December 15, 2018

Survivor: Karl Wozniak

One dark November evening in 1938, as 14-year-old Karl Wozniak and his younger brother, Max, left their Cologne apartment for a walk, they saw a fire burning in nearby Horst Wessel Park. They headed toward the flames and spied a group of Nazis standing around the fire. They stayed in the shadows, saying little, and soon returned home.

The next day, while walking to his job, Karl saw windows smashed at Jewish-owned businesses. In the shoe shop where he worked, Karl began picking up the shattered glass and machines turned upside down. “Why are you helping Jews clean up?” a Hitler youth screamed at him, thinking that Karl, with his blond hair, wasn’t Jewish. 

Later that day Karl learned that on the previous night, which became known as Kristallnacht, the Nazis had burned Sifrei Torah and books from the Roonstrasse Synagogue in the fire he’d witnessed. “I started to hate [the Nazis] more and more and more,” he recalled. 

Karl was born on June 26, 1924, in Cologne, Germany, to Yitzhak Leib and Malka Mendel Larish Wozniak, who had emigrated from Poland to Germany during the first world war. Karl was the fourth of five children. 

Both parents were tailors. The family was observant, attending services on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings at the Roonstrasse Synagogue, where Karl and Max sang in the choir.

Karl attended Jewish school, but, as a soccer player, he also had Christian friends. Things changed in 1933, however, when the Nazis came to power and Karl’s friends joined the Hitler Youth. 

In early 1938, the Jewish schools were closed. Around the same time, Karl’s father and older brothers, Elias and Leon, were relocated to Bedzin, Poland, and housed in a refugee center. 

Several weeks after Kristallnacht, Karl, Max and a friend went to the movies. With no ticket seller in sight, they entered the already darkened theater and sat down. “Furlough on Word of Honor,” a propagandistic World War I film, was playing. When the lights went on for intermission, Karl said, “We got the shock of our lives.” The theater was filled with Hitler Youth who began screaming, “Juden, Juden.” The three boys fled. 

In June 1939, Karl, his mother and Max traveled to Poland to reunite with the family. Once there, Elias was sent to Lodz, Karl’s parents and Max were sent to Lomza, and Karl and Leon were sent to Lida to work on a farm. 

On Sept. 1, 1939, while still in bed, Karl heard bombs falling and rushed outside. A German plane was flying so low he could see the pilot. Germany had invaded Poland.

About two months later, Karl’s father fetched him and Leon, and, along with Karl’s mother and Max, fled to Bialystock, in Soviet-occupied Poland. Elias soon joined them. (Karl’s older sister, Nelle, had been working in another city. They never learned her fate.) 

Karl’s father volunteered to work in Russia, and on Feb. 1, 1940, the family boarded a cattle car with 24 people. They traveled east, sleeping on the cold, straw-covered floor and, 24 days later, reached Magnitogorsk, a city near the Ural Mountains. Everyone was housed in a huge hall. After two months, Karl’s family was given one room in a barracks. 

Karl, 16, was assigned to a Stakhanovite brigade, named after Alexei Stakhanov, a miner who far exceeded his daily work quota. Eight hours a day, in temperatures 45 degrees below zero, he dug out frozen earth for factory foundations. “In my life, I never did this kind of work,” Karl recalled.

In late 1940, Karl was sent to a professional factory school, where he lived in a barracks and studied plumbing. Six months later, he was working in a factory.

Sometime in 1942, Elias and Leon were to sent to Chelyabinsk, 500 kilometers away. After awhile, the family received a letter that Leon had contracted pneumonia and died. “He was only 20. It was a big shock,” Karl said. 

Karl was later assigned to do guard work in another city. Then, in late 1944, he received orders to report to a Russian army camp in Sverdlovsk.

Three months later, Karl was sent to East Prussia with his unit of about 25 men to fight on the front, which was his wish. Suddenly he became ill with a high fever and was hospitalized. Recovering several days later, he left to join his unit, only to discover they had all been killed.

Karl joined another unit. They were stationed nine kilometers outside Königsberg, Germany, which the Russians were preparing to capture, and charged with keeping a long line of fires burning so Russian planes could spot German ground forces. They worked in the rain, with Germans shooting at them. 

Finally, after the Russian military had pounded Königsberg with bombs and Katyusha rockets, the soldiers were ordered to attack. They raced toward the city while the Germans shot at them with automatic rifles. “I saw the bullets whistling by. It was really dangerous,” Karl said, remembering stepping over thousands of dead bodies.
In Königsberg, with the nighttime sky lit up in flames, the soldiers continued fighting, Karl said, “street to street, house to house, room to room.” 

At one point, Karl was ordered to cross a bridge and deliver a letter to headquarters requesting reinforcements. As he was running across the bridge, the soldier accompanying him disappeared. Karl, however, returned safely. 

The Battle of Königsberg ended on April 9, 1945. The Russian general entrusted Karl with ensuring that the 4,000 German soldiers they had captured were not harmed. “If I would have known what the Nazis did to the Jews, I don’t know what I would have done to them,” he said.

After some time, the Russian soldiers began the trek home, walking 45 to 50 kilometers a day, with heavy backpacks. Eventually they reached Kiev, where, on Jan. 29, 1946, Karl was among thousands of people watching as six large trucks, each carrying two Nazis with nooses around their necks, pulled forward, leaving the 12 men hanging. 

In Kiev, Karl worked for a different general. Around June 1947, however, he joined his family, who had relocated to Walbrzych, in southwestern Poland. There he attended ORT, studying chauffeur mechanics.

In early January 1949, Karl left for Israel. He went straight into the Palmach, then part of the Israel Defense Forces, who were preparing to capture the West Bank but were stopped by the United Nations. 

After two short stints as a guard, Karl was ordered to join the Sanchanim, or paratroopers. From June 1949 to January 1951, he made 41 jumps.

Karl moved to Tel Aviv and worked as a driver at Timna Copper Mines headquarters. In 1954, he moved to Eilat, where he transported workers to and from the mines.

In spring 1960, Karl met Hildegarde Joseph, who was originally from Burma. They married the following Dec. 21, and their daughter Anita was born in 1961. 

In September 1962, Karl and Hildegarde moved to Los Angeles. Their son Jerome was born in 1965. 

Karl worked at Feldman Lighting until 1988. The following year, he and Hildegard opened a photo shop in Westwood, retiring in 2004. 

Today, Karl, 89, enjoys walking, watching sports, stamp collecting and spending time with his family, including five grandchildren and his brother Max.

On his honeymoon in 1960, Karl visited the rebuilt Roonstrasse Synagogue in Cologne. “I had goose bumps,” he said. “Most of the people didn’t make it. It was a very, very sad feeling.”