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The Story of Albert Beder

Albert was born in Kovno, Lithuania (now Kaunas) on June 13, 1928.
Albert lived through death marches, diphtheria, overcrowded ghettos
and forced labor camps. He was just 13 years old when he was placed
into his first ghetto internment camp.

He says, I had a family. I had two older brothers, two older sisters,
one younger sister. I had a mother and a father.

Albert was in a summer youth camp near the occupied East
Prussia/Lithuanian border when his family, still in Kovno, attempted
to flee from the advancing Nazis. "They managed to get maybe 30
kilometers before the Germans caught up with them. But they lost my
little sister Reva on the road. She was 6 years old. There were many
families running and trying to escape. Planes were shooting at them."

The Germans collected Albert, along with the other Jewish youth in the
camp, and, like his family, he was returned to his Kovno family home,
where Jewish citizens were preparing for their forced move into the
Kovno Ghetto.

"In Kovno, we received orders that all Jews had to move and had to
live in that area that was fenced in with barbed wire. It was August,
1941. The consequence for not following these orders was the death
penalty. You had to wear the star. If you did not, that was also the
death penalty. Back then everything was the death penalty. They let us
take everything into the ghetto. We didn't know in the end it wouldn't
matter. Twice, as we were preparing to move, soldiers came looking for
my father to send us to Ninth Fort. We knew there were lots of
killings there. They came to the door and asked for my father. My
mother would say, 'He is sick and cannot come to the door.' She
offered them silk stockings and soap to buy them off. The Ghetto was
crowded. We ended up in a small schoolhouse with 100-150 other
families. We had to leave our furniture out in the schoolyard. In the
Ghetto I met Howard. He was 9 years old. I was 13. I knew his older
sister in school."

At its height, the Kovno Ghetto interned nearly 30,000 prisoners. Over
5,000 Kovno residents were taken to Ninth Fort, also known as "Death
Fort," and executed.

He says, There was an old story in Lithuania. Jews needed Christian
blood to make their Matzah. There were a lot of illiterate people then
and this story was told over and over. But how could that be? Blood is
red. Matzah is white. Where did the red go? If you say something and
you start to believe it, anything can turn colors.

"In October of 1942, we were told we could take what we could carry
out. But by that time there was not much left to take. We were sent to
an Arbeitslager (a labor camp). In the beginning, Riga was better than
Kovno. The Lithuanian Air Force was still in control, but soon the SS
took over and quickly turned it into a real concentration camp. I
could still see my mother and father after work hours. But everything
changed. You had to stand in the cold with your hats off for a very
long time during Appell. It was in Riga that we heard from other Jews
that my little sister was still alive. My mother was happy. There were
so many causalities. In Riga they sent my father to Kaiserwald. He was
50 years old and died there. In March of 1944, Kinderaktion came to
Riga. They took all children under 12 years old. I was 16 and Howard
was 13."
The literal translation of the German word Appell means "to appeal."
The Appell, or Roll Call, could last hours or days. Many prisoners,
already weakened by starvation, disease and physical distress, could
not endure the long hours of standing. The Riga Ghetto, located in
Latvia, experienced two mass liquidations. A total of 24,000 of its
occupants were taken by train to the nearby Rumbula Forest. During the
winter executions, prisoners were ordered to remove their clothes and
then were promptly executed along the edges of mass graves. Prisoners
sent to Kaiserwald, a work camp near Riga, labored for large German
manufacturers producing electrical and mined goods. Although
Kinderaktion, or "Children Death by Action," preyed on the young, the
elderly and sick were often included due to their feebleness and
inability to work. As the warfront gained ground, Riga inmates were
marched to temporary camps until they reached transports to take them
to the Stutthof concentration camp in Poland.

"At Stutthof we had nothing. At the gate they checked your mouths and
your rear end. Men and women were separated. I was told I could stay
with my mother and sisters or go with the men. Howard and I knew they
gassed the boys who stayed with their mothers. We decided we would go
with the men. I still saw my mother and older sisters through a double
fence. We tried to keep in touch, to let each other know we were
alive. Then they were not there anymore. I never saw my older sisters
or mother again. Food was grass and a little bread. In Stutthof,
Howard and I tried to get on a transport. They put two criminals in
charge of us. They wore triangle patches so we knew they were
murderers. They were not Jewish, but Polish. In order to keep strict
order they would beat and chase us like chickens as we went. We tried
to get on the transports. We didn't know where the transport went. Who
knew how they decided who would go? If you were too short, you might
not get to go. All we knew was that no one lasted long where we were;
anything would be better. One of the criminals took a liking to Howard
and I and put us on a transport. 550 people went. We stayed on the
train for four days with a bucket to use as a bathroom. We were lucky.
They gave us bread to eat. They wanted us alive where we were going."

Camp prisoners were often forced to wear differentiating patches:
green for criminals, purple for Jehovah Witnesses, pink for
homosexuals. Survivor testimony suggests the yellow star made it
easier for Nazis who were ordered to shoot Jews on sight. From
Stutthof, Albert was transported to Camp Ten – a satellite camp of
Dachau concentration camp in Germany. There they were forced to build
barracks and construct parts for an underground airfield before being
taken to Dachau's main camp near Munich. The SS training camp of
Dachau was infamous for its cruel medical experimentation. More than
28,000 died within its walls.

"We walked through the iron gate. It read, "Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work
Will Set You Free). At Dachau, they gave us showers and a piece of
bread. We got new stripes. Our old ones were eight months old and full
of lice. There was a man with us who took his time eating his small
bread. Another prisoner saw him and came like an eagle and took it
from him. It was very sad. It is hard to explain what a small piece of
bread was worth back then. I weighed 70 or 80 pounds."

"At Dachau, we saw the dead bodies. They were there on the sides of
buildings. So many bodies, but there was no one to load them. The next
morning we were told to go to the gates. We were given half a loaf of
bread and a tin can of German meat! We could not believe it! It was a
beef stew in thick gravy. I don't remember how we opened the cans. We
had nothing. It was very good. They didn't tell us the food was
supposed to last for 10 days. For 10 days they marched us. We were
forced to carry the SS rucksacks. Lots of people did not make it. If
you fell behind you were shot. Howard and I walked together. Sometimes
we lost each other but then found each other again. Howard found a
dead horse. They picked the dead horse apart until there was nothing
left. We ate the raw meat. Many of us were already sick…"

He says, People ask, Why did you not fight back?
He says, They had guns. We had nothing. They had everything.

"On the tenth day they marched us down into a natural ravine. At that
time we were okay with death. Howard was 13 and I was 17. We could see
the end of the war coming. Some never knew an end was coming. The SS
surrounded the ravine with their machine guns. We figured we would be
shot or be buried alive under those that were shot. The next day we
were ordered out of the ravine and were taken to a large field. There
were about 2,000 of us, mostly men. The Germans demanded another
Appell. At night we were ordered to lie down. In the morning we awoke
covered in snow and the Germans were gone. They had just disappeared."

Albert Beder and Howard made their way with others who had survived
the cold night to a neighboring farming community with the assistance
of two uniformed German soldiers who had elected to stay behind. The
villagers made the survivors oatmeal soup. The next day American tanks
rolled through. Of the 37,000 Jews originally from Kovno, only 3,000
Albert was transferred through a series of hospitals, and with
financial assistance from Jewish Family Services, was sent to New
York. In 1947, Albert began his life in Milwaukee. Three years later,
he was drafted by the United States Army for the Korean War. In 1952,
the Army sent Albert back to Germany where he worked at a German Youth
center. He promoted tolerance and diversity in an attempt to create a
more positive image of Americans in the minds of young Germans.

Albert's youngest sister Reva was rescued by a Christian family who
claimed her to be the niece of a dead relative. The Christian family
picked her out of a group of children who were on the back of an open
truck. Reva's blonde hair saved her. Reva now lives in Los Angeles.
One of Albert's two older brothers managed to survive as well. The
other brother died in 1943, shortly after being placed in the Red
Army. Today, Albert and his beautiful wife Ruth share four children,
seven grandchildren and two great grandchildren. Albert and Howard
remain healthy and happy and are still good friends today.

In 1988, Albert returned to Europe to visit the internment camps. He
has given talks about his experiences to high school and college
audiences. He acknowledges that Milwaukee is a segregated city, prone
to hate crimes and violence. He wants to believe the hate is not as
pervasive as we may perceive it to be. He warns us to be cautious, as
hate can bring with it many things for which we are wholly unprepared.
He encourages us to deal with intolerance while it is still in our
backyards. He avers that the greatest joys in his life are his wife,
his family and the chance to live life over again.

He says, The Holocaust is a story that needs to be told. I imagine my
grandmother, and I imagine her in a place where they killed 10,000.
They would have wanted their story known.