Raimi (Rejngewirtz), Saul (Bezalel)
Mlawa (Poland), Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Flossenbürg
death marches: Auschwitz to Gleiwitz, Buchenwald to Flossenbürg, Flossenbürg to Cham
Raimi’s oral history video not only records his experiences as a Polish Jew in the ghettos, concentration camps, and death marches but also the rare example of a Jew who was able to travel within Nazi-occupied Poland while carrying fake documentation identifying him as a non-Jew.
Raimi was born Bezalel Rejngewirtz in 1924, in Mlawa, Poland, which is located about 80 miles from Warsaw. His immediate family, besides his parents, consisted of four sisters and one brother. Since his family was very religious, his education was primarily in Jewish parochial schools with only supplemental classes in the public schools. His father was in the wholesale grocery business. His parents and he experienced a considerable amount of anti-Semitism during the pre-World War II years.
Following Germany’s invasion of Poland, his hometown was overrun by German forces, then annexed as German territory, and a Jewish ghetto in which approximately 10,000 Jews crammed were into an area previously occupied by about 2,000. He, his parents, and his sisters were deported in early 1940 to a ghetto in Lubartow, approximately 25 kilometers from Lublin. Raimi and his sisters fled from Lubartow, disguised as Christian Poles, to return to the ghetto in Mlawa, where they lived with a couple in a single room under unbearably bad conditions. Subsequently, he found out that his parents were shipped from Lubartow to Treblinka, where they were murdered.
Raimi was able to acquire fake papers identifying him as a Christian Polish citizen. Being blond, blue-eyed, not having any distinctive Jewish features (except for circumcision), and speaking Polish well, enabled him to perpetrate the ruse, especially on German nationals. However, among Polish nationals he would, when necessary, stutter in order not to betray himself by the slight differences in his speech caused by Yiddish being his native language. The false papers enabled him, under great risk, to sneak in and out of the Warsaw ghetto, both as a courier and as a smuggler. The most dangerous part was crossing the no-man’s land between his hometown, which had been annexed into Germany and the Polish general government territory wherein Warsaw was located.
Besides his Polish papers he also had to carry with him, hidden of course, the yellow star he was required to wear in Mlawa and the yellow star required to be put on his clothing in Mlawa and the yellow armband required in Warsaw. He was apprehended twice but managed to escape or talk his way out. He describes some of the atrocities he witnessed in the ghettos, including hangings, mass shootings, and the torture to death of the Judenrat, the Jewish head of the ghetto, by the SS.
The Mlawa ghetto was liquidated, ostensibly for resettlement, toward the end of 1942. Actually the transport took everyone to Auschwitz, where Dr. Mengele and others made selections, sending the strong and young to labor camps and the very young, old, and weak to the gas chambers and crematoria. He considered himself very lucky to be assigned to a barrack which included a bricklayers school and then, after a year, being sent to the Buna (Auschwitz III) labor camp. Working outside of the camp on construction sites allowed him occasionally to obtain or steal extra food, one of the reasons to which he attributes his survival. He describes vividly the horrible conditions during the selection process in Auschwitz.
As Russian troops approached Auschwitz in January 1945, Raimi and others were taken on a three-day march and then put on open railroad cars for a six- to seven-day trip from Gleiwitz (Glivice) through Czechoslovakia to the Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar, Germany. Czech people threw food to the train from overpasses, but the food was wasted due to the infighting among the starving men on the train while trying to get it. At Buchenwald thousands of prisoners were dying of starvation and unsanitary conditions. Raimi served in the occasional work groups that cleaned up streets in nearby towns following Allied bombings.
In March 1945 Raimi and other inmates were loaded on a train that was bombed and destroyed by Allied aircraft. In the confusion the prisoners stole food from the derailed cars. The journey was continued on foot, the group being marched under very adverse conditions apparently just ahead of Allied troops. A stop was made for seven days at the Flossenburg concentration camp and then the march continued. Raimi lost his sense of time and direction due to starvation and illness but was liberated by U. S. forces near Cham, Bavaria. He recalls the SS shooting most of the marchers just prior to liberation. Some liberated prisoners died due to excessive food intake after liberation. Raimi estimates his weight at liberation to have been about 75 pounds.
After being hospitalized Raimi returned briefly to Poland only to find conditions there intolerable and anti-Semitism, including killings of Jews. Returning to Germany he had the opportunity to emigrate to the United States but chose to go to Israel. He subsequently came to the U.S.
Raimi states that of his family members who were in Poland at the time of the German invasion, about sixty people, only he survived. He expressed severe anger at and condemnation of the Polish people in general for their role in the Holocaust and states that the most vicious perpetrators in the camps were Ukrainian and Lithuanian guards. In conclusion he expressed gratitude to the U.S. and explained why he continues as a speaker to visiting groups at the Holocaust Memorial Center.
Date: December 24, 1991
Interviewer: Hans R. Weinmann
Format: Video recording
A supplemental oral history interview to the one held on December 24, 1991, was conducted to record further details of Raimi’s experiences and observations on certain specific subjects, as well as to record his activities following liberation.
In response to questions pertaining to resistance by prisoners, Raimi stated that he did not participate in or observe any active resistance. However, he felt his activities as a courier and smuggler using false papers represented a form of passive resistance.
With reference to religious activities, Raimi did not have great difficulty in adjusting from the strict religious environment of his upbringing to the lack of it in the camps. Although his religious beliefs waned during his imprisonment, he received great encouragement from some of the clandestine religious activities he witnessed and describes in the interview.
With reference to an inquiry about the daily routine at a labor camp (Auschwitz III-Buna) on non-work days, he described it as a full day of attempting to clean the barracks, the bunks, one’s clothing, and one’s self, which one could not do during work days.
With reference to questions on medical facilities in the camps in case of illness or injury, Raimi explains that any confinement in the camp hospital (more aptly called an infirmary) of more than three days would most assuredly result in being sent to the gas chambers during the frequent selection processes. The doctors in the camp hospital were Jewish inmates, mostly from Germany, who had only the barest facilities or medications available. The selection process was done by SS doctors or officers. Rumors of medical experiments were circulating, but not confirmed, among the inmates at Auschwitz-Buna.
Raimi describes the guard system in the Buna camp. The barracks leaders were usually non-Jewish Germans with criminal records. In his barrack the lead person was a man, who it was said, had murdered two people prior to his imprisonment. He also describes the guards inside and outside the camp.
Toward the end of the interview, Raimi explains his reasons for choosing to go to Israel after liberation, his service in the Israeli army, and his subsequent emigration to the United States.
The interview ends with his recollection of the mandatory requirement upon his arrival at Auschwitz to send a provided postcard to anyone back home describing a pleasant journey, his good health, and proper treatment.
Date: January 21, 1992
Interviewer: Hans R. Weinmann
Length: 50 minutes
Format: Video recording