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Arek Hersh

Auschwitz survivor

Arek Hersh (front, seated) photographed in 1945 shortly after liberation. (c) HSFA
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“I was coming out from the school and a few Polish children shouted me “Go back to Palestine”. My parents were born… in Poland and I was born in Poland, a Polish subject, but according to them, we weren’t Polish”.

Arek was born and brought up in Poland, the son of a boot-maker for the army. He had four siblings and was brought up in the Jewish faith in a tight-knit, loving family. He remembers going to the park in the summer, ice-skating on the river in winter and singing solos in the choir. Arek went to a Jewish elementary school and a mixed secondary school. Jews in Poland experienced antisemitism, particularly after the ‘Polenaktion’ of 1938 in which Germany forcibly expelled many of its Polish Jewish citizens across the border.

On 1 September 1939 the Germany army attacked Poland. Arek’s family had to leave their home town and stay with relatives in Łódz, a big industrial city similar to Manchester. The 65-km  journey took them three days on foot. Arek remembers seeing the German motorbikes, tanks and planes that far outclassed anything the Polish army had to fight with. He also remembers seeing German soldiers laughing and joking while they humiliated Jewish men by cutting their beards off.

In 1940 the Jews of Łódz had to start wearing the star of David on their outer clothing and soon were forced into a ghetto, where food was rationed and people lived in very cramped conditions. Towards 1941 the authorities came to take Arek’s father to a work camp. As they took him out of the door he managed to escape. Arek’s brother managed to do the same thing, so 11-year-old Arek was taken instead. He was sent to a camp called Otoschno, near Poznan, which was run by the SS. Arek was one of the few who survived the terrible conditions because his job cleaning the camp commander’s office meant he was able to steal food.

In 1942 Arek was sent back to the Łódz ghetto.  Alone, and without his family, Arek was accepted into the orphanage where he worked in the textile mill and was able to find food.  He stayed there for two years.

In 1944 the Germans decided to liquidate the Łódz ghetto because the Russian army was getting closer.  The remaining population was put on a goods train for the two-day journey to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The 185 children from the ghetto orphanage were among them. When they arrived at Auschwitz, SS doctors selected people to work and people to go straight to their deaths. Arek didn’t know what was happening, but he could tell that the fitter, healthier people were on the right so took advantage of a disturbance to run across to that side. He was made to leave all his clothes and possessions, had his head and body shaved and was made to shower. He was given a striped suit to wear and was tattooed with the number B7608.  From that day onward Arek lost his name and was only referred to by his number.

Arek was put into a block with political prisoners of different nationalities. He had to work as an agricultural labourer for the SS, ploughing fields and fertilising them with ashes from the crematorium. Arek remembers feeling the bones as he spread the ashes on the ground. He later worked in the fishing commando which involved catching fish from the River Vistula to be transported to Germany for food.

In January 1945 Arek could see and hear American and British bombers and knew the Germans were losing the war. On 18 January the Germans decided to clear Auschwitz camp. They took the remaining prisoners on a forced march, known as the death march, for three days with no food, wearing only their striped camp uniforms in deep snow and temperatures as low as minus 25 degrees. The survivors found themselves in Buchenwald in Germany where Arek was put into a children’s barrack. In April he and 3000 other people were loaded onto open wagons and sent off on a month-long rail journey to Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia. Many people died on the train. Arek was one of the 600 who arrived alive at Theresienstadt on 8 May 1945. There they were liberated by the Russian army.

In August 1945, after four months in Theresienstadt, Arek was taken to Prague as one of a group of 300 children and taken by plane to Windermere in the Lake District. They stayed in former factory accommodation and had some English lessons and some time to recover. Arek moved to Liverpool where he and some of the boys he had arrived with were able to learn a trade.

Arek didn’t speak about his experiences until 1995 when he wrote his book, A Detail of History. Today Arek goes to schools, universities and other organisations to talk about his experience of the Holocaust. He hopes that by doing this he can help young people to build a better world.

Arek later discovered that only 40 people from his hometown survived the war. Most people were killed in the death camp at Chełmno, including many members of his family.

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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