My grandparents survived the Holocaust. Here are their stories. [Part 1]
My grandparents never told me their stories before they passed away. They never really told their son, my dad, either. But on a hot, summer day in August of 1996, Leon and Enid Henson decided that those stories needed to be told, in their entirety, just once.
They were both in their 70s when they sat down with an interviewer from the Shoah Foundation, who videotaped as they each recounted painful memories of the Holocaust.
It’d be years until I was ready to listen to those VHS tapes. And years beyond then to publish what I heard, here.
The following is Leon’s story, as told by his granddaughter, me.
1996: Alpine, New Jersey
We’re all gathered around the dining room table in my grandparents’ home in Alpine, New Jersey. It’s Yom Kippor — a warm, September evening, 1996 — and the sun has just set. Grandpa sits at the head of the table, as always, pulling his chair in close. Grandma is still in the kitchen, ladling the matzo balls into her bowls of fine china, making sure we all get a healthy portion of her specialty soup.
I’m just a kid sitting under the kids table, playing with the thick fringes of the area rug.
Grandpa’s voice is muffled from where I sit; staring at my relatives’ shoes, I stop and listen.
ברוך אתה יהוה אלהנו מלך העולם בורא פרי הגפן
“Baruch atah adonai Elohanu melech ha-olam boray p’ree ha-gafen.”
My dad nudges me from above, “Get back up into your seat, Amy,” he whispers. We’ve spent the majority of the day at temple, and I am antsy. I climb into the small folding chair designated as mine, smoothing my dress over knobby knees.
Grandma quietly takes her spot at the table as grandpa cuts the challah. He passes around a silver platter of the sweet bread, but not before cutting himself a large slice. He picks at it with his finger, rolling a piece of the soft inside dough between his pointer and thumb. He will do this several times throughout the evening, thoughtlessly. I try to copy his moves, and my mom tells me to cut it out.
Grandpa continues to roll bread between his fingers as we — my grandma, mom, dad, aunt, uncle, cousins, brothers and I — dig in.
1939–1944: The Lodz Ghetto, Poland
My grandpa was born Lajzar Chencinski on January 17th, 1918, and this story begins in his hometown of Lodz, Poland. “Before the war, Lodz was a nice town; a mix between Jews and Polish people,” he explains. It was “a big city, with more than 200,000 Jewish people.”
“There were more schuls than buildings!” He smiles politely as the interviewer laughs into the tape.
They were a typical middle-class family: his mother was a seamstress, and his father worked in a factory. The family was very religious, and my grandfather attended both regular school and Hebrew school.
But in 1939, when my grandpa was only twenty-one years old, the German troops took over Lodz, moving all of the Jews into the ghettoize area of the city. My grandfather explains that the ghetto was to the rest of the city what the Bronx was to Park Avenue. Simply, “not as good.”
My grandfather’s childhood home happened to already have been in the new ghetto of the city, but he watched wealthier, professional Jews move in and get put to hard work. They were clever but weak, he explained, and many perished early on.
My grandpa was young and strong, however, and worked hard. He began to dig graves —burying at least seventy-five corpses from the ghetto a day. His whole family worked various tasks for the German guards and subsisted on little to no food.
Time passed slowly as he watched his mother, a ruddy older lady, wilt to no more than 100 pounds.
He watched his father, Mordecai, starve to death, unable to survive on the scant rations in the ghetto.
According to The Holocaust Research Project, in 1940 “the daily caloric ration in the [Lodz] ghetto was…about 1800 kcal. By mid-1942 the ration fluctuated around 600 kcal.”
600 calories a day.
By 1942, 2,811 people died from starvation. My great grandfather was one of them.
“He was lucky,” my grandfather explains to the camera. He had been spared from what came next.
By 1942, my grandfather was among the last in the ghetto. The German guards and Jewish police (called “Kapo”) demanded everyone leave their apartments and come down to the street.
“We lined up, two rows. Women, children, and men. And they picked out, according to age. If an older woman was standing there, they took her out and put her right away on a truck. Very little kids? Right away on the truck. If a woman didn’t want to give up [her] kids, and she was young, she went with the child…And that’s all. We went back to work.”
Those people never came back.
He then recalls a particular story:
“My sister, Mana, had a child, 5 years old. In her neighborhood the police were going around, rounding up the people….I was very young, I had a lot of guts. I said ‘Well, to save that little girl, I have to take her out of the neighborhood.’ It was only like, three blocks. We lived close to each other.
I took an…empty barrel, put that little baby, that five year old, in the barrel, I covered her up, and told her, ‘Listen, you be very quiet. I am taking you over to my house. Don’t scream. Don’t say nothing.’ It was very hard, even though I was a strong boy at the time, it was hard to carry her. She wasn’t a dead body, she was alive! When you’re alive, you wiggle, you move around. I got her into the house, threw her off of my chest, and I saved her.”
That little girl, Tosha, survived until 1944, when the people of the ghetto began hearing rumors of “resettlement.”
They were told they were going to a place with more food, nicer living conditions.
“The Germans, they played a very dirty trick…American people [today] keep asking me, ‘Didn’t you know? You were smart people! Didn’t you know what’s happening?’ I say, ‘no we didn’t. We were smart but not that smart.’ When you want to live, you play stupid.”
Then, the day came that they took my grandpa, his mother, and his sisters away from Lodz forever.
1944: Auschwitz Concentration Camp
“Maybe it was stupidity, but I felt strongly that I was going to live…I’ll make it. But a lot of people said they would make it, and didn’t.”
“…We were shipped with the train [to Auschwitz]…right in the morning, the Germans opened the doors and they said ‘Leave everything and get out.’ At that point, my mother told me, ‘You know you have your new suit and pants. Change it over into the good one…’ I didn’t manage to change because right behind us were the Germans and the Jewish police [Commandos] in Auschwitz.”
To my surprise, many of the Kapo that my grandpa and his family encountered when they first came to Auschwitz were actually Jews they recognized from Lodz.
My family had been sent to Auschwitz by Chaim Rumkowski, the Jewish man who had been appointed by the Germans as the head of the Lodz Ghetto. He was tyrannical, and sent the strongest men of Lodz to go work at Auschwitz — fearing that they would overtake him at the ghetto.
These were the men that greeted my grandfather, and many other Jews from the Lodz ghetto, at Auschwitz; these are the men that walked so many to the gas chambers; and these men were familiar faces.
Rumkowski himself was sent to Auschwitz in August, 1944, where he was killed. It has been reported that, when he arrived, other Jewish inmates killed him.
On screen, my grandfather looks visibly distressed when discussing this man.
“…When we got out of the train they said ‘Walk! Walk! Walk!” So I walked with my sister and my mother on one side…and with [my sister’s] little girl. One of those men, I don’t know his name, but supposedly, I think he knew my sister from way before. He asked her with whom is she here? She said ‘my little girl, my mother…’ He said, ‘Want to listen to me? Give the baby to…grandma. Let her hold the baby.’ …It wasn’t such a bad idea… He knew what he was doing…
My mother walked with the baby and I walked and walked and walked and I don’t know; and to this day, I was alone. They disappeared.”
They were walking toward Doctor Josef Mengele, a German SS officer known as the man who separated those who would go to the gas chambers from those who would live in the camp. He also is notorious for having performed unscientific (and often deadly) experiments on many of the prisoners in Auschwitz. My grandfather saw him with his own eyes. “… and then I knew where my mother and the baby went. We saw them, the crematoriums. And I said my Kaddish.”
“We saw them, the crematoriums. And I said my Kaddish.”
The Kaddish is the Hebrew prayer of mourning. It’s a prayer I have heard all of my life: in Hebrew school, during religious services. I’ve had it memorized since I was 10 years old, and can recite it without thought.
Now, that prayer carries a new weight in my mouth.
Auschwitz II (Birkenau)
My grandfather explains his arrival at the work camp: a place I have heard so much about in history class, in books, and movies.
He was marched there from the main camp of Auschwitz, having been designated (as an able-bodied young person) to work. He describes how he and his fellow prisoners were told to strip. How men and women were shaved, men and women, and forced to look at one another, ashamed. How they were embarrassed, degraded.
As he is explaining this on film, his head remains cast down; he can no longer look the interviewer in the eye.
Soon bread, he explains, becomes a treasure.
At the camp he received a cup of soup and a scrap of bread once a day. He met no one; needed no one. He was alone.
“Number one on the day’s schedule was survival. How? Not important. Survive.”
Fall 1944 — Winter 1945
Dachau Sub Camp IV
Later in 1944, my grandfather was moved to Dachau to work at Kaufering, sub camp IV. He explains how he and the other prisoners were quarantined there for four weeks, given better food and assigned no work. He did nothing but sit in the barrack and wait, staring at the other prisoners, exchanging stories.
“It was a hotel!” he recalls of his time in Kaufering.
But the “hotel” treatment didn’t last long, soon they were all sent out to German farms in the countryside to serve as free labor.
The German countryside
“I came into one place and we were watched by the German “Todt,” [the] German working commandos. Not SS. And they were carpenters, brick layers — they were nice people.
One thing that happened to me, I was lucky…I saw on the ground, a little spot…and there was covered with a little something…I opened up the inside, it was rice and meat and, because the nights are colder, it got…preserved…Well, right away, …I [started to] pour it in…, I ate it so fast, on the spot…One of those soldiers, the German soldiers, put it in there for a purpose…he wanted to help somebody.
…I kept going back there, every day. Maybe somedays were nothing, but the next was already laying food again, food again, food again…For three weeks! I lived on the food which I got like a dog…I didn’t give anyone a chance to discover me…I did it very discreetly.]..This angel of a man, he did it probably also discreetly.”
He goes on, remembering other moments of generosity from the Germans.
“Every once in a while, someone would open a window, we couldn’t see the face, and they would throw down a couple breads.
One farmer left his wagon with the green stuff, the cucumbers and this and this and whatever. He saw that we ran after it! And the German soldiers, sometimes they didn’t do nothing. But once, there was a mean guy, and he shot a guy. Shot him for taking the food.”
Dachau Sub Camp IV
Later, my grandpa was moved from sub camp IV to sub camp I, a hard labor camp where the prisoners were meant to build underground silos. It was winter, and living conditions were harsh.
My grandfather doesn’t recall any explicit torture happening there, and yet every day he watched prisoners jump in front of trains to commit suicide. They were starving and despairing.
It was at Dachau that grandpa got very, very sick.
He visited the doctor at the camp, a Jewish doctor, very frequently; eventually, the doctor got tired of my grandpa’s visits and sent him back to sub camp IV, the “hotel” where he had been before. But things there were not the same.
“When we got back, the German guard who had been transporting us, when we came to the gate, he handed over papers to the Jewish soldier inside (the Kapo). [The German guard] only went as far as the gate…we knew that’s no good. If he is afraid to go into the camp, that’s bad.
I got scared. It wasn’t the same [as before]; most of the people were half-naked, crazy, sitting around. A crazy camp. What happened? Everybody was sick and crazy. We were very clean, so the Kapo said, ‘Don’t worry, don’t worry, you will get a clean barrack. But by tomorrow, you will be just like them.’
Over there, they didn’t send you out to work. This was a starvation camp completely. People died like flies. Because they didn’t give us almost nothing to eat. People died, we buried them. There were no ovens. Just starving.”
And yet my grandfather survived and survived and survived.
After some time, those at sub camp IV were told they were going to march to the Italian border. Whoever went would get a piece of salami and a hunk of bread and “be alright.” And those who didn’t go were to be shot on the spot. Of course, none of that was true. This was a death march.
My grandpa recognized the trap, but he had a plan.
He was going to run away.
Spring 1945: Kaufering Sub Camp IV
“I’m going to sneak out of the barrack quietly, and see what goes on in the other barracks…I look in and I see right by the window two guys, with their hands up, they didn’t move…They were dead.
…I went back; the guy next to me had a nice pair of pliers…I think he died and I took it. And I kept it with me in case, when the time will come, that I have to use it. And I had my black, dark cover which we [used to] cover ourselves during the night. I took that, and eight to ten marrow bones…from the kitchen…You can’t eat bones, but you can suck on them.”
There was total disorganization at the camp. The chefs weren’t there, and the kitchen wasn’t guarded. They were all abandoning camp, and my grandpa was, too.
“I got out from the camp. I cut through the wires — lucky…it wasn’t electrified. Everything went my way.
…Sliding, not standing up, sliding across a field.
There was a big barn where the farmers were holding their grain…I got in; when I came in I thought I would be the only one — meantime, there were maybe five, six other people coming in from different places. So we were sitting there, making up already the plans for the American army, which way they should come.”
They all stayed in that barn for three nights, waiting. Surviving.
Then, from off in the distance, they saw bombs raining down, villages burning. Nobody moved. The Americans were only five minutes away.
“We saw the first American Jeeps coming. We crawled out — we couldn’t run, but we walked. We came over to the first American soldiers. We kissed their rifle butts.
I had a friend with me, he was in very bad shape, worse than me, so we said, in sign language (I didn’t know English), ‘he is sick,’ ‘hospital, hospital.’ …[Then] I was ready to walk away. But the American knew I was sick, too.
We went to a field hospital. We were laying together, with German soldiers. Jews and Germans together.”
My grandpa spent a few days at that field hospital among the wounded from both sides. Germans and Jews, together.
Then, he spent five to six more weeks recovering from malnutrition at a hospital in Kaufering.
Once he was feeling better, he was a free man. My grandpa was able to move around German towns with no money — every Jew or prisoner of the Holocaust could use any public facility, go anywhere along any street, eat anything they wanted, all for free. They could even, he recalled, cut the long lines.
Personal politics, money, ethnicity — nothing mattered in that immediate aftermath. They had been through hell, and they were all survivors.
Post Liberation in Germany and the US
Grandpa returned to Lodz and found two of his sisters and his brother-in-law who had also survived the camps. He stayed with them in Lodz for two weeks, until one night they heard screaming in the street.
It was a group of anti-Semitic soldiers, and they were terrorizing the Jews. He couldn’t take it anymore. No more oppression. No more screaming. No more beatings. After a couple more days, he decided to leave Poland for good.
He went to Berlin and then to Hanover, where things were quieter. It was there that he met his future wife, my grandma, Enid.
Leon and Enid Henson moved to America in 1949 with their baby son, my uncle. They lived in the Bronx, applied for US citizenship, changed their names to sound more American, attended night school, learned English, bought a car, had my father, worked hard.
They struggled like any other middle class American couple — but any financial hardships they encountered together proved better than their time during the Holocaust; with their family in America, they always felt rich.
My grandpa only spoke about his memories with his wife and his other survivor friends; he experienced night terrors, but refused to harbor too much hatred for the Germans.
With all of that hatred, he explains, “you cannot carry on.”
“This has to be remembered, all the time; in another 10 years, 15…I’m not going to sit on this chair and tell you what happened. There’s going to be thousands and thousands like me that are going to be gone.
This is the best proof that we were there.”
Towards the end of his recording, I find a stray soundbite.
“I still cherish bread,” he states plainly, and I can’t help but remember him, sitting at that dining room table in New Jersey, surrounded by family, rolling tiny pieces of challah through his fingers.