NEWTON -- Israel “Izzy” Arbeiter lost his parents and two of his brothers in the Holocaust. But he found the love of his life.
On a recent balmy May afternoon, Izzy and Anna Arbeiter sat side by side in the den of their comfortable Newton home and recounted a love story that is both terrible and miraculous.
Anna, born Chanka Balter, met Izzy in the central Polish city of Starachowice in 1941, where their families had been deported by the Nazis.
He was 14. She was 13. They were both forced to work for the Gestapo. His job was to clean boots and do other menial odd jobs. She worked in the kitchen where food was prepared for Gestapo officers.
When the Nazis liquidated the ghetto in 1942, both Izzy and Anna were selected to do slave labor in the Starachowice concentration camp. His parents and youngest brother, and her mother and four siblings, were sent to the Treblinka death camp. They were among an estimated 900,000 Jews killed at Treblinka.
The key to survival in Starachowice was being healthy enough to work. The chief of the Gestapo at the camp hand-picked Anna to work in the kitchen he and his officers used. Izzy worked in an ammunition factory.
When he contracted typhoid, he was sent to a barracks reserved for the infirm. It was a death sentence.
Izzy tells the story of the night when the camp commandant and the Gestapo chief called everyone out of the barracks and shot them. Then they came in and shot everyone who was too sick to move. Izzy managed to escape by jumping out the back window; he says he was the only one of 87 occupants to survive.
He was too sick to work, but his friends and two brothers, who were also at the camp, managed to cover for him. Together, they took on his load at the factory so that he could meet the daily production quota imposed on all workers by factory managers. But his brothers could not keep him fed. The camp guards, unaware that Izzy had survived, had removed his name from the register of prisoners who were entitled to rations.
Anna probably saved his life.
She was able to sneak food out of the kitchen and pass it to the brothers through the barbed wire fence that separated the men and women at the camp.
“She had a relatively privileged job because she worked for the Gestapo,” Izzy explains.
Izzy was able to return the favor in 1944, after the camp in Starachowice was liquidated and Izzy and Anna were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau along with the other surviving prisoners.
His job there was to remove waste from the camp toilets. It allowed him access all over Auschwitz-Birkenau, including the place were new arrivals were stripped of everything they were carrying before they were sent to the gas chambers.
The Nazis would take anything of value. But they would leave bread. Izzy devised a way to hang the bread on a wire under the cover of the trolley he used to take fecal matter from the toilets. He was able to bring bread to his friends, his brothers, and to Anna. At the women’s camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau, she was doing slave labor in nearby crop fields that had been abandoned when the Nazis expelled the Polish farmers who had lived in the place.
As they tell this story, Anna and Izzy are both wearing short-sleeve shirts that reveal the tattoos they were given when they entered Auschwitz-Birkenau. He was prisoner A.18651. Hers reads A.14016.
One night, in 1944, Izzy was taken from the camp. One of his brothers was able to tell Anna that Izzy had been put in a train and taken away.
“I thought, ‘Oh my god, that’s it,’” she recalls. Her accent is much thicker than Izzy’s, her English not as fluent. They usually speak Yiddish to each other, even after six decades in the United States.
“When they take you in the middle of the night the destination is always murder,” she says.
Instead, Izzy was brought to a camp in northern Poland, and then to Hailfingen-Tailfingen, a camp in southwest Germany.
Anna was marched out of Auschwitz-Birkenau in January 1945, when the Germans closed the camp as they fled the advancing Soviet army.
“We had no shoes,” she recalls. “We marched two weeks.”
Eventually, the prisoners were put in the open car of a train and taken to Bergen-Belsen, a camp in northern Germany where prisoners were slowly starved to death.
“They didn’t even take the dead bodies out, they laid them on their sides and piled them.” Anna says.
Izzy faced similar conditions in his camp, where half the prisoners died, mostly of starvation. He was on a death march in the Black Forest when he was liberated by French troops on his 20th birthday, April 25, 1945.
Izzy eventually made his way to a camp for displaced persons in Stuttgart, Germany. There, he learned that Anna was in Bergen-Belsen. The British forces who had taken control of the area when Germany surrendered had decided to keep the prisoners in the camp, for lack of a better place to put them.
He stole a motorcycle and drove across Germany. He talked his way into the camp, and found her in a room the size of their den in Newton.
“There were five girls living in that room,” Izzy recalls. “I was happy, she was very happy to see me.”
The British allowed the former prisoners to walk around the camp. Izzy invited Anna for a walk, or a ride on his motorcycle.
“She told me that there were five girls and only one pair of shoes,” he says. It wasn’t Anna’s day to wear them.
Izzy managed to persuade a girl to switch shoe days and they went for a ride. That night, he persuaded Anna’s roommates to let him stay on the floor.
“The other girls didn’t like him,” Anna says with a smile. “They called him a Casanova.”
Izzy recalls that one of the girls sat on a chair watching him, in case he made a pass at Anna.
“Thank God I had a strong bladder and I didn’t have to move at night, otherwise she probably would have killed me,” he says with a laugh.
The next day, he asked Anna to come with him to Stuttgart. Against the advice of the other girls, she agreed. In the city, they started to date. In 1946, they got married in the city hall in Reusten, a town near Stuttgart where Izzy had worked for the Nazis in a limestone quarry.
Two years later, their daughter, Harriet, was born. In 1949, they moved to Dorchester, where Izzy’s aunt lived. They had two more children, he started a tailoring and dry cleaning business, and they moved to Newton.
They have three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren: Ben, 4, and Emme, 2, the children of their grandson, Matt Fritz.
On April 15, the family gathered at Matt’s airy gambrel cape in Easton to celebrate Izzy’s 87th birthday 10 days early, because on his birthday he would be in Poland.
Izzy and Anna listened as their family engaged in the boisterous exchanges that mark family holidays anywhere: work, children, moving to a new house, building an addition.
The kitchen table was loaded with more food than the group could eat.
“My father’s always worried that there won’t be enough food,” Harriet said. “There always has to be food, lots of food.”
Her understanding of her parents’ ordeal began when she was a child in Dorchester and noticed that other kids had grandparents and that she did not (Anna’s father was killed in 1940). Harriet also noticed that her parents had numbers tattooed on their arms. Izzy and Anna rarely spoke about things they knew would disturb their young children. She remembers seeing her mother staring off into space, and later learned that these were the moments when Anna Arbeiter was thinking of her own parents and siblings.
At Izzy’s birthday celebration, other than the tattoos visible on his and Anna’s arms, there was no visible reminder of the Holocaust.
“Someone coming in would never know the horrors of that first generation,” Harriet said. “They’d see a happy family. A loving family.”