Paul Argiewicz was a young Jewish boy growing up in Bielsko, Poland, when the Nazis came to power. Forced to leave his home and his schooling – and ultimately his family – by the unfolding horrors of anti-Semitic violence, he eventually was arrested and transported to a concentration camp. Argiewicz spent nearly five years living by his wits in slave labor camps from Auschwitz to Buchenwald. Surviving WWII and the Holocaust against all odds, he lived to tell his story to the world. His account of perseverance and faith in the face of the relentless depravity of Hitler’s Third Reich and a society gone mad is an inspiring and cautionary tale that is both historic and timeless.
Deanne L. Joseph’s moving new memoir, Number 176520 –The Story of Paul Argiewicz, a Teenage Holocaust Survivor, poignantly recounts one child’s journey through the terrors. With a preface and historical documentation provided by renowned Holocaust scholar, Professor Kenneth Waltzer (Director of Jewish Studies, Michigan State University), Number 176520 is quickly becoming an invaluable resource for students of the Holocaust.
Following is an excerpt from the book:
Paul and his family lived in the ghetto for about a year. In spite of the dire circumstances, his boyish, adventurous nature remained. He removed the identification patch from his clothing and sneaked out of the ghetto through an opening in the barbed wire fence. It was an act of defiance that would have landed him at the end of an executioner’s gun had he been caught, but somehow he was able to pull off this rite two to three times a week.
Being the gregarious child that he was, he made friends with some gentile children on the “outside.” They did not seem to mind that he was Jewish, and some of their parents even tried to help him in small ways. The father of one of his new friends owned a bakery. The man’s sympathetic conscience obliged him to turn a blind eye, allowing Paul to steal freshly baked bread from his store twice a week. The ritual continued for a year. Sometimes the determined young scavenger managed to find potato peels or other small provisions of vegetables and was always faithful to rush his smuggled goods back to his hungry family behind the fence.
Eventually, Paul became so comfortable in his excursions that he inadvertently lowered his guard and came face to face with disaster. Returning to his family with a pair of stolen loaves of bread, he was approached by two SS officers.
“Where did you get that bread?” they demanded
“Where did you get that bread?” they demanded. Paul had never been so close to the enemy. He stood, accused and frozen.
“Come with us!” The order was stern and curt. They snatched the bread from his hands. The pounding of his heart intensified until he thought it would surely break through his chest. He could barely breathe. He felt a hard, squeezing pressure on his arm — the grip of a Nazi. He had the sensation of walking very quickly, although he was unable to feel his legs. Were his feet touching the ground? Were they even moving? He heard only the sound of the officers’ boots clacking with each step on the hard street beneath their feet. His eyes burned as if on fire, and blurred images of his family flashed through his rattled brain. What would they think? Would he ever see them again? Were these men going to kill him? Paul fought to restrain the tears pooling in his eyes. He was only a child — his life was supposed to be ahead of him, not behind.
They arrived at their destination: an old schoolhouse that had been converted into a transitory evaluation and detainment center, the Durkankslager. He was taken downstairs to the basement, the “dungeon.” It was filled with people standing in lines. Everywhere were the familiar Jewish identification patches. The Nazis pushed him into place with the others. He looked around at the detainees, predominantly grown men. He did not see any other children in the crowded space.
An SS officer sat upright on a stool at the front of the room, one leg raised and bent at the knee with his booted foot confidently perched on a table. Behind him was a desk filled with papers. As each of the accused men made his way to the front of the line, he was questioned by the man on the stool, evaluated, and sent into a group either to the right or to the left. Paul was not sure why the men were being divided, but as he drew closer to the evaluating officer, he was overcome with a sense of doom. His mind fired rapid, disconnected thoughts. I’m only a child . . . perhaps if I tell them I’m only 11 years old . . . maybe they will have pity and let me go back to my parents.
Without warning, a man behind him in the line kicked the back of his leg. He leaned into Paul’s ear and spoke quietly but firmly.
“Don’t tell them your real age. Tell them you’re 18.”
How did he know what I was thinking? Paul wondered.
He arrived at the head of the line. No longer did anyone stand between him and the “judge.”
The words rolled off his lips in perfect Bavarian German. The officer looked up. His dusky eyes examined the youth before him. His brow furrowed, and he observed the boy for a moment. Paul felt as though he had been suspended in space and time. The moment seemed to last an eternity. Surely, he was exposed . . . guilty . . . he had lied . . . to an SS officer! The penalty for such an offense was execution.
“You speak German?” The officer seemed amused.
“Yes,” he responded once more in the language he had learned from his playmates.
“You speak with a Bavarian accent. Why?”
“My mother is from Bavaria,” he lied again. For another endless moment, the man’s eyes pierced him. Paul was able to manage a convincing expression. Finally, the harshness of the Nazi’s sharply featured face faded, yielding to a smile and a chuckle.
“Go over there,” he said, nodding his head to his left.
Paul moved in the direction of the nod, but he did not understand the purpose of separating the men. Would he be sent to work or to the grave? None of the men seemed to know the fate that awaited them.
They remained in the detainment center for a few more days. Each day they were given small rations of bread and a cup of water. Paul allowed his mind to escape into a place of refuge and peace. He comforted himself with thoughts of his family, memories of good times they had shared, life in Phella’s beautiful home, and the hope that maybe he would soon be returning there.
In the corner of his eye, Paul perceived movement through a window in the damp stone wall. He turned his head to look through the dusty glass. Just beyond the tall barbed-wire fence, his father stood, his eyes scouring the room through the wire and glass. Noah’s eyes found Paul’s. His hand flew over his head waving to his son, his familiar penetrating eyes filled with longing. He held his hand still for a moment and then let it fall limp to his side. He stood motionless, his gaze fixed on his child.
Separated by barbed wire and guns, and the merciless cruelty of the human heart, father and son looked upon each other for the last time.
Paul’s heart raced within him. An overwhelming urge demanded that he jump to his feet and run to the window. He dared not. To do so would jeopardize not only his fate but also now his father’s. Separated by brick and mortar, barbed wire and guns, and the merciless cruelty of the human heart, father and son looked upon each other for the last time. In that sacred moment, they knew that the bond they shared was beyond man’s reach; it was a bond protected and preserved in eternity. Still, the 11-year-old was overcome by the realization that he might never again feel the loving touch of his father’s strong hands or hear the sound of his voice.
On the cold, hard floor, Paul covered his face and wept. His father was gone.
To learn more about Paul’s story or to obtain a copy of the book, Number 176520, visit www.paulsstory.com.