Marshak, Michael

Marshak, Michael

Minsk, Kovno, Dachau

Marshak was born in 1929 in Minsk, Soviet Union, one of twin brothers to observant Jewish parents. In 1932 his family moved to Kovno, Lithuania, were his maternal grandparents lived. There his mother gave birth to another son. Kovno was an important spiritual and cultural center for the Jews of eastern Europe. Marshak believes that in those days Jews were not allowed to vote in Lithuania but he does not recall any overt anti-Semitism during his childhood. He attended public school and Hebrew school. At home they spoke Yiddish.

In 1940 the Soviet army assumed control of Lithuania, and about seven weeks later the country was officially annexed to the Soviet Union as the thirteenth Soviet Republic. Under Communism Jews were given the same rights as the rest of the population. In June 1941 the Germans invaded the Soviet Union and occupied all of Lithuania. Marshak’s family tried to flee for their lives in the wake of the retreating Soviet army. However, they had to return to Kovno because of German shelling at the Soviet border. During the following weeks Marshak’s grandparents and younger brother disappeared, never to be seen again. One month after the invasion, the Germans established a ghetto in Kovno. Marshak’s family had to swap houses with Lithuanians who lived in the area of the ghetto. A barbed wire fence was put up around the ghetto and the gates were watched by Lithuanian guards and German police. There was not enough food in the ghetto and, during the day, the inmates were forced to perform hardest labor at sites outside the ghetto. Marshak worked at a railway station unloading coal from trains. He states that some inmates risked their lives to smuggle food into the ghetto although the Nazis regarded smuggling a capital offense.

In spring 1942 Marshak escaped from the ghetto and hid in the woods with the Jewish underground. During the interview Marshak describes how the underground recruited fighters and smuggled them out of the ghetto. The underground tried to sabotage German military infrastructure and railroad tracks. Survival was very hard because the Nazis constantly searched for partisans in the woods. Before the beginning of winter 1942, Marshak returned to the ghetto to his family. In spring 1943 he tried again to reach the Jewish underground, this time together with his twin brother. Together with other recruits they were picked up by a truck and smuggled out of the ghetto. Unfortunately a German patrol stopped them and started to machine-gun the truck. Marshak managed to escape and hid in garbage containers. His brother had died in the shooting. After two days Marshak snuck back into the ghetto.

At the end of 1943, Marshak was deported to the Dachau concentration camp, Germany, whereas his parents remained in the Kovno ghetto. The journey to Dachau took several days; they were like animals squashed into cattle cars, under horrible conditions, without any food and sanitary facilities. At Dachau Marshak was again among a group of forced laborers who had to unload coal trains. He states that the Nazis constantly selected those prisoners they considered unfit for work and thus were doomed to death. The Nazis made examples and hung inmates in public to intimidate the rest of the prisoners. Overall the prisoners had to live under inhuman conditions.

In April 1945 thousands of prisoners, including Marshak, were forced, under SS guard, to march south. During the march many died from hunger or exhaustion. Anyone who could not continue walking was shot on the spot by the SS. At the end of April 1945, the remnants of those columns were liberated by the American army. The SS guards had disappeared shortly before. Marshak says that the American soldiers could not believe the condition of the surviving soldiers, most of them reduced to skeletons. The Americans took care of the former prisoners and Marshak recuperated – but his parents and siblings had perished during the Holocaust.

In 1947 Marshak immigrated to the United States with the help of an uncle who lived in New York. He served for four years in the Korean War and after his discharge from the service he moved to Detroit, where he met his wife and got married. They have three children and four grandchildren.

Interview Information:

Date: July 12, 1999
Interviewer: Judy Michaels
Length: 1 hour 20 minutes
Format: Video recording