Witnessing the Holocaust
by Henry Greenbaum
Henry Greenbaum was born in Starachowice, Poland, on April 1, 1928, the youngest of nine children. In 1939, he and his family were sent to the Jewish ghetto in their town. Throughout the war, he would be moved to various slave labor and concentration camps, including the infamous death camp of Auschwitz. He was liberated by American soldiers in Germany on April 25, 1945, and moved to the United States the next year.
I am honored to be standing here today with the American veterans of World War II, their families, and friends. No one appreciates the sacrifices you made more than the survivors of the Holocaust; the survivors who lost so many of their friends and family to this evil that you helped to defeat.
I was not quite 12 years old when it all started. I came from a family of nine children, six girls and three boys. Out of the nine, only four survived: myself, my two brothers, and one sister who had come to the United States in 1937.
We had a normal life. I went to public school, played sports, and did all the things that the kids would do here. But that all turned upside down the minute the Germans invaded my town, Starachowice, in Poland, on September 10, 1939. Right away, they started paying extra attention to the Jews, ordering them around, forcing us to wear the yellow Stars of David. When we would walk down the sidewalk, if we passed any German in uniform, whether it be SS or Wehrmacht, we had to take our hats off, step off the sidewalk, and stand at attention. If you did not obey, they would beat the heck out of youâ€”knock you down, kick you with their bootsâ€”they could be brutal. We made sure to obey all of their rules, at all times.
It came to the point that we were afraid to go out on the streets. People did not want to come out of their homes. So the Nazis started coming into our homes to look for us. What were they looking for? They wanted some free labor. Any able bodied person over about 12 years old was taken from their home and forced to dig trenches on the outskirts of town, which they claimed were to be used as defenses from tanks. They watched you constantly while you workedâ€”you didnâ€™t stop for a second. If somebody started talking, or decided to take a rest, the German supervisor would call them over and beat them up. Sometimes they would take somebody into a truck and drive them off into the forest. We could hear shots going off, then the truck would come back empty. We all knew what had happened. We also knew that these trenches we were digging were going to be used to bury these people who were being shot.
After awhile, they rounded us all up, to keep us in one areaâ€”they didnâ€™t want to have to look for us all over town. They surrounded the area, about 3 or 4 blocks, with barbed wire about four feet high. Families from all over were crowded in there. We had to wait for food to be brought to us by the SS, because no longer was anybody allowed to go out to shop. Every day, the already meager rations would become less and less. We ran out of soap to wash with. In already overcrowded conditions, being unable to keep clean led to an outbreak of typhoid in the ghetto.
One day, a special unit came in, which the Germans called the â€œEinsatzgruppen,â€ which was basically the killing unit. They would come into this ghetto every day to check on us. If somebody was too sick to go work in one of the ammunitions factories, they would take you away in one of their trucks. Where did they take you? They took you to the outskirts of town where we had dug the trenches supposedly for the tanks. In reality, we were digging our own graves.
Every day, the trucks would drive in and out, until the typhoid had subsided. In October of 1942, the Germans decided that they were going to get rid of the ghetto. They ordered us all out of the ghetto and into a large marketplace. That is where the selection started. Women with children were sent to one side; very old people to the same side; people who could not walk well, or were on crutches, or enfeebled, all to the same side. The healthier ones who would be able to work in the factory, including myself and three sisters, were kept on the other side. I could see the cattle cars off in the distance, where they were taking the women, children, and old people. The Germans never told any of them that they were going to be killed, which is why they had gone so peacefully. They were constantly lying to us. They would say that we were going to be â€œrelocated,â€ and that we would have more food to eat or better jobs. So everybody was eager to go, and went willingly on the train. But when they boarded the train, their baggage was left behind.