Krakow (Poland), Somnecki, Skarzysko Kamienna, Buchenwald, Theresienstadt
Mr. Sperling was born in Krakow, Poland. He was incarcerated in 1942 and spent three years in various camps in Poland and Germany. He was liberated on May 8, 1945 in Theresienstadt.
His town was occupied on the third day of the war. Life for the Jewish people became “miserable.” They were forced to wear Star of David armbands and the Sperling business was expropriated. They felt helpless. The Poles did nothing and nor did the outside world. They were counting days until their extermination.
When Leon’s family was told to leave their home, they packed their personal belongings, not exceeding twenty-five pounds. When the “pick-up wagon” arrived, Leon’s grandmother, who was in her eighties and who had a bad leg, asked a cousin to help her get on the wagon,
A German soldier said “I’ll help you.” He then took out his gun and killed her. Leon said “Yes, I saw it!”
He said “The humanity was a killing action.” He said that he didn’t cry at that time because he was too petrified.
Jewish girls, pretending to be Gentiles, were caught and turned in by the Poles. They were all taken to Somnecki to be transported where they stayed for about three or four days, waiting for the train to fill.
There were neither toilets nor food. The Germans took a large group of elderly people, who were wearing prayer shawls, up a hill. Leon then hesitated and said it was a “Kiddush Hashem,” a sanctification of G-d’s name.
In September, 1942, the Germans and SS filled their labor requirements with the able bodied, young teens, for work camps. Announcements said that the others would be “resettled in Eastern territories.”
Leon went to Camp Julag (nickname for Camp Juden Lager) which was in a suburn of Krakow, where he spent one year, working with a few
thousand other Jews. They were building a railway/freight station, coal storage and viaducts. They worked six days a week, twelve hours each day, under very poor conditions.
They were, on occasion, tortured and there was a typhus epidemic. The ill were afraid to go to the dispensary and continued working with a high fever. The prisoners would try to cover-up for the sick.
Leon became ill and, because he was weak, was hiding in a corner when a German officer saw him and made him jump up and down off a can thirty times or more, telling him that, if he failed, he would be shot. Leon passed out and some prisoners took him to a shack and revived him.
In 1943, he was transferred to Skarzysko Kamienna to work in an ammunitions factory. The prisoners had to run past the SS, who beat them with their rifle butts and clubs.
They were divided into three groups: A, B and C. He was in “Work C” group. When asked to describe these conditions, Leon said “It was like the film Apocalypse Now. Work C was fabricating chemicals to pill shells. When you work with chemicals, your life span is only three to four months. Prisoners had yellow faces and shriveled up bodies.”
Because Leon knew carpentry, he was saved by being transferred to Work A, so he was only in the ammunition factory one night. He worked at Work “A” until July, 1944.
The Germans started withdrawing from the Polish territories and the prisoners were evacuated by train to Buchenwald, where the conditions were
horrid, but Leon now felt he was going to survive. He heard that the Allies were in France, so he became hopeful and, at the same time, religious.
He said it was now his belief in God that helped him survive. He said that he hopes to see his family in the afterlife.
He had a friend whose last name was Rosenzweig. He came to Skarzysko from another amp where he was in the dead body disposal squad.
When they met, they helped each other. Rosenzweig had horrid experiences and cried at night. He came to the US before Leon, became the owner of a chain of markets and became extremely prosperous. One day, he jumped of the
Manhattan Bridge and killed himself. Leon was, and still is, heartbroken, saying he was like a brother to him.
The camps taught him a great deal and matured him as well. Yet, he said he didn’t lose his sense of humanity despite the horror he witnessed.
When he was liberated, he saw a huge pile of religious articles, such as tefillin and prayer books. He took some, but never used them, saying that one prayer book, published in Prague looked as if it was used often.
Leon Sperling said he never hit a single German and doesn’t hate them.
Interviewer: Sidney Bolkosky
Length: 40 minutes
Format: Video recording