written and recorded by Amber Anapolsky
For this research project, in November 2003 I conducted an interview to record the oral history of a Holocaust survivor, in order to better understand the events and consequences of the Holocaust. I am using the Holocaust survivor’s experience to learn about the historical event of the Holocaust. I chose this topic because I am Jewish and my grandfather was a Holocaust survivor. Since my Grandfather passed away a few years ago, I decided to interview his best friend, who is also a Holocaust survivor. The essence of the Holocaust is hate in its rawest and most primitive form. By learning about the Holocaust, we can create a better future.
Auschwitz was the most streamlined mass killing center ever created. Ralph Hokmann was imprisoned in Auschwitz for the entire war. Somehow, remarkably, he survived. This is his story…
“ I was born in Poland in the city of Radom in March 18, 1925. I went to seven years of school and then in 1939, the Germans occupied Poland and hell broke loose. I was in a ghetto in Radom in March 1941. My father was in the meat business in 1942. In 1942, they began to round up all of the butchers. My father escaped from police. Each one of us was hiding. In May 1942, my whole house was practically clean because every one was hiding in different places. The police came to look for my father. It just so happened that my sister was walking up with her little one year old so they took her into custody. She was with the police for about 3 days. My mother found out where I was hiding. At the time I was about 17 years old so my mother told me that I should turn myself into the police so that they would let my sister go with the baby. I was frightened because I had never had any thing to do with the police. I said ok I am going to go. I went to the police and they let my sister go. We [Ralph, along with other Jews] were in custody by the SS, the Germans. The whole group of people was put on a cattle, closed train. We did not know where we were going. In a few days we found out it was Auschwitz. The transport consisted of 734 people. I was in Auschwitz for three days where they tattooed my numbers. Then they took me to Birkinau. At that time it was just a few barracks. It was very bad; people were being killed and dying. When you went to work, you did not know if you would return. We always had to carry dead people back because they were always torturing people.”
“About the last year and a half, the end of 43, I worked in Buna, where we would clean the clothes. The crematoriums were 300 feet away where they were doing a lot of the killings. The Russians evacuated the camp on the 18th of January 1945, forcing us to go on a death march. We walked for a few days, and then they put us on a train. I didn’t know where we were going. All of a sudden the train stopped and nobody was there. People started to run, and all of a sudden, Germans came with machine guns and started shooting. A lot of people were killed. I ducked because bullets were flying over my head. I fell and bodies fell over me. When the shooting stopped, they told everyone to stand up and line up. We were going. We went from place to place.”
In the final months of the war, SS guards forced camp inmates on death marches in an attempt to prevent the Allied liberation of large numbers of prisoners. As Allied forces moved across Europe in a series of offensive attacks on Germany, they began to encounter and liberate concentration camp prisoners, many of whom had survived the death marches. Ralph was one of them…
“We were digging trenches for the Germans. We did not know what was going on. We saw military, civilians, highways were blocked, and we did not know when the end would come. I was camped with 2 people. As we walked in May 1945, a German stopped us, and told us to wait. We knew that he would probably kill us so we ran away as fast as we could. Planes were bombing the highways. We did not have a clue what was going on. We knew it was some kind of change. But we did not realize that the liberation was coming so close. We walked like animals walk on all fours to the highway. A Russian solider came down and told us that we are liberated. That was the liberatation. I went to Apare, and stayed a few weeks to recuperate. Of course I was undernourished. I was anxious to go back to where I lived. I went back to Radom. I went to where I used to live and everything was gone.”
In order to track down his family members who had survived, Ralph went back to his house in Radom. In Radom, he went to a neighboring Christian family who was in written contact with his sister. Ralph found his uncle through a friend of his who said that he had seen Ralph’s uncle a few days earlier.
Ralph Hokmann: “I was in camp with my uncle. I couldn’t believe that he could have survived what I went through being older. He was 50 years old after liberation. I was reunited with my uncle in Germany. Then I found out my sister was in Poland. Then I was united with my sister.”
How many children were in your family in Poland?
“In Poland, my family was comprised of 10 children. I had 6 brothers and 4 sisters. I am the only boy who survived the Holocaust. I had one sister who also survived. That is it.”
Do you still practice religion?
“We were persecuted for being Jewish and to still go on and believe in Judaism… it is a miracle. I could not change. I follow the tradition that my parents believed in, and I am still following it.”
Did you practice Judaism in the Auschwitz?
“Thinking about how to survive the day the hour I would pray to God. There was no religion in the camps. You just could not do it. Your eyes had to be open every minute because life was at stake. I was fighting to be alive. It is hard to believe today how they could do this. How they could kill innocent people. I remember in 1942 seeing the windows where they gassed people. They saw the bodies, the screams, in front of them. They took people in and gassed them, experimented with the gasses. Then they started building crematoriums. I could see people walking in through the little windows. They told them to take off their clothes because they were going to take showers. They even told them they would find their clothes when they came out. Then they packed them in. First they told the women and children to get undressed…about 1200 people. Then they began beating up the men. They would then pack them in like cows. Then just push them in and close the door. Then this guy, a German, put the gas into the little windows and closed them up. I could hear the screams. Fifteen minutes latter, they would open the door and bodies would fall out. They were doing this day and night, day and night it was going on nonstop.”
“I believe in destiny. I don’t think luck is the word. They were just in the wrong place and they got killed. You could be sitting here and then you were gone. I worked in places where they killed everyday and this was going on until the very end. To forget about the Holocaust is something that never will happen. A lot of the time before I go to bed I think about my sisters and my brothers, mother, father, and grandparents. It was a very big family.”
“In 1987, my wife and I went to Poland because she wanted to see where I grew up. We went to the camps. I was very depressed going into the camps. My wife and daughter had to hold me. It was very stressful just to go in because I was frightened and all the emotions came back to me. I am constantly talking about the Holocaust. I am always telling stories. Never ever will anyone ever forget.”
The main entrance of Auschwitz-Birkenau as seen from the unloading ramps. (link to source)
What can we learn from the Holocaust?
We can learn from the Holocaust that the behavior of a society will reflect the societies’ perception. When society places people into negative stereotypes, those stereotypes will be reflected in not only the perception of those people, but also how a society will treat those people. This can be illustrated by the Nazis’ perception of the Jews as unworthy of life.
The Holocaust happened in full public view. However, it is only by remembering the terrible events of the Holocaust that we can hope to prevent similar occurrences from happening in the future. We must continue to openly discuss the Holocaust and teach each new generation the lessons we have learned from the past.
We can learn from the stories of Holocaust survivors such as Ralph Hokmann, that knowledge is power. Knowledge is something that nobody can take away from you. In the Holocaust, the Nazis tried to take away the identity of many Jews like Ralph and my grandfather; however, knowledge is something that cannot be physically taken away. Knowledge is learned through stories, experiences, and lessons. By becoming knowledgeable about the Holocaust, we will always possess the power to use what we know, in turn, putting into action what we have learned.