Survivor: Abe Rosenstein

“Abe, go. You’re young. You’re not afraid to work.” Bronia Rosenstein, Abe’s older sister, urged him to answer a call for strong, healthy men to work outside the Lodz ghetto. It was November 1940. Abe was 21 and for nine months he had been living in one small room with his parents, two sisters and one brother. Abe signed up to work. Living conditions in the ghetto were deteriorating, and people were dying from hunger on the street daily. On the day he reported for work, he spotted his mother standing behind a barbed-wire fence, crying. “It was the last time I saw her,” he said.

Abe (Abraham) Rosenstein was born Feb. 8, 1919, in Piotrkow, Poland, a village with a prewar population of about 18,000 Jews. Abe was the second to youngest of David and Shindel Rosenstein’s five children.

As a boy, he attended public school. At 14, he spent a year or so studying carpentry in an ORT school.

The family was very poor. “A pound and a half of meat would have to feed seven people,” Abe recalled. Abe’s father owned a small grocery, but after World War I, as the Poles moved into the once-Jewish neighborhood, business diminished and, in 1934, Abe’s father lost the store.

Abe’s family then moved to Lodz, where all seven family members shared a one-room attic apartment with a small kitchen. Abe slept on a couch with one brother. The latrine was outdoors, down four flights of stairs.

Abe apprenticed in a sock factory. Later, he was hired by a shipping company to pick up merchandise, often weighing 100 pounds or more, from the town’s factories and load it onto horse-drawn wagons. “I got used to heavy work,” he said. He made 30 zlotys a week and supported his family.

On Sept. 1, 1939, Germany attacked Poland, and by Sept. 8, the Germans controlled Lodz. The next day, Abe and his older brother Mark left for Warsaw, ordered by the Polish government to protect the capital. They walked the 70 miles, taking cover in the forest or under trees as German planes machine-gunned people below.

In Warsaw, as the Germans continued to bomb, Abe and Mark took refuge every night in basements of apartment buildings. During the day they rummaged for food. On Sept. 27, the Polish government surrendered, and Abe and Mark returned to Lodz.

In Lodz, Germans were actively assaulting Jews and confiscating their merchandise and valuables. One afternoon, while Abe was visiting a friend, German police entered the home and ordered Abe to report to the police station, where he was beaten with batons.

On Feb. 8, 1940, German authorities announced the establishment of a ghetto, relocating about 160,000 Jews to the city’s poorest section. Abe’s family of six — Mark had departed for the Soviet Union — moved from their attic apartment into one room in the ghetto.

Abe’s first ghetto job was collecting and carting away outhouse waste. A month later, he was given a job demolishing houses near the barbed-wire border, to discourage smuggling. Every day Abe stashed a few pieces of wood into his waistband to heat the family’s stove.

After leaving the Lodz ghetto, in November 1940, Abe and the other men were sent to the German-Polish border to build highways in preparation for Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union. Abe fastened iron rails to wooden ties.

Work on the highways ceased in June 1941, when Germany broke its Non-Aggression Pact with the Soviet Union. Abe’s group was transported via cattle train to Eberswalde, a factory town north of Berlin, where 600 men were housed in a former Hitler Youth camp.

The men were taken in groups to an ammunition factory and tested on their machinery skills. After several weeks, Abe was one of 200 men selected to work in the factory. The other 400 were returned to the Lodz ghetto and later killed.

In Eberswalde, Abe worked in a large room where several thousand 50-pound shells were assembled daily for use in naval artillery. Abe’s task was to cap each dynamite-filled shell. “Once in a while they beat us, depending what kind of guy the foreman was,” Abe said.

In summer 1942, Abe’s group was shipped by cattle car to Auschwitz and immediately transferred to Buna, a sub-camp where synthetic rubber and oil were manufactured.

At Buna, Abe answered a call for carpenters. The group was trucked each morning to various locations where they constructed “imitation” houses — exteriors only — to serve as decoys for American planes. The carpenters were given a kettle of food to share every day. In the barracks, however, food was scarce, and every three to six months the prisoners had to strip and line up while Dr. Josef Mengele inspected them. Inmates too thin or sickly were later taken away.

In August 1944, Abe’s younger brother, Jack (Israel), discovered him. “He came a skeleton,” said Abe, who was able to give Jack extra food. “I was already there two years, and I had connections,” Abe explained. Jack told him their father had starved to death in the ghetto, and their mother and two sisters had been taken to Auschwitz.

In January 1945, as the Soviets approached, Abe and Jack were transported to Buchenwald for a few weeks and then to an ammunition bunker somewhere in Germany for several months. Eventually they arrived at Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia, where, a week later, on May 8, 1945, Soviet soldiers liberated the camp. Abe, emaciated and sick with typhus, spent six weeks in the hospital, mostly unconscious. “I lost my hearing, I lost my hair, I was sick in my stomach,” Abe said.

Three months later, Abe and his new girlfriend, Hanna Fain, tried to immigrate to Palestine, but were blocked by British soldiers at the Italian border. They were then sent to a displaced persons camp in Landsberg, Germany, where Abe studied auto mechanics and where they married on March 19, 1946.

In summer 1949, Abe and Hanna arrived in Los Angeles. Abe found work as a day laborer, for $1 an hour. He then worked as a carpenter until 1960, and then owned a series of businesses — a lumberyard, hardware store and a screen and glass store. He retired in 1987.

Abe and Hanna had two daughters, Goldie and Debbie. Hanna died in 1999, and Abe currently lives with Debbie, her husband and their two sons. Now 94, he spends his time watching the news and reading magazines and books from his large library.

During the war, Abe told himself he would survive. “If you lost hope, you were almost dead. I was always thinking this,” he said.