The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

The Dentist of Auschwitz


Surviving as a prisoner of the Nazis was a hard and bitter struggle. In the face of the generous freedoms in America, our persecution was even more difficult to translate. I felt pain, lots of pain, but I had to suppress it. I envied everyone everywhere who had escaped this terrible ordeal. In America in 1949 people had already heard of Hitler and his deeds and were not eager to hear more. Only later generations wanted to know what had happened to the European Jewry. By this time a new term had arisen to identify the Nazis' mass murder and torture of millions of European Jews: Holocaust. *

My priority, of course, was practicing dentistry. I studied English and applied for admission to Tufts Dental School. Hearing of my experiences with dentistry, the dean, Dr. Joseph Volker, said that he regretted to advise me that an act of Congress, the so-called GI Bill, offered preference to the returning soldiers and that several years might go by before my application would be acted upon. It was not realistic for me to wait, as I expected my fiancée, soon to be my wife, to come to the United States soon.

One day, while in a Boston hospital waiting room experiencing the discomfort of abdominal pains that still plagued me, I was offered a job in sales by the comptroller of an electronics firm. I held that job for two years. Then, with my brother's, my father-in-law's, and my wife's help, I established my own company. In 1953, at the time of the Korean War, Tufts Dental School encouraged me to reapply for admission. My firm grew, however, and was successful. I remained a businessman until 1987. My brother, unfortunately, died in 1965 at age fifty-one.

In 1972 I accompanied Else to Hamburg, where she was called to testify in a Nazi's trial. By then Germany had gone through various stages in dealing with guilt. After many denials there was slow admittance. The most hopeful signs came in the 1960s, when West Germany perceived its obligation and began to help the Jewish survivors and the emerging state of Israel. Attitudes changed, but not all for the better. Some Germans remained true to nazism's undemocratic principles, championing the idea that "enough is enough." This is not to mention the neo-Nazis, whose threats are still the most unsettling. Of course, it would be unfair not to mention the many people who committed the past to memory and supported true democracy.

After Else testified, we rented a car and drove from Hamburg to Neustadt. I wanted to know the exact place of the Cap Arcona catastrophe. A lot had changed there. One person directed us to a little hill in nearby Timmendorf. We walked along the shore and soon saw a sign in front of a set of stairs leading up a hill. There, tucked away, was a cemetery, overgrown and neglected, with a huge single grave of the victims who had washed ashore. The sign listed their nationalities only. Next we found another cemetery, in which the markers gave names from around the world. One placard told of the tragedy of the ships. Another listed the nationalities of all the victims. The entire area was overgrown with weeds. Compared with the crime it symbolized, it seemed rather obscure. The tragedy of many years past stared us in the face. I stood confused and bewildered. Those who perished there were not just prisoners: they were tough, tenacious, and unrelenting fighters, with hearts stubborn enough to survive all the Nazis cast upon them. Yet they died on the very doorstep of freedom.

We later stopped at a small house that seemed to be a post office. I walked in and saw a small window with an elderly man behind it. Besides him no one was there. I thought he would remember. I asked him how long he had been living here. "All my life," he answered.

I decided not to say who I was. I would just act mildly interested, as any tourist would. I said, "I noticed a cemetery up the hill. I understand that a lot of people perished here?"

He stepped away from the window and came to me. He led me to the door, pointed at the bay, and said, "Three ships sank here, and thousands of people drowned. I wasn't here when it happened, but for years bones drifted up to the shore. Many a time I found some myself on the beach." I was here on a pilgrimage, to recover all the secrets he had willingly shed. But then an elderly woman came in, and the man greeted her. I knew that our conversation was over and that this was all I would learn from him. I left with a heavy heart full of painful memories. I had revisited a nightmare.

In July 1985 I joined a group of Jewish men and women from the United States on a fact-finding mission to Eastern Europe. We went to Poland. Each site brought back more bitter memories. This is where it all began. At Auschwitz, where civilization once ceased, time and weather had rotted the structures and watchtowers of the camp. Children now played there, unconscious that they were walking on the same spot where thousands of Jewish kids took their last steps. Lawns and houses had replaced the once bare landscape. In Birkenau lay shambles of the noxious crematorium. The sign over the gate, "Arbeit Macht Frei," obscene and offensive, was still there. There were many tourists reading on a marker that four million people had been killed there. It didn't tell the real story.

The Block Smierci, the death block where I saw the showcase of inhumanity, was most poignant: stacks of clothes, shoes of all sizes--large, small, and even tiny baby shoes--suitcases with names, mounds of human hair, eyeglasses, canes, teeth, and other personal objects. I had not seen this before. It filled me with so much pain that I couldn't fathom it.

Outside the block, I stood transfixed and looked up to the sky. Where are the souls of the millions of people who rose up in ashes? Now, I thought, the guilty prosper, raise families, and are good fathers and grandfathers.

I went to the museum's archival offices. When I gave my name, Tadeusz Iwashko, the archivist, said to me. "We know who you are. You were the dentist in Auschwitz III, Fürstengrube." Then he reached out and pulled a book from a shelf. Its title was Hefte von Auschwitz. "Look inside," he said. "You'll find your name and number there, and your father's and brother's." I read with glassy eyes my name, Bronek Jakubowicz, number 141129, and the numbers of my father and brother. Another note told of my posting as a dentist in Fürstengrube.

To fulfill a secret desire within me, I went to my former home, the little village of Dobra, where I was born and lived for nearly twenty-two years. When I was arrested in 1941, I left there with bitter memories. After the war, not a single Jewish person returned to Dobra, where Jews had lived for five hundred years. The gravestones from the Jewish cemetery paved the village sidewalks. I sat for a long time in silence, gripped with pain. Then I began to cry.

When I raised my head, an old woman with a weather-beaten face stared at me. "I live just a couple of houses from yours. I knew your mother very well before she and your sister, Pola, were deported. Esther said to me, 'Milka! If we are to see one another again, it will have to be in the other world.'" An irony suddenly struck me: Dobra means good in Polish.

I drove the road to Chelmno that my sister and mother were once driven along. Suddenly Dr. Schatz's confession unfolded before my eyes. There Mama and Pola suffocated, and there they died.

Despite the sunny day Chelmno seemed bleak and dreary. It was a painfully morbid and desolate place. Four hundred thousand Jews were killed there, and in retaliation for the mid-1942 assassination of SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, two thousand Christian children from Lidice, Czechoslovakia, were also murdered. One monument depicted the twisted faces of victims. With gut-wrenching indignation I read what was below, words written by the few Jews kept in a room to process the bodies arriving daily for the crematorium: "We are writing with our blood to let the world know that these are our last days. Here we are being killed by bullets and gassed--our bodies burned--our ashes are being spread in this forest!" Above this was a single giant word, Pamitamy (Remember). I will remember the images of that day forever.

Chelmno's crematorium was capable of turning 5,000 bodies each day to ashes, I also read, more even than those in Auschwitz. The maximum at Auschwitz was 4,600. Here were the souls of my mother and my sister!

Seeing Chelmno was more painful for me than being at Auschwitz. A few German students were standing there at the monument, also visibly moved. I wondered how their fathers and grandfathers would explain this to them.

I left the country where my family and my ancestors had lived for years, relieved that I did not live there anymore. I no longer looked upon Poland as my home, and I had forever cut my ties with my former homeland. I returned to Boston with a renewed spirit, with a sense of homecoming.

I still can't believe that all of this happened to me--in one lifetime. I have not spent much time examining the unanswered questions: Who was to blame for this? Could any of it have been prevented? If it could have been, why wasn't it? These and many other remaining questions are the assignment for the future. Perhaps more light is necessary to explain this stormy phase in our people's history.

* I am the least important person in this book. It is the memories of the events that overtook us that must be remembered.

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