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Arek Hersh

Auschwitz survivor

Arek Hersh (front, seated) photographed in 1945 shortly after liberation. (c) HSFA
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Arek grew up in Poland and was imprisoned in Łódz ghetto and then in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Arek survived a death march before finally being liberated from Theresienstadt in 1945.

 

I wake up every day and I say “well here I am again”, because I remember the other side of the coin.  Every day to me is another day – I enjoy life, I make everything possible.”

 

Life in Poland

Arek was born in a tight-knit family, one of five siblings. The family followed the Jewish faith and Arek attended a Jewish school. Arek had a happy childhood going to the park, ice-skating and singing solos in the school choir. Despite his happy childhood he does remember experiencing antisemitism in Poland:

“I was coming out from the school and a few Polish children shouted me “Go back to Palestine”.   I was born in Poland, a Polish subject, but according to them we weren’t Polish.”

 

Łódz Ghetto

On 1st September 1939 the German army invaded Poland. Arek’s family fled their home and went to Łódz to stay with family. The journey to Łódz was 65km and took them three days on foot. Arek remembers seeing German soldiers laughing and joking whilst humiliating Jewish men by cutting off their beards.

The Jewish population in Łódz was forced to wear a Star of David on their outer clothing to identify them. Soon after, they were forced into an overcrowded ghetto with poor sanitation and very little food. Towards the end of 1941 the authorities came to take Arek’s father to a work camp. His father escaped, so they tried to take Arek’s brother as a replacement. He also escaped, so they took 11-year-old Arek instead. Arek was able to survive the camp at Otoschno in Nazi-occupied Poland because his job was cleaning the commandant’s office, so he was indoors and was able to steal food.

In 1942 Arek was sent back to the ghetto. He and his remaining family members were taken to a church in Sieradz with other people from the ghetto. As they were being sorted into groups,  Arek managed to escape to a line of people who were being taken back to the ghetto. His family, with the majority of others at the church, were taken to the death camp at Chelmnø where they were murdered.

Arek went to live in the ghetto orphanage and worked in a textile mill for the next two years.

“I didn’t know what to do, I was on my own, the older people didn’t have time for me you know.  So I went out on the street.  I sat on the corner and I started crying, I didn’t know what to do.”

 

Auschwitz

In 1944 the Germans decided to close Łódz ghetto as the Russian army was approaching. Those in the ghetto were taken on a two-day journey to Auschwitz-Birkenau, including 15-year-old Arek who was amongst 185 children from the orphanage.

Upon arrival at Auschwitz the prisoners were divided into two lines in a process called ‘selection’. Healthy working-age people went in one line, while older people, those who were ill or disabled, children and nursing mothers went into another.  Arek could tell that the healthier-looking people were being sent to one side, so he quickly went with them when a disturbance distracted the guards. If Arek had not swapped lines he would have been sent straight to the gas chamber.

Arek was then shaved all over and made to shower before being given a striped uniform and tattooed with the number B7608. After this Arek lost his name and identity. From that moment on he was only referred to by his number.

Arek shows the tattoo he was given in Auschwitz.

In Auschwitz Arek had to work as an agricultural labourer for the SS. He had to plough fields and fertilize them using ashes from the crematoria. He remembers feeling pieces of bones in the ashes as he spread it. Arek was later transferred to the fishing commando to catch fish to be sent to Germany.

 

The Death March

By January 1945 it was clear that Germany was losing the war. As the Russian army advanced, the  Germans decided to clear Auschwitz to try to hide evidence of their crimes. The remaining prisoners were taken on a forced march which lasted three days, with no food and only their striped uniforms as protection against the deep snow and icy temperatures. Those who survived the march arrived at a train station from where they were taken to Buchenwald, near the town of Weimar in Germany. Arek was placed in a children’s barrack. After a few months in Buchenwald Arek and 3000 others were loaded onto open wagons before setting off on a month-long journey to Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia. Of the 3000 who had set off, only 600 arrived alive. Arek was liberated from Theresienstadt on 9th May 1945 by the Russian army. Arek remembers being given rice pudding to eat.

This open train carried prisoners on the month-long journey from Buchenwald to Theresienstadt. 

England

Arek was brought to England in a group of 300 children in August 1945. The group included some girls but was generally known as ‘The Boys’, and they were taken to Windermere in the Lake District to recuperate and learn English. Arek then moved to Liverpool with some of the boys to learn a trade.

Arek with some of the children taken to Windermere

 

Arek discovered that only 40 people from his hometown had survived the war. Most of the population had been killed at the death camp Chełmno, including most of his family. Arek was reunited with his elder sister Mania two years after the war had ended.

Arek didn’t speak about his experiences until 1995 when he wrote his book, ‘A Detail of History’. Today Arek speaks to people of all ages about his experiences during the Holocaust. He does this in the hope that he can help young people build a better world by educating them about where intolerance and prejudice can lead.

To learn more about Arek’s story visit our exhibition, ‘Through Our Eyes’, at The Holocaust Exhibition and Learning Centre.

Videos (9)

Arek's story: family life in Poland

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Arek's story: the Nazis invade

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Arek's story: escaping a massacre

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Arek's story: arrival in Auschwitz

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Arek's story: life in Auschwitz

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Arek's story: forced march and liberation

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Arek's story: speaking out

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Arek's story: my family's fate

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Arek's story: going back

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