The Next Chapter 2016: Herb H.

Survival by Luck

by Naama W.
Saint Mary’s College High School

Herb, survivor of the Holocaust, and Naama


The first thing Herb said he could remember was the small, idyllic town that his family lived in: a nice place on the outskirts of Prague. He was born into a Jewish family, a small one, with only one other child beside him. His brother, Heini, was seven years older than him, and the two were never really close. Herb was always closer to his father, Karl, who wasn’t home often, but loved to play when he was. In fact, Herb remembers that his father used to do his homework for him, wanting Herb to have more time to come and talk to him. Herb looked up to his father, and told him everything. Once, when Herb mentioned that some kids in his class in grammar school, which he attended only until age 11 or so because of the Occupation[1], were smoking cigarettes, his father forced him to smoke until he threw up. Herb says he doesn’t know if that is specifically the reason, but he has never been drawn to smoking or drinking, which is probably what his father intended. Herb also remembers the stereotypical Jewish and Czech food that his mother would prepare: cabbage and dumplings, and gelatinous gefilte fish. He has a fond memory of her buying live carp and putting them in the bathtub until she wanted to use them, so that they would stay fresh.

In 1942, Herb became aware of a slight change in the household dynamics. His mother brought him to visit a woman named Ms. Kral, a Catholic friend of hers. He doesn’t remember how she and his mother met, only that they were very close friends. They must have been, because Ms. Kral told Herb and his mother Melanie that if they ever needed a place to come back to, they could come to her home, even though she had a son and a disabled husband whom she looked after. Herb also heard his mother and father arguing at night, about whether or not to leave Czechoslovakia. Herb’s uncle Otto had obtained a passport, and was leaving for England. He had urged Herb’s father to come with him. However,  Karl refused, believing that the war would be over soon and everything woul go back to normal. Unfortunately, he was wrong.

In early 1942, Herb’s family was visited by the Gestapo[2], who told them to pack one small bag each and report to the train station. Herb says that he brought some shorts and a few shirts. His mother and father both seemed calm, he says. “We didn’t take anything valuable,” Herb told me. “Everything was left behind.” They boarded a train along with hundreds of other Jews, most of whom were also calm, and were taken on a short ride until the train stopped near the gates of Terezin[3], where they stayed for two years. Herb describes life there as “bearable”. There was enough food to eat, and Herb had a job as an apprentice gardener, from which he still gets benefits today. He said that he was able to bring fresh food home every night from his job, supplementing the food that they were given. His family lived in their own quarters, along with his mother’s two sisters. Herb doesn’t know how the Nazis decided who would leave Terezin for Auschwitz, but one day in early 1944, his mother, father, and brother were notified that they would be leaving the next day. Herb was only 15 years old, and scared of being left alone, so he went to the guard station and requested that he be sent along with them. He, too, was then notified that he would be leaving.

The train ride to Auschwitz[4] was less calm than the one to Terezin. Prisoners were packed into a cattle car so tightly it was difficult to breath. Everybody was yelling and screaming, and nobody completely understood what was happening. Herb remembers the sound of the cattle car doors slamming shut, and being nailed together so that prisoners couldn’t open them and jump out of the quickly moving train. There was a small hole in the middle of the car, where one could squat to use the bathroom. They were let off of the train near Auschwitz, and were marched through the gates. On the top of the main gate was written: “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work will make you free”). The prisoners were lined up into two lines: women and girls on one side, men and boys on the other. Herb remembers losing track of his brother, but standing in line next to his father. A Polish Jew who was forced to work for the Nazis tattooed prisoners one at a time. When Herb and his father reached him, the man began to talk to them. He pointed at the chimney stacks, and in broken German said that they were crematoriums. This was something Herb and his father had not known before. The man also told them about the selection. Going to the left, he said, meant certain death. The man in the black clothes with the monocle was Dr. Mengele[5], he said. He told them to try to get into a different selection line, because he was notoriously difficult to get by.

Herb and his father were then asked to undress. Herb was a skinny 15 year old, and frightened of the man he understood to be Dr. Mengele. However, when he was standing naked in front of him, he summoned the German he had been taught in grammar school and said: “Ich kann arbeiten” (“I can work”). Dr. Mengele pointed to the right.

Life in Auschwitz was very different from life in Terezin. Although Herb’s entire family survived the selection, his mother and one of her sisters were shipped away soon after. His father and brother were forced to leave in November of 1944, only a few months before Herb. Herb and his father shared a bunk, while his brother lived in separate barracks. Herb spent most of his time working or sleeping: most of the prisoners were too frightened and enervated to talk to one another much. Every morning, Herb and all the other prisoners washed their faces in cold running water near the outdoor latrines. Then there was line-up, in which each prisoner had to be accounted for. After that, prisoners went to their respective jobs. Herb was assigned a job as a messenger boy, which he “liked because I had running water. I could drink up. And when you drink, you feel full.” Herb ran errands around the camp, bringing aspirin and band-aids to prisoners. If someone had a malady that required something more serious, they were sent to the “hospital”, which was run by the Nazis. In the hospital, Mengele and other doctors performed horrific pseudo scientific experiments on prisoners, often leaving them closer to death than when they first arrived.

One day, Herb heard sirens blaring during one of his work shifts. Another prisoner had run away, and was being chased through the snow. The prisoners were taken outside to watch as he was forced to walk barefoot back to the camp, through the ice and snow, while being beaten by soldiers. When they returned to camp, he was hung. A loudspeaker announced that anybody who tried to escape would meet the same fate. For several days afterwards, the prisoners were forced to look at his body every morning.

One day in January, seemingly out of nowhere, the order came to clean up the cabins and take a mess kit. The prisoners were marched out of Auschwitz, in a long line, on the way to nowhere. It was nicknamed the “Death March” because many prisoners became too weak to continue slogging through the snow, and fell to the side of the road. Others tried to run off and were shot, or were beaten to death because they were walking too slowly. Herb remembers that trucks would come by every so often to collect all of the dead bodies. They were no longer counted; the Nazis seemed to have prioritized keeping some of their prisoners over knowing where all of them where. Prisoners who lived were housed in empty barns, a different one each night, as they marched away from the encroaching Allied Forces.

On the third day of the death march, Herb remembers seeing a small black rucksack sitting on the side of the road. Very quickly, he reached out and grabbed it. Then he hid it beneath the small blanket that he was allowed to carry for warmth. That night, he opened the rucksack. It contained a pair of pants, a jacket, a wool hat, and some gloves. Herb reckons that the pack was probably dropped by one of the civilians who was evacuated from Auschwitz along with the prisoners. He began thinking: hadn’t he seen signs for Prague recently? Would the guards really notice if he didn’t come out of the barn one day?

On the fifth day of the death march, he decided to take a chance. When all of the other prisoners were shooed out of the barn that morning, he stayed behind. When he was sure nobody was watching, he put on the civilian clothes over his striped uniform. When he walked out of the barn, he joined the group of civilians as they walked to the nearby train station. When they reached the train station, he immediately broke off of the group and ran around the station yelling “Mutti, mutti, wer bist do?!” (“Mother, mother, where are you?”) , pretending that he was a lost teen looking for his mother. The ploy worked, and he managed to board the train without anybody checking for his papers. He was 16 at the time.

Once he got off the train, he walked through Prague until he reached the home of Ms. Kral. She took him in. The first thing she did, Herb says, was burn his striped uniform. Then she fed him soup and put him to bed. The first thing Herb did when he woke up was look in the bathroom for some kind of ceramic cleaner, which was commonly used in Czechoslovakia at the time. He found some, and poured it on his arm, burning his skin and his tattoo away. Herb remembers fearing that if somebody found out that he was a prisoner, Ms. Kral’s entire family would be punished. Herb stayed inside Ms. Kral’s apartment until May of 1945, when the Russian army pushed the Nazis out of Czechoslovakia. After this , Herb went often to the Red Cross, to ask about his parents and brother. Although he never found his father or brother, Ms. Kral announced one night that she had a surprise for him: his mother and aunt. Together, they contacted Herb’s great-aunt, Augusta Jellinek, an older woman who had married an Austrian man and moved to America. Although they did not know her address and thus were unable to accurately address the postcard, Herb believes a kind postman in the U.S took the time to look her up and deliver the letter to her. She agreed to sponsor them, so the three made the long journey from Prague to San Francisco. There, they built new lives together, and tried to recover as best they could. It was difficult to understand what had happened, and even more difficult to fully grasp that the rest of the world was continuing as if everything was normal.

Herb eventually began to understand his story by thinking about survival in Auschwitz as largely a matter of luck. He told me a story about how he managed to get himself on bad terms with the administration at a Catholic High School that he spoke at.  “One teacher told me: ‘Well, I guess God really liked you’ and I said ‘If that’s true then that would mean that he didn’t like my father or any of the other people who died.’ ” It still seems as if nobody can ever come close to understanding the experiences of survivors like Herb. As the author and survivor Primo Levi once wrote, “our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man.”  One can only hope that by remembering their stories, we can prevent such tragedies from ever happening again.


[1] In 1939, Hitler’s regime instituted new laws about Jews in Czechoslovakia. These included banning Jews from public schools, banning them from most professions, and forcing them to wear a yellow six-pointed star on their outermost garment. See: Bohemia. Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. Ed. Gutman, Israel. Trans. Mordechai Shalev. Vol. 1. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1990. Print.

[2] Gestapo is an abbreviation of Geheime Staatspolizei (“Secret State Police” in German). This police force was responsible for the rounding up of Jews and other “inferior races” into concentration camps between 1939 and 1945. The Gestapo had the power of preventative arrest, and their actions were not subject to judicial appeal. See: “Gestapo”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 21 Feb. 2016

[3] Terezin/Theresienstadt was a concentration camp-ghetto created by the Nazis in an attempt to hide the atrocities that were being committed in other camps, and also used as a transit camp for Czech Jews, most of whom were sent to Auschwitz afterwards. In 1943, the Nazis allowed a Red Cross investigation committee to visit, and created an entire fake city, complete with fake paper money, for them to see. This action effectively allowed them to hide the real deal for another few months. See: Theresienstadt. Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. Ed. Gutman, Israel. Trans. Mordechai Shalev. Vol. 2. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1990. Print.

[4] Auschwitz-Birkenau was a joint death/work camp for Jews and Roma from all over Eastern Europe. Inside the camp, prisoners were killed using Zyklon B gas in huge death chambers. Afterwards, they were burned and their belongings were taken. Prisoners who were not killed worked long days, receiving only one meal a day. Over a million people died in Auschwitz. See: Auschwitz. Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. Ed. Gutman, Israel. Trans. Mordechai Shalev. Vol. 1. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1990. Print.

[5] Dr. Josef Mengele was a German physician who worked in Auschwitz-Birkenau between 1943 and 1945. During this time, he performed experiments on Jewish and Roma twins and dwarfs, in an effort to pinpoint the origin of “Aryan” qualities. He was known as “The Angel of Death” because of his cold demeanor while performing selection. See: “Josef Mengele.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. United States Holocaust Memorial Council, 18 Aug. 2015. Web. 06 Jan. 2016.

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Posted by Admin on September 16, 2016

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