By ANGELA MAONE, Special to the CCJN
Martin Baranek, a man who survived two death marches and internment at several death camps during the Holocaust and who later went on to become a fighter for Israeli independence, was the keynote speaker at the Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremonies at the National World War II Museum on Monday evening, January 27, 2020.
The author of “Determined: One Boy’s Holocaust Survival Story,” Baranek was joined at the event In the Boeing Pavilion by his co-author, Lisa Cicero.
The local event coincided with International Holocaust Remembrance Day, marking the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex by Allied forces (the Soviet Union’s Red Army) in 1945. This year was the 75th anniversary of that historic day.
Before Baranek spoke, Jason Dawsey, Ph.D., a research historian at the National WWII Museum’s Institute for the Study of War and Democracy, provided historical content for the audience.
Even though much has been written, Dawsey queried: “How much do we really know about the Nazi Camp system? On the face of it this may seem like an absurd question given the enormous amount of information that we have gleaned from the narratives of survivors, from perpetrator records and testimony and from the accounts of Allied personnel involved in the liberation of the camps.”
“There is a very strong case to be made that our knowledge of Hitler’s terror apparatus in which the camp system was an essential component, is quite incomplete,” Dawsey claimed.
He noted that there are estimates of over 40,000 such death and concentration camps that require further study and reflection. Being aware of these limitations is what makes Martin Baranek’s account and his memoir so extraordinary, Dawsey said.
“Mr. Baranek is a precious witness to so many aspects of the Nazi genocide,” he continued. Baranek’s account tells of “small miracles,”Dawsey added. “And,” he continued, “are the reason Mr. Baranek could be with us to tell of his experiences. We must realize how much there still is to learn about and from the Holocaust and to put that knowledge to use at a time when neo-facist and neo-Nazi ideologies are resurgent.”
Martin Baranek recounted how Jews were marched out of their homes, many killed in the town square, and how the survivors were then led to the trains.
His grandmother had his hand in one of hers and his brother’s in the other. She told him to run. And he walked away from them crying. He said it was one of the few times he was able to cry.
“What did we do to deserve this as Jews?,” Baranek asked. “We didn’t do anything bad, but the hatred of Jews in Poland and in Germany was just unbelievable.“. He recalled that he spent about three years in the camps and lost his younger brother when his brother was just 12.
At his grandmother’s urging, Baranek walked away at the train station, taking off his arm band as he walked. The guards assumed he was not Jewish and left him alone. He ended up at a house to hide and went to a factory in the evening and was allowed to work there by a kind German man.
Eventually, though, he and others were captured and taken to Auschwitz by train. Once there they were asked if they had jewels or money. Martin had a gold piece which his father had given to him. Martin gave the gold to his uncle to hold. “My father said, before they took him away, just hold that thing until you really, really need it.” They were put in the Gypsy barracks. It was next to the gas chambers and he could smell the stench of death there.
One of his jobs was to collect clothing from the crematoriums. He and one of his childhood friends always slept on the top bunks and tried to plan a way to escape. Jews from Hungary were brought in and killed immediately. It was right before Rosh Hashanah and they watched the Germans and their schedules to better plan their escape.
At Yom Kippur, his friend escaped while Martin slept. More and more Jews were taken to the gas chambers and death seemed imminent. Martin’s uncle found out that Martin was going to be killed and the uncle gave the gold piece to one of the guards. It wasn’t enough so another man gave money as well so Martin could be saved. The guard took him out of the camp. He was saved because his uncle was smart and wrote down his Auschwitz number so the correct boy was rescued. Thirty seconds later the truck came to take prisoners to the gas chamber.
In January, 1945, Baranek and others were sent on a death march, not knowing that the Russians would be there in nine days to liberate Auschwitz. They were put in Mauthausen, another death camp located in Austria.
The lice were awful and people were dying from starvation and for stealing food, he recounted. Russian armies and U.S. forces were very close to where Baranek was imprisoned.
“Nobody did nothing,” Baranek remembered.
He was forced on another death march to Gunskirchen. “People got very ill from diseases and starvation and many were dying,” Baranek exclaimed. “(Then, on the) 4th of May, from nowhere, American soldiers drove through the camp and the Germans ran away!”
Liberating Americans of the 71st Infantry wanted to send Martin back to Poland, but he would not go. He said there was nothing there for him and went to Italy instead. Once there, though, money was a problem. Baranek recalled that the Vatican was paying money for Jews to convert to Catholicism.
Nobody wanted to convert, Baranek confessed. “I did convert. They gave you 30,000 lire which was $30. I wanted to eat. It was a good deal.”
Laughter followed his next statement, “And after the food, I decided to go back and do it again. It was the best business I could have.”
The nascent, ragtag Jewish resistance army convinced Baranek and his friend to join them, but on the way to Palestine from Italy, they ended up in Cypress because the ship broke down. They did eventually make it to Palestine, though, and Baranek attended school for three years there. “They tried to make human beings of us,” he said. We were a bunch of wild animals. We only knew how to steal and how to cheat death.”
When Israel’s War for Independence started in 1948. Baranek was planning to sign up for three years in the army, until he got a phone call that the Red Cross was looking for him.
“My mother survived the war. We didn’t know about each other,” he said. Baranek got in touch with the Red Cross in Tel Aviv and found out that his mother was in Canada. They had not seen each other in seven years. At the time the U.S. was not letting in refugees, but he got a visa to go to Canada. After his father was killed in Auschwitz, his mother had remarried. Baranek had to get used to a completely different life. “It took a lot of adjustment, but time is a big healer,” he mused.
Baranek liked Canada. “It was a new life for me, and I decided to give it another three months. And I liked it better. I had a good job and I was earning money. And the rest is a long story but a good story. I got married to my lovely wife Betty.”
The two have been married 67 years and had four children. Their oldest son passed away from cancer leaving a wife and 3 children. Co-author Lisa Cicero broke in to say that Martin and Betty’s three children were in the audience along with a grandson.
Earlier, Cicero, a Tulane graduate, said she was glad to be back in New Orleans and honored to be speaking at the museum. She noted that only 2000 survivors of Auschwitz remain today, and she thanked the audience, “for being a part of this evening of living history.”
She went on to say that Baranek’s story of intolerance, xenophobia and cruelty is an important lesson that still resonates today but is also a story of miracles and triumph. With the passage of time, memories are dimming on the horrors experienced during the war, and she noted, “Americans’ lack of knowledge about the Holocaust is shocking.”
Cicero stated that “the Claims Conference which administers reparations from Germany to victims of the Holocaust discovered some very troubling statistics, including the fact that 11% of adults and 22% of millennials, those between the ages of 18 and 34, have not heard of or are not sure if they’ve heard of the Holocaust.” She went on to say that “perhaps its related to the fact that only 12 states in the U.S. require holocaust education.”.
Cicero continued “Despite the power of never again, we know genocide continues even to this day, and it’s not just genocide but extremism and hatred we need to be concerned with because this open anti-Semitism is yet again on the rise. We have all heard about the attacks that occurred in Pittsburgh, New York, California, but what’s different today is that the anti-Semitism is coming from both the far right and the far left. And history has shown that hate that begins with Jews never ends just with Jews. Anti-Semitism is a societal threat.”.
“Martin did not let his life story define him in all the negative ways that it could have. He did not become bitter. He did not let the trauma of his past stand in the way of becoming a successful human being, a business man, a husband, a father, a father-in-law, a grandfather, and even a great grandfather. He did not become consumed with anger or hatred. He let his story define him in all the good ways; to persevere despite the odds.” She concluded by saying that one of the most important things about Martin’s story was to always believe in miracles. Martin’s emphasis became to educate those around him about the Holocaust. “Martin is so inspiring because of these traits. Others weren’t so lucky. They may have left the camps physically, but for some survivors the camps never left them, and they were forever psychologically and emotionally destroyed.”
Before Baranek spoke, Cicero introduced a short video about him and his childhood friend Howard Chandler. It showed them returning to their hometown of Starachowice, Poland five years ago on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
They both felt it was very important to return to Starachowice so their families and friends who were murdered would not be forgotten. There were almost 4000 Jews in the town, they reminisced, and talked about everyday life as it was. They went to school in groups so they weren’t roughed up by the Christian kids. But they got used to it and they lived with it. Howard Chandler visited his old home and said it was a happy life there. Many audience members were visibly moved during the film, especially when Martin and Howard placed a wreath in the town square.
The event was part of the Taube Family Holocaust Educational Program. Baranek and Cicero were introduced by WWII Museum CEO, Steve Watson. He thanked the Taube family for their generosity and for sponsoring the Holocaust Educational Program. Watson went on to say to Baranek, “We are privileged and honored that you have chosen to speak with us at the National World War II Museum on this important day of remembrance.”.
Watson stated, “In 1942 Mr. Baranek was separated from his family, placed into a labor camp for 17 months and then taken to Auschwitz. He endured two death marches before his liberation on May 4, 1945. Sharing the personal stories of survivors like Mr. Baranek has been and will always be the center of this museum’s mission. And that is the only way that we will ensure that the horrors of the holocaust and the resiliency of the Jewish Community are not forgotten.”
In addition to the Taube Family Holocaust Educational Program,Watson thanked the Jefferson Parish School System for sponsoring and contributing programming for the event.
He briefly went to speak on the Liberation Pavilion, which is expected to open in two years. “It will explore the Holocaust in depth and tell the story of the end of the war and the post-war years and the continuing relevancy that World War II and its outcomes have to our lives today, he said. “When visitors come to our museum, we want them to not only understand what happened during World War II but why is that important and what were we fighting for,” Watson said.
Before the evening began, the CCJN sat down with Martin and his spouse, Betty Baranek. Speaking first, Betty said: “I am very, very touched for this whole event and so glad my husband is here with us and my children. One of my grandsons is a doctor and he is here, too.”
Martin Baranek added: “I want to be more active and teach the young people and the middle-aged people and all the people what the Holocaust is all about.”