The SS entered Mauthausen’s overcrowded barracks 30 one night in February 1944 to punish the 120 boys, including 14-year-old Mike (Miki) Popik, who were engaged in a shoving match to avoid sleeping next to the cold, damp wall. Among the guards was one everyone called Sturmführer Kaduk, and who, Mike said, was “a beast and a murderer.” Kaduk sent the boys outside, ordering them to stand for one hour in their wooden shoes with both feet on the ground. Mike cheated by occasionally raising one foot and then the other, even though it meant being kicked a few times by an SS soldier. Still, he reasoned, that was better than having his wooden shoes freeze to the ground, which would mean falling over and dying.
An hour — and many deaths — later, the survivors were called back to the barracks and ordered to perform sit-ups to revive themselves. When told to stand up, Mike saw his good friend struggling: “Robert, don’t die on me,” Mike begged. Robert grabbed Mike’s pants and hoisted himself up. Kaduk, who witnessed the interaction, came up behind Mike and kicked him with such force that he flew into a wall and collapsed. Blood poured from his mouth and nose, and he fell unconscious.
Mike was born on May 11, 1931, in Levice, Czechoslovakia, to William and Frida Popik. His brother Andrew was born in December 1927, and brother Gaby in September 1941.
William, along with two non-Jewish partners, owned a trucking company, and the middle-class family lived in a house on a small river, where Mike enjoyed swimming with his Jewish and Christian friends. The family was observant, though not strictly religious, and Mike attended Jewish school.
In November 1938, the First Vienna Award ceded parts of southern Czechoslovakia, including Levice, to Hungary. The Hungarians, however, didn’t enter Levice until spring 1939, when, Mike recalled, “Life changed tremendously.”
Then, on March 19, 1944, Germany occupied Hungary. And in early May, the Jews were forced into a ghetto, where Mike’s family shared one room with five or six families.
By late May, the ghetto was evacuated, and the Jews were loaded into cattle cars, traveling, Mike said, “in the most inhuman conditions that you could imagine.”
On the fifth day, the train pulled up to the Birkenau platform. As the doors slammed open, prisoners in striped uniforms ordered, “Go here, go there,” while Nazi guards with German shepherds shouted, “Schnell, raus” (quick, out).
Once outside, Frida, holding Gaby, joined the long line of sick, elderly and mothers with babies. Mike turned to follow them, to protect them, but his father grabbed his arm. “You are a bar mitzvah boy. You are going with the men,” he said. Mike saw his mother and Gaby looking for them as they walked away — they hadn’t had a chance to hug and kiss. He caught their eye, and he, his father and brother Andrew waved. Frida and Gaby waved back. “This was the last time I saw my mother, who was 39 years old, and my brother, who was not even 3,” Mike recalled.
Mike continued walking with his father and Andrew, eventually reaching a small brick building where they were processed. Mike’s father and brother were later led to Barracks 19 and Mike to Barracks 21, with the young people. There he slept on a bare concrete floor, with no blanket.
For the next few weeks, the youngsters in Mike’s barracks were subjected to meager rations and almost nonstop roll calls, with kapos kicking them and SS hurling filthy names at them. “We were like confused animals,” Mike said.
Then, one morning in late July, Mike’s father and brother, who were being transferred to Dachau, came to say goodbye. Mike’s father also offered some advice, which Mike interpreted as orders.
In short, William told Mike to wash his face every day with half the water he was given to drink; to exchange his bread ration for a piece of charcoal from the kitchen if he contracted diarrhea; and, most important, to always volunteer.
That was the last time Mike saw them.
About two weeks later, during roll call, Dr. Josef Mengele asked for prisoners experienced in metal work. Mike promptly raised his hand, and he and 14 others were selected.
But before leaving Birkenau, the boys were tattooed, Mike with B-6193. “I was happy,” he said. “I felt like I got a passport for America.”
The group was taken to Eintrachthütte concentration camp. Mike worked as a runner in the Huta Zgoda factory, in nearby Sosnowiec, bringing tools to the German, French and Dutch civilian employees who helped manufacture anti-aircraft artillery.
On Mike’s second day, the Polish foreman instructed him to empty the trashcan. There, and every day following, Mike found a few bites of the man’s sandwich, the most he could leave without arousing suspicion. “I loved the man,” Mike said. “He helped me so much.”
Six weeks later, Mike learned from some Hungarian prisoners arriving from Auschwitz that the day after he left, all 1,200 children in the children’s barracks had been sent to the crematorium. Mike cried for two days; he had not known about the crematorium until then.
On Jan. 21, 1945, as Russian soldiers shelled the factories, Eintrachthütte’s 1,300 prisoners were evacuated, forced to walk in bitter cold and deep snow in their wooden shoes. Mike’s left foot became frostbitten and he lost a small piece of flesh.
They reached Sosnowiec late that night and were loaded into cattle cars.
Three days later, they arrived at Mauthausen and were immediately sent to shower. There, the 16 or 17 kapos who had traveled with them from Eintrachthütte were separated, and, in what Mike described as “the most brutal thing that anybody can imagine,” they were clubbed to death by the Mauthausen kapos, who didn’t want any competition. Mike saw flesh and blood scattered everywhere.
Mike’s group was taken to the barracks, where, a month later, he was kicked by Sturmführer Kaduk. The pain dissipated after three months, except for intense flare-ups every month or two.
In early April, the prisoners in Mike’s barracks were moved to Mauthausen’s Zeltlager (tent camp) and then, in late April, dispatched on a death march.
After three days, they arrived at Gunskirchen Lager, where they slept on the ground in filthy, hastily constructed barracks. Four days later, with no food, they began chewing bark off the trees and drinking water from trenches filled with dead bodies.
The next afternoon, on May 4, the Germans ran away. A few hours later, and before American soldiers liberated the camp, Mike left with two friends, walking along the main road.
The trio eventually reached the town of Wels, where American soldiers gave them food and an attic to sleep in.
But three days later, Mike was hospitalized for 40 days with typhus. Once his fever broke, he left the hospital and headed back to Levice, where he learned that, of his 39 close relatives, only he and an aunt had survived.
Mike remained in Czechoslovakia, working in a bakery/cafe. But, he said, he was “restless and wild” and wanted to immigrate to Palestine.
Eventually, with false papers saying he was 19, he arrived in Israel in late May 1948 and immediately joined the Palmach. “The Israeli army gave me the strength and dignity of a human being,” he said.
While in the army, Mike had another flare-up and learned he had lost his right kidney when Kaduk kicked him. “You are a miracle that you are alive,” the doctor told him.
After the army, Mike worked in deep water and oil drilling. During this time, he met Esther Greenspan, and they married on Aug. 23, 1952, when Mike was 21 and Esther 17. Their daughter Frieda was born in June 1953.
The family left Israel in 1958 for France. They later traveled to Mexico City, where their daughter Anita was born in December 1960. The family then settled in Los Angeles in 1963; their daughter Vivian was born in May 1964.
Mike worked as a house painter, but, after a car accident in 1969, he switched to the car wash business, retiring in 2007.
Since then, Mike, now 83 and the grandfather of six, has been a regular speaker at the Museum of Tolerance.
Mike attributes his survival to his father’s final words as he left Auschwitz.
“Because of this advice, until today I am able to talk to you. Maybe with a little luck also,” he said.