Friday, June 20, 2014

Finding the way back ... a long way back

(24th in a series)
         In mid-January 1945, Dad (Louis Van Thyn) and the 26 other prisoners remaining in the Janina mining camp -- a satellite camp of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp -- weren't sure what to do next.
         Sure, they were grateful to the Russian Army members who found them in the camp abandoned only a little more than a week earlier by the Nazis. But they also received little help from those Russians in terms of their futures.
Reality is that my Dad (Louis Van Thyn) was in a group like this in
 Auschwitz--Birkenau camp and its satellite camps (from
         It appeared their lives had been spared, that they were free after some 2 1/2 years under Nazi Germany's control. But they couldn't know how much freedom was out there in southern Poland, that the Nazis weren't waiting for them in the forests.
          And besides the scraps given them by the Russians, they were damn hungry. Malnourished, some of them ill and just hanging on, they were desperate for a future.
          And what of their families? What had become of the people they loved? For Dad, that meant his original family in Amsterdam -- mother, father, two brothers, one sister-in-law, one baby nephew -- and the family he'd married into in Antwerp -- wife, in-laws, sister-in-law.
          Lots of questions, no immediate answers. The answers to the family part would be forthcoming ... horrible answers.
           But Dad didn't know that at Janina. What he knew was he -- and the others -- needed a way out.
           Obviously, Dad made his way back home -- both homes -- but the route he took, the challenges he faced, weren't easy ones. Before he went west, he went east.
           In fact, he would go from Poland to Romania and would wind up in Russia, then back west to France and finally to Belgium ... and he wore a Russian Army uniform for much of his trip.
           It is a trip he talked about in his 1996 USC Shoah Foundation interview, and the trip began with a couple of stops in southern Poland. His recall is a bit disjointed and repetitive, but he is telling this 51 years after the fact and I'm transcribing it 18 years after that. So bear with it.
           Some of what he relates, the first time I heard it on the tape, I found difficult to fathom. I still feel that way.
           The Shoah Foundation interviewer asked Dad, "When you finally left the camp, where did you go?"
           The Russians told them to go to Katowice, a city 30 miles northwest of the mine (it is now the major city of the Silesian region of southern Poland). Dad does not say how he got there, but I imagine he walked a great portion of the way or hitchhiked.
           "... They say there was a house over there, they call it the Red Cross or maybe something else, they say they go take care for us," he recalled. "When I arrive by myself in Katowice, there was an old school, dirty, no food, nothing.
           "I met a man I know from Amsterdam there and we become real close friends," he added. "We start begging on the street, we go from house to house and begging on the street. We got fed by some people, not too many, but we were fed."
           (I cannot imagine this, the man I knew as my Dad, begging for food in the streets. Every time I hear this, and now as I write it, it leaves me feeling sick.)  

            "I saw people near Katowice I know, a couple of Dutch people I saw (and), Greek people," he said. "It was a mess over there. We go in a school. I remember I walked out the gate over there and they told me go on that road and I was walking a couple miles, and a horse-and-buggy there comes by and they say you want to have a ride, and they took me naar [near] Katowice."
          After a couple of weeks in Katowice, it was on to Krakow, some 43 miles east of Katowice. Krakow, the hometown of a young man, Karol Wojtyla, who about that time there was beginning the priesthood journey that would culminate with him becoming Pope John Paul II.
          "... They said we have to go to Krakow, there was an organization (there)," Dad recalled. "And I cannot remember how I come from Katowice to Krakow; if we took a train. No, there was no train. Yeah, maybe there was a train. I cannot remember that time.
         "And in Krakow, there was wier [again] an old school and we spent time over there and we did the same we did in Katowice, begging in the street.
         "My friend was a boxer and he organized a boxing party with another boy, and we got some money and food."
         The interviewer asked, "Who did he fight?"
          "Somebody else," Dad answered, "and we got some money together. We stayed together a long time. He passed away now."
          Next: Romania, Russia ... then home (and heartbreak)


  1. From Cynthia Sellman Mendez: So very sad. It's important that these stories continue to be shared.

  2. From Reg Cassibry: These are things we should all be aware of. Thanks for posting.

  3. From Tim Looney: Amazing as always. Your dad was a strong soul.

  4. From Patrick Booras: Survive and advance ... the true meaning of it. Much admiration for your parents.