The morning stillness was shattered in the German village of Ober-Ramstadt, as people started running through the streets, crying out that the synagogue was burning. Julius Bendorf, 23, could see the flames from his house. Later, around 1 p.m., a group of men broke into his father’s butcher shop at the front of the family’s house. The Nazis had already closed down the shop, as they had all Jewish businesses, but the intruders destroyed the counters, scales and other equipment. “These were men we knew really well, who bought meat from us,” Julius remembered. The men then entered the family’s living quarters, but Julius, his parents and brother had already escaped through the back door. The next day, the family returned to find their feather bedding shredded, their food tossed on the floor and the house in shambles. It was Kristallnacht, Nov. 9, 1938, and, as Julius said, “It all happened so fast.”
Julius was born on Jan. 4, 1915, to Josef and Dina Bendorf. His brother, Manfred, was born in 1919. Julius’ father owned the only butcher shop that sold beef rather than pork, though it was not kosher.
Jew and Christians had always mixed easily in Ober- Ramstadt, but that changed in the early 1930s. Julius stopped going to public school in 1931, when professors began making anti-Semitic remarks. He found a job in a Jewish bank, and then in a second one, until all Jewish businesses were forced to close in March 1938.
Julius continued doing sports, however. He excelled in gymnastics, as well as running and jumping. He even tried out for the 1936 Olympics, but after two weeks all the Jews were sent home.
On Aug. 15, 1939, Julius and Manfred were arrested and taken to a labor camp in Paderborn, Germany. There they cleaned streets and harvested wheat, replacing city workers serving in the army.
On April 23, 1940, the two were transferred to a labor camp in Bielefeld, where they built air-raid shelters and removed the debris from bombed-out portions of the city.
Then, on March 3, 1943, the Bielefeld Jews were rounded up and packed into cattle cars. “They told us to bring suitcases, that they needed workers in the east,”
Julius said. But two days later, when the train arrived at Auschwitz, the Jews were shocked as SS guards, according to Julius, “came down on us like an avalanche.” Julius and his brother were taken to Buna-Monowitz, initially a forced labor sub-camp of Auschwitz that then became Auschwitz III, which consisted of factories being built by the IG Farben Company to produce synthetic rubber and gasoline.
Julius’ job was to help build a factory, by hand. His work included carrying cement and iron, and hammering cement to remove air bubbles. “You had to stay out of sight, so to speak, because they could shoot you at any moment,” he said.
On June 1, 1943, Manfred injured his knee and was taken to Auschwitz. He was cremated soon after, though Julius did not know this for certain at the time.
Beginning in August 1944, the Allies bombed Buna-Monowitz four times. As the planes approached, Julius and the other workers were chased out of the factories as the Germans turned on fog machines to obscure the targets. The Germans then ran for the air-raid shelters while the prisoners, confined by electrified barbed wire fences, sat outside. “We put our little metal food bowl on our heads,” Julius said.
As the Russians approached, in January 1945, the prisoners were lined up and marched out. “It was snowy and cold. And we had to pull the wagons of the SS soldiers,” Julius said. After two nights, they reached Gleiwitz concentration camp. Julius’ group was shipped off to Buchenwald and then Holzen, a sub-camp, where he worked in an airplane factory tunneled into a mountain.
As the Americans advanced, the group was returned to Buchenwald. Then on April 5, about 5,000 starving and ill prisoners were marched to Weimar and packed tightly on what became known as the “death train” to Dachau. The trip took three weeks as the train circumvented bombed-out railway tracks. Julius doesn’t remember arriving in Dachau, only waking up on a hospital cot and seeing American soldiers. He had been shot, sitting “most likely on a couple of dead bodies,” with his knees up when, he imagines, a drunken SS soldier opened the car door and randomly fired at the prisoners.
In July 1945, Julius moved to the Feldafing DP camp, and in November 1945, as a free man, he traveled to Frankfurt. Through the American soldiers, he found a job at Frankfurt’s Reichsbank. He also learned via the Red Cross that his brother had been murdered at Auschwitz, as well as his parents and grandmother.
In January 1948, Julius sailed to the United States and settled in Chicago, where he found work at the Revere Camera Company. He stayed 15 years.
In 1961, he met Jeane Liewen, a divorced mother of two girls, Toni and Margo. They married and moved to Phoenix in 1963, and then to Los Angeles in 1968, where Julius worked for Scientific Data Systems, which was sold to Xerox. He and Jeane later separated, but Julius remains close to his daughters and five grandsons.
Julius returned to Ober-Ramstadt in March 2010 with his entire family at the invitation of a high school teacher whose students every year research the history of Ober-Ramstadt Jews who suffered in the Holocaust. Julius spoke to the students and participated in a ceremony in which stolpersteine (stumbling blocks) — commemorative brass-covered concrete cubes — were laid in the sidewalks outside the Jews’ houses. Julius returned in June 2010 for Ober-Ramstadt’s 700th anniversary and was named an honorary citizen.
Today, Julius, 97, lives in a second-story walkup apartment. He goes to the YMCA three times a week for aqua-exercises and spends Sundays with his family.
Of the 73 Jews living in Ober-Ramstadt when World War II broke out, Julius is the only one who survived. “It was plain luck,” he said. “You had no power to do anything.”