Death on the Baltic

An excerpt from a personal look at the 'Cap Arcona' bombing which killed thousands of Holocaust survivors.

April 29, 2010 14:03
3 minute read.
The Cap Arcona.

Cap Arcona. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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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 article by Jeremy Elias will appear in this Friday's Magazine.

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