NEWS

Auschwitz laundry worker to display valuables culled from victims' clothing

Richard Cherecwich

Brighton resident Meyer Hack endured unspeakable horrors during World War II, where as a prisoner of the Nazi concentration camps, he lost his family and saw thousands perish.

In a place created to destroy people, Hack refused to be dehumanized and cheated death. He tied a string around his neck and pulled it before daily inspection, rushing blood to his head and hiding his yellow, jaundiced skin. Otherwise, if he appeared sick, he might have been sent to the gas chamber.

As a laundry worker at the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, he found valuables that gave him hope — diamond rings, gold watches and large emeralds — that he recovered from the confiscated clothes of inmates.

On Jan. 20, he will display the small collection at a special Holocaust-Armenian Genocide exhibit at the Armenian Library and Museum of America in Watertown.

More importantly, Hack, 92, will share his incredible story of survival and the unwavering refusal to die that the jewelry represents.

“I have to talk to clean this diary. Anne Frank wrote a diary, she’s dead. This diary, I could talk for a year and I would never clean it out,” Hack said, seated in the dining room of his Nottinghill Road home. “There’s no detergent in the world to clean this diary,” he said, pointing to his chest.

Hack is thin, with his curly hair slicked back on his head. He said he remembers every step of his six years under Nazi rule, from the German invasion of his hometown of Ciechanow in Poland in 1939 to when he arrived at Auschwitz and its satellite camp, Birkenau, in 1941. He saw cold-blooded murder, smelled the gas chamber and saw babies burned. He was given a number, 73,688, which is still on his left arm today.

“I was a piece of meat. I was not human. I had no feeling. I had no sense, no enjoyment,” he said. “You are like a robot. I didn’t have any sympathy. I know through and through what they can do to you. I wanted to save my life.”

Working in the clothing brigade, Hack was responsible for issuing new prisoners their bundle of striped prison clothes and taking the confiscated clothing. As prisoners from richer areas of Europe, like France and the Netherlands, entered the camps, they also brought with them fur coats and gold and jewelry, which Hack found in the clothing and hid in a stocking.

“Obviously, there’s overwhelming sadness at the tragedy of imagining these people hiding these things, hoping maybe that ring would buy them passage out of there and instead, they perished,” said Susie Davidson, a Brookline author who planned the exhibit. “Although material, they represented hopes and dreams that never materialized.”

To Hack, the gold coins, bracelets and watches he found represented a return to humanity in a place bent on reducing you to nothing.

“You find some gold, you fished it out,” Hack said. “So you find one, two pieces; you were desperate for more and more and more.”

In January 1945, Hack and 18,000 prisoners began a death march toward concentration camps still under German control. The prisoners were split up, and Hack arrived at Dachau, near Munich, in Germany. The prisoners were immediately quarantined because of a typhus panic and lined up by their barracks for disinfection. Prisoners were required to dispose of their clothes prior to disinfection, meaning Hack would lose the stocking and possibly, after surviving so much, his life.

“They’d take the sock away and they’d kill me. No question about it. Hang me,” he said.

Hack saw his friend, Avram Guttman, from Ciechanow, had a lower bunk number and knew he should already be disinfected. He began to yell out for Guttman, and when he came, Hack risked his life to sneak out of line and hand him the sock.

That night, he smuggled himself to Guttman’s barrack to get back his valuables. He had a full stocking before, but much of what he had saved was now gone. His friend was an officer in the Polish army and planned to go to Israel after the war with the valuables.

Hack was liberated from Dachau in 1945, and in 1950, he and his wife, Sylvia, whom he met in the camps, arrived in Boston on a military supply ship.