This oral history video interview is available at the USC Shoah Foundation website through the
generosity of the Eugene and Marcia Applebaum Family Foundation
Ostrolenka (Poland), Pruzhany, Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, Buchenwald, Langenstein, Zwieberge (of Buchenwald)
Ben Kawer is the youngest of four children of Hersh L. and Dina Kawer of Ostrolenka, Poland. His siblings in order of age are Rochelle, Lazar, and Ester. Shortly after his birth the family moved to Hajnowka, a town with a population of about 25,000 persons of which about 120 families were Jewish. His father was initially a logger, but later became owner and operator of a brick factory. The family practiced Orthodox Judaism and the spoken language at home was Yiddish. Because the young Kawer attended Polish public schools, he was also fluent in Polish. Besides his formal education in the public schools, he also received an extensive education in Jewish studies. Mr. Kawer describes his childhood as a happy one, even though both he and his family were subjected to a considerable amount of anti-Semitism.
After the start of the war in September 1939, his hometown was overrun by the German army who stayed for a few days. During that period the Germans demanded large payments of goods and food from the Jewish population. About two weeks later, following the establishment of formal borders between Germany and the Soviet Union, his hometown became part of the Soviet-occupied zone.
During the Soviet occupation, his father’s factory was nationalized, but his father was retained as manager. In general, life continued as before. Ben Kawer continued in school, now operating in Russian, and he quickly learned Russian even though the Cyrillic alphabet was used.
Following the German attack of the Soviet Union in June 1941, their hometown again fell under German control and they again were subjected to demands by the Germans for Jewish assets. In August 1941, all the Jews were rounded-up and marched to a ghetto established in Pruzany. During the march Ben Kawer witnessed the killing by the Germans of his hometown’s only doctor and rabbi. His entire family, except his sister Rochelle, went to the ghetto and was confined in a single room. Rochelle stayed behind since she was bearing a child. She subsequently joined them. Ben Kawer was selected for slave labor in the construction of a highway and was housed during that period in a barrack constructed at the work site. He then returned to the ghetto where life was quite bad.
The ghetto in Pruzany was dissolved in January 1943, and all persons were transported in cattle cars without food, water, or sanitary facilities to Auschwitz. The entire Kawer family, parents, brother, and both sisters along with their husbands and children were together at that time. During the selection process at Auschwitz, Ben Kawer stayed close to his brother who was 11 years older than he. The two were selected for labor. All the other members of his family were slated for extermination. The brothers never saw any of their family again.
Ben Kawer and his brother were sent to the adjacent Birkenau (Auschwitz 2) where their heads were shaved, they were deloused, issued uniforms and wooden shoes, and registered. Ben Kawer was tattooed on his left arm with number 98,910. Conditions at Birkenau were very poor and it was very crowded. An adjacent unit housed gypsies who all disappeared one day, and were presumably taken to the gas chambers.
After six weeks at Birkenau, the two brothers were taken back to Auschwitz and assigned to the Bahnhof Kommando (railroad station unit) for the purpose of unloading 50 kg. (approximately 100 pounds) bags of cement from trains. He did this heavy work for about five months, and then was sent to Buna (Auschwitz 3).
Ben and his brother were sent to Buna to work in the construction of a factory which was intended to be used by the I. G. Farben Company to produce synthetic rubber. He was assigned the relatively easy job of scrubbing and painting metal panels and pipes. However, his brother was given the very hard and hazardous job of digging for and laying pipes, a job with a high fatality rate. Through the efforts of his Capo, a German political prisoner, Mr. Kawer was able to get his brother transferred to his painting unit. Ben believes he saved his brother’s life through this transfer.
At this work site, Ben befriended a Polish Christian civilian worker living in a nearby town who, at great personal risk, managed to bring into the camp various food items on a regular basis which the brothers shared. The brothers attributed their survival to this food. This person even offered Ben the opportunity to escape from Buna, but Ben wouldn’t leave without his brother and only one could go. In gratitude, Mr. Kawer later attempted to nominate this person for the Righteous Among Nations award presented by Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial, but he was unable to find any trace of this friend
In December 1944 or January 1945, Mr. Kawer does not recall the exact dates, as Soviet troops were nearing, the camp was evacuated and its inmates marched to Gleiwitz, and then transported by train to the concentration camp Buchenwald near Weimar, Germany. After a few days he and his brother, and a newly acquired friend, formerly of Belgium, were sent to the labor camp Zwieberge, a sub-camp of Buchenwald, near Halberstadt, Germany, to work in the construction of tunnels to house a manufacturing plant.
He describes the living conditions as extremely primitive, he slept on the floor of the barrack as there were no bunks, and received minimal rations. The work conditions in the mine were very poor and hazardous. He and the other slave laborers had to work without any protective clothing or breathing devices under dangerous conditions. The death rate among the workers was quite high. In order to obtain extra food, Mr. Kawer also helped in the disposal of the dead bodies into a large, common grave pit.
About April 10, 1945, the labor camp was closed and the inmates were taken on a forced march to an unknown destination. No food was provided. After four days and in a weakened condition due to not having eaten, Ben could no longer go on. Fearing that he would be shot, Ben along with his brother and two friends were successful in escaping into the fields while under fire by the guards. Ultimately, the group encountered American soldiers who helped them by securing food and shelter for them.
One of the men that Ben and his brother befriended in the labor camp, David Stern from Belgium, then suggested that, should the two brothers survive, they should come to Belgium. The boys took his advice and indeed were reunited with their friend, who saw to it that they were well treated. In Belgium, Mr. Kawer’s brother married a Jewish camp survivor, originally from Poland.
Since a cousin of their father’s lived in Costa Rica, the brothers decided to move there. On the way to Costa Rica, the brothers stopped in the U.S. where another of their father’s cousins persuaded Ben to stay and his cousin made the necessary arrangements. Ben’s brother and sister-in-law continued the trip to Costa Rica.
In the United States, Mr. Kawer intensively continued his interrupted education, ultimately graduating from Great Lakes College. He worked several jobs while establishing an insurance business which became quite successful. He became a U.S. citizen in 1953. He was married, is now widowed, has three children – a son and two daughters – and five grandchildren, photos were shown.
Except for his brother, Mr. Kawer’s entire original family – father, mother, sisters, in-laws, nieces and nephews – all perished during the Holocaust. He still suffers from the effects of his experiences with recurring bad dreams and vivid memories.
Interview and Synopsis by: Hans Weinmann
Date of Interview: June 28, 2005
Length of Interview: 2 hours 4 minutes
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