The story of Karl Birenbaum, Holocaust Survivor who died of Covid-19
This story was written in March 2020 when the Coronavirus pandemic had just begun. I couldn’t bring myself to finish and publish the piece. As Yom Hashoah or Holocaust Remembrance day in Israel finishes out, I decided to face this interview and face the regret I have for not having called Karl up from Israel for one last time before he passed. I am not sure that I forgive myself for it, but I am glad that I caught up with him in our mutual Synagogue January 2020 before the world changed as our generation knows it.
I’m pretty torn up about the death of Karl Birenbaum. A community member of Howard Beach, a suburban neighborhood in Queens, New York, Karl made it through World War II, created a new life for himself in New York and attended Synagogue services every Saturday morning. He always wore button down shirt, a cute vest and smile. I took an interest in documenting his life-story when I was 23 and we had been friends ever since.
He let me interview him about his story even though he had not given interviews in the past. He said he was getting older and he was ready to tell all before he couldn’t tell anything anymore.
When I decided to move from New York City to Tel Aviv, I had little time to prepare and many people to bid a farewell. I forgot to arrange a meeting with Karl and he was very hurt. I found out when I called him one night. I was standing outside of a hot dog joint in my new Middle Eastern city. “Why didn’t you say goodbye?” He asked me. “We are friends.” My heart was broken, but he put it back together. He asked me about my new life and told me he was certain I’d be a success in the Jewish State. He was thrilled for me.
I saw Karl before he died in a NYC hospital at the at age 93. The invisible hands of the Coronavirus took him. When I returned to Queens for a visit at the tail end of 2019, we caught up over egg salad sandwiches during Kiddish in our Synagogue.
Died: March 29, 2020, Age 93 in Rehabilitation Facility
Born: Radom, Poland
His story as transcribed from our video interview:
“Let me tell you something about my family.
We are Polish. We have Jewish religion. We are farmers. There were very few Jewish farmers in Poland. My parents were well-to-do. My father was part of the Piłsudski legion in 1918 when Poland made itself free from the Russians. And after Poland become independent, he had very high privileges. And things for us weren’t too bad. But in general, Poland was a very poor country and the Christian population, was, all my lifetime, against the Jews.
For whatever reason, they picked on us, I don’t know. I don’t think the Christian church were pro Jews or pro Israel. The church and the hierarchy of the Polish government were controlled by people that influenced and in order to keep the population down and not to rise against them, we were the scapegoat. All my lifetime and of course after Marshal Józef Piłsudski died, the Christian population told the Jewish population — your grandfather died. And of course things went from bad to worse.
They were very pro Nazis and when the Germans came in in 1939, they were very much for them, even though they lost their independence. And they were very much against us. We were the same Polish citizens just like them, except for a different religion. But they didn’t look at it this way. They looked at us like non-people, that we are something out of the skies. That we don’t belong there. And of course, after Piłsudski died in 1935, things changed very much in the Polish government.
The government itself became very bad, very much against the Jewish population and whatever laws they could enforce against the Jew, they did.Like #1.) You weren’t allowed to slaughter Kosher. They put so many restrictions on it. Big problems, and whatever they could find to somehow beat down the Jewish population, in which they were down already, and the best thing for the Christian population was when the Nazis came in. People we knew our whole lifetime. I’m talking farm country. Not cities. We knew everybody. My father was the elected official from the towns and villages. Once the Germans came in, everything turned over. They were officially much more against us.
And I was a rebel. I’m an old rebel and I can tell you one thing I had no room from all my friends, from school and families to hide from all the people. From all the people that we knew, and we knew a lot of people. Of course, there’s always people who are not running with the trend. There were a few people who were very helpful. I don’t want to stamp on the whole Polish population, that they were bad, there were some Christian people who were exceptionally nice because if they helped you, a Jew, and the Nazis found them, they would basically take them to a camp or kill them. So it was very hard for the Christian population to help.
But helping is one thing and cooperating is another thing… With the Germans.
In 1940, we were evicted from our property. I’m talking our 16-acres of land. We still have our two buildings there that are standing now. I’m mentioning this because all other countries after the second World War somehow decided to pay the Jewish owners for their property. [Not us.] My brother and I, after the war, I was in the guerrillas, of course, I never left Poland.
The Russians came in the 17th of January in 1945 to Radom. Of course I was free by them because I was almost with them — with the Russians. But I was on the German side. My brother came a little later. We came to my father’s lawyer and we filed papers and the property became ours. The Polish government did not allow us to evict the people who were living in our building, however. This is the Polish government. Later, we lived in the other building that we owned. And the police were standing there. There were no more Germans [at this point]. We stayed there, but we had to run off, out of our own home town, in our own village for two months because some of our real good friends — personal friends — came and said ‘Listen. get out of here very fast because there was a meeting with the locals and they decided to kill you because they don’t want any Jews here.’
So of course, we ran. We went into the city. We stayed in the city. I, and my brother and the rest of the family remained. After the war, I had two brothers, one was taken as a kid. He was taken to Israel in 1946/beginning of ‘47 and he died in Israel. My oldest brother lived in Canada. He died more than 20 years ago in ’94. I have two nephews. I left Poland by March ’46.
— How did your younger brother get to Israel?
He was taken by the Jewish army that was with England. They were taking young kids from camps. He was in Italy. He was in a concentration camp, survived and wound up in Italy. Some made it back to our home town.
— People wanted to return?
Of course. Everyone wants to go home. I’m not talking about the village. Radom. Radom was destroyed. There was a certain section that was 100% Jewish. This now is nothing. They destroyed even the temple.
Radom has a Jewish cemetery. The Germans didn’t touch it. But our Christian population destroyed the Jewish cemetery. They took the stones to their homes and made sidewalks out of the memorial stones. And nobody said anything. This was after the war. I was there almost a year in Radom. The Jewish population that remained in Radom was in worse conditions under the new Polish regime than the German one, because they were killing them.
When I lived in the city, a Jewish guy had been an officer and the Polish military police and the Christian police set him up and somebody came in. I was up, I am a light sleeper. I heard a shot. And the next morning I heard somebody running. The next morning I heard someone got shot, it was this Polish/Jewish policeman who had been shot.
Then we had one occasion. One guy had a big business before the war. They came in and shot him in the city.
Then there was a real beautiful couple. Here, [in the U.S.] they would have been actors. Both of them. They got married after the war. Not far from Radom is a town by the name of Sadkow and there’s an airfield there and, of course, the Russians had a base there. They had airplanes there. And one of the officers, he had to be Jewish because he was very friendly with them. He was with them one evening. They broke in. They killed the officer, they killed the two of them. The young lady, they cut the breasts on her and put glasses of wine underneath. Believe me this is not a made up story. No one said anything about it. That’s it, that’s the way it’s supposed to be. We decided we had to get out of there.
— Did you go to a concentration camp during the war?
I never went to Germany. In my place, we worked. It was the same thing like a concentration camp. We worked for the Germans in a factory making high explosives. The factory was built by the French before the war, called Pionki. It’s not far from Radom. We worked there and in 1944, summer ’44, of course, the Russians were very much attacking. We would have, let’s say, a few thousand people would have remained alive provided the Polish underground supported by England had decided to make an uprising in Poland to take credit for it and set up their government. The Russians of course, didn’t like it.
So they stayed, I don’t know how much geography you know, but Warsaw is divided. Warsaw is on the west side. So the Russians decided not to let them have the credit. They decided to stop in June ’44.
There was terror for a couple of weeks and of course, we ran.
In a big group. Our group had only 13 people. There were other groups too. They ran out of the camp. Only men ran out of the camp and of course we hung out in the woods. Whoever worked, remained. Then the Germans reorganized because the Russians decided to stay for 7 months. Until the Germans beat the uprising in Poland, the Polish uprising, not the Jewish Ghetto uprising. The Russians waited till the Germans beat the Polish uprising. And then in January, the Russians made the offensive. And it took 3 days. They started the 13th of January and the 17th everybody lost. We were very close in the woods to the Russian front. But we were part of camps. So then, when we ran, things got stabilized and the Germans were again in control. So the Germans took the leftover population that didn’t run away. First they put them on trains and then they marched them — whoever wasn't killed in Aushcwitz.
This thing you don’t hear. That there were German Jewish flyers in England and of course they were in the army, they were flying for the English airforce. And they were flying over to bomb Polish oil wells against the Germans. This was very close to Auschwitz. So they were taking pictures of Auschwitz and the railroad tracks. And when they came back to the headquarters, told them ‘listen, we are flying, we could bomb the railroad tracks.’ So the headquarters and our good General Eisenhower was in charge then. They said ‘uh-uh. This isn’t on our agenda.’ Because people really don’t know that. The average person doesn't know that or that the Holocaust even existed. And the same thing goes for Frankfurt Am Main. There are two Frankfurts in Germany. One is Frankfurt Am Main. It’s still there in Frankfurt Am Main — it’s a big chemical factory. They were making Zyklon for Auschwithz.
Obviously, the American liked to kill Jews because they said ‘no no you can’t bomb that [factory],’ — and it was never touched. So that’s how much I think about the American government. Then and of course, our best president, President Roosevelt, who not only did not let Jewish people come here, he didn’t let them come in to Havana, Cuba either. So that’s all Ican tell you about how I feel, who I am and how I feel about the whole system. And just believe me — I’m just touching little things. But together with details I could talk to for days.
— Let’s go back. You are on a farm with your family. You noticed a change. What did you experience at first?
We always felt it. But After 1935, things started to get from bad to worse.
— Did you have to relocate from where you lived at a certain point?
Prior to German invasion? No
The Germans came in 1939. Of course, we had some farmer friends. Not everybody was anti-Jewish. Others came running and they took our house and they told the Germans, those are our homes, they’re just staying here because they don’t have any room by them. That’s how it happened. But that was it, after this, we had to leave.
— Where did you go?
We had property across the road. We actually lived on the tracks of the main highway from Radom to Warsaw. We lived on the highway. We had property on both sides of the highway. We also had homes that when I was 2/3 years old, we lived in those old homes and then my father built the new homes across the road and of course, we relocated. Of course we moved back to the old home and our family lived there and we gave them other locations to go to. So we stayed there in our old home and I don’t know for whatever reason they just moved off because of the property. So we stayed there maybe a year. And then they made a small ghetto by us off the road in a village. In our next village called Firlay — this was like an unofficial ghetto. I don’t know. We knew some Fultshtotz, which are Germans, just like the Jews, are born in Poland for generations. They’re protestants, not Catholic. And obvioiusly, some of them must have had some influence, and they were very friendly. They never talked much with the Jews. And how it happened, till this day I don’t know how. But there was a Jewish ghetto created from all of the Jewish villages called Firlay. And we basically stayed there until 1942.
— What were conditions like there? Regular day or tight leash?
In that ghetto, of course, you had to wear bands and all that. There was basically no control. All of us, it was like independent. Like someone was holding a hand away from the Germans. The Polish police, our local police, were very cooperative because my father and the Chief of Police, they were playing before the war. They were playing, Latvo*.
Then. You see, of course, later on, things changed. Polish police really could not do anything to hold us back because all those orders came from the Germans. So they liquidated. I think the German hierarchy had a meeting and they decided to look for all the small places in Poland to concentrate the Jews. So they moved us to a small town, which was already a ghetto. Not sophisticated like the big cities, which was, the town is still there called Yednisnsk*, from Radwo to Warsaw. We stayed there for not even a year. And they decided to move us to concentrate more to a town which is still there called Pyarlobsegib*. From there, they liquidated the town and took the people to death chambers basically. This was 1942.
My mother was shot on the way from the town to the railroad station.
The chief of the Polish police was the victim because of the Germans, but basically, the Ukrainians were doing all the dirty work.
— Why did your mother get shot?
I don’t know. I know one thing — that she had a lot of gold on her. Gold jewelry. Of course we wanted her to have it, because we figured, she’s gong to go. My father was out working, so my father was protected. I took my two younger brothers. I and another friend of mine who is still alive who is in Israel. He’s about 96 now. So we went to a town Belojubsz from Sola. Sola was basically an army distribution center because Sola had a lot of property with fields and grain. And look — the Germans needed it, so they took it over from the Polish landlords. They ran it and we worked there. So we worked from there once.
My friend and I — it took a lot of doing to get papers, permission. I worked very hard. I was very young I don’t know how I did it. I still think, how did I hold up? How did I do all these things? We got papers from the local Genda Marie, German police. We hired a truck, so I brought my two younger brothers, my friend brought his brother. My mother was left there, so my brother says…
Do you understand some Jewish? Numda kinder. Take the kids. Of course. So by the time. In those days to get papers, forget it. So by the time we could do anything, they evicted everybody and of course, my mother got shot.
Maybe someone snitched or maybe they saw something and they just took her out and shot her. So the Chief Police came back. He knew where we were working. He got everybody together. We were friends from home and he said ‘I want you to know your mother got shot.’ My mother was there. The husbands’ name is like king — so Anzel and Zlova. He saw and he wanted to make sure we knew she got shot. And that was it. Now that was 1942. From 1942, we stayed in Sola — not too long because the new law that the Germans wanted to concentrate — take them to work or take them to gas chambers, so they liquidated Sola in 1942.
We came in to the group Pyonki in 1942. A big group and of course this was already good because other people didn’t make it. They just made it to death camps. So we, well I say we, I mean the group. I and other people like me. I am one of the guys. The way you hear me talk. You’re talking to a 90 year old man. I was like. Never. If I felt there was something going on, I took off before. I never made it with the group to Piyinki. After I found out, they went to a labor camp and an unfortunate thing is that all all the big ghettos were liquidated. Radom had 2 big ghettos. Two. They were liquidated. They left over the Germans the Knyna ghetto. A small ghetto. Just a few streets. So of course, I wound up there. You know you had to go, I didn't ask for permission. Somehow I wound up, and other people wound up there.
Things were very tough there. The Jewish police were very rotten.
Very rotten the Jewish police really thought they had it made. Of course I’m Jewish. You see, Jews are one problem. Especially the Religious Jews. They think that we are special. We are not. We happen to be Jews. But we are just as good and bad like any other people and I can tell you one thing. The Jewish police were very rotten. Very rotten. And of course, we stayed in that small ghetto for quite a few months and, of course, we had Christian friends from our villages. That’s very important what I’m telling you now.
They spoke Jewish just like me. Because they worked for Jews their whole lifetimes, but they were Christians. Two brothers and I don’t know how — They got in touch with me. We were lined up to go out to work. A guy came by with a bike — he talked to my very fast. — Where you working? I told him where. The two of them came out to where we were working. What’s going on? — So we told him ‘look — things are very tough. Now the Chief of the Police then, a plain worker before the war, was no big shot. Of course, you see during the war at the beginning, these people became policemen because they thought they would be able to help, but they saw what was going on and decided to stay out of it. So this lowlife became a policeman. Now this guy, he was Chief Police officer, but they knew him. Those Christian boys worked with him before the war. So they told him to tell us ‘listen, tell him we want to meet him at the fence from the ghetto.’ And we did, of course. And they said, you come with them. And we went. So I said, the two boys want to meet you. Period end. And he knew better. He wouldn't say no. He said ‘when?’ He came over there. They stayed outside the ghetto. We stayed inside and talked to him in Yiddish and then in Polish. Anything happens to the boys from these villages and I’ll kill you. You’re my friend, but I’ll kill you. And since then. we were taken care of basically. Why am I saying this? Because it shouldn't be like this.
We were starving in that small ghetto. We were starving.
So if you put up a pillow at night to aerate, in the morning you didn’t see the pillow. Because we stole it, took the feather out and sold it for something. Basically we were starving. If you put something on the second floor out on the ledge. On the side. In the morning uh-uh. It was gone because we knew how to get up and steal it.
— How old are you at this time?
Oh I was old already this was 1943. So 15 years old.
— Did your father play a sport? (I thought his father was a sportsman)
No. My father didn’t play any games. He did not play games, he was officially elected by the local population 2 or 3 times.
— Is it possible for this atrocity to happen again?
Yes. Well. You see, people, especially American and Canadian Jews or Jews in other countries are the most susceptible and even more in outlying areas. In America we are so sophisticated now that nobody thinks of anybody else. But I think like this. Even though the South is pro Israel more than the North — because here we have Christians. But in the South they have the Protestants. If you go to Israel and stay in the airport and see who is coming. No Jews are coming to visit. Before 1933 in Germany, the German Jews spoke like this — I am a German Jew, something very special. So Hitler came and said you're a German Jew, never mind. You’re a Jew.
In our modern countries especially in America. In Germany, they had pilots and representatives in the government, we have the same thing here and religious and non religious they think that this is it. Messiah is here everybody loves the Jews. It ain’t so. My dear lady. Very fast — I worked for 2 years under oath for a safe company. I traveled from bank to bank. I’m a watchmaker. I worked on the clocks. I had friends in all locations. I had a friend who was of Polish decent, born here. We worked sometimes together and we used to go hang out in a bar. And that was before Kennedy’s assassination. And they were spitting fire on the Jews. Out of town.
Just because you're here, everybody in the city. People think they're living. People here — its like they go to work they come to the house they get locked up and that’s it. They don’t see the world. The world isn't so. Especially the Jews. They think all our Jews and especially in Canada and America.
We really think we have it made. It ain’t so. We are being hated, we are not being talked about.
But if there’s a chance, you can see that it’s coming out. So thinking there’s not going to be a Holocaust — just because you pray 3 times a day don’t mean anything. When you’re praying, you’re actually not praying. You’re reading a story. Every day the same story. So that’s number one. Whoever wants to do it, let him do it. They don’t want to understand one thing. The same G-d that was then is now and all the so-called G-d’s — people got killed and nothing happened. Nothing. Thank G-d that Russia came. Not America. I’m here, I’m an American. Thank G-d Russia came. Russia saved Jews. People don’t want to understand that. Especially from Ukraine — and shipped them to Syberia. If they had been there they would have been murdered by the Ukranians. And another thing that I’m against is the American government very much. They do not open up their dirty mouth against Poland — that they are not paying back to the citizens here in America or other countries. I mean Polish citizens with property in Poland. They keep their mouth shut because if they would open up their mouth, Poland would think differently. That’s all I can say about my government. I like the president (Trump) I like him. I voted for him. Of course when we had other presidents, I never talked against him because he got elected. I don’t like the way the people are talking about this president. He did get elected. There was no overthrow or anything, he got elected. He is doing just as good as any other president. He keeps his mouth open. The best thing that can happen here is if the senate allows him to open oil wells. And one more thing. You know, they have to change the policy of Nixon and Kissinger — the nice Jewish guy who went to China and sold America to China and now America owes China money and your grandchildren will still owe China money. That we messed up now.
What else can I tell you? That’s me. I’m a farm boy and this is the G-ds honest truth.
The obituary from our Rabbi Avraham Richter, Chabad of Howard Beach.
Last night I merited to have one last conversation with a phenomenal person. Karl Birenbaum, Kaddish Ben Anshel HaKohen. The Howard Beach community was truly fortunate to have our beloved Karl in our lives for the past 15 or so years. Karl, a 93 year old holocaust survivor was a regular in our Shul and a proud member of our community. To think that a man who went through the Nazi hellfire and survived, had to leave this world without his family and loved ones at his side, is truly tragic. Yet, when I called Karl last evening, he answered the phone and spoke in the most dignified manner. In his deep Polish Yiddish accent, he said with strength and confidence “Yes Rabbi Richter.” I began to tell him how much we love him and that he is not alone, we are all there with him, thinking of him constantly. He replied “Thank you and I too love the community. Please send my best regards to everyone.” I told him “Karl, whatever happens, it is for the good and Hashem loves you and will take the best care of you.” I assured him that I am in touch with his family, to which he replied “Of course, of Course.” I did not want to hang up the phone, because I knew that this would be my last conversation with this amazing man, but alas, I could not hold him indefinitely. I said Karl “Don’t forget to say Shema before you go to sleep.” He replied “Yes Rabbi Richter! Be well.”
Karl was blessed to keep his mind and dignity to the very last moments of his life and I know that he would not have it any other way. This morning, as I was driving to work, out of nowhere, I began to cry uncontrollably, and I immediately thought of Karl and how much he would be missed. I will never know for sure why it was at that exact moment that I began to cry, but I am fairly certain that Karl left this world at that precise moment and reached out from the world above to say his final good bye.
Karl would often talk of the horrors of the Holocaust and the need for Jews around the world to make sure that Never again, means never again! Many times Karl would also demand answers of G-d, as to why he could have allowed the holocaust to happen, yet Karl was a true soldier of Hashem. 93 years old, and he wouldn’t miss one Minyan. Shlep he would, rain or shine and he would be there. His parents named him Kaddish, which means Sanctification in Hebrew. Indeed, the mourners Kaddish is comprised of prayers that sanctify the name of G-d, and thus elevate the soul of the deceased for whom Kaddish is being recited. Karl is a true Kaddish, a Kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of G-d’s name. For a man to witness the atrocities that he saw and be so devoted to the One above, he truly mastered his namesake! Each and every service we had, Karl would recite Kaddish. He did not only say Kaddish when he had a Yarhrtzeit, he would say Kaddish all the time. I never asked him why, because I knew the answer. He was saying Kaddish for the six million and would do so whenever he could for how long he could. Now it is our turn to say Kaddish for Kaddish. Let us sanctify G-d’s name in the merit of Kaddish Ben Anshel haKohen.
The last time I saw Karl was on Purim. I had the merit to read the Megillah for him. You cannot imagine how happy Karl was. Karl, was hooked up to machines, legs swollen, but not sour or depressed in the least. He was overjoyed to do the Mitzvah of hearing the Megillah on Purim. Before we began, he even tried to convince a Jewish nurse to join us for the reading. She could not stay for long, but she did promise to stay for at least one chapter, and she did. Karl held the Megillah with me and read along, he even sang the proper tune, which he must have remembered from years prior. After we finished, Karl told me that earlier in the day, his doctor offered to have someone come and read the Megillah for him. He answered his doctor that he was sure that I would come. I will admit that the busy schedule of Purim, did not leave me much time to go to the hospital, but something pushed me that day to go, and I am truly grateful to g-d that I did.
Karl rejoiced in G-d’s Mitzvos and I have no doubt that the one thing Karl would want from us to do in his memory, is more Mitzvos. Friends and loved ones of Karl, please join me in Kaddish for Kaddish. Let us add in our observance of Mitzvos for the Neshama of Kaddish ben Anshel Hakohen. Let not his seat remain empty in the Shul, once we can safely return to it. Join us in laying Tefillin, lighting Shabbos candles, and other Shabbos observances.
May the Neshama of Kaddish Ben Anshel Hakohen reach the greatest heights. But more importantly, may we very soon see the coming of Moshiach. Just this last year, Karl was our special guest speaker at the holocaust memorial event and we had the merit to hear Karl singing the Ani Mamin, the song which affirms our belief that Moshiach will come and we will be reunited with our loved ones. We ask Kaddish Ben Anshel Hakohen to use his great wit and wonderful demeanor to implore the One above to end this terrible pandemic and bring the coming of Moshiach NOW!