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Access to current news was almost nonexistent in small villages throughout Poland in the late 1930’s.
“My family was the first in our town to have a radio. I was very curious about what was happening in the world, and I loved to put on the headphones and listen to the news,” Henry Aizenman recalls. “I also enjoyed reading the newspaper each day.
“I recall hearing Adolf Hitler’s speeches on Polish radio. My parents would talk about the propaganda being broadcast and worry about the effect it would have on our lives.”
One of Hitler’s frightening speeches Henry’s family might have heard was broadcast in January 1939. In that speech, Hitler boasts:
In the course of my life I have often been a prophet, and have usually been ridiculed for it. During the time of my struggle for power it was in the first instance that the Jewish race only received my prophecies with laughter when I said that I would one day take over the leadership of the State, and with that of the whole nation, and that I would then, among many other things, settle the Jewish problem.
When exterminating Jews one by one became too inefficient, the Nazis mobilized their victims instead. Trains became one of the essential components of the Nazis’ Final Solution.
By historical estimates, more than three million Jews were taken to their deaths by train. More than 30,000 railcars were involved in that effort, and most trains had up to 50 cars each, with each car holding anywhere from 50 to 200 people.
In winter, occupants were exposed to freezing temperatures. In summer, they endured suffocating heat and stench. There was little or no food, and sanitary conditions were extreme, with a single bucket provided as a toilet. Trips sometimes took days to complete, and many occupants died en route to the camps. Henry Aizenman recalls that cars were so crowded that the dead remained standing, unknowingly held upright by the living.
“But as horrible as that train ride was, at least families were together. For many people, it was the last time they would see their parents, children, brothers, and sisters.”
There were three constants in the years that Henry Aizenman spent in concentration camps.
“I was always cold, terrified, and hungry. That intense hunger drove me to risk my life one night. Out of desperation, my buddy and I took a chance and dug a hole under the inner fence. We found a railroad car full of cabbages, radishes, and potatoes, and climbed in through the top. Suddenly, I heard a dog barking in the distance. It had broken away from a guard and was quickly gaining on us. I told my friend to run, knowing that I couldn’t run fast enough to get away. The dog lunged upward, eager to attack. I was doomed. I needed a way to silence the dog. I looked around, and the only weapon available was a large cabbage. I frantically picked it up and aimed. Survival depended on that one shot. I had to hit my target to escape certain death.
“That cabbage didn’t save me from hunger that night. It saved my life.”
“We heard the Americans and the British were bombing Germany. We didn’t care if they hit us.
“On May 2, 1945, the German guards started evacuating in trucks and on foot. Prisoners broke into the armory, opened the gates, and started running around with rifles. It was total chaos. I was laughing hysterically.
“A jeep with American soldiers approached our camp, Wöbbelin, near Ludwigslust. When they saw what was happening, they left and later returned in a tank. I was liberated that day by the Americans.
“I was 14 years old.”
Our birthday. We all have one. It’s the day we celebrate the beginning of life, another year of our past, another year of hope for the future.
For Henry Aizenman, that day is March 20, the day he was born in Warsaw, Poland. That’s the day that determines Henry’s age, when he was old enough to begin school, be drafted, cast a vote, and retire from work.
But Henry celebrates two birthdays. He also celebrates May 2, the day he was liberated by American troops from Wöbbelin near Ludwigslust. That’s the day he received a new beginning and a second chance at life. The day that signaled he had survived Auschwitz, Ravensbruck, and Braunschweig.
“The Holocaust robbed six million Jews of celebrating another birthday when it eliminated approximately two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population,” Henry says.
“I survived. I’ll always celebrate that.”
Henry Aizenman existed for over three years on daily rations of thinly-sliced, stale bread and watery soup. If he was fortunate enough to be at the front of the serving line, his reward was a small piece of potato peel floating in the soup.
After three months at Auschwitz, he had lost one-third of his body weight.
“The only reason the Germans fed us was so that we could work. It was just enough to get by for some, not enough for others,” he recalls. Many survivors weighed a mere 60-70 pounds at liberation and died in spite of the medical efforts to save them.
Cooking and enjoying a delicious meal is something Henry has enjoyed since his liberation in 1945.
“Every meal is a celebration of life,” he says. “L’Chaim!”