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A Holocaust Survivor's Tale

Ben Sieradzki was sent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in the summer of 1944. He was 17. Ben and his older sister Anna were loaded onto one of the infamous overcrowded box cars for the journey to Auschwitz.

The only possession Sieradzki carried with him was the family album. He held it tightly to his chest until he was forced to drop it after arrival at the camp. The only existing photographs of Sieradzki's parents and two sisters, who died in the Holocaust, are from an uncle who moved to Denmark years earlier. The photographs exist today in a cherished album Sieradzki keeps at his home in Berkeley, Calif.

Sieradzki was born in 1927, the youngest of five children, in the Polish city of Zgierz, a suburb of Lodz. When Sieradzki and his sister Anna were forced to go Auschwitz, they had already lost their parents and other sister, during their time in the Lodz Ghetto. They didn't know what happened to their brothers, who would later survive the war in a Siberian prison.

Anna and Ben were separated when they arrived at Auschwitz. Sieradzki remembers marching through the camp complex for the first time.

In a story about those years, he wrote, "We could see smoke stacks of the crematoriums with their billowing smoke. One of the guards said, 'These are your folks going up in smoke who just arrived here with you.'"

Sieradzki never saw his sister Anna again.

He was assigned to a teenage barrack.

"The barrack held about 1,000 Jewish teenagers from several countries in Europe, but most of them were from the Lodz ghetto. There were no beds and no blankets; we slept on the bare cement floor. We had to lie on one side and could not turn; there was no room to turn."

In September 1944, Sieradzki was transported to a work camp near Hanover, Germany, where inmates worked 12-hour shifts in a rubber plant.

"After several months of hard labor each day, and the ever-present hunger, cold and abuse to endure, after four and half years of the Lodz ghetto and Auschwitz, we were all tired, denigrated and downcast," he wrote. "A lot of us got sick or injured, and soon after we arrived, people started to die on a daily basis. I saw several people dying during a roll call and after severe beatings."

Sieradzki was moved again, this time to the Ahlem slave labor camp, where he was later liberated.

"The winter of 1944-45 was very cold and harsh," Sieradzki wrote. "The prisoners in camp were starting to die off in very high numbers, either from diseases, severe beatings, accidents, starvation, exposure, or suicide. We slept two in a bunk, head opposite each other.

"The young man who shared my bunk could not get up one morning. I shook him … he was dead. I remember only his last name, Citron, and that his father had a candle factory. The last several days of his life, he would recite poetry in Polish and sing mournful songs. He must have been a very bright young man. We will never know."

The guards were extremely cruel. "One of the German guards forced pebbles into a dead man's mouth, proclaiming, 'Here, you Jew-pig, have something to eat!'" Sieradzki wrote.

The Ahlem camp was liberated by members of the U.S. 84th Infantry Division on April 10, 1945. A few days earlier, the German guards marched hundreds of able-bodied prisoners to the Bergen-Belsen death camp. They left those too weak behind to die, including Sieradzki. He was suffering from numerous wounds, tuberculosis, typhus, dysentery and severe malnutrition.

"At that time, I was just 18 years old, a sick liberated survivor with no ideas about my future," he wrote. "I had no clue as to what kind of person I might become, living in a free society without the perpetual threats to my life and sanity. I had been living like a gazelle in a lion's compound, without any measure of security or comfort."

Sieradzki recuperated for several months in Swedish military hospitals. He immigrated to the United States in 1953. He's a retired engineer and lives in Berkeley, Calif., with his wife, Gloria. They have two sons and three granddaughters. The two oldest are named for Ben's sisters who died in the Holocaust.

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Cindy Carpien