A Remembrance of My Father on Holocaust Memorial Day

Today is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day. In 2009, I blogged about my father’s experience as a Holocaust survivor. My father died last May, and so I wanted to post a somewhat longer version of his wartime story in his memory. I have taken it from the eulogy that our family rabbi gave at my father’s memorial service, and it appears below. Following my father’s death, obituaries were also published in The Philadelphia Daily News and Progressive Railroading.

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Arnold D. Kerr began his life as Aronek Kierszkowski. He was born on March 9, 1928 in Suwalki, Poland,the second of four sons of Oszer and Riva Kierszkowski. His father owned a successful fur import and export business which his mother helped operate. The family lived in Suwalki, a town near the border with East Prussia and Lithuania, now Poland.

When the war broke out in Europe in 1939, Aronek, his mother and three brothers became refugees, fleeing to Wilno (Vilnius), or perhaps you might know it by Vilna, home to the great Vilna Gaon, known in some circles as the Jerusalem of the North, the seat of European Jewish learning, and a city given to Lithuania by the occupying Soviet authorities. Aronek’s family moved to Wilno in order to escape the German and Russian occupations. At the same time, Aronek’s father took part of the fur inventory and went to Warsaw, believing it was a safer place for storage. The family never saw him again, and Aronek learned after the war that his father had been shot at Trawniki, near Warsaw, where concentration camp guards were trained.

Shortly after Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, the town of Wilno was occupied by the German Army. Degrading pronouncements about acceptable behavior for the Jews were issued daily, and a gradual thinning of the Jewish population began, with groups of people marched out of town each day and murdered in a nearby forest by Lithuanian auxiliaries. Jews that remained in Wilno, such as Aronek and his family, were packed into a medieval ghetto, and subjected to a starvation diet, continuous shootings, and hard labor. It was here that he and his extended family lived in 2 rooms, Aronek became a bar mitzvah, and where he and his older brother, Dudek, “volunteered” to work at area farms to earn food for their family.

In 1943, the Germans liquidated the ghetto of Wilno, sending the men and older boys to labor camps. As Aronek and Dudek, ages 15 and 17, were marched toward the ghetto gate, they passed their mother and youngest brother. That was the last time they saw their family. After the war, Aronek found out that his mother and two younger brothers were gassed at Auschwitz.

The two brothers were transported to the labor camps in Estonia where they worked in the brown coal mines. Later, during the harsh winter of 1943–44, they had to build fortifications on the Estonian coast of the Baltic Sea. When prodded by other laborers to slow down, Aronek refused, knowing the deeper he dug the warmer he would be.

In the early summer of 1944, the Soviet Army broke the siege of Leningrad and proceeded to cut off the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The Einsatz Kommandos SS, who ran the camps in Estonia, prepared to escape by confiscating three ships from the German Army, who planned to use them to evacuate part of their troops stationed in the Baltic states. In the fall of 1944, Dudek was shot in Estonia during the SS flight preparations; after being appointed to dig a mass grave, Dudek and several other men were shot into it. Approximately fifty of the Einsatz Kommandos SS boarded the ships taking with them a few hundred camp guards and several thousand of the remaining prisoners, including Aronek. They sailed for Danzig, while the German Army units were left behind and were later taken as prisoners of war by the Russian Army.

Aronek ended up alone in Stutthof, a concentration camp near the port of Danzig at the southern end of the Baltic Sea. Although there were no mass killings at Stutthof, Aronek had one particularly close call. After his arrival there, all 516 teenagers were rounded up and were told they would be sent to another camp, to be reunited with their families. The SS prescribed that the 10 freight cars brought to transport them could carry only 500 prisoners. Aronek was one of 16 youths randomly picked to stay; not having glasses on, at first Arnold was unaware that he was selected to stay. The other 500 teenagers were taken to Auschwitz and gassed upon arrival.

In the bitter winter of 1945, Aronek was sent, along with thousands of other prisoners, on the infamous death marches. Later it became clear that the SS used the marches to escape westward, away from the Russians. As long as they had some of the prisoners, they had a “mission” and did not have to join the German Army and fight for the “Fatherland.”

The death march brought Aronek and his group to a death camp called Rieben in West Prussia. On the way there, they slept on church floors and were barely fed by their Ukrainian guards. Soon, people began to die of starvation and cold. One day when there was virtually no food left, a full supply train overturned after running off tracks that had been blown up by partisans. Aronek was selected to help clean up. Knowing he would be shot for stealing any provisions, Aronek tucked his pant leg into his boot and poured sugar into his pant leg. He allowed him himself two spoonfuls of sugar each day, which lasted until liberation.

The day before Aronek’s seventeenth birthday, the SS camp commandant, Meisel, tried to gather up the inmates for another march. However, this march was more or less voluntary, and Arnold and his friends decided not to go. Although he could have been shot for his choice, he and the rest of the group were left unharmed because the SS and their Ukrainian guards were in a hurry to run away from the advancing front line.

In the early morning of March 10, 1945, five Russian Army scouts, (three men and two women), entered the camp and liberated it. Staying with a loose group of friends, Aronek survived a bad case of typhus and was nursed him back to health with fresh milk and food from a farm near the camp.

Aronek returned to Poland to look for his family, and he traveled without identification papers in order not be identified as a Jew. Other than one uncle who survived, returned to Suvalki and died soon after, the remainder of his family had perished. Aronek found former house staff living at his family’s home. When he arrived, they refused him entry. They finally agreed to give him a small stack of photographs of his childhood and family.

Aronek’s former gym teacher from Suvalki convinced him to enter a Displaced Persons Camp and finish high school, which Aronek completed in one year by paying an outside tutor with leftover oatmeal rations. In November of 1947, Aronek began his studies at the Technical University of Munich. He graduated in 1952 with a Dipl.-Ing. degree in Civil Engineering and served as president of the Jewish Student Union. In December 1953, Aronek received his immigration papers to come to the United States as a “special citizen” because of his engineering degree.

Upon arriving in the U.S. in December 1954, he worked for a year as a bridge designer and then decided to continue his education. He enrolled at Northwestern University, where he completed his M.S. degree in Mechanics in 1956 and his Ph.D. in Theoretical and Applied Mechanics in 1958. He went on to teach at NYU, Princeton, and the University of Delaware, along the way authoring over 100 papers and several books.

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