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The Life and Death of Hershl Sperling
By Mark S. Smith
The History PressCopyright © 2010 Mark S. Smith
All rights reserved.
On Tuesday morning, 26 September 1989, Hershl Sperling, a survivor of two Nazi death camps and at least five concentration camps, contemplated suicide. He was 62 years old. Strange, at least at first glance, that a man who had survived Auschwitz, Dachau, Treblinka and other hellish places – certainly in part through acts of hope and inner strength – would consider taking his own life. He was, after all, a survivor. He was also a widower, and the father of two adult sons who loved him. He was now in Scotland, far away from his old country and the source of his torment – places that today still conjure up terrifying images of fire and mountains of twisted corpses. Strange also to think that this quiet Polish Jew in the suburb of a faraway Scottish city, this man who had once lived around the corner from me and whose son was my best friend, had witnessed that fire with his own eyes and had dragged into it those twisted corpses. I see him now, sitting at his kitchen table in his house at 63 Castlehill Drive, Glasgow. He winks at me as I enter. I can tell he likes me. 'Boychik,' he says, watching me with his pale green eyes that are full of mischief and madness. 'How are you today?' There appeared no cause for survivor guilt or shame here. What did he have to feel guilty about? Hershl Sperling had been an innocent victim, not a perpetrator. Yet here he was at the precipice.
That Tuesday morning, there may have been something familiar about the day's beginning – some strange, lingering echo of that time, 47 years earlier, when his world changed forever. How normal the world was before the Nazis came – children playing, laughing, families working, living, cooking, struggling, loving each other without even knowing it, people simply being. Now thousands of skeletons, all those dead Jews he carried, reached out their bony hands to him– all those children. It is the murder of children that is the stuff of nightmares. In many ways, Hershl Sperling was crazy, and he knew it; but the world was crazier.
Dawn had come dim and dry. This was an Indian summer, at least for Glasgow's normally dreary climate. Hershl had slept the night inside the old Caledonian Rail Bridge over the River Clyde in Glasgow's city centre. His previous suicide attempts had been foiled by those who cared about him; this was not the first time he had disappeared to wander the streets of Glasgow, seeking out the company of down-and-outs. As he lay prostrate atop one of the iron girders, deep in the dim netherworld of criss-crossing metal supports and hidden platforms, there approached the haunting sound of clicking metal wheels on the track above him, shocking him out of an alcoholic stupor. The sound gathered pace until it shook the entire structure as it passed overhead and disappeared slowly into the silence of the morning. By 6.00am other trains had begun their deafening rattle across the bridge. Hershl dragged his thin body upright and moved like a phantom through the dark recesses of the bridge. He stepped around the unconscious, oblivious bodies of others who had sought a night's refuge here, and he climbed down on to the bank of the River Clyde.
Hershl had been one of the Treblinka Sonderkommando – a fifteen-year-old Jewish boy plucked from the mouth of death to become a slave of murderers. To Hershl, the entire world could be explained through Treblinka. The experience could never be forgotten and the wounds that had been gouged could never heal. He had witnessed crimes beyond belief, unimaginable in magnitude. He had also been one of the few who had revolted and escaped; he should have been proud of that. His very existence belied the assumption that all the Jews had gone to their deaths like sheep to the slaughter. Hershl and other escapees had torched the camp on the way out. He had wanted the factory of death to be obliterated. I remember how courage came easily to Hershl Sperling; but courage was not enough to keep him in this world. His final drama, on the streets of Glasgow, remains a testament to those who survived, but whose suffering did not end with liberation.
He wandered now in a haze of drugs and alcohol along the riverbank and through the city streets. Those who saw him likely mistook him for one of the many drunken homeless in this city. Traffic and crowds began to throng the streets. The odour of exhaust fumes from cars and trucks already permeated the air. Diesel and gasoline engines had been used by the Nazis to pump carbon monoxide into the Treblinka gas chambers. He could not forget that deathly stench.
* * *
That Hershl was alive on that Tuesday morning is in itself extraordinary. All except a minute fraction of those who entered Treblinka, let alone Auschwitz and Dachau, were consumed in its gas chambers and flames. Among the random sampling of human beings who were swept together in the Nazi round-ups and sentenced to death, they took a fifteen-year-old boy whom, it seems, could not be killed. Like all survivors, two prime factors kept Hershl alive – good health when he entered the camps and the improbable confluence of unlikely events. He could also be daring, cunning and fearless.
He was raised in a strictly orthodox Jewish home in an old Polish shtetl and had once believed in the innate justice of God and his fellow man. It has been said that when he was young, Hershl was kind, and that he laughed more than most, but what use was joy in the abject degradation of Treblinka, where beatings, cold, fatigue, humiliation and starvation had to be endured each day? It was Treblinka that stayed with him. He survived in part because of hope, inner strength and resourcefulness, but so many victims were just as strong and resourceful as he and had perished.
Many times I walked his probable routes through the city streets during those final days. I tried to imagine his psychological condition and the dreadful memories he carried. What would I have done in Hershl's place? Would I have survived? Statistically, the odds were massively against, but in the end it is too trite a question.
When I knew Hershl, he was still a kind man and he smiled often, although I also remember him howling in his sleep during afternoon naps. He spoke little of those terrible years – not because he had chosen to remain silent, but, as I came to understand, because he could not express all the horror he had seen nor the magnitude of the loss he felt. Later, when I asked his sons if they thought Hershl would want me to break his silence, one son replied that I was the only one who could. So now, long after the Glasgow rains and the Polish snows have washed away all the tears Hershl shed, I am writing his life. It is, in part, another warning. Hershl knew better than anyone that warnings must be repeated. In a decade from now, there may be no survivors left, and as the years advance the truth deniers and the glorifiers of the Nazis grow in strength. The number of Treblinka survivors alive today, as I write these words, can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
During the afternoon of that September Tuesday, a small article in the Glasgow Evening Times recorded the police search, which had been launched after Hershl's eldest son, Alan, reported his disappearance. During one of our many phone calls, Alan told me: 'My father had been absolutely furious in the past when we reported him missing. Police and ambulances had always found him and brought him back. He wanted to kill himself. But, I'm sorry, when a human being is in that state, never mind that he was my father, and he walks out of a house after taking a large handful of pills, gets into a car and drives off, you have to do something.'
The newspaper article noted that Hershl, or Henry as he was called in his adopted country, had been missing since Friday from his home in Newton Mearns, a suburb on the south side of Glasgow. He was described as five feet seven inches tall, with grey, receding hair and wearing a light brown windbreaker jacket and blue jogging trousers. The search, it said, was concentrated around Whitecraigs Golf Club – Jews unwelcome at the time – after Hershl's car was found in the club parking lot. This place likely served a dual purpose for Hershl: to confuse the search and to confront anti-Semites, even in death. His strategy worked well. Police asked local residents to check their outhouses, sheds and garages for any sign of him. Police and dogs also searched nearby Rouken Glen Park. There are many places in that park where a man could lose himself, or even lie undiscovered for days. But he was not there.
* * *
It was another warm day, exactly 47 years earlier, on 26 September 1942, when Hershl Sperling was packed on to the train that would take him to Treblinka. The Gestapo had discovered Hershl and his family hours earlier, hiding in a bunker in Czestochowa, the Polish city revered by Catholics as the home of the Black Madonna. Hershl spoke of the terrible thirst of the freight car, of the desperate souls crammed in like cattle, and the sweet odour of death that hovered over Treblinka as the train pulled towards its destination. 'Auschwitz was nothing,' he used to say. 'Auschwitz was a holiday camp.' How terrible was the hell of Treblinka if Auschwitz had been nothing to him?
In the sweltering heat of the boxcar, three days into the journey, the train slowed to a stop just outside the village of Malkinia, seven kilometres from murderous Treblinka. It was a beautiful autumn morning. Hershl pulled himself up amid the crush of bodies and looked through a grate laced with barbed wire. He saw Polish farm workers labouring in the fields beside the train. People called to them from other boxcars. Hershl had recalled: 'They shout one word at us, "Death".'
Recruitment into the Sonderkommando of Treblinka was conducted minutes before the doors of the gas chambers slammed shut. Perhaps the most ingeniously vicious crime at Treblinka was the formation of these death camp slave squads. Hershl's conscription was the unwilling price he paid for survival. These slaves were forced to operate the extermination process. They maintained order among new arrivals, cut women's hair, extracted gold teeth from the mouths of the dead, sorted the belongings of the murdered, removed the dead from the wagons and gas chambers and dragged them to the pits where their corpses were turned to ash. Yet the gift of life was intended only as a temporary reprieve, because they were also the keepers of the terrible truth. The SS was diligent in ensuring that the mass murder of European Jewry was kept secret. Their Jewish slaves knew everything and so were ultimately destined to share the fate of so many others.
Hershl's contemplation of suicide 47 years later begs yet another question: had he known then that his torment would outlive Treblinka itself, would he have tried so hard to live? Hershl had spoken of Treblinka's culture of death. In the barracks, death became a form of resistance. How could he forget the nights and the cries in the darkness of 'yetz' the Yiddish for 'now'? One man, who could endure no more, climbed on to a wooden crate with a noose around his neck. Another man, in an act of friendship, kicked away the box from under his companion's feet. Death was everywhere – in the barracks, on the trains, on the ramp, in the camp courtyards, in the gas chambers, and in the fiery pits, the source of Hershl's nightmares, where the dead were dumped and burned.
Sometimes Hershl laid out old photographs of dead relatives on the kitchen table at his home in Glasgow for his sons to see. He spoke about his mother and father and his younger sister, but he never mentioned their names. Then he would begin to cry and leave the room. Did he feel that he did not deserve to be alive, in spite of what he had come through? There must have been guilt that he was alive in the place of others, and that he was not worthy. In the days before he climbed into the bridge, he had told one of his sons that his suffering now was 'worse than Treblinka'.
* * *
The police search was also conducted in the Scottish seaside towns of Ayr and Prestwick, where, the newspaper said, 'Mr. Sperling often visited'. This was true. In Ayr, he would walk along the pier and stare out to sea. The last time Hershl had disappeared, he was found in a hotel room in Ayr, drowsy from whisky and pills. He had also been found and returned by police after previous disappearances in nearby Prestwick. Once, years earlier in Germany, he had vanished for almost three weeks, but had come home of his own volition. Hershl was trying to foil the police as well as the inevitable search by his two sons. He did not want to be found.
The newspaper article's personal description made no mention of the blue-black number – 154356 – tattooed on Hershl's upper arm, a mute reminder of his year in Auschwitz. Hershl had been puzzled about the number, which had been imprinted unusually on his inner bicep, instead of the forearm where most Auschwitz prisoners had been tattooed. He always said there was something strange about the tattoo, not so much the number itself, but its position, and that other prisoners who had been similarly marked on the upper arm had also survived the camps. Perhaps the number's position had something to do with his contact with the infamous Nazi Angel of Death, Dr Josef Mengele, he had conjectured years earlier. Yet how could his survival and the number be connected when Mengele killed so many of his patients? Hershl said he had once looked into the eyes of Dr Mengele. Several times he recalled a prisoner who had returned castrated from a session with the Doctor.
Hershl would have been sixteen then, and in truth we will likely never know what Mengele did to him, or planned for him, if anything. Nor did Hershl really understand why he had lived through the camps. Over the years, he tried to find out about the unusual position of his tattoo, but he was unsuccessful. He had once met other similarly marked Auschwitz survivors in New York in the 1960s, but they had no answers either – they were equally confounded by their survival and the position of their tattoos.
Instead of the outhouses and sheds around Whitecraigs Golf Club, and instead of Ayr, Prestwick, or Rouken Glen Park, Hershl walked from the golf club parking lot, his mind already heavy with Valium and Amitriptyline. It was late afternoon. The traffic on Ayr Road, the main thoroughfare through Newton Mearns and Whitecraigs, was heavy as usual that day, and he walked the half-mile to Whitecraigs train station, where he purchased a ticket and boarded a commuter train to Glasgow's city centre.
Train journeys had long punctuated Hershl's existence. On his journey from the Czestochowa ghetto, in a stinking boxcar, he would have seen familiar station names rolling past – Radomsko, Piotrków, Koluszki. Hours earlier, he had witnessed savage attacks on his neighbours. People were dragged from the ghetto, beaten and shot. As a desperate escapee, a train had taken him away from a village some 40 km from Treblinka to Warsaw. He was one of the few Jews to see the Warsaw ghetto in ruins after the uprising. Another train had taken him from Warsaw to Auschwitz and from Auschwitz to Birkenau and, close to death, from the station at Gleiwitz to concentration camps at Sachsenhausen, Dachau, and Kaufering less than a year later. A train took him back to Polish soil after liberation, when life was hopeful again, only to encounter anti-Semitism of such fury among his former neighbours that he fled. While waiting for another train to carry him back to Germany, he met his future wife on a station platform in Czechoslovakia, and together they would take a train to the Hook of Holland, and later he would board a boat alone and another train that would take him to a new life in Scotland. Now he was on his final train journey.
The locomotive pulled into Glasgow Central station. Did he recall the boxcar door sliding open at Treblinka, the blinding light, when the train finally arrived? Did he recall the truncheons and hear the savage cries of 'Raus'? Most likely he exited Glasgow Central by its main entrance on to Gordon Street with the bulk of the crowd, and disappeared into the throng of shoppers and workers. Whether he first wandered the streets of Glasgow or if he went directly to the rail bridge, we do not know. For weeks now, his had become a world of death and phantoms. Certainly at some point he turned south and began to walk toward the river. He crossed the Broomielaw, the street running parallel to the northern bank of the Clyde, traversed one of the pedestrian bridges that span the river and then climbed into the iron rail bridge to spend the night. In limbo between life and death, he listened to the screams of trains as they passed above him.
Today you will find the same paved esplanade and railing. In spite of the attempts to regenerate the city's riverside areas with upmarket apartments, shiny office blocks and street clean-ups, this south bank of the river has remained dingy. As night falls, the vagrants descend. Hershl's final nights were spent among the city's drug addicts, alcoholics, homeless and the mentally ill.
Excerpted from Treblinka Survivor by Mark S. Smith. Copyright © 2010 Mark S. Smith. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
Preface by Sam Sperling,
Chapter One The Bridge,
Chapter Two The Book,
Chapter Three Poland,
Chapter Four Klobuck,
Chapter Five Czestochowa,
Chapter Six The Plan Unfolds,
Chapter Seven To The Gates of Hell,
Chapter Eight Ghosts of Treblinka,
Chapter Nine Treblinka in History,
Chapter Ten The Selection,
Chapter Eleven Between Life and Death,
Chapter Twelve The Spite,
Chapter Thirteen Conspiracy,
Chapter Fourteen Uprising and Escape,
Chapter Fifteen The Forest,
Chapter Sixteen Auschwitz,
Chapter Seventeen Germany,
Chapter Eighteen Restless and Hopeful,
Chapter Nineteen Memory,
Chapter Twenty The Search for Life,
Chapter Twenty-one Shock Treatment,
Chapter Twenty-two The Final Struggle,
Chapter Twenty-three The End,
Chapter Twenty-four Hope,
Postscript: Piecing Together a Life,
Appendix Hershl's Testimony,