Amid anti-Semitism across America, this 94-year-old Holocaust survivor is keeping the faith
Izzy Arbeiter made it out of Auschwitz against the odds. Amid a recent disturbing wave of bigotry against Jews in America, he’s still telling his story and refusing to despair.
On May 18, 1949, a repurposed Army transport ship, the USAT General R. L. Howze, docked at Boston’s Commonwealth Pier carrying more than 900 people fleeing the shards of postwar Europe. A photographer from the Boston Evening Globe was there to capture a shot for the front page of a Hapsburg princess who was among the passengers. But deeper inside the paper were photos of other refugees, including a young couple and their infant daughter. “Arbeiter family from Poland,” the caption read. “Jolek and Hanka and baby Henia, who will live in Roxbury.”
The baby is crying and squirmy, but her parents oblige the photographer with big smiles. Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, the Arbeiters had lost almost everyone and everything they held dear and arrived in Boston speaking no English, with no money or possessions.
They learned English, worked hard, and bought a house in the suburbs. Jolek worked as a tailor in Dorchester and later purchased a dry cleaning business in Newton. The family grew to include two more children, three grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. Seventy years later, Jolek and Hanka, who adopted the American names Izzy (short for Israel) and Anna, are among the country’s oldest Holocaust-survivor couples. Izzy turned 94 this month, and Anna is 93. Their baby Henia, now called Harriet, is 70.
Like thousands of other survivors, they rebuilt and regenerated. But for Izzy Arbeiter, this was not enough.
His life in America has been defined by a sense of optimism that younger generations are willing to learn the bitter lessons of the Holocaust and prevent it from happening again. His mission has been to teach them, drawing on his talent as a storyteller with a sharp eye for detail and irony, an intuitive grasp of pacing, and an ability to draw listeners into his narrative. He’s shared his experience with thousands of young people in America, some of whom have no idea what Auschwitz is. (A 2018 survey by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany found that one-fifth of Americans 18 to 34 weren’t certain that they had heard about the Holocaust.) Until last year, Arbeiter traveled to Germany every year to speak to students, among other groups. “I tell them what is in my mind and heart,” he says. “I tell them what I saw.”
Expressions of hatred against Jews are on the rise: FBI data released in November showed a 37 percent spike in crimes in 2017 targeting Jews and Jewish institutions. Incidents that might once have been unimaginable in this country include October’s mass shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, where a man shouting anti-Semitic slurs shot 11 congregants dead. In March, Representative Mo Brooks, a Republican from Alabama, attacked political rivals on the House floor by accusing them of propagating a “big lie” about collusion, and admitted the expression was coined by Hitler in his book Mein Kampf. Earlier that month, gravestones in a Jewish cemetery in Fall River were vandalized, some defaced with swastikas.
Given the current climate, Arbeiter is compelled to speak all the more. There was a time when he gave three or four talks a week, but, older and slower now, he is much more selective. The Pittsburgh shooting was “tragic,” he says. “It took me back to times in Poland.” But, he cautions, it is not Poland, and he refuses to despair.
Arbeiter was born in 1925 in Plock, Poland, the middle son of five boys, who lived in a two-room apartment where the kitchen doubled as their father’s tailor shop. He was 14 when Germany invaded Poland in 1939; Plock was occupied within a week. Schools were closed, food rationed, and Jews targeted by the Germans who plundered their homes, expropriated their businesses, and ordered them to wear yellow Stars of David. Hunkered over his sewing machine, his father insisted there was nothing to worry about, even as his eldest son fled to Russia, Jewish people were ordered off the sidewalks, and Orthodox Jews were tortured by SS officers who set their beards on fire.
“He told us: ‘Children, don’t believe it. It’s Communist propaganda,’” Arbeiter says.
In 1940, Plock was incorporated into the Third Reich. The Germans cordoned off a ghetto and ordered Jews inside. It was liquidated in two deportations in February 1941, and Arbeiter and his family ended up in yet another ghetto, this time in the small industrial Polish town of Starachowice.
“This is where they started dehumanizing us,” Arbeiter says. “Here we weren’t persons anymore.”
Arbeiter was assigned to work as a domestic servant for the sadistic head of the city’s Gestapo, Walther Becker, who whipped him and once beat him until he was unconscious. Becker interrogated Polish prisoners by torturing them with glowing iron rods pulled from a fire that Arbeiter was ordered to keep burning. Sometimes he shot them and left Arbeiter to clean up the blood.
On October 27, 1942, which Arbeiter calls “the most horrible day of my life,” Jews were assembled in the town square and separated into two columns: those deemed fit to work in the ammunition factories, and those to be disposed of. Arbeiter’s parents and youngest brother were sent to the death camp at Treblinka and never heard from again.
The three remaining brothers were marched to a slave labor camp to work in an ammunition factory where the commandant shot Jews for sport. Meals consisted of watery soup. They slept in unsanitary barracks with no blankets. Arbeiter wailed at night from terror and from the shock of losing his parents.
The camp was filthy and disease-ridden. In the winter of 1943, Arbeiter contracted typhus and was isolated along with 86 other sick patients. One night German officers stormed the barracks and shot all but one.
“Which one do you think didn’t die?” he often asks students. Weak and frail, he jumped out of a back window when guards weren’t looking and hid in a ditch.
“Every day was an opportunity to die,” says Arbeiter’s son Jack, an engineer in Concord. “My father was lucky over and over and over again.”
His luck almost ran out in July 1944 when he and his brothers were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the infamous killing machine where more than a million people were exterminated and where “the only way out was through the chimneys.” Arbeiter was put to work at one of Auschwitz’s subcamps, where he salvaged parts from damaged airplanes and cleared human waste from the camp toilets and crematoria. He’d see cattle trains arrive daily carrying human cargo and watch families file into gas chambers. “It took 15 minutes to kill them,” he says. “The ovens, the crematoria couldn’t keep up with burning the bodies.”
In October 1944, he was transferred to Stutthof concentration camp near Danzig, and then to two more slave labor camps. The first was Tailfingen in southern Germany, where he was housed in an unheated aircraft hangar and ordered to work in a stone quarry in the town of Reusten. Three months later he was sent to Dautmergen, established by the Germans to produce synthetic fuel. In April 1945, as the Allied armies approached, Arbeiter and the other prisoners in Dautmergen were ordered on a death march toward the Tyrol Alps in western Austria. But as the Allies approached, the Germans fled. Arbeiter was liberated by the French Army on April 25, 1945, his 20th birthday.
He had nowhere to go. Hoping to encounter refugees he recognized, he set out by foot toward Reusten. Along the way, he spotted a house with a barn. There was a motorcycle inside.
“And a key is in it. And there is a tank full of gasoline,” he recalls. “A civilian German did not have such a vehicle. It must belong to a high-ranking German. He won’t mind if I borrow it.”
Never mind that he’d never driven before. After a few skids and jolts, and ripping his “beautiful striped concentration camp pants,” he got the hang of it and fled.
A recurring character in these stories is “a girl sent down from heaven” named Hanka Balter. Arbeiter first met her in Starachowice, where she worked for Walther Becker and sneaked him food from the kitchen during his illness. He encountered her again in Auschwitz and returned the favor by stealing bread for her. Soon after liberation, he got word that she had survived and was in a displaced persons camp at Bergen-Belsen. He sped 400 miles across Germany on the motorcycle and found Balter, who was sharing cramped quarters with several women. She’d lost much of her family in Treblinka.
“I say to her, ‘Can you take a walk?’ She said ‘no.’ I say: ‘Why not?’ She said, ‘I don’t have shoes.’”
It turned out she shared one pair of shoes with four other women and it wasn’t her day for them. He slipped a bribe to the woman wearing them, and the couple went for their walk. They were married on August 1, 1946.
Crystal bowls filled with oranges, tomatoes, and kiwis grace the top of a coffee table in the Arbeiters’ living room in Newton. Their den overlooks a narrow piece of the Charles River, warmed by streaming sunlight and the songs of birds.
Izzy Arbeiter could readily pass for a man his 70s. He’s nimble, energetic, and a snappy dresser in blue jeans and a carefully pressed shirt, a legacy of his professional life as a “CPA,” as he likes to say. (“Cleaning, pressing, and alterations.”)
He sold the dry cleaning business in 1985 but still fixes and tailors clothes for family and friends on his old sewing machine in the basement. Anna is more frail and uses a walker. They converse with each other, fondly, in Yiddish. He says he learned English at night school, then gets an impish look in his eye: “That’s why I speak better English at night!”
He has always remembered the last words his father spoke to him: “Save yourself, and if you survive, remember to keep on with Jewish life and Jewish traditions.”
In part to honor this request, within months of arriving in Boston he founded the New Americans Association of Greater Boston, an advocacy organization for Holocaust survivors who needed help creating a new life. He was the president and held other leadership positions for many years. (The group later became the American Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors of Greater Boston.) “Our number one responsibility was to defend Jewish honor and the Jewish people,” he says, “and work with the next generation to teach them what happened.”
Over the years he’s worked tirelessly on behalf of survivors, says his daughter, Harriet Fritz. “A lot of my parents’ friends, he took care of every one of them,” she says. “He knew all the politicians. The phone would ring and it was always, ‘I need to speak to Mr. Arbeiter. I have a problem.’ He made sure everyone had a proper burial.”
His honors and accomplishments include letters of gratitude from educators, students, and politicians. However, he’s most proud of receiving the Order of Merit from Germany in 2008, bestowed by the country’s president. It honors his work as a witness in postwar trials of Nazis, and his efforts to promote understanding between Jews in the United States and German officials. “He went through hell in Germany and yet was ready to help us come to reconciliation,” says Helmut Landes, the deputy consul general at the German Consulate in Boston.
Arbeiter helped to establish the New England Holocaust Memorial in downtown Boston and was one of the forces behind the annual community Holocaust remembrance at Faneuil Hall, which will be held this year on May 5. (The German Consulate is throwing him a 94th birthday bash the same day.)
He testified four times in Germany at trials of Nazi criminals, including that of his torturer Walther Becker. To his anguish, the judge dismissed all survivor testimony as unreliable, and Becker was acquitted. “The judge declared me a hostile witness,” Arbeiter says. “I said, ‘Don’t invite me any more!’”
Though he’d resolved to cut back on speaking, Arbeiter recently accompanied students from Malden High School to the International Museum of World War II in Natick. In August 2017, a teenager from Malden threw a rock through a glass panel of the New England Holocaust Memorial. Arbeiter offered his services to Malden’s mayor, Gary Christenson, volunteering to talk with public school students.
The museum houses some of Hitler’s personal effects, anti-Semitic war posters, a striped uniform of the sort Arbeiter wore, and other vestiges of Arbeiter’s past. And yet he stands in the museum’s tiny, cramped “Holocaust Room” and relives his story again and again. As each new group of students files in, he recounts pieces of his story — the smell of human flesh burning, the inhuman living conditions. He tells them he was tattooed in Auschwitz with a number that became his concentration camp identity.
“Would you like to see it?” The students nod, silently. He rolls up his sleeve to reveal the tattoo, still visible after all these decades: A-18651.
He describes being whipped in one of the camps, and being forced to count the lashes. “If you say, ‘Enough,’ they started all over again.”
Arbeiter tells the students these things “should never happen to white people, black people, green people, whatever.” He tells them “we all have the right to live the short little time we have on this planet.”
In early April, when he is invited to speak at Billerica Memorial High School, he declines. It’s getting too hard. It’s time for younger people — the descendants of survivors — to pick up the mantle. “We’ve prepared the second generation, and now the third generation,” Arbeiter says. He has fulfilled his father’s wishes, though he wishes he could have done more.
“It is never enough,” he says.