Felix Kestenberg

Age 86 A native of Poland, he survived eight concentration camps and two death marches during World War II.

July 25, 2008|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,Sun Reporter

Felix Kestenberg, who survived eight concentration camps and two death marches during World War II, died Tuesday of a stroke at Sinai Hospital. The Mount Washington resident was 86.

Mr. Kestenberg, the son of a shoe manufacturer, was born and raised in Radom, Poland.

During the years of the Nazi horror that engulfed Europe, Mr. Kestenberg lost three elder siblings and his father.

Beginning in 1939, when the Germans occupied Poland, and a few months before his 19th birthday, he was taken from his home and sent to a labor camp, where he worked on the fortification of the border with Russia.

"We were not given the proper food," Mr. Kestenberg told The Sun in a 1999 interview. "Our daily ration consisted of a piece of bread, a bowl of soup and a cup of black coffee."

Mr. Kestenberg was later sent to Auschwitz, Maidanek and Dachau. He described Maidanek, a labor camp, as "an industrial factory for producing corpses."

"Maidanek is the first camp in which I realized what will happen to the Jews in Europe," he told The Sun in 1999.

After he arrived at Auschwitz, Mr. Kestenberg's left arm was tattooed with the number that he wore the rest of his life. "Here we lost our identity and became a number. I became B-2369," he said.

With the Russian army approaching southwest Poland in January 1945, prisoners were ordered to leave the concentration camp.

"We were given a blanket and a loaf of bread, and were told to march to the west toward Germany," he said in the interview. "We called it the 'Death March.' Anyone who could not keep up the pace was shot to death - not only the inmates, but the SS storm troopers and the Germans that were guarding us."

Fourteen hours later, the prisoners reached a railhead, where they were loaded aboard locked boxcars and transported to Dachau. Ventilation in the crowded rail cars was poor, and many died en route.

After arriving at Dachau, Mr. Kestenberg said in the interview, "We could not believe what faced us."

"Corpses piled up. The crematories could not keep up. People were dying from malnutrition," he said.

Mr. Kestenberg endured malnutrition, boils that covered his body and waiting in line to be chosen for work or extermination.

In April 1945, with the American 22nd Infantry ("Rainbow") Division, closing in on Dachau, Mr. Kestenberg was placed aboard a train that was to take him and fellow prisoners to the Alps, where he said they were all to be shot.

The camp's commander, fearing Allied retribution, ordered the train back to Dachau, where its occupants sat locked inside.

On April 29, 1945, the liberation that he feared would never come finally arrived. Roused from his sleep, Mr. Kestenberg looked through the boxcar's slats and could not believe his eyes: American soldiers waving flags sat on tanks and trucks. Combat troops also lined the road.

Mr. Kestenberg recalled that he and his fellow prisoners began to cry, while others laughed, screamed or prayed.

After his six-year ordeal, Mr. Kestenberg, who stood 5 feet 7 inches, weighed 75 pounds. He later recalled being taken to a medical unit and seeing a face in the mirror that he did not recognize.

"Those were the most crucial and the most trying days of my life," Mr. Kestenberg said.

"I saw many of my friends and inmates expire, and I myself felt very close to joining them, but my lot was a different one," he said. "Many times during my life, I was searching for an explanation. Why was I chosen and so many had to go? I have not found the answer yet."

Leo Bretholz, a friend, is a Holocaust survivor and Pikesville resident. He is the author of Leap into Darkness, his account of escaping from a transport bound for Auschwitz and the seven years he lived on the run from the Nazis.

"Felix always said he was lucky to have had a good pair of shoes, which helped him survive. Those shoes allowed him to work and walk farther. It's the little things like that in everyday life that we take for granted," he said.

"He also said that you had to have a lot of luck and that you had to be stronger than those who were dying around you," Mr. Bretholz said.

Mr. Bretholz added that his friend of 60 years had not lost his faith while in the death camps.

"He remained a devout Jew but was like Elie Wiesel, who said, 'I still have my faith, but it is wounded,'" Mr. Bretholz said.

"Felix was a prince of a man who always appreciated his family, friends and was always there to serve. He was always very concerned about what was going on in the community."

Mr. Kestenberg moved to Baltimore in 1949 to live with an uncle, Leo Altfeder. He worked as a TV repairman and a roofer while learning English.

Mr. Kestenberg eventually went to work in his uncle's clothing business, and later took a job with London Fog. He was a vice president of quality control for Misty Harbor at his retirement in the late 1980s.

He was active in Associated Jewish Charities, Jewish Family Services and the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society.

Mr. Kestenberg traveled to schools, churches and synagogues to tell his life story.

"I promised myself if I lived long enough, I will tell the world what happened to the Jews," Mr. Kestenberg told The Sun in 2004.

He and his wife of 35 years, the former Veronica Salazar, who is also a Holocaust survivor, were major benefactors of the Holocaust Memorial Garden, which was unveiled at their synagogue, Beth El Congregation in Owings Mills, in 1999.

Services were Wednesday.

Also surviving are a son, David Homoki of Atlanta; two daughters, Leah Miller of Chicago and Edith Creeger of Olney; 10 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. His first wife, the former Doris Potler, died in 1968.


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