The Return to Lodz

Biographical Episodes

by Victor Breitburg

Victor, a survivor of the Lodz ghetto and Auschwitz, is one of "The Boys", a group of several hundred young camp survivors sent to England in 1945 and 1946. Their experiences have been immortalized in Martin Gilbert's acclaimed book, "The Boys: Triumph over Adversity", published in 1996. Victor arrived in England with the Windermere group and lived in the Cardross Hostel in Scotland. He emigrated to the United States in the late forties and has maintained contact with "The Boys". He is actively engaged in Holocaust education and is held in high esteem by the educational authorities in New Jersey. This story was also published in the Autumn 1999 edition of "Journal of the '45 Aid Society," London, Ben Helfgott, editor. '45 Aid Society Web Site

Kaminsk: a shtetl between Piotrkow and Belchatow, and about ninety kilometers south of Lodz. It was a typical Polish small shtetl, like hundreds of others in Poland. Half of the population were Jewish and half were Christians. Neither group cared for each other, but the necessity of survival made them tolerate each other. Both parties barely survived from one day to another, each one depended on the other to carry the day to an end. Poverty was everyone's worst enemy. In the center of the shtetl was a market. Every Wednesday, the peasants used to bring their commodities there. Money was seldom exchanged. Most of the time they used the old fashioned way of bartering. On the right side of the market there was a church, a little farther on there was the Jewish synagogue, and right across from the church and the synagogue was the police station.

So why am I telling you about Kaminsk, when the story is supposed to be the return to Lodz? First of all, I was born there. I was born May 8, 1927 to David Leo and Chava Brajtburg. Seven days after my birth I was circumcised and named Shlomo Avigdor, after my grandfather who died several years previously. I was the second Shlomo Avigdor, who was named after my grandfather, who was the only melamed in Kaminsk.

At the age of six months my family packed up all our belongings and we moved to Lodz. I can't write or talk of my early experiences till the age of four. At four I was sent to the cheider, which I immediately hated with a passion. The melamed was an old man, with a white beard, who always coughed and sneezed. If this was not enough, he also smoked like a chimney and smelled like a camel. As he tutored us, every time he exhaled cigarette smoke, we involuntary inhaled. Not only was that bad, but we all became addicted to smoking. My father also smoked. Between those two people I became a cigarette junkie at the ripe age of four. Well, my father caught me trying to smoke half of his cigarette; I got a shellacking with a belt on my bottom, and never had to go back to the cheider. Instead, I got a private tutor at home.

Lodz: We lived on 11go Listopada 58 on the first floor. Directly in front of the stairs was a nice shiny bell, which I would ring to let everyone on the floor know that I came home. It was a large one-room apartment, with three windows facing the front. In order not to pay rent for three rooms, we subdivided and created three separate rooms. The walls were two feet under the ceiling; therefore, it was still considered one room. One section was my father's shop. There was a cutting table and two sewing machines. My father, was a ladies' custom tailor. I always was fascinated by the trade journals, showing the latest styles, which came to us directly from Paris, France.

There were always two people working with my father, and at times my mother had to help out too. Next, there was a small kitchen, and then there was our bedroom. There were two beds there; one for my parents and the second was supposed to be for my brother and me. But, we seldom slept in our own bed because we always had guests from the shtetl, and we wound up sleeping on the floor. We were told that sleeping on the floor is good for us, that this is the way the people in Palestine sleep. From then on we never complained again. Above the beds we had to have a large painting of Samson with his muscular arms outstretched, shifting the pillars of the Philistine temple which supported the whole structure. I always dreamt that someday I would be that Samson. We were rich, we had electricity and cold water in our apartment. Can you imagine? Two forty watt bulbs, and what a luxury that was. The apartment house we lived in had a front building with two large doors leading to our yard, two apartment buildings on each side, and the toilet building was all the way in the back. By being enclosed on all four sides it created our yard (this was not to be taken lightly). Our yard was our football stadium, our skating ring, and our dreamland. There were over 119 families, all Jewish except the janitor. Living there, with each family having more than two children, this was our dreamland.

At seven I started to attend the public school, which was only two blocks away. It also gave me a chance to come home for lunch. Even though this was a regular public school, there weren't any Christian students. I don't know why. It may be because Christian children went to a Catholic school. Most of what I liked about the school is that I started to learn how to read. A new world opened up for me, and as the time progressed, my love for reading took hold of my imagination. On the corner of Zeromskiego there was a news kiosk. Every Wednesday they posted the latest serial stories. I used to pay two groshy for the vendor to let me read behind the kiosk, with the promise that I will keep the magazine clean. Here were my dreams. There were King Arthur and his Knights, Prince Valiant, Sherlock Holmes, and Tarzan and his adventures.

I am sure I can write a couple of pages more about that period and maybe in the future I will, because it is important. I want to tell about my mother and how she made sure she read stories to us about far away countries like Palestine and that Halutzim are building a new nation, and America the land of the free. She told me that my grandmother did not want to depart for America until I was born. She took a piece of cake from my brit to share with my two aunts in Brooklyn. She told me that I was born with a golden spoon in my mouth, and the aura of my grandfather was with me. When I was in her arms I always felt secure because I was her father's grandchild.

At ten, a new world opened up for me again, as I was allowed to go to the movies by myself. Every Saturday my father would give me 25 groshy to see the latest cowboy movie and 10 groshy to take a trolley. Well, for 10 groshy I was able to buy two bars of chocolate, and still have some change left. I asked myself, what is more important, chocolate or trolley? The answer was chocolate. I walked to every corner of Lodz, wherever there was an adventure movie playing.

June 1945 Theresienstadt: Julek Zylberger, my partner in the concentration camps, had contracted typhus. Adek Wasercijer left for Lodz, and I was stuck in Theresienstadt. I also wanted to go back to Lodz. Maybe I will find someone alive. In my own mind I knew that nobody had survived, but there was still hope. I went to see the Russian doctor and asked him about Julek's condition. The prognosis was not good. The fever had not subsided. I decided not to leave him until he got healthier, and then I would go back to Lodz. I myself didn't feel so hot. I had a touch of dysentery as I was eating food which I was not accustomed to. One day I found two cans of lard and ate it all up and, consequently, I paid the price. Two of my friends died from typhus, and I was scared for Julek. I felt about him as though he was my own brother. We suffered together through many camps, and now, after six years of fighting and being liberated, he might die. A couple days later I received some good news. Julek's fever dropped, but it would take four weeks before he could be released. I was not permitted to see him. I wrote him a note that I am going to Lodz and I will wait for him there.

I arrived in Krakow around noon. The station was full of returnees, most of whom were not Jewish. All were interested in their train schedule. I saw a man who was still wearing the stripes from the concentration camp. As I tried to approach him, two Polish people started to question him. "Hey Jew, where are you going? Why aren't you going to Palestine? We don't want you here!" I was dumbfounded. I saw tears come down the man's face, and nobody came to his defense. I was scared too, and angry. How dare they? Yes, I am a Jew, but I am also a Pole. How dare they? I felt that the multitude of people was looking at me. I met their glare of hate with my own hate. I felt like shouting at them: "You didn't help us; you turned us in -- you are worse than the Germans. I watched you in the Ghetto through the barbed wire and saw how your stores were full of meats, fruits, dairies and other commodities, while we were starving. You could have helped us, but you didn't. My father fought for Polish independence in WW I and was wounded. He received a medal for valor. He died in the Ghetto at the age of 41, a broken man, from the wound he got following General Anderson to Rumania. He returned to be with his family, only to die in the Ghetto. He loved Poland and so did I. I don't need you! I have a choice. I am going back to Theresienstadt. From there I will go to Palestine or to England. I swear I will never go back to Poland. I will forget you and your Polish anti-Semitism and your language and forget you ever existed. I am a survivor. I will get married and build a new family, and let me assure you that I will surpass you."

I went back to Theresienstadt. Two weeks later Adec came back from Lodz and Julek was discharged from the hospital. He looked like a scarecrow but it was a new beginning for all of us.

August 1945: Three hundred boys and fifteen girls, young Holocaust survivors left Theresienstadt for England to face a better tomorrow.

August 1945 - February 1947: I remember how the British planes plucked us from the ruins of Europe and deposited us in Westmoreland, Carlisle, and Windermere in England. We were so smart and sure of ourselves, but this was only a façade. We were in a new environment, and people spoke another language. I remember the little cubicle of rooms each one of us received. I remember how we started to grow, not in height, but with knowledge. From Windermere, I went to Scotland, and from Scotland, to Briarfield, Lanarkshire. Above all, I can't thank the British Jews or Christians enough for their help and I never had a chance to thank our staff and teachers, who nurtured us and worried for us, and who helped us along the way. Thank you, and you can be proud how we turned out. The eighteen months I spent in Britain shaped the rest of my life. On February 27, 1947 I left Britain for the United States, and within three years I got married, and started to build a future for my wife and me.

August 1997: For several years I started to yearn to go back to Poland. I questioned myself, as to the reason to go back. Above all I wanted to show my wife Lucille a little bit of my heritage, but at the same time, my experience after the war left me cold. Many of our boys went back with their families to show where their roots started. Many of my friends were still bitter against the Polish people for none of them helped during the war. Moniek Goldberg, my cousin Harry, and many more couldn't understand why I would go to Poland and spend money there. After consulting my wife Lucille, we decided to take a fourteen-day tour then go back to Lodz for five days by ourselves. I decided to wear a pin of the Yellow Star of David on my lapel. I didn't want anybody to misunderstand who I was. My anger hadn't subsided. I also had a chip on my shoulder. I was not the same person who was standing on the station in Krakow.

We arrived in Warsaw, with a reservation at the Forum Hotel. Next day our tour started. I went to all the places I ever wanted to go as kid. If I said it was a good vacation, I would not be telling the truth. It was a goodbye trip. I saw the horror of the concentration camps, ghettos and villages where once upon a time Judaism used to flourish, and I felt emptiness in my heart. I also saw the beauty of Poland, the mountains of Zakopany, Wieliczka, Krakow and the Wawel, etc. And once again we were in Warsaw, and the next stop would be Lodz.

In 1939 the Lodz population was 660, 000. The Jewish population was 225,000.

We got first class tickets and made ourselves comfortable for our journey to Lodz. As the train left the Warsaw station my anticipation started to grow. I started to tell Lucille things about Lodz. "The first thing you are going to see is the tall chimneys." "We are going to stay in one of the most beautiful hotels in Lodz and you are going to see the beautiful stores on Piotrkowska Street." Slowly, the train was picking up speed and within a couple minutes we passed the outskirts of Warsaw. I was glued to the window trying not to miss anything, and once again I was a little kid, and time stood still. We saw a woman picking up potatoes in a field with her bare hands. We saw a farmer still plowing with a horse. I felt excited as my eyes were trying to drink in the view. After three hours we arrived in Lodz. What happened to the tall chimneys? We took a taxi and with a commanding voice I told the driver to take me to the Grand Hotel. Within ten minutes we were there. As I looked around, nothing looked same. On parts of Piotrkowska Street the lights were out, and the street was partly broken up.

"Are you sure we are at the Grand Hotel?" "Yes sir," the driver answered. I remembered that it used to be much further. I used to walk from the station past the hotel down to Plac Wolnosci. I was told, "Don't go back, you will be disappointed." My suitcases were deposited on the sidewalk and I paid the driver and gave him a hefty tip, so he will not say that the Jews are cheap. He could not thank me enough. We were ushered into our room, but it didn't look as luxurious as expected, but then, I was judging as an American. We decided to leave our suitcases in the room and take a walk down Piotrkowska Street to Plac Wolnosci. I wanted to show my wife so much of the things I told her about the glitter.

We walked slowly. As we proceeded I felt hurt. Where are the bright lights? Where are the stores? Lodz was not bombed. The Germans didn't destroy this city. I felt like the street was saying to me, "I also suffered." This street was part of my childhood and my emotions were hurt. I remember when I asked my mother for permission to take my little brother (Felek), to show him this street. I held on to his hand and time and time again I kept showing him the stores and explained all the new things displayed. We passed the Grand Hotel and there was a Chinese doorman, and carriages were pulling over to the sidewalk of the hotel. The doorman tipped his hat and helped them to step down. I explained to my brother, "Those people are the rich people, and they must be living in the hotel." My brother never saw a Chinese person, and his question, "Why do they have slanted eyes?" The only answer I could think of was that "they were born that way" and he accepted my answer. As my thoughts were in the past, I realized that we were on Plac Wolnosci. The first thing I wanted to look upon was the statue of Tadeus Kosciuszko looking towards Piotrkowska Street. My eyes searched to see something from the past, but all I saw was that the glimmer and soul of the city was gone. I felt disillusioned, but it was the middle of the week and late, and we went back to the hotel.

The next morning we had breakfast at the hotel, and we were ready to explore Lodz. I telephoned my driver to meet us outside the hotel within 30 minutes. As I turned around, an elderly gentleman came over and introduced himself to us, he said, "My name is Jakub Bromberg, do you need a guide?" I thanked him, and started to walk away. Suddenly, I realized that he might be the only Jewish person in Lodz. I called him back, and asked him, "How much will you charge me?" "Whatever you will give," he answered. There wasn't any question in my mind that I wanted a Jewish person to be close to me. "Shalom, Jakub, thank you for volunteering. I am sure you will be a great help."

The driver showed up and I told him where I wanted to go, but I wanted to direct him. He didn't object and we were on our way. First, I want to go to my home at 11go Listopada 58 where I lived before the war. I directed him to Piotrkowska to Plac Wolnosci, make a left turn and take the first street on his left, but I asked him drive slowly. He did as I instructed him. I looked at the street sign that said "Ulica Stlingrada." I recognized the street immediately and started to point out many of places from past; pointing to the street, I told Lucille to watch for number 6 and she will see a fire house, and a little further there used to be a movie house, and then a bicycle racing track during the summer and an ice-skating rink during the winter. I kept pointing out all the points of interest. When we approached Ulica Cmentarna I told the driver to park. We were standing across the street from where we lived. My heart was rapidly beating. My doubts once more set in, "Why am I here?"

I asked that nobody speak to me. I looked at the number. It was 58. I looked up to see the three windows; all I saw was closed draperies. I crossed the street and went through the gate toward the entrance of the stairs. I looked around. Gone were the brass banister, some of the windows were broken, and the same paint was on the wall from 1939, peeling away from the wall. The shiny stairs were worn and dirty. Once I turned the first set of stairs, I faced the two doors leading in to our apartment. I felt brave, but my whole inside was crying. Gone was our name and the bell and the red painted mahogany on the door. For a minute I closed my eyes. Maybe I will wake up and my mother or father will open the door and ask, "Where were you?" How many times did I run those stairs two or three steps at a time, grabbed the bell and rung it, only to be admonished for my behavior.

The driver and Jakub were standing next to me when I knocked at the door. There wasn't any answer. Again I knocked and the same thing. The door on the left side opened up and a woman inquired what we wanted. Jakub explained to her that had I lived here and I wanted to show my wife the apartment. For a while there was silence. Then she apologized and told us that the people who were living in this apartment were on vacation. She invited us into her apartment. We talked for a while, and thanked her for her hospitality and left. As we were walking down it dawned on me, why aren't we going up to the identical apartment on the floor above our apartment, and knocking at that door?

We walked up to the floor above and knocked at the door. A woman opened the door. After explaining to her why we were there, she invited us in. She asked us to sit down, and she brought out cookies and tea. She was very gracious and charming. We talked for a while. I felt from her that she honestly sympathized with us. She showed us the improvements which were done in her apartment. She still didn't have any toilet and I guess if she had use the toilet, she had to go down to the yard, or use the neighbor's toilet. I spoke to both neighbors and each one went out of their way to be helpful. One thing was haunting me. Just suppose -- somebody would have opened the door of our apartment and invited us in. Would I have seen our furniture, and the painting of Samson and just maybe, I would have seen some artifacts and have been able to touch them? All I can do is think, what if?

My yard: Once again I stood at my yard, but this time I wasn't 10 or 11 years old. This time I was 70 years old, a father and a grandfather. I looked around trying to visualize where my friends used to live. Pointing my finger at a window, I told Lucille where Max Cliff used to live, and here Moishe Markowitc, and Finkelstein, the shoemaker who used to have two daughters, and here, and there. There was no laughter of children; all the windows were dirty and shut. One hundred and nineteen families lived here, and maybe 100 children. I spent my childhood here from the age of three to the age of twelve. How sad the yard looked with the paint and the stucco coming off the walls of the building exposing the raw bricks. I was thinking how poor those people live; I felt sorry for them.

Two men approached me, and I started to converse with them. I was explaining to the men that none of the people who lived here were rich. They were workers -- shoemakers, carpenters, tailors, glaziers. They all lived here, had children, and most of them perished in the gas chambers or in a common grave somewhere. I felt their sympathy as one of the men raised his hand pointing to the windows above. He said, " Look at our palace." He didn't mean to be funny. We left and I felt that we had had enough for today. I was emotionally drained. I discharged our guide and asked Jakub to join us for dinner. At dinner Jakub told us about his life, and how he fought with the Russians for the liberation of Lodz. His wife died a couple of years ago and he lives on a small pension, only (he didn't solicit any money). He has two children in Israel and both are serving in the army. We spoke in Polish and Yiddish. He told me that in Lodz there are less than five hundred Jews left, and half of those are really not Jews. I left it as such.

The next day I decided to take a ride to Kaminsk and visit my grandfather's grave. It took us less than two hours to get there. I knew what to expect over there. In 1939, in the first few days of the war, the town was totally destroyed.

My cousin, the first and oldest Shlomo Avigdor, was killed. I remember how the families in Lodz mourned for this young 21-year-old man. He was the first, but not the last victim of the war. We arrived in Kaminsk and parked where the market used to be. Now, it was a beautiful square with a memorial statue in the center. I was looking for something of the past and the only thing that was still standing was the church with its tall steeple. I decided for our own safety to go to the police and state the purpose of my visit. I asked them where the Jewish cemetery was. They told me that there is now a housing condominium where the old Jewish cemetery used to be. I decided that as long as I am here, I might as well see if I could obtain my own birth certificate. Not only did I get my own, but I also obtained my father's birth certificate, including depositions of witnesses of my father's birth and me. We spent another hour looking around in Kaminsk. No one had to tell me that there weren't any Jews living in this town anymore. We left and we headed back to Lodz. I felt like spending the rest of the day just driving and walking through the streets of Lodz. Once again I took command to direct as I wanted to see. We went down Ulica Zieromskiego to Poniatowskie Park, going past where my Uncle Moses lived. We went where Poznanski's factories had been. The one mile of factories were a former shell of the past. The chimneys were down and gone, the glass in the windows were broken and the buildings were vacant. Lodz was built around those textile factories and all this belonged to a Jewish family. As the factories went, so did the economy of Lodz.

Jakub was a great help in obtaining some other documents. It seemed he knew everyone, and everyone knew him.

The next day we went to the Ghetto and once again we went to my other home where I spent a tragic five years. Rybna 17 was in much better shape than the building I lived in previously. I went to the room where we lived and a lock was hanging on the door. People started to ask me what I was doing there and I explained that I used to live here. I asked who had the key. A man volunteered to ask the janitor for the keys. A woman came down quite distressed. As she was putting the key in the lock I noticed her hands and body were shaking. This shaking was not from the cold, but from fear. I remembered those fears very well from my own past. I asked the driver whether she thought that I came back to take the house away, and he agreed with me. I told him to tell her that I just wanted to see the room that we lived in, that's all. When she opened the door I noticed that the room had been converted to a coal bin. I walked in and once more my emotions took over. I looked at the room where we used to live. There was a small window facing on same level as the surface of the yard. By this time, Lucille and the people gathering around us and wondering whether it was possible for five people to live here. I pointed out that we managed to put in two narrow beds and a crib. We also had an iron stove. And this was all we possessed in the Ghetto. I turned around and I saw two women with tears in their eyes crossing themselves. I thanked the woman who opened the door and I shook her hand. We went into the yard and pointed out where the water well was. We hid about seventeen children in that tunnel. Unfortunately, they all perished (I can write couple more pages describing all the places I saw myself, and where I was. I will finish it someday). I also would like to mention that one of our "boys" lived in the same building as I did. Moshe Pinchewski was a good friend of mine in the Ghetto and is a good friend today. He tells me stories about my family, which I had completely forgotten. "Thank you."

Later, I went to the cemetery where my father was buried and found that there was a road over his grave - how sad it looked. Most of the gravestones were vandalized, and the marble or brass plates stolen and used for decorations elsewhere.

I am not sorry I went back to Poland. (I didn't go to Poland to make anybody richer). I went there and spoke to many students about the horror of the concentration camps. I saw their tears and their sorrows. I made sure that whomever I spoke to knew I was a Zyd (Jew). When students in Krakow asked me how come it took me 52 years to come back, I told them about the episode on the station. I also told them that Jews were killed by Poles after the war, and I told them about the 48 Jews who died in the Kielce pogrom. I was not afraid to talk to anyone. At the same time, students and Poles shook my hand. Looking at their faces I knew that I had reached out to them and they understood my message.

I didn't come to Poland to hate -- I came to say good-bye. I feel much better having been there. I also want to thank Ben for forcing me to write, which I promised myself I would do. Thank you Ben.

I never had a chance to say good-bye to anyone.
I went to Birkenau and I stood at the exact spot where the railroad widens, and there I saw them for the last time.
I saw my mother, my brother and my sister on that fateful day of August 18, 1944.
I said good-bye and asked them for forgiveness.
I went to my father's grave, wherever it was, and I said good bye.
I went back to Kaminsk and I couldn't find the grave of my Grandfather and I said good-bye.
And finally, I was standing at the grave of my Grandmother here in the United States and I asked for forgiveness for not being able to save her children and grandchildren.
I also was afraid, and I also wanted to live
If I would have died, then Hitler would have succeeded.

Victor Breitburg
Levittown, New York

See also by Victor Breitburg:



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