Sosnowiec (Poland), Krakow-Kobierzynska, Kosztrze, Krakow-Plaszow, Czestochowa, Dzialoszyce, Vodislav
Moris Huppert was born in Sosnowiec, Poland. Shortly before the war, however, his family moved to the largely Jewish town of Dzialoszyce. Violent anti-Semitism prompted the move: while growing up, Huppert witnessed public assaults on Jewish people leaving places of religious study and even banks. In Dzialoszyce, when Jews began to flee from Germany in large numbers, his family briefly harbored an elderly couple. When Poland itself succumbed to Nazi rule, Huppert refused to wear the armbands that became mandatory for Jews. He was jailed more than once for it, but a charitable Jewish man somehow saw to it that he always walked away unharmed. Though he grew up with four brothers and two sisters, only he, one brother and one sister survived the Holocaust.
In 1940, he and about thirty others were taken to Krakow-Kobierzynska. After several months, he escaped and returned to Dzialoszyce. In 1941, he and about fifty others were taken to Krakow-Kosztrze, a World War I fortification with a terrible stench. An elderly Polish man explained its source by telling them that Russian prisoners had been massacred there. He also told them to expect the same fate. For several months, Huppert and his fellow prisoners slept on hay and worked outside, where Huppert bore witness to another massacre. While working outside of the camp one day, he saw machine guns open fire on a busload of women and children, all of whom had been forced to undress and line up at the edge of a pit. When the bus left, one woman was still alive and crying; Huppert helped her out of the pit and to a nearby farm. An American, she had been unable to leave Poland when the war broke out. Huppert began throwing up regularly after that.
He and three others finally made their escape through a toilet window by bending the iron bars and jumping from the fortification at two or three in the morning. A nearby guard nearly thwarted their flight, but they killed him. It took them the better part of a day to walk back to Dzialoszyce. On the Saturday of his return, Huppert walked into services and told his parents, his rabbi, and his neighbors what was happening. He entreated them to do something about it, but many of them thought he was merely a teenager making up terrible stories, he says. Several days later, while hiding with his aunt, he learned that his father and nine others had been taken hostage by the Gestapo, which threatened to hang them if Huppert did not return to captivity. He submitted and they took him to Gestapo headquarters in Krakow-Pomorska for questioning.
He stopped talking when they asked him for his mother’s “whore’s name.”
When they pressed him for details of his escape (breaking sticks over his head with every question) and he still wouldn’t speak, they hung him by his hands and beat him until his clothes were stiff with blood. He was left in a windowless cell for over an hour, his feet barely touching the ground. When a Gestapo officer opened up his cell and asked him who had bloodied his face so badly, Huppert spit on him, hoping that he would be shot. The officer told him not to expect to be shot until the morning. When he was brought upstairs the following morning, then, he was certain that he was going to be killed, but a Jewish policeman took him back to Kosztrze instead. He learned from the policeman that after his father and the other hostages had been released, they had bribed someone to bribe the Gestapo, in turn, to let him live. The policeman let him stop at a store and get a call through to his father – his family didn’t have a telephone, but their neighbors did – to tell him that he was still alive.
At Kosztrze, he could barely eat, drink, or work. Few people recognized him at first. After several months, he was allowed a rare four-day pass to take a train home to his family. His sister had just had a baby, and his brother Joseph, he learned, had been taken to another camp in Krakow. His father made him promise to seek out Joseph if he could. After four days, his father took him back to the train station, but Huppert did not return to Kosztrze. It was early 1942. When he found out that everyone from Dzialoszyce was going to be deported, he and three cousins took passports and tried to return to their family, but they couldn’t get in: the city was already surrounded by S.S. They could hear machine guns. When it was over, they were finally able to come into the city and witness the destruction. One of his neighbors warned him that in a few hours, the S.S. would come back and deport the remaining Jews. When he sneaked out, their Jeeps were already rolling into the city.
He went to the small town of Vodislav, where Jews still remained. A family with three children took him in—until, walking in the street, he was detained and held in a building with other Jews of all ages. An S.S. officer kicked him out, however, five minutes later. Several hours later, the other detainees were shot. Huppert returned to Kosztrze, where he asked a German Jew for another favor – a pass to retrieve his brother. During the war, his father had sold leather goods, some of which he had given to Huppert as bargaining material. Once at his brother’s camp, Huppert explained his request to a Ukrainian guard, who miraculously kept his promise and let Huppert pick his brother out of a crowd of prisoners. As they left, arm in arm, another prisoner grabbed his brother’s arm, and he succeeded in taking both of them to Kosztrze. They were not to remain there, however. By the end of 1942, everyone in the camp had been sent to Krakow-Plaszow, a concentration camp still in the process of being built. There, he says, mass shootings were nearly a daily occurrence, usually orchestrated by the camp’s commander, Amon Goeth, a remorseless S.S. general. Gypsies, Jews, and the camp officers’ prostitutes all fell victim. Their fellow prisoners had to carve mass graves for them out of the hillsides. When the foundations of Huppert’s barrack collapsed, Goeth summoned the architect and shot him. When a young prisoner escaped, all of the others – there were 25,000, Huppert estimates – were ordered outside. Goeth called forth everyone who had worked with the runaway that day. (Joseph started to come forward but Huppert held him back). Ten or twelve young men came forward; all were from Dzialoszyce, and all were shot. It was the last time that any of the other prisoners were allowed to leave camp.
“There was a time we had to unload bricks,” Huppert says. “That was during the night, and we had to run – not walk, run. Whoever was strong could take it. Those who couldn’t – they shot them right on the spot.” He was there when Goeth told another prisoner, “I respect you as good workers, but too bad that you are Jews.” Once, he was brought to the police station, where he assumed that they were collecting people to be arbitrarily shot. He was recognized, however, by the chief of police, whose mother used to work for his family. The connection saved his life.
At the end of 1943, he and his brother were taken to Czestochowa, where a textile factory had been converted into an ammunition factory, and where they found their father’s youngest brother. When trouble arose – theft, probably, but he doesn’t remember the exact nature of it – their uncle’s name was called. A host of reasons made Huppert come forward in his uncle’s place: they shared the same surname; shooting probably awaited his uncle; he had fewer reasons to live than did his uncle, who had a son. Reluctant to kill a strong young worker, however, they favored him with fifty lashes, a crippling ordeal in itself.
The first night he spent working in the factory, the Pole overlooking his shift left him alone – intentionally, he says – with a machine he barely knew how to operate. He could hear something wrong with it, but he didn’t even know how to stop it. Worse still, a German official could also hear something wrong. He came up to Huppert and ordered him to turn off the machine. When the man had to do it for him, he told Huppert that he should be hung. He brought him to the manager’s attention, but the S.S. officer only dealt him a blow on the head. He returned to work the next day with black eyes. One sympathetic prisoner tutored him, until soon he was able to help others in turn.
One day, he watched Polish officials plant a bullet in the pocket of a middle-aged Jewish prisoner. When the unsuspecting man tried to go through a set of gates, they found it. The factory chief took out his gun and shot him.
In early 1944, people began to arrive from Skarzysko, another forced labor camp. Massacre struck again, sparing no demographic. It began in the ghetto hospital, Huppert says, where a distant relative of his was immobilized with a broken leg. He recognized his body later, thrown onto a truck.
Russian pilots began to bomb the area one Sunday in mid-January, and the German officials, before they escaped, tried to take the prisoners on a Death March. The prisoners made an immediate pact to remain where they were, though, and their captors fled before they could destroy any evidence. Huppert’s brother, who spoke a measure of Russian, ventured out to see what was happening. He returned at four or five in the morning with stories of bodies piled in the street. The possibility of the Germans’ return proved a more potent threat, however, and the Dzialoszyce group decided to leave the camp. Their route took them past the Russian front, where a convoy mistook them for spies until one of them explained their plight in Yiddish to the Jewish captain.
When he finally returned to Dzialoszyce, Huppert was given a key by a Jewish underground captain and told to spend the night in a sheltered room. He had not yet fallen asleep when machine guns tore apart the windows. Only a neighbor’s son’s shout kept him from being shot by the Polish army. His return to Dzialoszyce had brought him face-to-face with another pogrom, carried out this time against Jews returning after the war. The fierce anti-Semitism that had brought about the Holocaust now threatened to prolong it just when its end seemed in sight. Disgusted, Huppert fled to Sosnowiec with as many others as he could. From Sosnowiec, they left for Germany, where they lived in American camps from October of 1945 until May of 1949. In April, he began the registration process that would lead him to the United States.
Date: November 4, 1987
Length: 57 minutes
Interviewer: Esther Weine
Synopsis: Rachel Resin
Format: Video recording