Krakow (Poland), Bierzanow, Skarzysko, Czestochowa, Buchenwald, Death March
George Laksberger was born Jeizy Felix Laksberger in Krakow, Poland in 1927. His father Maximilian was a prominent lawyer in Poland, allowing for George, his mother Erma, and his sister Ada to live in relative comfort in Krakow. George’s family resided in a well-furnished apartment that had central heating and an icebox, luxuries which other poorer Jews living in Krakow did not have. George describes his family as being assimilated into the larger Polish population, although George remembers receiving ridicule in the Polish schools he attended as a boy. Every day before class at his school, the class stood up to do Christian prayers, a ceremony George did not participate in because of his Jewish background. The other students bullied him in school for this reason. George did not attend Hebrew schools because the part of town he lived in was far from the Jewish sector of Krakow, making the walk to Hebrew schools too inconvenient. George also describes his family as being rather secularized. George’s family did not go to the synagogue on Shabbat, nor did they keep kosher or speak Yiddish, although they did observe the Jewish high holidays.
Despite George’s family being well aware of the rise of Nazism in neighboring Germany, they never imagined Hitler would be able to commit such atrocities. George remembers that, the year before the war, all ethnic Polish Jews living in Germany at the time were expelled to the Polish border. Germany’s attack on Poland on September 1, 1939, came as a complete surprise to those living in Krakow. Within a day, the city was occupied by German soldiers. Only a few days later, George recalls the beginning of many edicts that segregated the Jewish community from the larger Polish population in Krakow. George was no longer able to attend public schools, and all Jews were issued white armbands with a blue Star of David on it. Eventually, the German occupying forces posted a declaration, instructing all Jews to report to a ghetto in Krakow. Because George’s maternal grandparents were of ethnic German decent, his family avoided going to the ghetto in Krakow, and, instead, relocated to a small suburb of Krakow called Prokocim.
However, the temporary peace in Prokocim did not last. George remembers that many Jews in their community began being rounded up into trucks, disappearing and never being heard from again. George asserts that the captives who were forced into the trucks were asphyxiated when the exhaust was circulated back into the body of the trucks. Some Polish Jews began escaping to the Soviet border, but many, like George’s family, remained where they were. George’s family remained in Prokocim until the Autumn of 1940, when they were placed in a new labor camp near Krakow, known as Bierzanow. At Bierzanow, George and his family were forced into labor, working on a railway line to the Soviet border. George’s father Maximilian was the head of the Jewish committee within the camp, taking record of the Jewish inmates and resolving any disputes the inmates had. George and his father lived separately from Erma and Ada in their designated barrack, yet they had the freedom to visit them every day. While George and his father worked on the railway line, Erma and Ada worked in the camp’s kitchen, making food for the inmates. Food was meager, but, since George’s father had plenty of money on him, he was able to obtain food through the black market. The camp’s guards were ethnic Ukrainians, who despised the Jewish prisoners, beating them often and severely.
Once the work on the railway line was complete, George and his family were shipped by train to another labor camp in Poland called Skarzysko. At Skarzysko, George and his family worked in a munitions factory, operating machinery in the production of weapons. There, they worked grueling hours, and the conditions were far worse than what they had experienced at Bierzanow. They remained there a year and a half. From Skarzysko, George and his family were once again transported to a third labor camp in Poland, Czestochowa. By that time, George and his family heard rumors of the horrors of what was happening in concentration camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau and Treblinka. Once again, George and his family worked in a munitions plant, but, this time, they worked in different sectors. By this time, the Soviets began pushing into the Eastern border of Poland, which hampered the production of weapons in the factory. The prisoners often had to hide in the bomb shelters at the camp with the German guards, as to prevent them from fleeing.
As the Soviets drew closer to Czestochowa, the German authorities decided it was time to relocate George again. This time his destination was Buchenwald, but, unlike before, George’s mother and sister were not transported along with him and his father. George and his father were abruptly shipped off in a train during the dead of winter. While traveling to Buchenwald, the prisoners received no food or water, accounting for hundreds of deaths during transit. Once there, the prisoners were stripped bare and shaved from head to foot. They stood more than twelve hours in the bitter cold without any clothes, while they were being processed. The guards then marched them into a building, where they were submerged in a large vat of chemicals. Next, the other Jewish inmates painted their bodies with a harsh smelling chemical that rid their bodies of lice. Last, they had a number tattooed on their arms for identification.
Conditions at the camp were far worse than any other George had yet been at. The prisoners received rations of food that accounted for only about three-hundred calories per day. They were forced to transport large rocks within the camp, and they were also marched to the nearby city of Weimar, where they would clear bodies and rubble after Allied bombings. Although George recalls no prisoners being sent directly to the crematorium in Buchenwald, there was a new supply of dead bodies each day from the extreme labor and harsh conditions of the camp. After only about a month in the camp, George’s father contracted dysentery and died only days later.
In Spring 1945, as Allied troops closed in on the camp, George was forced on a death march for three weeks to another camp, receiving no food or water on the trip. For days, the prisoners lived off grass and any food they could find in the German countryside. One day, while stopping in a clearing for their daily respite, the prisoners heard gunfire and tanks on a nearby road. The German guards fled as quickly as possible, but, they were all shot down by the American troops that were closing in. The Americans quickly rushed to the prisoners’ aid, giving them whatever food they had. George was then taken to a convent in a small village, where he was hospitalized for contracting typhoid fever. Weeks later, he awoke in an army field hospital, where he received intensive care. Afterwards, upon recovering, George ended up working for the American Army in Frankfurt. One day, while on the streets of Frankfurt, George spotted a neighbor of his he remembered from Poland. This former neighbor informed George that his mother and sister were alive and well back in Krakow. They had actually been liberated by the Soviet Army the day following George and his father’s shipment to Buchenwald. Shocked and overcome with joy, George began corresponding to his family by letter.
In 1946, through the UNNRA, George was able to immigrate to the United States, living under the sponsorship of a former acquaintance of his father. In 1950, George met and married his wife, Sonia, before being drafted into the U.S. Army for the Korean War. George became a U.S. citizen in 1953, and, for the first time since the Holocaust, he met his mother in person, who was now living in Israel. George later opened up his own business called Wayne Appliance, which he ran for forty years, until his retirement in 1996. George and his wife had three boys, and he now has a granddaughter. In the nineteen-seventies, George took a trip to Poland that helped to heal the wounds left by the war; he was finally able to come to terms with his experiences during the Holocaust and to talk openly about them.
Date: November 10, 1999
Interviewer: Donna Sklar
Length: 1 hour 49 minutes
Format: Video Recording