Survivor STORY

“I didn’t believe [my family was gassed until] the night time. We’d see the sky and flames where they burn the bodies.”

Eliezer Sotto comes from the Greek port of Salonika (Thessaloniki). Prior to the outbreak of World War Two, Salonika had a Jewish population of approximately 50,000. His father, Schechaya, worked as a barber to support his wife, Rachel, and their seven children.

Greece was drawn into the war in October 1940, when Benito Mussolini demanded that his Italian troops be allowed to occupy key strategic positions in Greece. When the Greeks rejected his demand, Italian forces invaded by way of Albania. Faced with heavy resistance, the Italians were unable to defeat the Greeks, who repelled initial offensives. In April 1941, the Germans came to the aid of their Italian allies and conquered Greece within the month.

The Sotto family was required to register with the Nazi authorities for forced labor. Eliezer and his older brother were put to work in the fields, however, Eliezer managed to escape and return home. His brother returned later that day; he had finished working. Soon after, the German police arrived at the Sotto home and arrested Eliezer for leaving work early. He was taken to the police station and locked in jail for the night. The next afternoon, Eliezer was transferred jail, where the Germans would periodically shoot groups of Jews who had skipped work. Fearing that he would be executed, Eliezer was relieved when the German guards told him he would be taken home the next day. Alas, instead of allowing him to return to his family, the Germans arrived with army trucks and took Eliezer back to work.

In late 1942, the Jewish community of Salonika managed to somehow pay a ransom to free the young men from forced labor. They were allowed to return to the Salonika ghetto. In March 1943, the Germans liquidated the ghetto—all the residents were taken to the train station and loaded onto cattle cars. Each cattle car was given a single loaf of bread meant to last the entire horrific eight day journey. Only 4% of the Thessalonian Jews would survive the camps.

The train arrived in Poland, and Eliezer was separated from his family. He marched for ninety minutes before arriving at Auschwitz, the most infamous of Nazi death camps. Upon arrival he asked fellow inmates what happened to his family. They replied that they had surely been gassed. Incredulous, Eliezer did not believe that such an atrocity was possible…at least not until he saw the flames from the crematoria lighting up the night sky.

Eliezer was placed into a barrack and reunited with his two brothers, Charles and Isaac. They remained in the barracks for eight days, after which the Germans rounded up everyone over the age of thirteen for transport to another camp. Isaac, the youngest brother, was nearly thirteen. Eliezer and Charles were taken to Buna, a subcamp of Auschwitz.

One night in Buna, Eliezer was washing barrels behind a barrack when a prisoner informed him that everybody else was in the square for a selection. Eliezer ran to the square and inadvertently joined a group of 500 people bound for the gas chambers at Birkenau. However, they were not murdered, as the Nazis were busy gassing newly-arrived Jews. Eliezer was placed in a barrack for two days and eventually taken back to work loading coal onto trains. After another selection, Eliezer was shipped to Dachau, where he was reunited with Isaac. Charles had perished in Buna.

From Dachau, Eliezer and Isaac were sent to Czechoslovakia. They were then loaded onto a train bound for an unknown location. Eventually, the train stopped. Unbeknownst to the Sottos, the Germans had fled. The train was liberated by Czech civilians and the Red Cross, and the survivors were taken to a Catholic hospital. Isaac was very sick and was transferred to a different hospital. Eliezer recovered and joined a group of Greek prisoners attempting to return home. Eliezer returned to Salonika and discovered that his home was occupied by Greeks who had fled the civil war ravaging the countryside. Eliezer moved to the United States with his wife, Lucy, in 1952 and worked as a barber. The couple had two children. Lucy died in 1995, and Eliezer is still alive today.

Life and Survival in Europe

After working in Czechoslovakia, I don't recall exactly how long it was, I think five, six months, and they evacuate the camp and they put us on the cargo train. And that was probably, that's on March, 1945. And when the train was going, they make many stops, because I think they stop the trains, and they want to, there was bombing, so the train cannot continue. Now at that time, the Czech civilian come and nuns and all kinds of people and begged the Germans to take the sick people from the trains. And so they convinced the Germans to go, because some of the trains was with open tops. And because the Czechs and Polish and Russia, they know the language, they was asking for help. So, and they begged the Germans to get the sick people. So the German agree. So they was coming down when I saw the nuns and the people with the Red Cross. I said to my brother, "Let's jump from the train," you know. And we jumped, and then the nuns come and took us to a barrack over there, to all the sick people. So, then when we standing there, the Germans come to check everybody, make sure is sick. The way they checking is stepping on your stomach. If you make a sound that mean you ok. So, I told to my brother, "If they step, you don't say a sound." So they checking and told the Polish, the nun and the Red Cross, "You can have 'em." So, and they come with the ambulance, with trucks, with army stretchers and they took us to a Catholic hospital.

Making a Living and Learning English

But anyhow, when we came, my father was a barber and I learned the trade from my father. And I was wondering, "How I'm going to start a new life, to work?" And I was talking with someone and he say, "I know somebody is Italian and Spanish, and if you want me I take you over there, I get my hair cut down there. So he went and introduce. This guy has the place in Georgia Avenue, past the Capital. His name was Chris Perez. So I went and got introduced, and the man right away, he say, "You got tools? "Yeah." He say, "Go bring your tools." And I say to the man, "I don't know how to speak English. I don't know how." "Don't worry," he say, "because the men speak Spanish also**." And he said, [phrase in Spanish] So I went back and got the tools and I went to shop. And he told the other barbers to switch a chair to be next to him. And when the customer come, he put him in the chair, he heard tell the customer how he want his hair cut, and he tells me in Spanish, "Regular." So and, for six months, I don't have no problem.

**Spanish is closely related to Ladino, the language traditionally spoken by Greek Jews and in other Jewish communities descended from the Jews exiled from Spain in 1492.

Human Spirit and Warmth

For me this was the best woman in the whole world, because that woman was so create things and so intelligent. If she see what you wearing, she can copy it right there. In other words, one time, became popular some ponchos, (I don't know if you know what I'm talking about), and she saw the women had one, and right away she make those ponchos. Can you believe this? If you touch this, how this woman used to so all these things for people, not just for us. Look what she used to make for babies.

Did she sell it also?

No, no, no, she give them to people. Like we have Bazaar, you know. One time she make about 50 of those for the Bazaar.

Eliezer Sotto