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Holocaust Remembrance Day -- My Own Family's Story:
David posted below about his relatives who were killed in the Holocaust. I have thought many times about posting about my own family's experience, but haven't until now. My father is a concentration camp survivor, and in my case my nearest relatives who were killed are my grandparents and my uncles. Here is their story.

  My father was born in 1928 under the name Aronek Kierszkowski in the town of Suwalki, Poland, a town near the border with East Prussia and Lithuania. My grandfather Oszer was one of the wealthiest men in town, as he owned a prosperous import and export fur business. When the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939, my father went to Warsaw to try to store his furs for the duration of the war. My grandmother, my dad, and my three uncles became refugees, and they fled to Wilno (now called Vilnius) to escape the occupation. My grandfather was caught and was believed to have been killed in an action at Tawniki, near Warsaw.

  The Nazis occupied Wilno soon after they attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, starting the two year period of the Vilna Ghetto. My father lived through that period in the Vilna ghetto with his mother and three brothers until the ghetto was finally liquidated in 1943. Men and older boys were sent to labor camps; women and young children were sent to the gas chambers. My father, then 15, was sent with his older brother Dudek to the labor camps. My grandmother Riva, and my father's two younger brothers, Maksik (then 12 years old) and Isaczek (then 5), were sent to Auschwitz and gassed.

  My father and his older brother Dudek worked in labor camps in Estonia during 1943-44. Dudek was shot in the fall of 1944, leaving my father without any relatives in the camps. At that point, advances of the Soviet Army led the SS Einsatz Kommandos to commandeer three ships from the German Army in Estonia, which he packed with Jewish prisoners — including my father — and camp guards, and sailed for Danzig. My father ended up in the winter of 1944-45 in the concentration camp Stutthof, near the port of Danzig.

  In January of 1945, the SS started to evacuate Stutthof to escape the advancing Soviet forces, and my father was sent along with thousands of other prisoners on the infamous death marches westward. The death marches ended when the Soviet troops caught up with the SS and their prisoners in a camp near near Rieben in West Prussia. My father was liberated on March 10, 1945, when Russian army scouts entered the camp near Rieben. It was one day past my father's 17th birthday. He was the only member of his immediate family to survive the war.

  From there, my father eventually made his way to West Berlin, and then to West Germany, where he lived in the Displaced Persons camps for a few years near Munich. He came to the U.S. in 1954 after waiting for the Korean War to end (he had seen enough war, and didn't want to get drafted). At that point, he changed his name from Aronek Kierszkowski to Arnold Kerr. He has lived in the U.S. ever since, and last month he celebrated his 81st birthday.

  Postscript: For those interested in the full story as told by my father, instead of the brief and sanitized blog post version, it was a few chapters of a book by James Charles Roy, The Vanished Kingdom: Travels Through the History of Prussia. Chunks of it, including parts of my father's story, are available for free via Google books. Warning: My dad is not one to pull punches, and it's pretty graphic. Gripping, but graphic.
Hadur:
It's terrifying to think of how one's very existence can be based on pure luck -- for instance on the fact that it was your father and not his brother who was spared.
4.20.2009 5:41pm
Anderson (mail):
Wow -- thanks for sharing. (And thanks also to DB, who did not open comments.)

One story of millions of stories.
4.20.2009 5:53pm
Dave N (mail):
On Holocaust Rememberance Day we must never forget all of the victims of all the depraved monsters of the 20th Century, who murdered because of ethnicity, political beliefs, economic status, sexual orientation, or physical and mental defects.
4.20.2009 5:57pm
TerrencePhilip:
Orin, thanks so much to you and David for sharing these stories. It means a lot to those of us who visit your blog often.
4.20.2009 5:58pm
josh bornstein (mail) (www):
Thanks from me as well. Coming from a family that lost most of its members (ie, every single person who did not leave Ukraine, Poland, Germany, and Russia before Hitler and then WWII), I deeply regret that I will never know the life stories of any relatives further back than my grandparents.

And, as noted above, thanks as well to you, David.
4.20.2009 5:58pm
Ben S. (mail):
Orin and David,

I appreciate your willingness to share your families' stories. They are painful to read and I'm sure painful to tell, but it is important that these stories are passed on so that they, unlike the unfortunate victims they describe, will never die.
4.20.2009 6:05pm
pintler:
Never again.
4.20.2009 6:11pm
Opher Banarie (mail) (www):
Thank you Orin and David for sharing your stories. My mother and her sister are the only surviving members of their immediate family. They were sent to the labor camps together, but never admitted that they were related.

The Holocaust Museum in DC has a photo of Jewish women workers from one of the camps. My mother and aunt can be seen standing in separate rows of the group.

Never forget. Never again.
4.20.2009 6:16pm
Ariel:
Thanks for sharing.

And note the deep irony of Ahmadinejad, Holocaust denier, speaking today.
4.20.2009 6:27pm
Opher Banarie (mail) (www):
Ariel, do not think the scheduling to be ironic or accidental. Watch the media and see which event gets more time/coverage. The enemies of truth are in full frontal attack. "For evil to win, good people must simply do nothing."
4.20.2009 7:13pm
Just an Observer:
Thank you for publishing this. It makes me appreciate my blessings for knowing my own grandparents well. (U.S. natives, they died peacefully of natural causes some years ago.)

I can only imagine how it must feel to someone with personal connections to the real Holocaust to see facile Godwin's Law analogies.
4.20.2009 7:25pm
mums (mail):
Thank you for sharing Professor.
4.20.2009 7:32pm
anotherpsychdoc (mail):
It shouldn't be Murphy's Law. It should be (insert a Jewish name here) Law.
4.20.2009 7:32pm
Leo Marvin (mail):
Thanks for sharing that.
4.20.2009 7:33pm
Dilan Esper (mail) (www):
Wow. And how many others, how many great musicians, great scientists, great 4th amendment scholars, what have you, have we been denied because of the nazis' unthinkable crimes?
4.20.2009 7:43pm
sbron:
I was reminded in reading some excerpts of the book referenced how the Poles killed thousands of Jews who tried to return to their homes after the war. The Germans could not have carried out such a systematic extermination on their own, they had plenty of help in the Baltic states and in the Ukraine also. The horrific atrocities in Europe engendered by ethnic and religious division shows how multiculturalism with its rights granted to groups, and not individuals, is truly the road to hell.
4.20.2009 7:53pm
sbron:
I would also like to point out that the much-vilified Zionists (Betar and Irgun) saved thousands of Jews at the beginning of the war, when no nation or other organization gave a d___n. My father escaped Europe on this refugee ship

Refugee Ship Parita

He was much more fortunate than the rest of his family.
4.20.2009 8:02pm
Dale Carpenter (mail):
Thank you, Orin.
4.20.2009 8:08pm
Fub:
Thanks to both of you for posting these remembrances.

Opher Banarie at 4.20.2009 6:16pm said it best:
Never forget. Never again.
4.20.2009 8:10pm
Steve:
Sobering. Every time you tell their story you help to keep their memory alive, so thank you for doing so.
4.20.2009 8:10pm
jccamp (mail):
OK -

Well said.
4.20.2009 8:22pm
George Weiss (mail) (www):
its interesting how many people you hear about who are still alive and personally remember those things from 64+ years ago.
4.20.2009 9:29pm
Anderson (mail):
its interesting how many people you hear about who are still alive and personally remember those things from 64+ years ago.

Fewer every year. I was just reading Richard Rhodes's book on the Einsatzgruppen (not terribly well done, btw) and struck by how many survivors' stories there were ... people who literally played dead in trenches of dead bodies ... and then how there must be 100, 500, 1,000 silenced victims for every survivor. Just another way to try to wrap one's mind around the scale of it all, I guess.
4.20.2009 9:36pm
Bob White (mail):
Thanks to Orin and David for sharing their stories.
4.20.2009 9:42pm
fennel:
Thank you for sharing your family's story with us.
4.20.2009 10:47pm
NR:
God bless your family, and happy birthday to your father.
4.20.2009 11:10pm
John Skookum (mail):
I will be forever proud that my father faced the Nazi monsters in mortal combat. He was an RAF fighter pilot who flew the Spitfire and P-51 in Palestine and over Norway. He also flew a few escort missions for the thousand-bomber raids to Germany that destroyed entire cities. He never had the slightest regret about killing Germans.
4.21.2009 12:37am
Visitor Again:
I had no idea your family was devastated by the Holocaust. My family fought the Nazis in service with the British armed forces, and I lost three uncles (one belatedly when he died from the effects of being a POW for years, which gave him jaundice and a heart disease). i was born in 1943 in Manchester, England. It's difficult to believe that I was only a few hundred miles away from that monster Hitler when he was still alive. Although racial and ethnic cleansing persists to this day, I remain hopeful humans will never sink to these depths again. To the memory of the Holocaust victims.
4.21.2009 1:34am
Current3Lstudent:
Professor Kerr,

Thank you for sharing your story. I don't know that I've ever before met the child of a concentration camp survivor.

It brings the Holocaust to the forefront of history, as a recent tragedy, in a way that it has never before been to me.

I've heard Elie Wiesel speak, but that was 15 years ago. And I've heard my grandfather's stories of service in WWII, but he died 20 years ago.

Because you are young and because your father is still teaching, I urge you to tell your story broadly. I say you are young because you are only five years older than my husband (I'm 27; my father was too young to be drafted in Vietnam).

Professor Kerr, when you say "my father," it changes the way I hear "never again." It no longer sounds like a message that has been repeated down the generations; instead we're still at that first generation. It makes present the pathological hatred and awful back-turning that allowed the Holocaust to occur.

So thank you, and please remind us again.
4.21.2009 1:59am
LarryA (mail) (www):
From there, my father eventually made his way to West Berlin, and then to West Germany, where he lived in the Displaced Persons camps for a few years near Munich.
I remember the DP camps. From 1955-1958 my father, a U.S. Army officer, was stationed in West Germany. My mother, as so many Army wives did, volunteered in the camps. Christmas and Easter my little brother and I helped deliver baskets. Even as a child I knew they were unhappy places. It's not something I want to have to show my children.
4.21.2009 2:29am
Perseus (mail):
Stories like yours are sobering reminders that the wickedness of man is indeed great in the earth. Thank you.
4.21.2009 3:01am
Eric Baker (mail):
Though a regular reader, not being a lawyer I've usually nothing to add to posts here on the Conspiracy. But not this time: thank you Mr. Kerr for sharing your father's, and through him a part of your, story.
4.21.2009 3:29am
BGates:
I confess I don't quite understand the people who say "never again", unless that phrase has the implied qualifiers "to the Jews, in Europe, at the hands of European governments, composed of indigenous Europeans". We've watched genocide in Africa, and we've heard threats of genocide against Jews in Israel, and Europe mutters "never again" while it opens itself to Arabs who alternate between "never really happened" and "never done right, yet". Are we supposed to console ourselves that while we may not intervene in Rwanda, or Kurdistan, or the Sudan, or any of the rest of the enormous massacres that have happened between the Holocaust and now, we stand ready for the next time the death toll may reach into the millions? I don't think even that is true.

Is "never again" a pledge? Or just a hope?
4.21.2009 4:33am
Stash:
The stories are too long, and too many, but let me share some snippets, as my family, on both sides lived in Berlin until 1939, and just made it out. My parents, who were teenagers at the time, only met much later in Chicago. German Jews, unlike many of those in Eastern Europe, had the warning of the coming storm, and started trying to leave much earlier. But it was not easy. My great-grandmother died at Terezenstadt. My great-uncle, a genuine German patriot, who had served in the Finance Ministry, and as mayor of Frankfort, committed suicide in Holland, with the steamship tickets to America in his pocket. Everything he believed in and worked for his entire life had been destroyed. The rest of the family I know of ended up variously in the U.S., Australia, the U.K, Brazil, Israel and Cuba. Anywhere they could go. One aunt lived underground in France until the war was over. My father's first cousin, half Jewish (and illegitimate), saw his mother become an ardant Nazi, and was imprisoned by the French in North Africa on suspicion of being a German spy (He wasn't). Then, when Vichy came to power, they kept him imprisoned on general suspicion and he was not released until the end of the war.

Just some things that stick in my mind in no particular order:

The lovely neighbor, who voted for Hitler, telling my grandparents, "Oh, no, no, Hitler doesn't mean you. He's talking about the ones who are responsible."

The son of the high-ranking brownshirt at my mother's school, who kept a piece of rope and would whip the back of the girls' legs with it, but who could not be disciplined because people were afraid of him.

The secret family doorbell ring, which we still use, to know that it is family, not the the Gestapo at the door.

Why my mother hated bridge: that's all they played while hiding in her grandmother's attic (no Jewish male head of household--they were being arrested--registered at that address)while her father went everyday to the American Embassy seeking a visa.

The train ride out of Germany: wearing American flag pins in their lapels, and speaking only the little English they knew.
4.21.2009 6:26am
Curt Fischer:
Thanks to Professor Kerr and Professor Bernstein for sharing their stories. Each is heartbreaking on its own...and then I remember, as Anderson did, that they are one of millions of similar stories. It makes me shudder.
4.21.2009 7:54am
pintler:

Is "never again" a pledge? Or just a hope?


A little bit of both? A hope that it will not happen anywhere, as unrealistic as that hope may be. A pledge - not in my country in my lifetime.

Thank you for the most thought provoking and valuable post in some time.
4.21.2009 8:43am
Patrick from OZ (mail):
Thank you. I agree that you should tell your story more broadly, perhaps just as simply as here.
4.21.2009 10:22am
Whadonna More:
Well written. Thank you for posting.
4.21.2009 11:55am
byomtov (mail):
Thanks, Orin.

It is important that these stories be told and remembered. My parents too were Holocaust survivors, and I feel a kinship to those who share that background.

I'm glad your father's story was published. Some years ago my sister put together a book based on our parents' experiences, and I urge others to do what they can to get their family histories down in writing.
4.21.2009 12:15pm
Bozoer Rebbe (mail) (www):
My father was born in 1928 under the name Aronek Kierszkowski in the town of Suwalki, Poland, a town near the border with East Prussia and Lithuania.

Landsman!

My mother's family are Suvalkers. My bubbe's family lived in Suwalki and my zayde's family lived in Bakolorovi about 20 miles away. My grandparents left Europe in 1920-21 and most of my grandmother's family emigrated, though some remained behind as did almost all of my grandfather's extended family, who were exterminated by the Nazis.
4.21.2009 1:48pm
Opher Banarie (mail) (www):
Many have commented here about their family stories, published and un-published. For those of you who want to preserve survivor's memories, one of several video archives of this type is the USC Shoah Foundation Institute. My mother and aunt have recorded their memories. I encourage you to help these projects record as many survivor's testimonies as possible before they are lost.
4.21.2009 2:14pm
Gordo:
In 1968, after my grandfather died, my father discovered that my grandfather's real last name was Rosen, that he had been born in New York City, and that his father had been a late 19th century refugee from the Pale of Settlement. He had concealed this information from his family.

Meanwhile, my mother was born in Estonia, of German and Russian gentile parentage. At age 13 she emigrated to Germany right before the German attack on the USSR, and spent the war in a small town in southern Germany. She had relatives in the Waffen SS.

So I am undoubtedly a relative of both concentration camp inmates and their guards.
4.22.2009 5:16pm

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