Holocaust survivor speaks to Knox students
By Sarah Campbell
SALISBURY — It’s been about 70 years since Manfred Katz got inside a truck and left his parents behind, but he still remembers the feeling of tears rolling down his face.
“It’s a very painful picture because it’s the very last time I saw them,” he said. “That picture sticks with me.”
Katz, 83, survived the Holocaust, as did his sister. The other was his sister, who was sent to the United States before their small village was taken over by Adolf Hitler’s regime.
He recently shared his story with a group of Knox Middle School eighth-graders who are studying the Holocaust.
Katz said he and his family, who were Jewish, were deported to Latvia, where they worked in a ghetto, which was guarded closely by Hitler’s troops. Katz was 13 at the time.
He said the train ride to the ghetto took nearly four days.
“Not knowing how long the journey would be, the amount of provisions people brought along was very limited,” he said. “So after a day or so people were getting hungry, but what was getting even more critical was the fact that there was nothing to drink.”
And things just got worse after arriving at the ghetto.
“When the doors finally opened, there were guards on both sides lined up in the frigid, icy weather,” Katz said. “We started to march until we reached an area that was enclosed by barbed wire.”
Inside the ghetto, provisions were slim.
When Katz went to work at a slaughterhouse and food processing plant, he was able to steal enough to keep from starving.
“When you’re very hungry, you’ll eat most things that are not edible at all,” he said.
Sneaking the food back into the ghetto to give his family was tricky, with guards monitoring the entrance at all times.
“If they would find anything on you, there was severe punishment,” he said. “But having a quick death is preferable to having a slow death by starvation.”
Luckily, Katz never got caught. But he did get taken away from his parents, with only two days notice.
“Talk about a painful goodbye,” he said. “There was a lot of talking, a lot of prayer and crying to the point where there were no more tears left to cry.”
Next, Katz arrived at a concentration camp.
He wore civilian clothing and kept mementos such as pictures with him at the ghetto.
“As we entered the concentration camp, everything was taken away,” he said. “Our clothing, our hair was shaved off, our mementos and in a final indignity our names were taken away. We just became numbers.”
Katz said one good thing about arriving at the concentration camp was reconnecting with his uncle.
“I think that’s noteworthy because there I was, I had never been away from my parents and the loneliness I felt was indescribable,” he said.
Assigned to laundry duty, Katz no longer had the option to steal food, but his uncle, who worked unloading provisions, did.
“I have no idea how he did it,” Katz said. “But he shared most generously with me and that’s part of the reason why I’m here to talk about it.”
Life was tough inside the concentration camp.
“We worked six days a week for 10 to 12 hours a day. There didn’t seem to be an end to the number of dirty clothes that came in,” Katz said. “People were dying of starvation and illness.”
Later, Katz and his uncle were taken on a ship to a concentration camp in Poland, where food became even more scarce. The camp was run by German criminals, who kept most of the provisions for themselves.
“There were no gas chambers at the camp, but the two crematoriums were kept busy day and night with people who were dying of starvation and various kind of illnesses,” Katz said.
The camp was eventually evacuated and the 700 prisoners walked westward, Katz said.
“We received a half a loaf of bread in the morning and liquid referred to as coffee, but I assure you it wasn’t anything like coffee,” Katz said.
During the journey, which lasted at least two months, the prisoners slept in abandoned barns.
“Only occasionally did we stay at one locale for more than one night,” he said. “We were losing people daily.”
Katz said the prisoners were poorly clothed and starving.
“We were all frozen, walking skeletons,” he said. “Some simply gave up and died lying in the snow.”
By the time American and British troops liberated the concentration camps, Katz was 17 years old and weighed 65 pounds.
But he prefers to call it abandonment rather than liberation because suddenly there was no one telling the prisoners what to do.
“The most immediate concern was finding something to eat,” Katz said. “We did find frozen, spoiled or molded food in the abandoned farm houses.”
He said eating that food likely contributed to even more deaths.
“When you’re hungry, you don’t know any better,” he said.
Katz eventually made it back to Germany, where he began searching for his family.
He never found his parents but was eventually reunited with his sister in the United States.
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Katz said he didn’t speak about his time in the concentration camps until much later.
“It wasn’t until 1990 that I felt our grown sons should hear the story of my family and the story of my survival,” he said.
Now, Katz, who lives in Statesville, travels to area schools to share his story.
“The opportunity for students to hear directly from survivors is rapidly disappearing,” he said. “These survivors look to you and your teachers to make every effort to make sure the millions of Holocaust victims have not suffered and died in vain.”
Katz told the students after hearing his story they are now “witnesses to the world.”
“Take what I have said and ultimately act to make this a better world,” he said. “Specifically, I want you to judge people based on what you know about them, not what other people tell you about them.”
Another lesson Katz hopes students remember is not to be bystanders.
“When you see things going wrong it is your duty to speak out in some capacity to stop that type of injustice,” he said.
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Dawn Hennessey, an eight-grade language arts teacher, invited Katz to speak to the students, who have been studying the Holocaust through books like “The Devil’s Arithmetic.”
“It takes the words off the page of a history book and puts a face to it,” she said.
Student Rayquan Shell said he was struck by Katz’s description of seeing his parents for the last time.
“I could picture him waving goodbye,” he said.
Student Irlanda Pastrana hung on Katz’s every word.
“I’ve never had someone tell me about their past like this and the details of what it was like back then,” she said.
Hennessey said she also wants to inspire her students.
“My message to these students this entire year is that you an accomplish anything you put your mind to,” she said. “It wanted them to hear that (Katz) survived through sheer will and determination when millions did not.
“They can go to high school and college and be anything they want to be.”
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.