Once in Nazi hands there were few opportunities to escape. Should one come, it had to be seized in a moment's time. Sigmund Reich did just that, although only at the end of a long ordeal.
Reich was born in 1926 in Austria and spent his childhood in Belgium, but he was taken to Poland in 1934. His choice of Yiddish for the interview suggests that his parents were natives of Poland. The family lived in Kraków when the Germans made that city the capital of their "General Government" in 1939. Reich's father fled to the Soviet-occupied zone of Poland, while the rest of the family stayed behind. They were among the thousands of Kraków Jews who succumbed to German pressure to relocate "voluntarily" in 1940, moving in with an aunt who lived in a nearby town. A year or two later (Reich is vague about dates) he reported for forced labor in the vain hope that the Germans would then leave his mother and aunt in peace. Sent to Mielec, one of dozens of forced labor camps in southeastern Poland that were later taken over by Auschwitz and officially redesignated "concentration camps," Reich evidently became proficient in the manufacture of aircraft parts for the Germans, which greatly enhanced his chances of living.
Reich's memories of endless drudgery as a slave worker in Poland are almost completely overshadowed by the truly wretched conditions he encountered at a work camp in Germany during the last months of the war. At the end, when he was among those evacuated from Dachau, his chance came. Left momentarily unattended by a guard, Reich and a small group of compatriots simply walked away and made for the Swiss border. With courage born of desperation, they claimed that they had become separated from a Red Cross transport bound for Switzerland and brazenly demanded help from German officials to complete the journey. There actually were such Red Cross transports at the time, and police and railroad officials may have known about them, but in any case everyone wanted these inconvenient wayfarers out of their hair. Reich is unclear about how he and his comrades cleared the border, but it seems likely that Swiss officials used their influence with German colleagues who, after, all, could not have been too eager to go down as war criminals during the last days of the Third Reich.
Once in Switzerland the Swiss Red Cross gave Reich every assistance. After passing through several camps, he began to study mechanics as well as other subjects designed to prepare him for life in Palestine at an ORT school in Geneva, where 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