The Story of Martin Winter, a Holocaust Survivor



   
    April 2012          
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Martin Winter: in memorium, a holocaust survivor

By Naidia Woolf

In September 2011 I spent two grueling hours at Stanford University, in Palo Alto, California, viewing the recorded testimonial of my second cousin, Martin Winter (ovar shalom), in which he described how each member of his family perished during the Holocaust. Martin's testimonial (now part of the Shoah Foundation Visual History Project) was recorded in 1992 when he was 63 years old.

Martin Winter (born Symcha Mojzyk Kujawski) died in 2011. During our brief conversation in September 2007 I asked why his family went by the name Winter. He told me it was because they considered Kujawski "too anti-Semitic." (This aversion may have originated from when the Russian authorities required Jews to adopt secular last names. It's possible that Martin's forebears once lived in a town named Kujawski and were arbitrarily assigned that as their "fixed" name.)

The two surnames seem to have been used interchangeably by Martin's family.

His mother, Idel Kujawski (aka Winter), starved to death in the ghetto on August 12, 1942. "She was ill, famished, with flies [crawling] all over her face. Not responding to anything," Martin told the interviewer. "I managed to get hold of a little whiskey or vodka and fed it to her with a little sugar mixed in. The alcohol seemed to revive her a little…. As I was leaving for work [at one of the factories in the ghetto], she called out the name of one of my sisters." At this point on the video Martin faltered, looked away from the camera, then, after a pause, added in a low voice: "She didn't say anything else." Half an hour later Martin's oldest sister came to tell him their mother had died. Shortly afterwards women came to wash his mother's body and put her in a shroud (the traditional preparation for a Jewish burial). "She was buried next to my grandmother." (I assumed Martin was referring to the Jewish cemetery in Lodz.)

 

Martin's father, Michal (known as Machel) injured his knee and was hospitalized. Martin's children remember him saying his father died in the hospital. For me, this raises a disturbing ethical as well as medical question: can someone die from a knee injury, if, for example, it's an open wound that's left untreated and becomes infected? (Martin didn't specify the type or extent of the injury.) Or worst still, was Machel, being a Jew, left to die of his injuries (or from other causes)?

I suspect that he died in a Nazi concentration camp. One of my notes, taken directly after hearing Martin say his father was sent to the hospital with a knee injury, reads: "1942: On one of the last transports."

Jews in the ghetto as young as eight years old, except for those who were either too old (over 65) or infirm, were assigned work identification cards. Most of them wanted to work because that meant they would be fed, albeit a barely sustenance diet. Some lied about their age to get a work permit. A few years ago I helped index thousands of digitized Lodz ghetto work ID cards. Among them was an ID card for a Machel Kujawski, born 20/4/1892. Below his photograph and signature, both of which had been blacked out, someone had stamped the word "Ausg," short for "Ausgest," meaning transported, and the date: "10/9/42."

Between September 3 and 12, 1942 everyone in the Lodz ghetto who was unable to work, including the elderly, the sick, and children under ten, was deported to the death camp in Chelmno.

Martin's middle sister was interrogated by the Germans then taken away in a wagon. "She was shot while trying to escape." After describing how his Aunt Raizel's husband, Henri Kaufman (who worked for the fire department), had to appear before the German authorities, Martin added, his voice shaking, "I lost one of my sisters that way." (I couldn't tell whether he was referring to the same or a different sister.)

Martin's youngest sister developed a high fever and was sent to a so-called hospital for children. Martin's second oldest sister, who had some nursing training and worked at the hospital, later told him their sister had been "given toxic shots" and that many of the children were "intentionally killed that way." Later Martin learned that the Germans were throwing people out of the hospital window onto a truck where they were being gassed with carbon monoxide pipes.

Today, nearly 70 years later, his son Jeff is trying to determine what happened to the aunt who worked at that children's hospital.

According to ghetto hospital records, a Nachuma Roza Kujawska (who lived in the same flat as Martin's family) died in July 1943 in the hospital from pulmonary TB. She was 24 years old. (A high percentage of the Jews in the ghetto hospital died of pulmonary TB.) Martin testified that his oldest sister got sick and died two weeks later. I'm assuming that Nachuma Kujawska was that sister.

When Martin became homeless he went to stay at his uncle's where he foraged for food in his aunt's garden or stole from the fire station. Getting something to eat, by whatever means, became an obsession.

 

After his oldest sister died, Martin asked his Uncle Henri for help with the burial. Henri (who used to call Martin his "favorite nephew") said he was too busy. "There was no one left," Martin said, then exclaimed with a sudden outpouring of grief, "I had to bury her with my own hands! … I figured I'd be the next [to die]." At this point my cousin broke down and wept. I heard someone off camera suggest that he "take a moment" (to regain his composure) before continuing with his testimonial.

It was upsetting watching him break down into tears while describing how he lost all his loved ones.

Martin, who had been the youngest of five children and was only twelve or thirteen at the time, was now all alone.

Before the war Martin's father had belonged to one of the oldest synagogues in Lodz. He had a fine tenor voice and sang in the shul. His maternal grandparents lived in the country, 50 miles away. During Pesach his mother always invited both sets of grandparents to the Seder. On Friday nights homeless people were invited to share the Shabbat meal.

Machel Winter worked in a textile factory, as did most of the city's Jews. (Textiles once comprised the city's major industry.) The family spoke mostly Polish in the home. During the summer they vacationed in the countryside, with cousins and friends.

But those were far from idyllic times for Polish Jews. Life in pre-war Poland wasn't easy. On the video Martin talked about the Anti-Semitism. The family lived across from a park. Kids yelled "lousy Jew!" and threw rocks at them whenever they were in the park. One of his grandfathers, presumably Machel's father, Nathan Kujawski, was stabbed in broad daylight. A sister was pushed into an approaching trolley car.

When war was declared (on September 1, 1939) Martin and his family were enjoying their usual summer holiday in the country. His father (who was back in Lodz) sent a horse and buggy to fetch them home. "From our fall-out shelter we could hear bombs exploding around us. We were very scared ... Food became scarce and Jewish families began to disappear [flee the area in a desperate attempt] to escape the Germans."

Mr. Winter's German business partner (who was in hiding) informed him that the family residence was about to be taken over by German officers; shortly afterwards the family was ordered to get out of the house. They had no place to go and were forbidden to take anything with them: "No money; nothing." First they went to Martin's Uncle Henri's, in an area already designated as the ghetto: It took two hours to get there. "It was night and we were on foot." It was very cold there and Martin and his family had to sleep on the floor. There was no food. Later they moved into an apartment. It was "extremely dilapidated, with water coming up through the floor and a terrible smell. Sanitation was mainly outside."

The ghetto, established by the German authorities in the city's oldest (predominantly Jewish) neighborhood, was divided into two sections, with a trolley car that traveled from east to west, used only by the gentiles. "We were living near the wooden bridge that connected the eastern portion of the town to the west. There were guards every hundred feet." Many of them were what Martin described as 'home-grown Germans" who hadn't left for Germany before the war.

Almost immediately the ghetto was surrounded by barbed wire with its Jews trapped like animals in a cage.

On the video, Martin described how his Uncle Henri had helped to build an escape tunnel under the fire station which (he informed his nephew) meant "they didn't have to go to Auschwitz." (According to Martin, Kaufman was one of the first Jews in the ghetto to learn about Auschwitz.) "But my aunt wanted to go." Today, nearly seventy years later and knowing what I know now about Auschwitz, I wonder why she felt that way. Did she believe in the cynical Nazi propaganda, that Auschwitz was a labor camp where "Work makes you free" - Arbeit Macht Frei" (referring to the sign that still hangs over the entrance to the camp.)? As an extra inducement, the German authorities "promised" that people going to work at Auschwitz would be fed on the train.

When asked about the tunnel, Martin said that "about a dozen people were saved" by using it as an escape route and that "the waste [from the tunnel] was buried in the garden."

In August 1944, on one of the last transports from the ghetto, Martin, along with his Aunt Raizel and Uncle Henri, were sent to Auschwitz. Henri Kaufman had been a powerful man in the Lodz Jewish community; Martin recalled with obvious pride how his "fireman uncle" stood up to the German authorities: "They [even] allowed him to ride the fire truck and his motorcycle!" But that didn't protect him from being deported.

Also on the train were two other uncles, including his father's younger brother, and a grandfather, whom Martin didn't name during his testimony.

Martin remembered the trains arriving and the gestapo "yelling and hitting" as the passengers were being herded into the cars. During that dreadful journey to Auschwitz Martin he and his family weren't let out for six days, "locked up in those cattle cars, not caring whether we lived or died."

When they arrived at Auschwitz everyone was ordered to hurry up - get off the train: marsch schnell! Martin's aunt, who came out in front with her little boys, tried to stop the SS from taking one of them away. She and her husband had already lost two of their five children. "She was pushed and hit and taken away [with her three remaining sons]."

At the camps women and children were immediately separated from the men.

Martin's Uncle Henri hit him hard on the cheek and told him, "You're very pale. You need to look healthy - have red cheeks!" "He literally saved me [from being sent to the gas chambers]." Martin said. The family was taken to the baths, checked over, given some de-lousing then shaved all over, leaving a bald spot on the head. "We were not far from the ovens so we could see the fires; the big chimney." The Germans had already taken all of their clothes and valuables so they had nothing left of value.

Martin described how they were dressed in striped uniforms then left all day, and without food. (He didn't say where.) "At midnight Uncle Henri brought me a large piece of bread and told me to eat it right away or it would be stolen."

At 4 am they were taken to the barracks (former stables with straw on the floor). There they were brutally beaten by the kapos. The kapos (some of whom were Jews) were so-called trustee prisoners whose job was to supervise the other inmates. They were often brutal in their treatment, presumably to curry favor with their Nazi captors and out of fear that if they didn't adhere to their harsh rules they would be severely punished.

There were a thousand people in Martin's barracks.

Although he remembered the gas ovens' chimney, "high up in the sky," and saw the flames and the smoke, Martin doesn't remember any smells.

For three or four weeks Martin was assigned to cleaning and digging. (In his testimony he didn't specify what that entailed. I couldn't help envisioning the worst.) When he developed a high fever, his Uncle Henri took him to a place where he could stay for a while, but at the same time, warned Martin that it wasn't a real hospital so "you need to get better quickly or you'll be taken to the ovens!'"

 

Martin was at Auschwitz with his uncles and grandfather for a total of six weeks. "My grandfather managed to stay alive nearly to the end" [before the camp was liberated by the Russians]." When Martin heard there was a train leaving for a munitions factory in Friedland, Germany that needed mechanics, he managed to get himself a place on the train. He had learned that all of the children at Auschwitz were to be killed. Martin was now fifteen years old.

The transport from Auschwitz to Lager (Camp) Friedland (which was near the Czech border) was on September 8, 1944. As Martin and 300 mechanics were being shoved onto the train he heard planes overhead and thought it might be the British or Americans coming.

The train was a cattle truck, like the one to Auschwitz, with no food and very little water. Notwithstanding Martin and the other passengers considered themselves lucky "being out of Auschwitz."

At Lager Friedland inmates were fed once a day. The meal consisted of a thin soup (made mainly from beetroots) that (I'm quoting Martin again) "tasted like "bitter water." The factory was manufacturing aluminum aircraft propellers. The 300 mechanics from Auschwitz did the preliminary work on the blades. (I don't know what job Martin was assigned to.) Conditions at the camp were brutal. Prisoners working in the factory were essentially slave laborers working twelve hours a day. Of the approximately 120 prisoners buried in the village of Friedland, 21 were from this camp; the rest were from the Riese (meaning "Giant") Complex.

The Riese Complex was one of the biggest military enterprises of the Third Reich. By 1943 the Germans needed to transfer all of its military infrastructures to a location safe from Allied bombing raids. The site chosen was the Sowie Mountains in south-west Poland. Plans were to build "enormous underground areas for factories and military equipment." Nearly 30,000 prisoners from various work camps were used to build the huge complex.

According to one survivor, the Friedland factory was near the end of town. He recalled his daily trudge from the barracks as if it were still happening: "I don't observe the land and townscape we pass through but keep my eyes glued to the ground and the feet in front of me to stop myself from slipping and sliding on the ice with my wooden clogs. To keep myself from falling takes energy of which I haven't got any to spare."

The camp was liberated by the Soviets on May 9, 1945.

In January 1945 Martin was transported to the Arbeitsdorf concentration camp in Fallersleben in Northern Germany (today known as Wolfsburg). Situated on the grounds of the Volkswagen plant, the building was initially intended to be an aluminum foundry. "Most of [the] prisoners at the concentration camp were trained construction workers, engaged in leveling, piping-laying, and paving in preparation for [the foundry]." However, in October 1942 the foundry project was abandoned; the building was eventually used for other, military production, purposes [which, I've been told, included building aircraft)..

Martin was assigned to the kitchen. Even though he hardly slept he worked very hard: "I didn't want to give up the job." Food rations were barely enough to keep a man alive: "A ration of one loaf of bread divided into four pieces, which was to last for two days, occasionally a clear soup for lunch at work and a potato or turnip soup with a piece of cheese or marmalade for supper. Each inmate worked seven days a week from dawn until evening."

Years later Martin told one of his sons that he liked working in the kitchen because it meant he could "scrape the pots and get extra food." Another reason might have been that it saved him from the harsh physical labor being exacted from the other prisoners.

"During the summer of 1944, because the camp was in a mountainous location the prisoners [mostly Polish and Hungarian Jews] were building a defense road for the Germans. They carried large iron tracks weighing 500-600 pounds on their shoulders, from the bottom to the top of the mountain. [The work also entailed] digging roads, loading and unloading heavy stones". Only the young and healthiest prisoners were sent to the camp. This was before Martin arrived there.

I don't know whether the defense road was ever completed. It may have been part of the Nazis' "giant" construction project (building roads and tunnels, drilling caves) which failed, or came to a halt, as the Allies advanced and the Germans were in retreat. Some of those abandoned projects are still in evidence today.

Wolfsburg Concentration Camp was surrounded by barbed wire fences three yards high: "Each fence contained a watchtower, with SS guards on duty twenty four hours to oversee the camp and prevent any attempts of escape." From where he was Martin could hear the continuous shooting whenever prisoners were being moved (transferred) to another camp.

During the six-day train journey to Auschwitz Martin's dad's younger brother was hit in the groin with a rifle. "He'd stuck his head out of the window to get some air," Martin told the interviewer, adding, "He lived for just a month after that." Another uncle (not Henri Kaufman) was with him at Wolfsberg. His Uncle Henri "had been sent somewhere else." After the war Martin learned what had happened to Henri and his wife Raizel. His aunt was thrown (died or dying) in a ditch while on a death march, as the camps were being abandoned and the Germans fled the approaching Allied forces, driving their prisoners ahead of them like cattle. (Knowing they were losing the war, they didn't want to leave any incriminating evidence behind.) His uncle contracted typhus in one of the camps and died. He was forty years old.

During the five months Martin was at the Wolfsburg Concentration Camp there were constant bombardments by Allied planes. "People died but I didn't [even] get sick. What my father once told me, `If you survive, go to Benjamin in New York,' kept me alive." (Martin was referring to a relative named Benjamin Winter who was big in real estate and used to visit the family in Lodz before the war). Then on May 7, 1945 (the day before the war ended), the SS guards deserted the camp, leaving its inmates behind. The Czech prisoners cut through the barbed wire and told everyone to "run and hide in the mountains." 380 of them (including the Jews) survived a bitterly cold night on the mountain.

The following morning Russian tanks arrived and liberated the camp. Their first question was "Where are the kapos?" Later Martin learned that the Russians had "fished" them out of hiding. It isn't hard to imagine their fate after being captured by the Russians.

Martin's uncle (who had been with him at the last camp) told him he was returning to Lodz and asked Martin to go with him. Martin told him no, "There's no one to go back to."

Martin arrived in the United States in September 1946 aboard the ship, Marina Marlin. He was taken to a (presumably) Jewish orphanage in the Bronx, which he hated because of what "orphanage" meant: no family. After Martin had been living there for six weeks, his aunt (widow of Benjamin Winter who had died two years earlier) came to visit him in a chauffeur-driven car. With her was her son (presumably Marvin Winter). Martin recalled how the son "asked for my wallet then put 40 dollars in it, saying it was for ice cream - forty dollars for ice cream!" He also remembered how "nice" Mrs. Winter was: "She gave me a room at one of their hotels on 42nd Avenue." (At that time Benjamin Winter's real estate holdings included the Vanderbilt grand hotel and the Astor Mansion.) While living on 42nd Avenue Martin attended Central Community High School. (Although his later to be wife Charlotte was also a student there, Martin didn't meet her until years later.)

For a long time Martin seemed to be the only member of the Kujawski family to have survived the Holocaust, left Poland, and begun a new life in a different country. While I was writing this article, however, Martin's children informed me that they had been contacted by the son of another family member (Holocaust survivor), now deceased, had immigrated to Australia after the war. They are now trying to reconnect with his son with whom they've lost touch.

For me, hearing and reflecting on Martin's tragic past and how he "willed himself" to survive against seemingly insurmountable odds makes everything I have experienced in my life (including the war years in Britain) seem inconsequential by comparison.

Martin Winter's years in America seemed to have been happy ones: a good marriage and children, and grandchildren, of whom he was proud. One of his grandsons, born on the anniversary of VE (Victory in Europe) Day (May 8, 1945) was named after Martin's Uncle Henri who had protected Martin in the ghetto and helped keep him alive at Auschwitz by teaching him survival skills.

During his testimonial Martin said that he "speaks"' to his father whenever he's in trouble. "I've had a lot of sicknesses the last few years, including a liver transplant two years ago, but believe my father has saved me!" Adding, "I now feel fine!"

This was recorded nearly twenty years before he died.

Sadly, I never got to meet Martin; when we spoke on the phone, four years before his death; he told me he wasn't feeling well and going to see his doctor, the next day.

Postscript: After the war and while staying at an American army base in Pizen (in Czechoslovakia) Martin was befriended by a Black American soldier named Harry Musigan. This was Martin's first encounter with black people: "I was scared! I thought they were going to eat me up!" But he soon acquired an entirely different perspective, certainly of Harry Musigan: "Harry was a wonderful guy!"

Musigan brought him food rations from the PX and took care of him, including housing him in his quarters. When Musigan was transferred to an army base in Germany he took Martin with him. In Germany Martin was introduced to the base captain who gave him the address of a house that had been occupied by a Nazi and was now vacant. Martin stayed there with his friend Marz (Moritz) Goldfire (who had worked in the office at the Wolfsburg Concentration Camp).

Martin was hired as an interpreter at the army base.

Martin and Harry Musigan were together until August 1946. After Martin left for the United States he lost contact with his African American friend. Eventually, though, he tracked him down in San Antonio, Texas. During his 1992 testimonial Martin mentioned that the two of them were "still in touch": a heart-warming story.

Byline: Naidia Woolf was born in England and immigrated to the United States in the late 1950s. Her paternal grandfather, Simon Woolf (born Szjia Wolf Kujawski), grew up in Lodz and immigrated to England in the 1890s. He eventually settled in Birmingham (in the industrial Midlands), married the boss's daughter and raised a large family. You might say he was one of the "lucky" Polish Jews, having left his home country long before both world wars - and the Holocaust that decimated Europe's Jewish population.

Acknowledgments

My thanks to Martin Winter's children for their insights and contributions to this article and to Roni Siebel Liebowitz who took time out of her busy schedule to research, then email me copies of the Kujawski family's Lodz ghetto work ID cards. I also wish to express my gratitude to Fritz Neubauer, Aaron Ginsburg, Etienne Jones, and Ben Weinstock, amongst others, for their contributions to my research.

Photographs of Martin Winter

  1. Martin (Symcha Mojzek) Kujawski's ghetto work ID card (with given names and date of birth barely legible)
  2. On a motorcycle: taken in Germany (in 1945 or 1946)
  3. As a young man In America

FOOTNOTES:

1 "Kujawa" is the name of a portion of the Warsaw gubernia.

2 Initially established by the leader of the Jewish community, the intent was to make the Jews "useful" to the German war effort thereby ensuring their survival: as history shows, a vain hope.

3 Between January and September 1942 Jews, and other inhabitants of the ?odz ghetto, were deported to the Chelmno death camp.

4 Workers were issued a work identification card. The back of the card includes a warning to workers that they if they lose their ID cards they will be punished. I have a copy of what appears to be Martin's work ID card.

5 So they could be easily identified as prison inmates and caught if they tried to escape.

6 The Riese Complex.

7 http://www.holocaustresearchproject.org/survivor/brichta5.html

8 Email from Aaron Ginsburg dated 1/23/2012

9 Fallersleben (Arbeitsdorf): http://www/lz=gedemlstaette-neuengamme.de/

10 Sydney Schwimmer

11 Description of Wolfsburg Concentration Camp as Experienced by Sydney Schwimmer: http://sydneyschwimmer.com/solfs.html

12 Sydney Schwimmer

13 Martin had an uncle of the same name living in Paterson, New Jersey. The Winter family is still trying to figure out the relationship between the two Benjamin Winters.

~~~~~~~

from the April 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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