Wednesday, November 28, 2012 —
Throughout the years in various history classes, one learns about World War II and the terrible atrocities committed by Adolf Hitler. However, none of this compares to hearing an actual Holocaust survivor tell his story in person.
Thanks to the efforts of the North Carolina Council on the Holocaust, whose mission is to provide lesson plans and teacher resources for course curriculum in English and history classes, Stanly County teachers had the privilege to hear Holocaust survivor Manfred Katz speak recently about his experience during World War II.
Katz addressed the audience, recalling his three and a half years as a slave laborer and the fact that lots of his family were murdered just because they were Jewish.
“I didn’t want to speak about it at first. I didn’t start talking about it until the early 1990s. By then, the public had become more receptive,” said Katz.
He was born in Germany in a village of roughly 800. Five Jewish families lived there.
“When I entered school, I discovered I was different. My cousin and I were placed in the back of the room. My sister and I were not allowed to attend school on Sunday. I was bullied; being bullied is a horrible experience for a child,” Katz said.
He remembers vividly Kristallnacht, often referred to as the “Night of Broken Glass,” which was a series of attacks against Jewish people Nov. 9-10, 1938.
Katz and his family sought shelter at a neighbor’s house, but they wouldn’t let them in. The temple was ransacked. Katz and his family left and caught a train.
After this, Jews were required to wear stars on their clothing out in public.
“My young sister fell ill, and my mother went out to get medicine, but the drug store would not permit Jews. She removed her star and went in, but she was arrested. She spent five months in captivity. When she was released she had lost a great deal of weight and had lost teeth,” Katz said.
His parents desperately tried to get out of the country, but could not because of immigration quotas in other countries. They did manage to acquire sponsorship from Delaware for his sister and she left in July 1940.
Shortly thereafter, Katz and his family were sent to the ghetto at Riga, Latvia. His family managed to stay together, but food was uppermost in their minds.
“I personally was fortunate. My two principal assignments were at the slaughter house and the fish processing house. We were guarded constantly; I had the opportunity to try and eat when they were not looking. There was a great deal of risk,” he said.
“If the guards suspected anything you were pulled out of line, and if guilty, punishment was nearly instantaneous. If it was delayed it was because they were gathering an audience.”
Katz remembered the gallows at the ghetto.
“The message was simple: This is what will happen if you do something you are not supposed to do. It did not deter me. I made my decision. If I stopped I would have a slow death from starvation. I continued. Some got caught, some didn’t.”
Katz’s family was not the first group of Jews transported to Riga, Latvia.
“Some went to the forest directly,” Katz said.
“They would be transported, their luggage taken away, they would be taken out to the forest and shot. Then they would look for gold teeth.”
At the age of 15, Katz was transported to a concentration camp.
“In the ghetto, you are still together, in a manner of speaking. We still wore our civilian clothes. At the concentration camp, all that was taken away. Your hair is cut off, you are issued uniforms and given a number,” he said.
Luckily for Katz, he found an uncle at the concentration camp and was able to take some small comfort in this. His uncle worked unloading freight cars.
“I don’t know how he did it, but he managed to bring back food stuffs which he most generously shared with me, an action that allowed me to be here today.”
In late 1943, Katz and his uncle were transported to another concentration camp in modern day Poland. There, he was assigned to work as a welder in a ship yard.
“In November of 1944, I returned from work, but I could not find my uncle. I asked after him and was told that he had been taken to the infirmary. There was no infirmary; it was a euphemism for the transit point to the crematorium,” Katz said.
He relayed that there was no gas chamber at this camp, but there was a crematorium, which was kept running 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
In the middle of January 1945, the Germans evacuated the camp, knowing the Allies were closing in on them.
“We walked through Prussia, at a slow pace, not fast enough for the guards; the stragglers were often dispatched and left in the snow. Other prisoners just laid down in the snow,” Katz said.
In March of that year, less than half of the prisoners were left on their feet and with the Russian army closing in, the Germans abandoned their prisoners.
“In March of ‘45, I was 17 years old and I weighed 65 pounds. We are all aware that there are people out there who want you to believe this all did not happen or was grossly exaggerated. It was not exaggerated. It did happen. Thirteen million died because of their beliefs and culture, six million of which were Jews,” said Katz.
Four weeks after being abandoned by the German army, Katz and the fellow ex-prisoners went out into abandoned farms, eating frozen and/or spoiled food.
“Four hundred left the concentration camp. Four weeks after we were abandoned, there were 75 of us.”
What happened after the war? See Part 2 of Manfred Katz’s story in a future edition of The Stanly News & Press.