This morning when I read the story of Holocaust survivor Charles Pierce, I was struck by the variety of place names that were included in his story: the city of Kielce in Poland, the Treblinka death camp, the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, Dachau concentration camp, the Kaufering sub-camps of Dachau, and finally the place near the town of Dachau where he was rescued by soldiers in the 20th Armored Division.
Charles Pierce came to America in 1949, went back to school and married a woman that he met on a blind date. He never spoke, at home, of his 6-year ordeal, not even after he came back from Germany where he testified in a war crimes trial in 1969. He never spoke about his experience in the camps until his granddaughter asked him to speak to her class.
Kielce is the city in Poland where a pogrom occurred in July 1946. I learned the word pogrom, from my Jewish tour guide, when I visited Poland in 1998. She told me that the word means “like thunder.” This word was coined to describe what happened when non-Jews would come down “like thunder” on the Jews and chase them out of cities after accusing them of “blood libel.”
Here are the highlights of the story of Charles Pierce:
1. After Poland was invaded by Germany in September 1939, soldiers came to Kielce and began taking the Jews as prisoners, including the family of Charles Pierce.
According to this website
“Armed teenagers, members of the Hitler Youth, ordered them out onto the streets, stripping them of their material possessions and handing the family business over to a Polish Nazi. The family moved into a newly established ghetto where 20,000 people lived in a few square blocks.”
“They saw us as sub-human. Soldiers used us for target practice,” Pierce explained.
2. When the ghetto was liquidated, Charles Pierce was sent on a train to Treblinka.
“Survivors of the evacuation [of the ghetto] were ordered onto tightly packed railcars for transfer to Treblinka, in Poland, where Pierce spent 14 months, surviving largely on potato peels and bread, refusing to eat the horsemeat soup prisoners were given.”
3. Pierce was transferred from Treblinka to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where just the day before he arrived, 20,000 Gypsies had been killed.
4. Pierce survived Auschwitz-Birkenau and was transferred to one of the 11 Kaufering sub-camps of Dachau.
5. As the war was nearing the end, Pierce was transferred to the Dachau main camp. This quote tells what was happening at Dachau:
The Nazis began slaughtering the remaining prisoners at Dachau as they planned to abandon the camp. Pierce was selected to help an officer haul his possessions out of the camp. The three-day march would nearly kill him, but in the end it saved his life.
6. Somehow Pierce escaped from the German officer, whose possessions he had hauled out of the Dachau camp, and he happened upon the tanks of the 20th Armored Division and was rescued by American soldiers.