Krakow (Poland), Podgorze, Plaszow, Mauthausen, Wieliczka
Offen was born in Krakow, Poland in 1922. He had two brothers and one sister. His brothers survived the war. Offen was in the Podgorze labor camp, Plaszow, the Wieliczka salt mines, and Mauthausen during the war. Although he describes life in Krakow before the war as good, Offen describes frequent anti-Semitic attacks when he was a boy and regular beatings in which he had to defend himself. His home was the center of his life. He was happy and content, although he resented attending cheder each day. His father was a traveling salesman of billiard equipment and the family of six lived in a one-room tenement apartment. He describes preparations for the Sabbath, the children’s involvement in marketing, and the regular attendance of synagogue, a warm and detailed portrait of Jewish life in a non-Orthodox home in prewar Poland. Offen vividly remembers movies and the theater.
When the Germans occupied Poland, Offen’s father expected no drastic changes. He had fought for the Austrians in World War I, spoke German, and anticipated having to work for the Germans, but little more. He held this view even after a cousin was deported from Germany in 1938. Offen and his older brother were seized and placed in forced labor gangs and he speaks of the brutalization of the workers and Jews on the streets. He recalls Marek Biberstein, chairman of the Krakow Judenrat, with great affection and Mr. Spiro, head of the Jewish Ordnungsdienst, with hatred. Offen remembers the morning his mother and sister were taken and how he ran after them as they were marched to Zgoda Square for transport. He reached them and tried to embrace his mother but was beaten over the head with a rifle.
He recalls his separation from his father at Mauthausen; the sadistic beating he received at Plaszow; the mass murders; and working on mass burial details. On one of these details he threw himself into the grave and feigned death as the Germans machine-gunned all those left alive. For hours he lay there and at night crept to Plaszow where he continued to work. On another occasion he was beaten and thrown in the latrines for dead. A German kapo then forced him to commit fellatio. Bloodied and bruised, he nevertheless reported for work instead of going to the hospital. He found out later that the hospital was in fact a passage to gas vans disguised as Red Cross wagons.
Although strong, Offen finally succumbed to disease in Mauthausen, and, near death, half delirious, was liberated by the American army. Even as he lay dying, Offen remembers he and his brother counting crumbs of bread to share equally.
After a time in Linz, Austria, and Ancona, Italy, he and his older brother joined the Polish Army under British command in 1945 and were put in a convalescent home in Scotland. After their discharge, having found their younger brother, they lived in London and then moved to the United States.
Date: June 5, 1982
Interviewer: Sidney Bolkosky
Format: Audio recording