Kolnierz, abraham zailek
Konstantynów Lódzki, Poland; Lodz Ghetto; Auschwitz, Jaworzno, Buchenwald Concentration Camps; Bavaria; Hamburg, Germany
Abraham Kolnierz was born in 1925 in Konstantynów, near Lódz, Poland. His family had lived in Konstantynów for centuries. His father, Henach Kolnierz, manufactured socks and sold them in Lódz. His grandfather, Shlomo Laibash Kolnierz, was the shamash of the synagogue. His family also included his mother, Ruchel Jacobovitz Kolnierz, his grandmother, Malka Blima Kolnierz, and his younger sister, Basha.
Abraham belonged to the Zionist youth organization Betar and attended a Polish school. “The Polish people weren’t too nice to us before the war. They always screamed, ‘Go to Palestine! We don’t need you here!’ And we were always fighting with them. When I went home from school, they were waiting for us to beat us up.
“My father wanted to move to Israel. He had some relatives over there and they always told him, ‘Don’t come here. It’s a very bad time. It’s been a hard life here.’ And they didn’t want him to go over there.”
A young German teenager lived across the street and was friendly with Abraham, but then he joined the Nazi party. “We were sitting at the house and this was during the war. It was a Friday night. We were eating dinner and he came into my house and he slapped me in the face because I was Jewish and demanded my boots. I said to my father, ‘I don’t want to live here anymore. I want to run away to Russia.’ And I did with my father in 1939 when the Germans took over Poland. My mother didn’t want to go with us. She said, ‘You go there and see how it is and then you come back and get us.’ That was a big mistake.
“We came back from Russia to see my mother and, in the spring of 1940, they liquidated our house and forced us go to the ghetto in Lódz. There was barbed wire all around and the German soldiers were outside the wires and were watching us. You try to get out, they shoot you.
“We stayed over there cooped up in the ghetto for four years. My family had our own house. My grandparents, my father’s parents were there too. My mother’s parents didn’t survive. They killed them right away in the house in Konstantynów because they were old and sick.
“In the ghetto, my father was like a janitor for three houses. My mother was working in a big factory. My sister went to the factory to work. A little girl, 7 or 8 years old. People took care of her there because she was the youngest person in the whole factory.
“In the ghetto at first, I had a really bad job. I had to clean up the toilets. We had wagons to clean out the toilets. Three people were behind me pushing the wagon and I was in the front, like a horse. That was my job until I fell down. I came home one day and I fell down on the floor. I couldn’t walk anymore. I was very sick. People looked at me and said, ‘That little boy is not going to last too long.’ That’s how I looked. I was all swollen, all full of water inside me. My father brought in a doctor to my house and I was lying in bed and the doctor didn’t have any equipment to take care of me. But he punched a hole in my side and he put in a hose and a bucket on the floor and he pumped out all the water from my body. From that day on I got better and better and better.
“Then, I worked in the factory where we made cribs for German kids. I had a good job at the factory. I worked every day, 10-hours a day.
“We had food rations. They gave us two pounds of bread for four people for a week. My father took the big loaf of bread and every day he gave everybody a piece of bread. We received soup at the factory. We had a little garden in the ghetto and my father planted food in the garden and we lived from that. He planted a lot of food in the field and brought it home and sold it.
“In the summer of 1944, they closed up the ghetto and sent everybody away to concentration camp. To Auschwitz. We were all separated. My mother, my father, and my sister were sent to the oven to be killed. My grandparents didn’t survive; they were too old.
“Then I was sent to Jaworzno, to work in a coalmine. When I went to the camp, I was about 17-years-old. I didn’t shave yet. I started to shave after the war…. In the coalmine, there were Polish people who organized the work. They were living there before the war; they always were coalminers. I got close with them because I spoke Polish really well. The Polish man I was working with brought everyday a big loaf of bread from his home.
“At first, they gave me a job and I couldn’t handle it. I thought I was going to die. I went to the boss from the coalmine and, in Polish, I said, ‘I cannot do that job. I cannot do it.’ I was the youngest person in the coalmine. He looked at me and he said, ‘I’m going to give you another job and if you cannot do the other job, you go back to the first job.’ I went to the second job in the coalmine and I did a really good job. Nobody could take away my job because I was too good. I hooked up the trains to ship them away.”
When the war started and the Americans started closing in, Abraham was moved to Buchenwald and stayed there in the barracks for a couple of months. In the winter of 1945, as the Americans came closer, “They shipped us away farther and farther, deep into Germany, all the way to Bavaria. At first, we went on the train and all of a sudden, the American pilots noticed the train and started bombarding the train with machine guns. A lot of people got killed on that train. They stopped the train and we couldn’t go by train. We started walking. We walked and walked and walked for miles and miles, every day for miles until the tank division from America caught up with us. When they came close, the Germans ran away and left us on the street. That’s when I was liberated in May 1945.
“I was standing on the street. I was in prison clothes and every American tank that passed by, they would throw me food…. I was wearing wooden shoes. It was very hard to wear those shoes. A couple of American soldiers saw me walking with those wooden shoes and they gave me some shoes from their truck.
“After a few hours, the French militia saw us standing on the street. They took me to a woman. She lived all by herself in a nice house. They told her, ‘You take care of him and he’s going to sleep in your bed, you are going to sleep on the floor.’ She did that. She slept on the floor and she gave me her bed. She ran all over to collect food and clothes for me…. The German people turned around overnight and they treated us like their own sons.
“I stayed with her for a half a year or so. All of a sudden, I got sick and went to the hospital. I was there for a few days and then somebody came to my bed and said, ‘What nationality?’ And I said, ‘I’m from Poland.’ ‘Oh, from Poland.’ They wanted to send me away back to Poland. So, I went to a camp to go back to Poland. But I didn’t want to go back to Poland. So, I stayed over there at the camp a little bit and I decided to run away. And I crossed the wires and ran away from the camp because I didn’t want to go back to Poland.”
Later, in 1949-1950, Abraham went to Hamburg. He wanted to learn how to be a fisherman. He lived in a house with other Jewish boys and girls who wanted to go to Israel. “We hired a fisherman who had a big boat and he caught fish up the river and we worked with him together on the river. We caught fish and we donated all the fish to the Jewish Displaced Person Camp in Bergen-Belsen.
“All of a sudden, the English army wanted to take over the big house near the river where we lived. We didn’t let them. We closed the windows with bars. Then came the tanks and they threw us out of that place.
“Everybody else went to Israel. At that time, there was fighting and I said, ‘I’m the only one left from the family, I’m going to go there and get killed? I’m not going to go,’ and I didn’t go.
“When I left the camp in Hamburg, I lived with a woman. I had a little food and a little money and I gave her the money and food. When I ran out of the money and ran out from the food, she said, ‘I’m sorry, I have to rent your room. I need money.’ And she threw me out in the middle of the night. I didn’t have anywhere to go. I went to a nightclub and stayed the whole night in the hallway but I couldn’t go into the nightclub because I did not have any money. In the morning, a lady from inside noticed that I was standing outside and she told me to come over to her. I went over to her table and she took me home to her house and she took care of me until I went to this country.”
In Germany, Abraham learned a trade as a welder. The Jewish Home Service told him he could go to Israel, to Canada, or to America. When they heard he was a welder, they said he could get a job right away in America. “So, I came to Detroit. The Jewish Home Service introduced me to a lady. She had a son in the army and was a cook downtown. She had a nice apartment and she took care of me until I got married.”
He met his future wife, Phyllis Eisenberg, in Detroit. She was a survivor and lived with a family. “A lady introduced us, gave me her address, and said, ‘Go to her house and meet her.’ I didn’t have a car so I walked over to her house and the minute I came into her house she was standing on the balcony watching me… how I walked. I came into the house and right away she said, ‘I’m going to make you dinner.’
“She was also in Poland, in a concentration camp. She had a brother and he was the leader in Germany from a camp. And when he came over here, he brought over a lot of money. And my wife brought over the suitcase of money to Detroit.”
Abraham and Phyllis married and had two daughters, Ruth Linda Kolnierz and Bonnie Esther Kolnierz Medwed. Abraham working for Ford Motor Company as an electric welder on the railroad fixing the rails until he had an accident and could no longer work there. “That’s when I started my own painting business. I had about five, six guys working for me, painting new homes for builders. My brother-in-law helped me a lot too. When I married my wife, he gave me a big dowry.”
They lived in Detroit on Schaefer and all the ?ódz people lived there. Bonnie remembers that “They would talk about their experiences in the camps. I thought they were talking about some kind of summer camp because they were talking and laughing and everybody was sharing their stories. But they were talking about the camps and they didn’t have any family, they kind of supported each other. We didn’t have any grandparents. We didn’t have any relatives except for my cousins and my uncle and some in Israel…. There were times they didn’t have money in America. When the factory closed, he was out of work and they didn’t get money from anywhere and they didn’t complain. They didn’t fight. They didn’t complain. They were just happy to be in America. And we kids just ate whatever. It wasn’t a big deal. We just were happy to have each other and be in a safe place.”
When asked how he survived the Holocaust, Abraham says, “I was always by myself. I didn’t think. I did every day to survive that’s all. That’s all I was thinking about is to survive.” He has a message for young people today. “They should be very happy that they live in a country like this and be free and do whatever they want. I can tell them that. They should be very glad and happy that they live in a country like this.”
Date of Interview: April 4, 2019
Length of Interview: 53 minutes
Interview & Synopsis by: Zieva Konvisser
Videographer: Mark Einhaus
Additional Comments: Bonnie Kolnierz Medwed