Robbie W.

A Survivor of Buchenwald
Holocaust Education Symposium '98

Robbie W. was born in 1931 in Skarszysko, Poland. This was a very tight-knit community. He was the youngest of six children. He had four older brothers and one sister. His parents were Orthodox. He recalls Shabbat as a most special time. His father used to tell stories of the great Rabbis. He was very pampered and felt that everything revolved around him. His early memories are full of warmth and love.

Robbie remembers his parents having discussions after Hitler came to power. They were frightened, and at the same time, couldn't believe the situation which was developing around them. In 1939 the city was bombed and occupied by the Germans. Robbie thought it was a game until he saw a man shot to death. He "matured forty years" in that instant. In 1940 the ghetto was established. His brothers had employment cards and worked in munitions factories outside the city. In 1941, Robbie was sent by his father to hide with a Polish family in the country. After three weeks he ran away and returned to his family.

At the end of 1941 his eldest brother Aaron heard that the ghetto was going to be liquidated and smuggled Robbie out to the factory. All of the family except his mother escaped the liquidation. She was sent to Treblinka. Robbie worked in the munitions factory for a year and a half. He went through many "selections"; once he was saved from death by a fateful twist of circumstances. He realized that the only way to survive was by very hard work. At one point he contracted typhoid fever. His father hid him away for ten days. Certain German people showed him kindness during those times by smuggling him food.

At some point the family was separated and he lost his brothers and father. He befriended another little boy, Abraham, who was one year older. They went through the rest of the war together.

In 1944 they were transferred to Buchenwald. He and Abraham were placed in a barrack with Polish, French and German political prisoners. He was protected by these men. Life seemed easier there than the previous few years had been. They did not have to work and their lives were not continually threatened in the same way.

Three days before they were liberated they heard machine guns. They had heard that the camp had been dynamited and they were very nervous about this. The Germans started to march people out of the camp, but Robbie decided that he wasn't going to let himself be moved again.

He clearly remembers liberation on April 11, 1945 at 3:50 p.m. There was a lull in the fighting and he looked out and saw the time on the clock at the entrance to the camp. Then he saw some soldiers and finally tanks. He was liberated by U.S. forces. He wanted to touch them and make sure that they were real. At that point he still assumed that all his family was still alive and he was euphoric.

The soldiers handed out chocolate bars and pork and beans. Many people got sick and died from overeating. The first few days everything was chaotic but then all the children were gathered together and taken to the German soldier's barracks. He was astounded to see that there were five hundred children. He had thought that he and his companion were the only children there.

The Red Cross came into the camp and brought with them psychologists, psychiatrists, doctors and nurses. They tried to explain to the children that their families were gone. It took Robbie a year-and-a-half to understand the enormity of what had happened. Robbie was prescribed calcium shots and grew six inches in one year. Lists of survivors were published and about one hundred of the children were claimed by relatives. The rest of them were taken to an orphanage in France which was set up specifically for the Buchenwald children.

They tried to resume normal lives, but they were very angry children and were called "les enfants terrible." Once they destroyed all their furniture in their dormitory. A doctor told them that it would be best for them to try and forget all that they had seen and to move on with their lives. Robbie thinks in retrospect that this was the right advice at the time. No one wanted to listen to their stories, and in any case, he felt it was too difficult to explain. Those who continued to dwell on their experiences and the fate of their families ended up in psychiatric hospitals.

By 1949 he had decided to leave for Israel. He was already on the boat when a lady had him taken off of the boat because she believed he should remain in France. He was outraged and applied to come to Canada. In late 1949 he arrived in Canada. He tried to go to Montreal or Vancouver, but the Canadian Jewish Congress sent him to Calgary.

He took night classes and became an accountant. He met his wife, who was from Edmonton. They moved to Saskatoon in the late 1950's and he established his own business. They had two children. He decided they should grow up in a larger Jewish community and in 1977 the family moved to Vancouver.

HOLOCAUST EDUCATION SYMPOSIUM

Offered by the

Victoria Holocaust Remembrance and Education Society