Surviving Auschwitz: An interview with Mayer Hersh

The entrance to the first Auschwitz with the infamous “Arbeit macht frei” (Work sets you free) sign.

The entrance to the first Auschwitz with the infamous “Arbeit macht frei” (Work sets you free) sign.

After recently reading the Tattooist of Auschwitz (a book I highly recommend), I’ve decided to re-publish my interview with Mayer Hersh who, remarkably, survived nine concentration camps during the Holocaust before he was one of the lucky few to be finally liberated from Nazi hell.

Mayer kindly took the time to meet with me in my second year of university, and this piece was one that helped me to achieve a first in my degree.

Unfortunately, Mayer passed away at the end of 2016, but he left behind a remarkable legacy and his story left an indelible mark on the lives of so many – myself included.

I have decided to update the piece a little, but Mayer’s spoken words remain the same.

Thank you, Mayer. May you rest in peace.

Mayer in a testimony interview conducted by the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation Institute. Image credit:    USC Shoah Foundation Institute   /   YouTube

Mayer in a testimony interview conducted by the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation Institute. Image credit: USC Shoah Foundation Institute/YouTube

At the end of January 1944, World War II was drawing to a close and the Allies began liberating concentration camps across Eastern Europe. Crematoria collapsed and documents burned as the Nazis tried to wipe any trace of the horrors executed at their hands, but the sheer scale of their operation ensured that would never be a possibility.

If you visit the site of Auschwitz II-Birkenau, a place where they say that birds no longer sing, you’ll almost certainly stumble upon a plaque that reads: “For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity.” While a poignant message, words simply cannot convey what had happened on this spot of land three-quarters of a century ago.

“Hell” was the word used to describe the camp at Birkenau by Mayer Hersh – a man now in his late 80s, and someone who has dedicated his adulthood to educating the masses about the things that happened there in the hope that they are never repeated. Yet despite the fact this wasn’t his first rodeo he began to recount with glazed-over eyes and a lump in his throat.

It is almost inconceivable to think about doing what the Nazis did to an estimated six-million people, vowing to ‘exterminate’ the Jewish population on the continent. Disgusting, vile; words that barely scratch the surface when it comes to describing the treatment and conditions that those captured and put into concentration camps had to suffer through. Yet for Mayer, this was fresh in his mind. It had happened more than seven decades prior, yet the memories were yesterday-fresh.

Mayer Hersh was born on 31 August in 1926 to Jewish parents – Isaac and Riwka, a tailor and a housewife – in the small town of Sieradz, Poland. He had one older and three younger brothers, in addition to an older sister. But his modest upbringing could not prepare him for what would happen almost 13 years to the date of his birth.

“I was supposed to go to school on 1 September, 1939,” Mayer recalls. “But school never opened for Jewish people, while for non-Jews, it did.”

This was the day that world war was declared, and Sieradz rapidly changed from a close-knit, thriving community to a ghetto, where Mayer and his family were starved, and lived out a difficult existence.

“I had a knock on the door one day in the middle of the night and my name was called out by a soldier with a gun in his hand accompanied by policemen. He ordered me to get dressed immediately and come with him. The only person to get out of bed was my Mum. She gave me some bread, a prayer book, change of underwear, and so on. And off I went. I didn’t know whether I would still be alive the next day,” he said, his eyes staring into the void.

It would be the last time he saw his mother.

At the time, Mayer was beginning his journey to the first of what would be nine concentration camps, but for his Mum and his three younger brothers, their lives were nearing an end.

His Dad and sister were transported to the nearby ghetto of Łódź along with almost 300 able-bodied Jews, and the rest were transported, including his mother and younger siblings, to a church in Chełmno where they were made to undress and hand over jewellery, before they were led into a gassing van.

Mayer asked: “Can you imagine these people knowing very well that they were going to be killed?” In truth, I couldn’t. “They were completely helpless,” he continued.

His father eventually became one of the many people murdered in Auschwitz’s gas chambers, while his sister, Kayla, was killed on board a ship intentionally blown up by the Germans.

“The allies were surrounding the Nazis and tried to get the prisoners released but it wasn’t going to happen. So when they realised that, they decided to sink the ships. A thousand Jewish women were sunk on the boat at sea.”

Mayer was completely unaware of what had happened to his family until after it was all over. He was taken to a small labour camp in the town of Otoszno near Poznań and it was here that work began on a railway system to connect Poland with Germany, with teenagers just like Mayer expected to be the engineers behind the grand plans.

“We found out we were going to build a massive, new railway system. But how can we do that? We’re schoolboys; we had no experience in building a system like that.” To the Nazi keepers of the camp, this mattered not, they were put to work regardless.

“Half past three the whistle went to get up, in the morning, and you had to be up quickly. You couldn’t complain and say that you weren’t well or didn’t feel like it because if you did, they’d beat you to death.

“Then you were allowed to go to latrine every so often, the big cess pit. We’d go once before work in the morning, and you got no food after except for artificial tea before being marched out to work.

“At five o’clock you marched out because at six o’clock, work had to start. So when we worked on the railway system, we had to be there before six to collect our working implements.”

It was also in Otoszno that one of Mayer’s most miraculous survival stories happened. “I was working very happily in the camp itself, when all of a sudden I could see a van arrive. An announcement was made on the loudspeaker that everyone must come to roll call.

“I had a good look and I could see that it was a gassing van. If I go out, I would be finished in a few minutes. The Chief Inspector had a gun in his hand, and was shouting: “If anyone is hiding and doesn’t come out now, you will be shot!”

“So I thought – what difference does it make? Dying by bullet or by gas? I then jumped out of the window when he was near my barracks, and before he came around the back I jumped back inside. When he was satisfied that everybody in the camp was in the gassing van, he left.

“20 minutes later I came out of the barracks and came face-to-face with the camp commander, and he said: “What are you doing here? You were supposed to have gone with the transport! Tomorrow you are going to work; whether you walk on your hands or your feet, I am not interested!”

“I was only too pleased. He was so surprised, because I was the only one in the camp that survived that day.”

With the railway in Otoszno complete, Mayer was moved on to another camp to begin work on the next part of the railway, and continued to be moved following the completion of various staged of track.

That was until the summer of 1944, when he arrived at the most infamous of all the camps during the Holocaust – Auschwitz. Shortly after getting there, he was fortunate enough to avoid the initial selection process that so many were unfortunate to go through, then, remarkably, he met up with his eldest brother, Jakob, inside. Jakob was the first member of the family to be taken away.

“He was ordered to come to the police station as he was required for work, nothing else. He went there and never came back.

“Can you imagine what my parents must have thought? Probably that he was dead.”

But he was, miraculously, still alive; and after taking advice from Mayer to seek permission to work in the coal mine, he gave credit to his younger sibling.

“My brother says I saved his life. Well the advice I gave him he listened to it, but big brothers don’t like listening to small brothers, you see. But he respected my thinking.”

Summer turned into winter in Auschwitz, then a new year dawned – 1945. It was the beginning of the year, but it signalled the end of the way.

As the Russians began to approach Auschwitz, chaos ensued and the Nazis tried desperately to cover up the atrocities they had committed, but to no avail.

Disorientated by the fracas, both Mayer and Jakob separated and were forced to leave on different death marches.

Mayer made his way, along with others, to Stutthof near the Baltic Sea, but they couldn’t be liberated there and were moved on to Stuttgart.

Once more the Allies approached, and again Mayer was taken to another place, this time Buchenwald. But the Allies approached from the other side, and soon Mayer would be freed.

“Eventually I was liberated in the German trenches where I ended up contracting typhus. It was the first time since entering the camps that I got a disease – unbelievable! We were all ridden with lice as well; we were skin and bone. I think I must’ve weighed about four stone.

“After that I received some healthcare and had time to recover before being sent over here on 14 August, 1945.”

From Germany, Mayer was transported to Prague and then took a flight to Crosby-on-Eden airfield near Carlisle before being taken to live in Windermere.

He describes coming to England 70 years ago as “leaving hell to come to heaven.” After some time spent there, Mayer upped sticks and moved south. “I could have gone to London, Liverpool, anywhere. But for some reason, some of my friends decided to go to Manchester so I went with them.

“At that time, you had to try and make a living, to learn a trade. I became a tailor and I made a living here. I had no relations, no friends. But we made friends and eventually I found the people very helpful, very understanding.

“And then, of course, I met my wife, a beautiful girl, in 1955.

“She learned a lot from me [about the Holocaust], now, of course, she doesn’t need to because she’s learned it all. But believe me there are a lot of things that even I won’t recall and share, because it’s too painful.”

In his later years, Mayer has put time and effort into educating others about Hitler’s atrocities, and his work in that field led him to receive an MBE from the Queen, as well as being made an Honorary Doctor of Education by Edge Hill University – reminders of which he displays proudly on his wall at home.

Jakob was also a survivor and emigrated to America. They were the only two to live through the Holocaust from their immediate family.

Mayer returned to Auschwitz a few years ago, but admitted: “It was very trying; I wouldn’t want to do it again. It was a very painful experience. I’m glad I did it, though.”

The war officially ended in September 1945 with the signature of surrender documents from Japan on board the deck of American battleship USS Missouri. But for those alive today, just like Mayer, it still lives long in the memory.