By MARILYN SHAPIRO
So much has been written about the Holocaust. Novels. Memoirs. Plays. Each echoes the theme of “Never Again!” But have we really learned from the past?
Millions of words later, we are facing a terrifying upswing in anti-Semitism. What can we do? We can keep writing, keep recording, and keep remembering. And we can make sure that the voices of those who perished and those who survived are preserved.
As we commemorate the 82nd anniversary of Kristallnacht, (Night Of Broken Glass pogrom, Nov. 9 and 10, 1938, the unofficial start of the Holocaust) here is another to add to the memories— the story of my husband’s cousin.
Albert Leon Kitmacher was born in Lublin, Poland in 1920, one of the four children of Miriam Naiman, a seamstress, and Gershon Kitmacher, a tailor. His father could not find work locally and spent much of his time in Berlin.
Faith In Neighbors
Soon after Hitler was named German chancellor in 1933, Al’s father was forced to leave Berlin. The Kitmachers left their predominately Jewish neighborhood and moved to Warsaw to find employment. Al’s formal education ended and he joined his father working as a tailor.
By 1938, as things were getting more precarious for Jews, many were fleeing Poland. Al’s father, however, refused to leave. He believed that “all Germans were not bad people.” Unwillingly, Al remained with his parents, two older sisters, and younger brother.
The Warsaw Ghetto
On Sept. 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland and Europe was at war. In 1940, the Kitmachers, along with other Jews, were forced to pack up whatever they could carry on pushcarts and move into the Warsaw ghetto.
As Kitmacher recounted in a 1994 interview conducted by the Bay Area [California] Holocaust Oral History Project, conditions in the ghetto were horrible. The family subsisted on one loaf of bread a day, shared a toilet with three other families, and bathed using a pot of heated water. At night, they heard the sounds of German motorcycles and gunfire as people trying to escape were shot. For a year, Al worked for the Germans outside the ghetto where he was fed with minimal amounts of food and searched each night to make sure that he brought no extras home.
In 1941, Al and his younger sister Freida fled the ghetto in an early escape. They rolled up their sleeves to hide their yellow stars and boarded a train with no tickets. In what Al would later remember as his first miracle, they managed through trickery and bribes to reach Chelm, Germany, where members of their extended family were living. A second cousin, who was also a tailor, arranged for papers to be sent to Warsaw stating the need for the rest of the family to join them to sew German uniforms. Al’s parents and older sister were allowed to leave, but Al’s older sister was taken away.
The remaining family rented a room on a farm owned by Jews until forced into another ghetto in Jenishoff. Al worked 10 hours a day digging an irrigation ditch until a combination of sunburn and illness resulted in his younger brother, Yitzhak, taking his place. When Yitzhak was caught smuggling food back to his family, he was beaten so badly he also could not work and was taken away.
Soon after, Jenishoff was liquidated. His parents and remaining sister were packed into a cattle car. Al was sent to Buzzyn, a concentration work camp near Treblinka. Although he was working in an airplane factory, Al spent hours a day digging ditches. He and fellow prisoners were given only enough food to survive. The Ukrainian guards were brutal, and people were killed daily for the slightest infraction.
At Buzzyn, Al’s second miracle kept him alive. After a horrible nightmare in which he struggled to overpower a large bird and push him out of his Warsaw tailor shop, Al woke up with symptoms of typhus. Despite his weakened condition, he asked another man to help him get to that day’s work assignment, digging potatoes. While in the field, he shared with a religious man his dream. He was told it was a sign that he had “fought the devil and won.” That night, he returned to the barracks and learned that the over 100 men who had stayed behind had been shot and killed.
When Buzzyn was closed, Al and any who had survived were sent to Wiliczka, a concentration camp near Krakow, Poland. Despite having more food, they were assigned work in salt mines. On a hunch, Al told his Polish captors that he was a sheet metal worker; a job that he felt would keep him alive both mentally and physically.
The Russians Are Coming
As a result, Al was assigned to Flossenberg to work in another airplane factory. Rather than working with sheet metal, however, most of the prisoners, a mix of Jews, political prisoners or “undesirables,” spent 10-12 hours a day moving heavy pieces of metal from one place to another. When a German guard threatened to kill him if he did not give him his breakfast, Al escaped death again as the known bully and murderer was discovered making moonshine with another guard and taken away. It was Al’s third miracle.
By mid 1944, Al had been in Flossenberg for several months. As the Germans had shortwave radios, the prisoners were aware that Russian troops were advancing. The prisoners were herded into a double decker train, where Al found a spot in the lower sections. Several miles into their journey, the train was blasted by the English Royal Air Force. People in the upper deck were killed, but Al, again, had escaped. It was for him— a fourth miracle.
The train was damaged beyond use, so the Germans gave the prisoners a blanket and a daily ration of a small turnip and forced them to march in the rain and cold for what Al remembered as several weeks. The dead or near dead were left by the side of the road. Once, when Al could not gather the strength to move another inch, he heard a voice behind him yell, “Kitmacher, don’t stop now!” He kept walking.
The Americans Came
Out of the hundreds that had started the march, only 50 emaciated prisoners straggled into what was to be their final destination, Stamsried, Germany, near the Czech boarder. The mayor of the town gathered them in the village market place with plans to kill them. Al had one final miracle: at that moment, American troops rolled into town. The officials disappeared. Al, an 82-pound living skeleton, had survived the Warsaw Ghetto and four German concentration camps.
Al spent several weeks in a hospital, where he began his physical recovery. Over the next several months, working on a farm, Kitmacher recovered physically but suffered emotional scars that did not heal. He was put on anti-depressants, a prescription that he continued throughout his life.
Al searched fruitlessly for his immediate family, who had perished. His only remaining relative was a cousin, Rose, who had lost her husband and baby. He moved to a former Jewish ghetto in Munich, where he did tailoring work for Jewish people who were moving to Israel. He too planned to move to Israel until a cousin dissuaded him as Palestinians and Jews were in the midst of fighting for control from the British.
Trauma, Survivor’s Guilt
In 1949, Al got immigration papers through Jewish sponsors in Erie, Penn. In 1951 Kitmacher, met and married Pearl Harris, a former WAVE in the U.S. Naval Reserve. They settled in Pearl’s hometown, Pittsfield, Mass., where they raised four children, Miriam, Lois, Gary, and Ira. Although he had his own tailor shop for a short time, Al spent most of his career working at Besse-Clarke Men’s Store.
Although Al said that his wife and children “saved my life,” he suffered from nightmares and insomnia. “I am fine all day,” he stated in his 1994 interview. “Every night when I lay down it comes back to me.” He also experienced survivor’s guilt. “Why am I the only one who survived?” he stated in the 1994 interview. “My family, my parents were nice people. Why did it happen to them? It is was not fair.”
His daughter Lois Karhinen, a resident of Queensbury, recalled that growing up in the home of a Holocaust survivor was not easy. She called him a sensitive man who could not communicate his emotions well. She knew little about her father’s background until he shared his story on video, which is part of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum collection in Washington, D.C. “I am glad that I was able to hear his story while he was still alive,” said Lois, “as it makes me understand so much about the way he was when I was growing up.”
Never forget Albert Kitmacher. Never forget Kristallnacht. And never forget the six million.
sources: Lois Kitmacher Karhinen, https://www.newspapers.com/clip/51893059/the-berkshire-eagle/, https://www.newspapers.com/clip/51893059/the-berkshire-eagle/
Marilyn Shapiro, formerly of Clifton Park, is now a resident of Kissimmee, Fla. A second compilation of her articles printed in The Jewish World has been published. Tikkun lam now joins There Goes My Heart. Marilyn Shapiro’s blog is theregoesmyheart.me.