Krulik's story
Hugo's story
Rose K's story
Abraham's story
Salek's story
Rose D's story
Roman's story
Pinchas' story

Salek's story

Salek's early childhood was spent in a busy and religious Jewish community in Poland. He enjoyed his Jewish school and the familiar features of family and community life. But the time came when he also had to go to ordinary primary school. Perhaps because Catholics respected the Bible, and the Old Testament is Jewish scripture and history, Salek was sent to a Catholic school. He didn't find much respect there, however. He says he'll never forget how the Jewish children were tormented. The Jewish religion forbids the eating of meat from pigs, so the Catholic children would sometimes force a piece of pork into a Jewish child's mouth, 'just for a laugh'. The teachers didn't intervene. The Jewish pupils were also attacked on their way to and from school. People threw stones at them and physically bullied them. 'Our preparation for what was to come,' said Salek grimly.

When war began in 1939, Poles and Jews alike were faced with the aggressive invading Germans. Salek, aged 10, and other Jews spent the first Sabbath of the war in an evil-smelling cellar. 'Rats ran across the unmade floor, their red eyes flashing in the light of our candles. My little sister cried.'

He first saw the German invaders when a rattling tank drove into the market place. 'I had no idea what it was, I had never seen a tank before. A German soldier wearing a black uniform was standing in the turret, swivelling the huge gun around in all directions. The market-place was deserted. I froze to the spot, my hands clasped behind my back. The soldier jumped down and shouted "Was hast du?" I think maybe he was worried I had a gun. Then he demanded "Where's the town centre?" (I could understand some German words) but I was too terrified to answer. I ran home as fast as I could.' That night the German soldiers set fire to a whole street of houses, and then set themselves up in two local schools. 'There was a strict curfew and we were forbidden to store food. If we did either, they said, we would be shot. Then looters came in and gave us hell. They smashed up our shops.'

The Germans seized a hundred Jews for work in the local stone quarry. Salek's brother was one of them, and Salek helped his grandmother in what was left of their shop. But the family decided that Salek's brother would be more useful in the shop, so Salek went to the quarry instead. Salek quickly became known as the best worker in the quarry - helped by the trick of starting next to a pile of stones already cut the day before. 'I certainly developed muscles there, but doctors have told me I was much too young for such hard physical labour, and I'm paying for it now.'

Meanwhile the family had been forced into the town's newly- set-up ghetto. 'It was hell. There was just trodden earth for a floor. My parents slept on a sort of shelf of planks, with no mattress. My brother and I slept on straw-filled sacks.'

When Salek was 13 things got worse. One day the German SS came through the town shouting 'Jews out!' and ordered all the young men and boys into the backs of transport lorries. 'I caught sight of my father standing gazing down in horror from a first-floor window. His hands were clasping his face in despair at the sight of his young son being driven away. That was the last time I saw my father. I did not see my mother again either.'

Salek's crammed lorry took him to a slave labour camp, and he was put under the control of a bunch of ex-convicts and murderers who 'wanted nothing more than food, shelter, and the opportunity to kill Jews. They all carried guns with fixed bayonets.'

One day at the labour camp (most of the work was in an armaments factory) volunteers were called for to go to Palestine. Of course there were plenty of volunteers: that was the place where Jews most wanted to go. The overseers then maliciously picked out the ones who hadn't volunteered, and they were led away. The next day Salek was in a group picked for 'special work duty'. When they got to the workplace, they were staggered to find heaps of clothing, shoes, hats, spectacles - anything people might wear. Salek's unit were told to stuff everything into sacks and cart it to a warehouse for checking: maybe items of value had been sewn into the clothes or hidden in the heels of shoes. The following morning some Polish machine operators came in to teach the Jews how to work some factory machinery; and they brought news of the 'travellers to Palestine'. 'The Poles told us those Jews had been driven naked to the railway station and packed into cattle wagons.' They had been sent, stripped of all they stood up in, not to Palestine, but to their deaths in Treblinka.

On another occasion, two prisoners went missing. The rest were ordered to the main parade ground and told that for each missing prisoner ten more would be selected and shot. Salek was among the ones selected, but the woman camp commander said "No, this boy had nothing to do with the escapees" - so he escaped death, at least. He heard the shots later on. 'The 20 weak and tottering boys chosen had been ordered to dig their own graves. It was March, the ground was solid with cold, and the graves were so shallow the bodies could hardly be covered.'

It was 1944 and the Russian army was advancing westward into Poland. The slave labour camps there were dismantled and abandoned. The Jews who still survived were now taken to concentration camps in Germany. Salek found himself in the prison camp at Buchenwald, assigned to a children's barrack. It was full of the dead, and their bodies were only just being cleared out into the yard, where they were piled up. Inside, the filth and smell was appalling. 'This,' said Salek, 'was my new home.' More and more prisoners arrived, so that some of the people carted away to make room were still alive, just.

While he was in Buchenwald, Salek had another remarkable escape: one night he was supposed to go to work in the camp factory, but he took the risk of punishment and simply didn't go. That same night the factory was bombed by Allied planes. 'There was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.' Almost 400 prisoners were killed.

In February 1945 the Allies also bombed the nearby city of Weimar. Salek and some fellow-prisoners were driven in lorries to Weimar to clear the rubble. 'In the cellars we found dead bodies, but we also found food. We simply grabbed it. We didn't know if it was poisoned or not, we took it anyway. In the 2 or 3 days we were there we got back a lot of strength and energy because of those extra bits of food. I also found a lot of shirts, and smuggled as many as I could back to the camp. I took a couple of tins of sardines, too; as I tried to force them open, the oil leaked away - but I realise now that after years of starvation my body couldn't have coped with the fat: it would probably have killed me.' Yet another lucky escape.

Most of Buchenwald's Jews (about 3,000 at that point) and Soviet prisoners-of-war were evacuated in April, a week before the American troops reached the camp. They were marched for four hours to a main railway line, the stragglers and weakest being shot and left by the roadside. There they were put on a train which made a slow and erratic progress towards Czechoslovakia. Sometimes it stopped altogether: 'From time to time we were allowed into the fields while the officers cooked themselves a meal. We scavenged for whatever we could put into our mouths - we even sucked the earth to get some moisture from it, and licked the morning dew from stones.'

Two days after the war ended ('We, of course, were the last to know about it') the train pulled up in some fields near Terezin (called Theresienstadt while it was a ghetto during the German occupation of this part of Czechoslovakia). A dozen Czech freedom fighters opened the door to arrest the German officers - but there were none: they had furtively alighted while the train was still in Germany.

Salek himself was too weak to get off the train. 'About twenty men and women wearing white coats lifted people off and wheeled them away on trolleys to a hospital camp. They lifted me off the train-wagon, but couldn't put me down anywhere because I had no flesh. I was put into a blanket and carried gently away. They found some string and tied the corners of my blanket to make an improvised hammock. My hearing had almost gone. I wasn't hungry. I wasn't thirsty. I wasn't sleepy. I gazed up at the ceiling, my mind empty. Then a doctor poured some liquid into my mouth, and I realised that I was a human being after all.'

It was over a week before Salek could stand, and longer before he could walk without help. He also began to hear again. One day he walked as far as the nearby town: that was where the other ex-prisoners had been, rifling abandoned German homes, picking up anything of value. 'I was terribly jealous, so as soon as I could I went there too.'

Genocide is merciless bullying on a vast and terrible scale. In genocide, as in war, social laws are abandoned and human rights abused, sometimes out of cruelty, sometimes in the struggle for survival. It takes only a few thousand people sharing such hatred to start a massacre. Can war and genocide be adequately prevented by laws, if laws are hard to keep in the midst of hatred and violence? What else might be needed to prevent them before they get a hold?



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