At age 13, Aron Greenfield was not yet of high school age in Szczakowa, Poland when the German invasion of that country in September 1939 started the Holocaust that was World War II.
On Jan. 9 Greenfield, who is now 90 and lives in Norwood, spoke to Whitman-Hanson Regional High School students of his experiences when he was their age — just trying to survive and bear witness to the horrors of that war.
The message was a powerful one to caution against, as he puts it, believing “one charismatic idiot” willing to manipulate his way into power.
“It added a realistic aspect to what we learn in history,” junior AP history student Tom Long said. “It’s a different perspective from a textbook or a movie, it’s real life.”
Long said a problem with history, especially early history, is its reliance on how people tell it.
“Something as important as the Holocaust was, it’s something that we need to continue [speaking] on, and there’s a responsibility of everyone who knows what happened to continue telling about it,” he said. “It’s important to learn from our mistakes in history and try to change what we can.”
Both Long and Greenfield see a danger in the misinformation people so easily believe and trust. Greenfield lived through it.
“Mr. Greenfield is part of a dwindling number of Holocaust survivors, and we are so fortunate to have the opportunity to hear his story from him,” Business Technology teacher Lydia Nelson said in introducing Greenfield to an audience of social studies students. “He is passionate about sharing his dreadful experiences, not because he wants to relive them, but because he feels he must impart the stories — and the lessons — to all of you.”
From 1941 to 1945, Greenfield was sent to nine different concentration camps, including the Auschwitz complex of death camps, eventually ending up in the Gorlitz, Germany labor camp where he was liberated by Russian troops.
He labored at whatever he needed to do to prolong his life. He manufactured fertilizer and dug sand for a water canal project, among other tasks. Few of the laborers survived. Any scrap of food was jealously guarded.
In fact of the nine members of his family sent to the camps, only he and one sister, Sarah, lived to see liberation. He found his sister in Poland after the war, after not knowing whether anyone else in the family was still alive.
“I met her, and I couldn’t recognize her — she was a beautiful woman — because she was so skinny and she had lost all her teeth … she had silver and in her teeth and the Germans knocked her teeth out,” he said. The gold and silver in teeth extracted from concentration camp victims went to support the Nazi war effort.
Greenfield also related how his sister had been told early in the war that she did not look Jewish, but could pass for German or Austrian.
“It just goes to show, just the [Jewish] name alone did you in,” he said.
Even before they were removed to the camps, he told students, the Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe were greatly restricted in their daily lives. Besides being forced to wear a Star of David — in his case on an armband — they were limited to two hours outside per day, and food was scarce. One day he tried to hide his armband when out trying to buy milk after curfew, he was turned in by a collaborator and sentenced to three days of shoveling coal at a police station while his family feared the worst.
In both the ghettos and the camps, even family members were known to steal food from each other as a matter of survival.
“Some people were saying, ‘We’re already starving. What’s the difference in going to a concentration camp — starving here or starving there?’” he said.
His family was sent first to a Jewish ghetto, after their furniture and other possessions were given to Polish collaborators.
“They took everything away from us,” he said, noting the Germans threatened to shoot entire Jewish populations if even one person was discovered hiding possessions. “Some ask me ‘Why didn’t you fight back?’ How can you fight back when you stand in front of a machine gun?”
In ghettos, three or more families would be crowded into two rooms awaiting what was to come next. That meant selection for transport to a concentration or extermination camp.
“They never tell you where you are going,” he said of the German transports. “We stood in line, waiting, watching.”
At the camps, they were separated by age and gender, prompting his mother to tell Greenfield to put on long pants and say he was 16 — the minimum age for laborers in the concentration camps. Labor did not mean longevity, either. Selection was an almost daily ordeal as Jews faced the lash or execution if they were unable to work. Many camp prisoners ended their suffering by throwing themselves on electrified fences.
After about a year, he was reunited briefly with his brothers, who were killed two months before the war ended. More than 15,000 were killed out of revenge just before the Russians liberated the camps.
“Many times you asked where is God?” he said. “I’m still looking for God. I believe there is a God, but I don’t know how to explain God … My God is the sun, the moon, the grass growing every morning.”
After the war, Greenfield was placed in a different kind of camp — for displaced persons, as refugees were called.
“For me, this was fantastic,” he said. “I got three meals a day and I didn’t work. I gained some weight.”
His message for future generations is a simple one, as hatred is still very much part of the world.
“When you are in a situation like this here, stick together,” he said. “Don’t help the enemy just because you think you’re going to get ahead. Eventually, after he’s through with them, he’ll go after you.”
Nelson said she contacted Greenfield after reading a Boston Globe article by Yvonne Abrams and wrote her for contact information, eventually reaching his daughter, Nadine, to arrange for his visit.
Greenfield speaks to many school groups free of charge because he feels strongly about reaching out to young people so they won’t forget how distrust and hate can run the world.
Later in the week, Nelson screened the film “Freedom Writers” for students unable to attend Greenfield’s talk and ahead of the observation of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.
“It was a way to cover the topic in all my classes,” Nelson said. “Martin Luther King Day is not just a day off.”