Herman Feder was born in 1904 in Galicia, a region of Poland then under Austrian rule. By the age of six he spoke Polish, German and Ukrainian, later in his youth acquiring fluency in Russian and Czechoslovakian as well. His mother's death when he was ten years old was a devastating event. Unable to care for his four children, his father sent each child to live with a different relative. Herman went to Germany to live with a Berlin cousin. When his father died ten years later, the financial support Herman had hoped would see him through law school came to an end. He married and settled down, opening a store selling linens, blankets, and sheets, in the German city of Hirschberg, close to the Czechoslovakian border. Post-war borders placed Hirschberg in southwestern Poland. Today it is called Jelenia Gora (see map ).I was 35 years old when they took me. It was already after the Kristallnacht , the black night when the Germans burned all the synagogues. Naturally, I was aware of the danger. I tried to get out, but there was no place to go. Europe was already taken by the Germans, so I tried for South America. I heard that a visa for Chile could be obtained from a certain person for five thousand dollars. I went to have a talk with this man, who, as I found out, came from a very rich family. To raise the money I sold the business--everything. My wife and I filled four crates with all our remaining possessions, sending the two with the important things to the port at Hamburg from where we were supposed to be leaving for Chile. The other two we stored with a family we felt was safe--a Jewish husband and Christian wife. I paid the five thousand dollars to this man, and he vanished! I never saw him again. We didn't know where he went or even if he was alive. And I wasn't the only one. A whole group of "investors" had paid him huge sums. We never found out what happened to him.
The crates we sent to Hambourg were lost, and my business was gone. There was not even enough left to pay the rent. We had to move in with a German-Jewish family. The Germans conscripted me for manual labor, digging sand, but I lasted only one day. I had never done hard physical work before, and I couldn't fill the quota. They sent me home without pay.
I could see that they were arresting Jews and sending them away. I assumed they would come for me too, but I didn't think it would be so soon. I was at home with the German-Jewish couple when they came for me. Because he was German, they didn't take the man of the house. They had come only for me, my wife Sabina, and our two-year old son Freddy, because we were Polish Jews. They took us directly to the station and put us on a train. A few hours later the train stopped, I don't remember the name of the place. We saw thousands and thousands of people sitting on their luggage, on boxes, whatever they had. We did the same. It was a concentration point for deporting Polish Jews who were living in Germany.
By 9 o'clock in the evening, we were still sitting there. My boy was crying. We had no milk, no water--nothing. I was becoming desperate. Finally I said to my wife, "Let's just go." We walked back about a kilometer to the railroad station and boarded the next train returning to Hirschberg; nobody stopped us. When the train pulled into Hirschberg about 2 o'clock in the morning, we walked back to our friend's apartment. Luckily nobody saw us, nobody knew.
Five or six weeks went by without anything happening, and then one day a police detective came to the door. I knew him as a friend--I had dated his daughter some years before. He said, "Herman, I'm very sorry but you are a Jew, and I have to take you to the police station." He took just me, not my wife or son. At the police station there was a new man in charge, a Nazi whom I also knew--his son and I were good friends. He also apologized, "I'm so sorry, Herman, but I can't manage to keep you free any longer. I knew all the time that you were here, but I held back. I can't do that any longer. I have to send you away." Because he knew me I was treated well. Instead of jail, he put me in a bedroom in a police apartment, and closed the door. I was there for two days.
They sent me by train to a jail in another town where I was put in a cell by myself. The straw in the cell seemed to be moving, it was crawling with so many lice; I stood up the whole night. In the morning they put me on another train to the Alexanderplatz in Berlin. There I was put in a jail for the very worst criminals and murderers--maybe two hundred men, sitting on the floor together, without food or water.
The next morning they read off a long list of names--about eighty people, including me. We were destined for Sachsenhausen concentration camp. It was the first of many camps where I was to spend the next sixty-seven months and three days: Sachsenhausen, from 1939 until 1941; Gross-Rosen, the worst; Buchenwald, Dachau, Auschwitz, Buna, and Dora. The Nazis knew from experience at Auschwitz and other camps that when a prisoner was in one place for very long he became known to the S.S. and could sometimes take advantage of the situation. To prevent prisoners from getting friendly with their S.S. guards, they shifted them from camp to camp.
The atrocities I endured in the camps were incredible, impossible to describe. Whenever there was a big beating, it was for me, but I was strong when I was young--they couldn't kill me. Naturally, I always prayed. In the morning, in the evening, at work--I prayed. I knew that my mother was near me. I was beaten, buried alive, my arm was broken. I was in Hell, alive.
The first day in Sachsenhausen I had to get up during the night to go to the bathroom. To my horror, I found a corpse in the bathroom--a young boy, twenty years old, who had died of meningitis. I held back and returned to the bunk until they took him away. A few months later I routinely walked over corpses to relieve myself. The place was full of corpses.
During that entire time in the camps I got one letter from my wife--when I was at Sachsenhausen. She wrote, "I am well. Freddie, is well. I signed all our possessions over to the German government. They told me I will get a visa for Holland." It was from Treblinka. So at least I knew where they were. I had a deal with an S.S. man: he gave me a piece of bread, I gave him a diamond in exchange; we got a lot of diamonds from the Belgian Jews. When he told me he was going to Treblinka, I asked him to look in their records for the names of Sabina and Alfred Feder. A week later he came back and told me, "They are on the list. They were in the gas chamber."
I never felt like giving up. I told myself that my mother was at my side, and God was with me--I won't give up. I could have done the same thing that hundreds of Jews did: grab the electric wire at the fence. Every morning when we came out of the barracks we saw corpses hanging from the wire.
One day my luck turned. They were asking for shoemakers. I raised my hand.
"Are you a shoemaker?"
"No, I am a master shoemaker," I said.
They took twenty-five of us shoemakers to the depot where they issued the new clothes we would need to work in the town of Auschwitz. As we were standing there all in a row, the S.S. man took out his pistol and said, "Anyone who lied to me about being a shoemaker, I will shoot you on the spot!" I was the tallest and first to be asked, "Who are you?" I said again I was a master shoemaker. I got my new clothes, shoes, and a hat. The next morning I went out of the camp to work.