On May 3, 1945, thousands of prisoners were loaded onto ships in Lübeck Bay, off the northern coast of Germany. They had endured years of Nazi brutality and were within hours of Allied liberation and the end of a seemingly endless hell. Before that hour could arrive, more than 7,000 would be dead in one of the greatest maritime disasters of World War II. My grandfather was there.
I’ve always known my grandfather’s story. I can’t remember a particular time when he first sat me down from beginning to end. So it’s as if I was born with a vague understanding of what happened, and the rest of my life was for filling in the details. I’m constantly filling in the details. And I’ll always be thankful for a grandfather who’s willing to let me.
In 1941, at 15, Henry Bawnik was rounded up on the streets of the Lodz ghetto. He would be leaving his family, and the one place he knew. Scared and anxious, he looked around the group of unfortunate Jews. Through the panicked men, and their barking tormentors, he saw David, an older neighborhood friend he’d always looked up to. David was the one familiar face in the newly assembled group. Thank God for David, a protector, my grandfather thought.
David was beaten to death within hours. This was an unfamiliar world, and it wouldn’t be a kind one.
From his year in the Lodz ghetto, and some four years in the camps, there are countless stories. They are painted with senseless violence and inconceivable brutality. They are the kind that come from any victim who bears witness to the madness of men and lives with the burden and courage to speak about it.
But the most prominent theme in all my grandfather’s accounts isn’t murder and destruction – it is luck. And never was luck more imminent than that afternoon on the Baltic 65 years ago.
In January 1945, as the Allies drew closer, my grandfather left Fürstengrube, a subcamp of Auschwitz, for Gleiwitz. It was the first leg of a death march north, continuously missing liberation by days and sometimes hours. In Gleiwitz, they boarded cattle cars. With the lack of food, space and sanitation, the cars became boxes for rotting corpses, starved and diseased. My grandfather and other prisoners began using these corpses as furniture – a couch, a mattress. Death had been a daily occurrence. It wasn’t a tragedy but an accepted inevitability. One day he too would be a couch or a mattress, and that was justification enough.
After 10 days in the cattle cars, they arrived at Dora-Mittelbau. Each living prisoner dragged a dead body to a growing pile of skeletons. The indistinguishable men and women, with sunken cheeks and hollowed eyes, were thrown upon each other, a tangled mountain of death. The bodies were burned that night.
In April, the Allies again drew closer, and once again my grandfather was forced to flee an approaching liberation. The Germans were running out of land. Soon there would be repercussions, and a light would shine on years of horror. For that they were not prepared, so they continued to march.
Max Schmidt, a young SS officer and camp commander, loaded my grandfather and the 540 other prisoners onto barges up the Elbe River. With no camps left, he would take them to his family’s estate in Ahrensbök, Germany.
The area of northern Germany was becoming livelier. British bombers filled the sky as the prisoners lined up to be counted. Schmidt leaned back with his hands on his hips, slowly dipping his head to the sky. “Ich sehe schwarz,” he quietly said. “I see black.”
But even Schmidt could not foresee the darkness to come.
THE NIGHT of May 2, the prisoners were awakened from their sleep to once again march. It wouldn’t be a long march, just to the coast. They’d finally run out of land. My grandfather and the 500 others were marching to the sea.
When they reached Neustadt, the Cap Arcona sat idle, three kilometers off the sandy beaches of the harbor. The water was filled with U-boats, barges and ships. The prisoners boarded a group of smaller boats waiting to take them to the Cap Arcona. They filed on in reverse alphabetical order, starting with “Z.”
In its prime, the Cap Arcona was a beautiful ship, making voyages from South America to Germany for the rich and famous. Coincidentally enough, it was used in a Joseph Goebbels propaganda film based on the Titanic, where the German protagonist prophetically warns of imminent danger ahead – proving his superior intellect.
Now, the motor was completely shot. The ship served as a floating cell for the tortured. There was no more land for their labors, no more camps for their deaths. They resorted to the sea, and a ship just fit to stay afloat.
The small rafts, loaded with prisoners, inched toward the 213-meter cruise liner. My grandfather wondered where they’d be going. Another camp, he supposed. It had always been that way. Wake up, move and work to live one more day. But of course even that was not certain. The only thing he did know was that the Nazis weren’t going to tell him much, and if they did, it meant nothing.
When the rafts got to the base of the Cap Arcona, the captain yelled down that no more prisoners would fit. They’d been loading the ship for more than a week. In the hull, thousands were packed like sardines – no window, no air, just the swaying motion against the swell of the Baltic.
The SS officer told the captain that loading the prisoners was an order, not an option. My grandfather was in one of the last groups to climb on board. He stood in the back of the boat, with hundreds of other striped prisoners roaming the deck. Below them were levels of cramped men and women, leaning on each other, fighting for air, fighting for everything. Their decrepit bodies filled the once extravagant banquet halls and living quarters.
Henry wasn’t there more than two hours before the bombing started. British Typhoons were roaring through the sky, blasting everything in their path. It was a show, an extravagant display of power and force, fire and destruction. They’d hit the U-boats. My grandfather had a front-row seat, the air shaking from the blasts and the cold water of the Baltic exploding with each hit. The prisoners on deck were cheering. The pilots were ordered to bomb everything in their path, and they’d been doing so with precision and effectiveness.
AT 2:30 p.m., however, their paths crossed with the Cap Arcona. The first Typhoon flew overhead, only about 1,000 feet up. As it dove for the great ship, the bomb ripped the far end of the deck open. Men and women fell to the floor as the flames erupted. Prisoners screamed as the scene turned to utter chaos. They tried to put the flames out, but the fire hoses were cut. Soon more Typhoons, and more direct hits.
My grandfather looked down at the smoking floor. Screams of death and pain permeated the air. The stairwell from below, where thousands were being asphyxiated, reached the deck through a small door. They were fighting for fresh air, clawing to escape the coffin of smoke. Most were quickly consumed by the flames. He looked at the SS guard still on board. He was lost, the tormentor becoming the tortured. Two Russian POWs quickly tossed the guard overboard.
Prisoners began taking their clothing off. They’d risk the 3-km. swim to shore. Most who tried were paralyzed by the 7ºC water. But those strong enough to bear the temperature would be gunned down by SS, Hitler Youth, naval personnel and townspeople, all of whom were firing their guns from the sandy beaches of Neustadt. My grandfather couldn’t swim, but he took his clothes off anyway.
Suddenly, the ship began to tilt on its side. Hundreds of naked men and women fell overboard. My grandfather ran to the high side of the ship and grabbed a rope. He looked down at the approaching water. He watched as the naked men and women sank into the sea – 200, 100, 50 left treading.
The approaching water was clear. Henry could see the prisoners descending to darkness, their bodies slowly fading out of sight.
It wouldn’t be long until he reached the water and the same fate. He wasn’t scared. This was it. Fighting for each day for the last five years, it would all end in a minute or two. The exhaustion would be over, the struggle would finally end.
The ship was almost completely capsized, the hull sticking up to the sky. My grandfather hit the cold water, the rope no longer serving its purpose. As he prepared for the inevitable, a voice rang through the air, “Henry, Henry!” Like an angel from heaven, it was Peter Abramowitz, one of his closest friends from the camps. He was walking along the bottom of the ship, his clothing still on. He leaned over the side. “I’ll bring you up,” he said.
Peter carried my grandfather on his back, the base of the ship too hot for bare skin. They walked to the partially submerged section, able to sit down. They looked around and counted – 300 people, naked. In a matter of hours, their friends, who had been in the camps with them for at least three years, were at the bottom of the Baltic.
On shore, the British had already seized control. They sent out Germans from the U-boat school to pick up the 350 survivors of the 4,500 on board. Three small tug boats pulled up to the Cap Arcona. “What camp are we going to now?” My grandfather instinctively asked.
“No camp,” the German replied. “The war is over.”
WHEN TELLING this story, my grandfather always cries after uttering the German’s reply. Growing up, I assumed they were tears of happiness. He was liberated. But they’re not. They’re much different tears, ones that I’ll never truly understand. Through his entire struggle, he never had a chance to reflect. But with the German’s short and unexpected answer, he knew that’s what he had – time to reflect. And maybe he could fathom, for a moment, just how vulnerable his life had been.
When they returned to shore, many of them naked, they fell into line like they had always done. The British officer was dumbfounded by the scene. “Where are your clothes?” he asked. They had none, hadn’t for years. So my grandfather, a free man, walked to an adjacent factory that had been abandoned in all the chaos. The only thing he could find was a green dress and a leather apron. It would have to do. And with the couple remaining friends, they simply left. But the day would never be forgotten.
The frequent question is why the British would bomb the Cap Arcona and the two other civilian ships. The Allies were concerned that high-ranking Germans were making an escape for Norway. The pilots were not aware of the ship’s true passengers, and in fact thought it was filled with SS officers. Ordered to bomb everything in their path, the British Typhoons would make an escape impossible.
However, it has been documented that the British were informed of the ship’s cargo the previous day, but RAF personnel never passed the message on. It was an oversight that led to the sinking of the Thielbek, the Deutschland and the Cap Arcona. And with those three ships, more than 7,000 prisoners would lose their lives, never knowing just how close they came to liberation.
Benjamin Jacobs, a prisoner whose story is almost identical to my grandfather’s, wrote the most comprehensive account of the Cap Arcona, The 100-Year Secret. Within that book, he writes, “Those who perished were not just prisoners. They were tough, tenacious, unrelenting fighters, with hearts stubborn enough to survive all the Nazis had cast upon them. And yet, they died on the very doorstep of freedom.”
Sixty-five years later, the British government has never made any public reference to the event, denying the dead the recognition they deserve. Sealing the files until 100 years after the disaster, information that would bring the tragedy to the public eye is locked until 2045.
By then, all survivors and many of their children will be gone. And
with their passing, a chest of personal memories, of when their friends
died on the last page of the long and tragic epic, will be gone too.
The onus will then lie on us to tell their stories. We’ll tell about
the “tough, tenacious, unrelenting fighters” who lost their lives at a
time when the world went mad. And to prove we’ve learned since then,
we’ll show that a human life should never go unrecognized and their
deaths should never be forgotten. This is my grandfather’s story, and
it is theirs as well. We should strive to make it ours.