“And I couldn’t even go back to say, you know, goodbye to my family. I hadn’t seen them until now.”
- Martin Wasserman
Martin Wasserman was born in Warsaw, Poland, on June 12, 1925. He lived with his parents, three brothers, and sister in the Jewish district of the city, and had many aunts and uncles and cousins (one cousin survived the war with Martin). For several generations his family owned a business selling horses to the Austrian army. After the establishment of independent Poland in 1918, the family business dealt with the Polish army. Martin grew up working with horses. He was no stranger to hard work.
Martin experienced anti-Semitism at the hands of Polish classmates that involved taunts and fist-fights at school. He always stood his ground. He didn’t hear a slur without delivering a punch. His physical toughness was evident before the war and would serve him well during it. Martin always fought back and bore the scars for the rest of his life.
The Germans attacked Poland on September 1, 1939, and quickly destroyed the brave but antiquated Polish army. The Russians, Hitler’s temporary ally, seized eastern Poland (and administered its own form of exploitation and misery). Martin was fourteen years old. After ferocious aerial and artillery bombardments, Warsaw surrendered on September 27th. Martin witnessed the first Germans entering the city on motorcycles and bicycles.
It was not long before he was seized in a street round-up and taken away to work in a different city: “And I couldn’t even go back to say, you know, goodbye to my family. I hadn’t seen them ‘til now.”
The Nazis constructed labor camps throughout occupied Poland - barbed wire was the motif of that time. They exploited Jewish labor (and Polish labor) to produce war material for the German army. Martin ended up in a labor camp at Radom, Poland, where he was assigned to a workshop manufacturing the sights for rifles (carbines). His journey through the Nazi camps, which lasted almost six years, began here. Prisoners were closely watched and escape was impossible. The guards were exceptionally harsh. It was the beginning of the war and the Germans were drunk on their victories. Martin recounts an incident (an act of defiance) when he threatened a guard: “And I just told him, ‘Man, the war will not go on forever, and as soon as it’s over, we will be looking for you.’” Why did he take such a chance? “Because you were so bitter and thinking what people doing to somebody who didn’t do nothing, and fourteen. I didn’t do nothing to nobody. Why should I suffer?”
The guard struck Martin in the head, “and I still have the marks.”
Food in the labor camp consisted of bread, black water (imitating coffee or tea) and potato peelings. Martin and his friends slipped into the camp kitchen at night and stole food. This was an act of resistance. “But one time it didn’t work out too good,” he tells us. They were caught and whipped (25 lashes) in front of the entire camp, “and then they told us to go back in the barracks. And in the barracks, we couldn’t even stand up.”
Time and again Martin showed that he was exceptionally tough: “I’ve been in one place, they gave me twenty-five lashes and I walked off like nothing happened. They called me back and they told me that I didn’t feel nothing, you know, that they gonna give me ten more.” He was transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp but spent only a day there. The Nazis made a “selection” and loaded Jewish slaves capable of work, including Martin, on a train bound for a Nazi labor camp at Wihingen, near Stuttgart, Germany. In this camp Martin was beaten by pipe-wielding guards. “This is when I seen the stars,” he recalls.
The Jewish slaves were forced to do meaningless work but enough of it to keep the guards from being sent to the eastern front, the greatest fear of every German soldier (and their family). In the last months of war the Jews received less food than usual and were starving but Martin somehow managed to stay healthy: “I don’t understand why. Now when something happens to me, I went to the doctor. And before, I didn’t worry about it and nothing happened. I never got sick one day.” At the Wihingen labor camp Martin had the good fortune to encounter a German guard who gave him some bread: “I don’t know why. He was nice to me. I don’t know why. He always checked on me every morning.” We emphasize this guard because people like him were few and far between. Possibly he was an older man not poisoned by Nazi ideology, somebody who retained a spark of humanity. Young Germans were thoroughly indoctrinated by the Nazis.
Martin spent time in a labor camp at Hesential, Germany. In the last month of the war he survived a “death march” to the Dachau concentration camp, near Munich, Germany. He describes helping his cousin Henry Wasserman and a friend (“holding up and carrying”) on the “death march.”
Martin ended up in a sub-camp of Dachau. He was attached to a “work commando” that took him outside the camp and into civilian neighborhoods where he slipped away and knocked on doors. German civilians (nervously) gave him bread: “When they [German civilians] gave you food, then it felt like somebody wants to help you. If they don’t give you no food, I feel like nobody even worrying about you. But if they come out and give you something, I felt like they really worry about me.”
American troops liberated Dachau on April 29, 1945, and fed the starving prisoners. Martin says that the prisoners were ravenous and “plenty of people” died from over-eating: “Everybody was pushing, and trying to get in, and they put their head in it. You couldn’t eat, we found out afterwards, you couldn’t go and eat too much at first.”
Martin tells us that he and other Jewish survivors tracked down SS men after the war and exacted revenge – with the permission of American military officials: “We did all kinds of things, trying to get revenge. For three days, anything we could do. And we felt better.” The Germans were “were scared, you know, when we had power. They were scared. When they were in power, we were scared. They were so scared, they even asked us, ‘Please, I have a mother and father and children.’ They didn’t ask me that.”
None of Martin’s relatives in Poland survived the war: “Nobody. I had uncles, father, mother, from mother’s side, from father’s side. Nobody.” Martin worked for the U. S. Army in Germany. He immigrated to the United States in 1950, arriving with $10 in his pocket. His hotel room cost $7. He was drafted into the U. S. Army and served as a weapons instructor at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland. He was there for a year and a half, and it was there that he learned English. One of his early words was “hamburger.” Another was “hot dog.” He was proud that he earned the “Soldier of the Week” award: “And I really enjoyed it. I really appreciated what Americans did for me. I did everything what I could do. That’s the reason why I joined the service [U.S. Army], to do my share.”
Martin married in 1954. He and Diana had two sons and a daughter. Martin owned and operated a carburetor repair business in New Orleans: “I had to struggle for a while, and I didn’t want nobody to give me nothing.” He didn’t talk about the past with his children: “I didn’t want them [his children] to know how I suffered. Because they would feel sorry. I didn’t want them to feel sorry for me.”
Martin at Kaplan High School, Kaplan, Louisiana
Fellow survivor Shep Zitler encouraged Martin to talk about his experiences. He was further encouraged to talk when Holocaust-denier and former Klansman David Duke ran for U. S. Senate and won 55% of the white vote in Louisiana: “Sometimes I think I would like to speak to David Duke. I wish he would come and tell me why he hates.”
Martin holds bitter memories of Poland, the land where he grew up and where he suffered: “I didn’t want to hear nothing about Poland. And my wife says, ‘Why don’t we go back and see the place?’ and I say, ‘I don’t want to go back because I don’t want to
see the place. To memorize what I lost, my family, and all that.”
Martin lost his belief in God and left the Jewish religion, although he believes that “there is somebody over us.” He died on June 20, 2010.