Joe Schlesinger (as told to Phyllis Schlesinger)
Father of TBE members Len Schlesinger, Father-in-law of Phyllis Schlesinger, Grandfather of Rebecca Ferat, and Great-grandfather of Naomi, Ezra, and Sophie Ferat.
Joe (Yehudah/Judka) Schlesinger (of blessed memory) was born in Kielce, Poland, on 20 March, 1922. He was the second-born of Asher Lemuel and Sara Gitel Tzuker’s six children (also Chiel, Schmulek, Bella, Paula, and Henya). Asher was a successful business person. The family lived in a large apartment in a building they owned. Joe used to say he had a fun childhood and that he didn’t take school or cheder as seriously as he should have. He would sometimes get into “scrapes” with non-Jewish children and over time developed a lot of ‘street smarts’. Those skills, and what he called luck, enabled him to survive his WWII experiences.
When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, Joe was 17 years old. His family and the rest of the Jewish Community in Kielce was separated into the Ghetto, where everyone was simply focused on surviving. Joe used to leave the Ghetto in secret and return with supplies for his family. At some point even Joe decided that leaving the Ghetto was too risky. He ‘volunteered’ to be a worker for the Nazis. Working as a forced laborer meant he would get to eat a piece of bread, some salami, and perhaps some soup. He was part of a group that left the Ghetto to chop wood and collect coal for the town. Meager scraps of wood and coal were dropped in the Ghetto and fuel was difficult to get. Somehow, Joe persuaded the driver to drop the coal and wood near his family so at least they could get a bit of fuel during the cold Polish winter.
One evening in fall of 1942 Joe returned to the Ghetto to find his home empty; his entire family had been taken to Treblinka. The Ghetto was being liquidated by the Nazis. Devastated, he believed he was the only one of his family still alive. Joe was determined to survive. When his work detail was packed into trucks and moved, he was relieved to find he had been brought to another factory and not a death camp. Joe considered himself lucky to make wheels. Heat was required to make the wheels and at least he’d be warm in wintertime. Even so, he was often beaten and was hungry and sick.
The work detail was transferred again in 1943. This time they were packed into a box car. Joe said many did not survive the trip. He found himself at Auschwitz-Birkenau, in line for the selection. He knew if he made it through the selection he could use his wits to survive, but the selection itself was random. He said it was “just luck” that he made it through the selection. He was registered and tattooed as B-3319. On the way to his barracks miraculously he saw his brother Chiel, who told Joe to volunteer for every work detail he could in order to survive. Joe’s head was shaved and he received a prison outfit, but was proud that he had been able to keep his boots: he had scraped them up so they would look old and therefore wouldn’t be stolen.
Joe didn’t talk much about his experiences in Birkenau. We do know that his barracks was located near one containing a large group of Roma people. One day he came back from work detail and the entire Roma barracks was empty. He knew they had all been murdered in the gas chamber.
Joe volunteered for as many work details as possible in order to get extra food. Other survivors told us he used to distribute the extra food to those who were sick in the barracks. Eventually he ended up in Monovitz, where he worked installing electric wires. Again, he felt lucky to have an inside work detail and food, and be relatively far from the gas chambers of Birkenau.
In January, 1945, the Nazis were determined to move the surviving prisoners to deep Germany. Joe volunteered to pull a supply wagon during the move. Luckily, the supply wagon was full of bread so he managed to eat enough to survive. They marched to the train station in Gliwice, Poland. Thousands of Jewish prisoners were waiting at the station; they were told they would be transported to Dachau, in deep Germany. Joe knew his chance of survival was bleak. He felt too weak to survive the six-day trip to Dachau. As he looked around, he realized that most of the cars were closed box cars, but some were open-topped. He devised a plan, and used the chaos of the station to his advantage. He would get in line for the train, get his food, and then slip the line. He did this until an open-topped box car came and he got on. Once the train picked up speed, he jumped out of the car and survived. “I can die now or later,” he recounted. He lived.
While making his way through Germany, trying to get back to Kielce, Joe and some others were picked up and imprisoned over-night. The next day, the Germans unlocked the prison doors, gave him new clothes, and left. Joe had no idea that the Allies were closing in on Germany and the war was ending. He simply knew he was alive and free.
He eventually made it back to Kielce and tried to return to his apartment. The people who had taken over his home shot at him. He was freezing, with nowhere to go, but knew that some Jewish survivors lived in #7 Planty Street in Kielce. He went to the building, knocked on the door, and was welcomed by a group of young women who had survived Skarzyzko Labor Camp. One girl, Edith Szmuckler, gave him a blanket. They were married in November, 1945.
After living for some time in a Displaced Person camp, Joe befriended an American soldier, who contacted Edith’s uncles in New Jersey. Joe, Edith, and their daughter Sylvia came to the United States in December 1946.
Joe and Edith settled in Brooklyn, NY. He worked as an upholsterer. He managed to find Chiel and bring him to the US. He was always so proud of his family; his daughter Sylvia (a teacher) and his son Leonard (Len) (HBS Professor and former President of Babson College), and his six grandchildren. He never spoke of his experiences to Sylvia and Len. He didn’t want to burden them with his sadness.
In July, 1946, more than 40 Jewish Survivors were killed in a pogrom in Kielce, at the same building where Joe and Edith had lived. Luckily, Joe and Edith had left Kielce a few weeks before the massacre, but they knew many of those who had been killed. The Schlesinger Family went back to Kielce to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Pogrom. He showed us the apartment and the bullet holes. He showed us Birkenau, where his barracks was still standing. Joe was proud to be back in Kielce with his family, and to show others he had survived and prospered. He passed away in 2004, leaving a loving family and great legacy.