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BOOK SHELF - "Always Keep Together"

Review by John Morrissey

"Always Keep Together", written and published by David Cukierman (2011). ISBN-10 1460991028. This book is available from CreateSpace Direct or Price $15. Babette Francis has a few copies available at $8 plus postage. Ph: (03) 9822 5218.

This account of the survival of the three Cukierman brothers, Mendel, Jack and Henry, during six years of the Jewish Holocaust in Poland has been compiled by Henry's grandson, David. Although it covers some horrifying events, its tone is matter-of-fact rather than emotional, and focuses on the factors in that survival, rather than conjuring up visions of cruelty, hardship and death. The author identifies these factors as "unshakable confidence and optimism", together with "unwavering hope and absolute resolve". To these he adds "fearless courage coupled with an intelligent, innovative mind" - and especially luck.

His grandfather, Henry, the only brother surviving at the time of writing, possessed all of these qualities in abundance. His goal always was to gratify both his doomed sister's urging that the three stick together, and the hope of his father that they would survive to witness the downfall of Nazi Germany. All three migrated to Australia after 1945, where they prospered and raised large and happy families.

This story begins in 1939, with the German invasion of Poland and its partition with Russia. The family was not particularly religious, but the children had been raised in the culture of the Jewish quarter of Lodz. To escape German atrocities on Poles and Jews alike, they investigated crossing into the relative safety of the Russian zone. Henry at 18 showed his resourcefulness by being able to skip back and forth across the closed border at will, but ended up on the German side awaiting the demobilisation of Jack from the defeated Polish army.

In a succession of ghettos, of which the most prominent was in Piotrkow, and from which anyone might be deported to work camps, the Cukiermans showed their ingenuity. This included trading hoarded silk stockings for food and money, acquiring working permits and even devising a hidden compartment for the young men to avoid conscription for forced labour. Jewish police were responsible for recruitment from these ghettos, and the relationship was ambivalent. Even in 1942 the Jews in Piotrkow did not believe rumours of gassing in camps like Treblinka.

From 1942 these ghettos were "liquidated" with the lie that residents were to be "resettled" in the East. While the brothers were retained to work, the rest of the family were transported to their deaths, which was when their sister Fela sent - from the very cattle-truck - the postcard urging them to stick together. Although Henry was arbitrarily selected for a concentration camp, with the help of a Polish woman named Basia he made an audacious escape and an equally audacious return journey to be reunited with his brothers, by breaking into the Piotrkow ghetto.

Deportation to a camp at Blizin followed, but the brothers convinced the Germans to acquire the family's sock-making machinery, and their valuable manufactures gave them some security in the camp. Valuables and money could be traded with Poles for food, and though there were beatings and executions, one SS colonel commandant showed some humane qualities. Later, conditions changed with the arrival of prisoners and guards from Majdanek camp, and inmates made plans for an escape and resistance if marched into the forest to be executed ahead of the Russian advance. However, prisoners were eventually transported to Auschwitz, where Henry, possibly alone, managed to retain his gold and money.

There followed a selection process, in which trade skills were the best chance for survival rather than extermination. The brothers somehow passed themselves off as carpenters, and survived by trading with Poles for enough food to sustain life. A kindly German foreman at a mine site also enabled them to work together under him. As with Poles, the Jews were suspicious of Ukrainian civilians, and the brothers even refused an escape offer from three Ukrainian girls, which would have had them in Russian hands within days. Instead they became part of a Death March back towards Germany.

Once again the brothers' resourcefulness saved them, as Henry's incredible strength enabled him to snap the padlocks on boxes which prisoners were forced to carry and raid the soldiers' rations. Of course they risked death to do so, and how they escaped detection was a miracle. Transported in cattle trucks through Czechoslovakia, hundreds died, but the brothers survived to Berlin and onwards to Bergen-Belsen camp. With minimal food and freezing conditions, the brothers adopted new names to pass as non-Jewish Poles at Sandposten camp, but this led to their separation alphabetically.

Miraculously, they were reunited, but their Jewish identity was discovered. Days before liberation, Henry escaped a German bullet by yet another miracle of a jammed rifle.

Their British liberators could not supply food, but let the survivors - 8,000 of 15,000 had died in ten days - plunder German farms. Henry and Mendel grew ill from unaccustomed rich food, but many of the prisoners died from acute diarrhoea. Free, Henry and Jack travelled through Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia, where their experiences were mixed, especially in their former home town of Lodz. It is well known that many Poles were hostile towards returning Jewish survivors - especially where property was involved.

They reunited with Mendel in Selb, in Germany, where Henry met and married Helen, the love of his life, who had survived the entire war in the Warsaw ghetto.

After some black market activities and some shady deals in porcelain, in 1951 the couple migrated to Melbourne, Australia, where they were joined by Jack, Mendel and their wives in 1953. Their later prosperity was based on the assets they had acquired in Selb and the factory which they equipped with sock machines, returning to their father's trade. A number of photographs appended to the account record moments in their earlier lives and later careers.

As already noted, this book is different from other Holocaust accounts, such as that of Elie Wiesel, and Henry's exploits, audacity and sheer luck are rivalled only by those of the prickly Vladek Spiegelman in his son's graphic novel "Maus", published in the US. The achievements of Holocaust survivors in Melbourne especially, and their unequalled public benevolence, in addition to their support of Jewish charities, make stories like that of the Cukiermans a vital part of our heritage.

At the Holocaust Museum in Balaclava, there can be found an authentic picture of their experiences and a unique assessment of their relationship with non-Jewish Poles. Not only did some Poles despise and even betray Jews in their midst, but many others, including the clergy, risked their lives to shelter them and even pass children off as Catholic - First Communion photographs and all!.

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