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As a little boy, Martin Schiller was sent to a slave labor camp in Poland along with his family. Separated from his mother, Martin never lost hope of being reunited with her after liberation.
Photos and Artifacts
Child survivors of Buchenwald file out of the main gate of the camp, escorted by American soldiers and directed by elements of the camp underground. The Buchenwald children were a group of approximately 1,000 Jewish child survivors found by American troops when they liberated the Buchenwald concentration camp on April 11, 1945. Photographer: Byron Rollins. Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD.
From left to right, Chamush (Paul) and Menue (Martin) Schiller, Tarnobrzeg, Poland, 1936. Credit: Courtesy of Martin Schiller.
The Tarnobrzeg market square with Bartosz Głowacki monument, ca. 1915. The postcard was published around 1915-1916 by the Stanisław Jachowicz Society in order to raise money for an orphanage for the children of fallen WW I soldiers. Credit: Courtesy of the Historical Museum of the City of Tarnobrzeg.
By Dr. Samuel Kassow
Martin Schiller, born in 1933, was a small child living in Tarnobrzeg (Dzikev in Yiddish), a small town in southeastern Poland. According to the 1931 census, of Tarnobrzeg’s 3,643 inhabitants 61 percent were Jewish. Until the German invasion of Poland in 1939, Martin had a happy childhood. Along with his older brother, he grew up in a close-knit, religious family. By the standards of the time, they were well off.
When the war began, the Schillers’ world rapidly collapsed. Martin was barely six. In October 1939, the Germans expelled the Jews from Tarnobrzeg and the Schiller family settled in the nearby shtetl of Koprzywnica (Pukshivnitse in Yiddish). For a time, they hid on the property of an acquaintance whom they quickly came to distrust. In the fall of 1942, when the family’s money had run low and mass deportations to the death camps were in full swing, Martin’s parents made a critical decision: to enter a German labor camp, in this case the HASAG ammunition factories at Skarzysko-Kamienna.
Readers might wonder why Martin’s family—with full knowledge that the Germans had begun the mass murder of Jews—would voluntarily enter a German camp. But what alternative did they have? While it is true that almost 7,000 Poles were recognized as “Righteous Gentiles” for having risked their lives to save Jews during the war, most Jews who tried to hide were rightly convinced of two things. First, they could not survive without the help of Poles. Second, the overwhelming majority of Poles were indifferent at best; at worst, they were all too ready to denounce Jews or fellow Poles who tried to help them. In this episode, Martin expresses his bitterness at the Poles, both for their wartime attitude and for the antisemitism he encountered when he returned to Poland in 1945. This was an attitude shared by a majority of survivors. The fact that Martin’s parents saw a German camp as offering their best chance of survival speaks volumes about what it was like to be a Jew in German-occupied Poland in 1942.
According to Felicja Karay, in the 32 months of Skarzysko’s existence, about 20,000 Jews were brought to the camp and 14,000 died there. Starvation, typhus, and terrible working conditions took a heavy toll. There were constant selections as weaker prisoners were taken to a nearby forest and shot. Martin’s father was killed.
How did Martin beat the odds and stay alive? Terrible as it was, Skarzysko was better than many other camps. Since it produced 30 percent of all the German infantry ammunition for the Eastern Front, it was a vital cog in the German war machine. HASAG’s director, Paul Budin, was a ruthless Nazi who cared nothing for Jewish life. But he was a skilled political operator whose wheeling and dealing kept the ultimate authority over the complex in the hands of HASAG, not the SS. When the SS murdered 43,000 Jews in nearby labor camps in early November 1943, the HASAG camps were not touched.
Jewish labor was cheap and Budin was ready to look the other way and admit even children like Martin and his brother. Martin also had another bit of luck. He was sent not to Werk C, which was a mini–death camp, but to Werk A, where the conditions were a little better. And though still a child, Martin grew up fast. He developed a keen instinct for survival. Martin got another prisoner to teach him how to run a vital machine and became valuable to the HASAG operation. Conscious of his status as a skilled worker, Martin felt emboldened to risk his life and ask his German supervisor to save his mother and brother from imminent execution. When Skarzysko was evacuated in the summer of 1944, Martin and his brother were sent to Buchenwald while his mother ended up in a camp near Leipzig.
In Skarzysko, as elsewhere, the Germans used the prisoners themselves to keep order. Kapos, a network of privileged prisoners, had a lot of power and did not hesitate to use it. Often life or death depended on which prisoner you knew, or how well you were able to play the black market or steal materials from the factory. In one of the most revealing parts of Martin’s full, unedited testimony (not included in the podcast episode), he recounts an incident when 20 former kapos and policemen were lynched by their fellow prisoners after they arrived at Buchenwald in the summer of 1944.
Liberation was a bittersweet experience for Martin, as it was for many survivors. Martin recalls how the camp experience had made him tough, selfish, and callous. He tried and failed to understand why this had happened, why there had been so much gratuitous brutality and so little kindness. Martin and his brother managed to find their mother, but their world had been totally destroyed. Now they had to decide where to go. A return to Poland brought a shocking reminder that Jews were not wanted there and indeed risked their lives by staying.
Although Martin prepared to go to Palestine, the family’s plans changed when in 1946 his uncles in America sponsored their immigration to New York. The well-meaning uncles enrolled Martin in a yeshiva, where he had another traumatic experience. Some of his classmates did not believe him when he talked about his wartime sufferings. One said, “Tell us some more of your bullshit stories.” As a result, for many years Martin only spoke about the Holocaust to fellow survivors.
What Martin endured during the war might easily crush any adult, let alone a child. His is a story of terrible suffering and of ongoing trauma. On the other hand, his story also reflects a strong will to live, great resourcefulness, and, as is the case with all survivors, some lucky breaks. Of the more than three million Polish Jews who found themselves under German occupation (not counting the 300,000 who were deported or fled to the Soviet Union), no more than 60,000 survived—in hiding, in camps, or with false papers. Martin lost 66 relatives. But he, his brother, and his mother, incredibly, survived.
Additional readings and information
Karay, Felicja. Death Comes in Yellow: Skarzysko-Kamienna Slave Labor Camp. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic, 1996.
Schiller, Martin. Bread, Butter, and Sugar: A Boy’s Journey Through the Holocaust and Postwar Europe. Lanham, MD: Hamilton Books, 2007.
A 2013 interview with Martin at the Yiddish Book Center: https://www.yiddishbookcenter.org/collections/oral-histories/interviews/woh-fi-0000434/martin-schiller-2013.
Martin’s website, with a link to a documentary produced by his son: https://www.martinschillerauthor.com/.