The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday
The Nazi-hunter who survived six death camps
by Josef Lewkowicz, with Michael Calvin
304pp, Transworld, £16.99 (0844 871 1514), RRP £20, ebook £9.99 ÌÌÌÌÌ
No one expected the Germans to arrive with such speed and without a shot being fired, writes Josef Lewkowicz of September 8 1939. In the small town of Działoszyce in southern Poland, where the teenage Josef and his parents lived, the persecution began immediately.
At first, Jews were forbidden to form groups in the street; then they were ordered to clean those streets and were beaten on the slightest pretext. Their shops were looted; their private gold and jewels were confiscated. Some were arrested, and disappeared. Finally, in August 1942, it was announced the town would be made “Jew-free”. From then on, no other title than The Survivor
would have been possible for 96-year-old Lewkowicz’s almost unbearable memoir (co-written with former Telegraph journalist Michael Calvin).
Sixteen thousand Jews were rounded up. Josef (then 16) and his father lived; the rest of his family were sent straight (and unknowingly) to their deaths. The prisoners in the “living” group were sent to a slave-labour camp of 23,000 in a Kraków suburb – the first of the six camps Josef survived. Beatings, starvation and other ill-treatment became so routine that between 8,000 and
10,000 died. Conditions worsened further when the camp, Płaszów, was taken over by Amon Göth, a 6ft 4in sadist who randomly shot people for target practice and made prisoners watch the public executions of their fellows. Once Göth put his revolver to Lewkowicz’s head. “So this is how I am going to die,” he thought – but he woke up in the camp hospital. A “kapo” (a senior prisoner put in charge of his fellows) had knocked Lewkowicz unconscious and told Göth to save his bullet. Even so, the writer recalls, “I knew better than to linger in hospital. The SS doctors were known to administer lethal injections.”
In 1943, his father disappeared – to die, as Lewkowicz would later discover, in another camp, Flossenbürg. Next, after Płaszów, selected prisoners were taken to Auschwitz, including Lewkowicz, where much of his work comprised clearing away bodies for disposal in an incineration pit. In August 1944, he was sent on again to Mauthausen, in Austria, where prisoners were systematically worked to death, prising blocks of granite from the sides of a quarry then carrying 50kg loads – for 11 hours a day. Often, groups would be assembled at the edge of a cliff, where guards forced each man to choose whether to be shot or to push the man in front of him over the edge. Other forms of killing, says Lewkowicz, included “clubbing to death with axes or hammers, being mashed into concrete mixers, or being torn to pieces by dogs”.
Three more camps followed: Melk, Amstetten, then Ebensee (the latter two being sub-camps of Mauthausen). By the last of these,
‘I knew better than to linger in hospital. The SS were known to give lethal injections’
it was mid-April 1945, and the war was almost over – but among the prisoners left, the daily death toll was still more than 350, with naked bodies stacked up outside “living” quarters. Finally, on the morning of May 5 1945, the prisoners woke to find that the SS guards had fled. The next day, more than 50 of the cruellest kapos were lynched, before liberation came in the afternoon, as two American tanks rolled into the compound.
It is not surprising that the horrors of the concentration camps are what bubble to the surface in
Lewkowicz relives them as he returns to the places where he and so many suffered, but he also gives rein to his thoughts, his philosophy, his beliefs – these are written in a more flowing style. With his precapture life dealt with in detail, and the last part of this memoir devoted to his post-war adventures, it’s like having two books compressed into one.
In 1946, Lewkowicz persuaded the American authorities to allow him to track down Waffen-SS men, the worst killers: he could recognise their faces, voices and mannerisms through their disguises. “There was one name at the top of my list: Amon Göth.”
Some SS men found prisoner-ofwar camps the best places to hide. Dachau, after all, held 30,000 Germans; it was impossible to interrogate them all. That was where Lewkowicz began his search, and after a week he approached a group of German soldiers. “Are these all your men?” he asked the officer, who replied, “There is a stranger who wasn’t with us,” and pointed to a cowering figure in a filthy uniform several sizes too small. As Lewkowicz approached, he saw it was Göth, and flung himself on his former tormentor. Later that year, 1946, Göth was tried and hanged.
In post-war Europe, Lewkowicz lived almost hand-to-mouth – the family property in Poland had been appropriated by neighbours – then travelled to South America to join a great-uncle, anxious to find any surviving relation. But he worked his way up from factory work and street-trading to become a successful diamond dealer, making a happy marriage and finally settling in Israel, where he lives today.
How did he survive when so many died? “In my mind,” he writes, “there was always hope, though I could see none.”