SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. -- Two Holocaust survivors told their stories April 30 during the Holocaust Remembrance Breakfast at the Scott Club. Jerry Koenig spoke of his experience escaping from the Warsaw Ghetto, then hiding in an underground bunker for 20 months, and Fred Ashner spoke about his experience in a concentration camp. This is Mr. Koenig's story:
"My story is not a very pleasant one to listen to," Mr. Koenig said.
Almost 60 years ago, Sept. 1, 1939, Mr. Koenig's childhood suddenly changed when Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland.
He came from a "well-to-do" family living in a suburb of Warsaw, Poland. The family owned apartment buildings and a 60-acre farm.
"The ownership of the farm turned out to be a very valuable asset to the family when it came to survival," Mr. Koenig said.
Directly after the German invasion, Jews were identified and made to wear a "badge of shame." Eventually, the Jewish population was forced to live in Ghettos--a specific area within a city during WWII where Jews were required to live.
"The conditions were horrendous," Mr. Koenig said. "People were starving and people were dying of disease."
He said food in the Warsaw Ghetto was scarce. He and his family survived by eating food smuggled in by boys who would climb the walls of the Ghetto, buy food, and bring it back into the Ghetto.
"To this day I carry a guilty feeling because even though I was the right age at that time, I never did get involved in the smuggling of food," Mr. Koenig said. "Probably because I knew what the penalty was for doing it, and because my parents never asked me to."
When black market food prices climbed too high, Mr. Koenig's family decided to escape from the Ghetto and they were smuggled out.
Mr. Koenig, his younger brother, father and mother relocated to a small town called Kosow in Poland where Jews were allowed to live normally.
Mr. Koenig said the town was an exception because it was surrounded by six Nazi death camps.
"It became very clear why this town was allowed to continue on its normal way of life," Mr. Koenig said. "We weren't going anywhere. We were a captive audience."
One of the death camps was only four miles away.
"Dad felt the only way for our family to survive was to find a Christian individual or a Christian family that would be willing to hide us for an unknown period of time."
His dad offered his 60-acre farm as a reward for anyone who could find a Christian family willing to take the risk of hiding a Jewish family. Two brothers from the town of Kosow found a family willing to hide the Jews, and they, plus five other people, fled to an underground bunker beneath the Goral family's barn.
"Conditions in the shelter were pretty tough," he said.
The walls of the small bunker were lined with straw. None of the occupants were able to bathe and lice and bed bugs infested the space. Light was provided by a kerosene lantern and the 11 occupants did not see the sun for 20 months. Second hand copies of the Goral's newspapers provided the only entertainment. Mr. Koenig said the newspaper became a propaganda tool for the German military, but over time through critical reading, it became obvious Germany was going to lose the war.
"The only thing that wasn't obvious at all was that those 11 people in that bunker, shelter, whatever you want to call it--hole in the ground, were going to see that day," Mr. Koenig said.
A young pregnant woman and her mother were among the 11 people in the underground bunker. Koenig said the young woman probably didn't know she was pregnant when she entered the bunker. Above ground, a member of the host family was also pregnant.
"Just the idea of having a baby born in that bunker was so frightening that nobody really wanted to give it some thought and figure out what the plan would be when the baby was born," Mr. Koenig said.
In the host family's farmhouse Mr. Goral's granddaughter was born first. There were complications with the pregnancy and the baby died. A few days later a baby girl was born in the bunker.
"She was doing what all little children do, newborn, she was crying and she probably had a very good reason to cry because she was being eaten alive by the lice and the bed bugs that we had in the bunker."
Mr. Koenig said there were discussions about giving the newborn child to the woman in the farmhouse who had recently lost her own child, but a midwife was involved with that pregnancy.
"So it wouldn't fly."
The newborn child stayed in the bunker where it died.
He said the events badly damaged morale in the bunker and the farmhouse.
Spirits continued to decline when Mr. Goral informed the shelter occupants about another Jewish family hiding in the woods near the farm. The family helped smuggle the Koenigs out of the Warsaw Ghetto and housed them months earlier, but Mr. Goral refused to hide them because the risk was too high and his food supply was too low.
"I hold absolutely nothing against Mr. Goral because he refused," Mr. Koenig said.
He said the family was found murdered in the woods a few days later.
"We expected to be raided almost immediately," Mr. Koenig said, although they were not.
Morale sunk to a low point when Mr. Koenig's mother considered mass suicide.
"My mom simply was convinced that there was no way for the family to survive and she was pushing very hard for suicide," he said.
The family did survive and they were liberated by Soviet troops 20 months after entering the bunker.
"I will never forget the look we were given by those soldiers," Mr. Koenig said. "We were nothing beautiful to look at."
Mr. Koenig said the 11 occupants were gaunt, pale and dirty.
Only three members of the Koenig's extended family survived the Holocaust--two blond-haired, blue-eyed cousins and an uncle.
Even after liberation, violence against Jews continued and the Koenig's decided to immigrate to the United States. They arrived in February 1951.
"This country has been good to me," Mr. Koenig said.