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Moral of the story

Holocaust survivor brings hope, museum to Denver

By Leigh E. Rich

Henry Greenbaum has a story to tell. And he tells it every Friday.

Before Shabbat—he promises any rabbi who might be sitting in the room—Greenbaum recounts his coming of age under the Nazi regime.

Now 75 and a volunteer with the speaker’s bureau at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., Greenbaum shared his Friday-afternoon story with Colorado last week, when an intimate group of young and old gathered on a cloudy Tuesday night at the University of Denver to listen to this flesh-and-bones piece of the acclaimed museum, now in its 10th year.

It is obvious Greenbaum, a lively lecturer who wastes no time recounting his story and refuses no questions, cherishes the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and may just be its most vocal advocate cum educator.

When he first arrived in the United States in 1946, Greenbaum explains, “Nobody wanted to talk about it. No one wanted to tell what had happened to them during the Holocaust, though we promised each other in the camps that we would speak, that we would tell the world what had happened.”

And “when we first came here, no one wanted to listen to you.”

It wasn’t until 1978, with the release of Marvin J. Chomsky’s miniseries Holocaust, that the lecture circuit opened up for Greenbaum, then president of the Washington, D.C.-based group Club Shalom. As a part of the Holocaust survivors’ organization, Greenbaum and his fellow Shalom members were determined to break the silence.

“We were all survivors, and every now and then one of us would speak to a group, but not very often.”

The consciousness-raising of the television series, however, landed Greenbaum a spot with talk-show legend Larry King, and as one of King’s “first customers” regarding the Holocaust, Greenbaum says, he took calls about his experiences until three in the morning.

By 1994, Greenbaum began to volunteer with the Holocaust Memorial Museum and carry out the promise he made when he was a teenager. Only 12 when his town of Starachowice, Poland, was invaded by the Nazis, Greenbaum and others like him pledged, “Should you make it, make sure you tell. And that’s what we’re doing.”

But the museum isn’t merely an avenue for Greenbaum to remind the world of the atrocities committed by the Nazis. “This is my cemetery,” he says. “I lost so many in the Holocaust, and this museum is a memorial for me. I see the shoes that are displayed in the permanent exhibition and think that people who were in my family could have worn some of them. Somewhere in there are their shoes.”

And somewhere in there could be shoes Greenbaum himself untangled and sorted when he was held prisoner at Flossenburg. When he arrived at the concentration camp near the end of the war, he was forced to sort through a “heap of clothes”—remnants of the Nazis’ victims—that would be sent to Berlin. “It was, like, two stories high,” Greenbaum recalls.

BUT FLOSSENBURG is nearly the end of Greenbaum’s tale, which began when the Nazis invaded Starachowice and moved him, his mother and his eight siblings into a ghetto—enclosed by barbed wire, guarded at all times, and infested with filth, lice and typhus.

Conditions were so poor in the ghetto, Greenbaum says, that when they ran out of soap “we’d use dirt from the ground.”

“We stayed in that ghetto until 1942,” Greenbaum explains. “Once they put us into this ghetto, we had to rely on them.”

And every day, soldiers would come in and remove the dead. Those who were sick were taken care of by what Greenbaum calls the “killing unit,” who would proctor a sort of “sobriety test” to see if you “wiggled” when you walked.

Then, Greenbaum explains, “they would take them over there, shoot them, and into the ditch you went.”

By October of 1942, “they had to clean house,” Greenbaum says. “So the order came out that we all had to leave the ghetto and meet in the marketplace.”

Guards searched the ghetto with dogs, to sniff out anyone who might be hiding, and once every Jew was collected, the selection process began.

In the midst of what Greenbaum remembers as utter commotion, “the guards pushed people to one side or the other. … Some mothers would give their kids ups,” thinking doing so would allow them to survive.

“This went on until almost five in the evening,” he says, when his group was filed into waiting cattle cars. Greenbaum and the others were told they were being “relocated.”

“That day,” he says, “I lost my mother [and] three nieces. My father passed away before the war. … He was lucky.”

Taken to a slave labor camp, Greenbaum remembers the men and women being segregated into separate barracks. Then, “the loudspeaker came on: ‘Achtung! Achtung!’ You have to empty all your pockets, all your belongings.”

Inside, the bunks were bare, with no mattresses or straw. “They did give us a skinny, little blanket,” which Greenbaum says three or more would share. And since the man in the middle was covered by most of the blanket, they’d rotate every night.

Here, Greenbaum worked in the camp until he, one of his sisters and a Jewish policeman participated in an attempted escape during an air raid, when the lights throughout the camp were out.

During the attempt, “Hell broke loose and the lights came on,” says Greenbaum, who was shot in the back of the head. Not a fatal wound, he crouched on the floor of the barracks when his escape failed and waited with the others until daylight. “I was always praying to G-d: Give me one more day. … If [He’d] wanted me dead, that bullet would have gone one-sixteenth of an inch deeper.

“In the morning was roll call,” Greenbaum continues, and the Nazis made sure “a lesson you learned [was] never try to escape again.”

About three weeks later, “they got rid of us,” and it was back to the cattle cars. “We would ride on those cars for three days, three nights, no water.”

Many died from exhaustion during the trip, Greenbaum says, recalling how they screamed for water—sometimes in unison with the prisoners from the other cars—and groped for air from the tiny window near the ceiling. “You could hardly put a hand through,” he remembers.

And then, “we arrived at our destination. And that happened to be Auschwitz.

“As soon as we got off the train, we had selection again,” with Greenbaum sent to what he calls the “good side.” The others “didn’t even get a chance to be numbered.”

Pushing back the cuff of his sport coat and rolling up the sleeve of his white dress shirt, Greenbaum displays the tattooed number on his arm and recalls when the Nazis “took away your name.”

Afterward, he was sent to have his head shaved—a blessing, Greenbaum says, because of the constant problems with lice. Upon seeing his wound, the man shaving Greenbaum’s hair asked, “What is this? Did you get shot?”

Fast on his mental feet, even as a young man, Greenbaum lied and said he was in a fight, because “I didn’t know who I was talking to.”

He was next taken to the showers—ones that actually dispensed water and not cyclone gas. “There they gave us a pair of wooden shoes with canvas tops and a striped uniform.”

He would spend about three months at Auschwitz as part of the workforce, sometimes sweeping the streets or picking up dead bodies. The Nazis “couldn’t burn them fast [enough].”

One night, Greenbaum remembers, the Nazis killed all of the gypsies imprisoned at Auschwitz. “And that was my introduction right there. And I thought, maybe we’ll be next?”

But he continued to survive, taken next to Buna-Monowitz to work at a chemical company. Though he was only skin and bones and blisters, “My job was to build roads in the compound of the factory,” he says, and to clean up the debris caused when the Allies started bombing.

When Buna-Monowitz was evacuated as the Russians came from the east, Greenbaum was transferred to Flossenburg, where, among other duties, he and the others were forced to play soccer when the Red Cross visited.

“All of a sudden,” Greenbaum says, the Nazis “were feeding us cream of wheat,” instead of what he describes as “water soup.”

At about 75 pounds, Greenbaum wonders even today how the Red Cross could think he was being fed the more nourishing gruel. “They must have been fools, I guess.”

Next, Greenbaum was to survive a several-month death march before being liberated.

“We were folding like flies,” he says, as they marched through snowstorms in February and torrential rains in April.

Though “the weather was terrible and they whipped us constantly,” Greenbaum and the others survived by hooking their arms together in a chain of support, lest they fall behind and be shot and left for dead.

During the trek, Greenbaum says, “I was dreaming I was eating the Sabbath dinner and my mother was feeding me.”

And in the middle of this trance-like state as the rains slowed his captors—nearly six years from what he describes as a “normal life” in Starachowice—“all of a sudden, we saw this big tank coming toward us, [trampling] through the underbrush. … An American soldier emerged and said, ‘You are free.’”

Walking in the safety behind the tank, Greenbaum and his fellow survivors were taken to a house with food. In front were barrels of potato peelings, and “I dashed in there on my hands and knees … [and began to dine] on the peelings,” he recounts. “But the soldier said, ‘Go inside. This is for the animals. Don’t eat that.’”

Inside, other liberated survivors were sick from overeating. “The soldier said to us, ‘Go easy.’

“He shaved my head,” Greenbaum continues. “My wound was still infected, re-infected. … That was my liberation.”

THOUGH IT WAS just the beginning of Greenbaum’s mission. Today, Greenbaum reminds his visitors, old and young alike, “We didn’t go to them. They came to us.

“The whole world stood still for us. … Nobody spoke out for us. Not even our neighbors, [who] turned around when the Nazis came in. How grateful would I have been,” he wonders, if even one of his neighbors would have thrown a raw potato on the ground.

“Where were [the Americans] when we were mistreated? Was there anyone to speak up for us? … We thought we had been abandoned.

“Who spoke out for us?” he asks. “Nobody.”

It is perhaps this abandonment that drives Greenbaum more than the scars inflicted by the Nazis. Greenbaum’s story is more than a reminder, and his volunteer efforts with the Holocaust Memorial Museum are more than a means for “leaving our memories in good hands.”

A supporter of the war with Iraq and in favor of the United States intervening in human rights abuses worldwide, Greenbaum tells all who will listen: “Speak out when you see injustice is [being] done. Get along with one another. We’re all G-d’s children.”

And this is the moral of Greenbaum’s story, one he is willing to repeat as often as necessary.

“I feel better when I get it out of my system,” he says. “I’m never going to be quiet.” 

Rich, L. E. (2001, May 4). Holocaust survivor brings hope, museum to Denver. Intermountain Jewish News.

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