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By Sarah L. Smith
Cries of a child taken from its mother.
The memories still haunt Joe Engel. But, the 83-year-old Holocaust survivor doesn’t try to forget. Instead, he shares his experiences of the Warsaw ghetto, Auschwitz and the Polish resistance with students.
The Charleston resident was at Waccamaw Middle School last week speaking to seventh-graders.
“I’m here to tell you the story of my life and relay the torch to the next generation,” Engel told them.
The students are familiar with events and historical figures since they are studying World War II and the Holocaust, said Downing Hudson, the history teacher who invited him.
“But, I don’t think the impact of hearing a real survivor hit them until after they heard him speak,” she said.
Standing on stage was a man who lived what the students who packed the auditorium had only read about.
Pulling himself to his full height of 5-feet, 5-inches, Engel’s dark eyes scanned the crowd. Wide-eyed teachers and students stared back.
He drew a breath, glanced at his notes and began his story in a soft Polish accent.
“My name is Joe Engel. When I was 14-and-a-half years old, they took away my name. They gave me a number on my arm, 84009,” he said. “I was a living statue. They could cut me down anytime they wanted to because I had no rights – nothing.”
Born Josef Engel in Zakroczym, Poland, in 1927, Engel grew up in a poor Jewish community with his parents, Moishe and Esther Engel, and his eight brothers and sisters.
His father ran a horse and buggy business, transporting people to and from the local train station. The family lived in a small rented apartment where Engel slept on a straw bed.
“In Poland anti-Semitism was bad. You couldn’t have the rights you do here,” he said.
Life was hard before the war, but it went from bad to worse in 1939 when the Germans began their six-year occupation of Poland.
The next year the Germans destroyed his hometown and forced his family to move to the Warsaw ghetto, about 25 kilometers away.
“Life was miserable there,” he said. “It’s impossible to believe it if you weren’t there.
People died from sickness and disease. They separated families, dividing people by age and forced them to work.”
It was the last time Engel saw his entire family. People began to disappear as trains of enclosed boxcars entered and left the city.
“They came and forced them into cattle trains and packed them like sardines, without food or water. They only had a small window in each car,” he said. “They shipped them away and nobody came back.”
Guards took the elderly first, followed by middle-aged. When the younger Jews started disappearing, Engel knew it was only a matter of time before he’d be gone, too.
In 1942, Engel’s time came. He was forced onto a train and stood for two and a half days as it took him to Auschwitz in southern Poland.
“In the heart of the 20th century, Auschwitz was the capital of the kingdom of death,” Engel said.
About 1.1 million people died at the complex from starvation, disease, medical experimentation, suicide or murder.
When they first arrived, the Jews were sorted by age and ability. The old and weak went to the gas chambers, and the young and able were put to work.
But, when Engel first arrived at the camp, all of the chambers weren’t complete. So guards forced children to dig ditches and burned people alive.
“You could smell burning flesh,” Engel said. “You could hear their cries.”
If people didn’t die from starvation, disease or in gas chambers, they died trying to escape. Prisoners raided the pockets and stole the clothes from the dead, in attempts to survive. They were dead, Engel told students. They weren’t going to use their clothes, so he decided he would.
Fear and torture was also a daily part of life. On Friday nights, guards would chose a random prisoner to hang.
“I remember one time I came home and my bed wasn’t made up like it should have been, so they undressed me and they took water and poured it over me.”
The night was cold, and Engel was forced to stay in the elements until morning.
There were other forms of torture, too. Josef Mengele, nicknamed the “angel of death,” began visiting Auschwitz in May 1943. He would pick people for experiments, such as sterilization.
“They’d give them a shot in their backs and then put a mirror in front of them so they could watch,” he said.
As students listened to Engel describe the ways the Nazis tortured prisoners, eyes widened and hands went over mouths. Some mouths just hung open.
“And, believe me, that’s very little of what actually happened,” he said.
The Soviet Union’s army was closing in, so the Germans forced the prisoners to march west.
“Anybody who couldn’t keep up was shot in the neck,” Engel said.
After days of marching in the snow and cold, Engel and other prisoners were put on unheated freight trains.
“I told myself I was going to escape,” Engel said. “And I did.”
He jumped off the moving train and hid in the snow. The Germans stopped the train and looked for him, but he was buried so deep and the snow was blowing so hard, the guards gave up and moved on.
After the train left, Engel received food and clothes from a generous railroad worker and spent the next six months hiding in a fox hole he dug inside a Polish forest.
By day he slept, and by night he hunted. At first his nights were all about finding food and eating it.
Then, one night, he stumbled upon the Polish resistance. They gave him a new mission: finding and destroying Germans.
“Did you ever kill anyone?” a student asked.
“No, as God as my witness,” he responded.
Engel just caused trouble until the Soviets liberated Poland six months later.
He looked for family members in Zakroczym, but only two buildings remained. He continued his search in western Germany until he got word two brothers and a sister were in a camp for displaced persons in Czechoslovakia. They moved to the United States while he spent five years in a displaced persons camp in Germany until he got his papers to move to Charleston.
He set foot in New Orleans in March 1949 and took a train to Charleston where he lived with his Aunt Bessie. Other than a brief stint working odd jobs in New York, Engel lived and worked as a cleaning and alterations specialist in Charleston.
He’s a “professional bachelor,” he told the students. He never married, he doesn’t have children, but he likes to flirt. Students laughed and Engel grinned.
“If I was there, I don’t know if I could have done what he did,” said Tamia Hannah, 12.
When the laughter died down, Engel’s face straightened and his voice strengthened.
“Let us remember for the future so the past does not repeat itself,” he said. “Never forget the Holocaust. Let us be what we are. Don’t be afraid to talk. If you talk, people will listen.”