The story of Karl Birenbaum, Holocaust Survivor who died of Covid-19

Karl Birenbaum, Holocaust survivor

“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.

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.

— 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.

— 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.

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.

— 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

— 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*.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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Shanna Fuld

Shanna Fuld

I’m a news reporter living in Tel Aviv, Israel. I cover everything including politics, economics & arts & culture.