Rachowa (Poland), Skarzysko, Czestochowa, Buchenwald, Death March, Dachau
Born in Rachowa, Poland in 1913, Morris Kirsch was the middle child in a family with five other siblings, among whom were two brothers, Isic and Naftola, and two sisters, Tova and Ruchel. His father Zadic owned tailor shop in Rachowa, and he sold clothes to local farmers, who, in turn, would sell them in the marketplace. Rachowa was a small village in Poland with a population of only five-hundred, one-hundred of whom were Jewish. In Rachowa, Morris attended an orthodox Jewish school called Heder until the age of thirteen; thereafter, he worked at home with his parents tailoring clothes. Morris does not recollect having a very happy childhood; many of his memories of early childhood in Poland bring to mind the poor conditions in which he lived (seven family members living in a one-room apartment), the meager rations of food at home and the Anti-Semitism that was prevalent in Poland.
Morris and his family moved away from Rachowa during his adolescent years to the much larger city of Lodz, where his family sought better wages and living conditions. In Lodz, the Kirsch family continued on with their tailoring business, although their family fortunes did not improve there. Despite this, Morris remembers feeling more comfortable living in a city with a larger Jewish community. While living in Lodz, Morris joined many politically oriented organizations, including one group that sought a Socialist form of government in Poland. Morris explains that this group hoped for a system of government, in which all individuals were equal and could earn better wages, but, as Morris emphasizes, they in no way supported a Fascist form of government. In the late 1930s, Morris tried to make his own living in Oberschlesien, Poland near the German border, but, when that did not pan out, he returned to Lodz, once again to live with his family.
In 1938, Morris remembers hearing about Hitler for the first time, as he recalls many Jews being forced out of Germany to the Polish border. Morris began to believe that both war with Germany and German occupation were inevitable. Once Morris realized that war was unavoidable, he had plans to go to either Latvia or Estonia, but, before that was possible, the German war machine entered Poland in September 1939. But before the German forces were able to occupy Lodz, Morris fled east to Warsaw, where he sought to aid Polish forces in putting up a resistance. During his flight from Lodz to Warsaw, Morris recalls one instance very vividly that occurred on September 3, 1939 in the city of Lowicz. There, while passing through the streets, Morris witnessed a pious Jewish man (Morris says pious for he wore both a kippah and a tallit) beaten to death by a crowd of normal Polish citizens. Taken for an ordinary Polish citizen, Morris escaped the crowd, but the memory of the beating lasts in Morris’s mind; he points to this instance, in which he says he began to doubt his faith.
The plan to go to Warsaw ultimately failed, as Morris only remembers attempting to put up a barricade, before the resistance was easily quashed by the fast-moving German army. Once Warsaw had been successfully occupied, a group of German soldiers marched Morris and many other Polish prisoners back to Lodz. In May 1940, the ghetto in Lodz was first established. During this period, Morris and his family worked tailoring uniforms for the German army, and they received ration cards from the Jewish officials. Ironically, Morris recalls his family having more food to eat while living in the ghetto using the ration cards, than he ever did with the meager amount of money his family earned tailoring clothes. As time moved on in the ghetto, however, Morris’s situation became ever worse. People he knew began disappearing, and there were selections for Jews to report to labor camps each day before work. One day in 1943, Morris received a letter from a Jewish official, instructing him to report to a holding station in Lodz, where he would later be transported from there to a labor camp. At this point Morris began to fear for his life, for he remembers hearing rumors of the crematoriums in the concentration camps. Morris remained in the holding station two weeks before being shipped off by train to the labor camp Skarzysko.
In Skarzysko, Morris lived in a barrack that was one mile away from a munitions factory, where he worked making bullets for the German army. The prisoners’ daily ration of food included a thin, watery soup with a scant amount of vegetables and a quarter pound of bread. There were fifty prisoners to one barrack and Morris’s bedding consisted of a hard platform with no mattress or even a blanket. The guards at the camp were fellow Jews known as kapos, who were given privileges over the other inmates. The kapos were often cruel, administering beatings and taking away the prisoners’ daily rations of food as punishment, sometimes for doing nothing at all. In 1944, as Russian troops began to encroach into German occupied territory, the camp’s inmates were shipped off to another labor camp known as Czestochowa. The conditions in Czestochowa were much the same as Skarzysko, except that the kapos became even worse as they stole more and more food from the prisoners; for this reason, many of the common prisoners starved to death. Morris recalls one instance of being beaten, in which he forgot to remove his hat in the presence of the camp’s commandant. He was lashed repeatedly, and Morris vividly remembers the blood that was pouring down his back from the beating while he was in the camp’s showers. In Czestochowa, a few of the prisoners in the camp gathered together to listen to a radio that the prisoners had smuggled into the camp. On it, they heard the news that the Germans were beginning to lose the war on the Eastern front; this more than anything kept Morris fighting each day to survive.
As the Russian army pushed ever deeper into German occupied territory, the German officials once again decided to move the prisoners, but this time to the concentration camp Buchenwald. In January 1945 during the night, hundreds of prisoners including Morris were forced into cattle trains, one-hundred inmates per car. The train cars were sealed air tight as they traveled non-stop for two weeks from Czestochowa to Buchenwald with no food, no water, and no sanitation whatsoever. Once in Buchenwald, the prisoners who had been able to survive the gruesome train ride were processed. Each day the prisoners were rounded up outside in the freezing temperatures for a headcount. Morris points out that at least one-hundred prisoners died at a time, while waiting outside in the blistering cold to be counted. Morris recalls very little work within the camp; he only remembers lying in the barracks every day for hours on end, waiting for the next headcount. As the war was drawing to a close, the prisoners were often taken to the nearby city of Weimar, where they cleaned up rubble from Allied bombings. The German guards became so disillusioned with knowing that they were going to lose the war that they allowed the prisoners to take back things with them into the camp such as food and other items.
Between April 6 and April 28,, 1945, Morris and many other prisoners were forced on a death march, relocating from Buchenwald to Dachau. Morris remembers sleeping in ditches much of that time. Prisoners who could no longer walk were shot on the spot. In one instance on the march, Morris recalls seeing Polish citizens pushing some of the weak, emaciated prisoners in a twenty-foot wide ditch merely for sport. On April 28, just as Morris was about to lose all hope by falling over, a German guard informed the prisoners that they were only four miles from Dachau. This gave Morris the incentive to outlast the march, and, thankfully for him, only one hour after arriving in Dachau, American troops liberated the camp. Morris remained in Dachau for few days after its liberation, while the American troops fed and clothed the prisoners. After gorging himself on copious amounts of food from them American troops, Morris contracted dysentery and was placed in St. Ottilien near Landsburg, Germany in the vicinity of Munich for recovery. Afterwards, from May to December 1945, Morris lived in a DP camp in Feldafing, where he met his future wife Bernice Bergman, while working in a local tailor shop. Morris later learned that none of his immediate family survived the Holocaust; they all died in Auschwitz.
Following that, Morris and Bernice temporarily lived with a family in Ansbach, Germany. They had their first child Sarah there in 1946. In 1950, The Congregation of Moses Synagogue in Kalamazoo, Michigan sponsored Morris and his family to move to the United States. On May 8, 1950 Morris, Bernice, and Sarah boarded a ship called the General Moore, and they arrived twelve days later at Ellis Island in New York. Later, upon arriving in Kalamazoo, Morris and his family were moved into a one room apartment, living off of donations from the local synagogue. In 1951, Morris started working for a Jewish man at Aristo cleaners in Kalamazoo, before opening up his own tailoring shop in 1952 called Morris Tailor Shop. In that span, Bernice and Morris had their second child Albert, and in 1954, they had a third child Rosalie. On July 23, 1973, Morris’s beloved wife Bernice died of cancer, and two years later, he retired from his tailoring business. Morris told his tale many times over to his children, in hopes that neither they, nor the world, would ever forget the story of the Holocaust.
Date: November 6, 1994
Interviewer: Donna Sklar
Length: 1 hour 36 minutes
Format: Video Recording