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Flares of Memory: Stories of Childhood during the Holocaust

By Anita Brostoff; Sheila Chamovitz | Go to book overview

In Praise of Manual Labor
Alexander Zwillich
b. Boryslaw, Poland, 1925

Next to luck, my parents deserve much credit for my survival of the Holocaust. My father, not the typical Polish Jew, neither a pious scholar nor a merchant, worked at a skilled job in the oil industry of my hometown, Boryslaw. It was he who taught me not to be ashamed nor afraid of manual labor.

My mother's special contribution to my survival was her perseverance. For in spite of the heavy odds against her, she managed to have me learn the skill that proved helpful in the time of great need. It was because of her insistence that instead of learning a trade, I went to the Technical School in Drohobycz, where, concurrently with mechanical engineering, I learned to do metalwork.

In 1941 the army of the Third Reich occupied our town, and my studies were interrupted. The Third Reich's task was to extract from us Jews all possible labor for as little cost as possible. This, of course, did not in any way keep them from fulfilling their main task of letting us die of overwork and of any other causes. We, the camp's inmates, on the other hand, tried to stay alive by any means.

In August 1944, after being in several other camps, I was transported to the concentration camp in Melk, a branch of the camp Mauthausen. There I had to do pick and shovel work on a defense construction project. This type of work was usually a killer, but it was summer and the weather mild. Also, by that time I had learned a very important survival art: how to appear working while conserving as much strength as possible. Whenever I could I applied this skill and did not tire myself. Also, I did not cause the Kapo to exert himself by having to administer punishment to me to prove himself to be a good overseer.

One day, a German civilian came over to where we were working and asked if any of us knew the locksmith trade (which encompassed work in a metal shop). Some people and I raised our hand. A few got the job, but not I, because the yellow triangle above my prisoner number made me unacceptable—I was a Jew.

I suspected that some of those who had volunteered and been selected did not have the slightest notion about what the job requirements were. They only saw a chance to get out of heavy work, a ruse for which no one blamed them. I myself was doing the same thing, except that the job was well within my capabilities and skills.

-156-

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