April 25, 2012
“Raus, raus!” (Out, out!) Jack Adelstein — then Janek Eidelstein, 4 years old — was abruptly awakened by a dozen SS soldiers and Polish farmers. He was sleeping in a cave in a dense forest outside Krasnik, Poland, where he was hiding with his father, brother and an older sister. His siblings had ventured out earlier on that bitterly cold November night, as they often did during the six months they spent in hiding, stealing food from a nearby farm. This time, however, the farmer tracked them back to the cave, following their footsteps in the snow, and reported them. The captured family was trucked to the nearby Budzyn labor camp.
Jack was born on April 15, 1936, to Mordechai and Gertrude Eidelstein; he was the fifth of six children. The family lived on a farm, in a house with a straw roof and straw floor. They weren’t rich, but they had food. And Jack had a pony. “I went to the river and swam with it,” he said.
Everything changed after Germany invaded Poland in September 1939. By the following spring, Nazi soldiers showed up at the family’s farm and confiscated all the animals and most of their belongings.
Jack’s parents decided their best chance at survival was to split up, so Gertrude and three of their four daughters went to the Krasnik ghetto; Mordechai took the other children — Jack, their other son and their other daughter — and hid in the forest.
At Budzyn, Jack was given a uniform “10 times too big” and assigned to a barracks with his father and brother; his sister was housed in a women’s barracks.
During the days, he stayed in the kitchen, where he hid under piles of potato peelings. “I was afraid Feix would see me and kill me,” he said of the Oberscharfuhrer (Nazi overseer), Reinhold Feix, who was, according to Jack, “the devil himself.” At roll call, Feix rode on his horse, a German shepherd at his side. Sometimes at night, or on weekends when he was drunk, he walked into a barracks with a small machine gun and sprayed bullets. At those times, Jack’s father hid him under a straw mattress.
After three months, Jack was assigned a job feeding chickens, rabbits and geese. He also had to report to Feix at roll call. One day, in front of 10,000 prisoners, “out of nowhere,” Jack said, Feix drew his revolver, cocked it and pointed it at Jack’s head. It jammed. But Feix, enraged by the malfunction, began beating Jack’s head with the gun, creating a gash “two fingers” deep. Jack bears a 3-inch scar to this day.
But Jack had already reached a point where “it didn’t matter anymore,” he remembers. His brother and sister had been murdered, taken to a large ditch outside the camp with a group of 500 prisoners and shot. And on the camp’s row of gallows, “At least 10 to 50 people were hanging every day — by the neck, the feet and every which way,” Jack said. Also, he and his father had heard that Gertrude and the three girls had been taken to Auschwitz.
After two years, as the Russian army advanced, Jack and his father were moved to the Plaszow labor camp. Jack was tattooed with a number, but his father sucked out the ink, fearing it was poison. Jack worked in the Nazi offices, delivering papers to different barracks and cleaning the machines and wood floors. “I had no childhood. I thought life was like that,” he said.
After six months, Jack and his father were transferred to Flossenburg, a concentration camp in Bavaria, which was, according to Jack, “cold as hell.” While his father worked on planes for Messerschmitt AG, Jack was assigned to clean the Nazi offices. A highlight was stealing bread and cheese for his father, supplementing the plain bread and watery soup they were given once a day.
The camp became unmanageably overcrowded, and the crematorium, working round the clock, could not keep pace. The Nazis piled bodies in stacks, sometimes 20 feet high, pouring gasoline on them and igniting them, Jack recalls.
As the Allies began bombing in January 1945, the Germans loaded the prisoners on trains. Jack and his father were put in a cattle car, but, fearing the train would be bombed, Jack’s father, standing on dead bodies, pulled himself up to the car’s roof and climbed out. He then hauled Jack up. As the train was departing and they jumped off, Jack was shot in the foot. Still, they escaped into the nearby woods.
But they were soon captured and returned to Flossenburg, a few weeks before liberation. There was no food, and thousands of prisoners were walking around, “skeletons with their eyes bulging,” Jack said. Then, on April 23, 1945, the U.S. Army liberated Flossenburg. Jack believes that at age 9 he was the camp’s youngest survivor.
Jack and his father were eventually sent to a DP camp in Frankfurt. For the first time, Jack said, “I saw what life was like.” He attended Jewish school and learned Hebrew. Then, in summer 1947, his father died of a brain tumor.
Two years later, Jack came to the United States on an orphan visa. He was adopted by a cousin in Los Angeles, Anne Gorrin, the woman he calls “Mother.” Jack attended school, graduating from Fairfax High School. In 1954, he began working for a shower curtain company. After 30 years, he opened his own shower curtain company, Pavilion Products, retiring in 2007.
Jack met Natalie Wiener when he was 19 and she was 16, and they married in August 1957. Son Martin was born in 1959, Gary followed in 1962, and daughter Cheryl in 1964.
Jack regrets that he cannot recall the faces of his mother and five siblings. He has no photographs. He also regrets that he missed getting an education.
These days, Jack enjoys being with his family, including his seven grandchildren. He is working up to telling his story at the Museum of Tolerance.
“I feel blessed in one way, but so much was also taken away,” he says.
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