Tag Archives: #warsawghetto

Holocaust survivor Albert Kitmacher and his five miracles

Looking steadily into the camera, Al Kitmacher recounted his personal story of the Holocaust for the Bay Area [California] Holocaust Oral History Project. He told of his early life in Poland, his year with his family in the Warsaw Ghetto, and his subsequent sometimes miraculous survival in work camps, in salt mines, and on a death march.

“You have great composure,” commented Rick Levine, the interviewer.

“I could never open up and tell my story before,” said Kitmacher. “But I am in the twilight of my life, and I have to tell the story to somebody.”

Kitmacher had had the last physical scar from his horrors—a tattoo with the initials KL (Koncentration Lager, German for concentration camp), removed in the 1970s. But Kitmacher could never remove the emotional scars. The memories, the survival guilt, the nightmares were only kept at bay with a lifetime reliance on medication. It was only at the urging of his son Ira that the 74-year-old Kitmacher finally shared the horrors he and his family had endured. 

Albert Leon Kitmacher was born in Lublin, Poland in 1920, one of the four children of Miriam Naiman, a seamstress, and Gershon Kitmacher, a tailor. Gershon could not find work locally, he spent much of his time in Berlin. 

Soon after Hitler was named German Chancellor in 1933, Gershon was forced to leave Berlin because he was Jewish. The Kitmachers left their predominately Jewish neighborhood and moved to Warsaw to find employment. Al Kitmacher’s formal education ended, and he joined his father to work as a tailor.

By 1938, as things were getting more precarious for Jews, many were fleeing Poland. Gershon, however, refused to leave. “All Germans were not bad people,” he assured his family. With great reluctance, Kitmacher decided to remain with his parents; his two older sisters, Sara and Freida; and his younger brother Yitzhak. 

On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland and Europe was at war. Kitmacher’s worst fears were realized when his immediate and extended family were forced to pack up whatever they could carry on pushcarts and move into the Warsaw ghetto.

Conditions in the ghetto were horrible. The family subsisted on one meager loaf of bread a day, shared a toilet with three other families, and sponge bathed only using a pot of heated water. Nights were especially frightening: they heard the sounds of German motorcycles and gunfire as people trying to escape were shot. 

Kitmacher worked for the Germans outside the ghetto where he was fed minimal amounts of food. He searched each night to make sure he brought no extras home upon penalty of death.

After a year of increasingly untenable conditions, Al and Freida made the decision to risk everything to save their family. They executed a daring early morning escape from the ghetto. Once outside the gates, they rolled down their sleeves to hide their yellow stars and boarded a train-without tickets. In what Kitmacher would later remember as his first miracle, they managed through trickery and bribes to reach Chelm, Germany, where members of their extended family were living. A second cousin, who was also a tailor, arranged for papers to be sent to Warsaw stating the need for the rest of the family to join them to sew German uniforms. Kitmacher’s parents and Yitzhak were allowed to leave, but Sara was taken away. Even the official papers could not save her.

The remaining family rented a room on a farm owned by Jews until forced into another ghetto in Jenishoff. Here, Kitmacher worked ten hours a day digging an irrigation ditch until a combination of sunburn and illness resulted in Yitzhak, taking his place. When Yitzhak was caught smuggling food back to his family, he was beaten so badly that he also could not work. He was taken away and, like Sara, never seen again.

Soon after, Jenishoff was liquidated. Kitmacher’s parents and Freida were packed into a cattle car. His last memory of seeing them alive was watching as Gershon was struck down by a guard when he tried to follow his son.

Kitmacher, now alone, was sent to Buzzyn, a concentration work camp near Treblinka, where he and fellow prisoners spent 10 to 12 exhausting hours a day digging ditches subsisting on just enough food to survive. The Ukrainian guards were brutal, and people were killed daily for the slightest infraction. 

It was at Buzzyn that Kitmacher experienced his second miracle. After a terrifying nightmare in which he struggled to overpower a large bird by pushing him out of what appeared to be his father’s Warsaw tailor shop. Kitmacher woke up bathed in sweat, feverish, and weak Despite these symptoms of typhus, he connected his dream to his survival and asked a fellow prisoner to help him get to that day’s work assignment—digging potatoes. While in the field, he shared his dream with a religious man. “That is a good sign,” Kitmacher was told. “You fought the devil and won.” That night, he returned to the barracks and learned that the over 100 men who had stayed behind had been shot and killed.

When Buzzyn was closed, Kitmacher was assigned to an underground armaments factory set up by Germans in the Wieliczka Salt Mine near Krakow, Poland.Over 1,700 prisoners worked in dark, dank conditions 1,072 feet below ground. Feeling as if he were buried alive, Kitmacher told his Polish captors that he was a sheet metal worker with hopes that a future assignment would be at least outdoors. 

Based on this new “skill,” Kitmacher was assigned to the Flossenberg camp where he and fellow prisoners a mix of Jews, political prisoners or “undesirables,” produced Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter planes and other armaments for Germany’s war effort. When a guard threatened to kill him if he did not give him his breakfast, Kitmacher escaped death again when the known bully and murderer was discovered making moonshine with another guard and taken away. It was Kitmacher’s third miracle. 

By mid-1944, the prisoners learned through the guards that Russian troops were advancing. The prisoners were herded into a train, where Kitmacher found a spot in the lower bunk. Several miles into their journey, the train was blasted by the English Royal Air Force. People in the upper bunks were killed, but Kitmacher had again escaped. This was his fourth miracle.

The train was damaged beyond use, so the Germans gave the prisoners each a blanket and a daily ration of one small turnip and forced them to march in the rain and cold for what Kitmacher remembered as several weeks. The dead or near dead were left by the side of the road. Once, when Kitmacher could not gather the strength to move another inch, he heard a voice behind him yell,“Kitmacher, don’t stop now!” Motivated by that anonymous angel, he kept walking.

Out of the hundreds that had started the march, only fifty emaciated prisoners straggled into what was to be their final destination, Stamsried, Germany, near the Czech boarder.The mayor of the town gathered them in the village market place with plans to kill them. It was then that Kitmacher had one final miracle. At that moment, American troops rolled into town. The officials disappeared. Kitmacher, an 82-pound living skeleton, had survived the Warsaw Ghetto and four German concentration camps. 

Kitmacher spent several weeks in a hospital. Over the next several months, while working on a farm, Kitmacher recovered physically but suffered emotional scars that never heal. He was put on anti-depressants, a prescription that he continued throughout his life. 

Kitmacher searched fruitlessly for his immediate family, who tragically had all perished. His only remaining relative was a cousin, Rose, who had lost her husband and baby. 

Kitmacher moved to a former Jewish ghetto in Munich, where he did tailoring work for Jewish people who were moving to Israel. He planned to move to Israel until another surviving cousin dissuaded him as Palestinians and Jews were in the midst of fighting for control from the British.

In 1949, Kitmacher obtained U.S. immigration papers through Jewish sponsors in Erie, Pennsylvania. In 1951 he met and married Pearl Harris, who had served as a WAVE in the U.S. Naval Reserve. They settled in Pearl’s home town of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where they raised four children, Miriam, Lois, Gary, and Ira. Although he owned his own tailor shop for a short time, Al spent most of his career working at Besse-Clarke Men’s Store.

Although Kitmacher said that his wife and children “saved my life,” he continued to suffer from nightmares and insomnia. “I am fine all day,” he stated in his 1994 interview. “But every night when I lay down it comes back to me.” He also experienced survivor’s guilt. “Why am I the only one who survived?” he stated, “My family, my parents were nice people. Why did it happen to them? It is was not fair!” 

Did Kitmacher hold anger? “After the liberation, if given a gun, I would have killed the bastards,” he said in the 1994 interview. “Today, I am too old and too tired to do anything.” He quickly aded, “I was not brought up to hate, but I will never forgive them.” 

His daughter Lois Karhinen, a resident of Queensbury, NY, recalled that growing up in the home of a Holocaust survivor was not easy. She called him a sensitive, sometimes bitter man who could not communicate well emotionally. “My mother attended to my father and sacrificed her sense of self for him,” Lois said. “We children were an afterthought.”

Like all her siblings, Lois knew little about her father’s background until he shared his story on video, which is now part of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum collection in Washington, DC. “I am glad that I was able to hear his story while he was still alive,” said Lois, “as it makes me understand so much about the way he was when I was growing up.”It has also given her a chance to forgive.

So much has been written about the Holocaust. Novels. Memoirs. Plays. And each echos the theme of “Never Again!” But have we really learned from the past? Millions of words later, we are facing a terrifying upswing in anti-Semitism. What can we do? We can keep writing, keep recording, keep remembering. And we can make sure that the voices of the those like Albert Kitmacher who survived and his family who perished are preserved. 

Sources:

Published in The Jewish World on November 5, 2020 and Heritage Florida Jewish News November 6, 2020

An Unsung Hero Rescued by Three Teenagers

Before leaving for Colorado in 2017, my husband Larry was checking our packed bookcase for something to read during our week’s stay. He walked into the kitchen holding Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project. 

“Have you read it?” Larry asked.

“I don’t even remember having it,” I responded. 

Larry opened the front cover and found a note from Cindy Smith, a friend of ours from Clifton Park who had moved to Arizona several years before. 

“Thought you would enjoy this,” the note read. “My daughter Heather is good friends with Megan Stewart, one of the people in the book.”

“You HAVE to read this book, Marilyn!” Larry repeated both on the plane and on quiet moments in Frisco. I complied, and I soon was as enraptured as Larry. As schools and colleges across the country open, the story within  a story of a high school project that brought world recognition to a virtually unknown Holocaust heroine is worthy of retelling. 

In September 1999, Norm Conard, a high school social studies teacher in the small rural community of Uniontown, Kansas, encouraged his students to participate in an extracurricular project for the annual National History Day event. Conard gave a ninth grader, Elizabeth “Liz” Cambers, a folder with a clipping from a March 1994 issue of the US News and World Report entitled “The Other Schindler.” Circled in red ink were few paragraph about Irena Sendler, a Polish social worker. “She gave nearly 2,500 children new identities, and buried their real names for safekeeping,” read the first paragraph. The article outlined how the Polish social worker successfully smuggled Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto and to safety. When Cambers asked Conard if Sendler was famous, the teacher said that he had never heard of her.”You could check it out,” said Conard. “Unsung heroes. Anyone can change the world, even you.”

Cambers was intrigued and decided to use the snippet of information as a springboard for a National History Day project. Conard recruited two other students to work with her: classmate Megan Stewart, and an eleventh grader Sabrina Coons. Their research in the upcoming weeks included information from The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous (JFR) and first-hand accounts from Holocaust survivors in the Kansas City area who were willing to share their stories. The team decided that they could best represent Sendler’s story in the form of a ten minute play, which they called Life in a Jar, depicting scenes of Sendler interacting with the captives in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Over the course of the next three months, the team learned more of Sendler’s story. Most Polish gentiles did little in 1940 when Hitler herded 500,000 Polish Jews behind the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto while awaiting liquidation. Sendler, a Roman Catholic, mange to obtain a permit through her job as a social worker to enter the ghetto on the pretense to look for signs of typhus. Shocked by the deplorable condition, Sendler joined ZEGOTA, an underground group dedicated to helping the Jews. Realizing the inevitable tragedy unfolding, she persuaded parents and grandparents to allow her to bring children to safety. 

Sendler and others in the network took babies and children past the Nazi guards using many means of escape—smuggling them out in carpenter’s boxes, coffins, and ambulance, Once the children were outside the ghetto, she set up adoptions in the homes of Gentile Polish families or hideaways in convents and orphans. In order to keep track of the children, she and her network made lists of the children’s real names, put them in glass jars, and buried them in her garden. 

The three teenagers’ research stopped short of finding out what had happened to Sendler. Through the JFR, they learned that a son lived in Warsaw but letters to him went unanswered. Efforts to find Sendler’s burial place were futile as well. 

In late January 2000, the three teens performed a well-received dress rehearsal in Uniontown. Soon after, the JRF: shared stunning news. Sendler was alive and living in Warsaw, Poland.The girls immediately wrote a letter to the address given describing their play, asking several questions, and sharing their admiration for her courage. “You are one of the great women of the past century,” they wrote.

In February 2000, Mr. Conard and the three girls drove to Columbus, Kansas, for the state competition, where Life in a Jar won first prize in the performance category. News of the play spread rapidly, and they were swamped with numerous requests to perform throughout Kansas. 

Soon after,Sendler responded in Polish to their initial letter. With the help of a translator, they were able to understand in her own words why y she pursued the dangerous undertaking.  “During the war, the entire Polish nation was drowning but the most tragically drowning were Jews,” Sendler had written. “For that reason, helping those who were most oppressed was the need of my heart.” 

Further correspondences unlocked the other missing pieces of the story. In April 1943, Sendler was captured by the Nazis, severely beaten, and sentenced to death. However, the Polish underground bribed a guard at Pawiak Prison to release her, and she went into hiding until the war ended. Sendler subsequently married and had three children, one who had died in infancy.Ironically, her son Adam had died of a heart attack on September 23, 1999, the exact day that Mr. Conard had handed the original folder to Cambers. 

Under the “long shadow of Communism,” almost all references to the Holocaust were buried. In 1991, when the Iron Curtain fell, public recognition of the tragedy and celebration of the rescuers was stymied “by another kind of occupation,” the resurgence of anti-Semitism. Sendler’s story, like the jars with the names of the rescued children, had been buried until the high school students uncovered it.

Cunard and the three teens traveled to Washington DC in June 2000 for the national competition. Although Life in a Jar did not win a prize, the project had already taken on a life of its own. “This is way beyond National History Day,” said Dr. Cathy Gorn, Executive Director of National History Day, soon after the awards were given “You started out as students of history and you’ve become agents of history.” 

Immediately following competition, the group was invited to New York City, where they performed in front of an emotional audience of JRF board members, staff, and Holocaust survivors. “You tell a simple story,—a simple and dramatic story,” said one survivor, “that tells a simple and dramatic truth.”

When they returned to Uniontown, the group received requests to perform their play from groups throughout the United States. It was at one of their presentation that they encountered a miracle: John Shuchart, a local businessman, was so impressed with their performance that within two days he had raised the money for the group to go to Poland to perform the play in front of Sendler. 

In May 2001, the three teens and five adults flew to Warsaw.  Throughout their visit—during their numerous tours, interviews, and meetings with international press and public and private groups, Cambers, Stewart and Coons, were treated as “rock stars.” The highlight, of course, was their emotional meetings with Irena Sendler in her small Warsaw apartment. “You are our hero—our role model,” Conard said in a toast. “We will carry on your mission—your deep commitment to respect for all people. L’Chaim!”

The group made five more trips to Warsaw before Sendler passed away on May 12, 2008. In April 2008, Hallmark Hall of Fame released a movie version of Sendler’s life. Jack Mayer’s book was released in 2010 and was listed as one of the top ten Holocaust books for The Life in a Jar students continue to share her legacy through the play, the www.irenasendler.org web site, through schools and study guides, and world media. Founders and original performers.  Liz Cambers-Hutton and Sabrina Coons-Murphy still participate in the project when possible. Megan Stewart Felt works as director of the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes, which works with students and educators across diverse academic disciplines to develop history projects that highlight role models who demonstrate courage, compassion and respect. 

Professor Michael Glowinski, who had been rescued by Sendler when he was eight, summarized the feelings of all who had been touched by the Righteous Gentile. “Now you girls—you are rescuing Irena’s story for the world. You rescued the rescuer.”

A version of this article originally appeared in the Heritage Florida Jewish News, a weekly subscription-based newspaper in Central Florida, in the September 6, 2019 issue.