I shall live, p.1

I Shall Live, page 1


I Shall Live

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I Shall Live


  Surviving the Holocaust Against All Odds


  Foreword by

  Claude Lanzmann, creator of Shoah

  Copyright © 1987 by Henry Orenstein

  First Beaufort Books paperback edition 1997

  All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system now known or to be invented, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who wishes to quote brief passages in connection with a review written for inclusion in a magazine, newspaper, or broadcast.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Orenstein, Henry, 1923-

  I shall live : surviving the Holocaust against all odds / Henry Orenstein.

  p. cm.

  “revised and updated edition”.

  ISBN 978-0-8253-0597-9 (alk. paper)

  1. Orenstein, Henry, 1923-2. Jews—Poland—Hrubieszów—Biography.

  3. Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945)—Poland—Hrubieszów--Personal narratives.

  4. Hrubieszów (Poland)—Biography. I. Title.

  DS134.72.O74A3 2010




  For Inquiries about volume orders, please contact:

  Beaufort Books

  27 West 20th Street, Suite 1102

  New York, NY 10011


  Published in the United States by Beaufort Books


  Distributed by Midpoint Trade Books


  Designer: Elyse Strongin, Neuwirth & Associates, Inc.

  Printed in the U.S.A.

  10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

  To the members of my family

  murdered by the Nazis


  to my beloved wife, Susie,

  without whose urging and inspiration

  this book would not have been written

  Special thanks to Dr. Lucjan Dobroszycki,

  Professor of History at YIVO and Yeshiva University,

  and editor of The Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto,

  for his invaluable help in the search

  for documents and verification


  Foreword by Claude Lanzmann

  Introduction by Malcolm Hoenlein

  Publisher’s Note


  Hrubieszów: Before World War II

  World War II Begins

  Under the Soviets

  The Germans Attack the Soviet Union

  Under the Germans: Ołyka



  Back in Hrubieszów






  The March





  Throughout the years I spent in the preparation and making of Shoah, one question emerged as central for me, a question that neither the many firsthand accounts and scholarly works I read nor the testimony from survivors ever really and completely answered: How did the Jews of the villages and small ghetto towns of Eastern Europe (Poland, the Baltic countries, Byelorussia, the Ukraine) live from one day to the next during the periods of remission that followed the liquidations—or “actions,” as the Nazis labeled them—in which their families and friends were brutally slaughtered on the spot by specialized teams of killers or sent off to the gas chambers of the death camps? Although the frequency and pace of extermination varied considerably according to the time and place, one general principle nevertheless prevailed: In order to deceive and lull the victims, and also because Jewish manpower was needed, the SS never “cleaned up” a ghetto in one fell swoop. Between one “action” and the next, life went on for those initially spared, days filled with anguish and terror, dominated by the anticipation and certainty of an inescapable end, yet permeated with dreams and hopes more tenacious than death, and without which their doomed existence would have been impossible.

  Henry Orenstein is the extraordinary painter of this anguish, conveying a picture whose truth and sensitivity are to my mind exemplary. He makes us experience—and this is what is most profoundly unique in his story—the passage of time, the passing of days, weeks, and months, the deceptive calm before and after the savagery of the “actions” and executions. Quite simply, he recreates for us the sense of duration in the extermination of the Jews. He does so with perfect economy of means, in a spare style, without overstatement. His intellectual rigor and honesty, his accurate memory, and his keen skill for description enable us to relive each moment of this relentless martyrdom as if we ourselves belonged to the Orenstein family.

  This book is above all the saga of a wonderfully united and closely knit family in which each member is prepared to give his life to save the others. Lejb, the father, Golda, the mother, the four sons—Fred, Sam, Felek, and Henry—and lastly, Hanka, the little sister, all obey the same law of love—paternal, maternal, filial, and sibling love—which bids them always to risk their own safety in order to keep the family together or to find each other again despite enforced separations, even at the price of the ultimate sacrifice. The most poignant episode in the book is undoubtedly the surrender to the Nazis on October 28, 1942, of the entire family, together for one last time in their home town of Hrubieszów, after having miraculously survived for three years. By the very austerity of its narration, the book here attains a tragic grandeur. We are witness to the final “action,” the ultimate liquidation of the ghetto, the shipment of thousands of Hrubieszów Jews to the gas chambers of Sobibór. While the SS were outside with their dogs and with Ukrainian mercenaries, flushing out, house by house, the Jews who had failed to appear at roll call, the Orensteins remained hidden in a skrytka, a narrow concealed place behind a false wall. For eight days and eight nights—the duration of the “action”—they waited. Henry, the youngest son (who was nineteen years old in 1942), escaped implacable reality by devouring a Polish translation of Gone with the Wind with its last twenty pages missing. “I shall never know the end of the story,” he thinks, indicating thus his sense of impending death. Dirty, starving, with their strength and hope exhausted, the Orensteins decide to make an end of it and surrender to the murderers. Golda and Lejb are taken to the cemetery and killed with a bullet in the neck. The mother, before being dragged away from her family, cries out to her oldest son the four piercing words which express the most absolute gift of self: “Fred, save the children!”

  For the five children, the hell of the camps would now begin. Until now, we have been reading a meticulous account of a manhunt, rich with fresh insights into relations between Jews and Poles, the habitual anti-Semitism of the Polish population, but also the simple heroism of a handful of men and women who risked their lives to help the victims (Mrs. Lipińska remains unforgettable); we learn, too, about everyday life in this part of Poland, occupied by the USSR between 1939 and 1941, during which period anti-Jewish discrimination was banned, and lastly about the solitude and the unbelievable feeling of abandonment experienced by Jews desperately trying to survive in a totally hostile environment, a desert bereft of all humanity.

  But then the tenor of the book suddenly alters, and in trailing the path of Henry Orenstein, we plunge into the most harrowing of adventure stories. An adventure of horror to be sure, as lived hour after hour for thirty interminable months, but at the same time, one that is almost novelesque in the extraordinary succession of miracles which e
nable the young man to remain among the living so as to eventually tell his story forty years later, with Voltairesque ferocity and often with sheer and invigorating joy. From one ordeal to another, outwitting death time after time, Henry Orenstein, an intelligent, soberly pessimistic Candide, is possessed by a will to live so prodigious that he seems able to maintain his spirit while overcoming the most improbable odds. One of the most hazardous of these was his enrollment in an ultra-secret Kommando of phony chemists, engineers, and mathematicians, whose task was to employ Jewish intelligence for the purpose of inventing a unique gas that would save the Third Reich from disaster by paralyzing the engines of enemy tanks, aircraft, and all other motorized vehicles. Readers will have to discover for themselves this truly delusionary scheme, a sheer product of the Nazi phantasmagoria. As a member of a Chemiker Kommando, our hero was sheltered to some extent in each of the five camps to which he was deported: Budzy’n, Majdanek, and Płaszów in Poland; Ravensbrück and Sachsenhausen in Germany. The news from the front, Hitler’s defeats, the advance of Soviet troops (he rightly considers the battle of Moscow in the winter of 1941–1942 to be the decisive turning point of the war), together with the Allied landings helped sustain Henry Orenstein during his worst moments: The reader must imagine the horrible torture in Ptaszów of being confined in the Stehbunker (a tiny, foul, coffin-like cell with barely room to stand), waiting his turn to be hanged, escaping in his imagination into the realm of military strategy, identifying with the generals of the victorious armies—Zhukov and Eisenhower, Montgomery and Rokossovsky—correcting and perfecting their battle plans, but also maintaining his equilibrium when on the brink of death by visualizing Hitler’s suffering on seeing his world crumble.

  The end of the book is admirable. In a series of hallucinatory scenes which would lend themselves to cinematic treatment, the author has us relive the death march of the prisoners from Sachsenhausen during the last days of the war. At that point, impelled by an overwhelming need to tell, Orenstein attains such perfect mastery that his work achieves the rank of literature.


  Translated from the French by Toby Talbot


  I am writing this introduction to add another dimension to the masterful foreword by Claude Lanzmann. This renowned artist and author has captured the special significance of this book and it cannot be improved upon.

  I have been privileged to know many of the most outstanding personalities of our time, from world leaders to renowned religious figures and cultural icons. None has had a greater impact or more profound impression on my life as did Henry Orenstein. Beyond my deep affection and admiration for Henry and Susie, I have come to rely on his incisive and substantive command of world events. Henry is a keen observer, largely self-educated, with remarkable insight sharpened by his life experience. His remarkable story is movingly recounted in I Shall Live, but it offers only part of the full account of this unique and special man.

  His resourcefulness, creativity, and intellect are evident in his ability to survive against the greatest odds. Only those who had firsthand experience with the unfathomable evil of that period can fully appreciate the miraculous nature of his survival.

  I Shall Live is much more then another personal account of that terrible era. Rather, it is the inspiring story of the remarkable triumph of an individual who by virtue of extraordinary will and courage was able to overcome incredible challenges that would have doomed a lesser person. He repeatedly faced almost certain death, yet by his wit, courage, and determination he confounded the plans of his Nazi tormentors. Not given to despair or self-pity, despite his incredible experiences, which might have deterred those lacking his zeal for life, he went on to establish a family, successful businesses and engage in significant philanthropic endeavors. These qualities enabled him as well to overcome reversals of fortune, from which he emerged stronger and went on to even greater accomplishments. His creativity and imagination continue to produce new inventions and innovations up to the present time.

  While I Shall Live is largely Henry’s story, he places the events in an historical context, enhancing the reader’s experience and education. The lessons of Henry’s life are particularly important for the younger generations. The increased visibility and vociferousness of Holocaust deniers underscores the importance of his work. Similarly, the mood of our time makes his real-life demonstration of the indomitable spirit so vital.

  The word chosen to symbolize the Holocaust was “zachor,” remembrance. In our tradition, remembrance is also about the future, because only those who learn the lessons of the past are able to meet the challenges of the future. I Shall Live sounds an alarm for this generation so that the pledge of “Never again!” will be fulfilled.

  I hope—I urge—that young people of every faith, ethnicity, and national origin, in and outside of the classroom, will be encouraged to read and benefit from I Shall Live. I have no doubt it will inspire, sensitize, and instruct them as they draw lessons for their own lives.

  Henry’s caring for so many individuals from every walk of life, his devotion to Israel and the Jewish people, his love for and commitment to the United States and the vitality of our society, cannot be adequately recounted in this volume. Perhaps it is best left for others to recount. Henry never sought recognition, thought it was rightly earned. In fact, he shunned the limelight, preferring to have his deeds speak for themselves.

  We are indebted to Henry for sharing his life story and for enabling us to be, directly or indirectly, part of it. May he and Susie be blessed with many more years of health, happiness, and good deeds.


  Executive Vice Chairman,

  Conference of Presidents of

  Major American Jewish Organizations

  April 2009


  I Shall Live was originally published in 1987 to great critical acclaim. Henry Orenstein’s extraordinary account of the way he and his family struggled to survive the atrocities perpetrated on European Jews by the Nazis has resonated with readers ever since. The narrative opens on Henry’s domestic life with his family in Poland prior to its invasion by the Germans and the Russians in 1939. His words portray in brutal detail the nightmare that descended upon Poland and the rest of Europe.

  Throughout his book he sets his personal struggle against the larger backdrop of war-torn Europe, giving readers a better perspective on the war as he and his siblings are moved from one concentration camp to another.

  Since the original publication of I Shall Live, more information has come to light about a specific aspect of his story. When the Nazis ordered all scientists to sign up for a special assignment, Henry, his brothers, as well as a number of other Jewish prisoners who were not scientists, signed up anyway. They gambled their lives hoping that the war would end before the SS found out that they were not who they claimed to be.

  The idea of creating the scientists “Kommando” was originated by a number of German professors who worried that they would be drafted into the German Army and sent to the Russian front. After the professors interviewed the Jewish prisoners who enlisted in the “Kommando,” they realized that these were not real scientists. They were so anxious to avoid fighting the Russians that they decided to gamble themselves and give the prisoners make believe “scientific” work.

  After the war Henry Orenstein engaged two German historians, Dr.Gotz and Dr. Strebel, to conduct a search in the German archives to try to find documents relating to the phony “Kommando.” The enclosed letters show how far-reaching the deception was. In one of them, the head of SS in Poland, Wilhelm Koppe, writes to Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, asking him for permission to move the “Kommando” to Germany, and telling him how important its work is to the German war effort. In another, Himmler, apparently very impressed, writes to Pohl, a key SS leader in Berlin, and asking him to set up an advisory committee to supervise the “Kommando.”

  I Shall Live puts a very
human face on those who survived the camps and those who were not fortunate enough to make it. At its root, it is a story of a bright young man who grows into adulthood in the most unimaginable circumstances, but somehow becomes a good and decent man who puts the love of his family above all else.

  Beaufort believes it is important to keep alive this unique story of strength and survival. For this new edition we have kept the original introduction by Claude Lanzmann, creator of “Shoah,” and included a brand new introduction by Malcolm Hoenlein.


  President, Beaufort Books


  I wrote this book primarily from my own experiences, which for the most part are etched in my memory with unusual clarity. Some of the people and events from more than forty years ago are more vivid to me today than are those of only yesterday.

  At times I was aware, while they were happening, that I was a witness to extraordinary events, and I tried to remember them as fully and as accurately as possible, with the conscious intent of recording them, should I be fortunate enough to survive the war. Such an event, for example, was Dr. Blanke’s “selection” in Płaszów.

  A few events were so terrible and were buried so deep in my memory that only when someone who had shared the experience reminded me of them would the whole scene suddenly flash before me, intact in every detail and as fresh as though it were happening at that moment.

  In many cases I verified my recollection by conversation with other survivors who had been with me during the extermination actions and in the concentration camps. These included Adam Folman and Clara Herman, now living in Israel, both members of the Chemiker Kommando.

  I describe my personal experiences against the background of events on the fighting fronts during various stages of the war, because of their crucial importance to our chances for survival and because the gigantic struggle between Hitler and the coalition of western countries and Soviet Russia became almost an obsession with me.

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