On the Ramp at Auschwitz
– Siggy Boraks, digging his grave at Blizyn labor camp
“I was looking at the sky. I said, ‘This is the last time I see the sky.’”
Siggy’s parents were Chaim and Golda Boraks. As a soldier in the Polish army, Chaim was wounded, losing sight in one eye, in the victory over the Red Army at Warsaw in August 1920, immortalized in Polish history as the “Miracle of the Vistula.” After the 1920 war with the Russians, Chaim returned home to Wielun, Poland. Jews first settled in Wielun during the 18th Century. The oldest stone in the Jewish cemetery dated from the 19th Century (today not a stone remains). Before World War II, nearly 5,000 Jews lived in Wielun, or half the population. Poles and ethnic Germans (Volksdeutsch) comprised the rest. Chaim was a barber, as was his brother Gustav (who would survive Treblinka).
Life Before the War
Siggy was born on July 18, 1925, in Wielun. His sister Basha was born in 1930. The family lived in a small apartment at #10 Kaliska Street (the building still stands). As a boy, Siggy was always getting into trouble.He skipped out on Hebrew lessons to play soccer (he got caught). He joined the Polish Boy Scouts, which was unheard of, but quit when the Polish boys refused to give him the time of day. He was small, tough, and quick on his feet. He didn’t run when Poles yelled “Christ killer! Christ killer!” He got into scrapes and came home bloodied. And bewildered. Who was Christ? Siggy didn’t know. “Did I kill somebody?” he asked his mother.
The War Breaks Out
When Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, Siggy was 14 years old. German soldiers occupied Wielun on the first day. Siggy’s parents remembered the lawful behavior of the German soldiers during World War I. The Jews, generally speaking, admired Germany (and loathed Russia). Not in their worst nightmares did people suspect the Germans intended to wipe Polish Jewry from the face of the earth. Siggy says, “So I remember my mother keep saying that ‘The German people are nice people, smart people.’ We never believed in our dreams that this will happen to Jewish people.”
In November 1939, a few days before Polish Independence Day, Chaim Boraks and fellow veterans of the Polish army were arrested. What happened to them? No one knew. Golda was suddenly on her own with a 14 year old son and 9 year old daughter. It wasn’t long before the family was evicted from the apartment. Siggy remembers two Polish policemen, accompanied by Germans, who banged on the door, “and they gave us one hour times to move everything, whatever we can, in one hour time.” In the plunder and murder of the Jews, the Polish police collaborated with the Germans every step of the way. Before walking out the door, Siggy witnessed a Polish “friend” (and neighbor) enter the apartment and grab Siggy’s prized snowboard.
With his mother and sister, Siggy was transported by train to Cracow, Poland. Here, by stroke of luck, they were reunited with Chaim. Siggy describes the terrible conditions in Cracow (before the ghetto was created): “It was so cold that icicles was hanging from the ceiling. It was four families in one room, and we slept in our clothes because too cold.” The family was next transported to the ghetto in Czestochowa, Poland. Siggy was assigned to a work commando repairing the railroad. He received a “green card” that designated him an “essential worker.” This slip of paper proved invaluable.
Deportation to Treblinka
On September 22, 1942, at the start of the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), the liquidation of the Czestochowa ghetto began. The Germans were assisted by the Polish police and the Jewish ghetto police. In four “actions” over the course of two weeks, 40,000 people were packed on trains and delivered to the Treblinka death camp. Siggy was exempted. He was an “essential worker.” His “green card” saved him. Siggy quotes his father’s last words: “I remember like today. He said, ‘Don’t worry, we will see each other after the war.’ And he told me to come to the same town. And this was the last time I saw him.”
INPUT VIDEO CLIP HERE, OF SIGGY BORAKS: DEPORTATION TO TREBLINKA
Arriving at Treblinka, Siggy’s family went straight to the gas chambers. Uncle Gustav survived the first “selection” because of his profession. He was assigned to the “barber commando.” The “barbers” cut the hair of women and girls who moments later would hear the steel door of a gas chamber close behind them. Their hair, like all Jewish possessions, was bundled off to Germany.
Gustav Boraks escaped Treblinka during the uprising on August 2, 1943. He found shelter with a Polish woman in a village. She risked the Nazi death penalty for those caught helping Jews. Gustav and the Polish woman married after the war and immigrated to Israel. In the Jewish homeland, she didn’t let anyone know she was Polish. She didn’t want to be burdened by the animosity between the two people. An unrecognized Righteous Gentile, she lived the rest of her life “passing” as a Jew.
Blizyn Labor Camp
After the liquidation of the Czestochowa ghetto, Siggy was sent to a labor camp at Blizyn, a small town near Radom, Poland. The camp originally held Soviet POWs. Eight thousand perished there, owing to the impossible conditions. They were buried in a mass grave. Rats devoured the corpses, grew to the size of cats, and attacked the prisoners. Five thousand Jews and Poles, men and women, were enslaved at Blizyn. The camp was located on the grounds of an estate that had been owned by the Plater family. The SS had its headquarters in the former “palace.” The prisoners, laboring in workshops as tailors and cobblers, produced goods for the German war effort (and profits for the SS killers). Siggy worked in a quarry. When another prisoner escaped, Siggy was forced to suffer the consequences. Collective punishment was the rule. He remembers, “I was looking at the sky. I said, ‘This is the last time I see the sky.’”
Siggy survived a year and four months of sadism and brutality in the Blizyn camp. At one point he caught typhus and nearly died.
In July 1944, as the Russians advanced across Poland, overwhelming what remained of the German armies, the Blizyn camp was liquidated. The prisoners were loaded on a transport and sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. On arrival, Siggy’s new identity was tatooed to his forearm: B-2039.
Siggy was assigned to the “commando” working on the “ramp,” where the human cargo from the transports was unloaded. Siggy says he tried to warn the unsuspecting people: “I say, ‘If you have small children, if you have babies, don’t hold them. Give them to elderly people.’ So those people cussed me out. ‘How can you tell something like that? Nobody would do something like that.’ I said, ‘Look over there – the smoke.’”
Siggy was attached to the Sonderkommando. This “special commando” of Jewish slaves, a necessary cog in the machinery of destruction, toiled in the gas chambers and crematoria. They lived on the second floor in a kind of dormitory. Siggy says he no longer felt like a human being: “I tell you, in time you are like a Zombie. Whatever they tell you to do, you do it without even thinking.”
The Germans wanted no witnesses to survive the war. For this reason, they liquidated the Sonderkommando every three months. Siggy says he was released from the Sonderkommando when an SS man asked if anybody had experience repairing railroad tracks. Siggy raised his hand. The next thing he knew he was outside in the cold, cursing his bad decision. In the crematorium he was warm, had plenty to eat, and wore a new set of clothes, courtesy of a dead man.
At another point during his enslavement at Birkenau, Siggy was attached to a “water commando.” Others in this group were a Polish policeman and two Catholic priests. One of them told Siggy that a transport, after disgorging its contents, left a pile of food on the “ramp.” Siggy walked over to the “ramp” and began stuffing his pants, but a guard appeared and ordered him to “go to the wire.” He intended to shoot him for “attempted escape.” Siggy explains how he avoided being shot: “I was actually begging for my life at the time and I told him, ‘I didn’t do nothing wrong.’ I said ‘I’m hungry.’ And I say, ‘You probably have children, too.’”
Evacuation of Auschwitz-Birkenau
In November 1944, as the Red Army drew closer, the Nazis evacuated Auschwitz-Birkenau. Falling into Russian hands was an SS man’s greatest fear. Trying to remove the evidence of their crimes, the SS blew up the gas chambers and crematoria. Under heavy guard, the prisoners marched out of the camp on foot. Thus began the death march. As for Siggy, he was loaded onto an uncovered boxcar and transported across Germany to a labor camp at Kaufering, near Munich. Siggy believes the conditions at Kaufering were worse than at Auschwitz-Birkenau: “It was ice, ice cold, and I was working. Every day people died. Dropped like flies.” He worked on the “death commando,” which collected and buried the dead. He recounts what happened when he lost control of a cart stacked high with bodies: “So a German guy with his wife was passing in a car. He almost got an accident because he was looking up and he probably couldn’t figure out where the dead people come from.”
Siggy survived the death march from Kaufering to Dachau concentration camp. He was liberated by American troops on April 29, 1945. A slave of the Nazis for five years and seven months, he weighed 68 pounds.
Life After the War
Siggy was convinced that nobody in his family survived. Only later did he learn that Uncle Gustav was alive. Otherwise, Siggy was alone in the world. He went to Frankfurt, Germany, and slept on a park bench. A newspaper was his blanket. One night, Ernst Neuberger, a German Jew who had fought for the Kaiser during the first world war and survived the Nazi camps in the second, happened upon Siggy and brought him home. Siggy ended up marrying Ernst’s daughter Margot a year later.
With a Jewish father and German mother, Margot was a “mischling” (mixed race) according to the Nazis. Beginning in September 1941, she had been required to wear the Star of David patch. The Gestapo arrested her on the day she turned 14. For the last two years of the war, she was a forced laborer on a German farm, surrounded by all the perils of a young woman at the mercy of a farmer and his sons
In Frankfurt, Siggy met a young German named Kurt. The two got along very well. They talked about sports. Kurt didn’t know Siggy was Jewish. He gave Siggy a photograph of himself in uniform. It was taken in Charkov, Russia, in 1943. When Kurt learned Siggy was Jewish, the friendship abruptly ended. Kurt had been in the Einsatzgruppen. He had spent the war shooting Jews in “the east.” How did he justify himself? “He said, ‘This the law.’ He said he had to follow ‘the law.’ He said, ‘This what they told me to do it,’ and he did it.”
Kurt demanded that Siggy return his photograph, but Siggy refused.
Immigration to America
Siggy and Margot arrived in New Orleans in 1952. Here they raised two daughters and two sons.
Siggy worked as a janitor, a service station attendant, a lens grinder, and an optician. In his retirement years, he traveled with the Southern Institute across the Deep South, speaking at schools and workshops. In the summer of 2004 alone, Siggy addressed teachers at workshops (on his life) in Mobile, Alabama, Montgomery, Alabama, Birmingham, Alabama, Laurel, Mississippi, and Jackson, Mississippi.
Siggy offers this advice to young people: “Get educated so you know what you’re doing. Because without education, without knowledge what’s going on, things like that can happen again and I hope it will never happen.”
Margot died in 1994. After Hurricane Katrina damaged his home in August 2005, Siggy moved to a retirement community near Tampa, Florida. Several times he returned to New Orleans to share his story with teachers at the Southern Institute’s summer workshop. Siggy died in Florida on his 83rd birthday, July 18, 2008. His life was the subject of our workshop that day.