SENSE OF THE CITY A Survivor’s Story

On a Sunday morning at the Jewish Community Center, Leo Laufer is talking. The audience today is small-just one young man, a college student working r. After an hour or so the student runs out of tape and turns off his recorder. He stifles a yawn.

But the short, unimposing man with the watery eyes and bushy sideburns keeps talking, talking. Next week, Laufer will bring his message to an SMU conference on the Holocaust. A few days later he’ll tell his story to a hundred or so Highland Park middle schoolers. One person, one hundred, five hundred: The numbers don’t matter so long as someone is listening.

Laufer, 69, is not a scholar or historian. He hasn’t even read some of the best-known books on World War II and the Holocaust. But he doesn’t have to read the footnotes; he is a footnote. Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau and Ohrdruf are not just names to him. He suffered, he was there. And as much as he suffered, his fight is not over because he fears that Time may do something the Nazis could not: wipe out the memory of six million dead. That’s why he’ll talk with anyone, anytime, to retrace the road that took him from his birthplace of Lodz, Poland, to the death camps and finally to America in 1948. Talk preserves the de id children, keep; their screams echoing in the night. Talk, he hopes, will keep the horror from happening again.

“When we are gone, when there are no more survivors, they will say it never happened,” Laufer says. “Even though it hurts, we have to tell the story.”

For years it hurt so much that Leo Laufer couldn’t talk about it. When his children asked about |the number tattooed on his left arm-143248-he would laugh and say he had put his phone number there so he wouldn’t forget. Not until years later, when a daughter in college joined a group for children of Holocaust survivors, did he realize he would have to talk.

So he told them about life before the war, when Lodz was home to 250,000 Jews. Leo grew up in the poorest part of town, one of eight children raised in a two-room flat. “We were in the ghetto before there was a ghetto,” Laufer says-meaning before May 1940, when the city’s Jews were herded into his neighborhood and the quarter was sealed off. “We were waiting all our lives for something to come from heaven,” he says of his Orthodox parents. Hitler came instead.

Leo was almost 17, small but shrewd, and he was determined to help his family survive. Outside the ghetto bread was a dollar a loaf, but inside, where money meant little, desperate Jews would pay $20 for a single slice. So Laufer persuaded a neighbor, a Catholic woman named Grabowska, to help him smuggle in food. He gave some to his family, sold the rest and slipped her the money through the fence. The system worked so well that a jealous neighbor turned him in to the Gestapo.

After two weeks of beatings and interrogations, during which he refused to inform on Mrs. Grabowska, Leo came home to find his family starving and most of their furniture burned for firewood. Angry, he went back to smuggling, but only for a few weeks. In October 1940 he was picked up again and taken, along with 200 other young men from Lodz, to a farm in the Poznan region.

For the next five months they worked, often in subzero temperatures, straightenging river channels so that the farmer’s mills would turn faster. Filthy, covered with sores and lice, they slept on straw in a cattle barn. More than half of them died from exposure and disease. “We dug a big grave back behind the barn,” Laufer recalls. “Every day we’d pitch in one, two, three. Never in my life had I dreamed human beings could do this to one another.”

Isolated, they knew little of the war and nothing of Hitler’s Final Solution for the Jews. Laufer still believed he was being punished for smuggling. It was not until the survivors were moved to a larger camp that he met Jews from all over Poland and began to glimpse the looming nightmare.

From 1941 to 1943 Laufer was shuttled from one camp to another, working on railroads and highways. He never saw a German soldier until 1943, but his captors-Poles, Latvians, Estonians-were heavily armed and capable of shocking cruelty. One day, the entire camp was forced to watch while two prisoners, caught trying to escape, were punished. The men were forced into a giant truck that was used for washing and delousing clothes. When the machine was turned on, their bodies were broken and burned like smoked meat.

In August 1943 Laufer was taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau, arriving in a group of 1,300 prisoners. Four hundred were assigned to work details; the others were sent immediately to the ovens. Laufer was in Barracks D, near the section where gypsies were kept. At night he could hear fragments of their strange songs. When he returned from work one evening, all the gypsies were gone-thousands killed in a single day. “You could see all the chimneys spewing flames,” Laufer remembers. “You could smell the flesh.”

Despite the daily atrocities, three years in the slave labor camps had hardened Laufer. Auschwitz held few new terrors. And for those driven beyond despair, he knew, suicide was as close as the electric fences. “Not a day went by you wouldn’t find people hanging on the wire,” Laufer says. While he was in Auschwitz, the last transport from Lodz arrived. Among the new prisoners was Leo’s older brother. Separated by the wire, they spoke for the last time.

Then came Dachau and Buchenwald, and in 1945, Ohrdruf. In March, as Allied forces drew near, the camp was evacuated. Amid the chaos of the shelling, Laufer and three others escaped. Days later, close to starvation, they returned to find Ohrdruf had been liberated by American soldiers.

Eventually Laufer made his way to Dallas and a successful career in business, starting as a warehouse worker and rising to vice president of a clothing store chain. He later opened his own store, Sophie’s Choice, in North Dallas. But family and affluence didn’t give him all the answers he needed. Returning to Poland in 1983, he was overjoyed to find Mrs. Grabowska still living in Lodz. With much difficulty he located the farm on the Dojka River, reassuring himself of its reality.

And on a 1987 trip, an archivist helped him learn the fate of his parents and most of his siblings. Nazi records, surprisingly meticulous, show they were taken on “Transport III” to the area near Chelmno, Poland, where they were gassed in trucks. Almost 400,000 lie buried there in mass graves. Laufer even spoke with a Polish farmer who had lived nearby. Yes, he remembered the trucks, had heard the screams. But what could he do? “Where were these millions of bystanders?” Laufer asks.

How long ago it already seems, how unreal. Only by an effort of will and imagination can we project ourselves into the hell that Laufer knew, to hear the cries and see the staring corpses stacked like firewood. New tragedies crowd out the old: sleeping tourists blown out of the sky, Iraqis fried in their trucks near Basra, ethnic cleansing. Diplomats argue while the guns roar and the rape camps thrive. Perhaps the only thing we learn from history is that we do not learn from history. But Leo Laufer keeps talking. He suffered, he was there.

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