A Lost Childhood To Auschwitz and Back

The Germans stole Josef Salomonovic's childhood, but his mother wouldn't let him die -- neither in the Lodz ghetto nor in Auschwitz. This summer, he returned to the place where he was saved.

Sven Döring / DER SPIEGEL

One morning in June, with the smell of an approaching thunderstorm in the air, an elderly man, his hair carefully parted to one side and wearing a freshly ironed, collared shirt, rings the doorbell of a farmhouse in the Bohemian Forest, a low mountain range in the Czech Republic. He has a long journey behind him, across two international borders and hundreds of kilometers, the last few hundred meters of which lead down an alley lined with pear trees. The man knows this farmhouse and the dark brown, weathered barn at the end of the gravel road. He has been here before, here in the Czech village of Brnírov. He has returned because he wants to fulfill his promise.

A wrinkled woman in a cotton dress covered by an apron peers out of the open door with her narrowed, blue eyes. She sees the man and immediately envelopes him in a warm embrace, her smile so broad that you can see where the molars are missing from her dentures. The two launch into a breathless conversation in Czech.

"There you are. I've baked a cherry cake," the woman says. "There you are."

She has been expecting him. She knew that he would return. She knows his story -- and has known it for longer than she has known him.

The man is Josef Salomonovic, the little Jew from the barn.

He presents the farmer's wife, who he calls "Frau Anna," with two bars of chocolate, a bottle of Australian wine from the supermarket and a package of Merci pralines. He eats a piece of cherry cake, praising its moistness -- and Frau Anna is so overcome with nervous excitement that she spoons cocoa powder into the cups instead of instant coffee. Salomonovic smiles and nods, joining the woman's grandson for a tour of the chicken coop and the new outbuilding. Then he asks: "Is the crooked tree still standing?"

Before Josef Salomonovic packed his two trollies and embarked on this journey shortly before his 80th birthday, he told me his life story in Vienna. We had met in Auschwitz.

For this year's International Holocaust Remembrance Day, held as always on January 27, former prisoners of the camp had gathered. Hundreds used to show up for the event, but this year it was just a few dozen, some of them in wheelchairs. Only two of them could speak German, and one of those was Josef Salomonovic. For 50 years, he had remained silent about what had happened, but then he began telling his story to groups of schoolchildren. Now, with his heart growing weaker -- the doctors have diagnosed atrial fibrillation -- he is afraid that he might soon die. He is afraid that something will be lost when no one is left to tell the story of what it was like back then, under the yoke of the Germans.

In Auschwitz, he told me that he wanted to take one final trip.

'Only Sad Stories'

Several months later, at the kitchen table of his apartment in Vienna's 10th District, he is gazing at the bits of memorabilia with which he wants to illustrate his story: a spoon, a miniature airplane and a letter with Adolf Hitler's profile on the stamp.

He speaks for three straight days. At the beginning of his story, he says he wants to try to avoid making it too sad. And at one point during the three days, when we go to a nearby restaurant and Salomonovic orders venison kidney ragout, he says: "I just thought of something. I'm going to tell you a funny story." He listens to himself talking, pauses for a moment, and then says: "Actually, I have only sad stories."

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He speaks of the years during which the Germans murdered 1.5 million Jewish children. He speaks of the ghetto, of lethal injections and of Auschwitz. Over and over again -- or perhaps the entire time -- he also speaks about Dora Salomonovic, his mother.

Dora Salomonovic was from Mährisch Ostrau, a town that is now called Ostrava and lies in present-day Czech Republic. Her native language was German but she grew up as a Czech Jew in the Austrian Empire. Dora went to trade school and fell in love with a black-haired engineer named Erich, who was an accomplished chess player and could repair anything. She married him, and they had two sons, Michal and Josef, whose nickname was Pepek. He was born in 1938, the same year that 1,406 synagogues and temples were burned down in Germany.

Josef's first memory is of his mother coming to him when he was three to tell him that the family was taking a trip to Poland.

It was 1941, two years after the Germans had occupied Bohemia and Moravia. Dora and Erich Salomonovic had been ordered by the occupiers to come to the Bubny train station in Prague. Prior to receiving the order, the family had requested permission to leave the country for Shanghai, but the Germans refused the request without explanation.

A friend who visited the family before their departure would later write in her memoirs: "It wasn't possible to speak to Dora. She lay on the couch sobbing uncontrollably. I tried to give her a farewell kiss, but she didn't seem to know what was going on. Erich was the only one who seemed outwardly composed. I can still clearly see the place in my mind where I told Jean, as we headed home through the vineyard: 'If one of them doesn't hold up, it will be Dora.'"

No Milk

On the day of their departure, Josef wore two shirts, one on top of the other, along with a sweater and a winter coat. On his back, he carried a backpack with his chamber pot. His mother had carefully considered which of their possessions to bring along and decided among other things to bring along a small strainer with which she would scoop skin from the milk after boiling it. She couldn't have known that there would be no milk in their future.

Josef and his family traveled with Transport E Number 815, a train packed with thousands of other Czech Jews. Their destination? Litzmannstadt, the Lodz ghetto. Had Josef been able to read, he would have seen the signs on the fence reading: "Jewish residential area -- entry forbidden."

The four of them were forced to share a bed. Erich worked in a German metal factory and Dora in a paper factory. Michal, who was 10 years old at the time, was made to straighten out bent needles at a workshop while three-year-old Josef spent the day alone, from morning to evening.

"Here," Mr. Salomonovic says in Vienna and points to a spot on a map of the ghetto. "This is where we lived." He has gathered up books, maps and files in preparation for my visit, almost as though he was presenting evidence to a court.

Many in the ghetto died of typhoid fever or froze to death. Some were beat to death by the Germans and others starved. The Jews trapped in the ghetto received too little bread, too few vegetables, hardly any flour and no butter or meat. After a few months, Josef's baby teeth all fell out, but nothing grew in to replace them.

Josef's father traded his watch with its glowing hands for a loaf of bread.

Before long, the ghetto was all Josef knew. He had his parents, who he loved, and his brother, who teased him but who he loved anyway. He didn't, however, know that there was a word that struck fear into the hearts of everyone around him. The word was "Sperre."

During a "Sperre," the Germans would herd together all of the Jews living in one building and would take those who they deemed to be "parasites" -- those who couldn't work, who suffered from typhoid fever, the elderly and the children -- load them into trucks, plug all the gaps, start the motor and pump the exhaust inside.

'You Can't Cry'

Josef's father knew a lot of people in the ghetto because he would repair their valuables. On one occasion, he managed to piece back together a Chinese vase belonging to an SS guard and thus learned of an approaching "Sperre." He then managed to convince a fireman he knew to come with a ladder and pry open a hole in the ceiling into which Josef and his mother crawled. He clearly remembers the wide gaps between the ladder's rungs.

"You can't cry, no noise at all," his mother told him. He didn't understand what the difference was between a Jew and a non-Jew, but he did understand the fear in his mother's voice and he stayed quiet.

The Germans in the Lodz ghetto combed through the apartments searching for children that had been hidden. Lying behind the hole in the ceiling, Josef could hear the screams as the Germans found them one by one.

In the middle of 1944, Josef found himself sitting on the bed in their ghetto apartment and watching as his parents packed their things. Once again, they would be taking a trip at the behest of the Germans. The journey was short and they had reached their destination after just a few hours: Auschwitz. Josef could hear people banging on the outside of the cattle car he was in and when he got out, he saw emaciated figures in blue-and-white striped suits who yelled: "Leave everything in the cars. Men to the right, women to the left." It was the arrival platform at Birkenau.

Josef's father took his brother Michal by the hand, bent down and said something that Josef can no longer remember, and gave him a kiss. Then he left. Josef never saw him again. His mother took him into a low building.

"Take everything off," a female guard yelled.

Josef didn't see any other children, just women. He watched as a prisoner shaved off all the hair on their bodies. His mother held his hand tightly, someone was constantly crying and screaming. And then Josef let go of his mother's hand, took a couple of steps and saw people beating other people, and then he only saw naked women with no hair. He had lost his mother.

A guard stopped in front of him, a kapo, a prisoner working for the SS. She was a big woman in a skirt and jacket. Josef looked at her long, blond hair and the woman kneeled in front of him. She took him by the hand and led him back to the pile of clothes.

Chocolate or Death

"Get your things," the woman told him. He heard someone call her "Katya." Josef saw hundreds of pairs of shoes, but he found his pair of white shoes with laces and his coat with the spoon still in the pocket.

"This is it," Salomonovic says in Vienna, opening a worn-out perfume package to reveal a small, steel spoon. "It saved my life, but we'll get to that.

The kapo woman in Auschwitz hugged him after he had gotten dressed and put something in his mouth. It was sweet and melted on his tongue. It was the first time Josef had ever tasted chocolate. The woman took him by the hand and led him into the barracks where the shivering women were waiting. His shoelaces were untied. In the ghetto, his mother had tied them for him every morning.

Six-year-old Josef had arrived at a place where the guards would lead some of the children into the gas chambers and give chocolate to others. There was an orchestra that played Chopin and a doctor who had an eye collection. In the commandant's garden, there were two turtles named Dilla and Jumbo and a river that was black with ash on some days.

In talking about Auschwitz, Josef Salomonovic pauses and says: "It's beyond comprehension."

The guard led him into the barrack with the naked women, but he still couldn't see his mother. All the women were shaved and they were all thin. But then a woman stepped forward, kneeled down on the wooden floor, grabbed his shoelaces and tied them. Josef had found his mother again.

Together, they traveled in a group the Germans called a "closed transport." They had been chosen for labor -- Auschwitz had just been a stop on the journey. A couple of days later, their train rolled into the Stutthof concentration camp near Danzig, today the Polish city of Gdansk. Josef's brother and father were also there, in the men's camp.

Socks for Joseph

The nights grew colder. When the SS called the prisoners into the yard every morning at 5 a.m. to be counted, Josef would shiver from the cold. He was so small that he would stand between his mother's legs because it was warmer. He doesn't know why the Germans let him live -- they murdered almost all the other children in the concentration camps.

After a couple of weeks, Josef's mother learned that his father had been killed on a concrete table with an injection of phenol in his heart. His mother went to the guard in her barrack and asked that Michal be brought to her. And she requested socks for Josef.

Salomonovic interrupts his story, looks up briefly and laughs as though there is something humorous in the vignette. "She was so brave," he says.

A concentration camp was a place where people would be beat to death for merely looking at a kapo. It was not the kind of place where prisoners could make demands.

Still, the day after Josef's mother made her request, Michal came into the barrack. He was shivering and said: "Father is dead." She took Michal into her arms and then went to the guard. "And the socks?" she asked.

As punishment for the question, the guard forced her to do knee bends. A rather absurd punishment when you recall that people in Stutthof were routinely killed for much less.

At night, as the others slept, Josef's mother would take him by the hand and sneak into the guard's bathroom. She would scoop water out of the toilet bowl and have Josef drink out of her hands. It was a risky thing to do. But a prisoner who obeyed all the rules would almost certainly die, since the rules ensured that prisoners got too little to eat and no clean water to drink.

In November, Michal, Josef and their mother were sent by train to Dresden where they assembled bullets in a factory. His mother managed to convince the SS guards to tolerate Josef's presence and got a Dutch slave laborer to write a letter to Aunt Berta in Mähren to ask for food. Aunt Berta was Jewish but had found refuge with a farmer. One night, Josef's mother woke him up and whispered in his ear to be quiet. She then gave him a piece of bread thickly spread with butter and sprinkled with sugar.

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