(Editor’s note: Albert Goltz, a Holocaust survivor and longtime Pittsburgh resident, has rarely recounted his story to anyone, including his family. Now, on the 65th anniversary of his liberation, Goltz sat down with journalist Kris Mamula to graphically recount what happened to him from 1941-45.)
Finding a good car mechanic, fixing a kitchen drain; small talk was how I got to know Albert Goltz, a compact man who’s partial to pressed trousers and white shirts buttoned at the top, a man with intense brown eyes that lock into your sight as he speaks.
For the past few years, every morning, we wait for the Jewish Community Center gym in Squirrel Hill to open. Conversation turned serious. He said he’d survived a Nazi concentration camp.
In truth, he’d survived four forced labor camps and two concentration camps. He was a child.
Bit by bit, details emerge. I tell him, one day I will have to write it all down. One day he agrees.
Elukim Golc, was born Nov. 10, 1929, in Oszmiana, Poland, the youngest of three children. On Saturday morning, July 25, 1941, Goltz’s father Aaron left home for synagogue. Nazis rounded up all the men that day and took them to a town square and then to a clearing nearby.
Goltz’s mother Schifra prayed for a miracle. The son was 11 years old.
Sixty-one years later, on a trip back to his hometown, Goltz walked to a grassy clearing in the woods, several miles outside town where a mobile killing squad called Einsatzgruppen shot his father and 700 other men to death that day.
Farmers heard machine gun fire, villagers told Goltz. Cows lapped blood that later seeped from the ground. Goltz lit candles.
“They were already buried and the ground was shaking the next day,” Goltz says. “Were they still alive?”
The day his father was taken away, Goltz remembers Nazi soldiers chasing a man, who dashed into a cornfield behind the family home. A little boy pointed the way to pursuers, shouting “Jude! Jude!”
Jews were herded into a ghetto in Oszmiana like many other small towns in Poland, where they were told to wear the Star of David. It was warm. Windows were open. Nazis marched down Oszmiana’s cobblestone streets.
A neighbor woman opened her door at the commotion. Soldiers were taking two people to a firing squad. The woman at the door wasn’t wearing the Star of David.
The soldiers grabbed her and took her to a nearby school where they shot her to death, too, Goltz says.
Goltz watched on June 16, 1942, as his sister Frieda and 350 youths were rounded up and taken to a labor camp. He stayed behind with his mother and sister Chasia. The Nazis declared the ghetto overcrowded.
No one spoke about what happened next. Jacob Gens, a Jew and head of the Jewish Council in the ghetto of the nearby town of Vilna, led an “aktionen” in Oszmiana on Oct. 27, 1942. More than 500 elderly and infirm people were gathered and executed about four miles outside town.
“I saw the horses and buggies, taking older people, the crippled,” Goltz says. Escorting them were uniformed ghetto police from Vilna. Gens said later the executions were necessary to spare a far greater number of Jews.
Less than a year after the Oszmiana killings, Gestapo agents summoned Gens to their headquarters where they shot him to death. The Nazi’s final solution was cranking into high gear.
On April 28, 1943, the Oszmiana ghetto was liquidated and Goltz was shuttled through work camps, first joining his mother and sisters then soon losing track of each other. Finally, after dark on July 19, 1944, he arrived at the Stutthof concentration camp by rail inside an airless cattle car where people shrieked and cried as the train slowed to a stop.
He was given the number 49729. He was 14 years old and small for his age.
Over several weeks, I take notes in Goltz’s kitchen, my living room. The retelling gets tough. Goltz’s face turns ashen, his breathing labored. He chokes on words. I say, “Let’s take a break; I’ll get you some water.”
Goltz refuses, and presses on, a torrent of words now, taking cues from slips of paper he brings with notes printed in his neat hand.
At Stutthof, Goltz, head shaven and issued a striped uniform, recognized his mother one day from across a barbed wire fence. He traded his shoes for a half loaf of bread with a man who worked in the kitchen.
“I went by the fence with the bread. You couldn’t talk because of the watchtower — you didn’t want to attract attention. I saw my mother and I threw it over. There were a lot of people.
“She got it.”
When he saw his mother again 12 years later, she denied her son. She was living in Israel by then and Goltz’s visit was a surprise.
Only after recognizing a scar above Goltz’s upper lip — a childhood sledding accident — did she know.
Until her death in 1971, mother and son didn’t talk about what happened in the camps. Goltz says he has talked very little about his experiences, despite invitations.
Why now? He shrugs: maybe his stories are not just the stuff of obituaries, he says.
At Stutthof, Goltz stayed in a barracks with others deemed unfit to work. When his barracks were filled, a train would take them to Aushwitz, a killing center.
The day arrived, but there were 27 people too many for the trip. Goltz remembers his number: 26.
The next day, Oct. 18, 1944, a train took him to the Neugamme concentration camp in northern Germany; the others from his barracks went to Aushwitz.
When Goltz arrived, Neuengamme had around 10,000 prisoners, some 1,700 of whom were dying every month from malnutrition and disease. Goltz was assigned to a crew that spread stone on a road to the camp’s crematorium.
Crematorium operators would share their food, he says. Goltz was not yet 15 years old.
“As far as your eyes could see, barracks,” he says. “They would give you a slice of bread with a spoon of margarine and coffee. It was never enough. Your mind was on food — nothing else.”
A stream of Neuengamme Jews, many badly hurt retrieving unexploded bombs in the cities of Hamburg and Bremen, were brought to the crematorium, passing Goltz as he fixed the road.
“They were still alive on the wagon,” he says. “You didn’t want to look. You don’t think anything. You didn’t want to discuss it. Nobody discusses anything.
“They had a big cooler,” where bodies of the injured and dead were stored, he says. “The crematory couldn’t burn fast enough. The big chimneys were always smoking. They always had a backlog so they would always be going.”
Goltz was put on a train for Aurich, one of Neuengamme’s 80 smaller camps, where he was forced to dig deep trenches to stall the advance of allied army tanks, he says. The ground was soft. The weather was wet and cold.
“The work was very hard. You couldn’t shake the mud off your shovel, especially if it rained all day,” he says. “On the way to work, a horse and buggy followed: whoever couldn’t work, you’d have to hold them. Then, if they couldn’t walk, they were put on the wagon.”
They were not seen again.
From Aurich, Goltz was taken back to Neuengamme, which was being evacuated by the Nazis. He and other prisoners were put on a train for Bergen-Belsen in northwest Germany. It was the same camp where Anne Frank and sister Margot died in March 1945, but Goltz never made it.
The advancing British army forced the train to stop and back up, occasionally stopping along the way so bodies of the dead could be shoved from rail cars, over hillsides and into ravines. The train instead went to Stalag X-B, a prisoner of war camp at Sandbostel.
Food and water shortages were acute. Starvation was rampant.
“People started to fall down,” he says. “They couldn’t get back up.”
The end was nearing. Inmates swarmed a group of people who were wheeling kettles of soup into the camp. Goltz jammed his hands deep inside a kettle, forcing fistfuls of cold soup into his mouth, then his pockets, he says.
The British liberated the camp April 29, 1945. “I was too weak to lift my head,” Goltz says. The following day, Adolf Hitler killed himself in Berlin.
Goltz was 15 years old. He’d spent four years as a Nazi prisoner. His mother and sisters also survived the Nazis. In a camp for displaced persons, he would learn to ride a bicycle by balancing himself against a fence.
Goltz would make his way, first to New York City, then Cleveland and finally Pittsburgh, where he retired after working at the Squirrel Hill Giant Eagle for many years. He turns 81 in November.
This week marks the 65th anniversary of his liberation.
“I’m remembering,” Goltz tells me on the phone one night. “I’m remembering.”
(Kris Mamula, an award-winning journalist, is a staff writer for the Pittsburgh Business Times.)