November 17, 2018

Sol Liber, Resistance Fighter, 94

Sol Liber, one of the last known members of the Jewish resistance during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, died on March 21. He was 94. His legacy will live on through his three children, eight grandchildren and the testimony of his harrowing experiences at three concentration camps. His interview was No. 50 of 50,000 at the USC Shoah Foundation.

“My father was very focused, primarily on family, work and the Jewish people,” Liber’s son, Sheldon, said at the funeral on March 23. “He was a great teacher that shared lessons about all three [of these things] with great emphasis on personal integrity, honesty, loyalty and taking the initiative to help others.”

Liber was born Dec. 3, 1923, in the town of Grojec, Poland, 40 kilometers south of Warsaw. He was thrust into the trauma of World War II at the age of 15 when he was drafted to fight for the Polish army against the invading Germans. After Poland’s quick surrender, he returned home but was soon chased out. He eventually landed with his father, mother and four siblings in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Desperate, yet resourceful, Liber would sneak beyond the walls to barter goods for food for his family. When word came that the Germans intended to empty the ghetto and disperse those who survived to death camps, Liber was led blindfolded to meet the head of the secret resistance, Mordechai Anielewicz. He was enlisted to help smuggle children through the sewers to groups shepherding them to safety. When the Germans mounted their final attack, Liber was assigned to battle them.

After the German army prevailed, Liber and two surviving sisters were shipped on a tightly packed train to Treblinka. Once they arrived, Liber was pulled aside with 500 other men and watched his two sisters head for the gas chambers.

“If you have the will to live, you will try anything.” — Sol Liber

He was put back on a train and sent to Majdanek. After surviving that torture camp, Liber was shipped to Buchenwald, where he spent each day in an underground munitions factory. Finally liberated by the Soviets in 1945, he returned briefly to his village before making his way to Eggenfelden, a displaced-persons camp.

“My dad was both a simple and complicated man,” his son Rodney said at the funeral. “His school education was cut short at fifth grade when he was placed with a tailor to learn the trade, one he told me several times he never liked. His education on the mean streets of the world, however, was vast, and he wore that early experience everywhere he went and in everything he did.

“He escaped death many times, if not every day in his late teens and early 20s. He told me of at least a dozen close calls but I’m sure there were many more. He was tough and he instilled at least some of that toughness in me, which I hope has served and will continue to serve me well.”

Liber made his way to Marseilles, France, to start training to fight in Palestine, but was persuaded by his cousin that it was not his fight. “You did not survive the atrocities and see your family perish to now put yourself in jeopardy. You must live on!” the cousin said. With that, Liber traveled to Paris, lived with his cousin and helped support the family by working as a tailor.

Liber later journeyed to Canada to see his only surviving family member, his brother Jack, in Winnipeg. Eight months later he traveled to Montreal, where he met his future wife, Bella. They had two children, Sheldon and Susan, before moving to Los Angeles in 1957, where son Rodney was born.

Years later, when asked how he survived, Liber simply replied: “If you have the will to live, you will try anything.”

At his funeral, his eight grandchildren paid their respects with the following statement:

“As adults, knowing more now about his history, about the many lives he led long before our time, about the unspeakable ordeals he endured … we are filled with many emotions: pride, reverence, awe, humility. We all want so much to honor Grandpa Sol, to repay him for all he gave us, to live up to the standard he set and to continue his legacy.”

Sol Liber, Uprising Resistance Fighter

Sol Liber, one of the last known members of the Jewish resistance during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, died on March 21. He was 94. His legacy will live on through his three children, eight grandchildren and the testimony of his harrowing experiences at three concentration camps. His interview was number 50 of 50,000 at the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation.

“My father was very focused, primarily on family, work, and the Jewish people,” Liber’s son, Sheldon, said at the funeral on March 23. “He was a great teacher that shared lessons about all three [of these things] with great emphasis on personal integrity, honesty, loyalty and taking the initiative to help others.”

Liber was born in the town of Grojec, Poland, 40 kilometers south of Warsaw. He was thrust into the trauma of World War II at the age of 15 when he was drafted to fight for the Polish Army against the invading Germans. After Poland’s quick surrender, he returned home, but was soon chased out. He eventually landed with his father, mother and four siblings in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Desperate, yet resourceful, Liber would sneak beyond the walls to barter goods for food for his family. When word came the Germans intended to empty the Ghetto and disperse those who survived to death camps, Liber was led blindfolded to meet the head of the secret Resistance, Mordechai Anielewicz. He was enlisted to help smuggle children through the sewers to groups shepherding them to safety. When the Germans mounted their final attack, Liber was assigned to battle them.

“If you have the will to live, you will try anything.” – Sol Liber

After the German army prevailed, Liber and two surviving sisters were shipped on a tightly packed train to Treblinka. Once they arrived, Liber was pulled aside with 500 other men, and watched his two sisters head for the gas chambers.

He was put back on a train and sent to Majdanek. After surviving that inhumane torture camp, Liber was shipped to Buchenwald, where he spent each day in an underground munitions factory. Finally liberated by the Russians in 1945, he returned briefly to his village before making his way to Eggenfelden, a displaced-persons camp.

“My dad was both a simple and complicated man,” his son Rodney said at the funeral. “His school education was cut short at fifth grade when he was placed with a tailor to learn the trade, one he told me several times he never liked. His education on the mean streets of the world however was vast, and he wore that early experience everywhere he went and in everything he did.

“He escaped death many times, if not every day in his late teens and early 20s. He told me of at least a dozen close calls but I’m sure there were many more. He was tough and he instilled at least some of that toughness in me, which I hope has served and will continue to serve me well.”

Liber made his way to Marseilles, France, to start training to fight in Palestine, but was convinced by his cousin that it was not his fight. “You did not survive the atrocities and see your family perish to now put yourself in jeopardy. You must live on!” the cousin said. With that, he traveled to Paris, lived with his cousin and helped support the family by working as a tailor.

Liber later made the journey to Quebec to see his only surviving family member, his brother Jack, in Winnipeg. Eight months later he traveled to Montreal, where he met his future wife Bella and had two children, before moving to Los Angeles.

Years later, when asked how he survived, Liber simply said, “If you have the will to live, you will try anything.”

At his funeral, his eight grandchildren paid their respects, too. “As adults, knowing more now about his history, about the many lives he led long before our time, about the unspeakable ordeals he endured … we are filled with many emotions; pride, reverence, awe, humility,” they said. “We all want so much to honor Grandpa Sol, to repay him for all he gave us, to live up to the standard he set and to continue his legacy.”

Survivor: Sol Liber

As soon as the train leaving the Warsaw Ghetto made its first stop, the 100 Jews packed into the cattle car with 19-year-old Sol Liber knew they were headed east to the Treblinka death camp. “Half the train was getting crazy,” said Sol, who recalls standing back from the tiny window in his car to let more air reach his older sisters, Tishel and Shayva, who were fainting. 

Hours later, the train pulled into the Treblinka station. “Raus, raus” (“Out, out”) the SS shouted, as dazed passengers exited the cars, lining up outside. “Give up your valuables,” other men ordered, holding an open blanket for the deposits. Amid what seemed to Sol utter chaos, the SS herded about 3,100 Jews toward the gas chambers. 

An SS tapped Sol on the shoulder, motioning for him to sit, cross-legged, with a group of men on nearby cement. From there, Sol watched his sisters walk with their arms around one another, unable to keep a straight line, until they disappeared behind a shrubbery-covered chain-link fence. “Ausziehen, ausziehen” (“Undress, undress”), he heard SS shouting from behind the fence. 

Sol and the remaining 500 men continued to wait while the cattle cars were cleaned. After two hours, Sol noticed everything was quiet. “Nothing. You could only hear the birds in the trees,” he said. It was late April 1943. 

Sol Liber was born on Dec. 3, 1923, in Grójec, Poland, to Sana and Shayndel Liber. He was the fifth of six children, and Sol’s father leased out orchards and sold the fruit in Warsaw. Their observant Orthodox family was poor; they lived in an apartment with just two small bedrooms and a kitchen. 

Sol fondly remembers Shabbat, and his mother lighting candles on Friday night and serving chicken soup and challah. The rest of the week, he said, “people were concentrating on putting food on the table.”

Sol attended a public school strictly for Jewish children, and also went to Hebrew school. At 13, he was apprenticed to a tailor, and he also attended night school for basic military training.

In early September 1939, Sol was standing in the family’s backyard when the Germans bombed the town’s flourmill. He escaped with his family to an orchard.

The next day, Nazi Einsatzgruppe soldiers picked up men ages 15 to 50, including Sol and his father. (Sol’s brothers had already been drafted into the Polish army.) They marched the 200 Jews and Poles from city to city, with little food and under harsh conditions. Finally, after Warsaw capitulated to the Germans, the prisoners were freed. Sol and his father returned home around Sukkot.

In Grójec, Sol was selected for forced labor, including spreading manure and clearing snow off the roads, both with his bare hands. By July 1940, the Germans had established a ghetto, where Sol lived in one room with his family. The was nothing to do, Sol said, except “just go to work and starve to death.” In February 1941 they were all transported in open trucks to the Warsaw ghetto. 

Sol was unable to find work. In the summer he escaped over an 8-foot fence — “[It] was a miracle,” Sol said — and walked to Bialobrzegi, another ghetto.

To survive, Sol sneaked out of the ghetto and begged food from farmers. One day he saw his father, who had also escaped from the Warsaw ghetto with Sol’s mother and younger sister Esther. They were renting a shack from a local Pole. 

In early 1942, Sol found a farmer who let him work in exchange for food. After three months, however, afraid of the consequences of harboring a Jew, the farmer released Sol, but gave him some money and food. 

Sol joined his brother Rafael, who was working on the railroad, but Rafael contracted typhoid fever and died two weeks later. Sol also came down with the disease, but he recovered and went to work in a nearby labor camp that served as an SS farm. Sol’s job was scrubbing four horses, which the Germans inspected with white gloves twice daily. They invariably found dust and beat him, he said, “more than once.”

One morning, when the stable head hit Sol with a rope for half-dozing, Sol grabbed his pitchfork and thrust it in the man’s stomach, killing him. 

Sol ran, and made his way to a farm in Praga, outside Warsaw, where his sisters worked. Then, in the summer of 1942, they were all transferred to the Warsaw Ghetto.

Sol and his sisters stayed together, living on Szczesliwa Street and working in a factory. Sol repaired gunshot holes in soldiers’ uniforms.

Sol soon learned about a resistance organization within the ghetto and was blindfolded and taken to see Mordechai Anielewicz, then second in command of the ZOB or Jewish Combat Organization. He was given a gun and taught to make Molotov cocktails. 

Early on April 19, 1943, the night of first seder, SS entered the ghetto, intending to liquidate it in three days. Instead, the Jews resisted. Sol tossed Molotov cocktails at the soldiers in his area. A few fell, and the rest retreated. Sol escaped to a bunker on his street.

The next day, German tanks entered the ghetto. From a rooftop, Sol hit one with a Molotov cocktail. That night, Sol was ordered to blow up an airplane parts factory on Niska Street. He and four others left the bunker, and to avoid making noise on pavement littered with broken glass, they walked in their stocking feet to the factory, where they broke four windows and threw in cocktails. “The factory went up in flames,” Sol said. 

A few nights later, Sol and a few others took a small group of teenagers to a sewer entrance, to allow the young people to escape. But when they approached the manhole, they smelled gas. Someone had ratted on them, and the Germans opened fire. Sol hit the ground, but a bullet penetrated his shoulder. 

The group made it to the Szczesliwa Street bunker, where about 80 people were hiding. But the SS later opened the trap door and threatened to blow them up. Everyone exited with his hands up. “I thought it was over,” Sol recalled. But the SS instead shot the 13-year-old Jewish boy who had squealed.

The group was marched to the Umschlagplatz, the main train depot, and the next day transported to Treblinka. Sol also knew that his parents and sister Esther had earlier been taken from Bialobrzegi to Treblinka. 

In Treblinka, Sol and the other men had been selected to clean up the Warsaw Ghetto. But when the Germans learned that 500 Greek Jews had already been dispatched, they sent Sol’s group to Majdanek. 

There, in the mornings, Sol moved stones from one side of a field to the other. In the afternoons, he took the stones back. “Majdanek was a torture camp, not a work camp,” he said.

Fearing a particular kapo was going to kill him, Sol traded his bread for another prisoner’s job of “breaking boots” for German soldiers. He walked all day in new boots with no socks as his feet bled.

A friend then found him a job in the horse barracks, putting away prisoners’ straw sleeping sacks.

One Sunday, a drunk SS entered the barracks to break in a new whip — wire covered with leather. Sol was selected and received 25 lashes. He couldn’t sit down for weeks. 

A couple months later, in fall 1943, Sol volunteered to go to an ammunition factory in Skarzysko-Kamienna. There he worked hardening steel for machinery, one of the better jobs.

In August 1944, with the Russian front approaching, the prisoners were ordered to pack the machinery on flat cars and depart. 

They came to the Hasag forced labor camp in Czestochowa. There Sol loaded items for the Russian front. Then, in mid-January 1945, as the Russians again advanced — Sol could hear “the terrible whistling noise of the Katyusha rockets” — the SS evacuated the camp, packing the prisoners onto cattle cars.

Sol reached Buchenwald on Jan. 20, 1945. The camp was overcrowded and bitter cold. “People were dying like flies,” Sol said. 

About seven weeks later, Sol, along with 125 or so prisoners, was transported to a labor camp near the Czechoslovakian border. “It was like Siberia,” Sol recalled. “Snow and barracks.” His job was to haul machinery down a small elevator into empty salt mine shafts, a difficult task. 

In mid-May 1945 the prisoners were evacuated and forced to march from sunrise to sunset, sleeping in fields. Sol walked in shoes with no socks and was also forced to carry a rucksack and an unloaded rifle for an SS. After three weeks, on June 6, 1945, they were liberated by the Russians in Annaberg, Germany. Sol was 21.

He eventually joined his brother Yitzhak at the Eggenfelden displaced persons camp in Germany, staying for three years. In June 1949, he sailed to Canada, settling in Montreal, where he met Bella Bezonsky. They married on June 14, 1953. Their son Sheldon was born in 1956, daughter Susan in 1957 and son Rodney in 1963.

Sol and his family moved to California on Dec. 25, 1957. Sol worked as a tailor and then bought his own factory, S&D Fashions in downtown Los Angeles. In 1980, he sold the factory and semi-retired. 

Sol, who turns 90 on Dec. 3, enjoys walking and spending time with his children and eight grandchildren. He considers himself a “Holocaust walking encyclopedia,” but still doesn’t know if any of the 500 men who survived Treblinka with him are still alive.

“The will to live. You’ll try everything,” he said.