Strassberg, Charles S.

Strassberg, Charles S.

Vienna (Austria), Gurs, Malines, Auschwitz, Siemianowice Slaskie, Mauthausen, Gusen, Hannover, Bergen-Belsen (Death march from Hannover to Bergen-Belsen)

Strassberg was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1914, one of four children of a Jewish couple of modest means. After normal schooling he became a barber and subsequently owned and operated a barber and beauty shop with five employees. Following the annexation of Austria by Germany in March 1938, Strassberg was drafted into the German Army together with another 43 Jewish persons. Following the examinations at the induction center, he was issued an army passport and told to return to his home to await the call for service. The army passport indicated in the space for religion the term “mosaisch”, an alternative term in the German language for Jewish. His barber shop was marked on the outside with paint as being a “Jewish Store” and his customers were made to wear a placard around their neck marked as “Purchased from Jews.” Realizing that it would be impossible to continue making a living in Vienna, he and his newly married wife decided to leave Germany in September, 1938, for Belgium where a cousin of his lived. Not having the proper emigration papers they chose to leave illegally, first crossing into Luxembourg and from there, with the assistance of a Jewish agency, into Belgium. His parents and his older brother also found refuge in Belgium, whereas his two younger sisters managed to leave legally, one for Israel, and one for the United States. Since his illegal departure from Germany also constituted desertion from the German Army, he destroyed his army passport while being in Belgium.

When the Germans attacked Belgium in the Spring 1940, he and his brother, as well as most other escapees from Germany, were arrested by Belgian authorities and shipped to the St. Cyprian internment camp in Southern France. He and his brother subsequently escaped from this camp only to be caught and sent to the Gurs internment camp in France. Strassberg escaped a second time and was caught again, this time he was sent to a camp near Bordeaux. He again escaped, a third time, together with a friend and attempted to return to Brussels, Belgium. While in German occupied Paris, he was once more caught, this time by a French detective. He broke loose from the policeman and ran into a crowd of pedestrians followed by the policeman with drawn revolver. Due to the crowd of people, the policeman could not shoot and Strassberg managed to get away. With the help of the underground movement he managed to return to his apartment in Brussels in September 1941.

His wife gave birth to a girl in 1942 and they managed to live in their apartment until June 1943, when his parents were arrested during a round-up of German Jews. His wife went looking for them, but was also arrested in front of their house while Strassberg watched from a window. He quickly took his less than one year old daughter to the apartment of a non-Jewish neighbor and he himself hid in yet another apartment, thus avoiding being picked up by the SS. His wife and his parents were sent to the transit camp Malines and from there on Transport #23 to Auschwitz. He never saw them again.

Due to the efforts of his cousin who was married to a Catholic Belgian army officer, and thus somewhat protected, Strassberg’s daughter was secretly placed into a convent and later hidden with a private family. Strassberg rented a room at a new location and was able to avoid being arrested till March 5, 1944, when he was picked up by the SS while hiding in a closet. At first he was taken to a jail in Brussels and then to the transit camp Malines, about 20km from Brussels, and from there in a box car loaded with about 100 persons to Auschwitz on April 7, 1944. The trip took about six days without any food, water, or toilet facilities.

At Auschwitz Strassberg passed the selection process, was tattooed, quarantined, met face to face with Dr. Mengele during an examination in the infirmary, and was sent to the labor camp Laurahuette, about 35km from Auschwitz where he worked on anti-aircraft gun production. He describes in detail some of the events at that camp, e.g. capo selections, escapes, the infirmary, etc.

When the Russian army was approaching Laurahuette his work unit of about 500 men was marched for about 20km through ice and snow to a railroad site and then by box car, without food and water, sent to the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. There he passed another selection process and after 1-1/2 days transported to the Gusen camp about 10km away. At Gusen his group was given a shower and had to go 200 feet in 15 below zero temperature stark naked, to their barracks which killed a number of prisoners.

After about 8 to 10 days at Gusen, the group was transported to the concentration camp Hannover where there was a nearby factory also producing anti-aircraft guns. Food was extremely scarce. After working there for about five weeks, the inmates at the camp were ordered to dig a large trench in the center of the camp, then they were given a choice of walking to the Bergen-Belsen camp or staying behind. Those that stayed were later murdered and dumped into the trench.

The march to Bergen-Belsen turned into a death march of three to four days. Strassberg relates a number of gruesome cruelties inflicted on the marchers. Of the original group of about 500, he estimates that by this time only about 120 were still alive.

At Bergen-Belsen he saw barracks full of stacked corpses. They received no food, no water, and had nothing to do. The day prior to liberation, he and a friend decided that the only way to survive would be to cut off some meat from a recently died person and eat it, however, the camp was liberated by the British. Subsequently many inmates died from overeating after raiding food supplies. Strassberg became ill with typhus, was hospitalized, and eventually, through the efforts of a Belgian officer, was flown back to Brussels for recuperation.

After his recovery Strassberg had great difficulty in reclaiming his daughter, but with the help of his cousin he was finally able to do so. His brother who also escaped a second time from the internment camp Gurs, managed to get to Switzerland and survived. After the war his brother, an actor by profession, returned to Austria and Germany. Through other survivors Strassberg was able to receive confirmation that his wife and his parents perished in Auschwitz. He remarried a lady who survived by being hidden in France and in 1956, through the efforts of his sister, he, his wife, and his daughter came to the United States.

Strassberg still suffers psychologically from the effects of his experiences. He attributes his survival to his youth, good health, a lot of good luck, and his great will to survive.

Interview Information:
Date: August 11, 1992
Interviewer: Hans R. Weinmann
Length: 1 hour 37 minutes
Format: Video recording