Holocaust survivor recalls horror

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As Jews around the world gather together to remember that fateful November night 75 years ago that Nazis called "Kristallnacht," which roughly translates to "The Night of Broken Glass" or "Crystal Night," and has come to signify the start of the Holocaust, one Hassag concentration camp survivor says he will never forget the years that followed.

Sitting in his Buckeye Court home, staring out large picture windows at the sweeping city views below, Petaluma resident and Polish-Jewish immigrant Henry Libicki recalled his experiences in Nazi-occupied Poland during the 1930s and '40s.

"I remember it like it was yesterday," said 86-year-old Libicki, his once-thick accent softened by years spent living in the United States. "Germans came into Poland on Sept. 3 (1939). The next day, they started shooting people in the town square."

In the small village of Klobuck, Poland where he grew up with his baker parents and a brother and two sisters, a 12-year-old Libicki watched in horror that day as soldiers gunned down the two sons of his local rabbi — children he had known and played with for years.

"I ran home as fast as I could, crying and frightened," he said softly, his hands folded in his lap, his eyes glazed over in a blank stare. "After that, everything changed. There were new rules for us Jews. If you followed the rules, you lived. If not, you died. But the rules changed daily and it was a struggle to keep up."

For the Libicki family, fear became a state of normalcy during the next three years. In Nazi-occupied Poland curfews were issued, Jewish storefronts were shut down and freedoms were snatched away.

Libicki's father was a wholesaler of grain and flour. Unlike many Jewish businesses that were forced to close, the Germans stationed in his town allowed the Libicki family to continue running their business. All around, his young eyes watched as local temples were burned to the ground and soldiers filled the streets.

"I don't even know where to start trying to explain how difficult those years were," said Libicki, "because they don't compare to the years that followed — the two years my family and I spent in Hassag."

When Libicki turned 15, the entire Jewish population was removed from his village. "There had been people taken away before that, but this was everyone who was left," he said.

Libicki and his family rode together to the Polish labor camp known as Hassag, where they would spend the next two years fighting to survive.

"I was lucky that I got sent to a camp with my entire family," Libicki said. "If I hadn't had them there with me, I may not have made it."

He spent the next two years working as the camp blacksmith. "The first day I was there, I poured water over metal to cool it," he said. "It seemed like a silly job, but I did whatever I could."

Libicki said he was always hungry, with barely enough to eat most days. "But 'enough to eat' is a relative term because at least I wasn't starving to death like so many others," he said as he smiled.

The teenage Libicki survived constant beatings, torture, mental intimidation and harassment, relying on his family for strength.

"I was lucky that I got to see my loved ones almost daily," he said. "None of us looked good, but at least we saw each other."

At times, Libicki and his brother would fill in on jobs for his ailing 43-year-old father, who suffered from asthma and constantly coughed up blood.

"He had seizures too, but we never knew when those were coming and we couldn't fill in for him then," said Libicki.

Five of the six Libicki family members survived the two years they spent in Hassag. The day before the Russians came and liberated the camp, his 20-year-old brother was taken away on a "death march." Though Libicki wasn't with his brother, he eventually tracked down the man his brother had been chained to during the march.

"The man told me that my brother had said he couldn't take it anymore, that he wanted to die," said Libicki. "He ran away and the guards shot him."

The next day, Libicki and the rest of his family were freed. There was no law, no rules, no humanity, said Libicki. "We watched as the tortured became the torturers, as Jews took revenge on their oppressors and we, again, tried to survive," he said.

Eventually, Libicki and his family made it to Germany and later to the United States. He married a fellow Polish woman named Lucille and became an engineer. But he has never forgotten his experiences during the war.

"The way to truly stop another Kristallnacht from ever occurring is to eliminate hate," said Libicki. "I had to do it, and I was lucky that I was able to. Many other survivors have allowed it to consume them and ruin their lives."

As proof of his forgiveness, Libicki recalled an incident two days after he was freed from Hassag.

"Some of the Jews had taken a Ukranian guard as a prisoner after we were freed," he said. "This guard used to beat me very badly in the camp — sometime to within an inch of death. The boys were holding him, pressing a rock into my hand, telling me to hit him, bash his head in. But I felt sick."

Libicki said he looked at the young Ukranian — not much older than he was, disheveled and hungry, frightened and crying — and felt that he couldn't promote further hate if he were ever going to "truly live life." He sent the guard on his way, unharmed.

"At the time I was embarrassed that I let him go," said Libicki. "My friends made fun of me. But I just knew then, what I know now. We have to eliminate hate from our hearts and our minds. That's how we stop another Kristallnacht."

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)

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