The faded, blue tattooed numbers on the old man’s left forearm bear witness to the hell on earth he endured as a young man during World War II.
William Schick of Venice, Fla. survived two years in Auschwitz, the infamous German death camp, where more than 1.5 million prisoners were killed in gas chambers or died from starvation, disease or mistreatment by guards before they reached the ovens.
Schick, his brother, Zoltan, and their mother, Maria, were all in the death camp together at one point. His father, Leopold, was shot in the back and killed by German soldiers while trying to escape as he was taken to Auschwitz.
The Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., confirmed that William Schick was serial number 170938.
Schick went to Auschwitz in 1941 aboard a cattle car with 3,000 other Czechoslovakian Jews, museum officials said.
Prior to Auschwitz, he was in Terezin, a camp in Czechoslovakia used by Germans as a “show camp.” This was a camp the Nazis used to show the world how nice their camps were.
“We arrived at Auschwitz in the evening. When they opened the door of our cattle car, there were German soldiers with guns and German shepherd dogs. Prisoners in blue and white striped uniforms, who worked for the Germans, called ‘Capos,’ were also waiting for us. They beat the hell out of us with sticks they carried.
“‘Get out of the cars, faster, faster!’ they screamed. We were crammed in the cars like sardines. Some people died on the trip and many of the old people fell on their faces trying to get out of the cars.”
Schick recalls the bedlam more than 60 years later.
“We had no idea where we were. All the Germans told us when they put us on the cattle cars in Terezin was, ‘We were going east on a work detail,” he said. “We got off and were standing outside the cattle cars bathed in flood lights with people screaming at us.”
The prisoners were made to stand in two lines: Men in one line and women in the other. They were forced to take off their clothes. Their bodies were shaved of all hair as they stood under floodlights in the cold night air. They were given blue and white striped uniforms like the other prisoners at Auschwitz and wooden clogs for their feet.
“Then all 3,000 of us were marched to Camp B2B. It was the only camp in Auschwitz where women, children and men were together,” Schick said. “There were over 40 subcamps in Auschwitz like this and each one was surrounded by barbed wire. There were Russian prisoners in one camp, Gypsies in another, Communists in a third and so on — camp after camp some 100,000 prisoners in all at any one time at Auschwitz, all scheduled for death.”
The Nazi secret police, who guarded the death camp, had the extermination of prisoners down to a science. If they didn’t starve a person to death in 90 days on a diet of mostly bread and water, those who were still living were sent to the gas chamber.
Each prisoner at Auschwitz had a colored triangle on the front of his striped uniform denoting his status in the camp: Jews had yellow triangles, gays wore pink triangles, political prisoners wore green triangles and criminals had black triangles.
The German commander of Camp B2B was a prisoner himself. He wore a black triangle on the front of his uniform. He murdered someone in Germany before the war.
“He was very, very nice to the prisoners,” Schick said. “He never beat anyone in his camp and after the war a number of his former prisoners spoke up for him and told authorities how he protected them. Eventually he was honored by Israel as a ‘Righteous Gentile’ who helped Jews in their time of need.
“He came into our camp one day and asked if any of us played soccer. I was a soccer player,” Schick said. “I raised my hand because I had been part of a semi-pro soccer team in Prague before the war.”
He formed a soccer team in B2B. The team played another soccer team from one of the other camps in Auschwitz.
“After we won the match he gave each one of the members of our team a 6-inch piece of salami,” Schick recalled with a smile. “We had to be careful with the salami. If you ate all of it at one time you could die. Our stomachs were not use to such rich food.
“He was a good guy,” Schick said.
Mostly, however, life in Auschwitz was awful. Prisoners were there for one reason — to die.
This was a far cry from from the life he led before the war, before the Germans marched into Czechoslovakia and took over the country. Until then he had grown up in Prague in a nice, middle-class Jewish family. Within 90 days after the Germans arrived, Jews could not go outside without wearing a yellow Star of David displayed prominently on their clothes.
At the time, Schick’s father was a sales representative for a large textile company headquartered in Prague. He toured Europe selling his cloth. Schick was 19, his younger brother was 16, and their mom was in her early 40s.
Things started going downhill in 1939 when their family was ordered by the Germans to report to an office in Prague to receive an identification number. Schick’s number was 508. A week later the Germans began calling numbers.
He was ordered to report to a train and was sent to Terezin, Czechoslovakia. This was the camp Germany used to show the world how humane it was to its concentration camp prisoners.
He was among the first 1,000 people to arrive at the concentration camp. Their job was to get the camp ready for thousands of prisoners who were on their way. Eventually his brother and mother arrived at the camp.
“Conditions at Terezin were very bad compared to life at home. However, compared to Auschwitz the camp was nice,” he said. “There was no gas chamber and people at Terezin died from starvation or old age.”
He got a prime job because he arrived early. Schick became a cook in the camp, but the job was his undoing two years later.
“A Jewish guard (working for the Germans) caught me with a potato. I got so mad at him I beat him up,” he said. “That was a mistake because the guard turned me over to the Germans who ran Terezin. I was sent to Auschwitz in 1941.”
Life at Auschwitz began early when every prisoner automatically fell into formation outside their barracks.
“We had to get up at 5 a.m. and go outside in nothing but those blue and white striped cotton uniforms, no matter how cold the weather. We might stand there for an hour and a half in the freezing cold until a German soldier came out to count us,” Schick said. “Prisoners who had died during the night, we had to drag out of the barracks and put on the ground in line with us so they could be counted. We were counted to make sure no one had escaped.”
After the counting they went back to their barracks, where they got their first meal of the day.
“It was a slice of brown bread and some black water that was suppose to be coffee,” he said. “I don’t know what it was, but it was warm so I drank it.”
It was bread and water for lunch and more bread and water for dinner. Very infrequently they would receive one thin slice of salami with their bread.
The prisoners were not required to work at Auschwitz. Prisoners were brought there to die of starvation or be put in the gas chambers. However, the guards amused themselves by having the male prisoners carry boulders.
“The men would have to carry rocks from one end of the camp to the other for two or three hours a day. If the stone you were carrying wasn’t big enough the guards would beat you with their rifle butts,” Schick said.
After three months at Auschwitz, a prisoner’s time was up.
“They told everyone in Camp B2B we were going to be sent to Germany as slave laborers, but we had to clean up and shower first and we’d be issued new uniforms,” he said. “When we reached what the guards said were the ‘showers’ there was a commotion going on. I could speak a little German and I heard the guards say something was ‘kaput.'”
He learned later the apparatus that filled the showers with poison gas was ‘kaput.’ The prisoners from B2B had escaped death. They were marched back to their barracks. Three days later they were marched back to the gas chambers to die.
“We were just about to go into the gas chambers once more and there was another commotion out front.
“A train with 10,000 Jews from Hungry had just arrived. They had no place to put them. We were sent back to our barracks once again. They marched all 10,000 Hungarian Jews into the three gas chambers at Auschwitz and killed them all in 24 hours.”
Below: A reprieve!
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Sunday, Jan. 1, 2006 and is republished with permission.
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Monday, January 2, 2006 – Part Two
He survived Auschwitz and the ‘Angel of Death’
After escaping the gas chamber at Auschwitz twice, William Schick was leery when the prisoners in B2B, his unit in the death camp, were ordered to report for a new assignment.
Auschwitz, where some 1.5 million people were put to death during World War II, was comprised of more than 40 individual sub-camps within the main facility. There were camps for Jews, Russians, political dissidents, gays, gypsies and others — more than 100,000 people were there at any one time waiting to be exterminated.
The third call-up for Schick and the other Jews in B2B was ordered by Dr. Josef Mengele, the notorious “Angel of Death.” He checked them out to determine if they lived or died.
“When Dr. Mengele came to our camp, we had to stand before him completely naked. We were nothing but skin and bones,” Schick said.
“He was dressed to kill,” no pun intended. “He was unbelievable in his tailor-made uniform and handcrafted boots. I could see myself in his shiny, black boots as I stood for 10 or 15 seconds before him while he looked me over.”
He signaled with one thumb that Schick was to join those in the right line. Those in Schick’s line looked healthier. The less healthy prisoners in the left line would be sent to the gas chambers.
After the war, the German concentration camp physician escaped. He was never punished for the part he played in the Holocaust. Mengele reportedly died in 1979 at age 68, while hiding out in Paraguay.
June 1944. The Allies were invading Normandy, and Schick and 500 other Czechoslovakian Jews were given a reprieve. They would be be sent by cattle cars to Schwartz Heiden slave labor camp in Germany, about 60 miles from Dresden. They would work in a factory next to the camp that converted coal into gasoline.
Schick’s job was to clean up the debris after American B-17 and B-24 bombers attacked the plant. The American bombers flew daily noon raids against the plant.
Living conditions in Schwartz Heiden were better than in Auschwitz. The slave laborers received enough food to survive.
By March 1945, two months before the war’s end, American bombers had reduced the factory to rubble. The Russian army was fighting its way toward them from the east.
“Sometime in April, we began a ‘Death March.’ We were to walk 900 miles to another concentration camp in Austria. We had nothing to eat. It had been a freezing cold winter and it was still freezing cold in April with lots of sleet and snow,” he said.
They began with approximately 3,000 prisoners. A few weeks later, they were down to 500. They had buried hundreds along the road who had collapsed and died.
“We ate mostly grass and anything else we found on the edge of the road. I remember, as we walked through a German town, people were standing on the side of the road staring at us. I asked one of the townspeople, ‘Could you spare a piece of bread?’ He spit at me.”
By early May, the SS guards accompanying them put all the prisoners into cattle cars and tried to move them by rail. But the German rail system had been so badly damaged by the Allied air force it was very slow going.
“May 7, 1945 came and we were locked in the cattle cars and they were not moving. All of a sudden I heard someone say, ‘The guards are gone.’ The SS guards learned the war was over and they escaped back into Germany,” Schick said.
One prisoner forced his way out of a locked cattle car. He unlocked all of the cars and let out the prisoners.
“About 500 yards away, there was a railroad station with a name on it. We were only four kilometers from Terezin, the concentration camp where we had originally been sent four years earlier,” Schick said. “My brother and I hobbled to Terezin and got help from the Czech Red Cross. We wound up back in Prague where we came from.”
Prague had survived the war nearly unscathed. Schick and his brother didn’t return to the apartment where they grew up, but the government gave them an equally nice apartment in the city. Schick went to work for the Czechoslovakian airline because he spoke five languages.
Everything was going smoothly for the Schick brothers until the Communists took over the Czechoslovakian government a couple of years after the war. Because he refused to join the Communist Party, Schick was once again, within a few weeks, a man without a job or a country.
“I had to figure out how to escape Czechoslovakia, but the Communists wouldn’t let me out of the country. It took me quite a while before I made some connections with the Czech underground,” Schick said. “By this time, the country’s border with Germany was surrounded by barbed wire and mines, and soldiers were patrolling with dogs. Escape was next to impossible.”
A spokesman for the Czech underground told him they would smuggle him into the American Zone in Germany if he paid them $400 American. He didn’t have that kind of money.
Luckily for him, he had a friend, Jara Kohout, a movie star before the war who was considered the Bob Hope of Czechoslovakia. Kohout wanted to smuggle his wife, his three children and himself into Germany to escape the Communists, as well.
“Money was no problem for him. I made arrangements with the underground to smuggle all six of us across the border into Germany,” he said. “I’ll never forget that trip. We took a train to the German border.”
They concocted a tale that Kohout was producing a cabaret show in a border town and that Schick was his piano player. The two men traveled together in the train. The move star’s wife and three children went in the same train, but in a different car.
“We got off the train at the station just before the border as we were instructed, and were met by a member of the underground who had a wagon to transport our baggage,” he said. “We were taken to a nearby farmhouse to wait until night to cross the border.”
Twice they made it to the border and twice they turned back because there was too much activity and too many soldiers watching. Finally, on the third try, Schick went alone with their underground guide. He slipped across the border into Germany by himself without incident.
Schick caught up with his movie star friend and his family a few days later on the German side of the border. It wasn’t long until Schick had a job as a translator working for the U. S. Army in the American Sector.
Three years later, in March 1951, he obtained a visa to America after a doctor, who lived in Marlboro, Mass., agreed to sponsor him. Schick arrived in New York City on a Liberty ship with a boatload of Russian emigrants who couldn’t speak English. He failed to make connection with his sponsor at the dock because he was helping the Russians get through immigration.
“There I was at 1 a.m. at the docks in New York and a taxi driver pulled up and said, ‘Do you want a ride?’ I told him I did, but I had no money.
“‘Don’t worry about it,’ he said. “I couldn’t believe him. I got in and he told me, ‘I’m going to show you the city.’ He took me to Broadway, Times Square, the whole town. Then he took me to 640 Riverside Dr. in New York where my sponsor lived.”
Schick began working in a shoe factory. He wasn’t very good at it and, after a few months, he quit that job and went to work selling Ford automobiles in Waltham, Mass.
“When I first stared at the agency, my boss asked me if I thought I could sell Fords. I said, ‘Let me look at the phone book.’ I told him, ‘I’m going to call every Czech name in the phone book and try to sell ’em a Ford.’
“I became the dealership’s top salesman and finally sales manager. Twenty-four years later, I retired at 62 in 1982 and eventually moved to Venice,” Schick said.
GLOUCESTER — William “Willy” Schick, a holocaust survivor, of Gloucester, died on New Year’s Eve, Friday, Dec. 31, 2010 at the Addison Gilbert Hospital. He was the husband of Barbara Jean (Smith) Schick.
Born in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, on Dec. 16, 1920, he was the son of the late Leopold and Maria (Steiner) Schick. His family moved to Prague when he was 2-years-old. When Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, he and his family were sent to concentration camps. He and his brother, Zoltan, survived the camps for nearly five years, including the extermination camp, Auschwitz. His parents did not survive.
When he was able to return to Czechoslovakia, he worked for the Czech Airlines as a translator, as he was able to speak five languages. When the communists took over Czechoslovakia, he made a daring escape to Germany where he met a couple who sponsored him to the United States. He met his wife at a New Year’s Eve Party and they shared 45 years of marriage. They lived on Dudley Pond in Wayland for 33 years.
He was a member of the Dudley Pond Association and belonged to the Sudbury River Tennis Club in Framingham. He loved tennis, skiing and was a semi-pro soccer player in Czechoslovakia. William and his wife lived in Rockport, Venice, Fla., and finally Gloucester. He was employed as a sales manager in the automotive business in Waltham.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by two daughters and sons-in-law, Sylvia and Gordon Young, Ricarda and Robert Roche; a stepdaughter, Mary Alana “Timmie,” wife of Howard Friedman; sisters-in-law, Jamila Schick; a niece, Dr. Denise Frey and her husband, Dr. Gerard Frey, brother-in-law, Chester, and his wife Cookie Smith and sister-in-law, Christine Smith, several grandchildren and his very best friend, “Leroy.” He was also predeceased by his brother, Zoltan Schick.
ARRANGEMENTS: His funeral services will be held privately. There are no visiting hours. Expressions of sympathy may be made in his memory to the Cape Ann Animal Aid, 260 Main St., Gloucester, MA 01930. Arrangements are under the direction of the Pike-Grondin Funeral Home, 61 Middle St., Gloucester. For further information and to send online condolences, please visit http://www.grondinfuneralservices.com.