Garfinkel, Nathan

Biala-Podlaska, Chmielnik, Skarzysko-Kamienna, Czestochowa, Buchenwald

Garfinkel, born in 1920, recalls considerable anti-Semitism in Chmielnik, Poland, where he was raised. He states that he was frequently harassed in school. As a child he joined the Betar movement and later Hashomer Hatzair as he began to lean politically more to the left.

Life changed drastically when the Germans entered Poland in 1939. Garfinkel recalls being herded outside on the second day of occupation and forced to stand facing several Germans with machine guns before finally being allowed to leave. His father's grain business was ruined, and Garfinkel occasionally went directly to farms to buy wheat. On one such occasion he remembers being stopped by a German officer and told he was trespassing. Because he didn't wear his armband, he was whipped and forced to count the blows. If he lost count, he had to start over again. After the beating, a rope was tied to his wrist and while the German rode his horse, Garfinkel was forced to run behind until he fell and was dragged for some distance.

Garfinkel frequently refers to the dehumanization at the hands of the Nazis, feeling that this was the hardest thing to bear. His father, a Chassid, was stopped on the street by a group of Germans who cut off his beard with a bayonet and then beat him. He remembers his father covering his bare chin with a scarf tied over his head and from that time on, he states, his father gave up and was ready to die.

In 1940 Garfinkel was sent to a work camp at Biala-Podlaska on the River Bug. There he worked diverting the river for irrigation and unloading trains. He describes the food as plentiful but states that living conditions were terrible. The prisoners were constantly brutalized by the Polish and Ukrainian guards.

At the end of 1940 Garfinkel was returned to Chmielnik. The ghetto there was constantly shrinking and food was scarce. Garfinkel's younger sister smuggled and another sister "organized" food wherever she could.

In October 1942 he and his sisters were taken on the first transport to the Skarzysko-Kamienna labor camp. He recalls that, while waiting in Kielce for the train, they were all crowded into one structure. When they had to relieve themselves, they were forced to do so in a field of a grass that caused severe itching. The Germans called the Poles to watch and they laughed and called the Jews animals.

As they entered Skarzysko Garfinkel remembers seeing a young woman with a shawl being grabbed by a German who pulled the shawl away to reveal a nursing infant. He bayonetted the infant and later shot the mother. Garfinkel was sent to Barracks A, his sisters to B. Living conditions were poor and typhus rampant. He worked in an ammunition factory and received two bowls of soup and one slice of bread a day. He recalls several beatings and describes the "musikstube" at Skarzysko, a small room used exclusively for beatings. One guard stood in each corner and they kicked and beat the prisoner back and forth between them.

Garfinkel's sisters arranged with their lagerführer to have him transferred to Section B where he worked in a potato processing plant and had more food to eat. Garfinkel recalls being caught once throwing potatoes from the factory over a fence to other inmates. The lagerführer saved his life by telling the guards that Garfinkel was his best worker and was only doing what he was told.

In 1944, with the front nearing, Skarzysko was evacuated and Garfinkel was sent to Czestochowa where he continued to work in the potato factory, which had also been moved. While there, he recalls bargaining with God that if he and his sisters were saved, he would sacrifice any part of his body in return. The next day, while he was cleaning a machine, his hand was caught and severely damaged.

He remained in Czestochowa for four to six months and then was evacuated to Buchenwald. He describes Buchenwald as a "haven" with adequate food and no work. He was kept there for four to five weeks and then taken on a death march on April 6 or 7, 1945. They walked for four weeks and had food for only the first two or three days. Garfinkel recalls seeing a storage ditch for potatoes with a few potatoes left and he and several others jumped into the ditch to get them. Suddenly the SS opened fire with machine guns. He remembers feeling blood all over him and finally crawling out from under 20 to 30 dead bodies. The SS guards ran away in May, and the prisoners were liberated by the U.S. Army on May 8, 1945. Out of the 1,600 prisoners who began the march, only 164 survived.

Garfinkel spent several months in hospitals in Germany having surgery and skin grafting on his hand, which had become infected on the march. He remained in Germany until 1951, when he joined his sisters in the United States.

Garfinkel openly expresses guilt at having survived.

Interview Information:

Date: April 13, 1983
Interviewer: Donna Miller
Format: Audio recording

Date: March 1, 1985
Format: Video recording

Date: September 3, 1987
Format: Video recording

Date: May 19, 1993
Speaking with a group
Format: Video recording

Date: June 1, 1994
Speaking with a group
Format: Video recording

Date: January 11, 1995
Speaking with a group
Format: Video recording