OUT OF THE ASHES
Jewish Couple Survived Holocaust, Built Home in Waterbury
Story By John Murray
The odor in the boxcar was piped in from hell. Vapors of death filled the men’s nostrils as they crammed inside the train like sardines in a tin. Dead bodies of Jews were hurled from the train as it clattered down the tracks, leaving a trail of corpses along the German countryside.
David Singer lay down on matted straw to rest and ease the strain on his hideously swollen knee. He hadn’t eaten in a week. After six years of relentless Nazi persecution Singer’s ravaged body weighed 100 pounds.
Eight days earlier, Singer had been at Flossenberg Camp, a place he described as “the worst camp ever”. In the month he was there, he saw four of his first cousins die. At night he slept next to corpses. “If you had dysentery they made you take a cold shower,” he said. “Then they would crack you on the head with a baseball bat. That’s it, you were dead.”
By the time Singer got to Flossenberg, the Allied forces had Adolph Hitler on the run. The German army was squeezed in on both flanks and the Nazis were liquidating their death camps.
When the Allies neared the camp, Jewish prisoners were stuffed inside buses and driven around the countryside. There was no place to go, Singer said, and the buses just drove from town to town. At night, German citizens threw bread through the windows. During the day, Singer ate pieces of coal to keep himself alive.
Prisoners were shuffled onto boxcars to continue their death march to nowhere across the battered German countryside. When the train was halted by bombs and twisted metal tracks, the German guards fled. Hungarian guards told the survivors they were free to go. ?”Where to escape?” Singer said. “We didn’t know what to do.”
As he lay in the boxcar dying, Singer saw what looked like a mirage- a train coming across the border from Switzerland. The train stopped and Red Cross workers set up a soup station in a meadow near Singer’s train. Singer was running towards the soup when a German plane flew overhead and started strafing the meadow with bombs and bullets. “A bomb landed at my feet and one man was killed in the meadow,” Singer said. “But what did I care? I had to get that soup.”
Workers from the Red Cross yelled at Singer to take cover. Fellow Jews hollered at him. But David Singer didn’t listen. He stood in that bright beautiful meadow in Bayren, Germany, oblivious to bombs bursting around him, and devoured the soup.
Hours later, a tank with white stars on the side pulled alongside the train. Two soldiers approached Singer and told him he was free.
“A little guy with a knapsack offered me his gun and said I could kill anybody I wanted for the next 24 hours,” Singer said. “I didn’t want his gun, I wanted food.”
G.I’s doled out army rations and Singer tore open the can with his teeth. It was April 30, 1945. He had survived.
Before the war he lived in Ostrowiecz, one of 3.2 million Jews in Poland. Six years later, less than 200,000 Polish Jews remained. He survived ghetto life and death camps. His journey through hell was over. As he sat in that meadow in Bayren, eating army rations, David Singer’s mind began to wander. Where was his wife, Freda, mother, Sara and the rest of his family?
BEFORE THE WAR
Life in Poland was a struggle for the Singers before the Germans crashed their world. David’s father was a partner in a small leather business in Ostrowiecz, a city of 30,000, half of which were Jews.
“He couldn’t make a living and we struggled,” Singer said. “We didn’t have food before the war. I think that toughened us, helped us survive the camps.”
In the late 1930s Singer went to work as a messenger for a bank and started dating Freda Shulman, daughter of a wealthy Jewish factory owner. Life was easier for the Shulmans.
“We had plenty of food. We had geese, fresh live carp, chickens, eggs, cheese and fresh butter. Oh,” Freda sighed. “That butter was good. It was a nice life.”
The Shulmans lived in a large two-family house with a coal oven and fresh water stored in large barrels. Laundry was done every three months. A woman came for three days to boil clothes, rinse them in the river and hang them to dry in the attic. When Hitler expelled thousands of Jews from Germany in 1939, the Shulmans gave an exiled family the second floor in their home.
“My father was a wonderful man,” Freda said. “But he didn’t make it through the war.”
Neither did Freda’s mother, three sisters or brother. She was her family’s lone survivor.
Even before Hitler, life in Eastern Europe was difficult for Jews. Anti-Semitism was rampant. A sign in an Ostrowiecz park declared that dogs and Jews were forbidden. They were scorned as Christ killers and rocked during Passover. Misunderstanding and prejudice was rampant. Racism was the fuel that drove Hitler’s Final Solution – his diabolical plan to eliminate Jews off the face of the earth.
In September 1939, the Nazis conquered Poland in eight days. It took even less time to turn the heat up on the Jews. Freda Singer remembers the first announcement from German authorities.
“They told us to give them our furs,” she said. “They shot a few people. Everybody was afraid. Who needs the furs? We gave the furs, jewelry, everything.”
But every day brought a new announcement, a new item to fork over. Some Jews fled to Russia, and survived, but the Shulmans and the Singers stayed.
“We didn’t know how long the war would last,” Freda said. “Who knew?”
Anti-Semitic decrees rained from the sky. Jews had to wear yellow stars on all their clothing, and were herded into cramped ghettos and forced to work for the Third Reich. Under harsh conditions, many Jews died from malnourishment, overcrowding, poor sanitation and disease. Jewish councils were set up in every town to carry out the orders of the German authorities.
In August 1942, word spread that the ghettos were going to be liquidated and Jews sent to concentration camps. Whispers spread through the ghetto about death camps and crematoriums.
“We heard the rumors, but who could believe such a thing?” David Singer said. “We thought we’d go away to a camp, work hard, and at the end of the war we would come back.”
Faced with the breakup of the ghetto and an uncertain future, David and Freda decided to get married. Freda’s sister sold a hand-embroidered tablecloth – the last valuable family remnant – to an S.S. guard for flour and sugar to make wedding cookies. Freda borrowed a blue dress for the wedding. Two weeks after the wedding, they were torn from each other and forced into labor camps.
With the war raging, the Germans needed bullets for their guns, uniforms for their soldiers, planes to fill the sky. They used Jews from Poland, Hungary, France and Italy to provide the tools of destruction. Before the war, Jews were not allowed to work in the factories. During the war, Jews were forced to do so.
David Singer was sent to Pionski, an ammunition factory. The working conditions were unbearable. After a few weeks he used fake identification and Polish clothes to escape. “I had to get out of there,” he said. “If I stayed in Pionski, I was a dead man for sure.”
But where could he go? If he were caught wandering the countryside he would be executed on the spot. Using money he had concealed from the Germans, Singer hired a fancy carriage and rode in high style to a work camp back in Ostrowiecz. He rode right past the German guards looking so dignified nobody suspected a Jew was breaking into a camp.
“I wasn’t safe in the country,” Singer said. “If they found me I would be shot. But here in this camp I had many friends and the work was better.”
Young, strong Jews had value to the Germans. They could work. They could help Hitler carve out his triumphant Third Reich, an empire to last 1,000 years. Old Jews and children were quickly put to death. But David and Freda were young and strong, and during the next two years they were shuffled from work camp to work camp until time and place became a blur.
“The Germans had no horses,” Freda said. “We chopped wood. We filled the carts with wood. We pulled the carts. We were the horses.”
The prisoners toiled long hours performing backbreaking chores and subsisted on little more than bread and watery soup. Weight started to melt away, disease started to creep in and the Jews began to die.
One day while marching to work in a field Freda spotted a pile of garbage strewn with rotting potatoes. She broke from the ranks and filled her pockets with the potatoes. “I was so hungry I didn’t care if they shot me,” she said. “What did it matter?”
Later, she shared the treasure with her fellow prisoners, thinly slicing the potatoes and spreading them across pieces of bread. “Many times after the war I tried to slice potatoes and eat them on a slice of bread,” Freda said. “Now it doesn’t taste good. Then, it was delicious.”
After two years of grueling labor the young and strong were tired, starving and weak. They were moved to Auschwitz, a death camp where millions of Jews had been gassed and burned in massive crematoriums.
When the transport arrived in Auschwitz, the sound of a German voice barking “out, out, out,” rang in Singer’s ear. He was shepherded to a room where he was issued striped clothes. He went to a kiosk where a guard asked his name and date of birth. As he answered the questions Singer peeked at the form. At the bottom was a section for comments. It read “deceased.”
“They already knew the outcome,” he said. “What could we do?”
Unlike the other camps, in Auschwitz there was no work. Prisoners hung around, talking and waiting to die. One day, the door to the barracks flew open and an SS officer asked for two strong men. David and his younger brother Paul volunteered. The Germans had just hung a man on the street and the Singers had to cut him down and cart him away. For their effort they were given extra bread and soup.
“Volunteering for extra duty was a big thing,” Singer recalled. “My brother and I were tailors, electricians, shoe makers, whatever they asked for. For the work we got extra food and a little whiskey.”
Ironically, Auschwitz was a happy time compared to work camps. “We didn’t want to leave Auschwitz,” Singer said. “We made up our minds that today we live, tomorrow, who knows?”
Freda was also in Auschwitz, and she spotted David through a wire fence. The women had more food than the men and Freda smuggled soup and bread underneath a wire fence to nourish her starving husband.
“That lasted only a few days,” Freda said. “Then David disappeared. I didn’t know about him and he didn’t know about me.”
David was shipped out to another work camp where he was forced to make soap from Jewish bodies. Weeks later he was transferred to an underground plane factory, then to Dachau to harvest potatoes, and finally, Flossenberg and his eight-day march towards liberation.
With the Allies closing in, the Germans took desperate measures with Jews. The murders escalated. The crematoriums ran 24 hours a day.
“Burning bodies turned the sky red,” Freda Singer said. “Day and night the sky was red. We sat around Auschwitz waiting to die.”
Freda was also taken from Auschwitz to a forced labor camp. She was transported to Czechoslovakia, where the Russians liberated her.
“Russians came into camp and said we were free, we could do anything we wanted for one day. Rob. Steal. Whatever,” Freda said. “People broke into homes and took jewelry and money. I broke into a home and stole a pot of soup. That’s what I stole, a pot of soup.”
Not knowing what became of David or her family, Freda made her way back to Poland, back to Ostrowiecz. Nobody was there. She was the first Jew to return. Eventually a few others returned, and she heard David was in Munich. Excited, she got a loaf of pumpernickel bread and picked apples off trees while making her way to Munich. She refused to eat the bread. That was to be a special moment, to eat the bread with her husband. They had survived.
It took her eight days to find David and she carried the bread under her arm like a prized football. It was worth more than money. It was food.
“We were like two skeletons.” Freda said. “I gave him the bread and he said, ‘What good is this?’”
It was hard as a rock.
For two years, the Singers lived in a German apartment, eating well and recovering from the ravages of war. They remarried in Germany to make their ghetto ceremony legal. They used coupons to eat in restaurants and military scrip to buy goods. David made some money exchanging military scrip for U.S dollars. But they were still afraid at night; they heard German voices in their nightmares. They began to talk about America. David’s grandmother, Dacha Kuperman, had escaped the Holocaust by immigrating to Waterbury just months before the Germans invaded Poland. David also had two uncles living in Waterbury, Abe Kuperman and Leizer Kuperman, who owned K&D Jewelry on South Main Street.
“My uncle told us in America there is money in the streets. Just sweep and pick it up,” Singer said. “We believed him. We came.”
They were bewildered when they arrived in New York City. They had never seen so many cars. In Europe, they saw one or two cars a day. “We were confused,” Singer said. “We said, ‘Look what’s going on here, it’s crazy.’”
When they arrived in Waterbury with David’s mother, Sara Singer, and his two brothers, Paul Singer and Harry Singer, they were the talk of the town. They were the first Holocaust survivors to come to the city, and the Waterbury Republican splashed a big photograph across its front page. But it was hard for them. They didn’t speak the language and they were living in Abe Kuperman’s basement.
“It was rough at first,” Singer said. “And we complained a lot to my grandmother. She used to get disgusted with us and say, ‘Here’s money, go back to Germany if you want’.” But they stayed and forged a new life. They attended English night classes at Crosby High School and worked at the Leila Dress Factory on Cherry Street. They bought a house on Clifton Avenue in 1956 and flew to Athens, Greece, in 1960, to adopt an orphan. They named her Laurie. They had to marry for a third time to adopt the baby because their marriage papers from Germany had been misplaced.
The Singers moved to a three-bedroom house on McDonald Avenue in 1967 and have lived there since. Their little Greek orphan, Laurie Singer Russo, grew up to be a practicing attorney and Alderman in Waterbury, and they have two grandchildren, Chelsea Murray, and Jackson Russo. The Singers spend their days doting on their grandchildren, shopping, walking and eating out. They love going to all-you-can-eat buffet specials.
Sometimes their current life is surreal, about as far away from labor camps and death as one could imagine. Sometimes it seems like the Holocaust never happened, but the tattooed numbers on their arms are grim reminders.
Both David and Freda miss the old country, where family lives were enveloped by a stronger sense of community. “Financially, life is much better here in Waterbury,” David said. “But there is not the rich family life we had in Poland. It is not the same.”
Their lives were shattered by hatred and racism more than 50 years ago, by a barbarous set of circumstances that pushed them from their homes and eventually to Waterbury, CT.
They emerged from the Holocaust into a world of disbelief and denial and have endured through the decades as the world has embraced the Holocaust as an enduring symbol of hate. Never forget is the motto, but some claim the Holocaust never actually happened.
David Singer shakes his head. “If I wasn’t there I would think people were over-reacting,” he said. “It’s hard to believe a country like Germany could do such a thing. Who would believe Hitler would kill all the people?”