Louis (né Chaim Leibish) Ziegler was born in the village of Charsznica, Poland, in 1926. In September 1939, at the beginning of the German occupation of Poland, Louis was living with his parents and trying to adjust to the new anti-Jewish laws and restrictions.
In 1942, the Nazis rounded up many men, Louis’s father among them, and murdered them in the nearby Chodówki forest. Louis and his mother were taken to a transit camp and separated — Louis was sent to the Plaszow forced labour camp and his mother to a death camp. In Plaszow, Louis worked under brutal conditions until November 1943, when he was sent to the HASAG-Warta forced labour camp in Częstochowa. One year later, Louis was transported to the Buchenwald concentration camp and three weeks later, to the subcamp of Taucha. Louis was liberated from Taucha in April 1945. After the war, he lived in the Feldafing displaced persons camp in Germany. In early 1949, Louis immigrated to Canada, where he lived with an aunt in Toronto and worked in a factory. In 1956, while on vacation in Israel, Louis married Shoshana (Susan). They returned to Toronto, where they raised a family.
When the Nazis first arrived in our town in the fall of 1939, life did not change very much. We lived almost the same way we did before their arrival. The biggest changes were that we couldn’t go out during certain hours, we couldn’t own a business and we weren’t allowed to go to the public school. Since I was no longer in school, I was starting to learn my father’s trade, cutting leather for shoes.
A Nazi brigade was staying at the jam factory, whose owner was very antisemitic. My father had to collect food from the farms for the Germans. While doing this, he was able to keep some of the food for us. During this time, two soldiers came to our house to speak to my mother. They had had Jewish friends in Germany and liked eating that kind of home cooking, so they asked my mother to prepare meals for them. These same soldiers made sure to point out to my father a dangerous, high-ranking Nazi officer who was known to hate Jews. They warned my father to stay away from him.
Without his business, my father had to find another way to provide us with what we needed, so he started making an industrial type of lubricant. He knew all the farmers and got the animal fat that was necessary to make this product from them. When the lubricant was ready, he traded it for supplies that we didn’t have. For example, we got flour from the mill because the miller used the lubricant to grease the mill’s wheel. The situation at my house didn’t seem very desperate. Because I was just a kid, I didn’t know what other people did in their homes, but we all managed to survive by helping one another.
In 1942, things changed. The Nazis began to liquidate the small towns and killed some of the men by taking them into the forest and shooting them. My father was among them. In September, the farmers brought their wagons to transport all the women and children, including my mother and me, to a transit camp. I don’t know where that camp was, but I do remember that we arrived on a Friday and that the next Wednesday, a young Nazi officer came and separated us. He sent the women and the small children to one side and the older boys to the other side. The women and children were put on a transport train and were sent either to Treblinka or Majdanek. I don’t know which one but I do know that wherever they went, it was a death camp, where they were murdered.
The first camp I was sent to was called Plaszow, a southern suburb of Krakow. The train I was on also transported many other Jews from small towns. There was so little food that people were begging for verschimmeltes brot (mouldy bread). Everybody had some money with them, a lot of it hidden, although I didn’t because I was just a kid. From the train, we were taken into a big room and were ordered to empty our pockets and to throw all our money onto the floor. A huge pile was made, which the Nazis took away.
The camp was not yet finished, and the Nazis didn’t stay there overnight. The Polish police came to guard us during those hours. We slept in a barracks that had a little stove to keep us warm. Our bedding was just straw. The Poles used to throw water on us and on the stove while we were sleeping. When the stove got wet, the fire went out. Sometimes, a Nazi would make a Jew drink urine.
At the beginning of my stay at camps, I saw my uncle and some cousins, but in time they disappeared. One of my uncles, who was willing to help anyone, became ill and died in Plaszow. I always felt that I was alone. After a short while, probably not longer than a month, I could see that life in the camp was very difficult. The camp was still wide open, without any fences or barbed wire, and regular guards in watchtowers had not yet been organized, so I ran away. It was like jumping from the pan into the fire.
I don’t know how I arrived at a brickworks factory in Krakow, but probably someone told me that the factory was looking for workers. There was a labour shortage, so a number of Jews were still working there. My job was to stack the finished bricks. We also lived in the factory and had beds to sleep on. The Polish foreman was very cruel. Once, when I was having stomach problems and felt sick, I went inside to lie down. When he found me there, he beat me.
On Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), we told the foreman that since the machines often broke down and there were times when it was not possible to work, we were willing to give him some money to not have to work on that day. He refused and made us work on our holiest day of the year. After about two hours, the machines did break down, and then the foreman came asking for the money we had first offered him in order to be let off for the rest of the day. When we refused to pay him, he sent us to work in the garden.
One time, I hurt my foot and the wife of the factory owner gave me a travel permit to go to Krakow to see a doctor. He gave me something for it and it got better right away. Even though everything was difficult, I was lucky. There was a Jewish woman who served the soup and she used fill my bowl right to the top and would scrape the bottom of the pot so that I would get pieces of meat.
After working there for a while, I saw that the factory was not a good place for me either. I decided to try to go back to my hometown. I went to the owner’s wife and promised to bring her back some nylon stockings if she would give me a written permit to travel. I never had any intention to buy those stockings. With that permit, I had hopes of getting away from the hardships. I headed out to the nearby train station with my uncle Yossel, who was also working in a brick factory. At the station, a German in a black coat asked for my permit and I was allowed to wait at the station. After eight days of waiting, an open truck arrived. We were all loaded onto the truck and taken to a subcamp of Plaszow.
At the beginning of 1943, Amon Göth had been appointed as the Kommandant (Commander) of Plaszow. He was a violent man who killed just for the sake of killing and hung inmates for the slightest reason.
One time, we were working behind Göth’s house. We were all lined up and were passing bricks from one person to another to pile them in a stack. Göth looked out of the window and accused us of sabotage. He came outside and ordered us to rearrange our working order. One of the old men working with us could not see very well and while we were all moving, this old man dropped a brick, which broke. Göth took out his gun to shoot him, but his gun jammed. He tried to shoot three more times. Each time, the gun jammed. Göth got so angry that he began to beat this old man with the gun instead. Not wanting to be his next target, I ran and jumped a wall. To this day, I do not know how I managed to jump over a wall double my height. The old man did not die. When Göth was done with the beating, he just walked away.
Once, about ten men, including me, were sent to cut some grass. In that area, there was a tall but thin tree and a large rock higher than the grass. We were trying to do the job, but Göth happened to see us and told us that we were not working hard enough. He took all of us out of the camp and, as he was deciding what to do with us, luck was on my side once again. At that moment, Göth’s secretary ran over to ask him to return to the office immediately to take a very important phone call, which could not wait. Göth ordered the secretary to watch us while he returned to the office. Although he agreed to keep guard, once Göth was gone, this secretary told us to return to our barracks. This was another time that I could have been killed but wasn’t.
Whether you survived or not had nothing to do with being smart. It all depended on luck. Another time in Plaszow, a group of us was again accused of sabotage. As punishment, we were taken out of the camp to cut huge stones. While we were working, a Nazi arrived, raised his gun and shot four times. Four of the people working with me dropped dead. Then the Nazi came up to me and instead of shooting, called me “Verfluchte hund” (damned dog) and walked away. My luck was still with me.
In November 1943, I was one of two hundred people who were chosen to be sent to a labour camp in Częstochowa. Our job was to install machines for a munitions factory called Warta. Everyone was needed to work. The SS officer who ran the camp was very tough — he found bullets in a man’s pocket and shot him, but I think those bullets were probably planted.
During my time at Plaszow, everyone who worked out of the camp had been able to steal some food so we didn’t starve. When we arrived at Częstochowa, we were starving, and all we got was a little soup and a piece of bread. The food there was awful. If you found even one small piece of potato in the soup, you were lucky. When new people arrived, they had lots of clothes with them. They could keep what they were wearing, but they had to give up all the extra clothing and all other belongings of any use or value. Some Jews managed to take these things, sell them and buy food with the money they got for their goods. They didn’t need the soup we were given and that allowed us to have a little more soup. Despite these conditions, I felt like a millionaire in the camp. I was working during the night building houses and structures, so I got double the portion of bread, three or four pieces. Working outside of the camp again, I could steal food as well.
Transports were always arriving in Częstochowa. Once, a group of women and their children arrived. While the women worked at whatever the Nazis demanded they do, the children ran around the camp playing. The Kommandant was a killer; he gathered the children up and they were never seen again. He probably sent them away to a death camp. After that, the Kommandant’s second-in-charge told all the women who arrived to hide their children when they came into the camp. He assured everyone that if the children weren’t seen, nothing would happen to them. He added that if he were in charge of the camp, the children would be safe. He was a Nazi too, but he wasn’t a killer like the Kommandant. From then on, everyone tried as much as they could to keep the children out of sight.
I had a coat with pockets and I became so quick at grabbing things, the Nazis never noticed. I used to get fat potato peels from the kitchen. Where I was working, there was a pipe that hot air came out from, and I put the peels in a bag beside that pipe, hoping they would cook a bit. I didn’t care if the Ukrainian guard saw me or not. The Jewish kapo let me run back and forth to check on the peels. One day, the Kommandant’s son was standing near that pipe and he wouldn’t let me take the potato peels. He was only ten years old but he knew his father was a big shot and he said he would beat me. I wanted to strangle him, but the Jewish kapo kept me from doing it. He told the boy to go home, but he threatened to kill him if he told his father what was happening. In the end, I got sick from eating the peels — they should have been washed, but I had no water. I didn’t try to cook the potato peels that way anymore.
I was working in a gang with twenty or so people in it. All the others knew each other since they were from the same city. I was the only one from somewhere else. The foreman in charge of us would watch carefully and when he saw someone who could no longer work, he would pass on this person’s name to be taken away and killed. This foreman wanted to show off to his superiors. He had his eye on me, knew I was not from the same community and wanted to get rid of me in the same way. But my Jewish kapo was tough and he told the foreman that he could not send me to be finished off. He warned him that I was one of his men and if he tried anything, he would beat him up. Once more, I was lucky.
Whether you survived or not had nothing to do with being smart. It all depended on luck.
Taucha was a better camp. Four to six people were put into each room and we each had our own bed. Compared to where we had come from, this was like a pension, an inn. There were no showers at the camp so every week or two we were taken to a public place for a shower in the small town nearby. All the people who lived there came out to watch us. We were a show to them.
Late one day, there was an Appell, a roll call. The Kommandant came out and told us that in that camp, he didn’t care what we did. The one rule was that no one was to steal bread. If anyone stole our bread, that person was stealing our life. If he was stealing our life, we should kill him. The Kommandant was right. The food there didn’t seem too bad, but by then, we were already used to that kind of poor-quality food. At this camp, we were given tobacco, which we gave to the Germans who worked there in exchange for bread. Even though the situation in this camp was an improvement, the Nazis still had control over our whole lives. We couldn’t really do what we wanted.
The Kommandant of our camp was a decent man. He had been a pilot but was shot down and injured, so he had been assigned to be in charge of this camp. The guards were Ukrainians and Poles who were very antisemitic and would gladly have injured or killed us, but the Kommandant ordered that no one in the camp had permission to shoot. He insisted that he was the only one allowed to do that. We had to get up at six in the morning to get water for the camp, but the Kommandant made sure that we had hot coffee when we returned.
I always worked hard. I was sent with French prisoners to lay steel train rails that were very heavy. The French and Czech prisoners were responsible for assigning the jobs but the kapo in charge was Polish and very antisemitic. One of the men noticed that I was having trouble with the work and asked the kapo to give me easier work and replace me with someone else. At first, he refused, but in the end, I was sent to a less demanding job, moving stones from one place to another.
There was a munitions factory nearby, but the Jews weren’t allowed to work there. I was part of a group of twenty-five taken to work up on a hill. I don’t remember what the work was, but we were supervised by a Jewish kapo who treated us like dirt. He pushed us to work harder and faster. He was demanding that much from us to show us that he was the boss. We wanted him to know that he was no better than any of us, so we beat him up. We put something over his head so that he wouldn’t know who was doing the beating. After the beating, he treated us better.
There was a stone quarry that I had to work in near Taucha. The stairs to the mine were covered with snow. I was still wearing the wooden clogs I had found to replace the shoes that were stolen in Buchenwald when I fell down about one hundred and forty steps. The clogs flew off my feet, but once more I was lucky. The next day I saw a pair of shoes that had been put aside by someone and I took them to replace the clogs. It was a big improvement.
In the quarry, our job was to pick up big rocks from one side of the quarry and to carry them to the other side. When that was done, we had to pick up the same rocks and move them back to their original spot. Because we were working well, we were given clothing and extra bread.
By 1945, the Kommandant knew that the Germans had lost the war and the Americans were getting closer. Every day and every night, there were planes flying overhead and we could hear the bombing. This Kommandant had been so generous with the food so that now there was very little to eat, not just for us, but for the guards and officers as well. It felt like the Americans were too slow in arriving to take over the camp.
While I was working in the stone quarry, I gashed my leg on a rock and had to go to the hospital. There were two doctors there, one was a Czech and the other was a German. The German was a bastard. He gave me a cream for my leg, but it got worse. I went back to the hospital and the German doctor decided that he needed to operate on my leg, but without any anaesthetic. Four people had to hold me down while the doctor did the surgery. I was screaming the whole time. After the operation, the German doctor wanted to cut off my leg, but the Czech doctor assured him that I would be able to go back to work within the next few days, but that I wouldn’t be able to work if he amputated my leg. Every day that I was in the hospital, the German doctor continued suggesting amputation and the Czech doctor managed to keep him from doing it. A few days later, the Americans came into the camp and I was no longer in danger of losing my leg.
Just before the Americans arrived, the Nazis wanted to liquidate the camp. The Kommandant refused to force everyone to leave. He ordered only those who were healthy enough to walk to leave the camp. Those inmates were marched out under guard; I don’t know where they went. He insisted that the sick people in the hospital were allowed to stay. The Kommandant believed that it was his hospital and his job was to protect it — he was a human being after all. It sounds strange, but I was lucky when I got injured. I went to the hospital and I didn’t have to march, which meant that I was still in the camp for the liberation.