As Boris Abel — then Berelis Abelski — was being herded from the cattle car that had transported him to Auschwitz, he saw what was happening ahead and quickly tossed the small bag of gold and diamonds he was carrying into a nearby sewer. He and the other newly arrived prisoners were ordered to undress and lie on the ground, where guards hosed them down with cold water. Next, they were placed on tables and examined for hidden valuables. Afterward, while waiting to be tattooed, Boris was pulled from the line. He was given a uniform caked with dried blood that had belonged to a French soldier, then was packed onto a train headed to Dachau. It was July 1944; Boris was 29 years old.
Born on July 23, 1915, in Panevezys, Lithuania, to Schner Benjamin and Sonja Ratz Abelski, Boris was the second- youngest child in a family of five boys and two girls.
Schner owned a rope manufacturing and distribution business, with branches in several cities. The company also sold brushes and brush-making materials, including hemp, horsehair and pig bristles. The family was well-to-do, living in a large house on the same property as the factory and a smaller home.
Schner was very religious, and Boris attended Jewish school and studied privately with a rabbi. But Boris also enjoyed working in the family business, and he occasionally skipped school to help out.
In June 1940, Russia occupied Lithuania, a result of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact signed on Aug. 23, 1939, which, among other things, gave Russia half of Poland as well as Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. By this time, both of Boris’ parents had died of natural causes.
The Russians immediately nationalized the family business, which Boris was managing and which had grown tremendously. “Everybody had to go to work for Stalin,” Boris remembered. “They took away everything.” After annexation, he went to Siauliai (Shavl in Yiddish), 50 miles away. There, under a law that allowed small businesses to operate, he opened a shop selling brushes, which he learned to fabricate. “When you have to be alive, you try it and you do it,” he explained.
Then, on June 26, 1941, four days after Germany broke the Non-Aggression Pact and attacked Russia, the Germans invaded Lithuania, accompanied by armed Lithuanian nationalists, who began a murderous rampage against the Jews. Boris escaped into the woods, returning a week later to find German soldiers living in his house.
The Germans, however, needed Boris’ brushes — for sweeping streets and cleaning indoors — as well as his expertise, so a German general removed the soldiers from the house.
By Sept. 1, 1941, all Siauliai Jews, including Boris and two of his brothers, had been relocated to two ghettos, enclosed by barbed wire and guarded by Lithuanian police. But Boris and his brothers were permitted to leave the ghetto daily to make brushes.
Later, Boris’ brother Szrolek, accompanied by a German guard, traveled to Kovno to obtain horsehair, which was needed for the brushes. There, in the ghetto, he discovered his sister Michla and her three small children, whom the guard allowed to return to Siauliai with him. “The biggest miracle in the world,” Boris said. “We didn’t even know that they were still alive.”
In September 1943, the SS took command of the Siauliai ghetto and constructed five external labor camps. About 500 people, including Boris and his brothers, were moved to the military airfield. There, they continued to work in the brush shop, which had also been relocated.
On Nov. 5, 1943, in what became known as the Children’s Aktion, the Germans rounded up more than 500 children in the ghetto and deported them to Auschwitz. Two of Michla’s children were seized while she hid in a cellar with the third.
Afterward, Michla and her surviving son were moved to the airfield camp. “The German manager of the camp was nice,” Boris said, explaining that whenever inspections took place, he hid Michla’s son.
In July 1944, the airfield camp was closed and the workers returned to the Siauliai ghetto. Then, beginning on July 15, the ghetto was liquidated. Boris was crammed into a cattle car, with 50 or 60 people, and taken to Stutthof. Less than a day later, he was transported to Auschwitz.
After being processed at Auschwitz, Boris was shipped to Dachau and transferred almost immediately to a sub-camp in the Landsberg/Kaufering area. There, the prisoners were assigned to cardboard-like huts, where they slept on the ground.
The prisoners worked as slave laborers for the Leonhard Moll construction company, building an underground factory to assemble Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighters. Conditions were so bad that 1,000 prisoners died each day, Boris said.
One day, Boris was handed a 50-pound hammer to use to work on the railway. But he was by now so underweight and malnourished that he couldn’t manage, and, in despair, dragged himself to the fence where debilitated prisoners were assembled and then killed. “Take me,” he begged the guards. But they pushed him away.
Then, on another day, as American planes flew overhead, a German guard drew his pistol and futilely shot at an aircraft. Turning toward a group of prisoners, including Boris, who were nearby, he shouted, “Do you know why the planes came in here? Because Roosevelt is a Jew.” The guard proceeded to beat Boris with his fists.
In late April, as Germany was losing the war, the sub-camps were liquidated, and the prisoners marched back to Dachau. Thousands of prisoners, including Boris, were then dispatched on a death march, without food, and forced to sleep outdoors. Many died or were killed on the way.
One day, a Russian prisoner on the march stole some loaves of bread from a truck. He saw that Boris was carrying an empty bag and demanded he give it to him. Boris asked for a loaf in exchange. “This helped me to survive,” he said.
Finally, in early May 1945, the prisoners reached a small German city on the Austrian border where they were liberated by American troops. A jeep pulled up to where Boris was sitting, and a soldier from Brooklyn, N.Y., named Milton Endlich befriended him.
Boris, weighing just 70 pounds, was taken to the Munich-Freimann Displaced Persons Center, then to a nearby hospital. After a month, he was transferred to Schwabing Hospital in Munich, where he spent three months. “They treated us good. They gave us food,” he remembered.
In fall of 1945 Boris traveled to Feldafing displaced persons camp. After six months, he moved to Munich, where the Jewish community provided housing and food.
In the meantime, with Endlich’s help, Boris contacted a cousin in Massachusetts, who sponsored his immigration to the United States. Boris arrived in America in May 1949, settling in Salem, Mass.
He first found a job working in a toy store, earning $23 a week, but after three months the store closed. Then, in October, he met Julia Waller, an American who worked as a bookkeeper. They married on Feb. 19, 1950. Boris later opened Abel’s Brush Center, selling brushes for cleaning as well as personal use, including ones for shaving and hair, and, in a sense, reviving the family business. He also sold and repaired electric razors.
Boris and Julia’s daughter, Susan, was born in March 1953 and their son, Chuck, in May 1956. Susan died in February 2007, from an accidental fall, and Julia died in November 2008.
Two of Boris’ brothers also survived. En route to Auschwitz, Szrolek jumped off the train and escaped into the woods. He was rescued by Russians, but later sent to Siberia, where he spent 10 years. In 1967, he immigrated to Israel and soon after moved to the United States.
Another brother, Yitzchak, escaped from a labor camp and eventually made his way to Palestine. In 1980, Boris, accompanied by his son, traveled to Israel to visit Yitzchak, their first reunion in 40 years.
Boris retired in 2003 and moved to Los Angeles in 2008 after his wife died, to live with his son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren. He was a volunteer speaker at the Museum of Tolerance for several years, but now, at 98, his physical health doesn’t permit it. Still, Boris remains eager to share his story, always conscious of the enormity of it.
“To tell the story like I tell you now, you have to be born all over again and live 200 years. And you don’t know how to start even,” he said.