Synopsis: Hannah Kozak traces her father’s footsteps of his stay in eight Nazi forced labor camps in Germany from 1943 until liberation on May 8, 1945.
My father, a Holocaust survivor, was never a victim. His unresolved grief and sadness became a catalyst for ambition. His parents were Orthodox Jews who in my father’s words, “never had money in the bank and lived hand to mouth.” As one of eight children, he was the only one of his family to survive, including his parents and grandparents.
To achieve their goal of exterminating every Jew in Europe, the Germans created 1,634 concentration camps and satellite concentration camps, six death camps and 900 labor camps. From ages fifteen to twenty, my father survived eight of those camps in Germany.
Before the camps, my father was forced into the ghetto, the worst area of Bedzin, Poland. He was allowed to leave the residential district only to do forced labor, working for starvation wages making uniforms for soldiers.
In those camps, my father suffered from Tuberculosis. He had asthma and bronchitis his entire life because of the conditions he was forced to live under. I remember when we would be driving, he would frequently have to pull over and open his driver’s door to lean his head out and spit.
When Dernau, the final camp he was in was liberated on May 8, 1945, he collapsed at sixty-five pounds. He remembers hearing someone say in Yiddish, “the Russians are coming, the Russians are coming.” He spent a year in a sanitarium called Marine House; a place mainly for people with Tuberculosis. The picture of him in the uniform was taken after he was released when he and another survivor took turns taking photos in the uniform. At that time, at 5’8”, my father weighed between 110 and 115 pounds.
He worked as an aircraft inspector for Hughes Aircraft for twenty years but he was always selling something on the side. He brought, leased and built homes, at one point owning eleven homes in a San Fernando Valley suburb of Los Angeles.
At lunchtime, his co-workers would line up for the leather coats he sold from the trunk of his car. He also drove to downtown Los Angeles on his lunch hour where he bought thousands of pairs of secondhand jeans and shirts. When most people were eating lunch, this hour became another way for my father to make money. All his children knew not to call him at work for this reason. We spent the 1980’s working the swap meets on Saturdays and Sundays selling the clothing. I learned how to sell from watching him.
My father married twice. After his second wife died from a brain tumor when he was eighty-years old, he sold his home in Los Angeles and moved to Las Vegas, a city he always loved since he first arrived in the U.S from Poland. The lights, craps tables and the memories of marrying my mother, who had been there with him, all held a special place for him.
He was a proud, resilient man. Even though he suffered a stroke at 80 and a heart attack at 85, he continued on. His spiritual outlook on life led him to believe he survived the labor camps because of he had angels guiding him. He told me in 2010, at the age of eighty-five, that he thought he had ten years left to live. He was wrong, he had only two. Watching my father die in a sterile hospital seemed like a privilege compared to how his entire family was killed by gassings at Auschwitz and Treblinka.
I often wondered about his hands. Those strong hands dug potatoes with two friends from the barracks in the hard, dirt ground, in the dark, as he was a prisoner who worked in eight Nazi camps. The next night he decided not to go out when his friends started to leave. Not only were his friends caught but their punishment for stealing potatoes was being hung. He told me about taking his hand and wiping the back of his neck, seeing it filled with crawling vermin from the filthy conditions in the forced labor camps he lived in.
His feet, I wondered about the towns he walked in Poland alone, after a year in the hospital, looking for his family after he was liberated from Dernau on May 8, 1945. I can’t imagine what it felt like to know there wasn’t one family member or friend on the face of the earth who knew who he was. No one who remembered one of his birthdays, no one to recall a favorite story with, no one to share a “remember when we ditched school” laugh.
My father raised the bar on survival for me. Nothing in my life will ever compare to what he has seen so I am sharing part of him here. Giving shape to something painful and sharing it helps us to process our grief and to decrease the burden of what we carry. I find sharing healing, instead of covering up secrets from childhood.
My father was never comfortable expressing his emotions. Allowing me to photograph him as much as I liked was one way he showed his love for me. I loved his accent. Pajama was peejama. I still hear his voice when I go outside with wet hair that “you’re going to get sick.”
I have traveled to Poland numerous times to see the camps he was in and the killing centers where his family were murdered while tracing his steps to all of the camps he was forced into. Dernau, in particular, quieted me while awakening every sense. I saw the barbed wire fence that kept him prisoner, as he was close to death, I heard crickets and the ever present singing of birds that seem to sing differently in Poland, than the U.S. I wondered if he could have heard the running water from the creek surrounding the camp. Could he see the tall, sinewy trees? Making it out alive was a combination of his will, his intuition, luck and a miracle.
My father asked me to tell his story towards the end of his life. I took this as a task as well as a love letter to him. As a 2nd generation survivor, perhaps this is a reason for my existence. I am currently working on a short film called Survivor as well as completed a photo essay. My photography is the voice that continues after his death.
I am fascinated by the remains of the war, as a cloud of darkness from my father’s past has haunted me since I was ten years old. I grabble to understand mans inhumanity to man. I understand now, that I will never truly comprehend what happened to my family but my continued sojourns to Poland, help me to see answers to my questions, in person.
To date, I have traveled to 18 camps in total in Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic. My photographs highlight the transformative role of the artist in producing images that thoughtfully investigate the process of pain and healing. The documentary also gives an extensive history of the Holocaust.
My father Abram Izrael Kozuch AKA Sol Kozak
Prisoner #34 598
Born: Bedzin, Poland July 25, 1925
Transition: West Hills, CA Dec 25, 2012
Timeline in the labor camps from 1942-1945
1. Markstädt - Laskovitzeh (1942-1943)
2. Klettendorf - Klecina (1943 January to 1943 May)
3. Hundsfeld - Psie Pole (1943 June to 1943 December)
4. Hirschberg - Jelenia Góra (1943 December to 1944 June)
5. Bad Warmbrunn - Cieplice Åšlā…skie (1945 January)
6. Erdmannsdorf - Mysłakowice
7. Hirschberg - Jelenia Góra
8. Dörnhau - Kolce (May 8, 1945) Liberation