Stories of Strength

A silver haired 91-year-old gentleman enters the conference room at the Los Angeles Jewish Home in Reseda. He walks, bit by bit with a cane, not because of an injury, but because age is creeping up on him.

He acknowledges each person, his ice blue eyes devoid of emotion. The window to his soul hides a story.

“I am not a hero. I am just a Holocaust survivor,” Ernest Braunstein says.

Braunstein wants to share his story for his daughter, Gilda Evans, and his three grandchildren.

“I want to know everything about my father,” Evans says. “It is important my family and I have a record of him and the part he played in history.”

At least 1.2 million children were massacred during the Jewish Holocaust, and 9 million adults, according to the Anti-Defamation League’s web archive. Braunstein was neither a child nor adult. He was 17.

After moving to Hungary with his family, Braunstein began his first year of college. Walking down the road, Hungarian and German soldiers accosted him.

“They pulled me by a door. I had to put my pants down. They were looking if I were a Jew or not,” Braunstein says. “When they find out I am a Jew, they put a Star of David on my front and back.”

He was then told he would get a letter to report to a labor camp. Not understanding what this meant, he ignored the letter. A month later, on the way to school, he was captured by soldiers and taken to Bor Labor Camp in former Yugoslavia.

Braunstein takes a sip of water before continuing. There is little movement of Braunstein in his chair. He has limited use of his hands and arms when he speaks because of the many atrocities he endured. 

One of these atrocities was suspended by his wrists, with his arms tied behind his back. Braunstein was punished because he gave water to another man hanging from the ceiling. He was tortured over and over again until the guards tired of their game.

After Bor, the Russians began to overrun the first of the major concentration camps. By 1944, SS authorities did not want prisoners to fall into enemy hands alive to tell their stories to Allied and Soviet liberators.

The Nazis at Bor  evacuated the prisoners for a five-month walk to Germany. Upon arrival, Braunstein and others were packed in trains like cattle and taken to the concentration camp Auschwitz. Of the 15,000 Jews who left Bor, only 2,000 arrived, according to the Holocaust Museum, Los Angeles.

Braunstein had survived a Death March. Fatigue, disease and hunger were minor compared to the Nazi abuse. If a few Jews were killed it meant nothing.

According to the Jewish Virtual Library, there were 59 different marches from Nazi concentration camps.

Braunstein recalls that some Jews would step to the side of the road and put their heads between their knees. This was a sign to the Nazis to shoot them.

“I never looked,” Braunstein says. “I just vowed I would never be one of those who asked to die, no matter what they forced me to do.“

Passing through villages, crowded together as if they were herds of animals, people put out food. No one dared reach for it for fear of being shot.

“The people that could not keep up, fell to the back and got shot,” Braunstein says.

Mastering seven languages, knowing when to volunteer his services, and pure luck, kept Braunstein alive, he says.

During the march Braunstein says the group stopped at a brick factory in what was formally known as Cservenka, Yugoslavia. They were told many volunteers were needed to dig a big ditch for the war effort. Braunstein was the first to volunteer. Any situation could be a change for the better or a means to escape.

“When it got dark, we were told the digging would continue, but I stayed inside,” Braunstein says. “ Then I heard machine gun fire. I climbed to where I could see. Hundreds and hundreds of my fellow prisoners were being slaughtered in the ditch I helped dig.”

Once he arrived at Auschwitz, event after event took place where Braunstein said he found himself barely escaping or coming up with a brazenness no one else could muster.

Stopping at a slaughterhouse Braunstein walked up to an officer and demanded, “Feed us or shoot us now.” Within two hours all prisoners left were fed.

Ten volunteers were needed to unload a shipment, and Braunstein was one of them. While unloading, a small band decided to extract some food and clothing. The Nazis quickly found out and threatened to kill all unless the culprits came forward.

Braunstein stepped up, taking all the blame, somehow feeling he would get out of it. All others were dismissed and he was blindfolded and placed against a wall. As the firing squad was getting ready to take aim and shoot, a Nazi Officer interrupted the proceedings. The officer was angered because he had not been consulted and stopped the execution until he could further investigate.

“Thrown in a makeshift jail, I knew I that I didn’t have much time,” Braunstein says. “I found a small hole in one section of the wall and I could see that a river flowed by.”

With his boot he enlarged the hole until he was able to squeeze through. He leaped into the water and hid behind an old deserted ship anchored there.

“I was very weak and had no place to go, so I decided to stay on the ship until the march moved on,” Braunstein says. “At daybreak I rejoined the march as though nothing had happened. I survived again.”

After surviving the freezing cold and seeing many seated around him fall to the ground and freeze to death, the weather warmed. At Auschwitz, Braunstein once again volunteered for another task.

No one was aware of the atrocities going on around them. They were dealing with the basic instinct to survive. Food was scarce or non-existent. Clothing was not to be had and some wore nothing. There was a constant stench in the air, but the position of the buildings blocked any visual reference. It was the smell of death.

It was shower day. Braunstein says he and one other man were led to a large structure on the other side of the camp. Their job was to hand out soap and a towel to each entering the structure. Neither Braunstein nor the other man realized no one was exiting. They had been sending their fellow prisoners to death in a huge gas chamber.

“I hid out the next day and did not go back,” Braunstein says. “I survived again.”

Braunstein found he was to be transferred to the Birkenau concentration camp. There he was paid with cigarettes to work in an airplane factory. He traded these cigarettes for food with the guards to keep up his strength.

“After the war ended, I stayed on for a while at the former Bergen-Belsen concentration camp,” Braunstein says. “I was the police chief there and I would help the people to get back to their homes.”

Braunstein became a member of  a group who would seek out and capture former Nazis and “eventually” turn them over to local authorities after beating them severely.

“Only one man died from one kick too many,” he says. “But it was not my kick.”

Working his way across Germany, Romania and the Atlantic Ocean, Braunstein made it to Ellis Island.

“It was a Friday and the offices were already closed. I would have to be able to make due until Monday and I did not have any money to eat,” Braunstein says. “A man saw me standing, looking through the restaurant window, and gave me money for food.”

Little did Braunstein know he would run into the man 10 years later and be able to reciprocate by picking up the tab for the man’s meal at a local diner.

Lacking most of the documentation to enter The Untied States, Braunstein showed a picture of himself playing soccer  as a young man and convinced authorities he was a world class player.

“That seemed to be good enough for them,” he says. “I ended up in California.”

Sitting in a conference room at the Los Angles Jewish Home, Braunstein’s face shows fatigue. His daughter indicates he has had enough. Braunstein has one more thing to say.

“The memories can be deep and painful to recall, yet I believe we must not forget what happened. In passing these stories on to my daughter and grandchildren, what I wish them to learn and share is not the horror, but the pride they should take in their heritage and the lesson, we must never give up striving for what we believe in, no matter the odds.”

The dark wide open eyes of Braunstein’s youngest grandson Loren makes contact with his mother, and says matter-of-factly “He’s my role model.”