A ten-year-old child witnesses the liberation of Auschwitz
Bernice Lerner, Ed.D., is the author of All the Horrors of War: A Jewish Girl, a British Doctor and the Liberation of Bergen-Belsen and The Triumph of Wounded Souls: The Lives of Seven Holocaust Survivors.
Jerzy (Georges) Ogurek, c. 1943-1944. This photo shows the boy’s hair dyed blonde to disguise his Jewishness as his family fled Poland to Budapest (he would be known later in life as George Zimmerman)
Photo United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of George Zimmerman
By the time Red Army soldiers entered Auschwitz on January 27, 1945, ten-year-old Jerzy (George) Ogurek had survived three months in the death camp. He defied odds – almost all of the 230,000 children deported there were murdered immediately. Suffering from hunger and the effects of scarlet fever, wearing oversized pants and shoes – filled with whatever he could find for warmth – he witnessed the momentous event. Following a loud explosion, two Russian soldiers, dressed in white to camouflage themselves against the snow, appeared, each with a rifle on one arm and a huge sausage on the other.
Auschwitz child survivors photographed by the Red Army, 1945
At this point, George was fit to play under new rules. In 1943, during a action in the Sosnowiec ghetto, he had hidden in a storage room between sheets of leather. When he escaped from the ghetto with his parents and grandparents, he crouched quietly under the hay piled on the floor of a wagon.
George’s parents had decided when and where they should race. Bribing guards and guides, and with the help of various networks, they traveled from Poland to Slovakia to Hungary and then back to Slovakia, avoiding Nazi collaborators and murderers. George, with bleached blond hair, claiming to be Catholic, could recite the Ave Maria in German, Polish, Hungarian or Slovak.
In October 1944, smugglers hired to help them cross the border between Slovakia and Hungary betrayed the family. At Sered, a labor and transit camp, they were identified as Jews and sent to Auschwitz II (Birkenau).
Prior to their arrival, a convoy of two thousand men, women, and children from Sered had been gassed. Directed to the shower, George’s parents were sure they would be killed. They came out with shaved heads and prisoners’ clothes. When it was George’s turn to get a number tattooed on his arm, his father begged the engraver to make smaller numbers.
The Nazis bludgeoned several people from George’s transport party to death. Kapos randomly pulled several individuals from the rows of detainees and beat them without any pretense or justification. This place had no rules.
The SS led the men and women into two separate groups. George went with the men, then to a children’s barracks, where eight shared a small cabin. While Call Zehl (roll call), everyone had to stand for hours in the freezing cold. After working all day, George’s father and grandfather visited him in the evening. Once his father brought him lard – it was stolen from George within hours.
Falling ill, George was transferred to the medical block. Every day, he counted the corpses in front of the barracks. He watched people eat potato peelings. He never saw his father and grandfather again.
In early January, the Russians bombed targets in the area. In mid-January, the SS evacuated 58,000 prisoners on foot or in freight trains. George searched through warehouses for clothes and food. Periodically, SS officers returned to the camp and shot people.
On January 20, the Nazis blew up two crematoria. Further destruction of prosecution evidence followed. SS units ordered the thousands of remaining inmates – the weak and sick, including children and Russian prisoners of war – out of the barracks. The agents asked, “Who thinks he can’t walk ten kilometers tonight?” Those who left the line were taken behind a barracks and shot.
At that moment, George imagined what it would be like to die. He decided he was ready to meet his fate, be it life or death. Death was worse than pain and fear, but he was even reconciled to that possibility.
At that time, George was not alone. His father’s brother, whom he had never met, had recognized him when they were both in the medical unit. Together, among a thousand prisoners, they painfully left Birkenau. The weary war columns had not gone far when their guards stopped them. They waited in the snow for an hour, after which the guards got into trucks and disappeared. The leaderless group returned to Auschwitz I, which had brick buildings as opposed to the wooden barracks at Birkenau. As they walked, they lowered their heads to avoid shells and bullets.
After the liberation, George and his uncle did not wait for the arrival of new Russian troops to come and take charge of the situation. With cigarettes – war currency – George’s uncle paid for a driver to take them to Krakow. On the bed of the truck, George felt the weight of a large Russian soldier’s head resting on his legs. He chose to tolerate the pain and discomfort rather than wake the sleeping giant.
Fifty years later, I met George Zimmerman, who over a 35-year career was a professor, researcher, and administrator in the physics department at Boston University. No one he worked with knew what George had been through as a child.