Jewish Historical Society
of Southern California
organizers of the
By Steven Lieberman
Observer Reporter 7/07
Calia Mintzer, 30-year resident of Culver City, and a young 83, went to an over-50 mix-and-meet singles dance four years ago at the Culver City Senior Center, an event that she regularly attended on Saturdays for dancing and enjoyment. That night she was sitting in an area of the dance hall designated for women who are available for dancing, but got tired of waiting and decided to seek out a man, since “men, at that age, are typically shy when it comes to asking a woman to dance.”
Manfred (Fred) Wolf, 82, was the man she asked to dance, a newcomer to this particular mix-and-meet. He usually attended the Felicia Mahood Center mixer, but decided to have a change of scenery that night. While dancing, Wolf saw the Chai (letter from the Hebrew alphabet meaning “life,” that serves as a reminder that life is G-d-given and sacred) on her necklace and exclaimed, “You’re Jewish?!” She said, “Yes, and I advertise the fact.”
Mintzer then noticed the number “105064” tattooed on his left forearm and said, “Oh my G-d, are you a “Holocaust survivor?!” and he said, “Yes, I am.” Wolf then proceeded to tell her about some of his experiences in the concentration camps. They were smitten with each other from the very start and are still very much in love.
I had the privilege and good fortune of meeting Wolf at a theatrical production of “Biloxi Blues” at the Westchester Playhouse (Mintzer recently was cast there in the musical, “Follies”). I was in the theater lobby looking at the headshots and photo’s of the performers on the wall and commented to this man standing next to me how difficult it must have been for those soldiers to have survived boot camp. That’s when he showed me the tattooed number on his forearm and said, “What I went through was much worse.”
A few weeks later, we sat down together to discuss his life story, including the horrific persecution he experienced at the hands of the Nazis in the concentration camps.
It all started on July 15, 1924, in a three-story home in Merl an der Mosel, a small village (1,500 people, two streets, and lush hills full of grape vines for making wine) on the banks of the Moselle River in Germany. Little Manfred, an only child, was born to Edward (Ed) and Ricka Wolf, the only Jews in the village. Ed, a German WWI veteran who was awarded the Iron Cross for bravery, had a clothing store on the first floor of their home where he made and sold men’s suits.
Every summer, Wolf would look forward to taking the ferry across the river and swimming in the Moselle. His mom tied a rope around his wrist when he entered the water, which he didn’t like. His dad, being the opposite, would say, “Go paddle, I’m here, don’t worry.” He’d also encourage his son to protect himself, and fight, when any of the bullies in the neighborhood challenged him. He also enjoyed going to dad’s bowling club and attending the auto races. They would go to the race track, and he would listen to the race on the radio. “I got a kick out of that. Even today, I’m a car buff,” he said. “I also enjoyed riding bikes with my dad to attend services at a synagogue in the next little village called Zell an der Mosel.”
In 1933, Adolph Hitler came into power and all the neighbors wanted to listen to their radio on the window sill. “I could already tell he had an anti-Semitic way about him,” Wolf said.
Wolf experienced his first major tragedy at age 11. One day, while he was at school and his dad was out on his bike drumming up business, Ricka, 35 and three months pregnant, was alone at home reading the newspaper, too close to the stove, and her skirt caught fire. She ran through the house trying to put out the flames and eventually went outside where neighbors rolled her on the ground to extinguish the flames. One lady spilled milk cans on her.
“When I came home from school, people were standing in front of our house,” Wolf said. “I went inside and ran upstairs, stunned to see my mom lying in bed, her hair burned and a towel over her face. My mom said, ‘Manfred, everything’s going to be ok,’ and hugged me. The doctor called for an ambulance to transport her to the hospital.”
Every day, he would visit his mom at the hospital, which made him feel uneasy, until she was released. After about a month, on Shabbos (the weekly day of rest in Judaism), he woke up and heard screaming and crying in the family room downstairs. His dad, 38, told him that his mother had died last night. She would have been a cripple for life if she had lived because of the infection from the burns on her legs. (Treatment would have been much better today with the burn centers technology available) “I hugged my dad and said, ‘I still have you.’ I was very close to him at that time, even though he became stricter.”
At the funeral, the coffin, carried by a horse-drawn carriage, had blood dripping from it, which was disturbing to Wolf. The rabbi, who led the funeral proceedings, taught him to say the Kaddish (a traditional Jewish mourner's prayer) for his mom. Many non-Jews from the neighborhood walked with the procession to the end of town (there were no anti-Semitic feelings) before their family went on to the burial site. They came home and sat Shiva (a Jewish period of mourning) for seven days.
“My grandmother, Johanha, was the person that replaced my mom. (Wolf takes a moment to wipe away a teardrop) She looked after me and I came to idolize her.” he said. “She lived near Nuremburg, where Hitler and his party got together to plan and then were eventually tried. She always had challah, chicken noodle soup, and potato kugel for Shabbos. I loved that. She was very religious and always led the Shabbos prayers, including a blessing over me. I owe a lot to her…she had a lot to do with me being alive today.”
Wolf had his bar mitzvah in 1937 (traditionally at 13 years). He took a 45-minute train ride, a half hour through a tunnel, to Koblenz to meet and study with the rabbi. “My grandma took me to Zell to buy my first watch as a present. The watch had eight corners.”
“Then came a bad time.”
On October 28, 1938, 17,000 Polish Jews living in Germany were arrested and taken to the river marking the Polish-German border and forced to cross it. The Polish border guards sent them back over the river into Germany and this stalemate continued for days in the pouring rain, the Jews marching without food or shelter between the borders until the Polish government admitted them to a concentration camp. The conditions of these camps “were so bad that some actually tried to escape back into Germany and were shot” recalls a British woman who was sent to help the expellees.
“There was a young German-Polish Jewish lady who lived in Poland and had a brother in Paris.” Wolf said. “His name was Herschel Grynszpan, a young man. She wanted to visit him, but the Germans wouldn’t let her go through by train and the Poles didn’t want her, they tried to push her out. He received a letter from his sister describing the horrible conditions she experienced in this deportation. Finally, the brother was mad – ‘Why won’t the Germans let her go through so I can see my sister?’”
Seeking to alleviate her situation, he appealed repeatedly over the next few days to Ernst vom Rath, Third Secretary of the German Embassy in Paris, who would not help him. On November 7, he bought a pistol and shot vom Rath in the stomach, attempting and missing on three additional shots. Two days later, vom Rath died. “It was as if the world stood still.”
Then Hitler gave the order. Vom Rath's assassination was used by the Nazi regime to launch the anti-Jewish pogrom known as the "Night of Broken Glass" (Kristallnacht).
On the night between the 9th and 10th of November 1938, the Nazis took to the streets of Germany and Austria, attacking and murdering Jews. Jewish homes and shops were ransacked in numerous cities as German civilians and SA storm troopers destroyed synagogues and buildings with sledgehammers, burning Torah scrolls, and leaving the streets covered in smashed windows. The Nazis called the night Kristallnacht – Crystal Night – because of the millions of pieces of glass which remained after the destruction the Nazis themselves wrought.
On that one night, about 1,300 Jews were killed, thousands injured, arrested and deported to concentration camps, and 1,668 synagogues were burnt or destroyed. German police and firefighters who witnessed the destruction were silent and didn’t intervene. The world observed from the outside and also did nothing.
“At 5:00 a.m., we were all home. My step-mom (also named Johanha) and her sister were with us,” Wolf said. “We heard a bang at the door. My dad opened the window on the second floor. ‘Ed, come out right now!’ I saw a couple of “brown shirts” (SS men), wearing swastikas, and had guns with bayonets. They took my dad. I asked my step mom what I should do. She said, “What can you do, Manfred, go to school.”
“When I came home from school, I found out that my dad had been taken to Dachau, a concentration camp in Germany. From what I knew about other Jews that were taken there for “some reason”, if a Jew would have sex relations with a non-Jew in the camp, they would send home that Jew’s urn full of ashes. I thought, my G-d, my dad is never going to come back. I was 14.”
“The next day after school, I rode my bike back to Merl and some of my friends, like Clementina (a non-Jewish friend who he keeps in touch with and is living in Merl, three houses from where he used to live) warned me not to go home or I would be hanged from a tree and beaten by the Nazis. I turned around and rode back to the high school.”
“There was one Jewish woman, a WWI widow whose husband fought for the Germans, who took me in and let me stay with her for the day. She eventually was deported to Auschwitz (concentration camp). Then night fell and I went back home to Merl, leaving my bike along side the river. When I got to our village, there were no lights on anywhere. Neighbors said to me, ‘Manfred, its over, you can’t go home now!’ I got to the house and there were still “brown shirts” there. They said, ‘It’s ok now, everything is over, you can go in.’ I went into the store under our home and there was glass everywhere and no light bulbs. The store was ransacked, nothing in it. My step mom hugged me, crying.”
Soon after, Hitler enacted his anti-Jewish propaganda along with Propaganda Minister Dr. Joseph Goebbels and Adolf Eichmann, a top Nazi official who coined the term “The Final solution to the Jewish question" and helped supervise the genocidal campaign until he was captured, tried and executed by Israeli authorities in 1961–62. Goebbels remained with Hitler in Berlin to the very end, and following the Führer's suicide he served as the Third Reich's final Chancellor— albeit for one day. In his final hours, he allowed his wife, Magda, to kill their six young children. Shortly after, he and his wife both committed suicide.
There was a clause that stated that anybody that wanted to leave Germany within one year could do so. Many Jews had already escaped Germany. “So, my uncle, Max (dad’s brother) and his sister, and my mom’s brother, sold their homes and businesses and escaped to Palestine (now Israel), which was under British rule at that time.” A Jew needed 1,000 British pounds of sterling to get in, so they couldn’t live on welfare.
“My step-mom wrote to my dad’s brother, asking him to help my dad get out of Dachau,” Wolf said. “My dad’s brother went to the British consulate and told them that my dad will have the money so that he can get out and come to Palestine. An official document was drafted, stating that immigration was imminent and my step-mom sent it to the Commandant of Dachau. After three weeks, my dad was released. (Being a German WWI veteran might have helped for his release) I can remember that he marched down the street, like a victory march, from the train station in Merl and said, ‘Here I am, I’m back.’ Business was bad already since Hitler came into power, so my dad had to put a mortgage on the house in order to repair the home and replace the store windows. Then, we were required to sell the house to the biggest Nazi in town.”
“I decided to leave my family and go live and work on a kibbutz (an Israeli collective community) in Cologne. There was a Jewish madriach, Paul Stein, the head of the kibbutz, who taught us a trade and lots of other things, which included music and sports. I learned to be a machinist and became a good ping pong player. My nickname was “dive-bomber” because of my serve. I also really enjoyed listening to Mozart’s, ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.’”
“My father and step-mom eventually came and lived not far away. I took a streetcar to see them every two weeks. When the kibbutz was shut down, my dad asked me to stay with them and continue my machinist studies. He said that we had a chance to go to Puerto Rico to get out, but I said no, and packed my things. As a good Zionist, I wanted to go to Palestine. My dad said, ‘you go where I tell you to go.’ I didn’t listen to him and left my dad in Cologne and went to Berlin first, which was the headquarters for the kibbutzim.”
From Berlin, Wolf took a train to another kibbutz called Schnibinchen. On the way there the train made a stop in Hanover where he heard a man screaming and witnessed him being crushed to death between train cars. He didn’t want to get involved for fear of somebody discovering that he was Jewish. Already Wolf was developing a keen sense of awareness of what he needed to do to stay alive and out of harm’s way. At the kibbutz, he slept in barracks that were formerly used for the 1936 summer Olympics. A “nice place to sleep that had steamed heating and windows.” People there farmed potato’s and sugar beets.
It was there that Wolf had his first brush with death. One day, after lunch, he went for a nap in this shack, resting on a pile of fresh hay. He didn’t realize that fresh hay emits poisonous gases. Luckily, he was found and pulled out of there. “I couldn’t wake up and when I was awakened, I was dizzy. I could have died.” That’s was when he realized a “Lucky Star” was following and watching over him.
It was still winter when Schnibinchen was also shut down, so he was transported by train to a camp called Padebon (not a concentration camp). He worked for the city, sweeping streets.
Then, things took a turn for the worse.
“It was the summer of ’42, I was called into the office (at Padebon) to receive a phone call from my dad,” Wolf said. “My dad said that he and my step-mom were being evacuated to the East and wanted me to go with them. I said, ‘no, I don’t want to go.’ My dad began to cry, but I was scared to go. I heard that other kids that had been evacuated with their parents were never heard from again.”
“My dad and step-mom were killed at the Treblinka extermination camp in Poland after they were evacuated from Cologne. I never saw them again.”
Franz Stangl was the commandant at Treblinka who was assigned by Heinrich Himmler, the commander of the German Schutzstaffel (SS) and Gestapo and one of the most powerful men in Nazi Germany by being second in power to Hitler in the Nazi hierarchy. 99% of those who arrived at his camp were dead within two hours. After Liberation, he escaped to Brazil, as did many other Nazi war criminals through the “Ratline,” which were systems of escape routes for Nazis and other fascists fleeing Europe at the end of World War II. These escape routes mainly led toward safe havens in South America, particularly Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil and Chile.
Stangl was eventually tracked down by Nazi hunter and Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal and arrested in Brazil. After extradition to West Germany he was tried and sentenced to life imprisonment on October 22, 1970 for the deaths of about 900,000 people. He admitted to these killings but argued: "My conscience is clear. I was simply doing my duty ..." He died of heart failure in a Düsseldorf prison on June 28, 1971.
Himmler, founder and officer-in-charge of the Nazi concentration camps and the Einsatzgruppen death squads, held final command responsibility for annihilating tens of millions who were deemed unworthy to live. Before his death, he was suspected of plotting against Hitler; in addition to offering to surrender all of Germany to the Allies only if he was spared from prosecution as a Nazi leader.
He was arrested on May 22, 1945 by Sergeant Arthur Britton of the British army after Germany had lost WWII, and in captivity, was soon recognized. Himmler was scheduled to stand trial with other Nazi leaders as a major war criminal at Nuremberg, but committed suicide in Lüneburg by swallowing a potassium cyanide capsule before interrogation could begin. These cyanide tablets were fitted into caps in SS officers' teeth before the Holocaust began so that they would always have the choice of suicide if anything went wrong.
“In March of 1943, it was my turn to be evacuated,” Wolf said. “The head man at Padebon was a SS in black uniform. He always said, ‘my Juden (Jews) will stay here.’ But he could never over-rule Hitler or Himmler who wanted all the Jews.”
“We were told that we could put on two shirts, two socks, etc., and also take a rucksack for the rest of our things. Then, we were taken by train, not boxcar, to Bielefeld, the headquarters of the Gestapo (the secret state police under the Nazi regime in Germany noted for its brutality.) There, we slept on cots in a shack.”
(Mintzer and Wolf went to Bielefeld three years ago and saw a stone monument there, erected as a memorial for the Jews that never came back. Wolf’s name, birthday, and birthplace were listed on it, which made for quite a surprise.)
“The next morning, boxcars came. We had to take everything. That was the trip to Auschwitz, but we didn’t know where we were going until we got there. There was one pail that we defecated in. The boxcar was unlocked but everybody was afraid to run. Nobody knew what was going on at Auschwitz.” (SS guards there were required to keep it a secret from their own families.)
“When we arrived at Auschwitz, it was night. The Nazis always transported us at night to the camps. There were bright floodlights and loudspeakers everywhere. Over the loudspeakers, we heard, ‘leave your stuff in the boxcar; we’ll ship it to you later! Everybody over 45, women and children to the right! Everybody under 18, to the left, and if you’re between 18 and 45, stand in the middle!’ I saw people with prison camp stripes on their clothing and a Kapo with a yellow band on his sleeve. The Kapos could have killed you if they wanted to.” (Kapo is a term used for certain prisoners who worked inside the camps in various lower administrative positions. They received more privileges than normal prisoners, towards whom they were often brutal, and were often convicts who were offered this work in exchange for a reduced sentence or parole.)
“I stood in the front row. A high-ranking officer walked by and looked everybody over. He wore nice high leather boots and hit a horse whip on his boots. He asked me how old I was, and I said, ’18!’ ‘Can you work?’ ‘Jawohl, Kommandant, ja kann ich arbeiten!’ (Yes, I can work!) I clicked my heels together and stood at attention to hide that I was a Jew. ‘You can stay,’ he said. That was Dr. Mengele, I was to find out later.” How ironic that one of the Nazis most notorious for brutally killing many Jews, let Wolf live. They were in need of workers in the camps to do the slave labor. This would be the beginning of the many miracles that helped him survive in the camps, and all the “guardian angels” that would help him on his way.
Dr. Josef Mengele gained notoriety chiefly for being one of the SS physicians who supervised the selection of arriving transports of prisoners at Auschwitz, determining who was to be killed and who was to become a slave laborer, and for performing human experiments on camp inmates, amongst whom Mengele was known as the “Angel of Death.” After the War, he also fled to Argentina, evaded capture for 34 years, and then died in Brazil in 1979 when he suffered a stroke while swimming in the sea. He was buried in Embu under the name "Wolfgang Gerhard," whose ID-card he had used since 1976.
Each prisoner was then given one metal bowl, which, if lost, would prevent them from getting any more “food.” There are photos in the Holocaust archives of prisoners having to use their metal bowls as pillows. The bowl was used for both daily meals; tea in the morning, and watery soup for dinner. You were lucky if you got a small piece of bread. Wolf’s head was shaved, and then every two weeks. Prisoners also were required to wear a symbol on their shirt as a form of classification. Jews wore a red and yellow Mogen David star, homosexuals wore a pink triangle, mentally handicapped a black triangle, convicts a green triangle, and Communists wore a red triangle.
“After the selection, we were loaded on trucks. We had to hold on to each other so as not to fall out because the sides of the truck only came up to our knees,” Wolf said. “I remember it was a clear, night sky. As I gazed at the stars, I said a prayer. ‘G-d, why me, what did I do wrong, why did they bring me here? I’m only 18. I’m a Jew.’”
They finally arrived at Camp Buna; 10,000, or more, prisoners, including British and Russian POW’s and Spanish Republican soldiers and activists. The surrounding work camps in and around Auschwitz were closely connected to German industry and were associated with arms factories, foundries and mines. The largest work camp was Auschwitz III Monowitz, named after the Polish village of Monowice. Starting operations in May 1942, it was associated with the synthetic rubber and liquid fuel plant Buna-Werke owned by I. G. Farben.
“I met a Jew by the name of Freddie Diamond. Since he wasn’t a German citizen, he was thrown in the camps. First, Buchenwald, then Dachau, ending up at Buna. We were going into the shower after we put our shoes to the side, and he said, ‘what are you stupid people doing?! You come here and you never get out! Couldn’t you find a way to escape?!’” (He died a year ago as a resident of the San Fernando Valley.)
“My (first) job (assignment) was to sharpen drills and drill holes, which I learned how to do in Cologne on the kibbutz. We made electrical wires wrapped in a conduit which were then put in a steel pipe. Civilians also worked there.” (Because it was slave labor, and no wages were paid, restitution is now being paid to the Holocaust survivors since the agreement was enacted with the German government.)
“We were marched past a band playing music on a bandstand on the way into the (Farben) plant. There were guards that sometimes took a prisoners’ cap off his head and threw it in the woods, and then told the prisoner to run after it. The guard would then shoot and kill the prisoner trying to “escape.” This happened many times,” Wolf said. “Out of coal, we made methyl alcohol, which was used for tanks and trucks. It was poisonous and smelled like liquor. Some prisoners and civilians were so desperate for food; they tricked other prisoners into giving them a piece of bread or sausage, and in turn, gave them a little bottle of “schnapps,” which was actually the methyl alcohol. The poisoned prisoner would go back to the barracks screaming all night long, go blind, and die the next day. He’d be thrown out and taken away. Americans had stock in Farben, believe it or not.”
“The madriach, Paul Stein, was the first prisoner to commit suicide (from my transport). He knew the guards would shoot him from the tower if he got too near the barbed wire electrical fence. He was sick and tired of the inhumane treatment…no food, being kicked around (like dogs). I also remember a boy prisoner who traded all his food rations for cigarettes. He became skin and bones and got too weak to work, so he ended up ‘up the chimney.’”
“Another fellow, Siegfried, was asked to pull down his pants to see if he was a circumcised Jew. (Non-Jewish Germans were not.) His wife, Ruth, went into the Catholic Church and said, ‘I’m Catholic,’ because there was no way of telling if a woman was Jewish. They both survived, met in Paris after the War, went to Israel, and then to the United States. They worked for a big frame company called Aaron Brothers.”
The harsh conditions were beginning to destroy Wolf’s will to go on living. It was stressful, not knowing if and when the SS might decide to shoot him, and the fact that they considered him garbage. One Sunday, feeling as if he was at the end of his rope, he sat down on the sidewalk and started to cry. A Polish-Jewish Kapo, Harry Naftani, asked him why he was crying. “I’m not going to make it,” Wolf said. “There’s not enough food for me and I have a terrible case of diarrhea, so I’m not eating.”
“Harry took me in (under his wing). He made ashes out of burnt wood and gave it to me to eat, which cured me. (Similar to charcoal capsules that are used as a remedy today.) After the War, I tried to locate Harry by contacting the Red Cross, but couldn’t find him.”
“(For my second job assignment), we were divided up, given a number, and assigned to a Kommando. The worst was the Cement Kommando, number 4. When we got to the (Farben) factory, we had to unload and carry on our shoulders 110 lb bags of cement out of the boxcars for 12 hours a day. There were two wooden planks set up, with two guys at the top and two at the bottom. . The Kapo would stand by the side and tell us to work harder and faster, sometimes hitting us. I said, ‘I’m not going to live another day…I can’t.’ So I had an idea to get me out of this detail.”
“There were also electric welders at the factory. I knew that if I stared into the flame for a minute or two without a shield on, my eyes would burn and I’d have to be sent to the aid station. My idea worked, but it felt as if sand was being thrown into my eyes. Ernie was the head man at the aid station. I was also with him at Padebon. He told me to ‘get out in the morning, fast, because the SS will come and see that you can’t work anymore and take you to the gas chamber.’ So, I did. The burning healed and Ernie gave me a different set of clothes from the aid station.”
“Luckily, I was assigned to a different detail. The SS asked us if we knew how to fix leaky roofs, and Harry told me to say that I do, so we could stay together. We were shipped to another camp in Auschwitz, where there were six barracks with leaky roofs. Then we went into the factory and I worked a lathe and helped assemble the “Screaming Meanie,” the 88 mm anti-aircraft gun for the Americans. It was so perfect that, within a mile, it could hit a tank and explode it. I made a mistake one time and cut my hand on the lathe. If the SS were around at that time, they would have shot and killed me on the spot. I was lucky.”
Britain and the United States began moving in on the concentration camps from the west, and the Soviet Union was advancing from the east. The Soviets took a stand and shut down the factory, loading up and hauling everything away. The Nazis decided to abandon the camps, moving or destroying evidence of the atrocities they had committed there. This would be the beginning of the German retreat and the “death marches” for the Jews and other prisoners. The deadliest and best known of the marches took place at Auschwitz, where Wolf was being held. The Nazis killed thousands of prisoners in gas chambers, by lethal injection and by starvation before the marches, and killed many more during and after.
Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize, was forced on this same death march, along with his father, Shlomo, which he describes in his 1958 book, “Night.”
“We started on our death march in the winter of ’44-45,” Wolf said. “First we went to Krakow in Poland and slept in the slaughter houses on the ground. The next morning, we were told to lie down in the deep snow like herring, wearing very little clothing, one next to the other to keep warm, while the SS guards watched us. When we woke up in the snow, there were some dead prisoners. A burial Kommando was assigned to bury the dead in the ground.”
Some of the guards were from the Ukraine during Stalin’s reign. They didn’t want the communist way of living, so they were recruited by the Germans. They guarded the prisoners from the camp towers and now were helping the Nazis herd them like cows.
“We walked until we got to the Czech Border. There were open boxcars there and we were pushed and squeezed in by the guards. The train took us to Upper Austria, to another extermination camp called Mauthausen. (One of the largest slave labor camps in all of Europe with an average life expectancy of less than three months for newly-arrived prisoners.) We had to walk way up high to get there. One of the SS stood there and said ‘we need help in the Crematorium…who wants to do that job?’ A little polish Jewish fellow raised his hand and so did I. But then I remembered not to ever volunteer for anything. So they took him. After the Liberation, when I was brought to Italy, someone tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘do you remember that little guy at Mauthausen? The Soviets came and threw him into the fire, alive. They thought he was a German because he was helping at the Crematorium.’”
“From Mauthausen, we were transported by boxcar to a site close to Vienna, to work in an underground cave on the fuselage of a German fighter plane called the Messerschmitt Me 262 (German Swallow ), the world's first operational jet-powered fighter. (Per German doctrine at the time, several components of the Me 262 were built in slave labor camps.) It flew 500 mph and was used to shoot down the B17 American fighter planes. I assembled the ejecting device for the pilot’s seat.”
“I mistakenly was given a red triangle (communist) instead of a Mogen David star to wear on my shirt. So I took a pen and drew the Mogen David to show that I was actually Jewish. One of the Kapo’s there said I was lying and said, ‘You get 25 on your butt.’ One held me down and made me count while the other beat me with a whip. Came morning to get home to the barracks, the Kapo told the head Kapo at the barracks about me wanting to pose as a political prisoner instead of a Jew. ‘Ok, let’s give him another 25.’ I passed out and next thing I knew, I was in a cold shower. Then they put me in bed. I had to sleep on my stomach for weeks until the pain went away. My butt was so swollen, my pants hardly fit.”
“On the way back to Mauthausen, we were sleeping in tents,” Wolf said. “Many Hungarian Jews were sprayed with bullets from machine guns and killed for ignoring an order and not getting out of the foxholes that they dug to keep warm in. The next day, other prisoners were trying to sell their flesh as good “meat” for eating. There was a Jewish man from Holland with a broken leg. He was screaming, ‘help me, help,’ because he knew the Nazis would kill him if he couldn’t work That man crying out for help still rings in my ears to this day.”
“The next morning, we were given new clothes and shoes before going to work. As I was walking, a nail stuck in the heel of my shoe. The hollow heel fell off and inside was a diamond ring. Harry was with me and he knew one of the SS, a brutal guy, the Unterscharfuhrer, who would kill you for anything. Harry went to him in the SS kitchen and got cured bacon, salami, and bread in exchange for the ring.” (The Unterscharfuhrer is a supervisor in charge of overseeing various Sonderkommandos (prisoners) who performed the act of gassing Jews and other “undesirable” prisoners of the Third Reich.)
“The weather was already springtime and nice as we walked to a different camp. This time there were no SS guards watching us. On the way, I slipped away and went into a grocery store. The attendants let me take free food. Maybe they thought I would hurt them or had lice and was sick with typhoid. When I came out, I was alone. I could have run away but I didn’t because I knew that Liberation was imminent and I might get killed.”
“Finally, we ended up in the woods, at the camp, a few miles away from Salzburg. There were barracks with no beds and we were made to lie on the ground again, next to each other. When you got up to go relieve yourself, you would come back and you wouldn’t have a place to lie down anymore. There were pails of feces that prisoners would dump on your face in anger. I couldn’t take it anymore, so I got on a friends shoulders and was lifted up to one of the barracks’ wooden trusses and that’s where I slept. I was the only one that thought to do this.”
“They wanted us to die there, that was the idea. Not to get rescued by the Americans. We could hear the artillery from the distance which got closer and closer. Many died. It took four of us to carry a dead person and drop them into a ravine. I saw an SS guard shoot a Jew who was pleading for his life after he was caught trying to escape. He had a Luger semi-automatic pistol and pointed it at his head, execution style, at the lip of the ravine and he dropped like a ‘sack of potatoes.’ Then he kicked him into the ravine.”
“One morning, I was sleeping on the truss and awoke to find nobody below me,” Wolf said. “I thought, ‘maybe they forgot me, maybe they shot everybody.’ I jumped down and ran to the front gate which was wide open. The American soldiers said, ‘come out, you’re free to go!’ There were a few Nazis in uniform laying there, dead. I couldn’t believe it! I thought they were going to transfer me to another concentration camp.”
The camps of Mauthausen-Gusen were the last to be liberated during World War II. On May 5, 1945, the camp at Mauthausen was approached by soldiers of the 41st Recon Squad of the US 11th Armored Division, 3rd US Army. The reconnaissance squad was led by S/SGT Albert J. Kosiek whose troops disarmed the Nazi guards. By the time of its liberation, most of the SS-men of Mauthausen had already fled; however, some 30 who were left were lynched by the prisoners. One of the camp's survivors was Wiesenthal.
“I walked to the village near Salzburg to get the train. The American MP’s (Military Police) were guarding this steel shack next to the train station that contained food supply for the German army. The prisoners pleaded with them to let them have the food, which were sacks of sugar and boxes of oats. They were so desperately hungry; they were catching garden snails and heating them up to eat with grass. Finally, the shack was opened. Everybody rushed in there, ripping open the sacks and gobbling down handfuls of sugar. I was the smart one again. I took what I could in my pockets, walked out, and went to a house in the village. A woman opened the door and I asked her, ‘would you please cook this for me? I have diarrhea and it will help me to stop it.’ And she did. It was the best oatmeal with sugar I have ever tasted. I walked past the shack where the sugar and oats were stored and people were lying dead on top of the sugar. They overdosed on sugar, which was like poison. Their stomachs couldn’t handle it. Many also died from overeating.”
“I ended up walking to the next town, resting every few steps because of exhaustion. There was a hospital there that was also being guarded by American MP’s. Again, the MP’s were not letting people in. So I had another good idea. I walked around to the back and there were nuns at the door. I said, ‘I’m sick, help me, I have diarrhea, please, I’m only 18.’ At first they said no, but then, after begging and pleading for some time, they said ok and let me in. A man told me to take everything off and gave me a towel to cover my body. They took me downstairs and put me in a bathtub filled with Lysol to disinfect me and laid me on a cot.”
“The hospital room I was assigned to had a feather bed with nice white linens. That was a real treat. I was also fed. I woke up the next morning to see lice crawling on my pillow. My hair was still full of lice. Two days later, a doctor said to me, ‘listen to me buddy, you’re young, you just have diarrhea, that’s all. The others have typhoid. You get away from here right now and go to a DP (Displaced Persons) camp.’ And that’s what I did. I couldn’t believe that I was being locked up again in a camp, so I would repeatedly run away. Every time the Americans would drive by in a jeep or car, they knew who I was and picked me up. Then I would jump out of the vehicle on a slow turn.”
The DP camps were created by Eisenhower of the Truman administration as a temporary holding place for the refugees until they were able to resettle. They shipped safe drinking water to them because they feared that the Germans, who were still around, might poison the tap water. Eventually, by 1953, the United States let in 600,000 refugees, second only to Israel who accepted more than 650,000.
“Finally, I ended up in (British-controlled) Salzburg,” Wolf said. “My ribs were aching. They wanted to help us get to Palestine. So, on July 15, 1945, my birthday, we went over the (beautiful) Brena Pass through the Austrian Alps (connects Austria and Italy) to Udine, Italy. I met up with a Jew there that I knew in Cologne who was going to Palestine by ship, and said, ‘Hugo, please, here’s the address of my uncle’s bargain store in Haifa. Please tell him I’m coming.’”
“I went to a military academy in Reggio Emilia, a town in a lush area of Northern Italy. The British controlled it and it had a hospital there. I still was experiencing terrible pain in my ribs. The doctor spoke no German and I didn’t speak Italian. Without anesthesia, he inserted a long needle between my ribs and extracted fluid out, twice. He said I had pleurisy (inflammation of the membrane that lines the chest and covers the lungs). I was a new man after that (Wolf smiles). I was then able to gain some weight. The nurses told the British officers to look at how I had been healed and how much weight I had gained. To celebrate, I went to the movies that night. When the Americans dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, we saw this on the newsreel, and everybody clapped.”
“Then, I was brought, illegally, by boat, to Palestine by the Italians and Israeli militants from the Haganah.” The Haganah is a Jewish paramilitary organization designed to protect the Jewish minority against the Palestinians and the British authorities, which, in 1948, would become the Israeli Defense Forces.
“The night they came for us, it was a hurried situation. They said, ‘Now! Get ready! Take everything, take a shower!’ There were four or five trucks that took us to Genoa, a city and seaport in northern Italy, not far from the French Riviera. There was a small boat there and they said, ‘get in, get in!’ We laid on cots. Boys and girls started hollering, ‘who has condoms?!’ At that point, I didn’t want to partake, so I took my blanket and went to sleep on the outside deck. I had never seen the ocean. When the morning came, it was warm; the dolphins were swimming right next to us. As we approached the Straight of Messina, I saw smoke rising up to the sky from a volcano called Mt Etna in Sicily. There was no wind; I’ll never forget that beautiful moment.”
“It was then that I saw the mountains of Lebanon after traveling through Messina. I knew we were close. A couple of Spitfire British jets flew over the boat to observe us. The Israeli militants from the Haganah had boxes of guns and ammo. They new they would have to fight the British to get out, so they pushed them overboard because they didn’t want to be caught with them. Then came a British cruiser and hooked up to our boat and got us into Haifa. I was lucky to be freed in Haifa because every other boat with survivors that followed us had to land at Cyprus.”
There were two British concentration camps on Cyprus for nearly 50,000 Jewish survivors of the Holocaust trying to emigrate to the British Mandate of Palestine. The British were keeping the survivors out of Palestine, and only six ships managed to elude being captured. The rest were pirated, many of the people on board severely abused, and sent to the camps and kept in horrid and crowded conditions until the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. The only difference; they weren’t killed or physically abused.
“We were brought to a camp in Haifa where they examined us to make sure we didn’t bring in any TB or other diseases. The Italians who manned the boat said to me; ‘there’s a kibbutz that will be able to take you in. We know them.’ (There’s a monument there now.) After a couple weeks, we were told over loud speakers, ‘If you have family, we will let you call them to pick you up!’ I said, “Please take me to my uncle!”
“My cousin, Tova, picked me up and took me, by train, to my Uncle Max’s (his dad’s youngest brother and godfather) store. I was finally there! I would find out later that my mom’s brother, also in Haifa, asked my dad if they could take me with them when they escaped before the war. My dad said no. I could have been free.”
Wolf participated in the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, in which half the army were Holocaust survivors. The war marked the successful establishment of the State of Israel, having defeated their Arab neighbors. “If Israel had been established during WWII, they would have stopped and killed Hitler,” Wolf said.
In 1951, he went back to Merl to take care of his families’ property and belongings and met and married his wife, Sonya, in Cologne in 1953. He was a machinist working in the same building where she cut hair. It was love at first site. They had two children, Rita and Edward, who both now live in Los Angeles. (Sonya’s life has since been taken by breast cancer.)
They were sponsored by a friend who worked in the Pennsylvanian government and were sent a visa to come to the United States. The American ship, called the Liberty, carried them and 9,000 other passengers from Rotterdam to Saskatchewan, Canada, and their first stop on the journey. They bought a house in Erie, Pennsylvania, but Sonya soon became restless and wanted to move to Los Angeles. “Manfred, you’re Jewish, you’ve got to make money, get into some kind of business,” she said.
Before they left, Wolf attended a reunion for survivors in New York City in 1954 that was filmed by NBC. People came from Israel and other parts of the world. A friend he knew from Padebon was there and they embraced and said, “You’re alive!” (In 1996, Steven Spielberg had a representative film and interview Wolf for the “Survivors of the Shoah” Visual History Foundation.)
The 1956 Chevy, his first car costing $500, was loaded up and they headed down Route 66 to Los Angeles where he worked the night shift at Douglas Aircraft making rocket seals before opening a liquor store in Venice, which he operated for 30 years. After a year of retirement, he got restless, and took a job at the Gelson’s in Pacific Palisades, where he’s been working and having fun for the past eight years. There, he talks to a lot of people who are interested in his story.
He injured his back carrying cement bags while providing slave labor during the Holocaust and receives much-deserved financial restitution from the German government.
When asked what dreams he has about his experience in the concentration camps, he said, “being liberated by the American soldiers.” He’ll never forget the extreme joy he felt at that moment. Wolf also expressed his desire for people to bear witness to the truth and why he feels it’s important for his testimony to be heard.
“By giving my testimony, I hope that people will see what it really was like for the Jews under Hitler. It’s a warning for everybody in the world today that this (Holocaust) could happen again. The Nazis today (and during the trials), say, ‘I was just doing as I was told, taking orders from Hitler,’ even though they knew, deep down, that it was inhumane. I was lucky; I had a ‘sixth sense’ that helped me to survive.”
Mintzer and Wolf continue to go dancing every Saturday and look forward to many years of happiness together in Culver City.