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Holocaust survivor details harrowing experiences

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Holocaust survivor Abe Piasek discusses the time he spent as a prisoner in the Auschwitz concentration camp during a presentation at The Oakwood School on Wednesday afternoon.

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Shannon Keith

Friday, April 29, 2016

Holocaust survivor Abe Piasek often is asked if he feels any hatred toward Germans for the atrocities committed during World War II.

“I always tell them no,” the 88-year-old Piasek said Wednesday as he spoke about his experiences to students and community members at The Oakwood School. “The Germans that did bad things to me aren’t alive anymore. How can I hold what they did against their children?

“My message to people: Don’t hate,” he said. “There is too much hatred in the world. If we can stop hating and start loving, maybe we could make the world a better place.”

Piasek graphically detailed his harrowing experiences from the time soldiers first came to his small town until he was released from a labor camp, a rare insight into history for young students in eastern North Carolina.

“The Holocaust was a singular historic event of unimaginable horror and suffering,” Oakwood’s Upper School coordinator, Jennifer Smith, said. ”We hear his account so hatred of that magnitude will never again take root.”

Piasek, a Polish Jew, was 11 years old when the German army invaded Poland, where he and his family lived in a small town about 30 miles outside of Warsaw.

“The Wehrmacht were camped outside of my house,” he said. ”I remember my father and uncle going out and talking with two German officers. They befriended those two officers, and my mother used to invite them over for dinner.”

Piasek said the people of his town were not mistreated by soldiers occupying the area and often shared food and supplies with one another.

“There was no problem at first,” he said. ”Everyone had plenty of food. We were happy.”

That changed in 1940, when the soldiers in his town were sent to Warsaw and replaced by forces commanded by officers of the Schutzstaffel (SS).

“I called them the brown shirts,” Piasek said. ”I can remember when the brown shirts came to my town. They assembled all the Jewish people in the town and asked who were the rich Jews in town and who weren’t.”

A few days later, Piasek and a friend were confronted by two SS officers while they were collecting mushrooms a few miles outside of town.

“I could hear them coming because the nails in their boots made a clicking sound on the stones in the road,” he said. ”When we turned around, they were about three or four feet away from us. One of them asked us if we were Jews, and I told him yes.

“He took his pistol out and shot my friend in the head,” he said.

Piasek ran away and hid from the SS officers, who searched for hours trying to find him. Every day for several weeks, Piasek said, the same two officers searched the town looking for the boy who had escaped them.

“This went on for quite a while,” he said. ”But they never recognized me.”

Piasek’s uncle was forced to work for the German officers, serving as a liaison between the soldiers and townspeople. One day in 1941, his uncle came to his house.

“My uncle came and whispered something in my father’s ear,” Piasek said. ”I never knew what he said to my father. But the next day, my father disappeared.”

The next day, Piasek said his uncle came and grabbed him by the arm and dragged him outside where people from his town were being loaded into trucks to be taken to a labor camp. It was the first of four labor camps Piasek would be sent to during the war.

“I don’t know what my uncle told my father, but I think he was telling him to get lost,” Piasek said. “My uncle knew he had to take someone from my home. If my father wasn’t home, they would take me. If they would have taken my father, my mother and sisters would have had no one to take care of them.”   

After arriving at the labor camp, Piasek said an SS officer started sorting out the people of his town. The oldest and youngest of the townspeople were separated from the main group and taken away. They were never seen again, Piasek said.

Because he was small for his age, Piasek said he was afraid the officer would pick him.

“There were two brothers from my town who stood on either side of me and lifted me up by my armpits so I would look taller,” he said. ”It worked, and the officer just walked past. That wasn’t the first time those brothers saved me. They did that several times.

“I started calling them my angels,” Piasek said. 

Some of Piasek’s relatives also were sent to the camp, including an aunt who was pregnant and gave birth while imprisoned.

“There were two SS women waiting at the end of the bed,” he said. ”As soon as the baby was born, one of them grabbed the baby by its legs and threw it against the wall and killed it.”

Piasek was forced to work in a factory that manufactured pistols and rifles for the German army. He said workers were severely punished for any mistake.

“I messed up my first day, and the foreman told me he had to report me,” Piasek said. ”A German soldier came over with a whip in his hand and lashed me across my back. He told me he would beat me to death next time.”

Within a few months, many prisoners attempted to escape the brutal conditions at the labor camp. Those that were caught were executed to set an example to the prisoners.

“They would march us up to the barbed wire and line us up,” Piasek said. ”They would bring out the prisoners that were caught trying to escape and shoot them in front of us. They left the bodies there for quite a while. The smell ... I hope none of you ever have to smell something like that.”

In 1943, Piasek was sent to another labor camp. Piasek remembers reading the sign above the camp’s gate as he and the other prisoners were marched through. The sign read ”Arbeit macht frei,” which means ”work sets you free.” Below that was a second word: Auschwitz.

“At this point, I hadn’t had a shower in two years, and I was still wearing the same clothes and shoes I had on when I left my town,” Piasek said. ”My shoes were so worn and full of holes that I had to stuff them with newspaper. Just try putting newspaper in your shoes and see if it’s as warm as socks.”

Soon after arriving at Auschwitz, Piasek and a friend saw a group of prisoners being pushed into a building with showers in it.

“At first, it sounded like they were singing,” he said. “At that distance, I couldn’t tell that it was actually screams. It got quiet all of a sudden, and that’s when my friend told me that those were not showers, it was a gas chamber.”

Piasek and his friend watched as the bodies were taken out of the gas chamber and sent to the camp’s crematorium. 

“The day we were marched there, I thought I could smell bacon cooking,” he said. ”I had never eaten it, but it smelled like good, rich food. That day, I realized that it wasn’t bacon I was smelling; it was the bodies they burned.”

Piasek survived almost two years in Auschwitz and was sent to two more labor camps near the end of World War II. As the war progressed, the treatment of the prisoners grew worse, he said. 

“We were forced to build railroads and the work went on 24 hours a day,” he said. ”When people became too weak to work, the soldiers would shoot them and leave the bodies right there.” 

In January 1945, a rumor was being spread through the camp that Allied forces were approaching. Piasek said he and other prisoners were loaded on a train to be sent to another camp deeper in Germany, where they would be killed.

“That camp they were going to send us to ... it was a slaughterhouse,” he said. ”It was a camp designed to kill prisoners.”

The train never reached the camp after being hit during an Allied bombing raid. A day or two later, Piasek said, U.S. troops reached the area.

“Through a hole in the wall, we could see the German soldiers throwing down their guns and running away,” Piasek said. “Then we saw the tanks approaching. I found out later it was soldiers from the United States.”

The U.S. troops took the prisoners to a nearby town, where Piasek said they received food and medical attention.

“I also saw my first indoor toilet that day, and the soldiers showed me how it worked,” he said. ”I also took my first shower in five years.”

A few years later, Piasek moved to the United States, where he later enlisted and served in the U.S. Army. He got married to his wife of 63 years in 1949, and the couple had eight children. Piasek said he has several grandchildren and a 9-year-old great-grandson.

“I keep telling my grandchildren to hurry up and make me some more great-grandchildren,” Piasek said, laughing. ”But they aren’t listening.”

Piasek said he has visited Germany twice since coming to the United States.

“The German people there are very nice,” he said. ”They can’t be blamed for what happened 70 years ago. I know some people who still hate the German people. ... That’s just human nature. But I don’t.”

And although he was never reunited with much of his family, he learned that many of them survived the war, including the uncle who took him from his home and loaded him onto a truck in 1941. 

A student on Wednesday asked Piasek if he felt any anger toward his uncle for telling his father to hide and handing him over to be sent to the labor camps.

“No ... not at all,” he said. ”I figure that if he wouldn’t have done what he did, I wouldn’t be standing here today. So ... that’s that.”

 

Contact Shannon Keith at skeith@reflector.com and 329-9579.

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