JOSEPH AND MYRA'S HOLOCAUST EXPERIENCE
Watch my 2008 video testimony of my 90 year-old grandfather, Joseph Brandman.
Here is a student viewing guide for the testimony as well as suggested viewing minutes for teachers.
After leaving the Riga Ghetto, Myra and Joseph were transferred to Kaiserwald, Dondagen, and then Stutthof and Stolp concentration camps. The commander of the Kaiserwald camp was Obersturmbannfuhrer Sauer who prior to his work as a killer was a carpenter.
Myra and Joe were separated at times. These were work camps and the world on railroads was extremely difficult for the starving prisoners.
The cattle car train from Kaiserwald to Stutthof concentration camp in the beginning of 1944 was brutal, barbaric. Everyone needed to use the bathroom in the overcrowded train and to do so was both humiliating and disgusting. Joseph found a blanket somewhere to cover Myra so she could use the bathroom in some dignity.
Myra was the joyful, open-minded, and modern child. She declared she had a boyfriend at age 8 and a more serious one at age 14. She was a terrific dancer but had a tutor as she didn't do great in school. She never graduated high school, and remembers that she flunked out on the last night.
Myra loved the American and German movies and the great actors like Clark Gable and Joan Crawford. At the theater, they got a whole box for the family. "Melnik was a name to be proud of," she remembers.
Stutthof was a death camp located in present-day Danzig, Poland that held as many 100,000 people surrounded by barbed-wire electrified fences. It was one of those where you were told to go left or right and the wrong direction culminated in a gas chamber where prisoners were killed by Zyklon B gas. Myra and her siblings were told to go right. Her aunt with a small child went left. She never saw them again.
In Stutthoff, lice was everywhere but that was the least of their problems. Still, the lice was agonizing. They all had lice. At one point, it got so bad for Myra that she traded a piece of precious bread for a comb to be able to dig out lice in her hair.
A day in Stuttholf was something like this...Myra walked through the camp and she hard a weak, desperate voice. "Mira," she heard, and she looked over and saw a woman curled up, shriveled, helpless on the ground. It was a neighbor of hers from the same street in Kovno. "Please, do you have any food, help!"
Myra went searching out food and found a piece of salami. She rushed back, to the extent that anyone malnourished could rush. When she returned, the woman was already dead. That was Stuthoff.
Another day in Stutthof...they took 700 girls into a barrack one night. In the morning, only five were alive. When they walked outside, one of those five crumbled to the ground and died. That was Stutthof.
Another day in Stutthof...they called roll each morning. Jewish prisoners had to stand up in line. They all suffered from various intestinal diseases such as typhus so you would see diarrhea pouring down people's legs. That was Stutthof.
Another day in Stutthof...the dead bodies, laying naked on the frozen ground, left there as if they were nothing at all.
Another day in Stutthof...Myra waked up and says to her friends "I just lost my baby brother." Years later, she would find out that was exactly when Elisha died. He starved to death, he couldn't take the hunger; she wanted to be with him but couldn't.
Life in Stutthof meant never changing your pants for three years. It meant never brushing your teeth for four years.
Life in Stutthof meant that as people were dying, they gave their most valuable item, often their shoes, to someone they held dear. When one of Joseph's brother-in-laws was dying he gave Myra her boots. It was a touching gesture. "Can't you see that I won't need them?" he said. He died right there, right then. The next day someone stole the boots.
Life in Stutthof meant that if you saw pigs eating something, and you had a chance to steal the food from them, you did.
A day in Stutthof meant you would see dead bodies piled as high as 15 feet.
A day in Stutthof meant that if you there was a horse you could kill and eat, you did it.
A morning in Stutthof meant that you might wake up and see a German guard grab a Jewish baby and throw her against a wall, shattering the skull and killing her.
At the very end, in April 1945 the Germans decided to evacuate Stutthof as the Soviets were closing in. They loaded all the remaining prisoners were onto a barge and floated out onto the Baltic Sea. The Germans were trying to get rid of them once and for all. Myra didn't drink for many days, it seemed like about 10. Joseph drank the water, even knowing it was saltwater and could kill him. That is what starvation and thirst does, it makes you desperate.
The allied armies were approaching so the Germans just left them in the water. They jumped out of the boat, the ocean was red with blood as they were shot. Myra was paddling to shore, perhaps on some wood, with two other women. Another woman asked for help...but she had no strength to help. She hadn't eaten. Or drank water. That woman must have died.
They ended up on shore in or near Neustadt on Holstein, Germany, a town hundreds of miles from Latvia. In an attempt to fully exterminate the remaining Jews, the Nazis tried to storm them onto another, bigger cruise ship called the that he called the SS Capricorn. It was so massive and impressive that it stood in as the Titanic in a 1940 German version of the film.
Myra convinced Joseph to go to the back of the line and not get on the boat. It was the right choice.
It was May 3, 1945. Hitler had committed suicide the day three days before. Probably none of the prisoners knew that fact. They were only one day away from the unconditional surrender of the Germans.
Soon after, the boat exploded and thousands of Jews who had made it to the very end died.
Sourcing the Story
When searching for information to corroborate some of the larger historical stories embedded in his retelling, I came up with two problems: 1) I couldn't find a record of a ship called the Capricorn getting blown up; 2) Joseph says that the British liberated him, but in fact the Soviets liberated his last camp: Stutthof. Given his memory, those seemed important details to get wrong. Did he just get confused over time?
After multiple research attempts, I figured out that his description of the SS Capricorn was actually just a mispronunciation. The ship was the SS Cap Arcona.
My grandfather, however, did one major fact wrong. Myra and Joseph always believed the Germans had blown up the boat. Then I found out the story is even more tragic. I managed to identify the boat as the SS Cap Arcona, a luxury cruise liner transformed by the Nazis into a prisoner barge. They did, indeed, load it up with Jews and political prisoners and send it out into the waters. Jews from Stuthoff were loaded onto the boat on May 2, 1945. It did blow up. But they didn't do it.
So who did?
On the same day the British liberated that camp, they also blew up the boat and killed 5,000-7,000 innocent prisoners. It turned out, the British Hawker Typhoon 1B Bombers blew up the ship.
Why would the British blow up a ship filled with 7,000 Jewish and political prisoners who had survived until the day of liberation and the day before German surrender?
The British believed the ship was carrying fleeing Nazis, perhaps even Himmler, and so they bombed the German Ocean Liner and sunk it. The rescuers killed the survivors on the day of liberation.
The Liberation Question
This information also helped me piece together the puzzle surrounding the British vs. Soviet liberation of the camp. Stuthoff, his last camp, was liberated by the Soviets. However, when reading about the liberation of that camp, it was clear that various groups of Jews had different fates. Some remained in Stuthoff, but some were evacuated by boat or on forced marches.
In fact, those evacuated were taken to Neuengamme. Indeed, the USHMM explains "British forces arrived on May 4, 1945. In early May 1945, the SS loaded some 9,000-10,000 prisoners—most of them evacuated from Neuengamme and its subcamps—onto three ships anchored in the Baltic Sea off the coast of Neustadt in Schleswig-Holstein. Some 7,000 lost their lives when the British attacked two of the ships in the course of a raid on the harbor on May 3. The Thielbek, carrying about 2,000 prisoners, sank quickly. The Cap Arcona, carrying more than 4,500 prisoners, burned and capsized during the attack. Only about 600 prisoners from both ships survived."
All the pieces fit together. Joseph and Myra had been transferred from Stutthof to Neuengamme (a 130 hour march), where they then were taken to Neustadt. All the records show that the SS Cap Arcona was blown up in the waters outside Neustadt. The British did, indeed, liberate Neustadt. And Joseph's own recollection in his testimony is that they stayed in the same camp, Neustadt, as displaced persons for a few years afterwards. His own records corroborate that they lived in Neustadt.
In other words, I had been looking in the wrong place...they weren't liberated from their final camp, Stutthof, but rather from the place where they landed after the march and boat (Neustadt).
For an interesting note about my experience corroborating this story and what I learned doing so, see my discussion here.