Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Benno Is Alive!

“Now to the story of my husband. We met in 1940. I was 19 years old and he was not quite 25. I don’t know, I suppose at that time it was early in the game and we were saying, well, we’ll get married when the war ended. It was in Skierniewice. His family was living there. Most of his years he spent in Warsaw. He went to school in Warsaw, went to the university in Warsaw. His father died way before. I think his father died in 1932, and Benno was born when his father was 59 years old. I think he was 13, or 14, and he had brothers, so he was born an uncle. His brothers and sisters were married and were educated when he was still a baby. But the family originally came from there and his mother lived there.


“So during the war he went back to Skierniewice. Then, of course, the family had to leave when Skierniewice became Judenrein, and they went back to Warsaw. Then they stole out from the Warsaw ghetto and went to another place near Sandomierz because they were starving in Warsaw. And then he was taken away to a concentration camp. And that was it.

“The last time we were all to get out of Skierniewice, his family went to Warsaw, where I went for a few days – I told you the situation with those trucks. I stayed with the family of my friend. When I think of it, mail was still going at that time, because then when I came back and I got typhus, when I slowly recuperated, I remember I received another letter. He was not in the ghetto anymore when I had typhus. I think he was in this godforsaken place with his mother and brother and his sister. Somehow by bribing they stole out of the Warsaw ghetto because they were starving there, and they went to this…

“He doesn’t know what happened to his mother and his brother because he was taken away to a concentration camp already in June of ’41. It was a working camp in Poland, Biesiadka. Then he was in Plaszow for a short time. And then he was sent to Flossenburg, to this camp in Germany, which was not a concentration camp, it was a working camp. It was not only for the Jews. And from what Benno was telling me – I was so surprised that the Jews didn’t work separately from the others. They all suffered together. There, of course, lots of people were dying from hunger and disease and, of course, being beaten by the Nazi’s. They built parts to the airplanes, the Messerschmitt hydra planes. Then they had this… This march. They took maybe 2,500 people, and maybe 100 survived.

“He was in camp forever. He was in camp for more than three years. But when he was first taken to a camp, this was June, yes, because you see this letter which I got was from the camp. It must have been June or July ’41 already. And then I didn’t hear anything anymore. Of course, all those things were happening, and then so many years later, then the war ended.

“When we first came to Stuttgart, at the very beginning, June, July, August, we really didn’t know what is going to happen. And then also, we were all terribly upset right away because of the policy of the world. You see, we knew – like we were saying – nobody’s going to say thank you to us for surviving. But to be treated like that! The foreign minister of England closing the doors of Palestine to the Jews; boats being intercepted and sent to Cyprus. And gradually the behavior of even the American authorities in Germany towards us…

“Meanwhile in Stuttgart there developed a little bit of black markets. American GIs, some of them wanted to get rich on it. And they were selling every packet of cigarettes and every bar of chocolate and every little thing – his chewing gum. Then some of the Jews started selling on the black market. He got a pack of cigarettes say for 50 pfennigs and he sold it, let’s say, for a mark. And at one time, I remember, we had some friends – he was a physician, he was also coming to America – he got so incensed. He said, ‘I don’t even know if I want to go there,’ because what the Americans did. This was in Bismarckstrauss. They never came to us in Degerloch. They suddenly made like a roundup. You know, they came to all the apartments and looked for black market merchandise and were trying to confiscate everybody. And there was a fight – this was a messy situation.

“This was early, like July or August. We were sitting and talking, and everyone was telling about his family, and where he was from, and how this one died, and that one died, and what is going to become of us, and where are we going to go. And at one time, I think it was Jujek, this young man who was talking, everyone was telling where they were. And this young boy mentioned – I understand he became a millionaire in America, somebody just told me recently. I never saw him again. He mentioned the name Biesiadka. You know, he was taken to Biesiadka. So I asked about Benno, and he says he thought that he remembers a name like this. But they were separated and part of them was taken to Krakow and part of them was taken to Plaszow. He doesn’t know what happened to them. And then he said, ‘Well, forget about him, he’s probably dead like most of us are.’ So that was July 1945.

“And then this happened. I remember this date, March 27, 1946. In the meanwhile, my husband was in Flossenburg. He was liberated and he lived in Regensburg. He didn’t do a thing. He was there with two other men; they were not even in a DP camp. They took away an apartment of some rich Nazi and there was a cellar full of wine and meat and everything. They just were there waiting what’s going to happen. He was not going to go to America because he doesn’t have anybody in America.

“There were partial lists put together of survivors. I always looked. You know you always looked for your own family and you look for his name and, it never showed up. And he did the same thing there. But because everything was so fragmentary…

Then one day, this one year, from ’45 to ’46, he was liberated on the 24th of April, that is our wedding date but a year later, he didn’t do anything. He and those two boys didn’t do a thing. They just, they were just there. Didn’t work, didn’t inquire about anything, they just had a good time eating and drinking and putting on some weight. He was maybe 70 pounds when he came out of the camp. He wrote a story. He wrote this after the war. He wrote this thing about this death march in Polish and I think he translated into English.

“One day he came to Munich. And as he was getting off the train and going out of the station, he bumped into a friend of his whom he was in architecture school in Warsaw together, by the name of Helik Celin. They bump into each other and, of course, the first question is ‘Helik, you are alive?’ ‘Benno, you are alive?’ That’s how we were greeting each other whenever you saw a familiar face. And they started talking. And as it happened, the family lived in Warsaw, and they went to school together. But Helik’s family was from Sandomierz and during the war they went back to Sandomierz, not far from this Biesiadka. Anyway, he knew his father very well because they were good friends in Warsaw at the university. So Helik’s father was in Flossenburg in the camp together with my husband. He literally… he died in his arms. Benno Took – you know, he was a young boy, and the man was already maybe 50 or 45. So he sort of took care of him, tried to help him with his work. But he died there.

“Helik was telling him, of course, after all that excitement that they’re both alive. And, ‘Where are you rushing?’ He was rushing to Stuttgart because his mother, Mrs. Celin, she was a nice woman, survived in Auschwitz and she is now in Stuttgart in the displaced persons camp in the Bismarckstrasse. And Helik was going to visit her. Benno quickly took his address and said, ‘Well, I have to come to Stuttgart and talk to your mother and tell her all about your father. And we have to get together again, and…’

“So Benno was going to come to Stuttgart one day in order to see Mrs. Celin. And so he did. Of course, I lived in Degerloch, and she lived in the main camp where were those big apartment houses at the end of Bismarckstrasse.

“So he came to Stuttgart and went to see Mrs. Celin and whomever else he met there. And among them he met this boy, this Jujek, in the street. Of course, when you see a familiar face, surprise, then happy and elated. And Jujek said to him, ‘You know, quite a few months ago there was somebody asking for you.’ And Benno didn’t know for sure whether it’s me or my sister. He says, ‘Well, where is she?’ And he says, ‘She lives in Degerloch.’ So he came to Degerloch.

“He came to Degerloch. Of course, I had my friends there, Marina and the others, and then those two brothers, Stefak and Jujek, became our very close friends also. So they all knew about it, after all, you know he was my fiancé, not officially, but almost. So everybody, we all knew about each other’s story, about every member of the family.

“So he came there. This was during the day, and I was at work. He talked to several of them and Marina showed him some pictures from Weissenberg. He sees that this is me, but he doesn’t ask too many questions. He doesn’t know if I’m involved with somebody else. After all, it’s almost a year after the war, March 1946. But he just – I have this piece of paper, it says ‘222 Bismarckstrasse, Benno,’ that’s all. And he left this piece of paper with my friends, when I will come home from work, they should give it to me. At first, he didn’t say anything, but then when he left. I heard all this later from them – when he left Marina and Genna and Stefan, they look at this and say, ‘Benno, this must be Hanka’s Benno from Poland. Where did he suddenly appear?’ That’s how it went.

Again, it sounds so incredible.

“I finished my work, and I was supposed to take care of something. In the meanwhile, the American Consulate opened, and Sarah Levine had already submitted my papers, but this took time. I went to Bismarckstrasse because I was supposed to deliver something or do something for Sarah Levine.

“Now that same evening my friends and I from Degerloch, we had tickets for a flute concerto, I mean, we were so starved for any little… So, we had those tickets and I was supposed to rush home to Degerloch in order to make the concert at 8 o’clock. I was there until, let’s say, about 6 o’clock. Then I get out and I stand at the streetcar station talking to some friends. By then people – you know, we were there from the very beginning so lots of people knew me and especially since I was supposedly helping Sarah Levine and I was supposed to know the inside story of the Joint Distribution Committee. ‘When do they open the consulate?’ and… I was supposed to know. I didn’t, but people ask questions. So I was standing and talking to a group of some friends. I suddenly felt as, you know sometimes you feel somebody’s eyes in the back of you, and I turned around and it was him. And I looked at him, ‘Benno, are you alive?’ And that’s how we met again.

“We got married shortly after and came to the United States together. He got a corporate affidavit. That’s why I know that my affidavit wasn’t even needed because he got a corporate affidavit from the Joint Distribution Committee. We arrived the 20th of May 1946, with the first boat.”

(To be continued)

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