The Full Story

In September 1939, World War II reached Poland. Within two weeks, the country was occupied by the Germans, and things began to change. Jews were required to wear the yellow star, Jewish homes had to identify themselves with a sign in the window, and Jews no longer could walk on the sidewalks. At the time, David Grabin was living with his parents, two brothers, his sister, his brother-in-law, and their two small children in the town of Slesin. Two other brothers lived 40 km away with their families (Jews were forbidden to travel) and a brother in the Polish army was a war prisoner in Germany.

In July 1940, Nazi officers knocked on their door and told them to be in the market place in a certain number of minutes. The family arrived in the center of the town and found horses and wagons waiting for them. Each family was assigned to one wagon, and there was a roll call to ensure that no one was missing. They traveled about 40-50 km under tight security to Grudziaz, Poland, where they lived all in one room (nine people) and were required to report to work every morning.

In January 1941, the family was taken by horse and wagon to the railroad station, where they were beat with horsewhips and forced into cattle cars with tight security. The train took them to an empty factory building in Lodz, where they were further beat and stripped of their belongings. There was a selection, and David was separated from his family in a group of young people that would be sent to a labor camp. One of his brothers was also chosen for the labor camp, but he escaped by climbing over a brick wall to join the rest of the family. David never had a chance to say goodbye, and that was the last time that he saw them. They were sent to Bilgorajska in Eastern Poland, then to an extermination camp.

The next day, David's group was sent to a labor camp in Prusczc Gdanski, Poland that worked on a highway meant to connect East and West Prussia. Next, he was sent to Bialogard, about 200 km from Gdansk (called Danzig until after World War II), close to the German border. In summer 1942, the Germans occupied the Baltic countries, and David was sent to Piliuona, Lithuania, right outside of Kaunas (formerly known as Kovno) where he unloaded cement from ships. He was only at this camp for 2-3 months, but the conditions and treatment were horrible. David calls it a "starvation camp". In fall 1942, they were transported again by cattle cars to Riga, Latvia, where they manufactured railroad ties. They moved to Plienciems, a city on the Baltic Sea, shortly afterwards, doing the same work. Here there was little food, but sometimes they could obtain smoked fish from the nearby fishermen.

David continued to be sent to new camps. In 1943, the guards in his camp were ordered to execute inmates who were no longer capable of performing the work. They awoke each weak inmate, took him outside, and shot him. David was awoken for execution, but luckily another guard insisted that he was still healthy enough to work. Afterwards, they woke up a few of the other prisoners (David included) to take care of the bodies. There were 6-8 bodies, and they put them on a wagon and pushed them to an area away from the camp for burial. The guards were drunk that night, and began shooting everywhere. One bullet flew right past David's ear, but luckily he was not harmed.

Near the end of 1943, the prisoners were taken to a camp called Eleyer. At the beginning of 1944, the camp was surrounded by the Gestapo. The prisoners knew exactly what was going on—their job at this camp was to unearth mass graves and burn the bodies. Small groups of people were taken away and never came back, so when the Gestapo entered the room, everyone who could found a hiding place. Once David climbed a one-story high brick wall to hide in an attic.

One day a transport of women came to David's camp. A woman with a daughter approached him and asked him to run away with her daughter, promising money. He refused, because those who tried to escape and were caught were always killed. Once he sneaked away from work with someone else to beg for food. When he returned with a sack of food, a guard was waiting. From a distance, he fired two shots, but missed the prisoners. They were taken back to the camp, whipped severely, and the food was taken away. Prisoners were forced to take chances like this to survive. Another time, a convoy of German soldiers returning from the Russian front was passing through as the SS and the Gestapo surrounded the camp to take away people to be killed. The soldiers reproached the other Germans, pointing out that it would be more courageous to fight on the Russian front than abuse Jewish prisoners.

Later in 1944 David was transferred to Riga Kaiserwald where he met Hungarian Jews for the first time. In summer of that year, there was another selection. David was much weaker after four years in the camps, but he saved his life by telling the Gestapo that he was capable of wheel barreling concrete to cover up fuel tanks (an incredibly labor-intensive job). He and other prisoners who were selected to live were sent by boat to Stutthof, Germany, while the unfortunate ones were killed on the Day of Atonement of 1944.

After a short time at Stutthof, the prisoners were transported to Buchenwald by cattle car. When Buchenwald was bombed, the prisoners had to clean up the damaged SS quarters outside the camp while the soldiers beat them out of anger, claiming that they were the cause of the bombing. After a few weeks, they were shipped to another camp in Rehnsdorf, Germany where they worked in factories that produced liquid fuel from coal. Air attacks were frequent, and prisoners often had to stop their work and run for cover. Many were killed.

By the beginning of April 1945, they could hear shooting from the front, and April 12 they were awakened to be evacuated. Anyone unable to leave the camp at the time of evacuation was killed. David was sick in the "hospital" from heavy labor, malnutrition, and diarrhea. He was extremely weak and unable to walk, but a friend from his hometown came to the hospital and took him to the main camp. The prisoners were loaded into open freight cars. It took a long time to start the journey because the American army was very close. The next day, the train was bombed and many were killed. The prisoners were forced to walk the rest of the way, in small groups so as not to attract air raids. David never sat down at rest stops, just leaned against a tree, because he knew he would not be able to stand up if he sat down. The soldiers killed anyone who was unable to stand after a rest. They would stop overnight in empty factories or on farms, and there were always many dead in the morning. Farmers came with horse wagons to take them away. Eventually the farmers complained about the number of bodies, and the soldiers were ordered to stop shooting the prisoners. From that point forward, those who were unable to walk were carried by stronger prisoners. Sometimes farmers would leave food on the road for the prisoners; those who were able to run could snatch the food up, but the weaker ones never had a chance. In Czechoslovakia, food was thrown from balconies, but the weak never got anything, and even prisoners that could run to catch the food suffered beatings from the guards. At Litomerice, Czechoslovakia, the last camp before Theresienstadt (or Terezin), a concentration camp, coffee was put out in large pots, but everyone went so wild trying to get it that it spilled, and no one was able to drink it. They stayed overnight at this camp and the next morning marched to Theresienstadt. There, everyone received a slice of bread, but someone ran by David and snatched his bread away. Barely able to walk, he went back, crying for another slice, but received no response and no bread.

On May 10, the scheduled date of liquidation, the camp was liberated by Russian soldiers. The Russians built hospitals and worked hard to save the prisoners. David found himself in a large hall full of people dying from typhus and other sicknesses. Although he was weak, he was not sick, and figured he had a better chance of surviving if he stayed away from the infected prisoners. He approached a female Russian doctor in the middle of the room and explained to her that he was not sick, just hungry. She checked his health and took him to a sanitarium where he recovered. Most of the others who stayed at the camp died from diseases after a few weeks. David slowly regained his strength, and in the summer the survivors from Poland were sent home.

In Slesin, David was reunited with his oldest brother. They decided not to stay there "because the Polish ground was soaked with Jewish blood." In fall 1945 they traveled to the western part of Germany where David's brother had been liberated. The next day they journeyed by bicycle to the Landsburg DP (displaced persons) camp. Here, David happened upon a female friend he had made at Theresienstadt who was working for UNNRA at the time; her name was Bella. They began seeing each other, and a year later they married. In July 1949, when their son was 17 months old, they came to Richmond, VA. David's newfound happiness, however, was marred by recurring nightmares. For many years his wife often would have to awaken him from screaming fits. He felt like he was "coming back from another world" during these intense dreams. Over time, the nightmares became less frequent, but they never stopped completely.

Source: Personal memoir, Jewish Heritage Collection

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