Phil Raucher, nearly 18 and recovering from a cold and fever, lay on a bunk in the sick block as the SS began evacuating the Funfteichen concentration camp in western Poland. It was Jan. 21, 1945, and the Russians were closing in. Naked, he rose to get a uniform and shoes, “just in case,” he recalled, but he already had resolved to stay behind.
Phil gave away his shoes to one prisoner and his uniform to another and walked into a nearby room where corpses were piled high. He lay down, pulling a few bodies over him. Sometime later, two SS soldiers entered the room, searching for strays. “Forget them,” Phil heard one of them say, “they’re not going anywhere.”
Phil credits this decision to remain behind — which, he said, “came out of the blue” — with saving his life. “You had to learn what to do and what not to do,” he said. “But luck is the main thing.”
Born Pinkus Raucher on Feb. 1, 1927, in Czeladz, Poland, to Israel and Sarah, Phil had an older sister, Rachela, born in 1924, and a younger brother, Alter, born in 1930. His father operated a business that rented horses and wagons to local peddlers, and owned a hardware store in Radzionkow, 12 miles away.
Phil attended public school and cheder and was active in the Polish Scouts, where he encountered no anti-Semitism. “We had a lot of fun,” he recalled.
But the fun ended in November 1938, around Kristallnacht, when Jewish businesses in Zaglembie, the coal mining region bordering Germany, including Czeladz, were smashed and looted. Concurrently, Phil’s once good friends became his tormentors, bullying him and other Jewish boys.
In August 1939, with war looming, Phil’s parents sent him and Alter to their grandfather in Wolbrom, 40 miles east. The boys watched German soldiers march into town on Sept. 5, but a week later, with too many relatives in the house, they returned home.
Back in Czeladz, which, as part of western Poland, had been annexed to the Third Reich, Phil worked in the police station, cleaning up and shining shoes for the German officers.
In May 1940, as the Germans confiscated the houses and businesses of the town’s Jews, the Rauchers found another apartment. Phil worked unloading sacks of potatoes. When the ghetto was established in early 1942, the family was forced to move again, and Phil worked as an apprentice in a furniture factory.
In August 1942, with a change in the work laws, Phil’s parents hired a smuggler to take him and Alter back to Wolbrom, which was not part of the Third Reich. The smuggler could take only one boy at a time, and Alter went first. On Sept. 5, 1942, a large roundup took place in Wolbrom, and both 12-year-old Alter and the boys’ grandfather were sent to the Belzec death camp and murdered.
“You had to learn what to do and what not to do. But luck is the main thing.” — Phil Raucher
Phil was picked up two months later and sent to a transit camp in nearby Sosnowiec. Knowing a selection would occur, his parents smuggled a bottle of soapy water to him to drink, assuming he would begin vomiting and be sent home. But Phil refused. He didn’t know where the Germans would send him, but he didn’t want to return home or, more likely, be killed. So Phil was trucked to the Markstadt labor camp, about 113 miles northwest of Sosnowiec.
Arriving on a cold, rainy night, the prisoners immediately were taken to unload heavy sacks of cement and carry them to a warehouse. Inside, a prisoner running the cement mixer took a liking to Phil, instructing the newcomer to request working with him.
The next day, after roll call, Phil voiced that request. “I’m the one who decides where you go,” the kapo snapped, turning on Phil. “He beat me up like crazy,” Phil recalled.
Phil then was assigned to unload 8-foot-long pieces of wood and carry them, singly, to a Krupp factory construction site. The boards were heavy, but Phil, from his furniture factory experience, knew to select the drier, lighter pieces.
Several weeks later, the prisoners in Phil’s barracks were punished after their room leader disappeared. One by one, they were strapped down to a special table where two kapos dispensed 25 lashes across their backs. Phil was too small to be properly strapped down and so he jumped around. “I got hit worse than the others, on the head, everywhere,” he said.
The next day, as Phil was recovering, his father, newly arrived at Markstadt, entered his barracks, bringing food. “If he hadn’t come in at that moment, I wouldn’t be alive now,” Phil said.
The prisoners were transferred in 1943 to nearby Funfteichen. Phil was given a uniform and wooden shoes and continued at the same job.
When Phil’s father unexpectedly died a few months later — Phil never learned the cause —Phil was allowed to carry his body to a nearby field, where he dug a grave and said prayers. (Phil later learned that his mother was murdered at Auschwitz.)
Phil then worked unloading 35-foot girders with a crowbar from a railway car, which prisoners, up to 40 at a time, carried to the work site while guards shouted and struck them with whips. The prisoners often lost their grip, causing the beams to fall and crush people. “I don’t know how many got killed every day,” Phil said.
Later, after cranes had hoisted the girders atop the factory columns, a five-story height, Phil was one of the prisoners who walked along the foot-wide planks carrying 8-foot-long joists to cross brace them. Many of the prisoners “fell like flies” and died, Phil said.
One day, the camp commandant, observing the dangerous work they were performing, ordered a week’s worth of extra food. “A few days with food revived you,” Phil said.
Two days after Phil decided to hide among the corpses, on Jan. 23, 1945, the Russians liberated the camp, and Phil soon headed back to Czeladz, which he reached in early March.
He subsequently made two long trips into Germany, searching for his sister. When he finally returned to Czeladz in April or May 1945, he found Rachela and her boyfriend. The three decided to leave, making their way to Munich, where they rented an apartment and supported themselves on the black market.
In December, Phil, then 18, arrived in New York as a refugee. (Rachela later immigrated to Brazil, where she lived until her death in 2015.) He settled in Cleveland, where he found a job assembling machines and attended night school. He also studied drafting.
Around 1956, Phil moved to Los Angeles. He worked for an air conditioning company and attended night school and later UCLA Extension. On Feb. 5, 1967, he married Virginia Rosenthal, a Cleveland native whom he met at a Jewish singles dance in Beverly Hills. Their son, Steve, was born in November 1967, and their daughter, Debbie, in May 1969. They have two granddaughters.
For the past 25 years, Phil has been employed by Air Products and Services in Van Nuys, and, at 90, occasionally goes on inspection calls. He also speaks at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and participates in the museum’s L’Dough V’Dough program, which brings together students and survivors to bake challah and share stories.
“It’s luck,” Phil tells people of his survival. “I couldn’t have planned it any other way. You didn’t know in advance what was going to happen.”