Centenarian David Sroka shares his story of survival

Holocaust survivor David Sroka along with five other centenarians was recently inducted into the Goodman Jewish Family Services’ inaugural Centenarian Club. I met with David in his Hallandale Beach home.

Holocaust survivor David Sroka.Photo by Linda Chase

Photo by Linda Chase

Holocaust survivor David Sroka. Photo by Linda Chase

“I was born May 10, 1923 in a small town in Poland located near the German border. My father’s name was Shalom and my mother was Fremata. My father, a fifth-generation butcher, owned a kosher butcher store. I was the fourth of five children. I had four sisters, however only my oldest sibling survived the Holocaust. My sister and I were separated when the war began in 1939. We reunited when I visited her in Germany in 1960. Prior to the war we were one big happy family. My maternal grandmother lived with us. Sadly, my grandmother had poor vision and died from injuries she sustained when she fell down the stairs. I attended public school in the morning and cheder (Jewish school) in the afternoon. Life for Poland’s Jews changed abruptly when German troops invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, triggering the start of World War II. I was 16 when the war began and I remember that the Germans practically burned down our entire town. In an attempt to escape, my family headed north. Unfortunately, the German soldiers caught up with us and sent me and my family back to our town. Miraculously our building was still standing, so we were able to temporarily live in our home. My uncle’s building burned down and he moved in with his family. Three months after the war began, the Germans turned our town into a ghetto and my family was forced to live there. While living in the ghetto I was permitted to work during the day. I helped deliver supplies to surrounding towns with a man who owned a horse and wagon. The Germans arrested my father and I never saw him again. One day I was selected along with a group of 50 people to work in the Posen labor camp. Posen was one of the first camps established in occupied Poland. It was located about 50 miles from my hometown. I recall that sometimes we had to walk three or four miles as we worked. I remember passing a bakery named Sroka. It was spelled the same as my name, but they were gentiles”.

David recalled being imprisoned at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

“After spending a few years in one labor camp or another, I was transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in September 1943. Auschwitz-Birkenau was originally an army barrack that was converted into a concentration and extermination camp following Germany’s invasion of Poland. After I arrived by train, I was deemed healthy to undergo forced labor and was marched to the Birkenau section of the large complex. The next morning I was stripped of all my clothes, completely shaved of all hair, disinfected and showered before being tattooed with a registration number. I was given the number  143634. I was then issued the infamous striped uniform and clogged shoes to wear for the strenuous work. The Nazis had a classification system for identifying its prisoners. The badges sewn onto prisoner uniforms enabled SS guards to identify the alleged grounds for incarceration. Jews were identified by a yellow star (a perversion of the Jewish Star of David). Other triangle classifications included: red for political, green for criminals, pink for homosexual, purple for Jehovah’s Witnesses and black for nonconformists, vagrants and other groups. Every morning I lined up and was assigned a work detail. My work included paving the roads within the complex and working with surveyors when the crematoriums were being constructed (which I was not aware of at the time). When I worked on the roads I would pick up cigarette butts off the ground and trade the tobacco with Polish prisoners for scraps of bread. One of my worst experiences I can recall during my imprisonment occurred only days after my arrival. I was accused of urinating in my shoes and another man was accused of stealing a piece of bread. Our punishment: we had our hands tied behind our backs and suspended from a tree with our feet dangling. After a while, they let us down. I often hid from Dr. Josef Mengele, the infamous Nazi doctor, to avoid being selected for one of his experiments. Once I was hiding near Mengele’s feet and a man hid me so I wouldn’t be discovered. It turned out that the man who saved my life was a Polish priest. Another responsibility I was given was making people feel calm as they were placed in one of two lines after disembarking the trains. When an unaware prisoner would ask if the smoke coming from the chimneys was a bakery, you had to keep your mouth shut or you would be killed. I remember a woman (whose father was a rabbi) lived in my town and recognized me. I insisted that she let her daughter go on line with her husband so that the child might be saved from death, but the mother wanted to have the child with her. Separated from my own family, I could relate to that family’s anguish. I found out after the war that my mother and three of my sisters were murdered. I was smart and resourceful, that’s how I survived my imprisonment in the camp”.

David reflected on his liberation.

“I was liberated by American soldiers near Munich, Germany in 1945 when I was 21. I found work as a driver for a Jewish organization that helped people board ships immigrating to Israel. I also drove people from one displaced persons camp to another. Then I worked as a driver for HIAS, the Jewish American nonprofit organization that provides humanitarian aid and assistance to refugees. Determined to move to America, I left Munich and went to France where I boarded the Queen Mary and arrived in New York one day after Passover ended on April 29, 1951. My first job in New York was in a butcher shop making $25 a week. I soon sent for my future wife who I met while living in Munich. We were married in December 1952 and enjoyed 72 years together until her death. She was a comptroller at the Hotel Astor, a luxury hotel on Times Square in Midtown Manhattan. She worked there until the property was closed in 1967. She also worked for banker David Rockefeller on Wall Street. We moved to Florida in 1974 where I worked in the beauty supplies business. I was also a handyman in my younger days”.

David shared his words of wisdom.

“You have to be nice and respectful towards people and try to be helpful. If you help someone, it all comes back”.

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