Successful Dentist Recounts the Miracles that Helped Him Survive the Holocaust
excerpted from Julie Flaherty, Life After Death
Eighty-six year-old John Saunders ran a successful prosthodontics practice in Boston for 35 years. Dr. Saunders was 18-20-yrs-old when he witnessed and suffered the horrors of the Nazi “Final Solution,” including internment at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
John Saunders was born Ignacy Silberherz in Poland in 1925. Ignacy was 14 when Germany attacked Poland and World War II began; he was 16 when the Nazis sealed the Jewish ghetto in Stanislawow. For two years his family was able to stay alive, sometimes sleeping in sewer pipes to avoid the German secret police who were rounding up and killing groups of Jews. He would later write about hiding in the attic of a cemetery chapel with his older brother while the murders went on just outside.
His mother managed to smuggle Ignacy out of Stansilawow and put him on a train to Warsaw with forged papers. While making his way to East Prussia, he was picked off another train by a police detail, and a stocky Gestapo officer handed Ignacy the alibi that would become his identity through the remainder of the war. “I know what you were doing in East Prussia,” he said triumphantly. “You are a Catholic Pole smuggling smoked pork and butter to Warsaw.” Ignacy knew that being labeled a Polish Catholic would still mean internment as a political prisoner, but maybe he wouldn’t be shot in the head right then and there as a Jew. Without missing a beat, Ignacy feigned amazement the Gestapo had so cleverly figured out his “secret.”
Despite his terror, he stuck by his new Catholic identity, even laughing when the Gestapo officers coolly asked if he was a deserter from the German army or a spy for the British (“I am flattered, but I am too young and not bright enough,” he replied). He spat on the floor when they suggested he was a Jew. They measured his face, feet, hands, eyes and ears with calipers. “It was the German mumbo-jumbo science of how to recognize a Jew,” Saunders says, a protocol of Hitler’s creation. Then they told him to see the doctor on the other side of the room and drop his pants. He was frozen with fear as the doctor examined him, knowing there was no way to miss that he was circumcised. “Richtig (right),” he declared, and told him to get dressed. Saunders still does not know why the doctor lied for him.
Labeled a Roman Catholic political prisoner, he was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the first of the concentration camps he would labor in with the other Catholics, Poles, Gypsies, Russians and Jews who were not immediately killed. Day and night, the crematorium chimneys belched smoke and the smell of burned bodies. Saunders would write: “We were sent to toil in the open fields. It did not matter if the weather was rainy or extremely cold and snowy. It also did not matter if we made it back dead or alive. We were constantly watched and hit by our Kapos [inmates who guarded other prisoners] and their helpers for not going fast enough or some other infraction, according to the whims of our supervisors.” Somehow, amid the hunger, flies, lice and illness, he stayed alive. He was quick to take small opportunities, such as when he was assigned to sew numbers on prison clothing and surreptitiously stitched an extra jacket inside the one he had been issued to protect himself from the freezing cold.
Even as he was moved to progressively worse camps, including Mauthausen, the “Camp of No Return,” he had many lucky breaks. There was the prison guard who would give him more food than the daily bowl of watery soup and slice of bread on which many of the other prisoners slowly starved. “Perhaps I reminded him of a family member; I don’t know,” Saunders says. Or the guard who could have had him hanged for making a pocket knife out of an old file, but instead gave him a loaf of bread and asked him to make another knife for him.
When the 11th Armored Division of the U.S. Third Army discovered the camps at Mauthausen-Gusen and liberated them on May 5, 1945, Ignacy was not quite 20 years old.
Read more here: Flaherty, J. (2011). Life After Death. Fall 2011 Tufts Dental Medicine magazine. Retrieved online 3/22/13 from: http://now.tufts.edu/articles/life-after-death