Impossible to Believe: Reunion Revives Holocaust Memories for Survivors

There is no one in the world who can tell Morris Kornberg’s story – not even Morris Kornberg.

It is not, however, for the lack of effort: Kornberg has shared his story many times. And it has also been told by the chilling documentaries and photographs – images of murder and torture that most people cannot fathom – by books and through interviews and, more recently, by a newly opened museum in Washington, D.C.

“I do ask myself, ‘Did this really happen to me?’ ” Kornberg says. “It is hard to believe. I don’t blame people who don’t believe it. It is impossible to believe.”

Kornberg, a survivor of the Holocaust, lives today in an impeccably kept house in Waldorf with his German wife Herta and their Siamese cat Micky, their companion in a marriage without children. They have been married for 40 years and it is a union, on face value, that seems unlikely: Kornberg is a Polish Jew; his wife was a Christian raised in Stuttgart, Germany, who converted to Judaism. But Kornberg grins in recalling their first days of dating – an infectious smile spreading across his 75-year-old weathered, slim face, his deep-set eyes darting with laughter, a momentary break from the pain of remembering.

“I do not think of it every day,” Kornberg says, his words teeming with an Eastern European accent that is haunting, intoxicating in its depth. “A lot of times, though, when you lay in bed, it comes back … memories.”

This Monday, the eve before Kornberg is to see a friend he hasn’t seen since he was freed in 1945, he sits with Herta in their family room. His slight frame is settled into a chair as he begins to recount his life in not one, but three concentration camps during Hitler’s reign. He speaks first of his family – his parents and three brothers and two sisters – and of the small city of about 12,000 where he was born and raised. The beginning of his story is told so simply, so precisely and without hesitation, that it is hard to envision what follows.

“It was September of 1939,” he says. ” … I went with my older brother to sleep at a house we rented in the village. … In the morning I had heard that the Germans crossed the border. Everybody in the town began running away. … I remember it because the evening came and I was criticized for wearing a white shirt” – clothing that could not camouflage him. … Eventually, citizens returned to the town and the Jews learned that they had been called to work for the Germans – what Kornberg terms “slave labor.”

He explains, “We were afraid, but we did not know what was to come. We thought it would soon be over.” At first, Kornberg worked in a quarry and abided by the curfews and other restrictions. But then his older brother, who had connections with the Gestapo, saw to it that Kornberg found a job at the factory. Kornberg’s new employment resulted in a coveted green armband giving him privileges other Jews didn’t have.

But Kornberg admits that what was going on at the factory was illegal – business practices like “double bookkeeping” and charging buyers triple prices to pay the workers more. What appeared to be good luck at the outset was the very thing that sealed Kornberg’s early fate: He was jailed, questioned and severely beaten in a probe by SS officers about the factory’s operations. “I begged them to shoot me – I was always on the floor. I knew it already – there was no way out. I gave up my life that moment, after the beating.”

Kornberg, instead, was sent to a larger jail where he soon learned he would be released. On that day, Kornberg’s name was called and he joined other prisoners. But instead of being released, they were crowded into trucks, their hands and arms bound by string, and driven to another city. “They kept bringing people – there were about 4,000 or 5,000 – and we were taken to a train station and put in cattle cars. … I thought they would take us to a labor camp,” he says.

What would follow – the gas chambers, the mass graves layered with flesh-deprived corpses, the genocide of more than six million Jews – Kornberg could not have imagined.

But he remembers seeing, as they approached, what he would soon know as Auschwitz, a sign that read “Arbeit Macht Frei,” meaning Work Makes You Free, that proved to be a foreboding and sickening linkage to his today as a charter member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The sign, or a reproduction of it, hangs there now.

***

On Tuesday afternoon of this week, Kornberg made a sojourn to the Red Cross office in Montgomery County for the planned reunion with Julius Beer, a friend he met at Auschwitz whom he hadn’t seen in 48 years. Beer lives in New Jersey but has traveled to Maryland to meet Kornberg. In front of a flash of cameras they are reunited Tuesday and return to the Kornbergs’ house in Waldorf.

The next day, the gentlemen and Herta make the trek into Washington, D.C. to visit the Holocaust museum. It is the fourth time the Kornbergs have gone to the museum, but it is the first for Beer.

With a group of other visitors, they are escorted into an elevator where an in-house television is relaying the sights and the voice of a soldier’s first view of a concentration camp. The lift moves and soon doors open to the exhibits.

Kornberg, throughout the tour, walks quickly, exposing little reaction to what he passes. “You get adjusted,” he says at one spot not far from the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign. “I know a lot of people, when they see this, it makes them sick. But you get used to it. I don’t have feelings any more – it makes you feel like a stone.”

But for newcomers, the images are overpowering. There are photographs, recorded voices, a scaled-down model of a gas chamber and crematorium, short films, pieces of shorn hair, family portraits, Nazi uniforms, trinkets, clothing worn by the concentration camp prisoners, a room filled only with shoes, and a display of ovens used for cremation. In some places in the museum there is darkness and deafening silence. In other corridors or spots, light splinters through to a prism of faces and names.

At one point, Beer and Kornberg stop to look at a train car and a small wagon. There, Beer points to the wagon he said that those who were still living would use in the mornings to pick up the dead.

“As long as I’m with other people, I don’t feel it,” Beer explains. “Except when I’m alone. The worst part for me wasn’t when I was in the camp. It was when I was liberated and found out what happened to my parents.”

The museum tells a story about death – one so powerful that adults are warned about taking young children inside. At the model of the gas chamber (the victims were told by German guards they we going into showers), there are figurines of people depicting the stages of the murders. During the two men’s tour, a child is asking her mother questions and says to her, her fingers caressing the glass partition, “You mean all those people in that room died’?”

At another juncture, writings by a Russian poet named Yevgeny Yevtushenko stand out on a wall like a blaze in the night:

The wild grasses rustle over
Babi Yar
The trees look ominous,
like judges.
Here all things scream silently,
and baring my head slowly,
I feel myself turning gray.
And I, myself, am one massive
soundless scream.
Above the thousand, thousand buried here.

***

When Kornberg arrived in Auschwitz in 1941 he found himself to be one of the first Jews at the concentration camp among Christians and mostly political prisoners. He remembers arriving there and the men’s heads being shaved, their bodies stripped of clothing and dunked in disinfectant.

That early, Kornherg sensed the cruelty, the inhumanity, they would come to know. “We went for uniforms. And if you were big they would give you a small one, and I was small so they gave me a big uniform.” A meal of soup, made unbearably hot to scald their mouths, had to be swallowed by the time they reached the end of a food line.

“It was a game for them (the German officers),” Kornberg says. “We just waited to die. It was like a game – if not today or tomorrow we died, we knew it would be the next. … Degrading or humiliating isn’t the word for it the way we were treated. I don’t think they have a word in the dictionary to describe it.” Asked later if they were treated like animals, Kornberg adds, “Like animals’? We were not treated as good as animals.”

What happens next may have been what sealed Kornberg’s fate as a survivor: Herta, who is quiet through most of the interview, is the one to point this out. Kornberg was among a group of men sent to a sub camp to work in a coal mine. “We were given a number; we didn’t have a name,” he adds.

At this camp they stayed in new quarters, had access to showers and ample portions of food, which weren’t available at Auschwitz. “We said, ‘My God, what’s going on? ‘It was like another world.”

There, Kornberg was assigned to the mine’s night shift, and they were lowered into a shaft with shovels and lanterns to work.

“For several months I worked like this. It was the middle of 1942 and the first transport of Jews came from Belgium – 200 at first and the situation changed. The situation deteriorated.”

The original 200 prisoners grew to 800 – the same portions of food now being divvied out between them, their lives worsening as the concentration camp’s population swelled.

Kornberg, who has been relaying his story in an almost synchronized, passive tone, stops to respond, “In the beginning we didn’t know this (about the gas chambers), we didn’t know this at all.”

But Kornberg admits: “People were dying. They would die from the work. I am not a very educated man and was used to physical labor, but there were professionals who came: doctors, lawyers, professors who were intelligentsia, who were not used to physical labor. … They would take them back to Auschwitz, to the crematorium. We knew this: If you can’t work, you don’t have the right to live,” Kornberg also remembers people running to throw themselves against the electrically charged fences to die. “It was terrible,” he shudders, “we wanted to die.”

But Kornberg survived the sub camp and was moved in 1944 to Buchenwald concentration camp, and then eventually, to another sub camp. He then began to live without food – not even the meager portions of bread they usually were given. It is at this point that the emotion begins to surface. Kornberg, his small stature shadowing his incredible reserve, his focused speech and his obvious pride, begins to cry when asked if he wonders why he survived. “In the beginning (after he was freed), I cried because I didn’t know why I survived, why I lived. There were people better than me.

” … There have been people who have asked me about it, but there is no way they can know. … It’s too much for me when they go in too deep with me – it goes into your guts.” He continues to explain this, speaking then of the author Elie Wiesel, who has written a book about his life in the concentration camps, when Wiesel shared this same view in a recent interview. And there is, also, Kornberg’s pride. “I don’t,” he says, “want people to pity me.” Herta moves over from her chair to share a picture of Kornberg with Wiesel, who wrote in one passage in his book, “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.”

***

From the Buchenwald sub camp, the Germans – as defeat became more inevitable – moved prisoners again, marching them toward another concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. By this time, they had gone three weeks without food and water. “We didn’t look human – we didn’t look like humans.”

“They were marching us and we were walking by the dead. There were bodies in ditches, everywhere there were dead people,” he explains. At this time, Kornberg, his body ravished from several years of hard labor, no food and subhuman conditions, was on the brink of death. “I became ill… and went over and sat in the mud. I couldn’t move. But two of my friends came and they took me.”

He pauses, the tears once again.

It was soon after that, on April 8, 1945, that the prisoners were freed, but by then Kornberg was so ill. He was numb, his soul nearly robbed, the victory far from meaningful. The Russians who “liberated” them from the concentration camp told the captives that they were free, for three days, to do anything they wanted.

He explains, “A Russian came to me and said, ‘Take this rifle. Kill someone.'” Kornberg could not, and was taken to a hospital to die.

Instead, he lived.

Once recuperated, Kornberg made his way back to his homeland to find his family, but they were gone. The last time he ever saw his parents was the day he was taken in for questioning in connection with the factory. He had survived the war, the most heinous and unimaginable crimes inflicted on a creed of people in the history of mankind, to become a man without a country, without a home, without a family. His two living relatives, the only ones he knows of, are a niece and nephew, the daughter and son of a brother who left Poland for Israel in 1933.

After his unsuccessful search for his family and home he returned to Czechoslovakia, to Prague, and Beer told him to go to Belgium, where some concentration camp victims were under care. Eventually, because he had no other place to go, Kornberg moved to Germany. And his land – the place that was his temporary home before he moved to the United States in 1949 – became Stuttgart. He ended up there after telling relief workers he was from Hanover, Germany, and was given a ride to Stuttgart, where he worked as the food supplies supervisor for a relief organization. There, he met Herta.

“The Germans did not have it easy during the war either,” she says. “Once my father was taken after saying something bad about Hitler. … (By the end of the war), we had no food either. I remember I had dinner with Morris – we had chicken or sausage or something – and we had ice cream. I was so happy because I was so hungry then.”

When Kornberg first sought help in the United States, he briefly came to Baltimore and was aided by the Jewish Relief Organization, which he says wanted to help him with schooling, to help in any way they could, but all he wanted was help in finding a job. Here, the pride again: “I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me. I wanted to find a job and take care of myself.”

He worked for a short stint in bookbinding before he got a job with a company known then as American Wholesalers. He worked there for 38 years before he retired as a plant supervisor.

He and Herta married in 1952.

They lived in Southeast, Washington, D.C., and Oxon Hill before moving to Waldorf in 1969. They spend their days quietly, gardening, visiting with friends, taking care of their home, reading and watching television.

“I’m not a complainer,” Kornberg says. “There are a lot of them (Holocaust) survivors who say they can’t believe in God. … In the beginning you had some anger, but in time it slowly disappears.”

Although Kornberg says he still believes in God, he does not practice the Jewish faith. “So, you went on with your life?”

“You have a choice?” Kornberg answers and shrugs his shoulders, his hands outstretched, his eyes cloaked in a pain he knows few can understand.

Published in the August 27, 1993 edition of the Maryland Independent

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