By Jillian H.
This past month, 90-year-old Holocaust survivor Aron Greenfield spoke to a crowd of more than 400 DHS students. The powerful stories from his life before, during, and after the Holocaust resonated with all those in attendance.
“In one week, all of our lives changed forever,” said Greenfield.
He had just turned thirteen and celebrated his bar mitzvah when World War II broke out. In September of 1939, Greenfield’s family and the other 200 Jewish families in his small Polish hometown were boxed in by buses, trucks, and tanks. The Jews were forced to get armbands and lost their businesses to Germans and corrupt Poles. It wasn’t quite a ghetto, but they were only allowed outside two hours a day: 8:00-9:00 in the morning and 6:00-7:00 in the evening. During these times, people would rush to spend their food stamps. Everyone else was forced to work.
In 1942, the Jewish families were forced to move to a ghetto three kilometers outside of town. Between four and five families were forced to share a house with two bedrooms. Greenfield himself was one of nine children. His father and three of his brothers were immediately sent to concentration camps, and everyone who remained in the ghetto was forced to work. For nine months, Greenfield swept floors in a tannery until a selection. Children and women went to the left, and capable works went to the right. Greenfield went to the right.
The Concentration Camps
At age sixteen, Greenfield was brought to the first of the nine camps he would eventually pass through. He is one of very few people, most of whom are now dead, who can say “I survived nine camps.”
For three months, he mixed fertilizer with no equipment or masks. Then, he was moved to another camp where he was assigned to construction and was forced to carry bricks on his back all day. In another camp, he worked in artillery, “stuffing the bullets that killed Americans and Russians.” He lied constantly about his age and health to get better jobs.
In all of the camps, Greenfield was constantly fighting to stay alive. He spent his teenage years enclosed by wire fence in tiny, crowded houses with German shepherds and German soldiers always on patrol. One step out of line and he could be killed, or his brother. One man in one of the camps Greenfield lived in was so desperate for food that he killed and ate one of the dogs. He was hung in the courtyard as a warning.
“The Death March”
Greenfield was 19 in 1945, six years after Nazis first invaded his hometown. In January, he was moved from one camp to another ten kilometers away because the Russians were invading. They were forced to walk without shoes and whipped if they slowed, the soldiers constantly ordering them to move faster. If they could not march fast enough, they were shot. One of Greenfield’s friends died in this way. Greenfield himself stole the shoes of another man who died in his sleep.
“You become an animal. Fathers will steal bread from their sons,” Greenfield said, neither justifying nor excusing his actions.
Greenfield, however, survived the death march because he had secretly found a way to gain weight and therefore strength. He lied to the doctors, telling them he had a high fever and sticking the thermometer under his arm when they left the room.
Greenfield knew he was taking an immense risk with an action like this. He said, “Everyone told me that if they caught me, they would kill me. But I had nothing to lose, I was already close to death.”
72 years ago today, he was less than three months from liberation, though he didn’t know it.
Greenfield was liberated on May 8th, 1945, the last day of World War II. He was entirely alone and weighed only 80 pounds, which he said left him “like a skeleton walking.” But being in the displaced persons camp with three meals a day was more than what Greenfield could have asked for.
Greenfield later found out that his mother and younger siblings were sent to Auschwitz, where they were all killed. His father and older brothers all died too. However, his older sister survived and they soon reunited, though she looked so different with no teeth and swollen feet that he could hardly recognize her.
Speaking of his own survival, he said, “My brothers went to other camps. They were bigger and stronger, but they were killed. I was lucky.”
Greenfield in the years after the war. Photos courtesy of Aron Greenfield.
In the next couple of years, Greenfield moved to America. He had read the history of America in a Yiddish book and tried to learn English. Upon moving to America, Greenfield remembers noticing how everyone was so tall and dancing the jitterbug (Greenfield claims he is a talented dancer).
After learning English, he went to enlist in the Korean War in 1950. He had had trouble finding work and tried to convince the men that he could serve as a German interpreter. Yet, his physical was rejected because his blood pressure was too high. He said, “The doctor told me, ‘You’ve had enough war.’”
Eventually, Greenfield found a job for 75¢ an hour. He tried to learn a trade and started selling watches. However, then he was suddenly and accidentally shot by kids looking for drugs in Roxbury, Massachusetts. He spent 21 days in the hospital, but survived. He was in a brace for about eighteen months, eight of which were spent at home.
Greenfield’s wedding was rescheduled due to his time spent recovering in the hospital. His then-fiance told him, “Dead or alive, you’re going to marry me.” They have since been married for 45 years and have one daughter.
Greenfield later purchased Brenner’s Children Shop in Norwood where he now resides with his wife. When asked by DHS Holocaust teacher Mrs. Sullivan when he plans to retire, Greenfield said in a few years.
In 90 years, Greenfield has experienced more trauma and hardships than most people combined ever will. Yet, Greenfield constantly revisits his painful history, because he believes it is crucial his story is heard in order to prevent something like the Holocaust from happening again.
“It was hard, I had terrible dreams and talking about it brings them back,” said Greenfield. “…Us holocaust survivors, we know we don’t have that many years left to go. We know there’s always a Holocaust waiting to happen.”
“I want you to understand this can always happen again,” he continued. “…Religion is good…but think for yourself, whatever doesn’t make sense to you, you know what’s right and what’s wrong.”
Greenfield admits to struggling with his Jewish identity and faith during and after his time in the concentration camps. He remembers thinking God was on a vacation, but reflecting today on his life and his belief in miracles, Aron Greenfield now says, “Nature is my god.”