The German Army invade Poland in 1939 when Ted Lehman was 12 years old. As a Jew, he was no longer allowed to go to school. The synagogue was burned, and Jews were no longer allowed to observe Shabbat. He was not allowed to have his Bar Mitzvah. Jewish houses were confiscated, and Jews were moved to a ghetto where they were confined. A few months later, on his 13th birthday, he had to begin working. At first he shoveled coal and then worked on a road gang. Eventually, he was assigned to work in a warehouse where this narrative begins.
I worked in the warehouse for the next three years until I was sixteen years old, and I did what the German officer had suggested, I always stayed busy. If there was nothing to do in the warehouse, I washed the cars outside and kept the surroundings spotless clean.
Working outside gave me the opportunity to observe the entire compound where the warehouse was located. The SS, I learned, lived in a substantial building behind the warehouse itself, and to my surprise there were many more of them than the few that I had met. Being the only Jew among them, I felt uneasy whenever I saw them, but soon I learned that they paid me little or no attention.
I was curious what these men were doing in Zawiercie, and I watched them when I could hidden in one of the shacks near their quarters. In the mornings they fell into ranks and marched. I learned their commands for marching forward, to the right, to the left, and so on.
In the spring of 1940 the Germans invaded Denmark, and in April they took Norway. In May they took the Netherlands and Belgium. In June they invaded France. In 1941 they invaded Yugoslavia and Greece, and then they invaded the Soviet Union. Hitler’s empire stretched from the English Channel to Moscow, and people believed that Hitler was a super leader and that the Germans were a super race.
My outside job came to an end when new trucks arrived. Again, twenty ghetto Jewish workers came to work. This time it was not furniture but huge bundles of clothing, everything from shoes to hats, clothing for men, women and children, clothing for summer and winter. Every suit, jacket, and dress had a yellow Star of David on it.
The last truck unloaded, the German officer selected four Jews to continue working at the warehouse and dismissed the rest. For weeks the five of us had the endless job of sorting and counting every item and then storing them in specific places. The largest heaps were men’s and women’s winter coats, and there were also belts, suspenders, socks, and scarves. There were enough to completely clothe all the people of a small town. We often wondered where all these clothes were coming from, and why they were being shipped to Zawiercie. Then we found out.
From the Baltic Sea in the north to the Carpathian Mountains in the south of Poland, Germany had annexed all of western Poland. Zawiercie was made part of Germany, and soon afterwards German settlers began to arrive. Most of them came from countries that had been conquered since the beginning of the war, and some of them could not even speak German, but they were certified as having Aryan blood.
These new German settlers were given houses and farms confiscated from Jews and Poles. The Zawiercie SS supervised the transfer of property, and the German officer with whom I worked was in command of the operation. A few other ghetto Jews and myself were drafted to help organize the transfer of property in an orderly manner.
The job at the warehouse was still one of the best places to work, and I begin to hide bread to share with my mother and father. After the inventories were completed, I was once again alone in the warehouse, and sometimes there was nothing to do. At such times I would hide behind the piles of clothing and listen to a radio. I learned that the Germans had failed to take Moscow but had regrouped to try to take Stalingrad.
As the resettlement plan was completed, the number of settlers diminished to a trickle, and the German officer would not come to work for days at a time. On one day when I was alone in the warehouse, I noticed a beautiful silk blouse, and I stole it, hiding it under my shirt and smuggled it into the ghetto as a gift for my mother.
From that day on, I began repossessing Jewish clothes, which I sold on the black market. I developed a network of buyers, and my family had a little more to eat.
Then, the Germans also lost the battle for Stalingrad, and most of the SS soldiers in Zawiercie were send to the Russian front to fight. The German officer became obviously unhappy and was no longer his normal self.
In the summer of 1943, he told me that he did not need me anymore, and I lost my job. The next day the Zawiercie ghetto was surrounded by the SS with the same German officer in command. Everyone in the ghetto was rounded up, and we were taken to a train and locked into cattle cars that were hot and stifling.
That train took them to Auschwitz where his description of life in the concentration camp begins.
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