of the Korean War in '55, that I wanted to be part of rebuilding a Jewish world. I got involved, with your family, your grandparents and your grandparents [talking to two of the interviewers]. That was important. To rebuild this world that we had lost by murder and by killings, etc. And I feel today very strong and very positive that we did, to some extent, did a good job, not completed, we will never complete anything like this but at least we worked towards education again, not to be afraid to say what religion you have, and to stand up for what's right and wrong, and to believe in the Bible. So I think I accomplished that much by not hiding. And I know people who have said, "I've had it! Enough is enough," and didn't do anything. But that was not acceptable, and is not acceptable to me, and I didn't do it. The ones who did, they would have done it in other circumstances too.