A Look Inside The Life of a Survivor
From 1933 to 1945, Hitler and his Nazi Regime terrorized and took the lives of 9.5 million Jews. This number is hard to imagine, but to put it into perspective, think of the entire population of New York City and then add an additional one million people. Overtime, as survivors and participants die, the memories and events that took place during those 12 years are forgotten and lies and conspiracies are brought forth to try and diminish the heinous acts committed against an entire religion of people. To show just how awful these events truly were, a series of interviews were conducted of holocaust survivors and liberators. This annotated biography looks inside the life of just one of those interviewed and one of the 9.5 million Jewish individuals whose lives were destroyed by the Nazi Regime.
Arie Rothenberg was born on the 21st of August 1933 in Korzec, Poland. He was born to Jacob and Charlotte Rothenberg and had a younger brother named Aaron. After birth, he moved to Danychiv, Ukraine where he spent the majority of his early childhood. Once he reached the age to go to school, his parents moved him back to Korzec where he lived with his grandmother. There, he attended a Russian school where he learned to speak not only Russian but Ukrainian and excelled in subjects such as poetry. His classmates included Jewish and non-Jewish children. At such a young age, Arie didn’t have the opportunity to make many friends and claims that at the time his grandmother was his best friend.
When he wasn’t at school, he would return home to Danychiv for the holidays. He would spend time with the family, help bake goods and food, and overall remembers them as a very pleasant time. They would hold prayer in the comfort of their own homes where close to 30 people would attend. At this time, Arie hadn’t experienced anti-Semitism, and if he had he was too young to recognize it. His family and himself were very well-liked and had friends of many religions.
The war broke out in September of 1939 before Arie could go back to school. The school’s population was mostly Jewish and would never reopen. He remembers his parents leaning over a borrowed radio powered by batteries listening to the news. At this time Arie was 5 years old and could not have possibly understood the magnitude of the situation, he simply knew that something bad was going to happen and he and the family needed to be ready for it. At this point, the war was just beginning. Germany was to the west while the Soviet Union set up camp to the east. The Soviet Union was the first to invade Korzec.
When the Soviet Union first arrived, they appeared to be very civil. They made themselves at home and used one of the rooms in Arie’s grandmother’s house as an office. For the next year, the Soviets and the residents of Korzec lived in the same town with little to no problems. Arie would attend school for another year until the summer of 1940 when the Germans invaded Korzec. Arie and his mother ran outside into the field after hearing gunshots. The following days after the initial invasion by Germany, the German army set up camp in Arie’s front yard and orchard. They made his mother cook them food and took whatever they needed whenever they wanted. In a matter of days, the front line of the German army had uprooted their entire lives, and it only got worse when the second wave moved in.
More German soldiers continued to arrive in Korzec, and eventually, forced all Jewish families to relocate to Miedzyrec Poland, some 601 km away. Miedzyrec was a well-known Jewish community in central Poland. Around the same time that the Soviet army took Arie’s town, they invaded Meidzyrec, destroying 25% of the Jewish housing. Eventually, in October of 1939, the Jews were forced to leave the center of town and relocate to the Jewish district. Around 1,800 people within the town vacated their homes, and from early 1940 to early 1941, large transports containing 1,500 resettled Jews would arrive often (Miedzyrezc, 2007). Arie and his family were permitted to bring only what they could carry. At this point, they were beginning to hear about families being shot in the neighborhood, but all information was hear-say and when asked, the Germans denied the allegations. They moved into a home with family and friends. The star of David was painted onto the door and everyone was required to wear a yellow patch on the front and back of their person. The Ukraine police cooperated with the German army with the promise that they would be given independence. The police would enter homes and take everything they could; light bulbs, switches, jewelry, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. Aries father managed to get a job at the mill so they could afford food and heat throughout the winter.
One day, the German army ordered all able-bodied males together to allegedly go to work. Arie’s mother told his father he was not to report, for the men who “went to work” one day did not come back the next. When the Germans came to the house looking for Aries father, his mother told them that she had not seen him. That day, his father paid off two Ukrainian guards for passage out of Meidzyrec to Aries grandmothers house located in what was now the Korzec Ghetto. Jews were required to wear white armbands with yellow stars. Both Jews and Poles were required to comply with the police curfew, work within the public works scheme, limited trade hours, etc. Mass acts of genocide would begin in the summer of 1941 and continue until the summer of 1942. At the end of the war, a total of 50,000 Jews would lose their lives in Korzec and the surrounding areas (3).
Aries grandmother’s house had a total of three bedrooms and it consisted of Arie, his parents, his brother, his two uncles and their entire families as well as his grandmother. It was tightly packed and stale. During the day his father worked with the Russian prisoners of war in the quarries and often would join and got to know the men who worked alongside his father. At this point, it was the spring of 1941 and at three o’clock in the morning the German army broke down the doors of his grandmother’s home.
Arie hid under the bed in an attempt to hide from the German army but it wasn’t long before he felt the bayonet at his side and was dragged outside. At this point Arie decided that it was die or run, so he sprinted across the street and dove into the bushes. He ran to the home of a distant relative down the street to warn them of the incoming Germans, but he was too late and the Germans grabbed him and brought him to the marketplace in the center of town. There, Ukrainian officers were holding families at gunpoint and German officers had wagons. Arie managed to find his grandmother and she looked at him and says “save yourself”. Surrounded by German officers, Arie began to run away from the center of town. A German soldier fired a 77 machine gun which grazed him on the left side of the head. To this day Arie does not know why the German soldiers did not chase after him. The German army killed 2,000 Jews that day. This mass act of genocide took place in the summer of 1941 and would become known as the “first action” (Korzec, 2017). After running from the center of town, Arie returned to his grandmother’s home where he was reunited with his parents and brother.
Koretz was considered an open ghetto, and every day, Arie would travel alone outside of the ghetto to the surrounding towns. The Poles living outside of the ghetto still respected and cared for Aries father and family and would oftentimes give them food or money. One day when Aries father was working in the quarry, he sent word that the prisoners of war hadn’t returned to work that day because they were digging mass graves. This was the signal for the second action. Many people attempted to escape the ghetto and were caught. Luckily, Arie had been traveling outside of the ghetto every day for some time and lead the family to a farm outside of the ghetto owned by two elderly Polish farmers. At this time, Aries father decided that Aaron, Aries younger brother, should be separated and stay with a neighbor. That was the last time Ari ever saw Aaron. The elderly male who resided at the farm and Arie’s father dug a ditch in the stable, which they then covered with hay and cow manure. Arie and his parents would spend the next 16 months living in that ditch during the day, grabbing food and water at night. Several times the Ukrainian police came to the farm searching for escaped Jews, unfortunately costing the male farmer his life during one visit. At the end of 1942, the Germany army began burning the polish homes around the ghetto. Allied forces were beginning to crumble as Germany was not fulfilling any promises previously given to Ukraine and the Soviet Union. Arie’s father decided it was time to leave Poland and return to Danychiv, Ukraine. Arie and his mother ran one direction and his father ran another, in hopes of meeting in a few days. After walking several days, Arie and his mother arrived in Ukraine, and took lodging with a Ukraine family. If they knew that Arie and his mother were Jewish they did not say anything and provided them with shelter and food. During this time, the Battle of Stalingrad was waging only a few miles from the house where he was taking shelter. He remembers being able to see parts of the battle for the six months that it occurred. The Battle of Stalingrad was a military campaign between Russian forces and those of Nazi Germany. It is the largest, longest, and bloodiest battle in modern warfare. From August 1942 through February 1943, more than two million people were killed or injured, including tens of thousands of Russian civilians. If it were not for the turning of the season, the Russian forces may not have won. By February 1943, the Russian troops had retaken Stalingrad and captured nearly 100,000 German soldiers, this was considered the turning point of WWII (Battle of Stalingrad, 2019). At this point, Aries mother heard that Korzec has been liberated and makes the decision to return home.
When Arie arrived back in Korzec, there are very few Jews left at all, and most of them were returning home just as he and his mother were doing. Houses were demolished, everything was in disarray, but it didn’t take very long for more people to trickle in and start repairing what had been lost. Arie and his mother started residing with and engineer named Michigan, who would go on to write several books about his experience during WWII. Several days would pass, but eventually, Arie and his mother were reunited with Aries father, and the first thing they did as a family was eat a meal. For the next two years, 1944 to 1946, Arie and the remainder of his family would remain in Korzec. His father aided in helping the Russian liberate Korzec and find housing for the families returning. His mother helped run a government store that traded goods for produce and other foods. Arie returned to school. Finally, Arie and his family would relocate to a displaced person camp in the hope to make a life in Israel. A displaced person camp (DP Camp) is a temporary facility for people forced to leave their homes (What Happened To The Survivors). The camp was cramped and there were not many resources. Arie and his parents would remain in this camp for three years before deciding to move to the states to live with Aries uncle.
Arie and his family traveled from Europe to the United States on a troopship which would eventually dock in New York City, the year was 1949. He then moved to Hartford Connecticut and was placed in a school. Learning English was the hardest bridge to cross and he required a translator for his 10th-grade year. Arie would go on to graduate high school and eventually attend college for pharmaceuticals. In 1956, Arie moved to Burlington Vermont where he met his wife Barbra. They were married in 1960. In 1965, they had their son Alex who they raised in the Jewish faith. In 1998, Arie would participate in an interview for the USC Shoah Foundation where he would talk about his time during WWII. Out of his entire core and extended family, the only members to survive were himself, his mother and father, an uncle who escaped to Brazil, and his Uncle in Aunt in America.
Arie Rothenberg is one of 9.5 million Jews whose lives were destroyed at the hands of the Nazi regime. Of these 9.5 million, only 3.5 survived (Holocaust Survivors) and every single survivor has a story similar to Arie’s. As time goes on and the survivors of the holocaust continue to pass on people, unfortunately, begin to forget how horrible and impactful WWII was. Anti-Semitism is not dead and everyday people belonging to this horrible idea come out of hiding and preach their words of hate. If we as the future generation do not put a stop to these people we are just as responsible for the damage done as they are.
- Rothenberg, Arie. Personal Interview. 11 May. 1998
- “Miedzyrezc.” Miedzyrzec Ghetto Www.HolocaustResearchProject.org, www.holocaustresearchproject.org/ghettos/miedzyrzec.html.
- “Korzec.” History | Virtual Shtetl, 2017, sztetl.org.pl/en/towns/k/1047-korzec/99-history/137508-history-of-community.
- History.com Editors. “Battle of Stalingrad.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 6 June 2019, www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/battle-of-stalingrad.
- “What Happened to the Survivors?” What Were Displaced Persons Camps? – The Holocaust Explained: Designed for Schools, www.theholocaustexplained.org/survival-and-legacy/liberation-the-survivors/what-were-displaced-persons-camps/.
6. Mjl, MJL. “Holocaust Survivors.” My Jewish Learning, www.myjewishlearning.com/article/holocaust-survivors/.