The power of family ties during the Holocaust, especially for very young Jews, can scarcely be exaggerated. Jurek Kestenberg escaped from a German deportation train, recovered from a gunshot wound with the help of a compassionate Polish peasant, but made his way back to his parents in the Warsaw ghetto in 1943, well after it had become known that the Germans were exterminating Jews at Treblinka. Jurek's age was difficult to determine; he said he was twelve when the Germans attacked Poland, thirteen in 1943 when he was sent to Majdanek, and seventeen at the time of his 1946 interview. His confusion was understandable after a long period during which he lied about his age to assure being assigned to work. He was the only child of a Warsaw Jewish industrialist and his wife. Their factory had been bombed by the Luftwaffe in 1939, but their savings sufficed to see them through ghettoization, build and maintain a hiding place in the ghetto, and spirit a five-year-old relative into hiding with Gentiles. Jurek told of his escape from the train and his return to the Warsaw ghetto as an afterthought to his memories of the ghetto uprising, which he spent in hiding with his family. In fact, the earlier events may be the most telling part of his story.
Following the suppression of the Warsaw ghetto uprising in May 1943, Kestenberg was sent to Majdanek together with his parents. There his mother was separated from her husband and son and probably perished. During the short time the two males remained at Majdanek, they worked on the Scheisskommando that carried human excrement from the cesspools to the camp gardens. Although it is sometimes argued that the SS left members of this work detail alone in order to avoid contact with the filth and smell, Jurek's interview shows that the guards found ways of tormenting them as they struggled with the unwieldy vats. Then Jurek and his father were sent to work at the giant HASAG ammunition factories at Skarżysko-Kamienna. There Jurek watched his father sicken and die from overwork and undernourishment, the fate of thousands more like him.
As the Russians approached Skarżysko late in July 1944, the Germans evacuated his work group to Buchenwald. Jurek evaded the evacuation of Jews from Buchenwald in April 1945 with the help of a Czech block senior. Resettled in France with the help of Jewish charities, he was studying to be a dental technician in Paris and living in the ORT home at Chateau de Boucicaut at the time he gave his interview.
From FRESH WOUNDS: EARLY NARRATIVES OF HOLOCAUST SURVIVAL by Donald L. Niewyk. Copyright (c) 1998 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.unc.edu