James Bachner: A Getaway, Forced Labor and Then, Finally, War’s End


Photo by David Miller

On Jim Bachner’s first morning in Auschwitz-Birkenau in mid-September 1943, after a sleepless night on the cold, crowded floor of an unfinished barracks, he and the other new arrivals were lined up outdoors and ordered to run about 25 yards.

An SS officer, whom Jim later learned was the infamous Nazi Dr. Josef Mengele, stood on one side, chatting with an attractive woman, his arm across her shoulder. With his other arm, he waved his hand to the left or right as prisoners rushed past him, and without even glancing up, dispatching them to a waiting truck or to work.

As Jim finished his run, a kapo shoved the bewildered 21-year-old to the right, into a barracks where a prisoner grabbed his arm and pushed up his sleeve.

“Look at your friends on the truck,” he told Jim, directing him to the window. “This will be the last time you’ll see them.”

Jim was too distraught to notice that the prisoner was tattooing the number “159942” on his arm.

“My heart was working overtime and so was my mind,” Jim recalled.

Looking back, Jim, now 95, credits what he calls his “positive mind” with enabling him to rise above the confusion and fear of those times, even at Auschwitz. “I knew at some point that I will not go through the smokestacks but that I will survive,” he said.

Jim was born in Berlin on May 24, 1922, to Abraham and Esther Bachner. His brother, Fred, arrived three years later. Abraham manufactured men’s clothing, providing his family a comfortable life.

Anti-Semitism became a problem for Jim in 1934, when his non-Jewish friends at a public high school began to shun him. The following year, he was forced to leave. Anti-Jewish measures shrank Abraham’s business and restricted the family’s lives.

Early on Oct. 28, 1938, a policeman arrived at the Bachners’ apartment with a warrant for “Abraham” and “Johannes.” Because Jim’s name was incorrect, the policeman said he would return for him with a corrected document. Meanwhile, the policeman waited for Abraham to dress, unaware that he had already escaped down the back stairwell. Jim followed suit.

The two fled to Poland, where they also held citizenship, settling in Chrzanow, in western Poland, where most of Abraham’s siblings lived and where Jim’s mother and brother joined them just before Germany attacked Poland on Sept. 1, 1939.

Under the German occupation, Jim performed menial work until early November 1940, when he was one of 800 men rounded up and sent to the Ottmuth labor camp, 75 miles northwest, to build the autobahn.

“My heart was working overtime and so was my mind.” — James Bachner

There, Jim loaded and unloaded sand by the shovelful. He also volunteered as a medic — the Nazis had quashed his dream of becoming a doctor — assisting during evenings in the infirmary.

In March 1941, the prisoners were transferred to the Gogolin labor camp, closer to the worksite, where Jim served as the resident medic.

The prisoners twice were transferred between the two camps until the fall of 1942, when they were shipped to Trzebinia, an unfinished labor camp. Food and water were scarce; prisoners slept on the floor.

One day, Jim received permission to walk 4 miles to Chrzanow, accompanied by a guard, to procure medication. While there, he managed a short visit with his parents. “It was hugs, kisses and crying,” Jim said. And it was the last time he saw his mother.

In mid-September 1943, Trzebinia was evacuated and the prisoners marched to Auschwitz-Birkenau. With sick and dying prisoners and senseless work, Jim reached a low point in December. He decided if nothing worked out in the coming days, he would throw himself against the electrified fence.

But another selection took place, and Jim found himself among 2,000 prisoners who were transported to Warsaw to tear down the facades of the burnt-out buildings in the now-deserted ghetto.

On July 29, 1944, with the Soviets approaching, the prisoners were marched to Poznan, 190 miles away, where they were loaded into cattle cars. With no food or water, the men were starving and dehydrated. Many died en route. After a two-day trip, the prisoners — about 3,500 of the original 5,500 who had departed Warsaw — arrived at Dachau on Aug. 6, 1944.

Several weeks later, they were transferred to Waldlager, a labor camp deep in the forest near Muhldorf, Germany, where the Germans were building an underground factory for the production of V1 and V2 rockets. Jim’s job was shoveling sand into trucks and carrying 100-plus- pound bags of cement.

One day, as 500 new and bedraggled prisoners limped into camp, Jim recognized his brother, Fred, among them. “The reunion was just unbelievable,” Jim said.

On April 19 or 20, 1945, prisoners were again loaded onto a train. “Things are so bad you won’t get far,” the camp commander said. “The war is coming to an end.”

Twelve miles later, at Taufkirchen, the train stopped. As Allied bombers flew overhead, the prisoners were ordered to run out and wave their uniforms. Jim, Fred and a friend, Peter, ran into an adjacent woods.

With help from a man in the French underground, they made their way to a series of safehouses, until they reached the front. There, amid the sound of bursting shells and gunfire, Jim approached a priest, who gave them a room in a silo, bringing them food and blankets.

The next morning, Jim ventured outside and saw white flags hanging from buildings. He ran back to Fred and Peter. “It’s finished. It’s gone. We’re free,” he announced. It was May 1, 1945.

Weeks later, Jim and Fred traveled to Munich, where they started a registry for displaced persons. Around August, learning that his father had survived, Jim traveled back to Berlin. When they met, the two hugged and kissed.

Jim, Fred, Abraham and Abraham’s new wife, Gusti Landerer, immigrated to the United States, arriving in New York on Jan. 16, 1947. Jim found a job as a commercial artist at an advertising agency.

While living in Queens, he met Marilyn Glassman, and they married on Sept. 3, 1955. Their son Evan was born in January 1958 and son Robert in September 1960. They now have five grandchildren.

Jim eventually became a junior partner at the agency and then, in 1976, opened his own shop, retiring in 1986 when he and Marilyn moved to Delray Beach, Fla. In June 2016, they moved to Thousand Oaks.

In 2007, Jim published a memoir, “My Darkest Years,” which is available on Amazon. In the book’s preface and in his talks to students and adults — delivered while living in Delray Beach and currently at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust — he says that people must work to prevent another Holocaust.

“You must be on your toes,” he says. “Be aware of bullies because they grow into desperate dictators.”

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