“Achtung,” a German officer shouted. “Attention.” Fifteen-year-old Henry Oster, then called Heinz, lined up with his mother in a Lodz ghetto courtyard on a mid-August day in 1944. He and the others gathered there had been instructed to report for special permits to help harvest the fall crops, exempting them from deportation. But suddenly the shutters covering the windows of the two German administrative buildings on either side were flung open, revealing soldiers with machine guns aimed at the approximately 800 Jews now trapped there. The ambushed Jews were herded to the train station and crammed into cattle cars.
Two days later, they arrived at Birkenau. “Schnell, schnell,” the guards shouted, “Hurry, hurry,” beating them with their batons. As Henry helped his mother down, she was abruptly whisked away. “I didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye,” he recalled.
Henry was born in Cologne, Germany, on Nov. 5, 1928, to Hans and Lisbeth Oster. Hans was a vice president of a chain of small department stores, and the middle-class family lived in a luxurious apartment on Brabanterstrasse.
Henry’s first encounter with anti-Semitism occurred on his first day of Jewish day school, in 1934. As the children left for the day, Hitler youth, along with their parents, spat and swung at them with sticks. “I was more confused than frightened,” Henry said.
After the Nuremberg Laws were introduced in September 1935, Henry could no longer attend school and Hans lost his job. The family was forced to move to a small apartment consisting of only one bedroom and a kitchen. Soon, 11 friends and relatives who had also lost their apartments joined them. Henry slept on a slatted wooden bench in the kitchen.
With no income, Hans joined a labor camp, where he received meager pay for helping construct the Siegfried Line, German fortifications opposite France’s Maginot Line.
On the night of Nov. 9, 1938, which would become known as Kristallnacht, Henry was awakened by a terrible commotion outside. He and the others, including his father, who had returned home, looked out the window to see the Roonstrasse Synagogue in flames. Suddenly they heard banging on their front door, and an SS officer and two enlisted men entered the apartment. The SS officer looked at Hans. He then turned to the two soldiers, announced, “This is a mistake” and promptly left. Henry’s father explained that as vice president of his company, he used to meet with salesmen twice a year at a particular hotel. The SS officer had been the hotel doorman, whom Hans had consistently tipped for many years.
In 1941, the Oster family received notice to report for resettlement on Monday, Oct. 20. But the Saturday night prior, German soldiers broke open their apartment door and escorted them to a collection center.
Two days later, they were loaded onto passenger trains, one of two transports of approximately 1,000, each headed to the Lodz ghetto. There they were squeezed for living quarters into a small room with 10 other people.
Hans was assigned work repairing the electric fence that surrounded the ghetto. Lisbeth, Henry’s mother, worked in a factory drilling holes in metal plates that were fastened to the soles of military boots. And Henry worked on an agricultural detail, spending 12 hours a day planting and harvesting.
One day in July 1942, Hans returned home early from work, physically depleted and near starvation. He lay down on the floor, and then quietly died. “You were as much afraid as you were sad and sorry,” Henry said of his father’s death.
Henry and his mother moved to another room, this one shared with 19 people.
At work, Henry had become acquainted with two brothers, both inexplicably strong and well fed, who occasionally handed him a slice of bread, always on a Monday. One Sunday, when Henry was forced to watch the weekly hangings for the first time, he realized that the brothers were the hangmen, and the bread was their payment. “This was about the only kindness I experienced in all those years,” he said.
After Henry arrived at Birkenau, he was processed and sent to a barracks, where he and the other prisoners endured cruelty and endless roll calls. He learned to be invisible.
But about a month later, hearing that youngsters were being recruited, he ran into the courtyard — to this day he doesn’t know why — and uncharacteristically shouted, “Ich spreche Deutsch (I speak German).” He was selected as one of the 131 boys who were tattooed — Henry became B-7648 — and taken to a barracks in Auschwitz.
The next morning, the boys were marched to the horse stables, where each was assigned three or four mares. Henry, however, because he spoke German, was put in charge of the stallion, Barbarossa, as well as two pregnant mares. The boys worked 12- to 16-hour days caring for the horses and helping them produce foals for the German army.
Late one afternoon, Henry was in the field when one of his mares went into labor, dropping to the ground in a recessed area. Henry heard the 4 p.m. siren, knowing he would be late for roll call but was unable to leave. When he heard soldiers and dogs searching for him, he put his cap on a branch and raised it up. A soldier shot at it. “I’m here with the horse,” he yelled in German. The soldiers soon understood the situation.
Another time, returning from work, the boys encountered a huge commotion at Auschwitz’s main gate. As they passed, German officials detained the last four boys, including Henry, and shoved them and a group of older men into an enclosed courtyard. The four boys were thrust against a back wall as soldiers began firing machine guns into the crowd. The man in front of Henry was hit and fell on him, and the boys were soon encircled by dead and dying men. They managed to make a run for a nearby door and escape safely to their barracks.
In December 1944, the boys were transported to Plawy, a new Auschwitz subcamp. Then, in mid-January 1945, in bitterly cold weather, they were dispatched on a death march and loaded into open cattle cars two days later. The following day, Allied planes strafed the train, thinking the prisoners were German troops. Henry was not hit.
On Jan. 23, 1945, the train arrived at Buchenwald, where there was little food and only occasional work in a quarry, purposelessly moving chunks of granite. By late March, the weakened prisoners mostly lay in their barracks. Then, on April 11, Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army liberated the camp.
After spending several months recuperating, Henry was transferred to an orphanage in Ecouis, France. Late that summer, he learned that his maternal uncle, Herbert Haas, had seen Henry’s name published in the Los Angeles B’nai B’rith Messenger. He and his wife, who had left Cologne in 1939, invited Henry to live with them.
Henry arrived in Los Angeles on April 20, 1946. He attended Belmont High School and also worked in his uncle’s gas station on Wilshire Boulevard in downtown Los Angeles. Henry’s education continued at UCLA and then at the Southern California School of Optometry. In 1957, he opened his own practice in Beverly Hills, selling it in 2007. He continued working full time at Kaiser Permanente, retiring in January 2014. Henry also volunteered at the Ambulatory Care Center at Cedars-Sinai for 50 years.
In 1998, Henry met Susan Fishman, and they married on May 6, 2001. He has four stepchildren — two from Fishman and two from a previous marriage. He has six step-grandchildren.
Henry began telling his story at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in 1976. In 1993, he moved to the Museum of Tolerance, where he continues to speak regularly.
Henry’s memoir, “The Kindness of the Hangman,” written with Dexter Ford, was published in July 2014 and is available at Amazon.com. Additionally, with artist Toni Scott, he is raising funds to construct a sculpture that he hopes will be displayed in perpetuity at the Museum of Tolerance. Fashioned after a plywood piece he created at the Ecouis orphanage, it depicts a man in chains breaking through walls to freedom (freedommemorialsculpture.com).
Of the 2,011 people transported from Cologne to the Lodz ghetto, only 23 survived. Of those, Henry is one of only two still living. “I have more mazel (luck) than anyone could expect,” he said.