In 1943, 1944 and 1945 I had the good fortune to attend Camp Henry Horner boy’s camp in Round Lake, IL. At the time most of us didn’t realize how fortunate we were. The war in Europe tore apart the lives of millions of children and their families.
Now here’s where my nightmare began. Every summer when we registered and assigned cabins that were made up of 11 boys and one counselor we went to the outside bleachers. There was the Director of the Camp welcoming us for our two week adventures. He always said “have fun and don’t get into trouble”.
We were macho in our way as youngsters. We didn’t wear tee shirts, didn’t use suntan oil and no one wore sun glasses. Now if I had sat one space to my left or right and if we had on a tee shirt I never wouldn’t have noticed the boy in front of me. He had deep ingrained holes in his back with rough edges on them. I could barely look at him wondering what kind of disease he had. Later, I discovered the disease was madness.
In addition, he had tattooed numbers on his wrist. Tattoos in those years were very unusual. It seemed to me tattoos were for sailors with a buxom blond or Mom. Go figure! Also he had hair that seemed unusual based on American haircuts. And he spoke with a strange accent. Remember during the War years accents were rare. After we were dismissed we were escorted into the mess hall where 200 hungry boys waited to eat and this lad sat on my table where we found him doing strange maneuvers at the table.
As the food was served he hunched down over the table and sneaked food and bread into his pocket and he always took extra napkins with him. We had to know who he was, where did you come from and why are sneaking food. The canteen was available for snacks if you wanted a snack. So as curious teens we asked him about his strange behavior and why the tattoo and the marks of his back. He always asked us to back off and leave him alone. But, after several days of nagging him he relented and told us the following horror story.
He had lived in Poland along with his parents and siblings leading a normal active life. And then the Nazi’s came and tore him loose from his family. Like young hatchlings forced to take flight prematurely, the Children of the Holocaust were thrust into a cruel world leaving behind their innocent, secure lives. They entered a world of deprivation, isolation and overall horror. The war against Germany was coming to a close and the word Holocaust was not in our everyday lexicon. None of us knew what happened to the children let alone the adults. We looked at each other disbelieving what we heard.
He was taken to a concentration camp where he was tattooed like an animal and that is what we saw on his wrist. Given striped clothing he was taken to his barracks that made squalor look liveable. Children from many countries were herded into the barracks and there were many languages so communication was difficult. Their only saving grace was that Yiddish was a common language in most of Europe, so a form of communication was started.
We asked our Holocaust refugee what they served him for his daily meals. It was then we were stunned. What meals he asked? We were lucky if they gave us scraps of food to the point they were always hungry and lived like animals. We, who were well fed, couldn’t understand what he was telling us. How could we? Then we understood why he was constantly ‘sneaking’ food into his pocket. He never really believed there was another meal coming. And for the napkins he told us that paper of any kind was forbidden to the victims as they could be used for evidence against them if you ever found any kind of writing instrument and hid it.
While we were struggling to understand what he was saying we wondered about the holes in his back. After that what he told us was unfathomable and too horrible to digest. One night when the guards were drunker than usual they came into his barrack and with whips, dogs and chains forced the youngster onto the camp grounds where a giant fire was burning.
The children were forced to remove their clothing. After all, the clothing was more important than their lives. They could be used again for the next "shipment" of children. And then the children were driven into the fire to be burned alive. The screaming was still and always would haunt him. Now the Nazi’s had something else diabolical in mind for him. He was tied between two posts and forced on his knees. The guard took a sizzling poker, had to hold it with a glove on because of the heat, and proceeded to burn his back. He screamed and fainted again and again. Somehow he survived the torture but needless to say never trusted anyone out of fear. Then I realized what disease he contacted. It was called "madness" and he forever bore the scars of that madness.
His name was Robert S. and I knew him for many years but people avoided him since he never really trusted or believed what you said. What he said and what I saw affected me dramatically for my ensuing years.
That was my introduction to the Holocaust and its horror. Those who survived were called refugees in that era and today they are called Holocaust survivors. But next I will talk about the goofy things we did as youngsters.
Thank you to those persons who were generous to tell us of their memories.