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

Roman's story

Roman was 12 when the Germans came to his town. The killing began at once, and the dead included the chief of police, the two doctors and both Polish and Jewish leaders.

Late in 1941 Roman was deported to the ghetto in Lodz. 'My mother and I, the youngest of her seven children, were the only ones left. Most of my family had been taken to the death camp at Chelmno. My mother and I looked like living skeletons. Those black-edged notices that used to be posted on walls and printed in the papers when somebody had died, they were called 'Klapsedras'. In the ghetto, Klapsedras were what thin and frail people like us were called. It wasn't easy for a Klapsedra to talk. Talking needed energy. So I wrote down my thoughts and feelings instead, and only the few people I could trust were allowed to read them.

'My mother's health was worse than mine. She began to find it hard to walk to her work (repairing German soldiers' uniforms) and could only manage to get there with help. In the spring of 1942 the SS ordered us to be put on the cart, which meant being taken away to be killed. My mother told me to jump off the cart and run. Be brave, she told me, Save your life. I did as I was told, and managed to get back unnoticed to the room where we'd been living. I crawled under the single eiderdown and slept for a long time. When I woke up, one of our neighbours gave me hot water to drink and a piece of bread.'

Roman, who worked in the ghetto's metal factory, was now 'adopted' by an adult fellow-worker and his family, though Roman was expected to share his meagre ration of food with them and do the housework before going to the factory. 'Instinct told me to agree to it: it would help me to survive.' But the day came when the metalworkers were put on the train to Auschwitz - one of the last deportations from the Lodz ghetto. 'Only 500 of us - Jewish men, women and boys - escaped the gas chambers. Our metalworking skills made us useful in a munitions factory.'

Roman ended up working in a labour camp in Dresden. The workers manufactured bullets in an airless basement, and slept in a dormitory above. When the Allies bombed Dresden, the building was hit, but the dormitories remained intact. The workers were sent off to collect people who had died in the bombing; they came back smelling bad, and the smell stayed with them and hung about the dormitory. 'It was suffocating,' Roman remembers.

He also remembers friction between the slave labourers themselves. One of them, a man called Josef, had been in Auschwitz for 2 years and was so marked by the experience that he seemed frightening. One day another inmate tried to take Roman's bread ration from him. Josef knocked the inmate down; then he took a bite out of the rescued bread himself, handed the remainder back to Roman, and walked away without a word.

When the Allied forces were advancing through Germany liberating the camps, the SS marched the prisoners out of Dresden. At one point, as they approached the outskirts of the city, 'they made us sit down in a little square paved with cobblestones. The Germans came out of the houses to stare at us. The SS wanted to entertain these onlookers, so they threw bits of carrot and turnip among us, hoping that we would fight and claw for the food. But we didn't. Hungry though we were, we passed the word round: Behave with dignity. The SS were furious, and began kicking us to make us move.'

Roman and two others from the Dresden factory, including Josef, escaped the 'death marches' and found refuge with a German couple on a farm outside the city. When the Soviet army liberated the region, Roman was determined to get back to his home in Poland somehow, scavenged some food supplies from a bombed shop, and set off. On the way he met a Russian soldier on a motor bike. The Russian threw Roman's precious food supply on the ground, made him strip, and then fired a revolver at him. The barrel was empty, and the Russian rode away. 'I knew that the Nazis and the SS hated us Jews and wanted to murder us all. But the Russians were the liberators. They fought and defeated the Nazis, Hitler and the SS. I, a Jew, expected to be treated like a friend by the Russian soldiers. Why did this Russian soldier do what he did?'

Home-coming, after five terrible years, was a shock, too. A Polish family was living in his old home. 'I had the feeling they were going to kill me. They certainly weren't going to give up the house.' For the next two months Roman travelled, 'mostly on the tops of trains', to get back to the German couple who'd been kind to him. He took gifts of soap, coffee and sugar which he'd got from the black market: 'I wanted to thank them for hiding me'. But when he reached the farm, he found the woman looking haggard and dressed in black. She refused to speak to Roman. A neighbour told him why: Nazis in the village had found out that Jews were being sheltered at the farm. The man had been shot; and so had Josef, who had once saved Roman's bread for him.

Roman was full of grief. 'I was totally lost. I was totally alone.' But he kept going. He found his way to the ghetto at Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia, and managed to get on one of the airlifts taking children from there to England.

In 1947, a sport and social club was founded, the Primrose Club, for the boys and young men in Britain struggling to make it on their own after such terrible experiences. (There were a few girls, too - but only a few: the number of women and girls who survived the Nazi camps was small.) The club's founder was a sports instructor who'd been a Jewish youth leader in pre-war Germany. Now he devoted himself to helping these damaged young men to become physically strong and fit, and to restore their minds as well. The club, he said, offered 'a substitute for a lost family'.

Roman (who later became an architect and stained-glass worker) was one of the Primrose Club family. He became so good a swimmer that by 1950 he was able to take part in the Jewish Olympics. 'The boys were free of hate and of desire for revenge. They didn't speak of a collective guilt of the German people, but said they hoped that they, in their own lives, could show the way to a better world for themselves and their children.'

War and genocide don't end with a ceasefire: the violence takes time to disappear, and people are scarred, mentally, emotionally, as well as physically by what has happened. They have to choose, often without help, how they deal with inner and outer desolation. Whether we go to war or commit genocide is a choice, too. Should we really have to make a choice like that? How might we try to arrange things (first at home and where we live, then in school, college and workplace, and finally in our country and the whole world) so that such a choice never arises? Big questions, big answers - but even the biggest issues start with individual people right where they happen to be.



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