Guyer (Chaja), Benjamin
Gombin, Konin, Hohensalza, Auschwitz-Buna, Gleiwitz, Nordhausen, Bergen-Belsen
Guyer was born in 1915 in Gombin, Poland, the second youngest of ten children to Jewish parents. Almost half of the population in Gombin were Jews, about 700 families. During the interview Guyer describes the vivid life of the Jewish community in his hometown. Guyer’s father had the intention of emigrating to the United States with his family. Since one of Guyer’s older brothers already lived in the United States, Guyer’s father was allowed to immigrate in 1928 but had to leave his wife and his children behind. His plan was to become an American citizen and that way to make it possible for his family to come to the United States. In 1932 Guyer’s mother and two sisters received the necessary immigration visa, but Guyer, one older brother and one older sister were rejected – Guyer because the American council declared that he had an eye disease, and his siblings because they were too old and only under-age family members in general received visas. Guyer remained in Gombin together with his brother and his sister and after his sister died of tuberculosis, in 1934, he lived with his brother. Guyer states that his brother became a father figure to him.
In March 1939 Guyer was drafted into the Polish army. When Germany attacked Poland in September 1939, his unit was sent to the border to fight the invaders but was pushed back as far as Warsaw. At the end of the month, Warsaw surrendered to the German army and Guyer became a prisoner of war. On the way to a POW camp Guyer managed to escape together with two Jews and two Poles from his hometown and they returned to Gombin. The village had been almost entirely destroyed by German air raids but the house of Guyer and his brother was still intact. For some time later, they accommodated other relatives who lost their homes during the bombings.
In 1940 the Nazis turned parts of Gombin into a ghetto for the Jews of the village. Many young Jewish men were taken to forced labor camps. During the interview Guyer describes several incidents that took place in the ghetto: A thirteen-year old Jewish girl was raped by a German soldier who then took her to the outskirts of the ghetto and killed her. This soldier was obviously afraid that the girl could reveal this crime and that he would be punished. It was illegal for Germans to have intercourse with Jews because Jews were considered sub-human. Another time Guyer was beaten by the mayor of Gombin and had knocked three teeth out because he had talked to a Pole.
In 1942 the remaining inmates of the Gombin ghetto, including Guyer, his brother, the brother’s wife and three year-old daughter, were shipped to the labor camp in Konin. There Guyer had to work on the construction of a railroad track. Six weeks later, Guyer’s brother and his family were deported to the Chelmno extermination camp where they all perished. Before the transport the Nazis forced the deportees to line up on a soccer field for three days and three nights, without any food or water, to break their will to survive. Among the remaining forty-nine inmates at the camp were the Jewish leaders of the Konin camp. Those eleven men committed suicide immediately after the deportation of their fellow Jews.
In 1943 the remaining prisoners, including Guyer, were shipped on cattle cars, first to the Hohensalza transition camp, and then to the Auschwitz concentration camp. The journey took two days in an completely overcrowded train without any food, water or sanitary facilities. Arriving in Auschwitz men were separated from women and the camp’s physician, Dr. Mengele, selected those prisoners he considered fit for work. The others were sent to their deaths in the gas chambers. Guyer, selected for forced labor, was sent to Auschwitz III, also known as the Buna camp. Before he was assigned to a barrack he was tattooed with an identification number on his arm. For the first six weeks Guyer was forced to shovel coal. Then he worked as a tailor in the camp. There was not enough food and many inmates died of diseases or exposure. The SS guards constantly mistreated and tortured inmates; sometimes only because a prisoner did not have the strength to stand erect during the endless roll calls. One of Guyer’s friends was beaten to death. Guyer tells of a public hanging in the camp. Among the doomed was a young Jewish boy from Germany who still tried to encourage the other inmates to try to survive. Before his execution he said in German: “Juden, Kopf hoch, wir sind die Letzten” – “Jews, keep your heads high, we are the last who will die.”
In January 1945 the Russian army was approaching and the Nazis started to evacuate the camp. Guyer was put together with many other prisoners on a death march to Gleiwitz and then to the Nordhausen labor camp. There they were forced to work in tunnels in the construction of missiles. Prisoners were hung everyday because the Nazis accused them of sabotage.
In March 1945 Guyer was shipped to a sub-camp of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. A week later the camp was liberated by the British army. Guyer states that prisoners then killed those Nazis and their collaborators who did not run away in time.
In 1946 Guyer immigrated to the United States. Forty-three years later he visited his hometown, Gombin. He describes it as a dead place, without the liveliness that characterized the village before the war. He has nightmares his entire life about the happenings during the Holocaust.
Date: January 6, 1986
Interviewer: Rabbi Charles Rosenzveig
Length: 1 hour 2 minutes
Format: Video recording