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Here's What I Learned When My Dad Finally Agreed To Tell Me About His Time At Auschwitz

"A few weeks after his 94th birthday, I opened my laptop and watched him disclose the secrets of his childhood I’d waited decades to hear."
The author and her father, Joseph Kanarek, at lunch in Kansas City, Missouri, in 2018.
The author and her father, Joseph Kanarek, at lunch in Kansas City, Missouri, in 2018.

During coverage of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, I spotted a man wearing a “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirt. My nails digging into my palms, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing any more than I could understand how 48% of U.S. adults under 40 could not name one concentration camp, including Auschwitz.

I knew the name of the camp well. My father, before his death last fall, was one of fewer than 2,000 Auschwitz survivors worldwide. A few weeks after his 94th birthday, I opened my laptop and watched him disclose the secrets of his childhood I’d waited decades to hear.

For two years, I videotaped my father revealing stories that had been too painful to share sooner. Growing up in a Midwest family with four siblings, my pediatrician father, and my mother, who refused to let us ask him about his history, I knew little of his time during World War II. She encouraged him to never speak of his past. 

Reports of anti-Semitism and neo-Nazi propaganda posted online are a chilling reminder that we can’t forget what happened during the Holocaust. When he was 71, I asked him to share his story with the USC Shoah Foundation, an institute gathering testimonies.

“They’ll send someone to videotape you in your home,” I told him. 

“No, I’m not ready,” he said then.

I waited 20 years to ask him again. To my surprise, he agreed. Words on paper wouldn’t showcase his slight Polish accent, his black and gray hair neatly combed, and his nearly wrinkle-free face making him look 10 years younger.

While filming our first session, he described the way he viewed his life in three distinct chapters: before, during and after the war. 

He shared his idyllic childhood in pre-war Poland. His blue eyes brightened as he remembered swimming in the Plonka river in the summer and ice skating in the winter. “We were very happy in Poland during that early time,” he said.

After the Germans invaded Poland, they confiscated his home, and his parents and younger sister moved in with his grandparents. Soon after, they were moved to the Plonsk, Poland, ghetto where they lived from 1940 until 1942, when they were deported to Auschwitz.  

After describing the loss of his family, my father asked me to pause the camera and he dropped his head. ... I feared I had made a mistake by asking him to unlock his memory.

When he embarked on Chapter 2, my father’s face turned solemn and he leaned forward. He revealed that soon after his family arrived at Auschwitz, men were directed to one line, while women, children and the elderly were sent to another. Tall for a 15-year-old, he was able to blend in with the men after rushing across from his mother’s line to his father’s. Guards led away the elderly and the women who were capable of working but unwilling to leave their children. My father never saw his mother and sister again. He and his father labored in the same concentration camp until 1944 when my grandfather was sent to another camp and ultimately perished. 

After describing the loss of his family, my father asked me to pause the camera and he dropped his head. I wrapped my arms around his shaking shoulders as he pressed a tissue to his eyes. I feared I had made a mistake by asking him to unlock his memory.

“We can stop filming, Dad,” I told him.

“No, it’s better to do it now while I’m still here,” he said. 

His positive attitude, unfathomable as I pictured the challenges and horrors he was relaying, didn’t falter. I pushed the record button and he detailed how he survived in one camp, then another.

“I had a job working in the kitchen and somehow my finger got infected,” he said. After work, he visited the camp hospital and was told he needed surgery. Every week, inspections were held to determine who was well enough to be sent back to work. Those who weren’t would disappear in a truck and only their clothes would return. “When I was in the camp hospital, they were doing the inspections so the male nurses got me up and dressed me,” my father said, never knowing why they acted in this way to save his life. He was later assigned to work in the clothing warehouse.  

As the Russians drew closer, the guards scrambled to empty the camp. My father and his father were moved to separate camps. Before my father was transferred to Dora-Mittelbau concentration camp in 1945, he and other prisoners were sent on a forced death march. After they reached the train station, they rode in open cars from Poland to Czechoslovakia with no food or water for days. “It was snowing, so we just ate the snow,” he said. When they stopped in Czechoslovakia, women on their way home from shopping tossed bread into the prisoners’ locked train. 

When he arrived at the camp, he recognized one of the Polish prisoners from the first camp: “He said to me, ‘Josef, they lost all the papers, so they don’t know who is who.’” He told my father to replace his yellow star with a triangle patch which would identify him as a Pole instead of a Jew. He initially worked on the V-2 rockets but when the same friend told him about the hospital needing skilled labor, my father reported there for work. 

The author and her father at her childhood home in Overland Park, Kansas, in 2017.
The author and her father at her childhood home in Overland Park, Kansas, in 2017.

The guards loaded prisoners on a train bound for Bergen-Belsen and my father stayed behind with the hospital staff. “We thought they were going to kill everyone who couldn’t walk, but the German doctor in charge believed they wouldn’t,” he said. He remained with the group at the hospital while the prisoners marched out.

When he awoke the next morning, the imposing guard towers were empty. The Germans had dropped their rifles, changed into civilian clothes and fled the camp. Within an hour or two, the remaining prisoners heard the sound of tanks rolling in. The U.S. Army had arrived to liberate the camp. Along with their freedom, the prisoners were offered food and clothing. “We ran over and hugged them,” he said, with tears in his eyes. “We couldn’t believe that we were alive, that we were liberated.” 

For the filming of Chapter 3, my father described traveling from Germany to New York at age 19, where he was united with his aunt, uncle and first cousin. After graduating from college, he attended medical school in Mexico City. Less than a year after my 28-year-old father started dating my mother, they married, had two children, then moved back to the United States where I was born, the first-generation American on both sides of the family.

While in his residency, a patient asked him about the number tattooed on his forearm. Noting her look of pity, he had the tattoo removed. I remember seeing, but not asking him about, the faint blue line, the only remainder of his number, 79777. His patients and their families never knew he was a Holocaust survivor until they read his obituary. 

During his last few months, when his walker guided his weakened legs, I spent more time alone with my dad than I had in years — a luxury I craved as a middle child. He shared anecdotes about relatives I never met, the challenges he faced in a new country, and his favorite topic: family. Unlike other people who shut down after one-too-many probing questions, my father often said, “Ask me anything.”  

In the last videos I recorded, I asked him something I had wondered since the first day we filmed. 

“Why did you wait so long to share your story?”

“I didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me,” he answered.

When I asked my father to film his life story, I wanted a permanent record told in his words to share with my family. I expected him to gloss over the horrific scenes from the concentration camps — to protect me. I’m grateful he didn’t. Instead he trusted me with stories like how he saw desperate prisoners fling themselves against electric fences and how he was forced to watch prisoners hanged for escaping.

When I asked my father to film his life story, I wanted a permanent record told in his words to share with my family. I expected him to gloss over the horrific scenes from the concentration camps — to protect me. I’m grateful he didn’t.

As difficult as it was for him to share his stories, making the videos allowed me to connect with him and to change the way I viewed him. I finally understood his refusal to watch movies with suspects being interrogated or bloody fight scenes. I could see why he wanted to grow his already large brood. I felt ashamed for believing his inability to show anger — he never yelled — at times made him seem passive. Learning about what he endured made me see him not only as strong and resilient but someone who didn’t let his past discourage him from building his future. 

Viewing those first videos more than three years after they were filmed, the dam was open and his stories continued to flow. “I want to tell you about how I found my first cousin after the war,” he said. “Did you know that my father and mother were next-door neighbors before they fell in love?” 

Each time we met, until a few days before he died, I stopped him before he could tell another story. “Wait, I want to film this,” I said while slipping my phone out of my pocket and pressing the video button. Other times, I recorded his stories using my voice memos app.  

Last year, while helping him organize his home office, I found his yellow star tucked between black-and-white family photos and a paper with frayed edges identifying him as a former prisoner of a concentration camp. Holding the faded piece of fabric, I took in a sharp breath as I read the word “Jude” (Jew) stamped in black.

Videos like my father’s are invaluable for educating future generations. I still can’t watch Chapter 2 without clenching my jaw and wiping my tears. While I miss him daily, I’m relieved he didn’t have to witness a rioter glorifying a place that destroyed his family.

As our parents and grandparents age, we grow one day closer to losing the opportunity to learn their life stories. I’m grateful my father trusted me with his. By unlocking his memories and allowing me to record the events in his life, my father left behind a gift for generations to come. My gift to him is to ensure his story lives on. 

Lisa Kanarek has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Reader’s Digest, CNBC, and PBS’s Next Avenue. Her father’s video was recently added to the video archive collection of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Read more at lisakanarek.com.

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