Stefan Weinberg, Purchase
photo by Toshi Tasaki
Born in 1923 in Krakow, Poland, Stefan Weinberg was 16 when the Germans first invaded his homeland. “Before the war, I had the normal life of a teenager at the time. Then it all changed,” says Weinberg, an only child who lived with his parents, whom he declined to speak about because he wants them, he says, “to rest in peace.” After being stripped of their home and belongings, he, his family, and his 86-year-old grandmother, a widow, were confined to the barbaric Krakow Ghetto. His grandmother was immediately taken away.
“We did not know where they had taken her, but we hoped that she was safe,” Weinberg, today 88, says. “My cousin, also in the ghetto, later told me she was shot in a mass grave and he buried her. I can’t express what I felt when he told me.”
Initially, food ration cards were distributed to ghetto residents; however, later, they had to fend for themselves. “We had to find whatever potatoes and bread we could get our hands on while we worked outside the ghetto,” he says. “Some people could not get food. There were sixty-five thousand Jews in Krakow, and less than two thousand lived through the war. I feel guilty all the time. It’s not that I was smarter than the others, just luckier.”
Every day, Weinberg and the other malnourished slave laborers were assigned different jobs, from shoveling snow to working with machinery at the Siemens engineering firm. “We were scared every single day.”
After two years in the ghetto, in 1943, Weinberg and his mother were transported to the nearby Plaszow concentration camp. Eight days after their arrival, his mother, just 47, died of typhus, and he buried her himself in a mass grave at the camp. “I still feel the loss today. I wake up with it and I go to sleep with it. I thank God I have pictures of my mother.”
For two years in Plaszow, day in and day out, from five am until lanterns had to be turned on, he dug up mass graves, retrieved corpses, burned bodies, and helped obliterate evidence of the war’s atrocities. “We couldn’t let ourselves feel anything. Truthfully, I don’t know how I got through it. You live with it the rest of your life. To this day, whenever I go to a friend’s funeral, I stay away from the casket.”
At Plaszow, Weinberg was approached by a young woman who asked him for a favor. Anna Unger, desperate to obtain a job outside the camp as a housekeeper, told him she needed a uniform—a striped prisoner’s jacket—which was never given to her because there were more prisoners than available uniforms. Weinberg was able to get her a uniform and, months later, when their paths crossed again, “I gave her gold teeth I had in my pocket that were pulled from prisoners. I knew she could trade them in for slices of bread someday if she needed to. She was such a beautiful girl that I told her that if I lived, I would marry her after the war.”
In 1944, he, along with thousands of other Jews, was transferred to the Gross-Rosen concentration camp in the German city of the same name (today it is Rogoznica, Poland). “When we arrived, we were told that the life of a prisoner here is twenty-one days,” he says. “The Nazis took weak prisoners to a barracks, where they kept a barrel of excrement they would drown the prisoners in, one by one.”
Weinberg was “lucky”—he was subjected to Gross-Rosen “only” 18 days. He was then transported, via cattle car, to the infamous Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar, Germany, where he immediately was put to work in the camp’s stone quarry. He worked 12 hours a day, subsisting on a slice of bread in the morning and soup made of potato peels in the afternoon, and nothing else. So that hunger wouldn’t keep him up at night, he’d often save his morning bread ration and eat it at bedtime. (Weinberg, who once stood at 5’11,” weighed 76 pounds after the war.) He was not allowed to take any breaks while working, not even to sit down for a minute. When he dared to one day, an SS soldier jabbed him with the butt of his gun. “I never told you that you could sit,” he recalls the soldier saying. “‘You should be glad I allow you to stand on my land; you have none.’ This sticks in my mind because we had no rights at all whatsoever. I had two choices: give up and die or do the best I could to keep alive.”
Even though he knew nothing about metalwork, when the Buchenwald prisoners were asked if anyone was familiar with metal, he says, “I raised my hand because my friends raised theirs. We needed to stay together to stay alive. If you didn’t have friends, you didn’t live through the war.”
As a metalworker, making gears for planes at a factory in Sonnenberg, he was able to get some extra food. “After the Germans had their dinner, I was allowed to eat from their leftover bucket.”
By the end of 1944, as the Allied Forces advanced from all sides, the SS, desperate to destroy evidence of the crimes they committed, began to kill thousands and thousands more prisoners, while they forced others, Weinberg among them, to march for miles without food and water to railway stations to be transported elsewhere. “About a third of our group was shot because they could not walk anymore.” Somehow, he found a way to escape. “I hid in a bombed-out house with some other survivors, then we continued walking, hiding in barns, eating raw potatoes. The SS never found us, but German police arrested us and we were imprisoned in an old schoolhouse in Buchau. I denied I was Jewish. I said I was a Pole. After a few days, a German officer let us go.
“I was relieved,” he continues, “but I did not start feeling free until American soldiers, who had picked us up, offered us food and a bed. I couldn’t sleep on the bed because it was too soft. I wasn’t used to it, so I took a pillow and slept on the floor.” Eventually, he made his way to Prague, where he found Anna. “We fell in love within minutes,” he says. They’ve been married for 66 years.
“We came to the United States through the American Jewish Committee in 1949 with sixteen dollars,” he says. Initially, the couple settled in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, but with the Committee’s help, they moved to New York, where Weinberg found work with an air conditioning firm. The couple, who have three sons—Saul, William, and Theodore—lived in Greenburgh for 43 years. Six years ago, the Weinbergs, now the grandparents of four, moved to Purchase. A business he started in 1953, AMHAC, one of the largest heating and air-conditioning firms in Westchester, still thrives, thanks to his sons.
“Do I still believe in God? Sure, I do. After all, I have my wife, our sons, and our grandchildren.”