Holocaust survivor marks anniversary of his liberation Polish native describes loss of family, camp labors

May 06, 1992|By Amy L. Miller | Amy L. Miller,Staff writer

UNIONTOWN -- For Charles Moshenburg, today will be a celebration of freedom.

Forty-seven years ago, on May 6, 1945, the Polish native was liberated by the U.S. Army from a concentration camp in Abenzie, high in Germany's Troll mountains.

"I couldn't tell you that story 20 years ago; I had a hard time telling it to my children," Moshenburg said. "I just realized last year that I'm 65, one of the last Mohicans of the Holocaust, and it's my time to tell the story."

Moshenburg, a Baltimore resident, spoke of his wartime experiences here last week at the invitation of Rachelle Hurwitz and her family, in remembrance of the 50th anniversary of the Holocaust.

"This is the third year that we've invited members of the community into our home to hear a survivor of the Holocaust," Hurwitz said. "I do this for education, to bring the Jew and the non-Jew together all in one room, a little at a time.

"You can't eat an elephant in one bite."

With tenderness and a touch of humor, Moshenburg related how he became an orphan at 14 after the Germans had invaded his hometown of Piotrkow and forced about 8,000 Jews to live in an area where 2,000 people would have been "more than enough."

Disease and vermin had infested the city, and the men were forced to labor at a nearby river or the glass factory.

"For some reason, my father didn't come to work that morning," Moshenburg said. "He had pushed me into the line [to go to the factory], and he probably was loaded on a train to [the concentration camp] Treblinka."

His mother and brother hid, like a few thousand others in the town, for about 10 days in a basement. German soldiers flushed the groups out with dogs, marched them to the edge of town, forced them to dig a ditch and shot them, Moshenburg said.

"They made [the workers] come back to the ghetto for a little while, and then everyone who worked in [the glass factory] was incarcerated in that place," he said. "After a while they decided they didn't want the Jews anymore in Piotrkow."

Moshenburg and a few others were then sent to work in a steel mill at a concentration camp in central Poland run by Ukrainians.

"If the Nazis were bad, these people were a thousand times worse," Moshenburg said. "We would stay at the shed where we kept the tools for three or four days without food just so as not to have to go back to camp.

"Seventy-five percent of the time, if you came eye to eye with a Ukrainian soldier, he would kill you."

When the Allied forces began to close in on Poland, the Germans decided to move the prisoners closer together. Moshenburg was then forced on the first of two "death marches," this time to Auschwitz.

"From that day on, Charlie was gone and I was known as D4374," he said, stroking the tattoo on his arm.

Here, Moshenburg considered himself lucky, because he was forced to shovel coal into the factory furnace, while other Jews had to break small rocks into gravel with hammers.

"There was the pushing, pushing, pushing -- always a few Germans pushing the hell out of you," he said. "Then, they would shovel the gravel out, take it about 200 yards and bury it, and it would start all over again."

Prisoners also had more than German soldiers to fear. Convicted murderers called "kappas" also roamed the camp, having been sent there to maintain order rather than be sentenced to prison.

"There were atrocities no Hollywood could re-create," Moshenburg said. "One night, for example, I got up to go to the bathroom and heard screams. I ran back to my bed, but found out the next morning that they had taken six people to the bathroom and drowned them by putting a hose in their mouth."

Finally, when the Allies drew even closer, Moshenburg was marched with the others to two camps high in the Troll mountains. Here, the prisoners worked at building a factory.

It was there that Moshenburg, who later traveled to the United States when President Harry Truman offered refuge to all Jews willing to renounce their national citizenship, was returned to freedom.

He fondly recalled the day the U.S. 2nd Army liberated him and his fellow prisoners.

"Naturally these boys came in, and they did everything they could," he said. "But the first thing they had to do was stay there for half an hour or so and cry their hearts out because they just couldn't take it.

"There were streets and streets of dead people. You could walk on dead people."

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