What would you do if your life had been ripped apart by a group of people who really knew nothing about you or your people, but hated you and them anyway. That was the position in which Joseph Harmatz found himself. Born in Rokiškis, Lithuania into a prosperous family, Harmatz and his family were transferred to the Vilnius Ghetto on January 23, 1925, after the occupation of Lithuania by Nazi Germany. It was the worst time in his life. His youngest brother and all of his grandparents were killed and his older brother died during a military action. His despondent father committed suicide. Harmatz was left alone with his mother at the age of 16. He couldn’t stand the way things were, so he left the ghetto through the sewers and joined a band of guerrillas fighting the Nazis. Harmatz managed to survive the Holocaust, and after the war, he became part of Nakam (Hebrew for Revenge) also known as the Avengers. The Nakam was a group of 50 former underground fighters led by Abba Kovner. Their goal was to avenge the deaths of the six million Jewish victims of Nazi extermination efforts in the Holocaust. The true goal according to Harmatz was to facilitate the death of as many Germans as possible, with the group planning “to kill six million Germans, one for every Jew slaughtered by the Germans,” acknowledging that the effort “was revenge, quite simply. Were we not entitled to our revenge, too?”
Their main target was Stalag XIII-D, a prisoner-of-war camp built on what had been the Nazi party rally grounds in Nuremberg. Interned in the camp were 12,000 members of the SS (Schutzstaffel or Protection Squads). These prisoners were involved in running concentration camps and other aspects of the Final Solution…Nazi Germany’s horrific policy of deliberate and systematic genocide across German-occupied Europe. In April 1946, a member of the Nakam got a job as a baker, and he had a plan. He baked arsenic into 3,000 loaves of bread that were to be fed to the prisoners. Nearly 2,000 prisoners became ill and were thought to be seriously ill. American authorities thought that the arsenic had got onto the crust of the bread by accident, having been used as an insecticide in the wheat fields. During the investigation, United States Army investigators found enough arsenic to have killed 60,000 people and Nakam claimed they had killed several hundred victims, but declassified documents obtained by Associated Press in 2016 stated there were no casualties.
According to Harmatz’s son, his father had no regret for his attempts to kill the German prisoners. He said he was only “sorry that it didn’t work.” Harmatz wrote a book in 1998, called “From the Wings” in which he stated that the poisoning plot had the approval of Chaim Weizmann, though David Ben-Gurion and Zalman Shazar were both against the plan. An earlier attempt to poison the water in a number of German cities failed after Kovner was arrested by British forces on a ship on which the poison had been hidden, and had been thrown overboard to prevent its capture. The group was so filled with hatred that they wanted all Germans killed, even if they had nothing to do with the Holocaust. Looking back, after much soul searching, Harmatz was thankful that the plot to poison the water supplies in German cities had failed, saying that it “would have harmed efforts to create an incipient State of Israel and would have led to charges of moral equivalence between actions of Germans and Jews. Another effort to kill Nazi war criminals on trial at Nuremberg failed when the group was unable to find any US Army guards willing to participate.”
Harmatz emigrated to Israel in 1950, and worked to aid Jews resettling from countries around the world. He headed World ORT, a Jewish non-profit organization that promotes education and training in communities around the world, from 1960 to 1994. A long-time resident of Tel Aviv, Harmatz died at at his home on September 22, 2016. He was 91 years old, and was survived by two sons.
The Neuengamme concentration camp was established in December 1938, and used by the Nazis as a forced labor camp from December 13, 1938 to May 4, 1945, when it was liberated by British troops. At the time of its liberation, about half of the approximately 106,000 Jews held there over time had died. Neuengamme was located on the Elbe river, near Hamburg, Germany. One hundred inmates who were transferred from Sachsenhausen concentration camp, were forced to build the Neuengamme concentration camp. It was established around an empty brickworks in Hamburg-Neuengamme. The bricks produced there were to be used for the “Fuehrer buildings” part of the National Socialists’ redevelopment plans for the river Elbe in Hamburg.
The prisoners worked on the construction of the camp and brickmaking. The bricks were used for regulating the flow of the Dove-Elbe river and the building of a branch canal. The prisoners were also used to mine the clay used to make the bricks. That reminds me of the Jews in Egypt who were forced to build the pyramids. In 1940, the population of the camp was 2,000 prisoners, with a proportion of 80% German inmates among them. Between 1940 and 1945, more than 95,000 prisoners were incarcerated in Neuengamme. On April 10th, 1945, the number of prisoners in the camp itself was 13,500. Over the years that Neuengamme was open, it is estimated that 103,000 to 106,000 people were held there. We may never really know, because they didn’t keep clear records of all the people who went through the camps.
From 1942 on, the inmates were forced to work in the Nazi armament production. At first, the work was performed in the Neuengamme workshops, but soon it was decided to transfer the prisoners to the armaments factories in the surroundings areas. At the end of the war, the prisoners of Neuengamme were spread all over northern Germany. As the Allied troops advanced, hundreds of inmates were forced to dig antitank ditches. In many large north German cities, The prisoners were also require to clear rubble and removed corpses after bombing raids. There were 96 sub-camps, 20 of them for women. In early spring 1945, more than 45,000 inmates were working for the Nazi industry. A third of the women were forced to be among a part of the Nazi industry workforce. By this time, the internal population of Neuengamme was 13,500, which made it completely overcrowded. The estimated number of victims in Neuengamme is approximately 56,000. Thousands of inmates were hanged, shot, gassed, killed by lethal injection or transferred to the death camps Auschwitz and Majdanek. As the war neared its end, the SS decided to evacuate Neuengamme. They had hoped to avoid having them liberated…probably hoping to regroup further north. This was the start of one of the worst death marches of the war. During these death marches, approximately 10,000 inmates perished by shootings or simply starvation. Nevertheless, the Allies won this war, and then they went in and liberated the prisoners of the many death camp.
Yesterday was National Holocaust Remembrance Day, I started thinking about all that happened to those poor victims of the Holocaust, and because yesterday was the day that the prisoners of Auschwitz were liberated, I began to contemplate what it must have been like for them as the exited that horrible camp. My guess is that their first thought was one of thankfulness that they had actually come out alive. Going into Auschwitz, I’m sure many had hopes that it would be just a camp for prisoners of war, and that they might be treated fairly, but as their friends began to disappear, never to return, I’m sure they knew to horrific truth. This was not a prisoner of war camp, is was a death camp, and the whole goal was to experiment, torture, and kill the prisoners. The people who worked there, were given authority to do as they pleased.
As the prisoners were taken out of the camp, I’m sure there was a mixture of feelings…relief and guilt. Relief because they had lived through one of the worst atrocities in history…and guilt, because they had lived through one of the worst atrocities in history…while so many others did not. The guilt would have been horrible. Parents who made it out, while their children did not; children who made it out, while their parents did not. They were free, but homeless. They were weary, and many were sick or dying of starvation. The experiments performed on them probably left irreparable damage to their bodies and minds. I’m sure their thoughts were racing as the walked away from the worst time in their lives.
Their futures were uncertain. They didn’t know if they would be accepted in their home country, or if they would have to immigrate to another country to find real freedom. And I’m sure that the worst thought was the possibility that it could happen again. Once something like the holocaust happened to a people, how could they possibly trust another nation again, and yet they would, because as horrible as the Holocaust was, there were many good people, and many good nations who were completely against the atrocities that happen during those years…people and nations who would never forget what happened. The Holocaust was an atrocity beyond the ability of most human beings ability to wrap their minds around, but it was something that was impossible to forget, for those who lived it. The horror they suffered would haunt them for the rest of their lives. It would be impossible to remove the nightmare they lived from their memory.
On April 11, 1945, the American Third Army liberated the Buchenwald concentration camp, near Weimar, Germany. Buchenwald was a camp that will be judged second only to Auschwitz in the horrors it imposed on its prisoners, but on this day in 1945, those horrors came to an end. The camp held thousands of prisoners, mostly slave laborers, many of whom were required to work 15 hour days. There were no gas chambers at Buchenwald, but hundreds, and sometimes thousands of prisoners, died every month from disease, malnutrition, beatings, and executions. Doctors performed medical experiments on inmates, testing the effects of viral infections and vaccines. Beginning in 1941, a number of physicians and scientists carried out a varied program of medical experimentation on prisoners at Buchenwald in special barracks in the northern part of the main camp. Medical experiments aimed at testing the efficacy of vaccines and treatments against contagious diseases such as typhus, typhoid, cholera, and diphtheria resulted in hundreds of deaths. The people these doctors were experimenting on were considered, non-human, and so their lives, or the loss thereof, were of little or no consequence to these evil doctors and scientists.
Among the camp’s most gruesome characters was Ilse Koch, wife of the camp commandant, who was infamous for her sadism. Her cruelty and heinous acts earned her the nickname, The Witch of Buchenwald. She often beat prisoners with a riding crop, and collected lampshades, book covers, and gloves made from the skin of camp victims. She was always in attendance when new prisoners were brought in. She required that they be stripped so she could examine their skin. When she found something she liked, the prisoner was killed and their skin removed for her to use. Koch was truly an evil person, and in the end, I think it all came back to haunt her, because after she was tried for a second time and given a life sentence she hanged herself at Aichach women’s prison on September 1, 1967. She was 60 years old. She was said to suffer from delusions and had become convinced that concentration camp survivors would abuse her in her cell. I think her evil ways drove her insane.
As American forces closed in on the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald, on April 11, 1945, Gestapo headquarters at Weimar telephoned the camp administration to announce that it was sending explosives to blow up any evidence of the camp…including its inmates. What the Gestapo did not know was that the camp administrators had already fled in fear of the Allies. A prisoner answered the phone and informed headquarters that explosives would not be needed, as the camp had already been blown up, which, of course, was not true. That act of quick thinking, saved countless lives. The sights the Allied troops saw as they entered the camps must have been sickening. People emaciated due to starvation, the smell of death everywhere, the signs of the horrific experiments that took place there. This place should never have been allowed to exist, and yet here it was. The prisoners who had managed to survive were most likely staring in stunned disbelief, not quite able to believe their eyes. Nevertheless, they had survived and they were liberated. Among those saved by the Americans was Elie Wiesel, who would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.
Sometimes, it has to be accepted that just maybe, something is impossible. Still, when a challenge seems impossible, there is always someone who comes along and proves that it can be done. Alcatraz island, and the prison that is located there were known to be impossible to escape from. Over the years that Alcatraz was open, there were 14 escape attempts. Myths and mysteries surrounded Alcatraz, and it’s seemingly inescapable water fortress for years. One of the many myths about Alcatraz is that it was impossible to survive a swim from the island to the mainland because of sharks. In fact, there are no “man-eating” sharks in San Francisco Bay, only small bottom-feeding sharks. The real obstacles the prisoners faced were the cold temperatures…which averaged 50 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit, the strong currents in the water, and the distance to shore, which was at least 1¼ miles. Those things combined were known to have bested most people who attempted to make it from Alcatraz to San Francisco.
The prisoners tried every possible escape plan they could think of…from simply climbing over a fence to the most elaborate attempt which was made famous by the movie “Escape From Alcatraz,” when on June 11, 1962, Frank Morris, and brothers John and Clarence Anglin cut through the walls, and made false walls to conceal their work, then placing “dummy heads” in their beds, so they would have all night to make their escape. Using raincoats turned into floatation devises, they made their escape. A cell house search turned up the drills, heads, wall segments, and other tools, while the water search found two life vests…one in the bay, the other outside the Golden Gate, oars, as well as letters and photographs belonging to the Anglins that had been carefully wrapped to be watertight. No sign of the men was found. Several weeks later a man’s body dressed in blue clothing similar to the prison uniform was found a short distance up the coast from San Francisco, but the body was too badly deteriorated to be identified. Speculation continues to this day as to whether or not the other two made it to safety.
The official statement says they drown, and while it is likely that they did, it has been proven that it was indeed possible to swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco. Prior to the Federal institution opening in 1934, a teenage girl swam to the island to prove it was possible. Fitness guru Jack LaLanne swam to the island pulling a rowboat, and several years ago two 10 year old children also made the swim. The official stand on that is that if a “person is well trained and conditioned, it is possible to survive the cold waters and fast currents. However, for prisoners, who had no control over their diet, no weightlifting or physical training (other than situps and pushups), and no knowledge of high and low tides, the odds for success were slim.” As to the escape attempts in which no body was ever found, we will never really know if they somehow managed to beat the odds and went on to live a quiet life under an assumed name or if they were swept away to be basically buried at sea. Either way, it is a very interesting subject to speculate on. I personally think that at least one of the three men made it.