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History Lesson

by Kaytlyn Mroz

At 97 years of age, Ernest Kaufman still finds plenty of ways to fill his day. He keeps busy with a lot of activities, plays bridge three to four times a week, does his own financial bookkeeping and has breakfast with an old friend once a week.

Despite his ordinary nature, Kaufman is anything but. In fact, he’s a Holocaust survivor—or, as he puts it, he escaped the Holocaust. Lucky enough to get out of Nazi Germany before the mass murders took place; Kaufman came to America, enlisted in the U.S. Army, served as an intelligence officer when returning to Germany for World War II and eventually received the Bronze Star Medal Citation for meritorious service in 1945. He is also a Purple Heart recipient.

Today, Kaufman lives independently at Medford Leas in Lumberton where he and his wife moved in 2001. South Jersey Magazine spoke with Kaufman to hear his remarkable journey from Buchenwald concentration camp to eventually settling down on a farm.

The Night of Broken Glass…
I was arrested as part of the Kristallnacht and there were 10,000 of us that ended up in Buchenwald concentration camp [one of the largest German Nazi concentration camps created]. We were basically in a fenced-in area separated from the “regular” prisoners they had there.

We were not physically mishandled there. I mean treatment was lousy, [we received] one meal a day where we stood in line and handed bowls and spoons from man to man without washing them. We had to eat slop—as I called it—and that was the extent of the mistreatment for us.

Physical conditions were inhumane [for the prisoners]. I’ve watched people be hanged, I’ve watched people be flogged until they were unconscious, I’ve seen a man have his hands tied behind his back and then hung up on what looked like meat hooks on [a] wall until the man’s shoulders were out of joint and he fainted before he was cut down. I’ve seen them stick a man in a barrel that was spiked with nails, [roll him] down a hill and [then] saw a dog finish him off.

Coming to America…
I experienced [the concentration camp] firsthand and I was lucky enough that my parents found someone in this country who sponsored me [to come to America, the only way out of the concentration camps at that point]. [These are] people who did not know me from Adam. The sponsors were in New York. After the American Consulate at Stuttgart got the affidavit or “support” as they used to call it, my father [with that information] could go to the Gestapo authorities and affect my release from the concentration camp. ... I was released from camp in December 1938.

It took another almost four months [until] April 1939 when I was called to the consulate, had a physical and mental exam, a thorough one, and was handed my green card [to finally come to America].

After being a jack of all trades, I ended up getting a job as a mechanic. I got an occupational deferment from the draft at the time because in those days, even though you were a legal immigrant, you had to register for the draft. I got deferment because the company [I worked for] was doing defense related work. I was glad to get the deferment because at that time, Germany for Jews got to be unbearable.

Joining the U.S. Army…
The day after Pearl Harbor, the only thing I could do or wanted to do was get into the service. I went to City Hall in Philadelphia to try to enlist. [Having a] physical exam and a bunch of papers to fill out—one of the questions was “citizenship status,” I wrote “applied for” because I had my green card which basically was a declaration of intention to become a citizen. I couldn’t enlist and I was told I could go to my draft board and tell them to cancel my occupational deferment. I went over to the draft board [to cancel my deferment and] 30 days later I was exchanging my service for an Army uniform.

I ended up at Camp Wheeler in Georgia; I had basic training there for three months. I was asked to appear to post headquarters and [was told they wanted me to apply to Officer Candidate School]. They looked at my papers and said, ‘Oh, sorry. We made a mistake. You can’t go to Officer Candidate School; you aren’t a citizen.’

[I ended up] doing coast patrol … for $21 a month riding up the coast of Maine looking for saboteurs … until the middle of 1942. Congress passed a law saying that anyone who served honorably for six months in the military wouldn’t have to wait the usual five years before they could apply for citizenship. After six months, I went and applied for citizenship and was naturalized in Boston, became a U.S. citizen [and] after that I went and applied to Officer Candidate School.

Going to battle…
In November 1943, I ended up going to Europe on the Queen Elizabeth. I became a Second in Command of a Prisoner of War Interrogation Team. With that team, I landed a few days after D-Day in Europe and was with the 113th Mechanized Cavalry Group which was a 90-school unit and that’s where I first went into battle.

I fought my way through Germany with the unit and one time [while] doing a hog-calling job in some woods that we thought were very heavily defended, I talked about a hundred Germans into surrendering and [took us] through the woods without a single casualty.

Going back home…
The town had been evacuated by the Germans because of the heavy fighting in the area and there was absolutely no sign of anyone I could talk to. I got into my parental home which was empty and had changed considerably. The only thing that made me wonder what happened was in the attic of the house there were a number of small partitions, about six or seven of them, and I wondered why those partitions [were there].

The Germans in mid-1941, had evicted all of the Jews in my hometown. Nine families— 24 people plus my parents—all herded to my parental home and [were] kept there until March 1942 when they were all deported. Picture 26 people in a one-family house, one toilet, some children under 10, many people over 80 years old, confined there with limited rations and no ability to get out. Christian neighbors [were] sneaking food at night to augment the meager rations the Nazis allowed them.

After the war, I found out from my friends [that the] explanation that the Nazis had given for confining them to one house was, ‘That way we don’t have to hunt them up when we want to move them out.’

Settling down on the farm… 
I ended up on a poultry farm in New Egypt where my wife and I—who I had married July 29, 1945, just a week after returning home from the war—built up an old run-down place. We couldn’t afford anything else. I’d grown up in the country; of course we had a barnyard flock and things like that. I’d also [taken] poultry courses at Rutgers.

[Our chickens] gave us close to 35,000 eggs every day, all of which were marketed locally. We had our own feed mill which we manufactured [and] mixed and made about six tons of feed every day to feed those chickens. We had a processing plant; we packaged and processed the eggs, boxed them and sold them. We decided it was time to quit … [and by] 1978 we got rid of the last of our chickens. Then in order to keep our customers satisfied, we bought eggs from neighbors, processed them in our plant for a number of years until in 1985, we decided it was time to quit altogether and retire. 

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 14, Issue 4 (July, 2017).
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