Breslau, Ostlinde Labor Camp, Upper Silesia Labor Camp, Frankfurt, Germany
Heinz Herzko was born in Breslau, Germany, in 1927, the only son of Walter Herzko and Martha Fulde Herzko. His parents were also from Silesia and lived in Breslau all their life. “My father was Jewish and my mother was Christian and I’m Christian too and, for that reason, we survived the Nazi Hitler’s time.” In Nazi Germany, Walter was considered to be a Jew living in a mixed marriage and Heinz was a mischling, the legal term used to denote persons deemed to have both Aryan and Jewish ancestry.
The Herzkos lived in an apartment, a little outside of Breslau, in Ohlewiesen. “There were nine apartments in this block where we lived. A lot of people in our neighborhood knew that my father was Jewish and they all were nice to us except one hard-nosed Nazi. We didn’t like him very well but he didn’t bother us very much…. The family life was very nice. My father was working. He was a decorator for men’s stores, and a salesman too. He had a good life until the Nazis came in the 30’s. My father lost his job and then we were more or less on welfare and times weren’t very good.”
Heinz personally didn’t experience any anti-Semitism except one day during Kristallnacht, the day of the broken glass. “My teacher, who must have been a Nazi, was an old man already because at that time a lot of Germans were taken into military service. He told me, ‘Heinz, go home.’ When I got home, my mother was sort of crying. She said one Nazi official came and took my father with him. Later on, we found out he was put on a train and sent to Buchenwald concentration camp. After about six weeks he was released because they had so many prisoners there that they couldn’t keep all of them. And then he came home and we lost our apartment. We had to move into the city of Breslau and we were put in a small apartment which probably belonged to Jewish people before we moved in. What happened to them I don’t know…. So, there we stayed the rest of the war years. My father didn’t have to wear the Star of David because of my mother and me.”
Another family, the Deutsch’s, also lived in their area of Ohlewiesen. “They were the same as we were; she was Christian and he was Jewish. They had two daughters and they converted to Judaism. They were our friends, and I played with them. They had to give up their apartment too and the mother and the two daughters were allowed to go to Shanghai. Why the father was not allowed to go with them, I don’t know…. They survived in China, and then they came to New York and we met them again. But their father did not survive and must have died in a concentration camp.”
On his mother’s side, Heinz had grandparents and aunts and uncles “and they treated us just like everybody else.” His father’s parents and two unmarried sisters lived on the border of Germany and Poland in Pless or Pszczyna, near Kostów. In 1936 or 1937, Heinz and his father traveled by bus to visit them. “My grandfather traded in cows and pigs and animals in general. He wasn’t very friendly to me and didn’t talk to me. I guess he held it against my father that he married a Christian. My grandmother was friendly and, as customary in Germany whenever you go to someone and you leave again, she made me a package of food stuff and goodies. My father’s two sisters were very nice girls. They were about 35-years-old. Apparently, the father was against them marrying or they didn’t find the right person to marry. All of them died in Auschwitz.”
“My parents wanted to immigrate in 1936 and 1937. Cuba was a place that would accept Jews or Mischlinge. We had to have money to go there and to pay for the ship transfer to Cuba. So, it never got to that point where we could leave Germany.”
“When the war started, they needed all the help they could get and my father worked in a factory where they made weapons…. When I was 14-years-old, I would have liked to go to college but we didn’t have the money. In those days you had to pay for it. And so, I learned a trade, tool-making. My father took me to the owner of a smaller factory of about 75 to 100 people and asked him if I could learn a trade there. My father told him that I’m Jewish and that my father was Jewish. The owner said, ‘It doesn’t make any difference. Your son can start with us.’”
Since Heinz was learning a trade, he went to work four days and to school one day until June 1944 when the Russians were close to Breslau. “I got a letter from the party officials from central headquarters in Germany, advising me that ‘At this time and this date you have to be at the railroad station and you are going to be put into a camp to dig ditches for the defense of the border.’
“There were a group like us, Mischlinge, men and a group of women. We were put in a camp in a little village on the border, Ostlinde, but we weren’t mistreated. We lived in a big barn in the summertime. When winter came in November of 1944, we were put into sort of a building, like a hotel area…. In the morning, the brown-shirted old SA men (Sturmabteilung), took us to a designated area where we had to dig the ditches…. It was an open camp. We could leave the camp and go to a little village, but we couldn’t completely run away and we couldn’t go to Breslau. However, when my aunt died in September, October of 1944, I was given a three-day leave to go to Breslau for her funeral. I had to come back. If I didn’t, they probably would have sent me to a concentration camp.
“My father was also digging ditches and was in a different camp for Jews with Christian wives. It wasn’t too far away and, on Sunday afternoon, I could visit him for a few hours. Maybe once a week we got a little package of cigarettes and I took it to my father…. My mother was home and had a job. She was very lucky. She was a good cook and had got herself a job in 1941 as a cook with a wholesaler of food. It was very good for me; she always brought a little extra home. So, we had it pretty good. She worked there until the Russians came to Breslau.”
“My father and I stayed in the labor camps until the Russians came on January 6, 1945 and had a tremendous offensive; they pushed the Germans right out. The bosses, the Sturmstaffel, were gone…. I said to my friend, Adolf, ‘What are we going to do now? Are we going to walk back to Breslau?’ The place where we did the digging was about 200-miles away from Breslau. ‘The Russians are probably going to come to Breslau. I have an aunt who lives on the Czechoslovakian border. It’s a hilly area. It’s away from Breslau. Maybe we should walk there and maybe she will take us and we can stay there and see what happens.’ So, we walked and walked and walked and we thought we had to go across the Oder River because the Germans are going to blow up the bridges and we won’t be able to go anymore. We got across the river and stopped at the next village and looked around. It was empty. We stayed in a house overnight and, in the morning, we woke up and the Russians were there. So, we went to the village square and there were some Russian officers, who put us in a guest house with 30 or 40 other German guys. Some older ones. Some really young and some probably who escaped the German army or something.
“They kept us there a couple of days and then they put us on railcars and sent us to Upper Silesia, the second largest industrial area in Germany. We were staying in what used to be a Russian prison of war camp, but the prisoners of war were all gone. It was on the outskirts of one of the cities, Katowice, Gliwice, and Bytom, all clustered in this area…. We disassembled all of the heavy machinery and put them on railroad cars. They had cranes. It was all going to Russia…. That lasted from May 1945 until October, November 1945, and then the Russians put us in the railroad cars again and we thought it’s going to be Siberia now. You can’t explain anything to the Russians. If we would have said, ‘Our father was Jewish and that we suffered under the Nazis,’ that didn’t ring a bell with the Russians and we had no proof or anything.
“We sat in the railroad cars one day, two days, three days, nothing moved. That was the time when there was the Berlin conference, when Truman, Stalin, and Churchill, were meeting. The third day, the Russians came again, counted ten guys at a time and told us to go home, until we were all gone. We were civilians, not military prisoners. Maybe the Berlin conference had something to do with our release….
“Then we walked home, 200-miles to Breslau. We only could walk about 30-miles a day and stopped in little villages along the way and those people treated us well. Eventually we went back to Breslau. There was a little Jewish committee already and I knew where it was because my father and I went there every once in a while… And they said, ‘Oh, your mother is waiting for you.’ I said, ‘My mother is alive?’ ‘And your father too.’ Unbelievable. So, I walked from there to our apartment. And boy my mother was happy…. The Germans were defending the city to practically the last day of the war and my mother and father survived the tremendous siege, not shooting or anything, but they had to clean the apartments and the houses so the Germans could put soldiers in there.”
In November, 1945, they left Breslau and went to Frankfurt. “We couldn’t live in Frankfurt; half of the city was bombed out. There were seven or nine-million refugees from the eastern part of Germany who had to go to West Germany. A tremendous amount of people. And they had to spread them out. They couldn’t put them in the city because the big cities were all bombed, Hamburg and Berlin, and Frankfurt, and Munich. So, we lived in the outskirts. The only thing is we didn’t have enough to eat even though we lived on a farm…. I went to work for a Swiss company in Frankfurt. My father worked for the Americans. He was a specialist in clothing and worked in a factory that made uniforms for the American occupation troops. The good thing was the Americans would give the Germans one meal at noon, because all the little ration cards we got was hardly enough.”
After about one year in Frankfurt, a Jewish organization was established and arranged for the Herzkos to go to America. “My father didn’t really want to go that much but my mother wanted to go and I wanted to go. In May, 1948, we came to America…. I had a good trade and we were sent to Detroit. We lived on West Grand Boulevard until I got married. My father worked for Chrysler and my mother cooked. I got a job with Massey Ferguson in the experimental shop, building tractor prototypes, and all of a sudden, we had more than enough to eat. All the worries were over, more or less.”
Although they were helped to resettle by a Jewish communal organization, “We weren’t in contact with any Jewish people except the few German Jewish people that we knew.” Heinz met his wife Trudy at a German picnic. Her family came over from Germany in the 20’s, when she was three-years-old. She brought a son to their marriage, Kenneth Cymbalsky. She had married at the end of the war and her husband was drafted and sent to Germany in 1944 and was a casualty in the last two weeks of the war.
“In 1950, I was all settled and all of a sudden, I got a draft notice. I said, ‘I can’t believe it. I got out of this horrible life just a few years ago.’ Of course, I had to go into the American army. I was sent for basic training to Fort Knox. I spent there a year. I was in an ordinance company that repairs jeeps, trucks, and tanks. I was happy there because I could get a three-day pass and take a bus to Detroit overnight and spend a few days there over the weekend. It was nice but it didn’t last.” Heinz was sent to an ordinance company that was being shipped to Hanau, Germany, outside of Frankfurt. Not only could he visit his wife’s relatives, but since he could speak German, the company commander asked him to accompany his wife on shopping trips to the city. “So, you could imagine I had it pretty good.”
Heinz’s mother Martha died in 1974 and is buried in Farmington Hills, Michigan. In 1974, his father Walter decided to move to Berlin, a big city, and lived in the Jewish senior home that had been there since 1850 and where his grandfather had lived a long time ago. He lived there for a year before they built a brand new Jewish senior home on one of the lakes in Berlin. He died in 1983 and is buried in the West Berlin Jewish Cemetery.
Heinz tells his story so “Hopefully people will learn from it, and hopefully it won’t repeat itself. That’s all we can hope for. Hopefully it will never happen again.”
Date of Interview: June 19, 2019
Length of Interview: 55 minutes
Interview & Synopsis by: Zieva Konvisser
Videographer: Mark Einhaus