Chronicled by Louis Arthur Norton, Posted on October 27, 2021
One rainy morning, I and a group of fellow Nazi slave labor prisoners were not marched to the usual bomb-damaged factory. Instead, we were forced at gunpoint onto trucks that took us to Mauthausen, a notorious death camp. Once there, the guards brusquely herded us into dank, dingy buildings, slammed the hefty doors shut, slid stout iron bars across them, and plunged us into almost total darkness. I stumbled my way over many bemoaning inmates toward the rough-hewn, foul-smelling boards that were to serve as our bunks.
Being locked in that squalid building day after day with little food or water, I lost track of time. The air in the barracks increasingly grew more putrid from the unwashed bodies and the people that had died but had not yet been removed. In fact, in time, it became difficult to tell apart those who were alive from those who were not. I became delirious imagining cruel guards sternly looking at me under the rims of their intimidating grey-green helmets. Suddenly, I heard engine noises outside the shabby wooden barracks. The heavy bar that held the door shut from the outside made a dull thumping noise when it hit the ground. The portal opened, flooding the barracks with light. Reflexively I covered my eyes against the glare. I wanted to get up, but only succeeded in raising my head just a little. In the doorway stood a tall figure wearing a strange uniform. His backlit silhouette made him appear like a creature from another world. Like a supernatural sound echoing from a great distance, the man uttered three deliberately voiced words in unfamiliar English, “Oh-my-God!”
This is how the Holocaust ended for me, a solitary Polish-Jew liberated by American soldiers from the infamous death camp Mauthausen. I was at the time an emaciated nineteen-year old formerly identified by a faded and scarred tattoo on my forearm. Now, by some miracle, I was once again a human with both a name and a future having survived the war as a slave laborer in several Nazi armor-producing factories. At the moment of freedom my feelings ranged from exhaustion, bewilderment, relief, to an emotion that I had not felt in many years: elation —the realization that the terrible war and my nightmare of what seemed like endless pain had ended. The physical injuries I suffered as a prisoner would heal in time, but the memories of those years always re-visited me. My next tasks were to re-enter civilized society and to confront a series of daunting challenges to make a new life.
When I regained my strength, I volunteered as part of a Jewish crew on a refurbished WWII American tank and troop landing ship known as an LST. The now Panamanian registered cargo ship was named Altalena, a pseudonym for the well-known Zionist leader Zèev Jabotinsky. Docked at Marseille, the refurbished former warship was filled with refugees and rifles, Bren guns, over a million rounds of ammunition and artillery shells — much-needed arms for the fight for Israel’s War of Independence. On the next high tide, a tugboat guided the converted freshly painted LST out of the French port on Friday, June 11, 1948 and we left for Israel, a new sovereign state that had been declared only a few weeks before sailing.
The Altalena arrived off a deserted beach in the north end of Tel-Aviv eleven days later. Two of the ship’s small boats, loaded with men, headed toward shore under a white flag. This was an internationally recognized sign of ceasefire and request for negotiation. Regrettably, one Israeli political faction viewed the ship as a potential challenge to its authority. The newly formed defense forces of Israel, the Tzahal, fired upon the Altalena setting it ablaze, and eventually it sank off the Tel Aviv beach. I was forced to abandon ship and became one of only a few emigrants to swim ashore to reach the “Promised Land.” During the skirmish 16 refugees were killed and others were wounded, but fortunately, most of the passengers and crew made it to shore unharmed. This tragic incident became a divisive and disturbing subject of political controversy for decades thereafter. The reckless destruction of the Altalena was a painful episode in the history of the rebirth of Israel.
Once on dry land, I along with hundreds of frightened displaced persons, became an émigré to the nascent state. We were no longer intimidated by German authority figures and freedom offered a new meaning —— hope. NowI had to manage my days for learning, earning a livelihood and something new — social connections and recreation. I could select my own neighborhood, housing within that community and the opportunity to receive good healthcare if the need arose. This is my story, a Holocaust refugee’s struggle and triumph by overcoming a series of obstacles. Some were demanding and others were at times amusing.
My immediate task was to become a citizen of my new country. I spoke Polish, Yiddish and, because of my captivity, conversational German. I knew a little Hebrew from my rudimentary religious studies, but was far from fluent in the Israeli language. I enrolled in an ulpan, a crash-course Hebraic language school for recent immigrants, which gave me a chance to learn the lingua franca of my new land. Being moved to various slave labor camps during those dreadful years, I had acquired mechanical skills and, to survive, a strong work ethic. In Israel, I became a freelance general repairman and welder, jobs that brought me financial independence and a sense of self-worth. Israel had just recovered from its own war and with this, had acquired a great new population influx. There was a great need for skilled workers.
I also became a reserve soldier in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). For the first time I proudly wore a soldier’s khaki uniform rather than the humiliating grey-striped prison garb adorned with its yellow six-pointed star. After completing grueling basic training, I was assigned to drive an armored personnel carrier. Usually a combat vehicle, in this instance it was used as a tracked ambulance with stretchers inside and a large white patch with the red Star of David (Magen David Adom) emblazoned on its side and roof, the Israeli counterpart of the International Federation of the Red Cross or Red Crescent.
As an Israeli soldier, I saw action in the Sinai Peninsula during the Suez Crisis of 1956, the short war that pitted Israel, Great Britain, and France against Egypt. While driving my well-armored ambulance carrying wounded soldiers to a field hospital, we came under fire. According to the Geneva Convention, well identified medical personnel and ambulances are not to be fired upon, but the unexpected happened. Bullets ricocheted off the vehicle with a resounding metallic ping, so I quickly drove behind a nearby large sand berm for cover. Firing from Israeli troops soon quieted them down allowing me and my wounded comrades to escape unharmed. Technically, I was now an IDF “combat veteran” who had successfully completed my mission, that of transporting wounded soldiers to safety, where they could receive medical care.
To succeed in this rapidly growing and changing country meant getting an education, starting with graduating high school and then, with luck, being admitted to a technical college. The first step was to enroll in a remedial schooling program while working to support myself. Having been apprehended by the Germans when I was twelve years old, I had barely completed an elementary school. This is also when I was separated from my mother and my aunt, who were taken to different concentration camps. I never saw them again. The war had denied me the opportunities to further my studies, engage in sports, play music, or even the adolescent pleasures of discovering and dreaming about the opposite sex. As I resumed my studies, my teachers endowed me with two important gifts — curiosity and an almost unquenchable thirst for knowledge. Also, by chance I met a lovely Israeli-born woman named Zahava with dark flashing eyes, soft auburn hair and a slim figure. Her Hebrew name in English means gold, both beautiful and precious. And that was what she was to me. The pleasure of courtship was a delight that I could not have imagined as a slave laborer. We married and, in time, started a family.
At school I particularly excelled in science and mathematics, but I found history to be a bore and this presented a predicament. The government considered the Old Testament (Torah) the national story of a people, therefore the history of Israel. Unfortunately, I had little interest in the minor events and obscure figures found in the Torah. I equated this subject matter with religious indoctrination, a topic that I subconsciously resisted. As a Holocaust survivor I believed that God was absent in our slave labor camp or in the concentration camps. This became an academic hurdle that seemed insurmountable. My grades in all other academic topics were quite good, but I failed to pass the national exam in history to receive my high school diploma. I took the exam several times, but the result was always the same. Disappointingly, a student was not eligible to attend any university without high school academic credentials.
During the year prior to the Sinai War, Bar-Ilan University was established in a suburb of Tel Aviv. The aim of this innovative educational institution was to forge links between orthodox religious theology and modern scientific studies. Most important to me, a high school diploma was not required for admission. It was only needed for graduation. The university was really for the devout and I considered myself at best a secular Jew, an indirect result of my experiences at the Plaszow, Saint Valentin and Mauthausen concentration camps. I was admitted to Bar-Ilan and, out of respect for my pious fellow students, I wore a kipa (skullcap) while on campus, but removed it when in the city. I deemed this as a quasi-principled compromise in exchange for the opportunity to advance my education. My studies in engineering went well, but my previous problem persisted. I failed to pass the high school level history examination. Graduation from Bar-Ilan was doubtful and I became frustrated. My father, imprisoned in the same slave labor camp as me early in the war, was shot — murdered by the Nazis. Before his tragic death that I as a prisoner was compelled to watch, he told me that I was gifted mechanically and would make an excellent mechanical engineer. Now what I considered my father’s dream for me, a struggling refugee, appeared to be an impossible goal.
Then fate intervened. A distant cousin who also survived the war had immigrated to the United States and was now visiting Israel. We had not known each other well as young children, but now as adults, we soon developed a close bond. I confided my frustrations with the Israeli academic system and the relative had a suggestion. He had some influential friends in America and if I became proficient in English and was willing to start my college studies at the beginning, I might be able to gain admission to Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg, Virginia. My lack of a high school diploma would not be a significant issue at this highly regarded American university.
Learning yet another language well enough to survive at the college level and getting used to yet another culture was a difficult task, but in time I became an undergraduate at Virginia Tech located in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley. The verdant Virginia hollows and the often-hazy Blue Ridge Mountains contrasted with the sapphire-like Mediterranean Sea off Tel Aviv and the bronzed Israeli desert. The difference in both the scenery and the American lifestyle were astonishing to my family and me at first, but soon we felt at home. The Virginia Tech administrators were extremely helpful. They found a part-time job for this struggling Israeli as an engineering laboratory assistant. This enabled Zahava and me to be financially secure. In addition, while working in the laboratory, I made several constructive suggestions that greatly aided a faculty member with his research project.
Being a diligent student, my grades put me on track to receive the American mechanical engineering degree in three years. However, there was one unexpected problem. The college regulations stated that all students must pass a physical education requirement meaning that I had to participate in a sport. As a former slave laborer and an Israeli blue-collar worker, I had little interest or time to engage in sports. Now I was told that I had to take up golf, but at that time there were no golf courses in Israel. I respectfully complained that this bureaucratic obstacle was a waste of my time. My advisor carefully read the regulation, noting that the only exceptions were for physically disabled people and military veterans who served during a conflict. I then asked if the veteran waiver only applied to those who served in the American armed forces. No one had ever raised that question before, but a careful re-reading of the text revealed that the directive was non-specific. Within about a week I presented my advisor several official government documents in Hebrew along with an English translation that attested to my combat service. He had it added to my university student file and that June I received my mechanical engineering degree cum laude.
The student visa stipulated that I was obligated to return to Israel upon completion of my studies, but an exception could be made for those graduates who showed noteworthy promise in the sciences by granting them an eighteen-month extension to gain practical experience in a high-tech company. I applied for the postponement, was approved, and found work within the research and development department of the Caterpillar Tractor Company, an American heavy construction machinery manufacturer. My inventiveness impressed my employers and I loved my assignment. The company’s management offered me a job at an attractive salary and promised to arrange for an expedited visa change so that I could become a permanent resident. In time this would lead to a green card and the opportunity to become a United States citizen. Although my wife and I were proud Israelis, we accepted the proposal and ultimately went on to become productive patriotic Americans as well.
After working for this corporation for several years, I went back to school to earn a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. I used this education to do research in the engineering field in the United States and produced eleven patents. In retirement, Zahava and I settled in a small leafy New England town where I became a mechanical tinkerer, a wood carver, an accomplished artist, and a creative photographer. This is my story, a tale about what one disadvantaged but determined refugee was able to accomplish, given perseverance and opportunity.*
*Like many Holocaust survivors who reached their mid-nineties, the subject of this memoir passed away a short time ago. His story serves as an inspiration and memorial to a challenging life that was ultimately well lived.
Louis Arthur Norton, a professor emeritus at the University of Connecticut, has published extensively on maritime history topics and several Jewish themes. Three books have received notoriety: Joshua Barney: Hero of the Revolutionary War, Captains Contentious: The Dysfunctional Sons of the Brine and most recently Sailing Under John Paul Jones. Two articles were awarded the 2002 and 2006 and Gerald E. Morris Prize for maritime historiography in the Mystic Seaport Museum’s LOG. He also received the Connecticut Authors and Publishers Association’s 2009/2010 and 2010/2011 awards for fiction and essay writing respectively.