COLIN IS A 2ND GENERATION HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR. IN THE VIDEO BELOW, COLIN’S FATHER, HARRY BALSAM, GIVES TESTIMONY TO THE USC SHOA FOUNDATION.
By Harry Balsam
For my mother Adela, my sister Gitel, and my brothers Sanek and Joseph,
who perished at the hands of the Nazis
My name is Harry Balsam. Today is the 8th of May 1995, and it is exactly 50 years since I was liberated from the Theresienstadt Camp in Czechoslovakia. I would like to put down for posterity what I remember.
Before the war broke out I lived in Gorlice, Poland, with my father Moses, my mother Adela, my three brothers Danny, Sanek, and Joseph, and my sister Gitel. Joseph was the youngest, born in 1930. I was born in 1929, Sanie in 1927, Gitel in 1925, and Danny (the oldest) in 1923. My father was very orthodox and was the warden of the synagogue. In the morning we used to go to elementary school and in the afternoon to cheder. We were brought up speaking two languages, Polish and Yiddish. We were quite well off by local standards. My father was a miller, and we had plenty of flour to bake our own bread. For the Sabbath we used to bake challahs, and if I remember correctly we used to take challahs and give them to our relations living in the same town. I thought we were quite comfortable, but thinking about it today I don’t suppose we were quite as comfortable as I really thought.
When the war broke out in 1939, there was panic. People started running away. Where to, they didn’t know; they just ran. We were fortunate enough to have an uncle living in a village. He and his family were farmers, and he brought us a pair of horses and a cart. We loaded all our belongings from the house into the cart, and we left. Where we were going nobody knew. After traveling for about 30 kilometres I would say, we came to another town called Jaslow. The Germans were bombing the towns. People were just in chaos. When we arrived in Jaslow, the horses were tired so we decided to go to the train station, as did many others, and jump onto a train. We drove the cart and horses onto the platform. My father and eldest brother got onto the train; and my mother, sister, my other brothers and I started to throw our belongings onto the train. As we were doing this and before we had a chance to get off the cart, the train started moving away with my father and brother on it and we were left stranded in the town. A few hours later the German army marched into town and immediately confiscated our horses. We stayed a few days in Jaslow with some relations who lived there, and after a few days we went back home to Gorlice. Once there, we went to the mill. The Germans had given us permission to take as much flour as we could carry; and we took home a lot of flour, which enabled us to bake our own bread for quite some time.
We were trying to find out what had happened to our father and brother. After a few weeks we heard from them. They had been captured by the Russian army who were on the other side of the River San. The river served as the dividing line between the Russian and German armies, and we were on the German side. The Russians told all the Jews they had captured that they had to register with them and they would be sent back to their families. The Jews registered; but instead of sending them back to their families, the Russians sent them to Siberia, where they were put to work in the gold mines and in forests cutting down trees. There my father and oldest brother spent the rest of the war. They did not return to Germany. They found out through the Red Cross [only later] that I was living in England and had survived the war. I was the only one from the rest of the family to survive the Nazi murderers. When I say “family,” I mean my uncles, aunties, cousins and so on. I could easily reckon that well over 100 members of my immediate family perished.
In 1939 it was impossible to earn money in Gorlice, and my brother and I tried to think how we could make some money. We were approached by people to smuggle goods from one town to another. Not everyone was allowed to go on trains; but as we were under 12, nobody actually said anything to us. We were smuggling saccharin from one town to another and got paid for doing this. We didn’t realize how dangerous it was. My older brother and sister couldn’t help with the smuggling because they were over 12 years of age; and anyone over 12 had to wear the yellow Star of David, so it was difficult to get out of the town ghetto. Things were very bad. One day I was walking with my older brother Sonnell (Sanek) in town. I am convinced that a Polish pupil from his class recognized him as a Jew and told the Gestapo there was a Jew walking in town. The Gestapo official came over to us and put a hand on my brother’s shoulder, took out his gun, and shot him in front of me. And he told me to disappear.
Well, you can imagine that must have been the worst hour of my life. I didn’t know where to turn. I knew I couldn’t go home and tell my mother what had happened to her son, so I ran to our cousins’ house nearby and told them what had taken place. It was an agonizing moment for all of us. Going back 50 years, or rather 55 years, it remains in my mind that this was the first time I saw the German Gestapo pull out a gun and shoot somebody. Up until then, I had heard about it. But I had not seen it for myself, and you can’t imagine how I felt, especially since this was my brother. [We feared that] the worst was still to come. We had heard that the Gestapo, after shooting someone during the day, didn’t want to leave any trace of anyone from that particular family so used to come at night and take the whole family out and shoot them as well so there wouldn’t be anyone left to bear witness. Actually, we were fortunate, because the older brother of a friend of mine was working for the Gestapo, as a liaison between them and the Jews, and he managed to persuade the Gestapo to leave us alone. We were very lucky, as we would have almost certainly been murdered.
It was 1940, the year the ghetto was established in the town of Gorlice. We were forced to move from our house into the ghetto, where we had to share one small house with four other families. I was still with my mother, sister, and younger brother; and I knew that I would now have to be the breadwinner for the family. While in the ghetto, we used to be rounded up and in the winter we would have to go and clear the snow from the roads. It wasn’t like the snow we have in England. It was very heavy snow, and to shovel it away was very hard work. It was freezing cold, and we weren’t exactly dressed for that kind of work and weather. We had to clear the roads—and the pavements, where there was a pavement—although it was mostly roads.
We worked for 10-12 hours a day, and everyone [all the Jews] had to do it. There were some people with trades and skills, and they were used by Germans to work in factories for the war machine. I never got paid for my work; but I was happy to be working outside the ghetto because I was able to bring back into the ghetto bread, butter, or whatever I could get hold of. Life carried on like this for quite some time until they started the deportations.
Early morning we were rounded up and taken to a kiln (a brick factory), where we spent three days, after which the Germans opened the gates and started screaming, “Everybody out.” At the same time, we heard shooting. I saw it through a little window. I naturally thought that they were killing us all; so I got hold of my mother, sister, and brother and pushed us forward. I couldn’t bear to watch the shooting and thought that the sooner it would be over the better.
Fortunately, we weren’t being shot. They were only shooting the people they had found in hiding and brought back to this place. We were put in groups of 100 and dragged to the trains, but I was pulled out of the group. I heard that my mother Adela, sister Gitel, and brother Joseph were taken to Belzec, which was an extermination camp; and I never heard from them again. Each [deportation] group consisted of 90 Jews and 10 Gypsies.
I was then 11 years old and alone in the ghetto. People were being taken away every day, and at that time we did not know where they were being taken. Killing and shooting became a normal everyday event. You constantly heard shots being fired: one here, two there, four somewhere else. It is very difficult to say; but that is how it was, and you got used to the idea that killing meant nothing. You just got used to it. Everyone had one thing in mind, and that was to survive.
The reason why I was pulled out of the group together with others was that there were still some Jews left in the town; and many were being shot as they were being taken away—either for trying to run away or just not moving quickly enough. These people had to be collected and buried, and we had to dig the graves for them. We knew that although we were digging graves for them, we were digging our own graves. But what worried us was who would bury us, as there would obviously be nobody left to do it.
One morning at 6 a.m. we were rounded up and told to go to the Appel Platz, which was the focal point. There they sorted out 300 of us and sent us towards the trains. They told us we were going to a labor camp and were to leave all of our belongings behind, which was very unfortunate for me. Once again, though, I was lucky. While we were being taken to the trains, I asked someone from the Police if I could be left behind; but he said that there was nothing he could do. I then asked if he could bring some of my belongings from the house where I lived. This he did; and I took this stuff with me to the labor camp near Krakow called Plaszow, where my camp life started.
We arrived in Plaszow after a night’s journey in cattle cars. When we arrived, we had to give up everything we had brought with us. The S.S guards were waiting for us and told us to throw any jewelery and money we had onto a pile. They said they would shoot anyone who was trying to hide anything, but people don’t give up their belongings so easily. Most people started throwing their money and jewelery onto a pile, but suddenly they took one person and searched him. They found that he still had some money hidden on him and shot him on the spot.
I happened to be very near; and when I saw that, it frightened me and I pulled everything out of my pockets and slung it all onto the pile as I passed by. On that particular day, they must have shot seven or eight people. Then we were assembled for roll call, and we stood in line waiting for the Commandant to arrive. He had to decide what to do with us. We stood waiting for about three or four hours. It was fairly cold as I remember, but we were told by the guards that we had to stand and wait until the Commandant came.
After a while, we saw him coming and everybody got scared—including the Jewish police who were already in the camp, as even they didn’t know what their fate would be. When the Commandant arrived, he looked us up and down. There were 300 of us. He was marching backwards and forwards, and suddenly he realized that there were quite a number of small boys in the group. He started screaming and shouting that when he asked for people to be sent to the camp, he didn’t ask for little boys but for men who could be put to work. He shouted that all the boys must separate from the men. We did this and stood in columns of five.
Naturally, we were all shivering and scared and were shuffling our feet. I was one of the smallest and got pushed to the side where the Commandant was standing. I turned round and said, “Can you stop pushing me?” and as I said it he called me out, and I thought, “Oh, yes, this is my lot. My luck has run out now, all because I opened my big mouth.” As he called me over, I started begging that I had done nothing and that I had only told them to stand still. He didn’t listen and said instead, “Will, you please follow me?” I thought to myself, “This is it. I’m about to be shot.”
I followed him into an office where two Jewish prisoners were working—one, a girl and the other, a boy. The girl, I can remember now, was a pretty young girl of about 18, and the boy must have also been 18 or 19. He was dictating something to the girl, who was working on a typewriter. The Commandant took me into the office and said, “Sit down here.” I didn’t know what it was all about, but he said that I would become his shoeshine boy and told me to stay where I was until he came back. To be honest, I didn’t understand a word he said. But when he went back out to assemble the rest of the group, the girl and boy in the office explained to me that I was to become his shoeshine boy and he would not do anything to harm me. I was very relieved to hear this, and a few minutes later he came back into the office and said that he didn’t know what he was going to do with all the boys and asked whether I knew anyone among them. I said that some of the boys were my cousins and friends from school. He said that if I wanted, I could take two or three out to stay here with me. . . . He said he wouldn’t kill the rest but would send them to another camp. I said, “Thank you very much,” and he walked out again.
By the time he came back in, I was a little more relaxed. I ran up to him and said, “Herr Commandant, will you please sit down and take your boots off and I will clean them for you.” I removed his boots and ran outside but soon realized I had nothing with which to clean the boots. So I took off my jacket, thinking that I would use it to polish the boots. I then wondered where I could get some polish or something with which to clean them. There was a Jewish policeman standing nearby, and he told me to go over to the block where there was a boot repairer and they would give me some polish. I ran over to that block and when I got in, said that I have the Commandant’s boots and have to clean them. Of course, they all jumped to attention, took the boots, and started to clean them. I recall their putting wood into the boots to stretch the leather, and they polished them up so well that they looked like new boots. This, of course, took some time and the Commandant started screaming for his boots. They now looked like new. The Commandant began screaming at me for his own boots as he did not recognize the pair I had handed him. When I took them away, they had been old and shabby. Now, suddenly, they had become new—especially with the hot irons and the polish the shoe repairer had used. Once the Commandant put them on and realized they were his boots, he turned around, saying, “I thought I had picked the right boy for the job.” He then walked out in a good mood and left me in the office.
Soon he was back again and told me to follow him. He took me down to have a shower and a haircut and asked whether I had a change of clothes. I said no because whatever I had with me had been taken away when we arrived at the camp and thus I had nothing. He went to the storeroom while I was having a haircut and came back with clean clothes for me. He told me to get dressed. I was still trembling a little bit, but I was a bit easier than I had been before.
Now my life in the camp started. I didn’t know the fate of my father or brother, nor did I know exactly what had happened to my mother, sister, and oldest brother; but though we didn’t have facts, I had been told that if they were sent to Belzec, it was an extermination camp and nobody ever came back. Now I was alone in the camp in Plaszow, except for the two friends who had been left behind with me. The other boys were sent away to two other camps called Prokocim and Biezanow about five or six miles away. These were both labor camps. The Commandant, whose name was Joseph Müller, would come to the camp office every day. I would wait for him in the office; and when he arrived, I would take his boots off and polish them, although a lot of the time he wasn’t there, as he was in Krakow at headquarters and he also lived in Krakow.
Outside the camp was a guardhouse where around 30 guards lived. The Commandant decided to extend the guardhouse and built four more rooms and a bathroom and toilet. When it was finished, he told me to move into one of the rooms in the house, which was outside the camp. Up until then, I had been living in the camp. I should mention that in the beginning I used to get up at 6 a.m for roll call. I had nothing to do after this and used to go and sit in the office and wait for the Commandant. After a while, I got up later, at 9 a.m., because the Commandant never came to the camp before 10:30 a.m. So I wasn’t too badly off. I was getting plenty of food from the kitchen and the office. The Jewish police and all those who were in charge weren’t short of food either. I was looked after very well.
In the office I was a sort of errand boy. I remember one day the Commandant arrived and I wasn’t in the office. He asked, “Where is Balsam?” They told him they had sent me somewhere. He told them that Balsam must not be sent anywhere. “He has nothing to do but to wait for me, he gets his orders from me, and he does only what I tell him and follows me when I go on my rounds.” When I came back, he told me from now on not to take orders from anybody else. “You go nowhere; you just sit here and watch what they are doing.” It really didn’t make any difference to me.
When the house was finished, Müller moved in and told me to move into one of the rooms. He had his bedroom and dining room, etc.; and he had a lot of friends who used to come and visit him; Oskar Shindler, Amon Goeth, Wilhelm Kunde and Herman Heinrich were among them, and there were many others. His cocktail cabinet was filled by the Jewish police and the President. We had, in the camp, a President and a Vice President, both of whom were Jewish. They were not short of anything either. They had plenty of everything, and they filled up the Commandant’s cabinets with cigarettes, whiskey, and all sorts of drinks and chocolates. Everything of the very best could be found in his house. He used to bring his friends from headquarters for parties. He told me to bring in a girl to help serve his friends, so I took in a beautiful girl. She was the girl friend of the President of the camp, and she had platinum blond hair. Her name was Luta Friedlich. (She lives today in Israel).
This way of life went on for some time. I was getting so used to living with the Commandant that my fear completely disappeared. But the people in the camp, although they envied me, were frightened for me because at any time my life could have been in danger. On the slightest whim, the Commandant could have taken out his gun and shot me. Shooting meant nothing to him, but I was all right and I wasn’t really scared.
One day, however, things did begin to change a little. Müller had a wife and two children. One was about five years of age, and the other four. His wife was driving him mad to get permission for her and the children to come live with him in Plaszow. They were living in Heidelberg, from where she used to telephone and say she wanted to join him. As he had a house, he got permission to bring his family to Poland; and it was then that his attitude towards me changed. He knew that she would shortly be coming to live there. And he also knew [that I knew] what had been going on—how he had been carrying on with women and drink, etc.
As I thought about it, I began to get worried. The Commandant told me that his wife would be coming in two weeks time; and when he said it, I looked into his eyes—and well, I just got scared. I had to think very quickly. Should I run away? I could have done this because I had permission to go outside of camp any time I wanted. I had a certificate which enabled me to go wherever I wanted; I was free to go all over Krakow and other places. I used to go to the Krakow Ghetto, where I had lived before, as well.
In fear, I thought of something very quickly. I went over to him and said, “You have just told me that your wife is coming within the next two weeks. Would you give me permission to take half a dozen laborers from the camp and paint the house, clean up and spring clean from top to bottom, because I feel that when your wife comes I don’t want her to find any evidence of other women being here.” He looked at me and his eyes lit up. He started smiling: “I knew you were a boy I could trust—the right one for me. Go ahead and do as you like.” I said, “Thank you very much,” and out he went with a smile on his face. I can see it now.
We cleaned and decorated the place from top to bottom. The two weeks passed by, and his wife and children arrived. I was supposed to look after the children as well, clean their shoes, etc. But as I’ve told you before, I had two other boys to help me with that work. They were doing everything. The fact was, I didn’t do anything. I was just giving orders. I became what they call a hausputzer. There were the putzers, the cleaners, and I was the main one to observe.
We were doing extremely well. I got on well with the wife. She liked me. I used to take the boys out in the winter. I used to ski with them as well, and life was quite good—actually, very good for me there because I had no fear.
From time to time, Müller would disappear. He told his wife that he was going to headquarters, but in actual fact the only person who knew where he was going was me. He went to visit his girlfriends in Krakow. I knew exactly where he was in case there were any problems and he was needed. I knew where to go and find him, and of course one day I had to do exactly that.
Headquarters telephoned his home and asked for him. His wife answered the phone and told them she was sure he had gone to headquarters, but they said that he hadn’t been seen there. She started going wild and came to me and asked whether I knew where the Chief was. I said he had gone to headquarters. I then took my bike and went to find him at a girlfriend’s house, telling him he was wanted immediately at headquarters, where he then went right away. I had to cover up for him all the time.
One day I was talking with him, and his wife came in. We were whispering, and she noticed this. She wanted to know what was going on. He told her nothing was going on. She then asked me, and I said the same. But she suspected something. Her husband knew I wouldn’t tell her anything. At that point, she turned against me and began questioning my every move, complaining to her husband that I was lazy and wasn’t doing any work. She complained that I was eating and drinking the same food as she and her children and, since I had two other boys from camp working for me, I was basically of no use and therefore should be sent back into the camp with the others. Müller responded by telling her that I was liked by their children and was a help to him.
I actually became a pawn between them. He knew, however, that I would never divulge to her any of his secrets. For example, I used to take parcels with drinks and other things to his girlfriends in Krakow on my bike. I had to take these things out of the storeroom in camp without his wife’s knowing and then get them out of the camp itself. It was becoming increasingly difficult for me; and I was beginning to become frightened because I began to think that, after all, she is his wife and she could turn him against me and he might take out his gun and shoot me.
Fortunately for me, this did not happen. In fact, it was almost the reverse. One day he came home drunk from his girlfriends, and he had lipstick on his shirt. His wife started screaming and shouting. As I was only in the next room, I ran in to see what was going on. They were fighting, and he began to go for his gun and was about to shoot her. You must realize that he was very drunk and didn’t know what he was doing, though for him to kill someone didn’t mean much, whether it was his wife or anyone else. [The Germans] were so used to shooting people. I managed to stop him by taking away his gun and pushing him. He fell onto the bed, so I took his boots off and he went to sleep. His wife came out of the room and into my room and sat with me for about an hour talking. I gave her my room for the night and went to sleep in the camp. The next morning no mention was made of this incident. But the Commandant knew that he had me to thank. There was no question about it: He would have killed her.
Following this episode, Frau Müller’s behavior towards me changed considerably. Regardless of what I did or where I went, she asked no questions. I was now her best friend, and we got on very well.
A few weeks later, I asked her to do me a favor for the first time. I saw a Jewish girl brought by two guards from Krakow, where they had found her in the streets [outside the ghetto]. They had brought her here for the Commandant to shoot her. I knew that he would have to shoot her. Any Jew who was caught in the streets, in Krakow or any place else, was supposed to be killed. When [the escort and the girl] arrived at the gates, the Commandant was called out and the girl was taken around to the back of the barracks, which was the place normally used for shootings. I ran quickly and called Frau Müller, reminding her that she owed me a favor and begging her to try to stop her husband from killing this Jewish girl. She knocked on the window and gestured that he should leave her alone and not kill her. In the meantime, I ran out and Commandant Müller told me to tell the guards to go back to the gates. He then took the girl to the back of the block, fired his pistol twice in the air, and let her run into the block. This he had to do out of sight of the guards. Otherwise, it would have been seen as a weakness in his command.
When she saw me, this girl was very, very thankful. I could say she repaid me. She taught me the facts of life. You have to remember I was only 12 ½ years old. She is still alive and living in America.
Although I was treated well there, my life was hanging by a fine thread, as was everyone else’s. But I never thought of that. On a few occasions, I had very bad experiences. But I also experienced good things. I don’t think there is anyone else who got Bar Mitvah’d in a concentration camp. Me, I got Bar Mitvah’d! I was taught my Bar Mitvah lessons in the evenings; and when I was 13, I got permission from the Commandant for four people to be excused from work on Saturday. I told him the reason and he said all right, and I was Bar Mitvah’d. Problems I had on many occasions, but I took care of them.
There was one particular time when I was extremely lucky not to have been shot. It was my luck that the Commandant didn’t have his gun on him, because, before I could explain to him, he hit me very hard across the face and sent me reeling backwards. What had happened was this: He was walking through the camp on his way to the stables. He was wearing his track suit, and on the way he stopped at the kitchens. He happened to be in a very good mood and was joking with the 20 or so girls working in the kitchen. The one in charge was Lola Pomeranc. She was about 25 years old and married, and her husband was in charge of the store room where all the provisions were kept. Mrs. Pomeranc grasped the opportunity while Müller was in a good mood to ask him what Balsam does with all the bread, butter, wurst, and other things he keeps taking out of the kitchen. I must be selling it, she implied.
When Müller heard that I was selling food, he went mad and came running looking for me so he could shoot me; but fortunately, as I said, he didn’t have his gun on him. When he found me, he started shouting and screaming and hit me very hard across the face. It was the first time he had ever hit me, and he demanded I tell him to whom I was selling the food that I kept taking out of the kitchen. I was in a very nervous state. I could hardly talk. I began to tell him that I wasn’t selling any food to anyone. I was giving it away to the tailors, shoemakers, and a few of my very good friends. But mostly I used it to make up the parcels to take to his girlfriends. I reminded him he had told me to do this and to include Miss Helgaon on Pormorska Street in Krakow. Pormorska was the street where Gestapo headquarters was located. All the orders concerning the Jews came out of there. I then asked him why I would need to sell food to make money when I had plenty of money under my bed. “You know, whenever you send me to Krakow to buy vodka, cigarettes, and other things on the black market,” I reminded him, “you tell me to take the money from a suitcase under the bed.”
I should explain at this point that whenever a transport arrived at the camp, the people had to give up their belongings and empty their pockets. The Commandant should have taken all of this property to headquarters, but he didn’t take it all. He always left himself half. There were about ten cases, and five were under the bed in the room where I slept. The other five were under his bed. In these suitcases was plenty of money, gold rings, diamonds, watches, bracelets, a lot of 20 dollar gold coins, etc. I did help myself to some without his knowing. Every time I went to the cases for money, I took something I liked and buried it in a special place. I always thought that after the liberation I could go there and dig it all out, but unfortunately I never got the chance.
Going back to the incident in the kitchen, though, after hearing my explanation Müller went to his room and got his revolver. He was going to go back into the kitchen to shoot Mrs. Pomeranc; but Luta, the girl who was working with me, begged me to go after him to stop him. This I managed to do with about one second to spare. After this, Mrs. Pomeranc was very grateful. She never forgot. From then on, she used to ask me to whom she should give food. I gave her plenty of orders and told her to give food to her own cousin, Itshyk Pomeranc. He and I were very good friends right through the war and were together in all the concentration camps from Plaszow to Skarzysko, Czestochowa, Sulejow, Buchenwald, Rehmsdorf and finally Theresienstadt, where we were liberated by the Russian Army.
One day without any warning a lorry load of stormtroopers with high ranking officers in cars arrived at ulica Plaszow [Plaszow Street]. Among them was Amon Goeth, whom I knew very well. They stopped outside the gates of the camp and called out Obersharfurer Müller, the Commandant of the camp. They handed him some papers which must have taken away all of his authority and responsibility. He was not very happy about this, but there was little he could do. I immediately realized what was happening, and I ran into the camp through the back gates. Sure enough, Müller started looking for me, as he was afraid I would be interrogated by Goeth and give away some of his secrets. But by then the stormtroopers entered the camp, rounded us all up, and marched us across to the main Plaszow Concentration Camp, which was only one mile up the road.
The Commandant Goeth stood by the gates and made his selection. He pulled out about 80 people—mostly the very young ones and very old. He had them machine gunned down on the spot. He suddenly remembered my name and called over to the head guard in charge of the killing and asked him to bring over Balsam, Müller’s shoeshine boy. The head guard immediately replied that he had shot me with the others. Of course, he knew he hadn’t shot me; and he came to visit me in the block during the night. I was hiding under the bunks. I was shivering like a fish when he called my name. He said, “I know you are here. Don’t be frightened. I have brought some food for you.” When I answered him, he came over to where I was and gave me some food and told me that I mustn’t be seen by Goeth because he had told Goeth he had shot me. He said I must stay where I was until we were deported to another camp. I was under the bunk for 7 days. My friend Pomeranc was keeping an eye on me. He was bringing me the news every day. His bunk was on top of mine. The guard came to see me every night and brought me food. He owed me a favor, as several months earlier he had been in trouble during the time I was with Müller. I was not short of anything then and used to give him plenty of vodka and other drinks for his girlfriends and himself.
About 10 years ago one of my friends, Mark Goldfinger, came to see me and asked if I remembered what I did for his sister while we were in the camp in Plaszow. I couldn’t remember; I did many good deeds there. He relayed the following story. His sister was living in Krakow. She had Aryan papers and was pretending not to be Jewish. One day she came near the camp wanting to get inside because she wanted to take a photograph of her brother in order to get a passport made for him and get him out of the camp. Of course, getting into the camp wasn’t easy. She needed someone to take her inside. The only person who could do this was me. A Jewish policeman by the name of Romak Piltzer asked me to do him a favor and take her inside. I didn’t mind. To me it didn’t mean anything. I just went out and brought her in. She spent a couple of hours with her brother Mark, and then they came to look for me to take her out again. This wasn’t as easy as bringing someone in; and as I was walking out of the camp with her, who should confront us but the Commandant. He asked me where I was going. I said that I was only going out for a short while, and he let us go. He didn’t ask who the girl was. As long as she was with me, there were no questions asked. Her brother Mark was standing by the wire and saw this whole incident and nearly fainted when the Commandant stopped us. I didn’t know at the time what the reason for her visit was. Had I been caught, I would have been shot along with Goldfinger and his sister. Fortunately, Müller didn’t realize that she wasn’t from the camp and he didn’t chose to question me more closely that day.
I remember a visit made to the camp by some very high-ranking officers from headquarters. I am sure it must have been some sort of official visit, because Müller was extremely nervous. They went into the house and Müller didn’t ask me to offer them drinks or anything, so I didn’t go into the house. After about 10 minutes, they came out and were going to inspect the camp. Müller was in full uniform with his revolver in front as usual. They walked around, and then he called me. I knew that I had to stay behind them all the time in case he needed something. They were walking for quite some time, going from barrack to barrack and talking. They arrived at the bottom of the camp where there was a stable with a couple of horses and an Alsatian dog. I had given one of the boys who stayed behind with me the job of looking after the stables and the horses. It was one of the best jobs in the camp, as no one came there and he had only to clean the stable and horses and had a good life there. As we approached the stable on this day, to the amazement of both Müller and me my friend was riding one of the horses. This, of course, was not allowed. Müller took his gun and shot him in front of the officers.
I was shocked, but there was nothing I could have done. I could see that Müller was furious with me, but he never said anything until after the officers had left the camp. He then asked me why I let the other boy ride the horse, and I answered that I hadn’t given him permission to ride. He told me that he had had no alternative but to shoot him. He couldn’t let him get away with riding the horse. The officers had already told him that he was much too lenient with the Jews in the camp. I was shocked; but thinking about it now, there were times when he was extremely lenient.
While I was in Plaszow, an epidemic of typhoid broke out. About 80% of the inmates had it at the same time. The Commandant was very worried about it because he knew if the headquarters found out or the Gestapo did, they would shoot every one of us or bomb the entire camp. Their fear was that the typhoid would spread as far as Krakow, as we were only about four kilometers away.
Since Müller realized this, he started giving out false reports. I remember when about 300 inmates went out to work he reported that 1200 went. He knew that if they finished us off, he would lose his power and would be sent to the Russian front. He was taking money from the suitcases which he had under the bed to make up the difference in the pay that was sent in every week by the firms for whom the inmates worked as slave laborers. . . .
I was very fortunate not to have caught the disease. I was walking through the camp, giving those who were ill vodka to drink to burn out the fever. I didn’t have enough for everyone, but I did manage to see most of my friends and the people from my home town [Gorlice]. Especially the ones who had given me my Bar Mitvah lessons.
There was one occasion when I went with Müller in a lorry to a town called Bochnia to bring back clothes for the inmates of Plaszow. As we got into the ghetto, we reported to the Gestapo. The authorities of the town told him that he couldn’t take anything out of the stores that day and he should come back the next day. He decided that I was too tired to go back to the camp with him and he took me back to the ghetto and handed me over at the Jewish police station to the Jewish Committee and told them to look after me and give me a bed for the night and he would be back in the morning to pick me up. In the meantime, at midnight there was a roll call and everyone was gathered together to board the trains for a mass deportation to Auschwitz. Many people were shot and killed before even boarding the train in order for the guards to keep control. I was caught in the middle. The police of the Judenrat couldn’t help me, as they were also being deported. While we were being shoved and pushed onto the trains, I kept on screaming that I didn’t belong there. But nobody would take any notice. As I was on the ramp being pushed into the freight car, one of the Gestapo who was a friend of Müller, a friend who used to come drink with him, recognized me and called me. “Balsam, come here,” he said. You don’t belong here.” And he sent me back to Müller, another bit of luck in my fight for survival at Plaszow.
Before Müller came to the camp as Commandant, he was supposed to have killed or evacuated a whole town and we were told that he was called The Murderer. But I think that during the 18 months he was in camp, he cooled off a bit. I am not saying that he was fantastic, but he was better than some others. I think that they realized how good he was to the Jews and took away his authority for that. It was then that Amon Goeth came and took over as Commandant. He was known for his extreme cruelty to Jews. I don’t know what happened to Müller for the rest of the war; however, he called me as his defense witness at the Nuremburg trials after the war. I refused to attend. Though he had been good to me, he was still responsible for the death of hundreds of innocent people.
While we were in Sulejow, we worked in the fields digging trenches for anti-aircraft. Again I was very lucky. I told the guard that if they wanted us to work quicker and harder, they should supply us with water. I told him that not far off in the village was plenty of water. He sent me to investigate. When I came back and told him there was a well and the farmer had a big tank on wheels, we went back to the farm and brought the water. I then became the water boy. This was the best job in Sulejow.
I recall one day when I went for the water they would not give me any and started shouting at me, saying, “You dirty filthy Jew; we have no more for you. Get out of here before we break your neck.” I went back without any water and told the head of the guards that they would not give water to the German bastards, and I told him they had called the Germans more dirty names. I knew I could say anything I liked, as the Poles didn’t understand any German and the Germans didn’t understand any Polish. We went back, and the guard took with him a machine gun and started shouting and screaming at the Poles to lie down on the floor. He pointed the machine gun at them, and they began begging me to tell him that he could have anything he wanted as long as he didn’t shoot them. I translated the Polish into German the way it suited me. After that, I had no trouble from them. They gave me whatever I wanted, as I had saved their lives. I was not short of food. I used to bring back something whenever I went for the water, and I had enough for my friends as well.
The farm had an orchard of apples, pears, even grapes, which I had not seen for many years, so to me this was luxury. After Sulejow we were transported to Czestochowa, again in cattle cars. I worked in an ammunition factory. There I was lucky again. The Jewish Police in the camp knew me from Plaszow, so I had it very easy. One day I was standing and talking to one of the policemen when the chief engineer of the whole plant came over and told him that from now on I had to report to him every morning in his office at 8 a.m. That became another good job for me. So you can see that luck was all you needed to survive the bad times.
After a few months we were again transported in cattle cars to Buchenwald. There my luck changed. They took everything away from me, my clothes and my boots, and gave me a prison uniform (a striped one). This was in January, 1945. It was a very cold winter, and we had to stand in the freezing cold in high snow for three to four hours waiting for the Commandant to come and count us. If he made a mistake, or someone was missing because he had died during the night, we could stand on the Appel-Platz for six to seven hours.
That lasted about five weeks. After this I was transported by a lorry to another camp called Rehmsdorf. This was a very big refinery, and it was bombed by the Americans, English, and Russians. We had to work very hard there with very little food. They wanted us to rebuild the refinery, as they needed the oil for the War machine. Every time we repaired the factory and they lit the ovens and the chimneys started smoking, by the following day it was smashed down again.
One day we all ran for cover. The bombs were falling, and we were hiding in a very deep ditch. Some of the bombs failed to explode, so again I was lucky. But the soft earth from the explosions came up and covered me up to my neck. I could move only my head to watch the planes dropping bombs. I would say on that particular raid there must have been at least 200 planes. When the raid was finished, some of the inmates dug me out. Then we found out that about 100 were missing. They had been buried alive in the sand.
About late March, again we were put into little freight cars and traveled for two or three days. When we came to Marienbad station, our train was bombed and machine-gunned by the Russian Air Force and about 1000 were killed. Among the dead I saw some German guards also dead. I ran into the station where the station master lived, as there was a bunker built there. There was a lot of food stored there. It was very dark, as there was a blackout. The Germans were frightened because they could hear the grenades. I was stuffing my clothes with food and wasn’t taking any notice of the grenades or machine guns. I was more interested in grabbing tins of meat and beans and whatever else I could find. But when I came out with food stuffed in my pockets, the inmates noticed and jumped me, throwing me to the ground. They cut my coat from the back as I was lying on the ground and took most of my food away. I was lucky they didn’t cut my body as well. The German guards stopped them, but by then I had very little left.
They rounded us up again and started marching us by foot with no food or water. All this time, the prisoners were being shot. Whenever they couldn’t walk fast enough, or had no more energy to walk and stopped, the guards shot them. We stopped most of the nights in barns in villages.
We walked from Germany over the Sudetenland mountains into Czechoslovakia. On one occasion when we stopped overnight, they gave us bread. One loaf of bread to share between eight people. While they were cutting it into eight pieces, one of them took two pieces and I had none. I was not very happy about this, so I jumped on the back of the policeman and pinched a whole loaf and immediately started eating. I didn’t get a chance to swallow a piece, though. The policeman came for me and started kicking me and beating me with his truncheon until it broke. Then the German guard came in and he started kicking me and beating me with his rifle butt. (It wasn’t until 1984 that I found out my nose had been shattered in this attack, at which time I had it repaired.) They left me for dead in a pool of blood.
In the morning I woke up, soaked in blood; but my friend Pomeranc helped me stand on my feet and I resumed marching. A few days later I was on my last legs. A man approached me and asked if I would ask the German guard to give me a piece of bread for his golden teeth. I had nothing to lose anymore, so I approached the guard. He agreed. I gave him the golden teeth and he gave me four slices of bread, so I had two pieces and so did the man who had had the teeth. He was very pleased with the transaction, and so was I.
On another occasion, I suddenly noticed a boy a little bigger than me run to the verge of the road. He picked up something. I went over to him and asked for a piece. It was a beetroot. He told me to buzz off. I told him if he didn’t give me a piece I would tell the others and they would take it all away from him and cut him up in pieces because we were all starving by then, so he gave me a small piece. When I ate it up in one second, I went back for more and he reluctantly gave me another piece. This boy is today my best friend. His name is Harry Spiro.
On another occasion on the “Death March,” as it became known, I ran over to the verge of the road, as I had seen something. I picked it up. It was a raw potato. The guard thought I was running away and took a shot at me as I was bending down. He hit the back of my hand with a bullet. He only grazed the top of it, but the mark on my hand is still visible.
We marched for about three weeks. We started in Rehmsdorf with about 3000; we arrived in Theresienstadt with only 600 survivors, though according to the great historian Sir Martin Gilbert (with whom I cannot argue), we left Rehmsdorf with 2775 and only 75 survived. After a few days in Theresienstadt, I got ill with typhoid and was in a very bad way. I remember they gave us a small piece of bread in the morning with black coffee, but I couldn’t eat or drink. I had a very high temperature. We were 10 in one room. In three days I accumulated three pieces of bread and kept them under my head. I heard some of the boys saying, “Let’s steal the bread from Balsam. He won’t need it anymore. He’s going to die any minute.”
But again I had a very good friend who was lying next to me; and he shouted out to them that if anyone dared come near me, he would cut them up with the knife he was holding in his hands. And of course it was Pomeranc to my rescue again. I was ill until the last day of the war. On 8 May 1945, the Russian army walked into the camp and liberated us. It was the end of World War II. In view of the typhoid, I probably wouldn’t have survived much longer.
About four weeks after the war, my friend Pomeranc and I decided to go back to Poland to look for living relatives and, at the same time, to find the treasure I had hidden when I was in Plaszow. When we arrived in Prague, we had a whole day to spend because the train for Poland wasn’t leaving till 10 p.m. We met up with a lot of other survivors who were also looking around the town and waiting to go back to Poland.
At about seven o’clock my friend Pomeranc and I went to the station. We had heard that the trains were getting packed with survivors wanting to return to Poland. While at the station, we met some Jews who had just returned from Poland. We told them we were waiting to go back home. They said that we must be mad to want to go back, as they were still killing Jews in Poland. We couldn’t believe it and asked who was killing the Jews now. They told us the Poles were doing what the Germans hadn’t been able to manage and that they themselves were lucky to have come out alive from Poland. We got frightened. We were only 15 years old at the time, so we returned to Theresienstadt and warned the other boys not to go back because it was dangerous in Poland.
I stayed in Theresienstadt till 14 August, when the British government gave permission for 300 children up to the age of 16 to leave to go to England. They sent planes for us, Lancaster Bombers. We had to sit on the floor. The captain and crew were very good to us. They gave us chocolates and took us into the cockpit. I remember sitting in the nose of the plane. They showed me the instruments, and this was fascinating.
When we arrived at Carlisle, buses were waiting to take us to Windermere, where we got a welcome reception. Everybody was very nice to us. They had prepared a single room for each of us. In the room was a bed, wardrobe, dressing table, pajamas, a toothbrush, soap, towel, and some slippers. We were there for about four months and we were looked after extremely well. Then we were divided into groups and sent to different hostels. Some of the boys were religious, so they were sent to yeshivas. Most of us were not religious, and I was sent to Loughton, Essex. Our hostel became the most popular of all. The housekeepers (the Madrachim) who looked after us became very proud of what they had achieved. They wanted us to grow up to be good citizens.
In 1947 most of us wanted to go to Palestine to fight for independence. Most of my friends passed the medical exam and were accepted. However, I did not pass because I had a bad foot and had to have an operation in St. Mary’s Hospital, Paddington. Most of my friends, though, came back after about nine months.
I had been living in England for two years when I discovered I had cousins living in London. They were very excited, because I was the only cousin from their entire family who had survived in the Nazi camps. My father and brother had survived in Russia. These cousins were very good to me, and after a while they persuaded me to come and work for them in their trouser factory. I am happy to say I am still close to them today.
After two years, I went into business with two friends of mine, Harry Spiro and Johnny Fox. We were making suits to measure and selling ready-made ones as well. After about a year, Johnny got married and decided to go live in America. So we bought him out. After a while, Harry got married. And then I got married and the business didn’t make enough for two families to live on, so we decided to go our separate ways. Harry bought me out and kept the business for himself. He’s still there.
I opened a menswear shop in Watford. After a while I opened another one. Then I branched out and bought more shops: two in the Edgware Road, one in Hammersmith, three in Oxford Street, and one in Kensington. I had my sons with me in the business. Today as I write my life story, I have only one shop left in Kilburn and this is enough for me. My sons now work in different businesses, Stephen in advertising and Colin in the music business.
I am happily married to Pauline. My sons are very happily married too, my oldest son Stephen to Rochelle, and they have three lovely children, a girl and two boys. Natalie is 12 years old, Jason is 10 years old, and Adam is six years old. Colin, my youngest son, has been married to Amanda for six months and they are expecting their first child in January 1996.
Note: Questions or requests for further information about Harry Balsam and his story can be addressed to Harry’s son: Colin Lester Balsam