Survivor STORY

“They felt, […]‘I survived because of God, God, because of God, he made me, that’s how I survived.’ And I said the opposite. I said, ‘There is, there is no God. I survived because I, I helped myself survived [sic]. That’s the only way I survived. And if there’s a God, I’m, I just want to show him that I’m not going to believe in him.’ “

Jacob Kahan was born in the Polish city of Lodz in 1927. As a child, he received a Jewish education before attending the local public schools. He was due to have a Bar Mitzvah in September of 1939, but the German invasion prevented this. After World War Two broke out, Jacob’s father, Moses, was conscripted into the Polish army to resist the German invasion and was never heard from again. Immediately after the Germans occupied Lodz, they began persecuting the Jewish population. They forced the Jews to wear yellow stars, prevented Jews from gathering a Minyan for morning prayers, and humiliated a local Hasid by dragging him by the beard.

Judenrat , a council of Jews that existed to function as a liaison between local Jewish populations and the occupying Nazis. Jacob worked at a variety of jobs including installing lightening rods at airport bomb storage facilities.

After the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, the Nazis in Krosno persecuted Jews more severely. They began taking and executing hostages to ensure good behavior from the Jewish community. The Germans forced Jacob to work in an army food storage warehouse before sending him to a labor camp in the village of Frysztak in 1942, where he constructed barracks and sewage ditches. He learned that his mother and sisters were sent to the Dukla ghetto. They did not survive.

In 1942, the Germans closed down the camp at Frysztak and sent Jacob to Rzeszow, a former ghetto. There was little food in Rzeszow, and diseases such as typhoid were rampant. When the Germans sought “volunteers” to lay bricks at a camp called Plaszow, near Krakow. Jacob was thusly sent to mix mortar in a quarry in 1943. He and his fellow inmates had to tear down Jewish graves and monuments to obtain materials to build the roads. He witnessed the camp commander Amon Goeth, an infamous war criminal, arguing with and killing a female architect, a scene later depicted in the movie Schindler’s List. Jacob also had to sort belongings from Jewish prisoners in Plaszow. He was nearly killed by a guard for attempting to steal sweaters to keep himself warm enough to survive the winter. Instead, he was beaten by Jewish kapos and locked in a bunker.

At the end of 1943, Jacob was sent to Auschwitz. Luckily, the train journey was from Plaszow was only a day and a half long, so he was not forced to endure the miserable conditions that killed many other Jews from elsewhere. He only remained at Auschwitz for a week, as he was sent to work in a munitions factory in Czestochowa. When Soviet forces neared Czestochowa, Jacob was sent to the concentration camp Nordhausen, where he unloaded parts for V1 and V2 rockets. In 1944, he was sent to Bergen-Belsen. Jacob and some other prisoners managed to escape Bergen-Belsen by crawling through a storm/sewer drain. They were rescued by an English reconnaissance unit.

After the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, Jacob met a survivor named Mona and fell in love with her. They went to go stay with her cousin in Hamburg and later married. After receiving visas to come to America, they were assigned to live in Atlanta. Mona committed suicide after ten years of marriage due to depression from her infertility. Jacob remarried a German Jew named Marianna and had three children; one was adopted. Although not religious, he raised his children as Jews. Jacob died in 2005 at the age of 77.

Life and Survival in Europe

Once we got liberated, when the camp, the Bergen-Belsen camp, was liberated, I just left everything and went back to Bergen-Belsen. And that's how I met Mona. And she was, she was very, very undernourished. Even after the liberation, what we had plenty of food she was never actually adjusted. She could never, she couldn't adjust herself to just forget about what happened. I seen a lot of killing, but she said she seen her own family in Lodz, she was in the ghetto all the time until she came in from ghetto to Bergen-Belsen, and she seen her own family dying. And I believe her mother was with her until almost the last minute and her mother gave up the last piece. They were given some food and said she already ate and gave her, and that's how she survived. And her mother starved, and she seen her mother starve from hunger in the ghetto. And she seen a lot more misery than I did.

Coping

After surviving, when we, after liberation, what - first, I still thought that we going to find some family, if not very close, at least distant cousins or somebody in the family. But, what more years it went through farther on and I seen that I'm not finding nobody, I was actually almost mad at everybody, gentiles or even Jewish people. I said, "How could they listen and hear all those things and not protest or done something to save some of those people?" And then I even thought, I say, "We have a God, we believe, we...I prayed every day and even if we wasn't that orthodox we, I followed tradition and was brought up as a Jew." And later on, when I seen that none of them survived, and I said, "If we have a God and any God could watch that terror and that killing and those killing of innocent babies - actually some of them not even being shot, but just thrown into the ditches still alive -" I said to myself, "if there is a God, I don't want to believe no more. I just, I was actually hating almost the whole world.

We needed guidance and actually we needed guidance when we were liberated. That's when we needed guidance. Instead of food we needed some psychiatric guidance. And now I could see, if we would have that, it could have helped a lot of young people. And I just carried on because that's part of life, that's nature, is to survive. I was born a survivor, to survive.

I had a heart attack a few years ago and I thought I probably haven't got too much longer left, so I said, "Before I die I have to go back to Poland and at least walk in those places as a free man, where I wasn't under guards, beaten and pushed and couldn't go," so at least I went back to those places just to have peace of mind.

What did it feel like when you were there?
Well it was very sad, very sad to be in those places. But at least I felt like a burden from my heart came off, that I'm in the same place where I was beaten and couldn't do what I wanted. And now at least I'm free, in the same area where thousands died. So it gave me a little peace of mind that at least I got that much satisfaction back in my life.

Explore themes found in this biography:

Jacob Kahan