Henry Bawnik, survivor of death camps and an inferno at sea, dies at 92

Mr. Bawnik, in Ahrensbök, Germany, in about 1945, later moved to the United States.
Mr. Bawnik, in Ahrensbök, Germany, in about 1945, later moved to the United States.(Jeremy Elias via The New York Times)

Henry Bawnik was 15 when his concentration camp odyssey began. Rounded up with others in the Jewish ghetto of Lodz, Poland, during the summer of 1941, he survived hunger, desperation, and beatings as he moved from Gutenbrunn to Auschwitz and from Füurstengrube to Dora-Mittelbau.

Yet as brutal as the camps were, Mr. Bawnik came closest to dying at the hands of the British in the final days of the war in Europe.

Hitler had committed suicide on April 30, 1945, and the Germans were within days of surrendering to the Allies when Mr. Bawnik and hundreds of other evacuated prisoners of Dora-Mittelbau found themselves on the northern Baltic coast of Germany.


There, they and an estimated 10,000 other prisoners from German camps, were finishing the long process of boarding three ships in the Bay of Lübeck: the Deutschland, the Thielbek, and the Cap Arcona — a luxury cruise liner that had stood in for the Titanic in a 1943 German propaganda film. None were believed to be seaworthy.

On the afternoon of May 3, with Mr. Bawnik on the jammed top deck of the Cap Arcona, a squadron of Royal Air Force Typhoon fighters bombed the ships, believing that top-ranking SS officers were fleeing on them. The pilots had not received intelligence from the RAF that would have canceled the attack.

“We were just counting the hours before we were going to be dead,” he told the Holocaust Resource Center of Buffalo, N.Y., in an interview in 2016. “I couldn’t swim.”

Yet he survived. He clung to a rope on a side of the ship that was not yet ablaze, and a fellow prisoner later pulled him to safety. With the attack over and the ship sinking, he and other survivors were plucked out of the water by rescuers in small boats and ferried to safety.


Mr. Bawnik survived another 73 years, mostly in the United States as a construction worker and the owner of dry-cleaning businesses. He died Aug. 20 in a hospital in Buffalo, near his home. He was 92.

His daughter Tammy Bawnik Basist said the cause was a stroke.

Chaim Hercko Bawnik was born in Lodz on Nov. 16, 1925. His father, Yakov, was a baker. His mother, Nacha (Baran) Bawnik, closed the bakery after her husband died in 1932, and started money-lending and dressmaking businesses.

Soon after the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, the Bawniks split up: Henry, his mother and his sister, Rywka, moved first to Warsaw and then to Lublin, while his brother, David, and his sister Dora fled to Russia. Henry, his mother, and Rywka returned to Lodz in early 1940 — shortly before the Nazis established part of it as a Jewish ghetto and sealed it off.

Mr. Bawnik said there were several thousand people in the roundup that sent him from Lodz.

“We didn’t know where we were going,” he told The Buffalo News in 2015. “They chose the young people that they could get work out of and put us in the warehouse.” He assumed that he would soon die.

At Gutenbrunn, in Posen, Poland, he helped build railroad tracks. At Auschwitz, where he arrived in 1943, he remained for a few weeks before being transferred to Fürstengrube, a subcamp of Auschwitz in Wesola. While there he became a bricklayer thanks to a cousin who was a kapo at the camp. “Because you were a professional, a bricklayer, you were treated well,” he told The Buffalo News.


He endured a 10-day trip by rail to the Dora-Mittelbau camp in central Germany in January 1945. The Germans emptied the camp in April, and Mr. Bawnik and about 500 other prisoners were then moved to where the Cap Arcona awaited them on the Baltic coast.

Mr. Bawnik moved to the United States in 1949. He lived briefly in New York City, then moved to Hartford, Conn., where he met his wife, Linda Gordon. She died last year. Besides Basist, he is survived by two other daughters, Jamie Elias and Cindy Ashton; seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.