By Peta Abdul
Paul Meyers is a retired plumber-electrician, living in Sydney's southern suburbs with his wife, Mia. He has been interviewed as part of the Shoah Project, and his wife, Mia, has contributed a number of poems. He has been so scarred by his experiences that he won't buy any German goods, speak German, or even look at German money. Nevertheless, he has pulled through and now leads a happy life. His experiences begin in Germany and continue on with a heart warming tale of incredible courage. . . .
I was born in Dusseldorf, a city in Germany. I lived in a very grand house with my parents and four brothers, near the Rhine. My father was a successful businessman and my mother was living the good life. Saturday was just a working day for us children. We went to school, came home and had a bath, ate lunch then played or went to the Rhine and had fun with our friends. We had a chauffeur and a car in those days. We were liberal Jews. We observed the high holidays. We all went through our Bar Mitzvah. We went to the movies and had a good time.
It started for us in 1933, and from then on things got very tough. It started with Nazi propaganda. We lost our friends as they weren't allowed to associate with Jews anymore. We were kicked out of school. Two of my older brothers went to work in my father's factory, and my father found me a job as a plumber-electrician apprentice. My father's business was very badly affected as the Nazis did not want to business with Jews anymore. It became dangerous for Jews to walk the streets. My eldest brother was badly beaten up. We were so shocked that my parents decided that my eldest brother should go to England and try to make a new start for the family. Things developed rapidly and became worse and worse and worse.
My second eldest brother went off to Belgium in 1937. He established a similar factory in Brussels. My father and brother smuggled machinery and materials and the plans to a factory in Germany into Belgium. My brother supplied the raw materials and machinery and the technical knowledge. He had two Christian partners who put up the money. The factory was running well, but things turned bad because of the situation in Germany. My brother's partners wanted to buy him out. He refused as he wanted our family to come to Brussels. The two Christian partners told my brother if he did not get out, they would denounce (report his being Jewish) my father in Germany to the Nazis for smuggling out the raw materials and equipment. My brother was afraid for my father, so he just left. He received no compensation.
My brother married a Belgian girl. Her parents were Turkish Jews. In Germany, things became worse, and people were throwing stones through the windows. My family's names appeared in the German Gazette, and our whole family was denounced. We lost our citizenship, our nationality. My parents decided to leave. As we had no papers, we decided to go to Belgium. We crossed the border, and we were lucky we were not stopped as we would have been arrested and sent to Berlin. We drove in my brother's car across the border into the Netherlands. My father asked the Dutch authorities for permission for us to stay, and they gave us permission.
Zyklon-B Canisters, Auschwitz
We had to go to the embassy for an interview as we applied for visas to the United States. My father approached the Dutch authorities again and asked for permission to build a factory like the one in Germany. The Dutch authorities checked out our qualifications and gave us permission. We could not take very many possessions when we left Germany but we did smuggle out some money. My father found a site for the factory, and we began to build it. My brother handled the technical side, and my training as a plumber-electrician came in handy as I did the electrical and plumbing work. The year was 1937-38. Life was good again as business was thriving in Holland. Then Germany invaded Poland, and we heard terrible stories, but people did not take these stories seriously as things were good in Holland. That's how it was. We got our visas to the United States, but we were too busy with the factory, and life was good.
Until one day, the Nazis invaded Holland. We panicked and tried to get out, but the borders were patrolled. We approached a truck driver and asked if he could take us to the port. He only took people with the most money. He agreed to take us and arranged the place and time with us. The driver made several trips, but on the day he was to collect us, he was caught by the Germans. I was 17 at the time Amsterdam was invaded and occupied, and the Germans marched through Holland.
We carried on in the normal way in our factory until one day the black Mercedes arrived with a swastika flag on the bonnet. German officials and guards came into the factory. They knew all about us. They told us to shut down and get out. We asked if we could have some time to shut down, and they told us they would be back in the morning, and "we don't want to see any Jews around. Otherwise all of you will be arrested." And that was it. We hired a truck and loaded all our valuables and raw materials. We changed the records in the store and books in the office. We drove to another town in Holland where good friends hid all our valuables and raw materials. Fortunately, the Germans did not find out what happened to the raw materials. The Germans left us in peace for a while. Then the Ratsias started, where the Germans were going into Jewish homes and taking people away. I arrived home one day to see my brother being taken away in one of the trucks. He signalled me not to know him. That was the last time I saw him. The Nazis murdered him at Munchausen.
It was very dramatic when I went into the house. My whole family was in a panic. I decided somehow I would get out of Holland and join the British army to fight the Germans. My parents didn't agree as the Germans had invaded Belgium and half of France and it was too dangerous to try and cross the border.
I headed for Belgium to see my brother. When I reached the border I asked a farmer for help, and he took me to his house and told me he knew at what time the patrols came around. He gave me a pair of his overalls, and I waited until dark and crossed the border. I went to Brussels to see my brother. I met my in-laws and they told me that the Germans were advancing on Brussels, and my brother and his wife had gone to the free part of France. I stayed for a few days with my brother's family. One of the daughters worked for the Underground and she was able to supply me with a false identity card in the name of George Orland, French citizenship. My brother's father-in-law gave me the name and address of his brother in Paris and told me to go to him. He received me very well and put me up for a few nights. But things were getting very difficult with the Germans.
I decided to try and cross the border into free France. It was very difficult travelling because of the German patrols. I put my overalls on and entered the railway station via the rail track as I looked like a workman who should be there. I boarded a train and asked the engine driver if he could help me. He agreed.
After travelling with him for two or three days, I left him and made my way to a small village near the border. I waited until dark and then slipped across the border. I found my brother and his wife working on a farm. I stayed with my brother for a few months, working on the farm. Just as I was about to leave to try and join the British army, we received mail from my parents saying that the Germans had come looking for me and my brother. Fortunately, my brother was out at the time. My parents told him when he came home, so my brother then decided to try and reach free France to be with my other brother and his wife, with whom I was staying. Sadly, he was caught at the border and sent to Munchausen, where he met my other brother and the Germans murdered him too.
One day, a German soldier arrived at my parents' house in Holland and said that my brothers had asked him to give a watch and chain to my parents, which my parents knew were authentic. My parents decided that it was not safe to stay in Amsterdam any longer and went into hiding. My parents approached some very good Christian friends and asked them what to do. Their friends did not hesitate, even though it put their whole family in danger. They hid my parents behind fake walls and ceilings.
When I read all this in their letter, I decided to go back to Holland and get my parents out. When I arrived, my parents decided it was too dangerous for the three of us to try and reach free France, so they stayed with their friends. It turned out to be right because on the way back to free France, I was caught at the Dutch-Belgian border and only got away by pushing the guard into the canal then ran across the border.
I continued on my way to free France but got caught at the border again. I was arrested this time and taken to a village and interrogated by a German officer. During this interrogation, the phone rang and the officer, speaking in German, was discussing the picture that was on that night and making arrangements for himself and his staff to attend, not realising I understood every word he said in German, as the officer spoke a little French and the interview was conducted in French. They locked me up for the night and left. The door was locked, and there were bars on the windows. There was an open chimney in the room so I climbed the chimney to the next floor and just walked down the stairs and out the back door. The building was deserted. They must have all gone to see the picture.
I went to a row of houses in the village and knocked on one of the doors. People saw me and panicked. I said to them in French, "You had better tell me where I can get across the border here, quicksmart; otherwise we might all get caught." They took me to the border where I was able to swim across to free France. I arrived at my brother's place again and stayed for a while as I gathered information on how to get from free France into Spain. Having lost my identity card, I was advised by my brother's friend, the Chief of Police, who was Jewish, " If you get into trouble in Spain, don't give your true identity. Tell them you are a Canadian prisoner who escaped." He told me of a contact near the border and said to go to him.
I found the contact, and he took me to the mountains. He pointed out a particular mountain and told me "If you get across that mountain, you are in Spain. There is a small Spanish village on the other side." The mountains were very rough. I was on foot. No luggage, no papers, just a little Spanish money. I walked and walked, and it took me three days to reach the village. The villagers were very friendly, but communication was difficult as I spoke no Spanish, and they spoke no French. We communicated by sign language, and I drew a picture of a train with the word 'Barcelona'. They put me up for the night. We all slept in the one big room with mattresses on the floor and there were goats, chicken and geese running all around the place. In the morning they offered me the help of a boy with a mule to take me to the train. I thanked them and left. It took a whole morning to get to the station. I thanked the boy and gave him some coins and caught the train to Barcelona. I thought, "FREE AT LAST, IN A NEUTRAL COUNTRY!"
It was just after the civil war in Spain, and General Franco had taken over. The Germans had supplied him with a lot of raw materials and arms to help him win the war, and he was friendly with the Germans. When I reached the Embassy, I made it to the door and was arrested by the Spanish police guarding the door. I tried to explain I was Canadian and had an appointment, but they did not understand me. They took me to the police station in Barcelona where they interrogated me very badly and broke my nose. I told them I was an escaped Canadian prisoner, but they did not believe me. They locked me up for the night.
In the morning, they cut my hair then handcuffed me to two policemen, and we traveled by train to a place called Merindar-Diabolas and delivered me to a camp guarded by the Spanish army. Again I was interrogated. They interrogated me every few hours for several days; then they locked me up in the prison there, till finally they accepted my story of being an escaped Canadian prisoner. They issued me with a new identity card and assigned me to a barracks. There were 800-1000 prisoners. There was a variety of Spanish prisoners who had fought against Franco, and they were treated very badly. The rest of us were escaped prisoners from Germany and all over Europe who had made it into Spain. I heard that the Jews from Germany and other countries were being returned to Germany so the advice that the Chief of Police in free France had given me was very good for me. I kept insisting to the authorities that I wanted to see my consul, the British consul, but nothing happened for several weeks.
One day, the camp had an International Red Cross inspection. I asked a Red Cross worker to contact the British Embassy for me and tell them I was trying to reach them to join the British Army to fight the Germans but got arrested and ended up here. After a while someone from the British Embassy arrived for an interview with me; I told him the real story and asked him to check with my brother in England. He said, "Don't worry. We will look after you."
A few weeks later, they secured a release for me from the camp and took me back to the Embassy. There, they stamped my new identity card. I joined the British Army and fought the Germans until the end of the war. My company was one of the first British companies to arrive in Germany after the war.
After a while, I asked my commanding officer for permission to go and find my parents. He gave his permission and supplied me with a jeep and supplies and wished me luck. I found my parents still with the friends who had hidden them for the duration of the war.
Survivor's Voice Is Strong
By Peta Abdul
Helen Grossman is a volunteer at Sydney's Holocaust Museum. She and other volunteers find that this helps relieve the pain they felt -- especially Mrs Grossman, who lost her entire family at Auschwitz. Her tale is of survival, but she always jokes that it was just good luck and that if anything, she can tell you how the bombs in World War II work. She has had a devastating experience, but has found the courage to face up to it and get on with her life.
"My name is Helen Grossman, and I was born in Poland. I was 13 years old when my family ran away from our home town. We were caught by the Germans and sent back home. Our house was burnt down so we went to live with my grandfather.
A few months later, an SS man broke the door down, and my parents were deported and my brother and I were sent to a camp to work in a factory. When I was 15, I was sent to Auschwitz and separated from my brother. I caught typhoid. I was then sent to Birkenau, a section of Auschwitz which was known as the "forest of death" as people were sent on a death march there to die. I worked on shell casings there for a few months. Then I was sent to another Auschwitz camp.
The Russians were coming, and the Germans were afraid. We were sent on a death march through knee deep snow. If you lagged behind, you were shot. Eventually we were put on a train. I was lucky. I was put in an open carriage and even though there was snow falling on us, we were packed in like sardines.
The closed carriages were worse as there was no air and no room. People were constantly dying, being sick and going to the toilet all the time. It was terrible. We were on the train for days going this way then being sent that way. We had no food or water. People were begging for water. People were eating snow that was falling into the open carriages and getting diarrhea and dying.
We traveled through Czechoslovakia. When we reached the camp, we looked for food at the garbage dump. The female commandant did not like this, and as a punishment we were not fed for another 48 hours. People were dying like flies, and there were no burials or cremations so we were waking up amongst dead people. We stayed in these conditions for a long time until eventually the Russians liberated us.
Even today, these experiences still haunt me, but I can't remember the faces. I can see the German officers in their uniforms and their name tags, but my mind has blocked out their faces."
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