Lodz (Poland), Warsaw, Szydlowiec, Radom, Auschwitz, Vaihingen
Henry was born in Lodz Poland in 1921. His father, Joseph Starkman, was a merchant, his mother was Ita, and he had two sisters: Miriam and Hannah. His family was traditional, going to synagogue and celebrating Sabbath and holidays.
He attended Hebrew High School until 1939. The children attended private schools and the family spent the summers outside the city, about twenty-five miles away. During the Depression, money became scarce for his family.
Henry was seventeen when the war began and he remembers being in the Carpathian Mountains at a camp where he had gone with his school for a number of years. He said that the political atmosphere was changing and about August 27th, camp was cut short and the war broke out a few days later. His family thought that Poland’s allies, Great Britain and France, would protect them.
When he arrived at home, the family made gas masks because they were afraid of poisoning. Air raids began and because they lived in an apartment on the third floor, the family was constantly running up and down when the sirens began. There weren’t any bomb shelters.
One day, he saw everyone running in one direction and was told that the Germans were capturing all the Jewish men. His mother told him to run toward Warsaw. He ran to his uncle’s home (his mother’s twin brother), walking for two days and nights, with no food or water, while the German planes were shelling from overhead. When he arrived at his uncle’s home, he bathed, ate and stayed for four days. He had carried his sister’s backpack by mistake and had no clothes. There was an air raid, everyone ran for shelter and he lost sight of his family. He wound up in a Jewish cemetery where he stayed for days.
There was a canning factory close by which was bombed and the fleeing Jews grabbed what they could. He was left with only jars of dill pickles. There were bodies all over the streets and alleys and the stench was unbearable.
He found a basement where he slept until a shell hit the building in which he was living. He then walked the streets until the end of that battle. On October 10th, the Germans announced that people should go back to their home towns. Henry walked back to Lodz, a distance of thirty miles. At one point, he hopped on a train, but after a few minutes, the doors opened and a German sergeant said that the Jews had to leave. The Poles could spot a Jew, and would report to the Germans, who would beat them. When Henry arrived back in Lodz, he was together with his family from October through December. Lodz was now incorporated into the German Reich.
His family decided to move to his mother’s hometown of Radom. He went with his mother and younger sister, Hannah. His father and older sister stayed behind, planning to liquidate what they could and then follow to Radom, but they became trapped in Lodz. Henry was in an apartment in the Radom ghetto with his grandmother, an aunt, his mother and his younger sister. He found a job through the Council of Elders. The provisions they got were not enough for the five of them. He worked at T.W.L., the main supply center for the SS and the Gestapo, who lived in a land of plenty. Chocolate, French wine and sardines arrived for the privileged SS and they needed staff to unload the goods. There were eighty Jews on his workforce. Henry’s mother became a cook for them. This was in the early 1940’s. He got a notice that his father had died in Lodz. After the war, Henry had the body exhumed and buried in the United States.
People were dying of hunger and disease and there were daily transports taking the weak, beggars and prostitutes out of the Ghetto, leaving the strongest there. This was the “age of innocence.” he said “we didn’t know where they were going.”
Everyone's illusions were shattered when the Germans captured the Isle of Crete. There was a ruse to exchange one captured British soldier for one family member to go to Palestine. Every family attempted to get one family member out of this HELL. The “lucky” ones got on trucks and there were constant scenes of tearful goodbyes. These people, the “lucky ones,” were taken to Szydlowiec, a town nearby. One young boy jumped off the trucks and hid. He saw the trucks unload, the people stripped, shot and thrown into graves by Ukrainian SS.
The ghetto tightened and the selections were now made at night. Any hope of a refuge was quickly fading. Henry then left the Verpflegungsmant [food supply office] for a place offering more protection. He worked the night shift at an ammunition factory. SS men guarded the kitchen where his mother was employed, both cooking and caring for Henry’s younger sister, Hannah, who was then ten years old.
One night, Henry saw a glow over the ghetto and at dawn, there were bodies strewn all over. The Ukrainians were pointing guns at them and many people were being singled out. He ran to his Grandmother’s place and found her body along with his aunt’s.
He said “In some ways she was lucky; she didn’t have to go to Auschwitz.”
Two Germans were in charge of the factory where he worked a ten hour shift. The prisoners were given one piece of bread and some watered soup every day. People were distraught regarding their missing loved ones and Henry came to the conclusion that he wouldn’t last much longer.
He sent his mother a note, asking if he should join her. He didn’t wait for her answer, but took off his armband and left and started walking towards his mother's place. This was the summer of 1942.
Henry started to work at the SS troop supply depot, TWL abbreviation for Truppenwirtschaftslager der Waffen SS. Radom was the leader of the leather industry, so the Germans, especially the SS, had talented Jews making fancy shoes for them and their families. The Jewish tailors were making custom suits and dresses from the confiscated textiles. The Jews had developed special skills so that the SS could live the “life of Riley.”
Max Klingenberg, who was a SS sergeant from Hamburg, would beat them for enjoyment. If the SS were in a good mood, they permitted the prisoners to break up boulders before having to carry them. The officers of the SS lived in a villa near the factory. They had one prisoner act as their handyman, cleaning and doing errands. His name was Huberman and the Polish women in the kitchen would slip him food which he would then slip to his sister in the Ghetto.
He was caught and beaten and put in Henry’s group of unskilled workers. The SS rounded up everyone in the group and shot Huberman through the head while they watched.
Henry’s mother was in the kitchen and his sister was in charge of peeling potatoes. She remembered cleaning blood off the SS boots. Henry comments that “the SS men grew roses and kissed their children by day and became monsters at night. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”
The ghetto was liquidated in 1943. There were about thirty-five thousand Jews from Radom. At first, horse drawn wagons were picking up bodies and then it was pushcarts. Those who were left behind heard that the Russians were advancing. Jews tried to escape through the sewers but many were caught by the Poles and shot.
After an incident at TWL, it was shut down and everyone was marched to another camp, Szkolna. All their clothes, blankets, etc. were left behind. There was another selection and his sister Hannah was selected out, but she was released from the selection because a relative knew the SS guards and he got her released. They stayed until August 1944, when everyone, including Henry, Hannah and their mother lined up to walk out of the city. They marched at night. The sick and old were shot when they lagged behind. His sister and mother were holding each other up for two days of marching. When they arrived at a warehouse, the men and women were separated and he was put on a train for Auschwitz. It was the last time he saw his mother. Henry said that the scenes are now well known, Jews coming out of the cattle cars, screaming and stripping and the youngest children being put on trucks.
It was a scene out of Hell, he said. Although a professor’s own son was put on a truck, Henry watched as the professor tried to calm two other children who were taken from their mothers.
While in Auschwitz, his sister Hannah and his mother spoke to his older sister through the wired fence. She said that their father had starved to death. She was getting boils and was afraid she would be selected. On Yom Kippur, there was a selection and they never saw the older sister again. Henry’s mother and sister were shipped to Bergen Belsen. His mother died there in March 1945 and is buried in a mass grave there. Hannah was liberated in Bergen Belsen.
Henry was sent to Vaihingen where his job was to carve a cave out of rocks for the purpose of storing weapons. He had to cut the rocks with a pick. On occasion, the guards would push the prisoners over the edge to their death. He knew now it wouldn’t be long, but what saved him, again, was the march through Vaihingen. Men, women and children all marched “like zombies,” eyes down and starving. People stood by the roadside and watched without one bit of compassion.
A man named Koch gave him a broom to sweep and suggested that Henry, who was very weak and starving, go behind the equipment and sit down. But, he said, if anyone came in, Henry should immediately stand and begin sweeping. That spring, he got typhus and was covered with lice. He was sent to the typhus barrack.
The Germans began evacuating the camp as they were about to run from the Western and Eastern Fronts which were closing in. They left the typhus barrack intact and the sick all ran to Vaihingen for food. They were liberated by the French on April 6, 1945 who de-loused them with DDT.
At the time of liberation, Henry weighed only ninety-two pounds.
The Germans were forced to evacuate a nearby village and the liberated survivors were quarantined there. The French guarded them, and brought in food every day. After about a month, when they had regained some health, they went to a nearby castle where they stayed for a time. People started traveling, looking for loved ones who survived. Someone mentioned a “Starkman” in Bergen Belsen, so Henry headed in that direction and found his younger sister, Hannah, who was now fourteen. She was scheduled to be sent to Sweden and was very ill.
In their haste for food, the starving prisoners ate all they were offered by the liberators, which, in many cases, killed them.
Hannah decided not to go to Sweden and after a few days for her to regain her health, they started going back. By this time the village had been closed and a complex of apartments in Stuttgart became a big DP camp. Hannah and Henry lived in one of these apartments and began to think about a future.
UNRRA, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency, took over a country castle called Aglasterhausen, near Heidelberg, and gathered orphans to rehabilitate them, teaching them skills of daily living such as how to eat with silverware, in addition to some basic education. Hannah went there and Henry got a job at an American GI hospital in Heidelberg, as an interpreter. He spoke German, Polish and English. He also enrolled in the University of Heidelberg as soon as it opened and was “de-Nazified.”
A social worker, Mrs. Green, learned that Henry and Hannah had relatives in Canada so she put an article in the Toronto papers which was seen by a cousin. Her nephew was a sergeant stationed in Heidelberg and he found Henry and Hannah. His name is Al Colman.
With the Truman directive of 1946, allowing orphans to come to the United States, Hannah was permitted to be on the first ship, but didn’t want to leave her brother. In May of 1946, they left together. They took the Marine Flasher to the U.S. and arrived in New York on May 20, 1946. Henry said “That’s when he was born.”
Hannah was kept temporarily in New York and Henry found shelter. He left for Detroit on the Empire Express train and stayed. He registered for the draft and took out a life insurance policy. He worked for Sid Hiller’s Shopping Center Market on Michigan and Central, sweeping floors, eventually becoming the store manager. Mr. Hiller got an apartment for Henry and Hannah on Euclid. Hannah went to Central High School and received a scholarship to Wayne University.
Henry went to night school and took accounting at University of Detroit. He continued to work at the market six days a week and eventually took his CPA exam and had his own firm. Later, he went to Wayne State University Law School and became a tax attorney for the United States Treasury Department at the IRS, Internal Revenue Service.
Hannah lives in Connecticut. Henry lives in Bloomfield Hills, is married to Sylvia and has two children: Miriam and Joseph.
Interviewer: Feannie Lieberman
Length: 2 hours, 5 minutes
Format: Video recording