Arek Hersh survived. At 15, his childhood memories contained hangings, mass murder, cannibalism, and watching his friends beaten to death.
Arek Hersh is a holocaust survivor. He spoke at Lincoln’s Bailgate Methodist Church on January 28th, after a film on his experiences was shown: “I would never forgive those who committed those atrocities.”
Arek was ten when his Polish hometown, Sieradz, fell under German occupation. He was eleven when the Nazis took him to his first concentration camp. His father was arrested and taken away, but escaped. So the Nazis came back for his older brother. His brother also escaped.
Next time, the Nazis kicked down the door of Arek’s family home and took him away. The German doctor assessed him and said he was too small for work. The Nazis disagreed and Arek was taken to a camp. There he was forced to do back-breaking labour.
For some prisoners the experience became too much and they threw themselves under passing trains. Arek had the awful task of carrying the body parts to be buried.
Eventually, he was released from the first camp to return to his ghetto home in Lodz. He recalled his thoughts as he walked away from the barbed-wire fencing: “If ever there was a hell, this is it.”
He was taken from camp to camp by the Nazis, witnessing some of history’s worst crimes against humanity as he passed through each one. He saw the first experiments with gassing Jews, as the prisoners were rounded up and shuffled into a van which had the exhaust pipe pumping fumes inside it.
Within minutes the twenty or so Jews were dead. These memories, said Arek, are “a constant reminder of what human beings can do.”
Eventually, Arek was taken to Hitler’s most notorious death camp, Auschwitz. As he entered the camp, he noticed that two lines were being formed. One contained the most healthy prisoners, likely to be put to work, whilst the other comprised of the weak. He was in the latter.
Knowing that the Nazis quickly disposed of those they didn’t need, Arek used a moment when the SS were distracted by a commotion further down the line to swap queues. It was a decision that saved his life. Everyone in his first queue was slaughtered, including his first love.
Eventually, as the Russians approached, Arek was taken to Theresienstadt camp. Then, as the Nazis came under increasing pressure from the Americans in April 1945, the prisoners were shipped out once again, this time travelling around in open-top train wagons for a month.
Arek survived by eating grass and cooking the leather from his shoes. He looked on as some Russian and Ukranian prisoners of war resorted to cutting the flesh from dead bodies, cooking it in boiling water, and eating it.
He remembers having to deal with the death that surrounded him: “You could see the bodies on each train. We just threw them off and buried them.”
On May 8th 1945, he was liberated by the Russians. By May 14th he was on a Lancaster bomber heading for England.
Arek first returned the scenes of his memories in 1980 as he slowly began to come to terms with his harrowing experiences. “There were so many terrible things that happened to me that it’s impossible to remember all of them,” he said.
“[The Nazis] succeeded in dehumanising us… There was very little help from one and other.”
For more on Arek’s fascinating story, you can buy his book from here.Tweet