Posts Tagged ‘Dachau’

Remembrance–Pearl Harbor, Dachau, and a Special Visitor

On December 7th, the United States commemorated one of the most tragic events in our history–the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  Every year we remember the attacks, the sacrifices of our servicemen and women, and the death of over 2400 of our American soldiers.  These attacks caused the US to declare war on Japan and officially become involved in WWII.  Thinking back to all of my history lessons on WWII, I always wonder what might have taken place had the Allied forces ignored Hitler’s progression through Europe for just a little longer, what would have resulted had the U.S. never gotten involved at all.

This year I had a very special opportunity.  On December 5th, 87-year old Mrs. Bluma Shapiro came to our school to talk to our students about this tumultuous time in history.  Her experience was one that many others shared, but not many lived to talk about.  Mrs. Shapiro is a survivor of the Holocaust.

Throughout this post I will share my recollection of Mrs. Shapiro’s story (which she encouraged me to do).  The photos that will accompany the story do not match the images from the various concentration camps in which Mrs. Shapiro was imprisoned, but they were taken at our visit of Dachau Concentration Camp in spring of 2011 and will serve as a comparison.

Mrs. Shapiro’s story begins in a small town in Poland that was very close to the border of the Soviet Union.  In 1939 when Stalin and Hitler made a non-aggression pact, Poland was divided into two territories–that of Hitler’s Germany and that of Stalin’s USSR.  For awhile, the Jewish population in Mrs. Shapiro’s town, controlled by the Soviets, functioned as normally as could be expected for the times despite rumors from outsiders that told of the terrible things the were happening to Jewish communities.

Soon, though, when the Germans invaded Russia in 1941, changes took place.  The Jewish community was subjected to curfews, and for the first time, Mrs. Shapiro saw Jewish friends shot dead in the street.  As restrictions intensified and a Jewish ghetto was constructed, Mrs. Shapiro’s living quarters grew crowded; what began as 3 people in a small apartment ended up as 25.  Jewish business men, including her father, lost their businesses.  Any available work was to be found outside of the ghetto, but often times people who went out did not return.  Because Mrs. Shapiro was a smart girl, fluent in several languages, she got a job transcribing for officials.  Despite the fact that she did not want to work for the Soviets or the Germans, she figured that refusal would be even worse.

Eventually, diseases and hunger caused desperation throughout the ghetto.  People tried to smuggle in anything; food, clothing, and medication were desperately needed.  Once, a young woman was caught trying to smuggle in some cooking oil.  Mrs. Shapiro, returning from her job, witnessed the soldiers force the woman to drink the oil and then beat her to death.  Even though working outside of the ghetto was very dangerous, Mrs. Shapiro was lucky enough to have a kind-hearted German boss who did what he could to help her family survive.  He walked her to and from the ghetto and often helped her smuggle in extra goods and food for her family.  Throughout her experience, Mrs. Shapiro encountered several “angels” who made it possible for her to survive.

Meanwhile, many Jews from other cities were sneaking into the ghetto, hoping to find food for their families.  They carried with them news from other parts of Poland and Germany and spoke of the “liquidation” of many other Jewish ghettos. Hurriedly, the families in the ghetto built hiding places.  For the most part, the Jews in the ghetto were prepared by the time that the order came for all of the Jews in Mrs. Shapiro’s town to be “relocated.”

Mrs. Shapiro, because of her family connections, was asked to go into hiding with some doctors in her village.  Reluctantly, her parents said yes and retired to their own hiding place in their apartment.  This was to be the last time she ever saw her family.

The Germans, for eight days, searched the ghetto.  Many families, exposed by the crying of children, perished immediately, while others were sent off to the train station.  Mrs. Shapiro’s ghetto was carefully hidden; the Nazis heard the crying of children but could not figure out how to access the bunker.  Eventually, they decided to burn down the bunker.  At that time, the doctors and Mrs. Shapiro gave themselves up and marched to the train station, meeting hoards of other Jews.

At the train station, Mrs. Shapiro, along with 200 other people, were shoved into cattle cars.  They were given a pail to use for a restroom, despite the fact that with so many people tightly packed, it was impossible to even get to the pail.  At this point, Mrs. Shapiro reported, you just stopped being human.  Because you couldn’t go, you didn’t have to.

When they arrived at the first camp, 12-24 hrs. later, Mrs. Shapiro witnessed one of the most horrific events of her entire experience.  Laughing, a German soldier grabbed a baby out of a mother’s arms, threw it in the air and shot at it like a clay pigeon.  Not long after, Mrs. Shapiro learned that all of the women from her hometown were grouped together and gassed.  Her mother and sisters were all dead.

Gas Chambers at Dachau Concentration Camp

Through the course of the next several years, Mrs. Shapiro was transferred to several different camps including one of the most horrific camps in history–Auschwitz.  Entering Auschwitz, Mrs. Shapiro recalled the sign: Arbeit Macht Frei.  Work makes you free.

Arbeit Macht Frei--Dachau Concentration Camp

When arriving, men and women were immediately separated.  Unsure of whether or not they were being taken to the gas chambers, the women reluctantly stepped into delousing showers and were shaven head to toe by members of the Nazi party.  With little clothing (they grabbed whatever they could after coming out of the showers), Mrs. Shapiro headed to her barracks where hundreds of people were crammed into a small space.

Outside of the Barracks

Example of bunks in the barracks

Prisoner Numbers in the Barracks

Starving, the prisoners received moldy loaves of bread once a week.  They hid them while sleeping, tucking them anywhere they might be safe from other prisoners–under bosoms or heads.  The attempt was futile, however.  The rats, crawling on their bodies as they slept, ate the bread out from under them.

Dachau--the foundations of barracks that once existed

Frequently, Mrs. Shapiro witnessed the death of her campmates.  They were shot, beaten, or starved to death.  Frequently, prisoners committed suicide, a very easy task in Auschwitz.  Sometimes prisoners ran to the high-voltage electric fence that surrounded the camp.  At other times, prisoners knew that if they crossed too close to the fence, appearing to want to escape, guards from the towers above would shoot them dead.


Guard Tower at Dachau

The fact that Mrs. Shapiro is alive to share her story is quite remarkable, especially considering that she was at Auschwitz during the time when the infamous Dr. Mengele was selecting patients for experimentation.  As Mrs. Shapiro recalled, Dr. Mengele would line up the women 5 at a time and choose who was to go into forced labor, who would go to the gas chambers, and who would be subjected to experimentation.  Mrs. Shapiro stated that she tried to hide in the back, keeping her head down.  “The Angel of Death” performed live experimentation on his human subjects, and the night after Dr. Mengele selected his patients, Mrs. Shapiro stated that the screaming and smell of burning flesh permeated the camp air.

Creamatorium at Dachau

At one point, Mrs. Shapiro, whose forced labor was that of digging mass graves, didn’t think she could make it any longer.  She fell onto the ground and was attacked by dogs. For some reason, instead of being killed, she was allowed to stay in a hospital barracks for an unprecedented 3-4 days. One person there gave her soup to make her strong, and miraculously, Mrs. Shapiro got her health back and survived. Incidents like this happened frequently throughout Mrs. Shapiro’s experience.  Somehow, despite the fact that there were so many evil people, there were also those who did what they could to help Jews survive. One of the male doctors from her home town was separated from her by the electric fence.  Every so often he risked his life by hiding extra clothing or food under the fence for Mrs. Shapiro to retrieve.

Looking at the camp from inside the barracks

In 1945, the Germans were losing their grip on power in Europe and abandoned the concentration camp at Auschwitz.   It was decided that all of the remaining prisoners in the concentration camps should be marched further into Germany.  On this “Death March” of 35 miles, prisoners walked for hours without food and water, without appropriate clothing (in the middle of January), and without a break.  Somehow, despite the fact that 40% of the prisoners died during the march, Mrs. Shapiro survived.

It wasn’t long before the German soldiers retreated, abandoning the camp and liberating the prisoners.  Suddenly exposed to so much food, many people died from over-consumption.  After years of deprivation, their bodies could not handle the sudden intake of so much food.  After their release, Mrs. Shapiro and 2 friends gorged themselves, eating 10 pounds of potatoes and an entire lamb in one sitting. Luckily, Mrs. Shapiro and her friends bodies were able to accept the massive amounts of food.  Mrs. Shapiro told me privately that it was very difficult for her to regulate her eating for some time; after her wedding, there was lots of turkey and other leftovers.  The knowledge of the leftovers was too much for Mrs Shapiro to take; in the middle of the night, she sneaked down and ate every last bit of leftover food.  The knowledge that food was available was too much for her brain to process.

After liberation at the age of 22, Mrs. Shapiro found her way back home to her town in Poland where it was confirmed that no one else in her family had survived the Holocaust. While there, she married and in less than 5 yrs, emigrated to the United States.  Currently, Mrs. Shapiro resides in Baltimore where she is a proud grandmother and great-grandmother.

This experience, for me, was overwhelming.  My 7th grade students absorbed as much of Mrs. Shapiro’s story as they could.  They gathered around her, hugged her, and stared as she unbuttoned the sleeve of her blouse to expose “A15250,” the tattoo of her prisoner number at Auschwitz.  The magnitude of Mrs. Shapiro’s experience is too much for anyone to truly understand.  What struck me the most, however, was Mrs. Shapiro’s passion when discussing the need to pass her story on.  Despite all that she experienced, never has her faith in humanity dissipated.

Her message:  We must remember. We must talk about it.  We must believe that people are innately good.

And it’s true.  By the time my 7th graders have 7th graders of their own, there will be no more Holocaust survivors left to tell their stories. We must be the story-tellers for the people who have suffered so much; we must live our lives better every day in recognition of the people who suffered so that we could learn lessons from history.

We must never forget.

Memorial at Dachau

To hear a recording of Mrs. Shapiro’s story:

(You must sign up for a free membership, but it’s definitely worth it).