Nowy Sacz (Poland), Muszyna, Tarnów, Rymanów, Trzebinia, Auschwitz, Dora Nordhausen, Bergen-Belsen
Mr. Moshe Keller was born in Nowy Sacz, Poland in 1914. His parents were Israel Chaim and Hindel Yochevet Keller. There were thirteen children, ten brothers and three sisters. Mr. Keller recalls that his father was a very hard worker and that he wanted the best for his children. The family lived in a small apartment because no landlord was willing to give a nice place to a family with thirteen children. Tenants did not want to live where there were lots of children in the building.
Mr. Keller studied at several yeshivas. At age 15, a man named Mendel Wexler taught him at the Yeshiva in Kraków, Poland.
September 1st, 1939 the Germans came and occupied Nowy Sacz right away. Mr. Keller says that it was a bitter, bitter time. He explains that every German soldier, no matter the rank, did not have to think about what he did to a Jew. Whoever he shot, whomever he killed, was good for him. Nobody had to give a reason to shoot a Jew. Nobody cared what you did to the Jews.
Mr. Keller remembers that a very special Chief from the Gestapo named Heinrich Hamann arrived one month after the Germans occupied the city. He took fifteen to twenty Jewish men to jail. Everyday there were new orders and everyone became afraid to go out of their home.
Mr. Keller was in Nowy Sacz until the end of 1941. During that time he does not know how many people had survived. He recalls that Henrich Hamann would often take his officers on their horses and go into the Jewish Ghetto to shoot the Jews living there. On one of these occasions, Hamann’s brother-in-law told him to stop, that it was enough. Hamann beat his own brother-in-law who then later died in the hospital.
In 1941, Mr. Keller’s entire family was still living in Nowy Sacz, except for a younger brother, Shimone, who had moved away to Russia (then China and eventually moved to Israel). Mr. Keller remembers when they began to take the Jews in the city. “They didn’t catch me. I was lucky. If I would have caught me, I wouldn’t have gone one step more.” They took him from his home and sent him to the first concentration camp, Muszyna. While he was there he said that it was a very bad time at home. He had his way of getting in and out of the camp at nighttime. In the camp he had nothing to eat but he was able to secretly get bread to send to his family in Nowy Sacz. He knows that this was a very dangerous thing he did.
Then there was a report from someone that Heinrich Hamann rounded up all of the Jews together in Nowy Sacz and told them that if they did not leave and go to Belzitz they would be killed in the morning. His whole family went to this place and perished. Nowy Sacz once held 20,000 Jewish families, but some of the families had run away to Russia. The day that they took Mr. Keller’s family, Hamann moved 18,000 Jews, put them on trains, and sent them directly to Belzitz where they were all immediately put into false showers and barracks and gassed. They left forty or fifty boys to clean the city, but it was all in fire and not one of them came home.
Mr. Keller tells that nobody came out of Belzitz. He says that the Germans took pictures of what went on in the camp to prove that as soldiers they do what they want. It was a pleasure for them. This is the only reason Jews found out about what happened in Belzitz.
Mr. Keller says it was a bitter time but soon they had orders in Muszyna to bring the Jews back to Nowy Sacz. When they arrived they did not know what to say. Everything and everyone they knew was gone.
Mr. Keller was then sent to Tarnów and back and forth to different ghettos. They did this for a few weeks and then they were sent to Rymanów where they had to clean up the whole camp and send everything away to Kraków. Mr. Keller said that they could not wash while staying at Rymanów because there was barely water for soup, and lice crawled all over their bodies. From Rymanów they were sent to Trzebinia where conditions were a little better but it was still a concentration camp and the boss was still German. It was from Trzebinia that Mr. Keller was sent to Auschwitz.
Mr. Keller then recalled a memory: “When I came into Auschwitz in the beginning of 1943, I was in a group of 1,600 to 1,700 people. We would stay in line to go through a door where Dr. Mengele was sitting on a chair saying, ‘you go right, you go left.’ That is what we saw, but we knew a little more what was going on. You go right go in oven, you go left you were going to camp. When in line, a German came and saw a woman with a child in her hands that was about two years old. He went up to her and grabbed him by his two feet, took him down the stairs and slammed his head against the wall. He then took the body and flung him away. If I could have jumped up and bit the German in the neck, it would have been cold, but I would have been satisfied. You have to have iron nails to hold yourself back from something like this because when you say something bad about Germany, they kill everybody.
Years later, when Mr. Keller presented this incident to a group of children at school, there came a man around 27 years of age who asked me if I really saw this happen. “It is not good that he doesn’t believe it, but I can understand that these things I saw were not believable or understandable. They could never be. It is impossible to believe what Germany could do.”
Upon his arrival in Auschwitz, Mr. Keller was given the number 161269 which is tattooed on his forearm. He was in Auschwitz-Birkenau for about a year. He was assigned as an Auschwitz electrician; one of a group of the fifty electricians in the camp. This provided the ability to work in multiple places throughout the day allowing a little bit of freedom to move around from place to place.
In Auschwitz there were two groups of people. One group wanted to have their lives taken away after they had seen what went on inside of the camp. They could smell the gas and they wanted to die long before that gas could take them. In the other group, people were hoping to get sent other places for a chance at life to live.
Unlike in Muszyna, where Mr. Keller could escape every night, in Auschwitz people who tried to escape would be shot on sight and beaten. In Muszyna you could leave, but the consequence was that ten others were shot in exchange for the escapee. One day, Chief David Schlussel asked Mr. Keller to go with five or six boys to a different place, but Mr. Keller refused knowing he could escape on his own if he wanted too. He never left Muszyna because he could not carry the weight of death to ten men on his shoulders. When he asked Schlussel if anyone would survive if he did leave, there was no answer and they never talked again.
While Mr. Keller was at Trzebinia, an officer came to take ten people. The soldier began to take the women, but when he reached the fourth one that he wanted, that woman’s sister jumped on him and begged him not to shoot her because she had a child. She begged him to take her in her sister’s place and to bless her. The soldier agreed and took away the sister and shot her. He took another woman and then moved on to the men.
Mr. Keller remembers the soldier coming directly for him. “I called to my father, who I knew in my heart was no longer in this world, I call to him and the soldier turned away, picked five other men, and shot them.”
Mr. Keller remembers that after Auschwitz he was taken to Dora Nordhausen. He lived in barracks and worked in the coal mines. He worked in the coal mines for only two weeks before he was given a special job that would take him and ten to twelve other electricians back to Auschwitz. To prove that he once worked as an electrician, Mr. Keller told them about his college education and the five other places he had been an electrician. He was given the job and sent to work in Auschwitz.
During this time in Dora Nordhausen, the Americans, the English and the Russians were in Germany. There was talk about gas. Very quickly the Germans came into the camp with trucks and took as many people as they could to Bergen-Belsen. When they arrived they saw a few hundred women poisoned and by the end, 400 to 500 were dead.
Mr. Keller was placed on a train for four days that was travelling from Dora Nordhausen to Bergen-Belsen. There was only bread and water and a bit of meat or fish. In an hour, they had eaten everything on the train and after three days the only thing they had left was a little bit of brown water. One hundred hours, four days later, the train arrived at the camp without a drop of water left.
Several months after Mr. Keller was liberated from Bergen-Belsen by the English Army he left for Hannover. For five years in Hannover he had a kosher restaurant. In 1950, he received his papers and came to the United States to live. With a friend in New York he started a small shop where he sold remnants and other products to the local residents.
Mr. Keller wanted to go to Europe but he only had American papers. He stayed in America for a while, expanding his store until he could once again travel back to Europe. In 1967, Mr. Keller was married in London to his wife who was from French Tangier. He has three daughters. One daughter lives in Detroit and the other two live in New York.
Mr. Keller had one last comment: “If the government sees that someone has something against a group of people; destroy it, jail it, put it away because they will only cause destruction.”
Date: July 2, 2002
Interviewer: Rabbi Charles Rosenzveig
Length: 1 hour and 25 minutes
Format: Video Recording