Leon's Story

Leon, was born in Salonika, Greece. He had two brothers, Lezer and Haim and two sisters, Sarah and Rosa. His parents, Palomba and Abraham were in the poultry business. Palomba was born in Istanbul, Turkey and Abraham was born in Salonika. Abraham’s family had lived in Greece for many generations and Palomba’s family had been in Turkey for a long period.

When the Nazis came to Salonika, 54,000 Greek Jews were transported to Nazi labor and extermination camps. Nearly 98% of the total Jewish population of the city died during the war.

In 1942, the Nazis took my father and his younger brother, Haim, to a slave labor camp in Lamia, Greece to build a tunnel for a railroad. In 1943, they were taken to Auschwitz, Poland - the most infamous of the Nazi death camps.

When they arrived, they were put in line for a selection. Those sent to the left went on trucks and those sent to the right stayed in the camp. Leon didn’t know at the time that left meant getting on trucks to be executed in the gas chambers and right meant staying in the camp to work. As Leon and Haim got closer to the front of the line, Leon saw that the older and sickly were sent to the left. Haim was selected by the SS officer…possibly Joseph Mengele, the “Angel of Death” to go to the right. Leon was next and the officer pointed to the left. Knowing German, Leon pointed to Haim and said “mein bruder, mein bruder” …my brother. With a stone face, the officer turned his head and let Leon go with Haim, saving his own life.

In Auschwitz, the Greek Jews often were tapped for hard labor, as they had a reputation for having lived physically active lives. After 3 months in Auschwitz, Leon and Haim along with 500 Greek Jews were moved to the Warsaw Ghetto. If they stayed in Auschwitz, they surely would have been executed.

Leon dug ditches to build a canal. His ability to work hard impressed the camp guards, which helped him survive. Haim thought he was safer staying in an infirmary, but, unfortunately, he died there. Leon was in Warsaw for 11 months until August 1944—living essentially as a slave.

When the Russians succeeded in pushing the Nazis out of parts of Poland, the prisoners in some camps were moved to Dachau, Germany, the first of the Nazi concentration camps. Leon survived a 3-day Death March from Warsaw, Poland to Dachau, Germany. He was in Dachau for 3 months from August to November 1944 and then was sent to Muhldorf, Germany for 5 months from November 1944 to April 1945.

This was near the end of the war and the Nazis knew Americans were nearby. My father was put on a train with many others that he knew was surely taking him to his death. Even when the Nazis knew the war would end with their defeat, they stepped up the mass murder of Jews and other people to keep the world from learning about this. But in this case, the train just went back and forth, back and forth. The train conductor and German guards, probably felt the Americans would treat them humanely as prisoners of war if they surrendered.

When the cattle car door of the train slid open and there were American soldiers, my father couldn’t believe his eyes. He was finally liberated.

An American captain couldn’t believe the horrible condition of the people they liberated. People looked like starved skeletons and weighed only half of their normal weight. He approached my father and told him to begin a new life, to have a family, to find a way to celebrate life rather than focus on all that he lost.

Leon lost his mother, father, his 2 sisters, 2 brothers, uncles, aunts, and other relatives in the Holocaust.