Henryk Neufeld

MOTL 2008

My Life & Family before the War in Krakow

I was born on 14 August 1920. I had one sister who was 5 years older. We had a large family. We were not rich, but working class, My father was a supervisor in a large hardware store.

As the Jewish schools were too expensive for my family, I went to the local primary school and went to cheder on weekends where I learnt Yiddish. We were semi-observant religious Jews living in the Jewish quarter in Krakow called “Kasimiez”, after the Polish King. My Mother was a ballaboosta (housewife). I was mad on soccer and remember stealing my sister’s sox to make into a soccer ball

I went to high school until I was 15/16 years of age, and in 1935-1936, because of the recession, my parents could not afford to send me to high school, so I left and went to learn a metal trade.

My sister got married in 1938 and had a baby in 1939, the week before the war broke out.

Although I may not have understood at the time, as it seemed “normal” to me, our life was full of anti-Semitism. But it was what I was used to. Some examples: there were quotas on how many Jews could attend University; the Polish air-force would not take Jews to train as pilots. And this was the background before the war.

Pre- Ghetto – Germans come to Krakow

You ask me what did I know about what was about to happen? Jews who had been thrown out of Germany came back to Poland and told their stories that the Germans were cleaning their country of Jews.

But nobody could imagine what was about to happen, especially as Krakow was occupied by Austria in World War One, and Jews still had a “normal” life. The Austrians had then been friendly towards the Jews.

The Germans came to Krakow in September 1939. We were told to wear yellow Stars of David. All Jewish shops had to make signs that they belonged to Jews. Jews were restricted from certain places eg: restaurants.

Germans started to take Jews to manual and dirty jobs eg: cleaning streets from ice, cleaning rubbish etc. They took tradespeople such as shoe makers and tailors and other professionals to work for the Germans.

In 1940 my father was called up to work, but I went in his place. We had to walk everyday. It was the distance say from Caulfield to Frankston. We had to dig fields for a future airstrip for the Germans. My father was still working in the hardware store then. That was the whole of summer of 1940.

Building of the Ghetto – 1941

Life in the Ghetto was much worse. My family was given a small flat to live in; for my parents, sister, brother-in-law, baby nephew and myself.

I was working in a workshop that repaired cars – mostly military vehicles. Therefore I had a pass to leave the Ghetto anytime I wanted but I had to wear the Jewish Star arm band all the time.

We were given rations. The Germans were beating people and shooting them all the time.

The Germans got the Jewish Elders to run the Ghetto and they were supervised by the Gestapo with Jewish policemen too. The Jewish police were not armed but were as bad as the Germans.

The Germans started to collect people and send them to the gas chambers. We didn’t know they were going to Auschwitz and Belzec.

1943 – Liquidation of Ghetto and into Plaszow Concentration Camp

The Ghetto was liquidated in 1943 on orders from Germany. The Germans started to shoot old people, sick people and children. They took all my family including my 3 year old nephew to Belzec. I never saw them again. We didn’t know then what had happened to them and we thought maybe they were taken to another ghetto, but we worked it out later.

They left the young ones like me who could work and we were sent to Plaszow Concentration Camp, which was about a 15 minute drive from Krakow. We were made to walk.

Plaszow Concentration Camp had been built on the old Jewish cemetery with electric wire and watch towers.

I was sent to a place to work that made agricultural tools, such as shovels, in a firm called “Zweig”, owned by a Jewish man but taken over by the Germans. It was just outside Plaszow and we were taken out of the camp every day under armed guards and walked to the factory, about a one hour walk each way. If someone during the day tried to escape from work, the entire group of workers was shot. This happened a few times.

This lasted about 6 to 8 months and then we stopped leaving the camp, as they set up workshops within the camp. Each barrack had a different job. My barrack was making metals and we had presses to make tools, eg: handles for spades.

Plaszow to Schindler’s Factory in 1944

A few hundred of us joined a group from Schindler’s workers in Krakow to be sent to the Schindler factory in Brunnlitz in the Sudentenland (an annexation by Germany of Czech land before the war). How did I become a name on the list? This I am not sure of, but it seemed someone who was working for Schindler in Krakow got the names of those of us working with metals in Plaszow to try and save as many of us as possible.

We were sent by train to Gross-Rosen in Germany. This took a few days in cattle trains, with 70-100 people in a train car given nothing to eat or drink for 5 days, with tiny little windows and barbed wired. We then walked from Gross-Rosen train station through the town to the Concentration Camp and stayed for about a week. We were then sent to Schindler’s factory in the Sudentenland by train.

The factory used by Schindler was originally for textile manufacturing. The Germans brought in machinery and it became a munitions factory guarded by the Gestapo. However, in the 8 months I was there (from 1944 to 1945) not one completed anti-aircraft product was completed.

I remember when I was in Schindler’s factory, I worked in the tool room and we had an electric furnace. The other workers would sneak us potatoes and would cook them in the furnaces and keep a few for ourselves as a percentage. One day a German soldier who was guarding us came into the tool room and I was by myself. He smelled something and opened the furnace and found the potatoes and confiscated them all. He asked me how many men worked in the tool room and I replied “eight”. He then said we would not have bread for 8 days. Mrs Schindler overheard this and when the soldier left she told us not to worry as she would give us food. And for 8 days she secretly supplied us with bread, margarine and sausage.

Oscar Schindler used to walk around the camp at night in the dark lighting cigarettes and dropping them continuously. This was for the workers to pick up and smoke. He also dropped sweets as he walked around – for the women.

I was liberated on 19 May 1945 by Russians who sent us two weeks later back to Krakow by train.

Returning to Krakow in May 1945

Krakow had not been bombed or destroyed. Everything looked normal. I arrived at the home I used to live in with my family, and knocked on the door. I knew my family was not there but thought someone would be nice to me. I was still wearing the striped concentration camp uniform. A Ukrainian man answered the door and abused me and said that he would finish off what the Germans had started.

I left and met some other Jewish men and found a Jewish Committee in central Krakow that helped me with food and shelter.

Krakow to Australia

I remained in Krakow for a few months and then went to another part of Poland, Klodzka, and became a trainee jam factory manager for one year. The communists were there already. One day a chief of the communist party came to my work and threatened that if I didn’t join the party I would lose the job.

I immediately arranged to escape with a group of friends to the Czech border (which was about 18 kms away). We bribed the border guard and went across to Czechoslovakia, which was not communist then. There were representatives of the International Red Cross to help us. We stayed 2 days and they put us on an express train to Bratislava (then a town of Czechoslovakia) and then to Vienna in Austria.

We stayed over 2 weeks in the Rothschild Mansion hotel, as refugees. Then the International Red Cross put us on another train to Germany and we arrived in Ulm. I stayed a few years and worked in a United Refugee organisation. After about 3 years, we found there were vacancies for 20 single young men to go to Australia. We bribed someone to get our names on the list. We came to Australia via a refugee camp in Napoli (Italy) by ship, arriving in Melbourne. We were sent to Bonegilla and stayed there 6 weeks before returning to Melbourne and beginning our new lives.

How do I feel coming back to Krakow today?

I have never wanted to come back here and never have. But my granddaughter asked me to come on March of the Living and how could I say no. I was the only one from the big family that survived. I am back here today with my son, daughter and granddaughter.