“I was looking at the sky. I said,
‘This is the last time I see the sky.’”
- Siggy Boraks
Siggy Boraks was born on July 18, 1925, in Wielun, Poland, a city near the German border. His Hebrew name was Symcha. Jews settled in Wielun in the early 18th Century. The Jewish cemetery was established in the 19th Century (not a stone remained after the war). In 1921, 4,818 Jews lived in Wielun. That was 43.6% of the population. Poles and ethnic Germans comprised the rest of the population. Siggy’s parents were Chaim and Golda Boraks. Chaim served in the Polish army in the aftermath of the First World War and lost an eye fighting the Red Army (Russians) at Warsaw in August 1920, a victory remembered as the “Miracle of the Vistula.” Chaim was a barber as was his brother Gustav (who would survive Treblinka).
Siggy Borak’s sister Basha (center)
Siggy’s sister Basha was born in 1930. The family lived at #10 Kaliska Street in Wielun (the building still stands). Anti-Semitism in Wielun was rampant and a pogrom swept the town in the late 1930s.
Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, and German soldiers arrived in Wielun that first day. As Siggy tells us in the documentary, his parents recalled the lawful behavior of German soldiers during World War I. Prior to Hitler and the rise of the Nazis, the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe admired Germany and feared Russia. Siggy had no idea that the Germans would launch a war of annihilation against the Jewish people: “So I remember my mother keep saying that ‘The German people are nice people, smart people.’ We never believed in our dreams that this will happen to Jewish people.”
Former soldiers, including Chaim Boraks, were arrested prior to Polish Independence Day on November 11, 1939. The Germans viewed these veterans as likely to incite a demonstration marking the occasion. Chaim wasn’t released (as promised) and his family didn’t know what happened to him. A month later (or so) Siggy and his mother and sister were expelled from their apartment by two Polish policemen accompanied by Germans, “and they gave us one hour times to move everything, whatever we can, in one hour time.” In the plunder and destruction of the Jews, Polish police collaborated with the Germans every step of the way. “My mother,” Siggy says, “was hysterical.” Polish neighbors pillaged the apartment before the family walked out the door.
The family was transported by train to Cracow, Poland. Here they were (coincidentally) reunited with Siggy’s father. The conditions in Cracow were miserable: “It was so cold that icicles was hanging from the ceiling. It was four families in one room, and we slept in our clothes because too cold.” The family was next transported to the ghetto in Czestochowa, Poland. The Germans assigned Siggy to work on the railroad and he received a “green card” denoting him an “essential worker.” This piece of paper would prove very important.
On September 22, 1942, at the start of Jewish holiday Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), the Nazis (with Polish and Jewish collaborators) began the “liquidation” of the Czestochowa ghetto. To satiate their own cynicism and to take the Jews by surprise, the Nazis often launched “actions” against the Jewish people on Jewish holidays. Jewish policemen, trying to save themselves in an impossible situation and willing to step on others to do so, assisted the Nazis. The “action” was carried out with speed and violence. There was no chance for resistance. Forty thousand people, including Siggy’s family and Uncle Gustav and his family, were deported to the Treblinka death camp, some fifty miles east of Warsaw. Siggy was exempted from deportation because he was an “essential worker.” His “green card” saved him. He recalls his father’s last words: “I remember like today. He said, ‘Don’t worry, we will see each other after the war.’ And he told me to come to the same town. And this was the last time I saw him.”
The victims were led to believe (and grasped at the hope) that they were being “resettled” for the purpose of “work.” The Nazis disguised Treblinka and made it appear like a rural train station (with time tables and a clock painted on a building). Deception was an integral part of the Nazi strategy. Gustav Boraks (Siggy’s uncle) survived the initial “selection” at Treblinka because of his profession. He was assigned work as a “barber,” cutting the hair of women and girls who minutes later would be gassed. Hair, like all Jewish possessions, was packaged and sent to Germany. The Nazis and their collaborators profited handsomely off the murder of Jews. The Holocaust combined human greed and mass murder.
Though a barber, Siggy’s father Chaim wasn’t selected to work at Treblinka because he was blind in one eye and not worth exploiting (in German eyes). Along with his wife and daughter, Chaim went straight to the gas chambers. Siggy learned the details from his uncle after the war.
Gustav Boraks participated in the revolt at Treblinka on August 2, 1943. The Jewish slaves overwhelmed the guards, torched the camp, and fled for their lives. Gustav was sheltered by a Polish (Catholic) woman in a nearby village. She risked the Nazi-imposed death penalty for anyone caught helping Jews. Gustav and this woman married after the war and moved to newly independent Israel where she was unwilling to tell anyone that she was Polish. Such was the antipathy between Poles and Jews.
In March 1943, several months after the “liquidation” of the Czestochowa ghetto, Siggy was sent to Blizyn labor camp near Radom, Poland. The camp originally held Soviet POWs, and 8,000 perished there. Rats the size of cats feasted on the buried remains and later attacked the prisoners. Five thousand Jews and Poles, men and women, were imprisoned at Blizyn, the great majority being Jews. The camp was located on the grounds of a Polish manor, formerly owned by the Plater family. Prisoners suffered from the usual Nazi sadism and cruelty. Food in the camp was minimal, disease was not. Siggy nearly perished from typhus. Jews were shot daily. The prisoners worked as tailors, cobblers, and cabinet makers, producing goods for the German war effort. Siggy worked in a quarry. He was nearly executed as punishment for the escape of another prisoner: “I was looking at the sky. I said, ‘This is the last time I see the sky.’” The Nazis always employed collective punishment. The prisoners had to keep an eye on one another.
Siggy survived the hardships in Blizyn for a year and four months. In the summer of 1944, as the Red Army shattered German armies and approached Blizyn, the camp was evacuated and the prisoners transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. In this extermination camp the Nazis murdered over a million Jewish people and some 200,000 non-Jews. Siggy’s arm was tattooed with his new identify: B-2039.
Ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau
The Hungarian and Romanian Jews were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in the spring and summer of 1944. This was the most lethal period in the history of the camp. Railroad tracks and a special “ramp” were constructed inside the Birkenau camp to facilitate the destruction process. The vast majority of victims didn’t know that gas chambers awaited them. Siggy tells us that at one point he worked on the “ramp” and whispered ill-heeded warnings to the arriving, unsuspecting people: “I say, ‘If you have small children, if you have babies, don’t hold them. Give them to elderly people.’ So those people cussed me out. ‘How can you tell something like that? Nobody would do something like that.’ I said, ‘Look over there - the smoke.’”
For a short period of time Siggy was assigned to a Sonderkommando. This was a “special commando” of Jewish slaves who worked in the gas chambers and crematoria. They were forced to participate in the operation of undressing, gassing, and burning the victims. The Nazis made a habit of murdering members of the Sonderkommando after several months. They didn’t want any witnesses of the crimes to survive the war. Owing to haste and confusion when the camp was evacuated between November 1944 and January 1945, some members of the Sonderkommando managed to survive. One of their last assignments was to blow up the gas chambers and remove the debris.
Siggy says that he lost all feelings: “I tell you, in time you are like a Zombie Whatever they tell you to do, you do it without even thinking.”
He was assigned to a “water commando.” He says that prisoners in this “commando” included a Warsaw policeman and two Catholic priests – reminding us that great numbers of non-Jews were also enslaved at Auschwitz-Birkenau. On one occasion Siggy took a big chance and attempted to retrieve food left on the “ramp” by a recent transport. He was caught by an SS guard who ordered him to “go to the wire,” signaling his intention to shoot him for “attempted escape.” Strangely enough, even in a death camp there were certain rules. Siggy narrowly avoided being shot: “I was actually begging for my life at the time and I told him, ‘I didn’t do nothing wrong. I said I’m hungry.’ And I say, ‘You probably have children, too.”
As the Red Army drew near in November 1944, the Nazis began evacuating the remaining prisoners and dismantling the gas chambers in an effort to cover up their crimes, proving themselves the first Holocaust-deniers. In the snow and bitter cold, Siggy was sent (in an uncovered cattle wagon) to a labor camp at Kaufering, a town near Munich, Germany. According to Siggy the conditions at Kaufering were worse than at Auschwitz-Birkenau: “It was ice, ice cold, and I was working. Every day people died. Dropped like flies.” On a freezing day he was attached to a “death commando” and lost control of a cart piled high with bodies: “So a German guy with his wife was passing in a car. He almost got an accident because he was looking up and he probably couldn’t figure out where the dead people come from.”
Liberation of Dachau
After surviving a “death march” on the highways between Kaufering and the Dachau concentration camp, Siggy was liberated by American troops on April 29, 1945. He had been a slave of the Nazis for five years and seven months, and weighed sixty-eight pounds.
Siggy Boraks circa 1945
Siggy lived in Frankfurt, Germany, for several years after the war. He married Margot Neuberger in 1946. She was in her late teens. Her father was Jewish (survived the camps) and her mother Catholic.
Margot was traumatized by her experience as a forced laborer during the last two years of war. On account of being half-Jewish, she was arrested on her fourteenth birthday and forced to work on a German farm. Her mother came home that day and didn’t know what happened to her.
It was during his stay in Frankfurt that Siggy encountered a young German named Kurt. The two got along well and Kurt gave Siggy a photograph of himself as a gesture of friendship. He later told Siggy that he had been a member of the Einsatzgruppen. This consisted of mobile squads that committed mass murder (shooting) of Jews in “the east.” Siggy recounts their conversation: “He said, ‘This the law.’ He said he had to follow ‘the law.’ He said, ‘This what they told me to do it,’ and he did it.”
Siggy and Margot arrived in New Orleans in 1952. They raised two daughters and two sons (and had eight grandchildren).
Siggy Boraks and children in New Orleans
Siggy worked as a janitor, a service station attendant, a lens grinder, and an optician with his own business. For many years he travelled with us across the Deep South, making presentations at schools and conducting workshops for teachers.
Siggy Boraks at Kaplan High School, Kaplan, Louisiana
He offers this advice to young people: “Get educated so you know what you’re doing. Because without education, without knowledge what’s going on, things like that can happen again and I hope it will never happen.”Margot died in 1994. After Hurricane Katrina damaged his home in August 2005, Siggy moved to a retirement community near Tampa, Florida. He died there on July 18, 2008, his 83rd birthday.