Earlier this year, Hana Green, a student in Cohort V, met Holocaust survivor Zev Kedem. She and Dr. Yael Granot-Bein invited him to share in a Research Forum. We were very fortunate to hear his story. Here’s what he shared:
The Germans invaded Poland in 1939, Zev was only 5 years old. He and his sister were on holiday, which was cut short, his mother made them leave early. Zev remembers being so upset, he said, “Little did I know that this darkness of the Holocaust would pursue me for six years.” They took the train back which stopped short of home, he and his family had to walk through Krakow in the middle of the night, to their grandparent’s home.
Zev shared about another time they traveled together; they were walking when they came upon a German checkpoint in the road, many cars were lined up to go through the checkpoint. Zev’s mother was very beautiful and charismatic, she went right up the a German soldier’s truck and convinced them to give her and Zev a ride into Krakow. Alone, they would likely suffer at the checkpoint. As they got into the car, Zev’s mother looked down at him and said, “See, the impossible is possible.” He remembered this the rest of his life, and made it a sort of mantra.
In 1941, all Jews in the area were forced into the Krakow ghetto, before this Zev’s family was living outside Krakow in poor conditions. Zev and his family were hoping to live with his grandparents in the Krakow ghetto, but they already had three other families living in their apartment. Zev and his family moved into the apartment next door in order to be close, Zev said they were proud to had a whole, small, room to themselves, and even a bed. Food was scarce, life was hard and then the deportations started.
The deportations forced a division in the ghetto, those with a work permit lived in one section of the ghetto, those without lived in another section. Zev’s mother had a work permit, and she was the only one in the family with one. Hunger forced Zev to smuggle food. Children were less suspicious, so he snuck out of the ghetto with his head down and shoulders up. A habit, he admits, he still keeps today. While he was out two German soldiers called him out and started asking questions, but two pretty Polish girls came and talked to the soldiers, giving Zev an escape. He went to the farms he had stayed at, along with his family, and they gave him some food, not much but as much as they could afford. When he returned his mother was frantic but they had food.
In March 1943, the Krakow Ghetto was liquidated; as Zev stood in the crowded square, a man was shot and fell next to him. His mother came and grabbed him from the crowd, she hid Zev, his sister, and his grandparents in his uncle’s pigeon coop. She told them to stay there, she closed the coop, locked the doors leading to the coop and went back to work. They could still hear the deportation for two or three more hours, then silence.
A truck came through and announced to anyone in hiding that if they didn’t come out they would be shot on sight. Then they heard shooting gradually coming toward them. Zev heard a Nazi making his way up to them. He stood at a metal door which his mother had locked, so as to look like no one could be behind the door. Zev’s grandparents had vials of poison but Zev realized they only had two, so he and his sister would have to endure what the Nazis had in store. Zev said, “You can’t realize how a child of seven or eight has to internalize the direct fear of death.” But the German didn’t come through the locked door, his mother had hid them well.
An announcement was made among the workers of the ghetto for volunteers to go through the quarter and salvage valuables. Zev’s mother, of course, volunteered. She came and saved them, Zev’s grandparents could pass as laborers but she knew she needed to hide the children. She negotiated with her wedding ring to hide them in a wagon which was used to bring the valuables back to a warehouse.
But he didn’t make it to the warehouse. He was pulled from the wagon and told to go to an unfinished barrack alone, it was dark and he heard someone moaning in pain next to him. He didn’t know this was part of the plan. Then his mother came in with a doctor, he said to Zev, “if you want to stay alive you will have to be silent and invisible.” Zev attached himself to a group of older boys; they became his camouflage. He followed them wherever they went.
He ended up working with them in a brush factory. He sat in the back row on top of a box to make himself look taller, and older. He was only eight years old, the age limit was thirteen, any younger than thirteen, and the children couldn’t work so they were killed. Zev shared his perspective while at the factory, he said “I realized I had no right what so ever to be alive in the concentration camp. Many of the inmates had lost their children, so they resented me.” In order to prove his worth, he made more brushes than anyone in the factory. He sat next to a man who had been a teacher, all of his students had been killed, he said to Zev, “If you survive, you won’t be a human being unless you learn to read and write.” Somehow he got Zev a Jules Vern novel, and taught Zev how to read.
One day in the factory, a man was shot by a German guard. The guard said the man was working slowly, the thought was that it would terrorize everyone to make them work harder. Then the small boy in the back, Zev, caught the eye of this German. Luckily, Zev spoke German, he told the guard admittedly that he was smaller, but this meant that he ate less, and he proved his productiveness with his hard work. The guard was conflicted but left Zev alone. Zev explained that he never gave himself the luxury of feeling like he was suffering, rather he told himself he was playing a game, and winning the game meant survival.
Dr. Gross, the doctor that Zev had met before, was on Oscar Schindler’s list, Zev and Dr. Gross became very close, he was something of an adoptive father to Zev. Dr. Gross pulled strings to get Zev, Zev’s sister and Zev’s mother on Schindler’s list as well. Zev recalled that they travelled all over the Third Reich to different factories with other people on the list. During one of the their travels the women’s train, where Zev’s mother was, was sent to Auschwitz but Schinder negotiated for their return before they were killed, he sent a train to pick them up. The train conductor took five boys with him to Auschwitz on this train meant to save the women. Zev was abducted onto this train.
Zev arrived to Auschwitz in October 1944, he remembers the gates were closed so they were ordered to walk around the entire perimeter of the camp to the crematoriums in the back. They were ordered to strip naked, Zev knew about the gas chambers and he was sure he would be killed. But they were taken to a table, and a man started tattooing a number on Zev’s arm; Zev cried, not because it hurt, which it did, but because he was so happy, a number meant registration to the camp, which meant a chance for survival.
He and the four other boys were taken to the children’s barrack. Zev explained that they were on reserve for Dr. Mengele’s experiments. He remembers a young handsome looking German coming into the barrack and offering sweets, Zev hid under a mud covered blanket, he didn’t trust this man. The children that left with, who he assumed to be, Mengele, never came back.
When the Russians were closing in on Auschwitz, Zev was convinced that those who couldn’t march would be killed: the sick and the elderly (and the young), so he volunteered to leave. Eventually he made it to Mauthausen Concentration Camp, he worked in one of the fifty sub-camps but towards the end of the war he returned to Mauthausen. In Mauthausen there were two fields of labor: the death industry, and the quarry. Zev knew he wouldn’t be strong enough for the quarry so he worked as a Sonderkommando.
One day, he recalls, he came out of the hospital (where he worked clearing dead bodies) and the gates to the camp were open. Soldiers were standing at the main entrance to the camp, and he was convinced they would kill him because he was still under thirteen years old, so he ran. He discovered that the kitchen of the SS was completely empty so he ate as much potato salad as he could, which wasn’t very much. He remembers, “To this day, I have never had a better meal.”
As he left, he came upon more soldiers, one of them threw him a chocolate bar, but he still didn’t trust them, because of Mengele and his sweets. He took a closer look at the soldiers and realized one of them was black, so he knew these soldiers weren’t German, and that he could trust them.
He left Mauthausen and sought refuge in nearby villages, but he says “I got shot at more during this time than ever before.” Austrians were afraid of the inmates because they were scared of them for two reasons: the truth they held and of their illnesses.
After the war, the American troops organized for Zev to be sent to the UK. There he grew up with an adoptive family, and received an Oxford education. After forty years, Zev met his mother again in communist Poland, on her deathbed. It was hard to get a visa to Poland, but he managed it. One of the after effects of the Holocaust was divided families, and this was very much Zev’s case as well.
Today Zev lives in Haifa, Israel. He lives a very active life sharing his education and experience with University students. We were pleased to host him and hear his heart-wrenching story.
Interested in applying for our MA in Holocaust Studies Program? You can find the application and more information at our website