Small in stature, young at heart, he is one of the finest people I have ever met. Although the camp administration records show that he was born in 1925, Jakob Hajblum is 90 this year and celebrates his birthday on the day he was liberated in Dachau. We had to laugh at that together, as it is also the date I celebrate my birthday. He is a man who has a strong urge to go back to the places where he lost nearly everything. At 19 years of age he was liberated after years of captivity. What they could not take away from him is his dignity and his humanity. Truly amazing how this survivor deals with his past. He is a warm hearted man who is able to forgive but will never forget, can not forget even if he wanted to.
I had the honour of meeting him this weekend. A survivor of the same subcamp where Jan van Boeckel, my uncle, was imprisoned during the last months of his life: Saal an der Donau, or as it was registered in the Nazi administration: Ring-Me. Jakob arrived at Flossenbürg main camp one day after Jan did. On the 15th of February 1945 he left Flossenbürg main camp for the subcamp in Saal an der Donau in a passenger train. A train with 199 other men including Jan van Boeckel. There was a guard at the front door and a guard at the back door. Many men were pressed into the wagons. But there were windows through which they could see the landscape. The camp they were transported to was located outside a tiny village, about 30 kilometers southwest from the city of Regensburg. “It was the worst camp of all the camps I had experienced” Jakob told me. And he had already experienced horrific times before he arrived at the sad looking place near the Donau.
Jakob came from Starachowice, a town in Poland. When the Nazis came, he was forced to work in a factory. In 1942 when he was 17 years old, he and two of his brothers were sent to a camp (probably Julag I). The rest of his family, including his mother and father and five of his siblings were sent to the extermination camp Treblinka, and were never heard of again. One of his brothers later attempted to escape but was caught and executed. The sole ‘reason’ for these horrific crimes was the fact that they were Jewish.
In July 1944 he was transferred to Auschwitz together with his brother. When Auschwitz was evacuated in January 1945 Jakob was forced to take part in a death march and a few days later was put on a train to Mauthausen in Austria. When the train arrived, there was insufficient space for new prisoners at the camp and the train was sent up to Sachsenhausen near Berlin and then again southwards to Flossenbürg near the Czech border. There it arrived with far less passengers then it started out with, two weeks after they were put into the overcrowded wagons.
Jakob stayed in Flossenbürg for two weeks, and was then transferred to Saal. “The bunks in Auschwitz were luxurious in comparison” he explains when speaking about Saal. Jakob still recalls, as though it happened yesterday, the station at Saal, the earthen barracks, the hunger, the harshness, the carpentry work, the death march to Dachau. “I cannot forget, the memories are always with me” he repeats as he recounts the terrible things he saw and experienced. The daily piece of bread with watery soup, the rollcalls, collecting the dead and putting them on a wooden cart, the crematorium. And he keeps coming back to something that is deeply engraved in his memory: the sick who were sent to the Krankenrevier, the infirmary. Jakob recalls that the men in charge checked whether the sickly men had golden teeth. If they did they were given a lethal injection, extracting the gold teeth by force. “Viele Fransösen” he keeps repeating, with sorrow in his voice, “many Frenchmen“.
After the war he located his brother who had been transferred from Flossenbürg to Platling, another subcamp. They stayed in Germany in a Displaced Persons (DP) camp and worked as carpenters. After four years they were allowed to travel to Israel to really start a new life.
In the past years he has related his story so very many times: for journalists, for researchers, for schoolchildren, for family, and now for me. I am immensely grateful to him for his willingness to help me in my quest to understand the experiences Jan van Boeckel was subjected to. This meeting with Jakob was an honour that I will cherish all my life. A truly special man who, although he has suffered beyond imagination, has a warm, welcoming and open personality. An absolute pleasure to be with.
A warm thank you also to Birgit for making it all possible!
This is an episode in “the quest for Jan van Boeckel: From Holland to Bavaria”.