When they asked if I wouldn’t mind driving Mr. Abe back to Raleigh, I quickly agreed. I was actually looking forward to spending some time talking with the 88 year old Jewish Holocaust survivor. I was not disappointed.
Abe Piasek was born in Poland, and was a young boy when the Nazi German Army invaded his country at the start of World War II. Mr. Abe has been sharing his story about that terrible time with young people at schools. A couple of months ago, he spoke at Mintz Christian Academy, and last week, at Harrells Christian Academy. I was able to hear most of his talk at Harrells, so I was anxious to get more details during our ride back to his home in Raleigh.
At Harrells, Mr. Abe gave the “sanitized” version of his years in the Jewish concentration camps. He said the whole truth would be just too rough for those students to hear. But what they heard was rough enough.
Mr. Abe told how he was just 11 years old when the Germans invaded Poland. He shared how when he was 12, he and a young Jewish friend were walking through his town. German soldiers stopped them and asked if they were Jewish. When they said yes, one of the soldiers took out his pistol and shot his friend in the head. Mr. Abe ran and managed to escape for a short time.
Taken away by the Germans to a concentration camp when he was 12, Mr. Abe would never see his parents again. He survived with help from others, fate, and the shear will to hang on. A couple of events he described stuck in my memory.
The Germans used the Jews for forced labor. If you couldn’t do the job you were dead. Mr. Abe was assigned to a crew to carry 50 pound bags of cement off boxcars to be used in repairing airplane runways. The Jewish prisoners had to carry 2 bags at a time, one on each shoulder. If you couldn’t, or you fell because of the heavy load, the German soldiers would shoot, kill the prisoner, and throw them to the side off the loading platform. He said the stack of dead Jewish prisoners grew day by day, the Germans not even bothering to carry them away.
Mr. Abe described how they were packed in a cattle car on a train heading toward a concentration camp. As they grew closer to the camp, he could smell the aroma of what he thought was bacon cooking. Nearly starving, due to the little food provided by the Germans, he was hoping he would finally have something decent to eat. He was wrong. The smell was from the bodies of Jewish prisoners being burned in the huge ovens after they had been gassed to death by the Germans. I thought about that the other day when I was driving near the Smithfield Foods plant here in Clinton, and could smell the bacon being processed.
Somehow, Mr. Abe survived and his camp was freed by American soldiers at the end of the war. When he was 19, he came to America. He worked hard in several jobs. He later joined the Army, became a U.S. citizen, married, and had two children. His hard work at various professions has paid off. He now lives a comfortable retirement in Raleigh.
I took away two major points from my ride with Mr. Abe and hearing him speak. First, mankind is capable of some really terrible things. Germany was viewed as a civilized country. It was difficult for the U.S. and the rest of the world to believe the Holocaust was actually happening. But it did. The hard times for Germany after World War I, and a demonic leader in Adolph Hitler, led to the attempted elimination of an entire race, and the death of millions of Jews. And it should serve as a warning to us here in the “civilized” United States. Yes, it could happen here.
Second, and more encouraging, mankind is capable of overcoming the worst of circumstances. Abe Piasek is a prime example. He overcame the tremendous hardships of several years in the Nazi concentration camps. He came to America speaking little English and not knowing anyone. And he has prospered. How? As he told me, “I worked hard and learned fast.” And yes, it still can happen here.
As we got closer to his home in Raleigh, I encouraged Mr. Abe to continue telling his story as much as possible. I told him what he was doing was important. (I don’t think he needs any encouraging. He knows it is important.) As we get further away from World War II and the Jewish Holocaust, the memories fade. And there’s a younger generation that needs to hear his story. It’s an important story. Because if we do not learn from the past, we may be on the road to repeating it.
Mac McPhail, raised in Sampson County, lives in Clinton and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org