November 16, 2018

Survivor Charles Selarz: Hard labor, love and eventual freedom

Charles Selarz, then Chaim Szklarz, was standing outside with a few friends in early September 1939 when German aircraft suddenly attacked their town of Wohyn, Poland, firebombing the small houses clustered within a two-block area, where the town’s approximately 1,000 Jews lived. 

“Everyone ran in different directions,” said Charles, then 20. He and his friends fled to the fields across a small river, where they hid, watching the flames. “We couldn’t go back. The house was burned up,” he said.

Charles was born in Wohyn on Nov. 1, 1918, to Sara and Mendel Szklarz. His brother Yitzchak followed in 1920. Their youngest brother, Aron, born two years later, died at age 7 of a ruptured appendix.

Mendel bought and sold grain, and Sara worked as a seamstress. It was a hard life for the traditionally religious family, but, Charles said, “if you have enough bread, you’re not poor.” 

Charles and his family maintained good relationships with their Christian neighbors. Charles, in fact, was the only Jew invited to play volleyball with the local boys, as the setter. He also made their only ball by stitching together rags, though the school also owned one ball. 

At 7, Charles entered public school. He liked learning, and he especially enjoyed reading. “No telephone. Nothing. You had only a book,” he explained. After school he did homework and then attended cheder

After graduating from high school at 16 and unable to afford college, Charles began working at a bank. He also joined a Zionist youth group, where he befriended Miriam Gryka, a girl he had known since childhood. 

After the Germans firebombed the Jewish homes, one of Charles’ uncles found a poor Polish woman — “a kind lady,” Charles recalled — who rented a room to their extended family, totaling about 20. “You put your kop (head) wherever you could,” Charles said. 

Life under the German occupation became more restrictive and more dangerous, with the SS often arbitrarily shooting Jews on the street. One day, Charles was ordered to go to the cemetery to help bury people. 

“I was looking at the dead people, and I couldn’t take it,” he said. He returned home, taking the back streets. After he left, the SS visited the cemetery, Charles later learned, shooting all the workers. 

Charles, along with other young people, was soon working as a forced laborer six days a week on a large estate just outside Wohyn, digging up potatoes and picking corn. He received no food but stole whatever he could. 

He and others were then transferred to the Miedzyrzec ghetto, 17 miles away. While there, Charles learned that his parents and grandparents, along with all of Wohyn’s Jewish elders who had earlier been evacuated to the Parczew ghetto, had been murdered in the Treblinka extermination camp. 

After a short time in Miedzyrzec, in the fall of 1942, Charles found himself standing in line as several SS from Suchowola selected workers for what had been one of Poland’s largest estates and was now a forced labor camp. 

“What kind of work do you do?” a man known as Oberscharfuhrer Schultz asked Charles, who replied that he was a shoemaker, knowing that the Germans despised intellectuals. He was assigned to clean the officers’ quarters at Suchowola.

About six months later, on May 3, 1943, the Suchowola prisoners were awakened at 2 a.m. and ordered to dress and line up outside. Charles stood in front, his head down. Schultz approached him. “Raise your head,” he told him. “Working people we always need.”  

The prisoners were trucked to Majdanek, the concentration camp outside of Lublin, where they worked mostly carrying rocks from one area to another. 

One day, Charles was standing in line for his portion of watery soup when a Nazi unexpectedly slammed a rifle butt into the back of his head, causing him to collapse and creating a permanent indentation. For three days, his vision was blurred, and he was able to work only by holding onto his brother Yitzchak. “I don’t know how I survived that,” Charles said.  

In July 1943, Charles overheard people talking about a transport to Auschwitz. “Let’s go. It cannot be worse,” he said to people around him, not knowing what Auschwitz was. Discreetly, through the wire fence, he let Miriam Gryka and her sister Eva know of his plan.

Once the cattle train reached Auschwitz, the young people were processed, tattooed — Charles became 128268 — and assigned to barracks. Charles saw Yitzchak on one of his first nights there. Then, he said, “I never saw him again.”

Charles worked in a food warehouse where, one day, he was caught hiding a few pieces of cabbage in the waistband of his pants. Guards then strapped him upright into a special contraption and pummeled him, mostly on his back. “I can still feel it today,” he said. 

Around September 1943, Charles was transferred to Janinagrube, an Auschwitz subcamp at the Janina coal mine. He drilled holes in the mine walls and inserted sticks of dynamite. After the explosions cleared, he helped gather the coal, loading it onto carts. After one afternoon-to-midnight shift, however, Charles’ group didn’t adequately clean up. The SS marched the workers back to their barracks area, where they were ordered to perform calisthenics in the snow for an hour. 

At some point, Charles became ill and was transferred to a medical barracks at Birkenau. There, he recognized a prisoner he knew from Majdanek, working as a janitor. “Don’t stay here,” the man told him. “From here they take you straight to the gas chamber.” Charles promptly reported for work and was transferred to Block 16.

Miriam was in Auschwitz then, working as a maid for her blockalteste (barracks leader), a young woman from Czechoslovakia. Unbeknownst to Charles, she asked the blockalteste if the woman’s boyfriend, a kapo who worked in the camp’s shoe repair, could help her husband, which is how she referred to Charles. 

About a month later, the kapo entered Block 16. “128268,” he called out. When Charles answered, he ordered, “You stay here and wait for me.” 

As the other prisoners left for work, Charles sat with his arms crossed, certain he was destined for the gas chamber. But the kapo instead escorted Charles to the shoe-repair quarters, where he instructed that Charles be given as much soup as he wanted. “If you give me a million dollars, it doesn’t mean as much as that soup,” Charles said. He continued working there.

In mid-January 1945, the camp was evacuated. Charles was loaded onto a cattle train and eventually taken to Kaufering XI, a subcamp of Dachau in the woods near Landsberg, Germany, where airplanes were being assembled in large underground concrete bunkers. Charles worked unloading truckloads of lumber and heavy bags of cement.

In late April, the prisoners were evacuated, forced to walk in the bitter cold in only their striped uniforms and to sleep on snow-covered ground. Then on April 30, the Germans placed the surviving prisoners in a small house in Buchberg, Germany. 

“The war is finished, but don’t go out. They’re still shooting,” a soldier warned them. 

By morning, the Germans had disappeared, and around noon, an American tank rolled down the street, followed by truckloads of American soldiers. “This was a holiday,” Charles said. “You cannot even describe it.”

Eight days later, hearing that a women’s camp had opened at Bergen-Belsen and hoping he might find Miriam there, he set off in that direction. Once inside the camp, he learned that she had survived and was out walking with some friends. Charles waited in her room, in a former SS barracks. When Miriam came in, both were too overwhelmed to even say hello.

Charles and Miriam married on Aug. 14, 1945. “I didn’t even have a suit,” Charles said. A few months later, when Miriam’s sister Eva married Mendel Kohan, Miriam and Charles borrowed their wedding attire for their own formal portrait.

The couple lived in Pfaffenberg, Germany, where their daughter, Etta, was born in August 1948. A year later, they immigrated to the United States, settling in Providence, R.I. Their son, Murray, was born in March 1952. 

Charles immediately found a job making women’s handbags, for 65 cents an hour. Within a year, speaking limited English, he took over the foreman’s job. Then, in the summer of 1954, for the sake of Miriam’s health, the family moved to Los Angeles, where Eva and Mendel were living. 

Charles began working at Theodor of California, again making women’s handbags. He also took English classes four nights a week at Fairfax High School. 

About a year later, Charles and Mendel bought a liquor store, which they named K&S Liquor, in downtown Los Angeles near the Produce Market. Charles retired in 1982. 

After Miriam died in 1995, Charles began volunteering in the mailroom at Cedars-Sinai, which he’s continued to do every Monday morning for 21 years. 

Looking back, Charles, who turns 98 next month and is a grandfather of six and great-grandfather of three, believes that his willingness to work hard and obey orders may have contributed to his survival. But this was not a conscious strategy.

“You didn’t have time to even think about it,” he said. “No, the only thing you think about is to get a slice of bread.”