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Prisoner A18651 Returns to Auschwitz

Contributed by Tim Gray, chairman of the non-profit WWII Foundation. For more information about the foundation, visit www.wwiifoundation.org

The majority of Holocaust survivors have not the desire nor the will to return to the place where they lived through the most disturbing moments of their life and watched others die in ways still not easy to describe more than 70 years later.

Today in Oświęcim, Poland, 87 year old Israel Arbeiter confronted his past for most likely the final time. He did it on his terms. He held his head high and walked with a crisp step. He wore a Boston Red Sox 2004 World Series baseball cap, dress pants and sneakers and carried a bottle of water with him at all times.

It was a far cry from the striped uniform the German SS made him wear in 1944 designating him as a Jew and that he could die at any time the Nazis so chose.

The German SS could have shot Israel Arbeiter, hanged him, starved him to death, gassed him, thrown him in a pit of already burning corpses or just left him to decompose as a result of disease. In reality, Izzy could die in any fashion his captors could dream up. There also wasn’t any bottled water back then. In fact, Izzy was lucky if he could find any drink or food at all. He was sure he was going to die here. It was almost certain.

Fast forward now to a beautiful Friday in April of 2012. On this sunny and warm morning , thousands of miles from his home in America, Izzy Arbeiter walked through the gates into Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

Auschwitz-Birkenau is part of the Auschwitz complex in southern Poland (3 camps in all, about an hour from Krakow). Auschwitz-Birkenau or Auschwitz II as it is also known, is a place where trains pulled directly into the camp from the outside world and as you stepped off your over-crowded, wretched-smelling cattle car, you were told to go to the left or the right. Either way determined whether you lived a little bit longer or died that very day in the gas chambers.

The young and strong had the best chance to live and Israel Arbeiter had one thing going for him, he was a determined teenager from Plock, Poland who had made his father a promise to stay alive and also keep alive his Jewish tradition.

Because of his youth and strength Izzy was “fortunate” in that he would be forcibly worked to death as a slave laborer for the German war machine instead of killed right away. Izzy was told to go to the right.

On Friday, April 27th, 2012 as Israel Arbeiter walked back into Auschwitz-Birkenau he felt free, because inside he knew he could leave the camp at any moment if he so chose and that the gates that once closed behind his train car in 1944 would not be making the sound of metal locking onto metal on this day in 2012.

Israel Arbeiter is a survivor.

This place could not kill him, no German Nazi could, even after they already had murdered his parents and younger brother in another death camp (Treblinka).

As Izzy walked around the camp today he had the air of someone who owned the place and the blue tattoo on his arm that read, A 18651, labeling him a prisoner of Auschwitz, pretty much gave him the right to say so if he wanted to. He didn’t.

His ability to walk freely around this place was enough for him and a silent statement that he had beaten the Nazis at their own game. Izzy was still alive and they were now all dead and residing in Hell.

Israel Arbeiter showed those with him today where people were killed. He stopped to talk about his life in the camp, even visiting what was left of his old prisoner barracks, number 28, now just a pile of bricks. The chimney and the foundation were still visible, but the wood siding and roof were gone. He showed his grandson Matt where his wife future wife (and Matt’s grandmother) Anna lived at Auschwitz II, the exact barracks where she and other female inmates slept and prayed.

He talked about how the gas chambers would be so busy that the Germans actually had a waiting area in the nearby woods where prisoners were politely asked by the SS guards to remain until it was their time to die (or as their guards told them, to take showers or be fed, whatever the lie). He (and we) sat on that very ground, under those very trees today, and listened to Izzy talk about what is what like watching those people wait. He knew what was going to happen to them and could do nothing about it. It was the killing of the young children that bothered him the most. I poked through the dirt with a stick while Izzy spoke, maybe hoping to find something buried by one of those who sat on the very spot I was now sitting on. Maybe if I did find something I could return it to a family member still living somewhere in the world. I found only more dirt.

Izzy talked about the finger nail marks on the inside of the gas chambers, where victims tried to claw their way out through concrete as the SS dropped Zyklon B gas into openings at the top. The finger nail marks remain today, a testament to those who fought to the very last second to stay alive.

I saw them myself and it made me ill. To stand in a gas chamber now and to see those marks on the wall is sickening. Just feet away from the gas chamber at Auschwitz I are several ovens. Victims were cremated within minutes of their death.

Truthfully, ever since we planned to film Izzy’s story here in Poland I have dreaded my first trip inside what today are memorials inside the gas chambers. It  was exactly how I thought it would be. Nauseating. I felt like I had just walked into another world. You could just feel the evil that occurred here.

At Auschwitz-Birkenau (Auschwitz II) Israel Arbeiter visited what was left of several of the crematoria buildings there. Several were blown up by the Germans in 1945 as they tried to destroy evidence of their mass murders and the burning of the victims bodies. The Russians were prepared to liberate Auschwitz. One of the crematoria was also blown up by prisoners using dynamite, part of a revolt in the camp that the SS quickly snuffed out. There were heroes everywhere here amongst the death.

Izzy stopped by a very small pond where fish nibbled at insects. Underneath the surface, the foundation of the pond was a mixture of sand, but mostly the ashes of those killed in the crematoria. Maybe that’s why the water color seemed go grey?

Izzy visited the building where he was given his tattoo and uniform and instead of being gassed, was given a real shower and disinfected.

Mostly, Israel Arbeiter talked. He feels the need to speak for those who did not survive here. Of the 1.3 million who came through the Auschwitz killing factories, an estimated 1.1 million died. Izzy speaks for them and his parents and younger brother. Everyone who suffered.

School kinds from Slovakia stop and talk with Izzy in front of an old cattle car still on the train tracks inside the camp. He tells these high schoolers to go home and kiss their parents and tell them they love them. He tells them to enjoy their day, but stops and laughs and says that “enjoying” was not what they should do here. Learn was probably a better word. He says God Bless America and God Bless Slovakia. They like that. The two generations part and they clap loudly for this 87 year old man. In a place like Auschwitz applause is not a sound heard very often.

It is now time for Israel Arbeiter to leave Auschwitz-Birkenau. Unlike 1944, no one will tell him he can’t. No one will stand in his way. He will no “go out through the crematoria” as his only means of escape, a phrase told to him when he arrived here in 1944. The only way out then they said was to die, be cremated and your ashes blown into the wind of Poland. That would be the only way to freedom.

Our guide on this day told us Auschwitz survivors rarely come back to visit the camp. The majority are now dead or too ill. Also, those still alive find it too difficult.

On April 27th, 2012 Israel Arbeiter and his grandson Matt walked through the front gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau leaving for the last time. Israel Arbeiter never looked back to say goodbye.

Tim Gray is Chairman of the non-profit WWII Foundation. To learn more about the WWII Foundation and to donate to their projects, including the educational documentary on Israel Arbeiter’s return to Poland and Germany, please visit www.wwiifoundation.org

Izzy Arbeiter Waves Goodbye to Plock

Israel Arbeiter said his final goodbye today to his home city of Plock, Poland.

At 87, Arbeiter will most likely never again be healthy enough to return to the city that gave him life 87 years ago, but is now more remembered as the place where he last saw his mother, father and youngest brother alive. His father’s final words before the Nazis separated his family in the city square were both calm and powerful: “Izzy please make sure to carry on the Jewish tradition.”

From Plock, 14 year-old Israel Arbeiter was sent to a slave labor camp and his parents and younger brother put on a train bound for the death camp at Treblinka. At Treblinka Arbeiter’s family was gassed and cremated. Another brother disappeared and hasn’t been seen since. One other brother also survived the Holocaust.

As our film crew left today Arbeiter passed Plock’s beautiful city hall building, in the foreground, a sparkling water fountain danced in the sunlight. How different a scene it was for Izzy to witness today as compared to 1939 when the German SS and Gestapo entered the city and people started to disappear. There was no sunshine then, only gathering clouds of impending death.

As we drove through the Polish countryside bound for Krakow, I asked Izzy many questions about his younger days. Every answer began with joy, but ended in sorrow.

Last night we stopped at the Treblinka death camp. It was already past dusk when we pulled into a small area about 150 yards from the center of what was then the camp. The Germans did their best to hide the camp when they left, tearing as much down as possible to leave no traces of their crimes behind. But such a mass-muder could never be covered up and today, on this ground where Israel Arbeiter’s family once stood and breathed their last breath, Izzy also said his goodbyes to them.

In the darkness he spoke to his father, quietly whispering in such low tones that it was hard to hear from just yards away. He reassured his father he had kept his promise from that last day they were together in Plock and kept his family’s Jewish tradition alive. Next to Izzy stood the proof, his grandson Matt, who also wept for the pain his grandfather still felt and all those souls around him who cried and pleaded for their own lives more than 70 years ago.

The grounds of Treblinka were quiet. A half-moon peaked through the tall pines, and stars blinked in a cloudless Polish sky. There was hardly a breeze or a noise from the nearby woods. It was quiet. Death occurred here and you didn’t need any man-made signs to tell you that. You smelled it, but there was no odor. You could see it, but there were no bodies or walking skeletons visible. It was just total blackness, a deep dark color that was actually darker than black, if that is possible. It was the devil’s waiting room and all the lights were off, yet you didn’t feel scared for yourself, just sad for them.

As Israel Arbeiter walked across Treblinka, the shadows danced on the memorials put in place to honor all the cities, towns and villages in Poland where the victims of the camp arrived from. Izzy stood by the stone with the name Plock on it, his grandson Matt just inches away. The tears came running down his face, illuminated only by the low light of our video camera and a small flashlight nearby.

As emotional as this was for Israel Arbeiter, it will be much worse on Friday as he returns to the place whose name still makes him stop and stare off into the distance, Auschwitz. It was here where Izzy Arbeiter was sure he saw the Devil. He was wearing a black uniform with SS on it and he was hell-bent on one thing: killing as many people as possible and making sure they suffered tremendously in the process.

Please stay tuned as we post daily updates on Izzy Arbeiter’s return to Poland and Germany.

Tim Gray is Chairman of the non-profit WWII Foundation. To learn more about the WWII Foundation and to donate to their projects, including the educational documentary on Israel Arbeiter’s return to Poland and Germany, please visit www.wwiifoundation.org

Israel Arbeiter Returns To Plock

Contributed by Tim Gray, chairman of the non-profit WWII Foundation. For more information about the foundation, visit www.wwiifoundation.org

Israel Arbeiter was 14 when the Germans took over his city of Plock, Poland on September 3, 1939. There were an estimated 10,000 Jews living in Plock (pronounced Plotsk) in 1939. You would be hard pressed to find a handful in 2012, maybe 2 or 3?  Where did they all go? Treblinka death camp, Auschwitz concentration camp, hanged, shot, deported, simply murdered; all part of the Nazis effort to rid Poland and all of Europe of those not fit to be a part of the aryan race. It would eventually be called “the Final Solution to the Jewish question”-all Jews must die. Israel Arbeiter was a Jew.

Today, on the actual day Izzy Arbeiter turned 87 years old, this resident of Massachusetts returned to Plock. His apartment, which he once shared with his parents and four other brothers, has been condemned; much like all the Jews were in Plock in 1939 as the Germans swept through eastern Europe.

The neighborhood Israel Arbeiter once called home is full of unfamiliar faces. All his old friends were rounded up in the center square of the city and killed by the SS. The barber who lived next door was sent off to a death camp, same with the butcher, the people who lived in the apartment above him were sent away and their father hanged in the public square. His old apartment windows, where this teenager once dreamed of what was to come in life, are now boarded up.

It was painful for Izzy Arbeiter to come home to Plock today. He was once happy, like all of those who lived in this small city, until the SS and Gestapo arrived. He used to play soccer with his friends or just meet them in the street to play. Nobody ever had to worry about leaving their front door unlocked or their children going down the street to meet friends. Plock was a community in the truest sense of the word. Everyone looked after one another.

Now everyone is gone. Israel Arbeiter sits on what was once the front entrance to his apartment. If he listens closely enough he can still hear the laughter of his mother or take in the smells coming from her kitchen as she would cook his favorite dinner. He hears his father come home from his job as a tailor. He would listen as his brothers would get louder and louder as they approached his street, and there they were! Those Arbeiter boys.

But this is now and that was then. Izzy’s parents were sent off to Treblinka along with his younger brother. They were gassed and cremated there. Another brother just disappeared and hasn’t been seen in 73 years. Izzy and one brother did survive, but their life in Plock would never be the same.

After visiting the place where his family was torn apart. Israel Arbeiter had a stop to make before heading back to his hotel in Warsaw. Three hours away he would pay his final visit to Treblinka to say goodbye to the ghosts of his parents and younger brother whose lives were taken at Treblinka simply because of their faith. It was dark when Izzy arrived and the visitors had long since left. Israel Arbeiter, alone with a flashlight,  had the sounds of Treblinka all to himself. A bird would chirp here..a dog barked way off in the distance, but mostly there was a quiet calm. He said a prayer. It was as close as he has been to his parents and younger brother in years. At least that’s how Izzy felt. Like all those murdered at Treblika their souls still can be heard if you listen closely enough as the wind gently whispers its story through the trees. Trees that once stared down on unspeakable horrors.

Thursday Israel Arbeiter returns to Plock and his apartment one final time. He is in search of something his family left behind as the Germans started knocking on every door in the city. If he finds it, it will be the first time in 73 years he has held these items in his hands, items that were important to his family and the way they celebrated their faith. And despite what the Germans did to his family, faith is the one thing the Nazis could not take from Israel Arbeiter.

Please stay tuned as we post daily updates on Izzy Arbeiter’s return to Poland and Germany.

Tim Gray is Chairman of the non-profit WWII Foundation. To learn more about the WWII Foundation and to donate to their projects, including the educational documentary on Israel Arbeiter’s return to Poland and Germany, please visit www.wwiifoundation.org

Israel Arbeiter Lands in Poland

Just prior to boarding our Lufthansa flight from Boston’s Logan airport to Munich, Germany and then on to Warsaw, Poland I gave Holocaust survivor Israel Arbeiter a copy of a book I just finished. It’s called “Auschwitz” by British historian Laurence Rees.

There is something very inadequate about handing an Auschwitz survivor a book on Auschwitz. What will it say that he didn’t already experience himself?

Don’t get me wrong, from my perspective Rees’ book was very, very good. It opened my eyes to many things about the camp I never knew. It’s a book I would highly recommend to anyone who wants to know more about the most infamous of the Nazis concentration camps. It’s just that handing it to a man who lived it personally is an awkward feeling. Kind of like giving Neil Armstrong a book about the moon.

To tell you the truth I am not sure how I am going to react to visiting Auschwitz and making the trip with an actual survivor. Trying to see it through his eyes will be difficult. Somehow words seem hollow when trying the describe what he went through. Maybe it’s best just to let Izzy speak for himself. Isn’t that the correct way to hear about history, from those who actually lived it?

I have spent my entire life reading about the people and major battles of World War II. We have filmed all over the world, from Guadalcanal to Normandy, France (9 times) to Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany. But Auschwitz is something different. I like to call it a game changer. Guadalcanal was in some ways like that. I mean who ever expects to go to Guadalcanal and experience the jungle where so much savagery occurred? It’s 36 hour trip from Boston. But in a way it changed my perception. I feel fortunate to have visited a place most Americans couldn’t find on a map during World War II and would still have trouble today. Yet, to anyone who has studied the war, the Solomon Islands and Guadalcanal was a watershed moment in WWII in the Pacific.

I have interviewed many veterans and survivors of World War II. Many told stories that were emotionally difficult for them to talk about. Many cried. I have also stood in American cemeteries in Holland, Normandy and Luxembourg where the white crosses and stars of David stretched on and on. Full of boys who were barely old enough to buy a beer when they were killed on places like Omaha Beach, the Waal River crossing and in the Battle of the Bulge. But Auschwitz is different and visiting the camp with a survivor will be emotional. How can it not be? Of the 1.3 million who came through the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau, 1.1 million were killed. If hell had a physical street address, this would be it.

I speak with Israel Arbeiter about the book, the pictures in it. The tattoo on his arm which reads A18651. We look at the photos of the Auschwitz SS commander Rudolf Hoss who was responsible for all the killings in the camp. It all feels so inadequate.

We have arrived in Poland. Later today we have a special meeting with the Chief Rabbi of Poland. Tomorrow we visit Izzy’s home city of Plonsk where it has the potential to be a very special day if all falls into place.

Please click to watch the video here about Israel Arbeiter’s thoughts on arriving back in Warsaw today.

Tim Gray is Chairman of the non-profit WWII Foundation. To learn more about the WWII Foundation and to donate to their projects, including the educational documentary on Israel Arbeiter’s return to Poland and Germany, please visit www.wwiifoundation.org  

Israel Arbeiter Returns to Poland

How much inner strength must a man have to be able to revisit places where he experienced indescribable horrors?

Israel Arbeiter has spent the past seven decades keeping a promise. That promise was to tell as many people as possible what it was like to survive and witness, first-hand, the Holocaust.

As Arbeiter gets ready to board a plane and return to his native Poland today, Monday, April 23rd, one can only imagine the thoughts going through his mind.

He will board a German airline, Lufthansa, for his trip home. Of course the irony is that when he was just 14, this boy, who is Jewish, saw German planes of the Luftwaffe  but they were shooting at people, not offering them complimentary meals, snacks and drinks. 

In truth, Arbeiter says there is no better airline to travel over seas than Lufthansa. No one on that airline knows how he was treated by the Germans in the past and that he survived the Holocaust. The war ended a long time ago and people move on. Izzy, at 87 years old, understands this.

His travels will take him to Munich, Germany then on to Warsaw, Poland. He will stay in Warsaw for three days and revisit his home city of Plonsk and then the death camp at Treblinka where his parents and young brother were murdered and cremated. He will then travel to Krakow and Auschwitz and end his journey outside of Stuttgart, Germany.

The middle of five boys, Izzy was 14 when the Germans marched into Poland. He was young and strong and would make an excellent slave-laborer for the Nazi war machine. Then he would die when his usefulness was exhausted or his body failed him. He was sure of that.

Israel Arbeiter has been back to Poland many times before, but because of his health, this will most likely be his final trip back to a place he called home until World War II began in September of 1939. This is a special trip for him because of what he plans to do in Poland (more on that incredible mission as the week unfolds). 

He will see his old family apartment, he will stand in the square where he and the other Jews in Plonsk were rounded up by the German SS and selected to live or die. He will visit the remains of Treblinka, he will walk through the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau where over one million were murdered by the SS and Germans and then he will end up in Germany itself, where he was supposed to be killed as the war wound down, but instead where he became a free man again. It was also where he met his future wife, Anna, a fellow Holocaust survivor. Both eventually immigrated to the United States and settled in Massachusetts.

As he boards his plane at Logan airport in Boston today, there must be so many images going through his mind, some good, many very disturbing. 

He also knows that he has kept his promise to his family. He has spent decades talking about the Holocaust to others; in schools; to groups large and small, to anyone who would listen, both in the USA and Europe. He has kept alive its memory for those who were silenced in places like Treblinka, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Sobibor, Belzec and Dachau. He talks because what he lived through must never happen again and because he is one of the final voices left who actually lived it through it. He realizes he was lucky. He appreciates every extra day God has given him. He questions why he survived while others didn’t. Survivor’s guilt has been his companion for 73 years now. He knows he should have died many times, but always caught a lucky break. A window to sneak through was open while the other 86 in his barracks were taken to their deaths. His youth made him valuable. He looked older than he was, he was moved to other camps at the right time, he had a determination that was inherited from his parents, the list goes on.

It has been many decades since Israel Arbeiter experienced and survived the Holocaust. He is returning to Europe a man who has forgiven somewhat, but not forgotten at all. His trip on Lufthansa Airlines is the first step. They will ask him if he needs anything to make his trip more comfortable, a pillow perhaps, an extra glass of Coke, a warm blanket. Seven decades earlier, in an overcrowded, wretched smelling cattle car heading on the train tracks to Auschwitz, that would not have been the case.

Please stay tuned as we post daily updates on Izzy Arbeiter’s return to Poland and Germany.

Tim Gray is Chairman of the non-profit WWII Foundation. To learn more about the WWII Foundation and to donate to their projects, including the educational documentary on Israel Arbeiter’s return to Poland and Germany, please visit www.wwiifoundation.org