Josef – The Story of a Survivor

The Fellowship  |  January 27, 2016

Man using a handkerchief to dry his eyes.

Josef, a 75-year-old Ukrainian Jew, is a Holocaust survivor. During World War II he was imprisoned at the notorious Nazi death camp at Auschwitz. For many years, Josef kept his horrific stories of the events during the war to himself.

But recently, after encouragement from a worker at a local Hesed center funded by The Fellowship‘s Isaiah 58 program, he began telling his story. The center is a place of hope for Josef, where this impoverished man receives food and medical assistance on a regular basis. And now, it has also given him a means of release and a sense that his history will not be forgotten.

Josef began by saying, “I was working in the coal mine when the frontline was approaching. We marched in lines wearing prison clothes. We had wooden soles on our boots. It was cold and people were weak. Those who couldn’t go further were killed and stayed where they lay. We were driven forward this way for three days, day and night. When we felt that the front was coming nearer to us, we were put into carriages where the coal was usually kept. We were piled one on top of another.

“As we rode in the carriages, somehow people from one of the villages we were passing through learned that prisoners were in the carriage, so they threw us bread and meat. We were weak and hungry. We tried to catch the pieces of food. People were so hungry that the crowd crushed each other trying to get the food. The Nazi guards shouted, ‘Halt!’ and they shot the prisoners. A lot of people were killed. The guards made us take the bodies and stack them inside the carriage like a bench. Then they made us sit on them. Three days more days we lived through that, imagining the day when we could escape.

“Finally they took us from the carriage. Then they put us in columns and we began marching again. Many days passed. We found ourselves in a small forest. Suddenly we stopped and looked around and there were no guards around. It was night, dark. We saw a big barn. Very carefully, we approached the barn, crawled in, and slept there all night. We didn’t hear a tank coming near. We woke up and saw light between the boards in the barn. We looked out and saw a five-angled star. We didn’t know that Englishmen and Americans had a five-angled star too.”

At first, Josef and the others thought they were seeing a Russian tank. He continued, “We started whispering, ‘It’s a Russian tank, it’s a Russian tank.’ Then we understood that they were Americans.

“When the Americans found us, they were struck dumb at what we looked like. We were kids and there were middle aged people there too. The soldiers handed us chocolates and vitamins and water. I felt the strength coming into my muscles again. The soldiers told us how to get to the road. The American soldiers in jeeps came near I will remember them all my life. There were about 80 of us at that time. They took us to a town in Germany and settled us there, in former Nazi housing. We took off our prison clothes and they showed us piles of clothes and told us to take what we wanted. We washed, they fed us, and there were doctors there.”

Josef humbly thanked us for listening to his story. And, before we left, he added a heartfelt note of thanks to The Fellowship‘s Isaiah 58 donors who he also regards as heroes for funding the Hesed center where he receives so much support. “Thank you for the help you are providing. Give these good people my regards.” He continued, “I pray there will be peace for them.”

Without the love and compassion of the Fellowship staff, Josef’s story might never have been told and without the Fellowship-funded Hesed center, Josef might not be alive today. Shockingly, tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors like Josef are living in the former Soviet Union in abject poverty, unable to afford basic necessities such as food and medicine. You can help these struggling elderly Jews find a measure of peace and comfort in their old age through a gift to Isaiah 58.