Together, they traveled through Hell, Holocaust


Part I: A journey into horror and the man who survived it

By Jason Fields

Riverdalian Martin Spett, 81, is a survivor of the Holocaust. His story is one of life, and, eventually, hope.

His family lived in Tarnow, Poland, when it fell to the Nazis in 1939, and last week’s Riverdale Press recounted the first part of his story; how he and his family survived life in the city’s Jewish ghetto until the early part of 1943. To avoid the mass executions and deportations to concentration camps, the Spetts hid in walls, under floors or even in plain sight. It was a time of terror and want.

Every week, survival was more tenuous. The ghetto shrank as more people succumbed to starvation or illness, or were transported to places where they could be killed more conveniently.

To live, the Spetts knew they would have to leave Tarnow.

Out of the ghetto

It’s 1943 and the situation has become intolerable in the Jewish ghetto in Tarnow, Poland, where Martin Spett, now 13, and his family have been trapped for nearly four years of Nazi occupation.

There is little food and heat during the bitter months of winter. There is forced labor, random violence, mass executions and transports on trucks, with hundreds, thousands never heard from again.

Into this gray existence comes a call for any Jews still alive that have passports or other documentation from the Allied nations — England, America — to present themselves to the Gestapo for a chance of salvation.

A similar call when the occupation began had been met with the slaughter of those who stepped forward. But for the Jews of Tarnow all that is left are choices between the means and methods of death. Even a false glimmer of hope offers a chance that must be taken.

Martin’s mother had been born in America and stranded in Tarnow on a family visit. Her father had business back in the States, and boarded a ship, with the rest of the family to follow later. He drowned when the ship went down in 1895. The remaining family stayed in Poland, but Martin’s mother never gave up the scrap of paper, the birth certificate, that proved her to be American.

Her family waits outside of the office, on the street, impossibly hoping that if Martin’s mother is taken away or killed, they will be spared out of ignorance. The hope proves false when, despite protestations, a fellow Jew tells the man from the Gestapo that Mrs. Spett’s family is just outside the door of the office.

But there is no immediate tragedy.

After years of lies and death, this Nazi promise is true, at least in part. Martin and his family are told they must present themselves at 10 a.m. the next day, with only one suitcase each.

That is not difficult; everything the family owns has been used or sold in the effort to live one more day for four years.

Grasping his sister’s hand, Martin leaves Tarnow.


Father and 13-year-old son share a cell in a political prison in Krakow, embraced by screams, witnessing torture, waiting to become its victims. Other men are pushed into the tiny space, many with forged papers claiming they are citizens of any country but Poland or Germany, any country not yet infested by the hatred of the Nazis.

Martin’s sister and mother are elsewhere, maybe bloodied, raped or dead.

Once a week for nine weeks, the men shower, meeting other Jews who are missing ears, noses, bearing horrific scars. They joke with Martin: “Amerikanski! Amerikanski!”

Mad dogs have mangled these men without papers.

The nine weeks end in the courtyard of the prison, where executions take place. Martin and his father are fearfully reunited with his sister and mother, lined up against a wall, their backs to soldiers as their hands reach high.

Laughing men in black, gray behind them playfully pantomime murder, though the bullets never come, rifle hammers falling only on empty chambers.

The doors of the prison open and the Spetts are put on a passenger train.

After four years of nothing, they are fed bread, butter and jam. Martin’s memories and imagination fall away, inadequate to the reality. The food is gone in an instant.

A uniformed commandant appears in the train car, a briefcase at his side. In it is paperwork that all aboard must sign, giving up their claims to family homes and land held for centuries. Theft is not enough; forms must be filed.

They are told the train is bound for Portugal. The Jews will be exchanged for German prisoners of war. The generosity of the jam makes the story easy to swallow.

In what feels like only a few hours, Martin is in Berlin, displayed before the crowd at the railway station, a true novelty: a Jew who is still alive.

The Red Cross examines the train’s cargo, and gives them more forgotten pleasures, milk, even chocolate.

Back onto the train, and more cars are attached with a dull thud. The people in them are Jews with false paperwork bought from the Gestapo, which has opened a sideline selling life.

Jews who have left Europe send back visas and passports to save loved ones, but many are dead before the paper lifeline arrives in Poland, Hungary or Czechoslovakia. The men in black uniforms with the death’s head emblem that mark their profession find willing buyers among the living.

The train pulls out of Berlin but stops shortly thereafter. Portugal was an illusion, after all.

SS troops are standing outside the train.

“Juden, raus!”

Everyone is afraid; no one will leave the train.

“Juden! Raus!

Still nobody moves, so men in gray with lightning flashes on their collars board the train, using the butts of their rifles to force men and women, who have become nothing more than cargo again, into a straight line beside the railcars. When one soldier says to another that one machine gun will be enough, there is no doubt about what is happening.

Everyone is loaded onto trucks, which rumble into the forest nearby. Martin’s father says the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, knowing what is coming.

But one more time, death does not come.

The trucks pull up at the gates of a camp meant to house prisoners of war, but now turned to another purpose. Fresh barbed wire glimmers in sunlight.

Martin and his family arrive at Bergen- Belsen.

The lucky 500

Germans of high rank inspect the concentration camp. A representative of the Jews within stands in front of each barracks building. A man named Zanderling holds himself stiff in front of the building that Martin now knows as home. But he is not Zanderling, and one of the visitors knows it. The German dignitary and “Zanderling” had attended law school together in Berlin.

The camp in northern Germany is closed up tighter than before. The Gestapo guards huddle in an administrative building with the paperwork of 1,000 people, many not who they say they are, all of whom had paid a steep price for their continued survival. Irregularities are found.

The Gestapo men announce that 500 of the people in the camp will be transported to Switzerland. A mad grab ensues. Starved and despairing people bribe each other and the guards with whatever they have left to get on that train. Great sacrifices are made to gain a spot for a mother, a child, a brother.

Five hundred board the train.

It is only days later that it returns with nothing aboard but the luggage of those who left.

The lucky 500 had been taken to Auschwitz and to the ovens.

April 7-14, 1945

More murder through malnutrition, cruelty and disease. The gears of Bergen- Belsen grind out death and pain in the nearly two years that Martin has spent there, but that time is ending.

The 400 adults and children are forced from the camp and on a 7-mile march to a train. Martin is nearly carried by his mother and father. He has double pneumonia and is choking in his body’s fluids.

These train cars have no seats, room only for cargo. The Jews of Bergen-Belsen join 2,100 survivors of other hells.

On board, there is no room to sit or lie down. Everyone is standing in the stench of everyone. Everyone is breathing the breath of everyone. Urine and feces stain everyone’s legs. There is no place to go.

Once a day, everyone is taken off the train for a half hour to eat a “soup” made of potato skins and lukewarm water. The guards eat the potatoes.

The train changes tracks often over six days, trying to make its way to Theresienstadt in occupied Czechoslovakia. Instead, they end up just 70 miles from where they started, near the town of Magdeburg in Germany. Allied bombing has prevented further travel. At night, planes and the silvery chaff they drop to fool German radar obscure the stars. Martin believes the foil looks like a celebration.

There are hundreds of guards with the train. The German commandant heads to town to receive fresh orders. He returns out of uniform, riding a bicycle and waving farewell to his former charges.

Seventy men are left to guard the remains of 2,500 starvelings.

Out of Hell

Rumbling in the forest. Trees shake, the ground does, too. Metal clangs, gears scream. Liberty and life are encased in iron. American tanks.

A young lieutenant, Carrol Walsh, opens the hatch and climbs down, rifle slung across his chest. He walks toward the train.

A guard, a Pole in German uniform, raises his gun and takes aim. Jews with strength left in their bodies leap down from the train and onto him.

The Jews ask Lt. Walsh to take the guard’s life; after all, he’d tried to kill the American.

“We have orders to take prisoners,” Lt. Walsh says.

The words of mercy wash over the 2,500 Jews who have known so little of it for seven years.

They weep.