Holocaust remembrance day: a survivor’s story
Linda Scher, who spent 25 years as director of Holocaust education workshops for the North Carolina Council on the Holocaust, introduced the keynote speaker at Durham and Chapel Hill’s annual Yom Hashoah Holocaust Memorial Service on Sunday.
In spite of, or because of, surviving the Holocaust, Abe Piasek is a remarkably positive person, Scher said. He told her it was because, “I’m still here, aren’t I?”
“We can all learn from his perseverance and resilience,” Scher said.
Piasek shared his personal story at the service of remembrance held at the Chapel Hill Kehillah.
“I’m still here, like you said. I have a half-hour [to speak]. Really, I could go on for a couple [of] days without interruption,” Piasek said as he began his story.
Piasek was born in Poland in 1928. When Germany invaded Poland in the fall of 1939 and arrived at his town, Bialobrzegi, the first German officers were friendly to the Jews. But about a month later, they left and Nazi SS came in, he said.
“Overnight, it changed completely,” Piasek said. He said he didn’t want to go into the details. His father told him and a friend that they were not allowed to go to a certain street, but they were curious and went anyway. He was 11 years old. As they were walking down the street, they heard the clicking of German boots coming closer. His friend was shot in the head and died, and Piasek escaped.
In early 1940, when Piasek was 12, he got onto a truck with other Jewish relatives and neighbors. They were taken to Radom, where Piasek was assigned to work in a pistol factory. They were barely fed and if they made mistakes at work, were never seen again. Those who were caught trying to escape were killed in front of the other prisoners. Multiple times, the Nazi SS would go through the prisoners and take out the smaller and weaker children and adults. Multiple times, two brothers Piasek befriended stood on either side of Piasek and lifted him up so he appeared taller. Thousands of prisoners marched to a train that would take them to the Auschwitz concentration camp. On the way, those that fell down were shot and killed. Sleeping overnight on a farm, Piasek was seen by a local teenage girl, who brought him chocolate milk. The moment made him very happy. After the war, Piasek tried to find her but could not.
At Auschwitz, he was assigned to take wheelbarrows full of clothes to sort them. Elderly people told him that the smell was the Nazis burning people. Before being executed, prisoners’ clothes were piled, and Piasek took those piles to a warehouse. Later, Piasek was sent to carry 50-pound bags of cement to fix airport runways, then to another town to work on a railroad putting gravel under railroad ties. A civilian was in charge there, and provided enough food to sustain Piasek. He ate very little, and when he was liberated in 1945, weighed just 70 pounds.
One day they all moved again in a train packed like sardines, he said.
“Americans were bombing the train on the way to Dachau,” he said. Two bombs hit one side of the train car and Piasek said he had a concussion and went to heaven looking for his family. Heaven was crowded and in Technicolor, he said.
“I heard a voice, ‘Go back, we don’t need you,’” Piasek said.
The guards ran off and someone unlocked the train car.
“We were liberated that day,” Piasek said.
Red Cross trucks brought them food, and he and his friends – including those two brothers who lifted him up – ate very little, and others who ate too much became sick.
Piasek eventually made his way to the United States, married, and has a daughter and son. He and his wife moved to Raleigh five years ago to be near their daughter. His wife died two years ago.
Piasek remembers when the boat arrived in New York City. There were between 3,000 and 4,000 people on the boat, he said, and the captain turned the boat so everyone could see the Statue of Liberty.
Piasek ended his talk with, “And I’m still here.”
Piasek and other Holocaust survivors or family of survivors lit candles in memory of those who were killed and in honor of those who survived and helped others.
Piasek lit his candle for his family, for the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust and for the 50 million people who died in World War II, he said.