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Henry Bawnik narrowly escaped death at the hands of the Nazis ... and British bombers

Henry Bawnik has no illusions about how he survived the Holocaust.

It wasn’t brains. Or toughness. Or faith.

He has only one explanation: pure luck.

“Nobody wanted me alive, that’s for sure,” Bawnik said.

He certainly had the will to survive. He also was young and resourceful. But now, at almost 90 and looking back, the Amherst resident knows he cheated death, not once but several times, as a Polish Jew during World War II.

“It was luck, strictly luck,” he said.

Bawnik’s story is different from most Holocaust survivors’. Not only did he survive four Nazi concentration camps, but he also lived through an Allied bombing of three ships carrying concentration-camp survivors during the last couple of days of the war.

That attack, killing thousands of prisoners, has gone largely unnoticed for 70 years.

Bawnik’s journey began when he was rounded up on the streets of the Lodz ghetto at age 15. He spent four years in the camps, including the notorious death camp Auschwitz. He saw death all around him, his fellow camp inhabitants dying from shootings, beatings, the gas chambers and starvation.

Then, in the last days of World War II, Bawnik narrowly avoided death again, in perhaps the most cruelly ironic event of the Holocaust – the British bombing of the three prison ships in the Baltic Sea.

It was three days after Hitler committed suicide and one day before the unconditional surrender of German forces in northwest Germany. More than 7,000 concentration-camp survivors who had lived through torture, slaughter and hunger were aboard the ships off the northern edge of Germany.

Bawnik was on the largest of the three, the Cap Arcona, a former German luxury liner. British pilots mistakenly bombed all three boats.

The British Royal Air Force had been told that many of Hitler’s top Nazi henchmen were aboard the ships in an attempt to flee Germany. Swedish and Swiss Red Cross officials informed British intelligence one day before the bombing that prisoners were on board, but that message apparently never got through.

Only about 350 of the 5,000 prisoners on the Cap Arcona survived. The others either burned to death on the sinking ship or drowned in the chilly 45-degree waters of the Baltic Sea. Skeletal remains continued to wash ashore for 25 years.

Few people know the story about the Cap Arcona. Records of what happened May 3, 1945, have been sealed, not to be opened until 2045.

“Seven thousand people died on the last day of the war, and by mistake,” Bawnik said during a 1½-hour interview in his Canterbury Woods home in East Amherst. “How can you make sense of it? I’m bitter, but it was a mistake made during war. That’s all you can say.”

The beginning of war

Bawnik was 13 when Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. He was living in Lodz with his mother, two older sisters and an older brother. His father had died earlier.

Within days, German soldiers occupied Lodz, which had one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe. Jews quickly became targets of beatings, property seizures and robberies.

“It started right away,” he said. “Standing in line for food, they picked out the Jews. They said, ‘The Jews have to come out.’ ”

His two oldest siblings, a brother and sister, soon fled, leaving only Bawnik, his mother and one sister, Regina.

On May 1, 1940, just eight months after Poland was invaded, the Germans sealed the Lodz Jewish ghetto. The idea of the ghetto, historians have said, was to put all the Jews in one place, to make it easier to find a “solution” to the “Jewish problem.”

Hunger became overwhelming.

“You got one large loaf of bread, and almost nothing else for a whole week,” he recalled. “The hunger started then.”

As a 14-year-old with a big appetite, he ate eat his whole loaf in one day, nibbling on tiny morsels from his sister and mother the rest of the week.

“I looked like a Muselmann,” he said, referring to a term for starving concentration-camp inhabitants. “You looked like you had only skin, with no meat on the bones.”

Bawnik remembered the roundup of Jews one day, maybe in August 1941.

“We didn’t know where we were going. There were a couple thousand people in the roundup. They chose the young people that they could get work out of and put us in the warehouse.”

That was frightening for the teen, but Bawnik was comforted by the sight of an older boy and former neighbor named David, whom he looked up to.

“They started beating us. It was terrible, terrible. They just kept on beating him and kicking him. I saw him die, and I saw them take him away. He was dead.”

Bawnik had just learned his probable fate.

“That’s my future,” he thought. “I knew I couldn’t get out alive. It was just a question of when.”

His first camp

A train took Bawnik to Posen, to the Gutenbrunn concentration camp, where prisoners were building railroad tracks.

He remembers the small touches of that life, like the dish he always carried under his arm, in case he found a little soup to eat.

“Then the dish was my pillow at night.”

One day, while assigned to work with a Polish truck driver, he drove past a group of women from a nearby women’s camp. He wrote a short letter, put it in a small box and threw it toward the women. It turned out that his female cousin saw the letter and gave it to his sister, Regina, who was working in that camp’s kitchen. The next day, his sister sent him a bag of sugar and a loaf of bread.

“It was like you were in heaven,” Bawnik said. “You can’t imagine what hunger is unless you go a couple days without food.”

Thanks to the kindness of the female camp’s commander, Bawnik was able to reunite with his sister a few times.

“It was unbelievable,” he said of the chance finding of his sister. “I didn’t know she was still alive.”

He never saw her again.

There were horrible sights of cruelty at his camp. Two young brothers, about 11 and 13, were executed for stealing potatoes from the field.

“They took them out to the courtyard and hanged them in front of everybody,” he said. “I saw it. One of them survived after they hanged him. So they took him out and shot him.”

At his first concentration camp, Bawnik learned about survival.

“Survival is a very tough thing to (think about) when the Germans were there,” he said. “They could shoot you. They could do anything to you, and no one could help you.”

The death camp

Some time in 1943, he was taken to Auschwitz, where at least 1.1 million people ultimately were killed.

Including his mother, sister and cousin, he later learned.

One little lie helped him survive. Bawnik, then 17, claimed he was 18, old enough to work as a laborer.

“We slept in the barracks,” he said. “It was terrible. Three people in a bunk, two sleeping one way, the other in the middle sleeping the other way. Somehow you did it.”

Others might have given up. He wanted to live.

“I knew I was going to die, but you fought to live. You work as hard as you can, so that they let you live, and then you hope they lose the war.”

That formula worked for Bawnik, though many of his close calls with death awaited.

The Killer of Auschwitz

The next stop for Bawnik was Furstengrube, only 19 miles from Auschwitz, where two lucky breaks again saved him.

When Bawnik and the other prisoners arrived, commandant Otto Moll greeted them. Moll already had a reputation as the “killer of Auschwitz,” running that camp’s crematorium.

Bawnik remembered part of Moll’s speech to the prisoners: “You’ll work hard, we’ll feed you well, but let’s do a little exercise.”

Just then, someone from the kitchen asked whether anyone in the group was a gardener.

“I raised my hand and said yes. I was taken to the garden, and 15 people were beaten to death while doing their exercises.”

Bawnik was ticketed for the coal mine at Furstengrube. But his second cousin was an amateur boxer who became a capo, a prisoner who got extra privileges for doing minor administrative work. The cousin recruited Bawnik to become a bricklayer, not a coal miner. That brought extra privileges, like going on night patrols with a German soldier and having more access to stealing a piece of bread or a bowl of soup.

“Because you were a professional, a bricklayer, you were treated well. You weren’t beaten to death. If I hadn’t been a bricklayer, I wouldn’t have survived. I would have starved.”

Train to Germany

His next close call came aboard a German transport train, in January 1945.

The trains, which typically transported cows or horses, had no seats, and each car carried some 100 to 150 prisoners. They traveled 10 days in the middle of winter in subzero temperatures, and the cattle cars were open. Not everyone survived.

“When somebody died, you put them on the floor, like a seat or a bench, and you slept on them,” he said.

The cold wasn’t the only threat.

“You know what the worst thing was? You couldn’t even get any snow to melt in your mouth. We didn’t have any water.”

Yet on that same death trip, Bawnik also saw the best in mankind. It was at a railroad station in Czechoslovakia. People living in nearby apartment buildings threw bread and cake to the prisoners.

“It was unbelievable that there were still human beings who would do that,” he said. “We didn’t have any faith in humanity. It was the Germans. They weren’t human.”

Heading out to sea

After a weeklong stay at the Dora-Mittelbau camp, the death march to avoid the approaching Allied liberators continued, before a more compassionate SS officer and camp commander (“He didn’t kill anybody that we saw”) took Bawnik and other prisoners to his family’s German estate. Then, on the night of May 2, they were awakened and marched 13 miles to Neustadt.

“We thought we were going on a boat, to Denmark,” Bawnik said.

He was half-right.

Instead, they boarded the Cap Arcona, a 225-yard-long former German luxury liner, sitting idle about 2 miles off shore in the Bay of Lubeck. So massive and impressive was this ship that it once was used to portray the Titanic in a 1942 German propaganda film.

Prisoners boarded in reverse alphabetical order, and when Bawnik’s turn came, the ship was full. The captain said there was no room, but the SS officer insisted that Bawnik board. So he went up on deck. Most of the prisoners, thousands, were packed tight in the ship’s hull, out of sight.

Bawnik was on board for only hours.

Clinging by a rope

In mid-afternoon of May 3, 1945, the British bombers, unaware that thousands of concentration-camp survivors were on board, struck, bombing the Cap Arcona and two other prison ships, leaving them burning and sinking.

Once again, Bawnik was in a fortunate position. He was on the deck, away from the direction where the wind was blowing.

“After about two hours, we see the floor of the deck is starting to smoke, so we thought this was the end,” he said.

Then the ship started turning onto its side. Bawnik couldn’t swim, so after taking off his clothes, he ran to the high side of the ship to grab a rope. Somehow, the vessel stopped sinking, with about 6 feet of the ship still sticking out of the water.

But that didn’t last long. With the water quickly getting closer, Bawnik knew he soon would be joining the others in a cold, miserable death.

“Because it was so cold, I knew I was going to let go pretty soon,” he said. “I thought I had no chance at all. It was just a matter of minutes.”

Once again, fate, or the gods, or just luck intervened.

“All of a sudden, I looked up and saw a good friend of mine from the camps, Peter Abramowitz. When he saw me hanging from the ship, he said, ‘Henry, Henry, I’ll help you up.’ ”

And so he did.

As tugboats came to rescue the survivors, Bawnik thought he was headed to a new camp.

“What concentration camp are we going to now?” Bawnik asked the tug captain.

“There are no more concentration camps for you,” the captain replied. “The English are in town.”

The war in northern Germany ended the next day.

The aftermath

Bawnik eventually made his way to America, where he met his future wife, Linda Gordon, in Hartford. They have been married 64 years.

They moved to Buffalo in 1959 and have three daughters, seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Bawnik worked here as a dry-cleaning owner and operator, but his story went untold for decades, other than an article that his grandson, Jeremy Elias, wrote for the Jerusalem Post.

In the article, Elias recounted how his grandfather faced death as the Cap Arcona was sinking.

“Fighting for each day for the last five years, it would all end in a minute or two,” he wrote. “The exhaustion would be over. The struggle would finally end.”

Then this fall, Reed Taylor, a fellow resident at Canterbury Woods, noticed the blue tattooed number on Bawnik’s forearm. Those tattoos were used to brand concentration-camp prisoners and have become an indelible image, even a badge of resilience, for Holocaust survivors.

With Bawnik wearing a short-sleeve shirt, Taylor spotted the number and looked his friend in the eye.

“Is that what I think it is?” Taylor asked Bawnik.

“Yes,” he replied.

Taylor, a founding member of the Holocaust Resource Center of Buffalo, later encouraged Bawnik to tell his story.

“We have to listen to those survivors who bore witness,” said Mara Koven-Gelman, executive director of the local Holocaust Resource Center. “It’s a unique and precious opportunity for us to hear the ultimate truth from someone who witnessed the Holocaust.”

With few years left for Holocaust survivors to tell their stories, Bawnik hasn’t shied away from that obligation.

“I never try to tell my story, but it’s important to tell what the Germans did,” Bawnik said.

He still wrestles with what happened to him and millions of others, including the sinking of the Cap Arcona. Several historical sites have reported that the British government sealed the Cap Arcona records for 100 years, to be opened in 2045.

“That was unsurvivable,” he said. “It must have been from the hand of God himself, after all those years of torture and hunger.”

But then Bawnik paused in thought.

“If you really believe in God, how could he do this to his people?” he said of the Holocaust. “How can you believe in God? It doesn’t make any sense.”

The bottom line, though, always is the same for him.

“What can I say? I’m just lucky to be alive.”