Morris Eskenazi has lived for 89 years. He has endured experiences that others have not survived. People talk about life being too short, but for Morris Eskenazi, life has been very long. Morris Eskenazi is a survivor of Auschwitz, Dachau, Mildorf, and Waldlager concentration camps.
Eskenazi was born in Salonica, the second-largest city in Greece and the capital of the region of Macedonia. Salonica was home to more than 65,000 Jews before the Nazis invaded. Morris’s father’s name was Aaron, and his mother’s name was Ester. He had three sisters—Hannah, Miriam, and Lucy—and a brother, Saby. Only he and his brother survived the concentration camps. Before the Nazis invaded Greece, he and his family were happy, and they all got along very well. His father sold lumber for floors and wood for fires. His mother stayed home and took care of the house. Morris went to grammar school and high school and studied at the university for two years. Everything was fine, and then the most unexpected thing happened.
In April 1941, the Nazis invaded Greece, and everything changed. One night, the Nazis banged on the family’s door screaming “Get your things, we are relocating you!” The Eskenazi family grabbed whatever belongings they thought they might need. The Nazis told them that they were being taken to a place where they would be working for Germany. They thought this was strange, but the Nazis said that where they were going, they would have food and shelter and that the young Jewish men would be working to support their families. No one questioned the Nazis, especially since they were holding rifles with bayonets as they pushed the Eskenazi family and their Jewish friends and neighbors into the streets toward the train station.
At the train station, the Nazis kept pushing the Jews into the train with their rifles. At that time, nobody had any idea that they were going to Poland—to the most infamous of all of the concentration camps, Auschwitz. The Jews were herded into the train—not into passenger cars, but into cargo cars made to hold supplies like bags of wheat and sacks of rice. They were pushed into the cars so tightly that no one could even move. When the doors closed, there was so little oxygen that it became increasingly difficult to breathe. There was no bathroom, so as time went on and the train didn’t stop, people relieved themselves where they stood. Everybody was very hungry, but the amount of food they were given wasn’t enough to feed them. For example, the guard would give a loaf of bread and a tin of sardines to the 90 people squished together in one car. Morris speculates that the guards gave them sardines but no water because without water, sardines can dehydrate a person. But because the prisoners were so hungry, they had to eat the sardines. Morris and his family and all the others were on that train for six days and nights. When the guards finally opened the door, everyone tumbled out of the cattle car. Of the 90 people squished into the car, at least half were already dead of heat exhaustion or starvation.
As soon as they got off the train, a high-ranking SS guard walked near them, putting a cloth over his nose—as if from the smell—and looking at them as if they were animals. He shouted at them to remove their clothes. Once they had stripped, and were standing there naked, the SS guard waited for a while. Guards surrounded the prisoners with machine guns. It was snowing, and everybody shook from fear and cold. One guard finally told them to make two lines: one for all of the young men and another for the women, children, and the elderly. It was here that Morris and his brother were separated from the rest of his family. That day—as he stood in that line, naked and scared—was the last time he ever saw his parents and three sisters. In Morris’s line, the young men stood until they were given new clothes: striped pajamas. Despite everything, Morris still wanted to believe that he was there because he was going to be working to support his family. It was the only thing he could believe in. But, in the back of his mind, he did realize that what was happening was not what the Nazis had told them when they were still in Greece. After a few days in the camp, he asked of some of the Jewish prisoners who had been at Auschwitz for a while, “Where is my mother, where is my father, where are my sisters?” They showed him the chimney and pointed to different parts of the smoke and said, “That’s your mother, that’s your father, and those are your sisters.” It was then that he lost all hope for anything. At Auschwitz, there was no way to escape. There were electric fences with barbed wire all around and guards watching from towers with guns in their hands. Even if the prisoners did escape, there was no place for them to go. In the forest, they could have frozen or starved to death. Morris learned that none of the Polish farmers who lived in the area would have hidden them because they hated Jews, too. At Auschwitz, Morris had to dig and build ammunition factories. The Nazis forced the prisoners to build what they then used to kill them.
Every day, the work got harder. The guards were always trying to make the prisoners weaker. The Nazis’ method to weaken the prisoners was hard labor, insufficient food and water, and no rest. They were fed only the things the Nazis didn’t want to eat themselves. They would be given one tiny portion of food each day: a piece of bread and a bowl of soup a day. If the prisoners were lucky, the Nazis would put potatoes in the soup, but mostly it was just boiled water and flour. The Nazis made the prisoners work 18 hours each day, with no rest. “Rest” wasn’t a word at Auschwitz. One of Morris’s most vivid memories was of their barracks, which were filled with lice. Some days, the guards would make the prisoners take off their clothes in the snow to see which of them had lice. All of the prisoners had lice and bites all over their bodies. There was nothing they could do about it, and yet the Nazis would beat them for having lice.
While Morris was at Auschwitz, the living conditions worsened. Getting sick was very common. The last thing a prisoner wanted to do, however, was to tell the guards that he was ill. If a prisoner said he was sick, the Nazis would take him to a facility for the night. The next day, they would take the prisoner to the “hospital” and he would never be seen again. Although Saby, Morris’s brother, and he were separated while they were at Auschwitz, he knew his brother was still alive because they were both put in the same line on the day they’d arrived there. One day, Morris heard that his brother had told the guards that he was sick. His brother was taken to the facility for sick people. Morris knew that his brother would be taken to the “hospital” the next day and, like the others before him, disappear forever. By some miracle, Morris was able to sneak out of his barracks and go to the window of the room where they were keeping his brother. Morris told him that no one ever came back from the “hospital” and begged him to tell the guards that he wasn’t sick anymore. His brother did as Morris begged him to do and went back to work, despite being very sick. After the war, the truth that the prisoners guessed about the ‘hospital’ was confirmed. No one ever came back from the “hospital” because the “hospital’ was the gas chambers.
In 1944, as the Nazi empire was starting to collapse and the Allies were closing in, Morris was sent to the Warsaw Ghetto. Warsaw, a major city in Poland, had a very large Jewish population before the war. The Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto rebelled against the Nazis, but they were beaten by the Nazis, who then occupied the Ghetto. Morris and a large number of other prisoners were sent to the Warsaw Ghetto to collect bricks from the buildings that had been bombed by the Nazis during the rebellion. Every piece of brick was valuable for the Nazis because they were running out of the supplies they needed to keep fighting the Allies: metal and iron to build tanks and weapons, wood for manufacturing, bricks to build defenses. Morris recalled that young men from Estonia and Slovakia with German heritage, who had signed up to become SS guards, treated them very poorly, even worse than they’d been treated at Auschwitz. For entertainment, the guards would occasionally force the Jews to hold very heavy weights on their outstretched arms and then watched as they sweated and shook. When they collapsed from the pressure of the weights, the guards would beat them with their sticks.
Back at Auschwitz, the Nazis still needed the prisoners for labor. However, they couldn’t send them back by train because the railroads were being bombed and the trains, in any event, were needed to transport the Nazi forces. The prisoners had to walk from Warsaw to Auschwitz for eight days, carrying bricks and receiving little food. The guards surrounded them, making sure no one could escape. The guards never gave them water, so the prisoners had to dig holes with their spoons until water seeped through. They would then take their shirts and press them into the holes to soak it up. That was the only water they had during that eight-day march. Morris attributes his surviving this ordeal to this little bit of water, which prevented dehydration. One of the things Morris learned from those days of walking is that human beings will do anything to stay alive. Many of his fellow prisoners could have just collapsed and died. Some did, but no matter how much they suffered, most still wanted to live.
After they got back to Auschwitz, they had to leave again, because the Russians were pushing in. Morris was sent to other concentration camps, among them was Dachau, in Germany, where Nazi doctors conducted horrible “medical” experiments on human beings. Morris was at Dachau for a few months. His work there was as it had been in the Warsaw Ghetto: gathering bricks for the Nazis to use for a munitions factory. He was then transported to Mildorf and Waldlager and other camps whose names he cannot remember.
Morris was finally liberated in 1945, although he had no idea what was going on because the Nazis never told the prisoners anything about the world outside of the camps. He knew that the Americans were good because they were pointing their guns at the SS, not at the prisoners, and they gave the prisoners food. He saw that the guards’ faces no longer assumed the tough and intimidating expressions they’d had when terrorizing him and the other prisoners. Without their weapons, they looked weak, with fear in their eyes. The American soldiers seemed shocked by what they saw: the Nazis’ mistreatment of the Jews and the conditions under which the prisoners had lived. The Jewish prisoners had the chance to exact revenge for what the SS had done to them. Some people did, but most who had been in the camps for a long time didn’t seek revenge. They just wanted food. Morris said that perhaps he would have taken revenge on the Estonians and Slovaks because he really hated them. But he felt, why should he beat up these guards? It wouldn’t make him feel any better, and it wouldn’t bring his family back.
After the war, Morris was given a choice: Palestine or Greece. He had no idea about Palestine’s future. Greece was the only country he knew, so he returned there. By that time, he had become separated from his brother and didn’t know whether he was still alive. Not long after returning to Salonica, he attended a reunion for Holocaust survivors. On one wall of the meeting hall was a list of all of the people from Salonica who had survived and returned. Morris was so happy to see his brother’s name on that list. Very soon after, Morris was called to enlist in the Greek Army. He had to serve from 1946 to 1949. During his service, he fought a guerrilla war—the Greek Civil War—against the Greek Communists. Just as at Auschwitz, he saw death on a daily basis. It was a miracle that he didn’t get killed. He became a sergeant and was awarded a medal of bravery.
Following military service, Morris learned of the possibility of immigrating to the United States. He went to the Jewish Welfare office and asked for help. Because he had survived Auschwitz and had been a soldier in the Greek Army, he was treated very kindly. He arrived in the United States in 1951 and became a citizen in 1955.
Coming to America was like a gift from God, Morris said. He was sent to Syracuse, New York, where he was provided with a job, a home, and medical insurance. At his first job—making caskets—he would eat his lunch while resting in the casket. It wasn’t a bad job. He never saw the people who were going to be put into the caskets. Besides, death was something he was used to seeing. He subsequently got a better job and then became a building contractor. Saby, Morris’s brother, immigrated to America soon after. He moved to San Francisco. Both brothers wanted to be near each other, so, in 1977, when Morris retired, he moved to San Francisco. They were together until Saby passed away in 1985. Since then, Morris has lived quietly with his wife in San Francisco. He tries not to think about what happened to him during the war, but he doesn’t want it to be forgotten either. He does his best to help people make sure that nothing like the Holocaust ever happens again anywhere in the world.
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