Golden Gate Wing Guest Speaker Archive

Presentation Date: July 27, 2006

Benjamin Sieradzki

Speaker Photo

WWII Polish Survivor of Lodz Ghetto and Auswitz
* Born in 1927 in Zgierz, Poland
* In 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, he and two older brothers left home, headed East
* In 1940, Ben's family rounded up & sent to Lodz Ghetto along with 200,000 Jews
* By August 1944 all those in Lodz Ghetto transported to Auswitz
* Kapos, "selected" for labor camp in Stoeken, near Hannover, Germany
* Allied bombers and fighter overhead by day, bombers again by night
* Ahlem Labor Camp - abandonment by Kapos & SS guards
* Finally, US Army 84th Division arrived and liberated all prisoners --FREEDOM!
* After recovery in a German hospital, spent eight years in Sweden, then to America! WWII Polish Survivor of Lodz Ghetto and Auswitz
* Born in 1927 in Zgierz, Poland
* In 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, he and two older brothers left home, headed East
* In 1940, Ben's family rounded up & sent to Lodz Ghetto along with 200,000 Jews
* By August 1944 all those in Lodz Ghetto transported to Auswitz
* Kapos, "selected" for labor camp in Stoeken, near Hannover, Germany
* Allied bombers and fighter overhead by day, bombers again by night
* Endured hunger, bitter cold, lice, disease, lethal injection, suicide, death...
* Ahlem Labor Camp - abandonment by Kapos & SS guards
* Finally, US Army 84th Division arrived and liberated all prisoners --FREEDOM!
* After recovery in a German hospital, spent eight years in Sweden, then to America!


Benjamin Sieradzki was the youngest of five children in a Polish-Jewish family a suburb of Lodz, the second largest city in Poland.  His family had lived in this part of Poland for many generations.  Most of his ancestors were either weavers of woolen cloth or biblical scholars, rabbis, or teachers.  His parents owned a small textile factory manufacturing woolen cloth.  The family lived comfortably well and all of the children attended school.  They had many friends and relatives in the area including local Germans involved in the textile industry. 

In 1939 Benjamin was 12 years old.  There were a lot of rumors and threats about impending war between Poland and Germany.  His parents were very concerned about the future, especially in view of Hitler's hateful actions against the Jews in Germany.  On September 1, 1939, German troops invaded Poland.  Ben’s town came under very severe bombing and strafing attacks, in part because it was heavily industrialized and had a munitions factory.  The house next door was firebombed.  The invading German army encountered very little resistance and arrived on September 7, 1939.
Within days the German occupation forces started harassing the civilian population, especially the Jewish people.  Almost daily, the invaders issued decrees closing schools, ordering curfews, etc.  The family’s factory was confiscated without compensation and was taken over by local Germans.  The main Synagogue and the major Jewish center of learning in the town were burned to the ground.  At first the Jews were forced to wear yellow armbands (later changed to yellow stars of David) on their outer garments, both front and back.  Even infants and small children had to wear them.  When German soldiers approached, Jews were required to step off the sidewalk and to show respect by tipping or removing our hats.

The situation deteriorated rapidly.  One evening Ben’s father was taken away by several German agents (both soldiers and civilians) who refused to say where he was being taken and for what reason.  He and number of prominent Jewish men of the community were savagely beaten in the basement of the main Catholic Church; some died.  Released 36 hours later, Ben’s father never recovered from his severe injuries.  The persecutions continued with evacuation “selections” of children, the sick or disabled, the old, anyone unable to work.  Ben’s family fled town on foot in the middle of a snowy night carrying backpacks with the essentials.  They found refuge in a relative’s small apartment in the city of Lodz.  The people who had been “evacuated” were never seen or heard from again.

In early March 1940 the German authorities ordered all 200,000 Jews of Lodz to leave their homes and resettle to an old rundown area of the city which would be called "Lodz Ghetto".  Anyone found outside the ghetto after April 30 would be shot.  Because Ben’s family had left home so hastily, they had very few possessions.  They slept on the floor of an abandoned warehouse with many rats as neighbors.  The very inadequate food rations consisted mainly of bread partly composed of sawdust, frozen or partly rotten potatoes, and cabbage-type vegetables like kohlrabi and rutabaga when they were available.  Even for these, people had to wait in long lines.  All were perpetually hungry and could hardly think of anything except food.

Many different factories were being set up in the ghetto to produce for the German war effort.  Every able person had to work.  Ben got a job as an apprentice in a carpentry factory making furniture for the military brass.  The carpenters were highly skilled craftsmen.  Later, he was transferred to another area in the same plant to work 12-hour shifts on a production line making wooden crates for mortar shells and bombs.

Ben’s sisters also got jobs, one as a communal kitchen helper and the other in a leather factory.  His parents did not work.  They had a very hard time coping with all this deterioration of life, the suffering, the hunger, feeling helpless and demoralized at not being able to do anything for their children, and no foreseeable end in sight.

The extremely cold winters of the early 1940s were an additional burden.  There was no fuel provided for either cooking or heating.  People burned anything they could find: trees, parts of the very building they lived in, floors, roofs, anything combustible.  They also dug in old garbage dumps for pieces of coal, wood scraps, etc.  Many older people, the sick in hospitals, and people who could not work were periodically evacuated from the ghetto never to be seen again.  Much later, they learned that they were killed in specially designed airtight vans with hoses to inject exhaust fumes from the running engines.  Their bodies were later dumped nearby and burned.

In September 1942 the German authorities ordered the Lodz Ghetto leadership to select about 25,000 people under age 10 and over 65 for "resettlement" out of the ghetto.  The Jewish ghetto police collected and delivered to assembly points many children, the elderly and the sick on foot or by wagon.  This action did not satisfy the Germans.  They decided to bring in special Gestapo forces to search, with the help of the ghetto police, every building and every dwelling for people they deemed unproductive, regardless of age.  About 6:00 am on 7 September, Gestapo men and ghetto police surrounded Ben’s building and ordered everyone to come down to the courtyard within three minutes.  Anyone who tried to hide would be shot.

Both of Bens’ parents were in their early fifties but they were in very poor health.  His father had severe edema and depression and stayed in bed most of the time, mainly to keep warm and stave off hunger.  Ben’s mother had a broken leg which did not heal.  She was very thin and her leg was in a cast for a long time.  She could hardly walk and used a cane for getting around in the room.  Both of Ben’s parents were promptly selected walk to a truck which was parked in front of the building.  Ben’s mother could not walk across the yard.  These Germans had no mercy.  They pushed her down on the cobblestone-paved yard and dragged her by her collar out to the truck like an old rag.  Other neighbors from the building were selected, infants, little kids, the old and the sick.  All were brutally loaded onto the trucks and wagons.  One man refused to let go of his little children; he held them against the wall with his outstretched arms.  He was shot on the spot.

The German forces were not satisfied.  They needed many more to be "resettled".  Two days later they came back and ordered all the people of the street block to come down to the street, stand single file on both sides of the sidewalk, and keep moving forward so that they could perform additional selection.  A friendly ghetto policeman told Ben that he was at risk of being selected because he had observed boys like him taken away in other street selections.  At the time, Ben was 15 years old but looked more like 12 or 13.  Ben’s siblings decided that he should run away and hide.  

Ben bolted out of the selection line, sprinted inside the nearest open gate and hid under garbage in a large rat-infested dumpster for hours.  After the selection ended, Ben was able to rejoin his sisters.

Later, Ben learned that many of his relatives in the ghetto -- aunts, cousins, and their small children -- were taken away during this period.   Some of his relatives had died of hunger and sickness before that time.  Much later, he also learned that around 18,000 people taken away for "resettlement" during this period were sent to the Chelmno concentration camp, approximately 37 miles from Lodz.  On arrival they were ordered to strip naked and were loaded into 5-ton enclosed vans with the assistance of other prisoners.  When the van was full of prisoners, they opened a pipe valve that diverted deadly truck engine exhaust gas into the van.  Within a few minutes while the van was moving, all the people inside were dead.  The van traveled only a few miles outside town into a serene forest area where the bodies were dumped into a mass pit and burned.  The ashes and bones were dumped into ditches or into a nearby river.

After many selections which lasted until the ghetto itself was liquidated, of Ben’s family only he and his sister Anna were left alive.  In late summer of 1944, the German authorities ordered that the whole ghetto be closed and all its inhabitants evacuated by August 28.  The police and the German forces started to close the ghetto section by section, forcing the people who lived in each section to vacate their premises and report to the train station with only what they could carry with them.  Ben and Anna resisted the order to report to the station.  Instead they wandered from one section to another, finding some people to let us remain for a day or two, including a cousin who let them stay in a basement for a while.  Every day long trains arrived and people were herded into box cars or cattle trains.  Hoping that the Soviet Army would arrive soon, they kept away from the trains.  This went on for several weeks until there was no longer anywhere to hide.  They reported to the station and slept on the platform overnight waiting for a new train to arrive next morning.

Along with hundreds of other people, families with children, the old, the young, Ben and his sister were herded into box cars packed like sardines with standing room only..  After an overnight trip, the train arrived at the notorious Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.

The evacuees were ordered to line up, men and women separately, five across each line.  The lines kept slowly advancing toward the front of the railroad platform.  In front of their platform stood several of the German SS officers with large dogs.  Later, Ben learned that one of them was Dr. Mengele, the infamous "Angel of Death" who was in charge of selecting people either for work or to be gassed.  All he did was point his hand left or right.  All the elderly, children, and mothers with small children he directed to the left.  They were loaded into wagons which were standing there waiting for their "cargo".

While the lines were advancing to the verdict to live or to die, one of the prisoners helping to keep order spoke to Ben.  The man said in a low voice that Ben should straighten up, pinch his cheeks to make them look ruddy and fresh, and maybe he might pass the selection.  When Ben’s time came to be chosen by the "Angel of Death", he straightened up, pinched his cheeks hard, and said he was an 18 year old carpenter (he was actually only 17).  Dr. Mengele looked at him briefly and then was distracted by another officer with a dog.  They talked about something. When the doctor turned around and looked at the dog, Ben promptly ran to a group of men who had been selected to live and work.  Immediately he looked toward the women's area and saw that his sister was also selected for the good side.  This was the last time he ever saw her.

After showering and being shaved everywhere, each man in Ben’s group was issued striped prisoner's pants and jacket, cap, shoes (wooden clogs) and one set of underwear.  They were then marched for a good distance through the huge Auschwitz-Birkenau camp complex.  The chimneys of the crematoriums were billowing smoke.  One of the guards said, "Those are your folks who just arrived here with you going up in smoke."  The guards told them the camp rules and that they would be selected for work in Germany.

Ben was assigned to a teenage barrack.  The barrack held about 1000 Jewish teenagers from several countries in Europe, but most of them were from the Lodz Ghetto.  There were no beds and no blankets; they slept on the bare concrete floor.  They had to lie on one side and could not turn; there was no room to turn.

After three days, Ben noticed a selection in process at one of the barracks.  As soon as a prisoner was selected, he was tattooed on his forearm.  Ben understood that these prisoners would be sent to Germany to work or to other concentration camps.  He tried to join the prisoners awaiting the selection process, but it didn't work.  He was kicked out and beaten.  Three weeks later, Ben was able to sneak into a crowd of prisoners that had been selected.  This group was transported by freight train for several days to a camp in Stoecken near the city of Hanover, Germany. 

The camp commandant told skilled craftsmen and professionals like carpenters, doctors, sheet metal workers, tailors, etc., to come forward (Ben did not feel skilled enough to dare to volunteer).  The rest of would work in the Continental Rubber factory located a short distance from the camp.  A few days after arrival, they were awakened around 4:00 a.m.  They were then marched to work like a parade with SS guards with rifles on both sides of the column.  At the factory they were assigned to the tire-making department.  The stronger prisoners were sent to the area where rubber and other resins were processed using heavy roller presses.  The rubber was hot and heavy.  The punishment for not working fast enough was severe.

Ben was assigned to a galvanizing department.  The task was to load steel parts into large steel baskets and lower them by overhead hoist into hot acid tanks, remove them later, and transfer them to other tanks with chemical solutions.  Ben worked with German civilians, all of whom wore protective clothing: special rubber aprons, rubber boots and gloves, facial protection against acid splatter and the harmful smelly vapors emanating from the acid tanks.  No such protection was given to the prisoners.  At this hazardous work, they wore the same striped prisoner pajama-type uniforms they had in Auschwitz.  This was their only clothing; they wore it day and night and had no facilities for laundry.

Nighttime brought Allied bombers.  One night, there was a direct hit on the factory.  The slave laborers couldn't enter it until the debris was cleaned up by other prisoners.  One morning Ben was assigned to a group of prisoners to clear bombed-out houses not far from our camp.  Ben worked on that detail several times out in the cold and rain.  In the ruins, he always looked for food.  Sometimes he found some raw potatoes, stale bread, or other old rotten food.

After several months of 12-hour days at hard labor and the ever-present hunger, cold and abuse, people started to die daily.  Ben saw several people die during a roll call and after severe beatings. 

On November 30, 1944 the prisoners were marched for several hours to another concentration camp outside Hanover in the town of Ahlem.  The barracks were old and in terrible condition: no windows, broken roof, boards missing from the wall.  It was freezing cold with wind and blowing snow; Ben got sick with fever.  For several days, there were no blankets or straw sacks to lie on.  After a few days of numerous roll calls per day in the snow, rain, and freezing winds, they were marched to work late one afternoon.  Half of the prisoners were to work the day shift and the other half the night shift.  Ben was assigned to the night shift.  The workplace was a dark, wet old rock quarry for producing cement.  The plan was to prepare this underground mine to house a large factory to produce war materiel like replacement parts for tanks.

The prisoners were assigned to clear and shovel rocks into lorries that ran on tracks.  After dynamiting one section of quarry and waiting for the dust to settle, they would clear all the blasted out rocks and debris, move the tracks to another blasted out section, and again begin loading by hand.  This was hard, cold, wet, and dirty work in the same minimal clothing they had been issued at Auschwitz. 

The winter of 1944-45 was very cold and harsh.  The prisoners were dying in very large numbers from diseases, severe beatings both in the camp and at work, industrial accidents, starvation, exposure, or suicide.  The men slept two in a bunk bed, heads opposite each other.  One morning, the young man who shared Ben’s bunk did not get up; he was dead.

One night when while shoveling rocks and debris after an area was dynamited, a huge rock came loose from above right in front Ben.  It broke his shovel in half; only the handle remained his hand.  After the dust settled, several prisoners had to break up the big rock and remove Ben’s partner.

One day during Ben’s night shift in the mine, he found an empty paper cement sack.  He cut it to fit his upper body both front and back to wear under his old striped camp uniform.  He wore it for several weeks to help keep warm until a guard noticed his strange shape.  The guard ordered Ben to take it off, took down his name, and struck Ben with his rifle butt, accusing him of trying to run away.  He said the paper cement sack was "civilian clothing", strictly "verboten", and against camp rules.  The camp vice-commandant said in a loud voice that Ben had stolen civilian clothing and was wearing it under my uniform, indicating that he was planning to escape.  He ordered the guards to punish Ben for the "escape” attempt.  They beat and kicked him severely.  For several days Ben couldn't work or eat.

In January 1945 a large group, perhaps 250, of the original 1000 Jewish prisoners from Auschwitz who were still alive were selected to be evacuated from the camp in Ahlem.  These men were mostly sick and weak and not able to work any longer.  They were loaded on trucks taken to a large prison camp in Neuengamme near Hamburg where a large facility for sick prisoners was located.  Ben learned later that most of them who were sick were killed as soon as they arrived there.

Meanwhile in camp, corpses were piling up at the garbage dump located between the infirmary and the latrine barrack.  The sanitary conditions at the camp, never very good, continued to decline.  The water supply was practically non-functional.

Heavy Allied bombing of the area made the prisoners feel hopeful.  When they worked the night shift and slept during the daytime, they had to get up quickly each time the air raid alarm sounded and go back down into the mine.  This happened often during the day, so sleeping was out of the question.  Ben sometimes prayed and wished that a bomb would hit his barrack directly and finish him off.  He felt that life was not worth it any more.

The winter of 1944-45 was very harsh and Ben developed a continuing fever.  The infirmary was full so they let him stay in the barrack.  He slept and was unable to clean himself.  The lice were eating him up and he didn't even care any more.  A few weeks before the liberation, the remnants of the 1000 original prisoners stopped working in the rock quarry mine while another group of Jewish prisoners arrived to take their place.  Among this group was a much older cousin Ben’s.  He found out that Ben was in the camp and came to visit him.  He had lost his wife and little children in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

On April 6, 1945, the guards evacuated prisoners who were still able to work.  Then they locked the prison gates which along with the electrified barbed wire gates enclosed the remainder.  There was no one in charge and no guarding of any sort.  Those who could quickly ran over to the kitchen barrack and looted any remaining food like loaves of bread and clear water.  The rumor was that they would be shot later in the day and the barracks blown up so as to hide the horrible condition of the prisoners and of the camp from the American victors. The rumors were well founded; one of the prisoners who worked in the infirmary heard it from the camp commandant himself. 

On April 10, Ben and some other prisoners got up very early in the morning.  No shooting could be heard.  Ben walked outside and saw a column of military trucks and other mobile war equipment driving by slowly and then stopping.  The prisoners didn’t know which army this was, but they knew that it wasn't the German army.  Some thought they recognized American insignia on the trucks. Then some of the soldiers came out of the trucks, stretched, and began to toss a baseball around.  They even wore baseball catcher's mitts.  These were Americans! 

Some prisoners started to jump for joy but most, including Ben, were too weak and sick.  The prisoners screamed as loud as they could that this was a concentration camp and that they needed help.  In a little while a few of the soldiers walked up.  They asked questions, but most prisoners didn't speak English and couldn't respond.  One could speak a little English and asked for cigarettes.  Each of the soldiers emptied his pockets and tossed cigarettes on the ground, the prisoners jumped for them.

The inmates told the soldiers that they were Polish Jews and asked if any of them were Jewish and could speak Yiddish.  Soon after, more soldiers, including some higher ranking officers, came in jeeps.  They continued to keep their distance, afraid that the prisoners might be contagious (which they probably were).  Later all kinds of military personnel arrived including chaplains.  Most of these war-hardened men just shook their heads.  A few of them even cried when they saw the sick, the dirt, and the dead bodies.  They brought food into the kitchen.  That day and the next, the Americans with their Red Cross military vans and also some local German nurses brought bandages and other first aid items and began to treat the sick and wounded.  Among the soldiers was a young fellow with a pocket camera who took pictures.  Others who seemed to be official Army photographers also recorded the scene.  This was apparently the first concentration camp liberated by this unit.

The surviving prisoners were soon transferred to a German hospital called Heidehaus near Hanover.  Ben was stripped of clothing, thoroughly washed in a tub of warm water, and put in a hospital bed.  This was the first time he had slept in a real bed with sheets and pillows for a very long time.  He got very sick that first night, both physically and emotionally, and woke up completely drenched in perspiration.  The night nurse came in and gently wiped away the sweat and tears.  He was told he only weighed 80 pounds at that time and was suffering from a variety of ailments including tuberculosis, typhus, severe malnutrition, skin problems, severe lower back pain, etc. 

Of all the family members who were with Ben in the Lodz Ghetto, apparently he was the only survivor.  In June 1945, Swedish Red Cross agents came to Ben in the hospital and asked if he would like to be taken to Sweden for further recuperation.  He agreed immediately; he wanted to get out of Germany as soon as possible.  They took him and many other survivors to Sweden where he spent more than a year in various hospitals and convalescent homes in different Swedish towns.  The Swedish people were extremely nice and generous and he was very grateful.

Ben had an uncle, his father's only brother, in Denmark.  He had lived there since before World War I.  He and most of the other Jews of Denmark survived the Holocaust because of the generous help and moral leadership of the Danish and Swedish people.  They organized a rescue one night in 1943:  Through a cooperative effort of Danish and Swedish fishermen and other small boat operators, most of the Danish Jews were smuggled into neutral Sweden.  He and his family were very helpful to Ben.

In 1946 Ben learned that his two brothers, who had been taken to Siberia by the Russians, had survived the war and were in Poland.  They eventually came to Sweden with their new Russian Jewish brides.  Later, they had children in Sweden who still live there with spouses and children of their own.  Ben’s oldest brother Mendel, died in 1977, and his wife in 1995.  Ben’s other brother Isaac still lives in Sweden with his family.  Ben stayed in Sweden for eight years, both working and going to school; he was trained as a mechanical engineer.

In 1953 Ben was granted a Swedish visa to the United States for one year.  Because he was a stateless person at that time, he would not be permitted to return to Sweden if he remained for more than a year.  Ben did not return.  He worked and went to school in Los Angeles, where he married Gloria in 1955.  In 1957 Ben was naturalized as an American citizen.  Ben and Gloria moved to Berkeley, California, where they still live.  They have two sons and three granddaughters, named after Ben’s two lovely young sisters, murdered by the Germans, whom he will mourn forever. 

Almost all of the people in Ben’s extended family, friends, and schoolmates in the town where he lived before the war did not survive.  They all perished during the nightmare of the Holocaust – the Holocaust that some still deny ever happened.