Zwolen (Poland), Pionki, Policzna, Skarzysko, Czestochowa, Gross-Rosen, Nordhausen, Dora, Bergen-Belsen
Born and raised in Zwolen, Poland, Isaac Engel grew up with two brothers and a large extended family (his mother had eight siblings and his father three). His father, a nonpracticing rabbi, was in the hardware business. Engel’s education included private schooling and English lessons. He was eighteen when the German army invaded Zwolen and burned down almost three-quarters of the city. In 1941, a ghetto was created, comprising not only Zwolen Jews but those from the surrounding towns and villages as well. Engel was taken to a labor camp, Pionki, in March; he managed to escape after two weeks with another boy who knew the area. When the guards went inside to warm up, he says, they simply stepped into the woods and walked the fifteen-some kilometers back home.
In Zwolen, almost everyone had to work for the Germans in some capacity, something that led to the general conviction that the Germans would leave Zwolen alone and unharmed. They did not. The fear, he says, was impossible to describe. Everyone lived in constant fear from the German invasion of 1939 onward. When a German policeman walked by and ignored you, he says, it was a miracle.
Having no other options, his family secretly prepared a hidden room in the event that anything should happen. City officials assured them, however, that they were going to be left behind. (Several days before it happened, they were aware that the city’s Jews were going to be taken away). When the day came, in October of 1942, Engel nevertheless brought his family water and locked them – his mother, his father, and his younger brother – in the hidden room. His older brother was already away in the underground.
When the siren signaled that everyone should gather in the marketplace, he and the boys with whom he worked weren’t unduly worried. They were almost positive that they were going to remain in the city, because the same company for which they worked had left its employees behind in a city about twenty-five kilometers away. He and his coworkers therefore walked casually to the marketplace with everyone else. They were among the first group of people to be taken away. Two thousand Ukrainians had been enlisted to bring people to the railroad station in groups of five hundred. By the time they were near Policzna, Engel knew that they were being taken to a barbed wire enclosure that had been set up at the railroad station.
Five hundred people walking at the side of the road in an unseasonable heat raised enough dust to let him walk, undetected, into the woods as they passed them. If he had been seen, he would have been murdered on the spot. People were being shot along the way; the massacre had begun in the city. Young children. Old men and women who had difficulty walking. There was an elderly man of perhaps eighty years standing near him. A German policeman told him, right before he shot him, “You don’t have to live anymore; you’re old enough.” Engel wonders bitterly, now, whether he wasn’t doing him a favor.
Having escaped from the march to the railroad station, Engel hid with another boy in a field of crops, watching the march through a makeshift eyehole. When the Judenrat (Jewish Council) finally marched through, too, he knew that he was watching the last party leave; a group of community leaders forced to carry out increasingly oppressive Nazi orders, they, above all others, had been convinced that they would be left alone. Eventually he walked out of the field and, together with the other boy, went to the nearby village of Policzna. His father had once given a man there the materials that he needed to build his house. Every week, the man, a farmer, would sell his produce and livestock in town and use the money to repay Engel’s father. At this man’s house, they were given bread and milk; in a couple of days, Engel returned to Zwolen, alone, to look for his parents.
He went first to a Gentile carpenter who had also frequented his father’s hardware store. He immediately sent Engel upstairs to his home (German soldiers often came to the workshop), where he and his wife gave him tea and listened to his story. At Engel’s request, they gave a letter to the chief of the Jewish police (who had been left in town, he says, to clean up) requesting news of his family. They were not in their home. The police chief wrote in his reply that he did not know their whereabouts. Engel returned to Policzna, where, nearly two weeks after the liquidation of the Zwolen ghetto, he found out where his parents and his younger brother were. A visiting man said that he had seen them in his hometown, Ciepielow, about 10 km away. When Engel tried to go there, he ran up against a farmer driving a horse and buggy who told him that the city was surrounded and warned him not to go in. He could do nothing as Ciepielow was cleaned out. His family was taken, to the best of his knowledge, to Treblinka. It was the fate of most people from the area to be sent to the death camp. He would learn from another survivor, at the end of the war, that his older brother had been shot.
He returned to Policzna, where he was unable to escape the Germans; he ended up doing forced labor at a huge farm in Policzna, until he was sent to another labor camp, Skarzysko, in January of 1943. If you didn’t have any money, he says, you couldn’t live over six months on the food that they gave you there. He remained at Skarzysko until the summer of 1944, doing forced labor at an ammunition factory, until he and the other workers were moved to another camp, Czestochowa, because of the advancing Russians. There they continued to make bullets until the Russians threatened once more. Not everyone was moved this time, Engel says, and when Czestochowa’s directors deserted it in December of 1944, they only took a handful of prisoners with them – enough to get themselves into Germany without having to register with the army. Unfortunately, Engel was among the prisoners, all of which were taken to Gross-Rosen, a fully-fledged concentration camp. There, they had to undress and endure an examination by an S.S. man before they were given their stripes. As at Skarzysko and Czestochowa, they were eventually transferred, this time to Nordhausen, when the Russians came close enough to the camp to threaten its continued operation.
At Nordhausen, Engel says, prisoners died like flies. There was no forced labor, but there was almost no food either. Their daily rations consisted of two potatoes (one, if the potatoes were large), a little coffee, and a bit of watery soup. When they weren’t lying on cement floors, they were standing for hour-long stretches at a time and being counted several times a day. He could barely sit down or stand up during his first few weeks there. Soon the Germans scoured the prison population for carpenters: he told them he was one, but they took away others. When they needed blacksmiths, he volunteered again, and this time they took him to Dora. It was March of 1945. At Dora, he and the other prisoners made V1 and V2 rockets and received better rations. On April 15, 1945, he was liberated at Bergen-Belsen by the British army. He remained there for five years, regaining his strength and recovering from diarrhea, finally immigrating to the United States in 1949.
Date: March 13, 1989
Length: 48 minutes
Interviewer: Esther Wine
Synopsis: Rachel Resin
Format: Video recording