It is not so easy to do this interview. Last night I did not have a minute's sleep. When I sleep, I dream, I dream, I dream. We did not know who was going to be left alive. "Don't forget, tell the world" was the last thing our friends said before they were taken to their deaths. You cannot keep it inside.
I was born in the little Polish town of Krzepice. My father, Simon, was a tailor. He always dressed in a coat, a tie and a hat. My mother, Felicia, raised the children and kept the house. She was a so gentle. They called her gentle Feigele (little bird).
There were 6 of us, 3 boys and 3 girls. Abe was the oldest. I was the middle son. My brother Leo was the youngest. The girls were Leah, Manya and Freida. Freida was the youngest girl and such a beauty.
I met my wife because of Freida. My wife lived nearby in the city of Czestochowa. She came to Krzepice for the summer. When she saw my sister Freida walking on the street, she stopped her and said, "You are such a beauty. Do you have you a brother?" That is how I met Rachel. From then on we were involved.
My father was an educated man. He could write in Polish, Russian and German. In Krzepice he was a secretary to the court dealing with contracts and property. This was an unusual job for a Jew to work for the government.
My father specialized in making clothing for priests. He was asked to make an outfit for a cardinal. I went with my father to deliver it. Before you delivered a job, you pressed and pressed it to make it nice. I had the garment draped over my arm. I was 13 years old. We went into the cardinal's house. We saw so many crosses on the walls. We took our hats off as a sign of respect.
When the cardinal tried on the vestments and looked in the mirror, he got excited. "It looks the best," he said. "Mr. Sher, what can I do for you?" He took my father's hat off the chair and put it back on his head. "Mr. Sher," he said, "you respect my religion; I have to respect yours."
While we were still living in Krzepice my sister Manya moved to Czestochowa to get a job. There she met a Gentile girl named Stefa. They both worked in the same delicatessen and lived together in the same apartment. When I got back after the war, my brother Leo and I went to see Stefa. She had opened a store. All she said when she saw us was, "You still alive?" She did not offer us a glass of tea. I thought she was going to hug us and give us something. There was no warm feeling for us. She did not ask if my sister was still alive. After 5 minutes we left. And she and my sister had been very close friends.
There was no future for Jews in Poland. Jews were second class citizens. The church taught that the Jews killed Jesus. This is where the hate came from. In public school I could raise my hand all day, but they would never call on me. In the street a Jew could get beaten up. My mother, not just my mother, every Jewish mother had to go pick up her children at school because it was not safe for them to walk home alone. Women got a little more respect.
In 1936 I was reading in a Yiddish newspaper that had been included in a package of used clothing sent from America. It told how Mrs. Roosevelt helped in all kinds of cases. I sent her a card written in Polish. I wished her a happy birthday and asked if she could help bring me to the United States. "I have a good trade. I'm a good tailor. I can make a nice living," I wrote. I thought maybe she would help me. Maybe I would be the lucky one. It was a cry out for help. I was waiting, waiting, until the war broke out. I never got an answer.
The family moved to the city of Czestochowa. When the German army came in, they put placards up in the street. Every male Jew between the ages of 15 and 80 had to gather in the market. We lived in a third floor apartment. I was frightened, so I hid in the attic. I said to myself, "If they kill me, let them kill me here." My father and my brother Leo went to the market. All the Jews were told to lie face down in the street. The sun was hot. There was no food or water. If you raised your head, you were killed. They shot every tenth or twelfth man to scare us. This is when we found out what Hitler means. We called it Bloody Monday because they shot hundreds of people.
They burned down the synagogue. They made a ghetto. We wore the yellow star and the yellow arm band. We were ashamed, but we had no choice. We felt the way a dog feels. The Germans picked out a number of rich Jews and made them responsible for the community. This was called a Judenrat. The Jews had to do to the dirty work for the Germans. They shoveled snow, cleaned horses, shined boots and dug ditches.
I had a close friend, Isaac Blitz. When we heard that young people were going across the border to Russia and that it was safe there, we decided to go. I wanted to go with my girlfriend and Isaac wanted to go with his. Rachel and I told our parents about it. They said that it would be nice if we got married and could go as a couple. We listened to them, and we got married. They were glad. But at the border we got stuck. Thousands of people had already gone across. Thousands of people were waiting to cross. The Russians saw what was happening and stopped it. We held up signs that said, "We want to go to work." It did no good. So we went back home.
Hitler was building a highway in the east and needed workers. Each city had to supply so many men between the ages of 20 and 30. In Czestochowa each family had to give up 1 man. My older brother, Abe, was married. My younger brother, Leo, was not yet 20. Leo was afraid for me because I was little. Leo was strong. He asked if he could take my place, but my parents would not let him go. They just looked at me, and I knew I had to go. You cannot imagine what my mother went through.
They took us in cattle cars to Lublin. From there we went to Cieszanow and from there to the place where we were going to build the highway. Out of the 1,000 young men who went there from Czestochowa, only 3 survived. I am one of the 3. Even strong people could not survive. We had to be at work at 5:00 o'clock in the morning. When we got up at 4:00 am., we had to be counted. We got 2 kilos of bread, which had to be divided between 4 people. Some people finished their bread in five minutes, but I crumbled my bread into the pocket of my coat. All day long I ate a crumb at a time.
We slept on straw in barns, 70 to 80 people to a barn. We wrapped sacks around our feet to stay warm. We got lice, and some people scratched at the bites all night with their nails. Many got infections and died. Once it was ten degrees below zero, and we had to cut holes in the ice to wash our bodies. We took off our clothes and stood as naked as when we were born. We put our clothes on the ice, and in 5 or 10 minutes all the lice got frozen. Then we put our clothes back on. But in a couple of days the lice came back.
When you went to the toilet, you had to drop your pants and sit over a big ditch. There was no paper; you used leaves. All of the sudden from the distance a bullet would knock you down. The Ukranian and Lithuanian guards took their guns and they played with us. They tried to shoot close to us. If they got you you fell in the ditch. I had to sit and do my business. You got diarrhea from the bad food. Someone sitting next to me got shot and fell in. I could hear him saying the Shema Yisroel. For myself, I did not care. What happened, happened. We just lived from moment to moment.
We cut down trees. We dug up hills. We filled in trenches. There was a hand cart that ran on rails that we used to move earth. Four of us would push it up the hill, and it was more dangerous to come down. The cart did not have any brakes; you used a 2 by 4 stick to put under the wheels to stop it. People got killed every day. People got beat up. I was careful not to let them hit me because when they beat you up, that was it. If you could not work, you were worth nothing to them. One day I was pushing a full barrel. A Ukrainian guard passed by with a stick, and he hit me right in the head. I was crying. I told him I was pushing with all my strength. I was careful to do exactly what they wanted, but you could not be safe. Some tried to escape. The next day they brought the bodies back tied to a horse.
I survived because of two German Jews that I knew from the big ghetto in Czestochowa. They moved into an apartment across from ours. One was a doctor and one a professor, and they worked in the office with the Germans. They had come to Czestochowa with only 1 suit a piece. Every morning I would put a crease in their pants. I would fix what needed to be fixed. When they heard that I was being sent to the labor camp, they promised my mother, they swore to her, that they would do their best to bring me home. They were crying, "We have to do something to get Joseph Sher free." It took them months. One night as I was sleeping, 2 Ukranian guards came in and called me. I thought they were going to shoot me. Instead they took me to the infirmary.
In the infirmary I was put in bandages up to my neck. It looked like I had been injured at work. I was taken to a horse and buggy and brought to a little village nearby. The two men, the doctor and the professor, were there waiting for me. They took off my bandages and gave me clothes. They gave me a ticket and put me on the train. I do not know how they did it. I had been in that slave labor camp 9 months. The other people never came home.
When I got home, everybody lied. They said I looked so good, but I looked terrible. My face was swollen, and I was dirty. My mother heated hot water, put me in a tub and soaped and washed me around. Two days later I got sick with typhus. This was dangerous because if you got typhus, you had to report it to the Germans, and they would finish you off. My sister had a friend who was a doctor, and he came to see me. He told my parents to build a wall in the apartment and to put me behind it. Every morning he sent a nurse to give me a shot. I was in that corner for four weeks until I got better. So I survived another time.
When I came back, they had already made the big ghetto. In September 1942, during the holiday of Yom Kippur, there was a big deportation from the ghetto. In our building someone had gotten a torah and set up a small room to pray in. I was wearing a tallis I was praying with twenty-five people when the Germans surrounded the building. They told everybody to leave their apartments and to go down to the courtyards. I threw down my tallis and started to leave the building.
My grandmother said she wouldn't go. We told her, "You better come down." As a young girl my grandmother had worked in a dress shop in Germany, and she had learned to speak beautiful German. In Krzepice she owned a bagel bakery. Everyone knew her as Szandle the Bagel Baker. She made all kinds of bagles. Her father and her grandfather had been bakers. After her husband died she kept the shop open.
My grandmother thought she was going to talk to the Gestapo officer in her beautiful German, and she was sure he was going to release her. She talked to him very nicely. She told him, "Officer, look, I'm 92 years old. Where are you going to drag me? Leave me in my home."
The Gestapo officer was a young man, maybe 23 years old, and so proud. He got excited. He said to her, "You old goat, you still want to live." He got his gun and put just one bullet in her. She wasn't dead. He wouldn't put two bullets into her. He said, "We have to win the war. We can't afford more than one bullet." He wouldn't waste the other one. We were all standing around, but there was nothing we could do. That was all. She was 92 years old.
My brother Leo saved ten people with the help of the Chief of the Gestapo. He and his wife did not have any children; instead their dog was like their child. He sent an order to the Judenrat. He wanted a little, neat boy to take care of his dog. They picked Leo. Leo was nice and neat, and he could speak good German. Leo walked, washed and fed the dog. The dog was close to him. And they loved Leo so much that they treated him like he was their own son.
One day the Chief of the Gestapo said to Leo, "It doesn't look good. Tomorrow, they are going to send the Jews out of the ghetto. I have a porcelain factory. I cannot keep you here in the ghetto, but you can go stay in that factory." The Chief of the Gestapo had confiscated a porcelain factory owned by a Jewish man. He gave Leo a pass for ten people. When Leo came home, he told us he could help ten people. My mother said, "You are young boys. You go. You got a chance; Save your lives. Maybe you can help us later." I was crying, and my wife was crying. Everybody cried. It was our last goodbye.
So Leo picked me, my cousin and eight other people, and we went to the factory. In the evening we climbed up a tree and looked out at Czestochowa. We saw that although most of the city was dark, the ghetto was lit up. They used searchlights to light up the ghetto during the deportations. A couple of nights later the ghetto was completely dark. This meant that the deportations were over.
We survived for ten weeks at the factory. Our job was to go barefoot and dance all day long in a swimming pool filled with cold water and clay. This would soften up the clay. The director of the factory was anti-Semitic, and he called us dirty names. One day, when the Gestapo chief left for a week, the director said that he had ten Jews that he didn't need and sent us back to the ghetto. A German Gestapo chief tried to help us, and a Pole tried to get rid of us. Out of the 45,500 people in the ghetto 39,000 had been sent to Treblinka extermination camp. After the deportations the Germans moved the remaining Jews to the small ghetto. There were only a few people left.
When we got back, my mother wasn't there. My sisters weren't there. I did not know where my wife was. People told us what happened during the selections. My mother had been sent to the side with the old people because she was 52 years old and too old to work. My 2 younger sisters--one was 18, one was 16--had been sent to the side with the young people who were going to go work. But my sisters decided they could not let my mother go alone. They chose to join her. My older sister, Leah, had a baby. Like most mothers, she went with her child. They did not know that they were going to be killed.
I could not find my wife. When a neighbor told me, "I saw your wife yesterday," I thought he was kidding me. Thank God, my wife was still alive. She was living in a room with four other women who had lost their husbands. For a year my wife and I lived in the small ghetto.
We moved into a room with another couple. For our needs we had 1 bucket. You could not go out at night to use the toilet; you had to do it in the room. One morning I would empty the bucket, and the next morning he would empty it. The 2 couples got so close. When you have to do everything in front of one another, it is something.
They tried to organize an underground fighting organization. It did not work. My wife's brother-in-law was supposed to go over the wires. We saw him hanging on the barbed wires with the legs inside and half outside. One beautiful day in May 1943, while we were waiting to go to work, they surrounded us with machine guns and trucks. They were liquidating the small ghetto. I remember the words of the Gestapo officer. He said, "You are not going to live to see another beautiful May."
We spent the rest of the war from May 1943 to January 1945 in the HASAG slave labor camp making ammunition for the German army. There were 4,000 Jews working at this factory. I was lucky: my job was to be a tailor working for the German officers. My wife's job was to carry boxes of ammunition to the trucks. The women whose job it was to fill the shells turned yellow from the powder they breathed in. After they turned yellow, the Germans took them away and they disappeared. But we knew where they went. They took them to the cemetery and shot them there.
In the beginning we trusted in God. A miracle was going to happen. But no miracle came. My wife was afraid every minute that I was going to die. I was afraid that she was going to die. We asked God, " Eli, Eli why us?" We still believe in God.
While I was working on the officers' uniforms, I saw the Germans kill the Jewish policeman. The Germans did not run the ghetto themselves. They picked Jewish policeman to help run it for them. These Jewish policeman thought that they were going to be safe. Not everyone could be a policeman. Most had been doctors and lawyers. They had paid bribes in gold to get those jobs, and they wore beautiful uniforms.
The Jewish policeman helped the Germans in the deportations. They did whatever the Germans told them to do. After the ghetto was liquidated, they brought the Jewish policemen in one by one to a building next to where I was working. I could see out of the keyhole, that there were forty or fifty of them. They called them in one by one. They walked in with their heads held high. Perhaps, they thought, they were going to get a medal. After what I saw, I lay down because I was afraid for my life. Each man was led in and hit in the back of the head with a sledge hammer. The bodies were put on a truck and taken to the cemetery.
It was January 1945. When the Russian army came near our camp, the Germans left. Around 10:00 in the morning a Russian came into our camp, said we were free and left. We were all by ourselves for the first time. We started howling, "We are free! We are free!" We started jumping and kissing. We went crazy. Suddenly we were free.
At 2:00 in the afternoon the Germans came back. But they were acting differently. They pleaded with us, "Jews, come with us. The Russians are going to kill you because you have been manufacturing bullets to shoot them. They are going to kill all of us. Come, we are going to save you."
A train with cattle cars came near the factory. You had to walk over a little bridge which crossed the Warta River to get to the train. We talked back to the Germans as we would never had done before. We told them that we were afraid that the bridge was mined. We said that we would not allow ourselves to be killed by the mine. A German came back and he picked up my wife by her collar and carried her across the bridge and back again to show that it was safe.
Most of the people went with them in the cattle cars. My wife and I were in the last group of ninety people. A man said, "Don't go with them. They are going to kill us. That is what Hitler promised." This man was an officer in the Polish army, a Jew. He said, "If Hitler is going to lose the war at 12 o'clock, he is going to kill us at 11o'clock." He was talking sense, and we believed him. The train got full and went away and never came back.
It was January and the snow was deep. We ninety people divided up into small groups and I was with my wife in a group of ten people. We went into the woods. In the distance we saw a farm house. We knocked on the window and told the farmer who we were. He said, "I am afraid to help you. You know what the Germans would do to us. Go to the empty house over there. Rest for the night, and I am going to see what I can do." In the morning the farmer came with a kettle of hot water. He said, "This is all I can do for you. Jews, go back to the city. The Jews are dancing in the streets with the Russians." We did not believe him, but we had nowhere else to go.
We were ten miles from Czestochowa. When we got there we saw that it was true. They were dancing in the streets. My wife and I, and my brother Abe and his wife, took a room in a building that had been a German office building. Two Russian captains came into our room. One was a Jew named Zalman Brodsky. He was six feet tall and had a beautiful uniform. We told him we were Jews out of the concentration camps. The captains let us share the room with them. We gave them the beds and we slept on the floor.
They had to go back to the front. Captain Brodsky said to us, "We have no tailors. The soldiers have no underwear. Their uniforms are torn." He asked me, "Joseph, will you come with us? We are going to treat you well." I wanted to help him. I had nothing else to do. He promised my wife to bring me back and kissed her hand. She was not happy to let me go because she had nobody, but she said, "If you want to go, go."
He gave me a Russian uniform. We traveled I do not know how farmaybe 200 miles, deep into Germany. At night you could hear the bullets and the fighting. We stopped in a town. They brought me a sewing machine from one of the German houses. They brought in sheets. I cut the sheets out in a pattern to make new underwear. The soldiers threw away their torn underwear, dirty and filthy from the front. I worked day and night. I was so happy. And they appreciated me. They brought me chocolate. One brought me a golden ring with a beautiful stone and placed it on my finger. Every morning, Captain Brodsky brought me in with him to eat breakfast. I was still hungry from concentration camp. There was so much food, and I had to be careful not to overeat.
One day Captain Brodsky told me he had to go away. He told the cook to give me my meals. So I went in the morning as usual and sat down. The cook brought me my hot chocolate with a biscuit and beautiful soup with white bread. I could not eat everything. The soldiers were sitting around me. All knew me, all appreciated me. But three or four steps away the other Russian officers were sitting behind a glass door. One officer of high rank called over to his man and asked, "What is that silly man doing?" He told him, "He is our tailor, a civilian. Zalman Brodsky brought him." The officer did not believe him. Two soldiers came over to my table and took me by the arms. In this town there was a prison camp for 5,000 German prisoners-of-war. They were being sent to Siberia. The soldiers opened the big iron gate of the prison and pushed me in. I fell on my face. When I looked around I saw 5,000 German soldiers. I thought, "This is my freedom?"
When Zalman Brodsky came back in the evening, he asked, "Where is Joseph." They told him the whole story. It was pitch dark. He came into the prison and called, "Joseph." I started crying, "Zalmen, what happened? Look what has happened to me!" I was dirty and filthy. Zalman was a big man with size twelve boots. He opened his double-breasted overcoat. I was little. I put my feet on his boots and he buttoned up his coat with me inside, and that is the way we walked out. When we came to the gate, the guards asked for a paper. He argued with them. They said they were going to shoot. I will never forget this. Zalman said, "If you are going to shoot him, you will have to shoot through me." They did not like it.
He got a truck and put me in a uniform. He hid me and drove me the 200 miles to Czestochowa. When I walked in, my wife saw the way I looked in a uniform. Zalman told me, "Joseph, do what you want now." I took the uniform off and burned it. That was my freedom, my second freedom.
My wife had a big family. We lookedno one had survived. Her parents were well off. They owned a big apartment building with stores on the first floor. We went back to her house. When the janitor opened the door, she saw her furniture there, the beds, the covers, everything in his apartment. The janitor said, "You still alive; I thought they killed you." We did not say anything. We did not trust him. Jews were being killed after they came back home. So we left the house.
My family lived on the main street of Czestochowa at Pierwszy Aleja No. 8 (First Boulevard No. 8). Today the street has been renamed after Jasna Gora, the Black Madonna. It was a courtyard building of about 90 apartments. Our apartment was on the third floor on the left. The Poles who moved into our apartment and the apartments of the other Jews who lived there threw down what they did not want into the courtyard. It lay there in a big pile for several years. Nobody bothered about it. The pile was six feet high. On top of the pile everything was moldy and rotten. Deep down everything was like new. I dug in it with my hands and saved our family pictures. Today, after fifty years, I would not know how my grandmother looked without these pictures.
After the war my brother Leo enlisted in the Polish army. Because he could speak Russian he worked assisting the Russian staff. His job was to help uncover the Nazis who had gone into hiding after the war. There were 50 Jewish children who had been hidden away with Christians that the Jewish Agency wanted to bring to Israel. This was against the law because of the British. There was this illegal organization called Berichah that smuggled people to Israel despite the British blockade. A man from the Jewish Agency came to Leo's house at night and they talked it over. Leo got a Russian truck and a chauffeur to drive it. He sat next to the chauffeur in his Polish uniform. Leo risked his life to bring those 50 children across the Czechoslovak border. God forbid, if the Russians would have stopped that truck. All 50 children got to Israel.
In 1946, in a nearby town called Kielce there was a pogrom. There was a rumor that the Jews killed a Christian boy and sucked out his blood to use in making the Passover matzoth (Ed. note anti-Semitic fallacy known as the Blood Libel). A mother was howling, "My child did not come back." Some people said, "Maybe the Jews killed him." They said that his body was in the basement of the Jewish community building. Forty-two Jews were killed.
When we heard this the next day we went to the Swedish Consulate to get Swedish passports. We went to Czechoslovakia and stayed there with the Red Cross for four weeks. We had to crawl across the border to get across the iron curtain into Germany in the US zone. We lived in a Displaced Persons camp. I worked for ORT teaching 22 girls to sew. They paid me beautifully. David Ben-Gurion came to speak to us in the DP camp. He cried so hard. He said, "I know you don't know English, but let me talk to the world in English. On your behalf, I must tell them what I have found here."
My wife had an aunt in New Orleans. We wrote to her and she sent us packages. We had our first child in Germany. In 1949, we went to the United States by ship. We were one of the first survivors to come to New Orleans. It was March and the weather was rough. The boat went up and down. Most of the women were seasick. My wife was so sick that she was in the sick bay for ten days.
At that time everyone used cloth diapers. Our child was eleven months old. There was nowhere to wash his diapers so I emptied out a suitcase and put them inside. I had plenty of diapers. When we got to New Orleans we had to go through customs. They wanted me to open the suitcase. I was ashamed. The smell would be terrible. I thought that if they would open it they would send me back to Europe. I couldn't speak English and tell them my reason. A member of the Jewish Federation came over. She could speak good Yiddish. I told her that my wife was sick and I had put all the dirty diapers in the suitcase. When she explained it to them they laughed and let me go.
When we arrived at the dock a reporter from the newspaper wrote up our story. In a few days I got a letter. Because I could not read English I gave it to my cousin to read. I asked him what it said. He said don't ask. He gave it to B'nai B'rith. They came and asked me questions. Nothing happened. Years later I found out what it said, "If Hitler did not get you over there we are going to get you here." When there was a Nazi march in New Orleans the survivors got together and formed a group. The New American Social Club has stayed organized all these years.
When our children were young we were afraid that what we had been through would affect them. As they grew up we told them little by little.
Some mornings I wake up and I am so worn out I cannot go to work. I am free but I am still in the concentration camp. You go through it again and again.
Whenever I hear singing, "God Bless America" I have to repeat several times: God bless America. That's freedom. Nobody is going to bother me here anymore.