Survivor STORY

“It stays over in your mind. It’s something which you cannot forget. It’s so embedded in your mind that no matter what you think, it’s still there. You cannot get it out. Either you dream about it or you think about it[…] It’s something which is so hard for anybody to imagine really what a person went through”.

Abe Chaim Grabia was born in the small Polish town of Brzesko on December 20, 1925. In 1928, he and his family moved to the much larger city of Lodz, where Abe attended a local public school. However, even before the German invasion, the public schools were segregated; Jews and ethnic Poles attended entirely different schools.

On September 1, 1939, the Germans invaded Poland, launching the Second World War. Lodz was captured on September 8. The Germans immediately began persecuting Jews, and ordered the establishment of a ghetto in February 1940, stating that all Jews move to a specified district of the city. However, the Germans did not actually erect a wall around the ghetto until April, enabling Abe, his father, and some of his siblings to escape. They moved to an aunt in Krakow and then to an uncle in the nearby village of Zakliczyn. When the Germans demanded that Abe’s father work for them, Abe went instead as his dad was far too old to perform such heavy manual labor. Abe worked in fields in the summers of 1940 and 1941, and he cleared roads of snow in the winters.

In spring of 1942, Abe was sent to the concentration camp Plaszow. Depicted in the film Schindler’s List , and commanded by the notoriously evil war criminal Amon Goeth, the camp provided slave labor to nearby ammunition factories and quarries. Abe managed to escape the camp, running at night and hiding from both Germans and Poles during the day. Attempting to return to his family, Abe encountered Jewish refugees running the opposite direction one night. They informed him that the entire town of Zakliczyn had been deported by Nazis.

Abe was later recaptured by the Germans and sent to a labor camp in the town of Skarzysko-Kamienna. The camp consisted of three sub-camps, designated A, B, and C. Camp C, where Abe was interred, was the worst in terms of treatment, food, and work. Laborers in Camp C produced underwater mines filled with picric acid, and prisoners often died within months from exposure to the dangerous chemical. Abe survived for a year and was sent to a camp in Czestochowa, where he worked in a steel factory.

Shortly before Soviet troops liberated Czestochowa in January 1945, Abe was sent to Buchenwald and then to the subcamp of Colditz, where he worked in an ammunition factory. Because of the German desperation to murder as many Jews as possible in the final days of World War Two, Abe and fellow prisoners endured a two-week forced march through winter weather with little food. They arrived at the large concentration camp of Theresienstadt in the Czech Republic. On June 8, 1945, Abe was liberated by the Soviets, skinny and malnourished.

The Soviet liberators treated the liberated prisoners well; although they had little food for themselves, they fed the Jews and provided medical attention. After recuperating, Abe returned to Poland to seek his relatives. He found none and returned to Theresienstadt. Abe joined fellow Jewish refugees on a transport to England and learned that some of his brothers had survived and were in Europe. Abe’s oldest brother, however, had been living in New York since 1938. Abe wrote a letter to the popular Jewish Philosopher Yiddish radio show, which would read names of survivors seeking relatives during broadcasts. Abe’s brother heard Abe’s name announced and incredulously sent a telegram to him in England. Abe was able to join him in New York soon after. He became a jeweler, married an American woman, and had two children (and later two grandchildren). He changed jobs, becoming a land developer and construction salesman for a fellow survivor, Alex Gross. Abe moved to Ohio and then to Atlanta, where he currently resides.

Day of Liberation
I remember the day, everyone was running, we didn't know where to run. We run, we tried to get something to eat. The first thing, it wasn't too much. Actually Theresienstadt is located in the country, which is all fields. This was already May; we were liberated one of the last ones. And I remember a few weeks later we found a field of strawberries. And even to today's day, this is quite a few years, I eat the strawberry but I don't have the taste. I used to love it but I ate so many strawberries that summer and they were big. There was a field I bet you, could have been for a square mile just strawberries. Some German farm, they left it. And we picked it. We ate so many strawberries, or at least I did. I ate strawberries for breakfast, strawberries for lunch, with some butter, whatever I could. So after awhile I just couldn't look at strawberries.

Life and Survival in Europe

England was pretty good. They fed us, they taught us a little bit the language. They became, we became more human. We were all wild. When we went to a camp in England, which is Windermere, like a big group of kids. They couldn't supply enough bread for sandwiches for us. Each one would eat three, four sandwiches at a time. But gradually we filled up. It took us a while. They, the people were really nice to us, they knew what's going on, so they gave us whatever to please us, you know, and gradually we slowed down a little bit like anything else, and we became more to a human race. We were very, not wild, it's just we didn't know what, what goes on. We were, we grabbed, we didn't know what, we thought maybe If I don't take an extra sandwich I would starve later on. We still thought, in the mind, we still in camp.

Coping

It's hard for the survivor to understand what, how he survived. How can a person who didn't go through understand if the person who survived it doesn't think, "How did I survive? How did I get through so many years? How did, what happened?" So now, take a person who never went through. He never, like here in the United States, I'm not against it, just, "Oh, we had a tough time, we had to go on, meat was on cards." Big deal. Meat was on cards, or gas, right? Or you couldn't get a new car because there was a war, know what I mean? So how can you tell that person what went through a survivor the few years? How can you tell them? They cannot comprehend what happened. They know it was bad. They lost families, they lost uncles, but they still wasn't there. They say in Polish, like another language, what you don't see doesn't hurt as much. But you don't see it. You feel bad it happened, you know, but you don't feel it. See, what happened a lot is, a lot of people lost their families, uncles, aunts, mothers, fathers, people came over, but they didn't see it and so how can you tell them really? They feel bad that it happened. But you, how can a survivor tell them every day life, every life? Every day you lived on a string just between here and that, every minute for no reason. He just didn't like you, shot you. And nobody said anything.

Anger

Well, I gave up on anger but I still don't like what I went through. You cannot be angry with the whole world what happened. You have to live with it; you cannot have poison in your system. Keep poisoning it all the time. I don't like what they did to my family. I never forget it; I can't forget it, no. But you cannot keep, you know, hating all these years and not to get sick over it. I dream about it. I used to take pills, I figure, but it didn't help anyway. It stayed in my mind. I still go through it. Still get, wake up sometimes sweating. But I cannot get rid of it, so might as well make the best out of it. You live with it.

Abe Grabia