Joachim Boim was a survivor of the Holocaust and was interviewed as part of a Harvad Educational Initiative inviting survivors of the Holocaust to recount their experiences. I am extremely grateful to Tim Turnquist, who made the transcripts of his interview with Joachim Boim available to me.
I was born in Berlin, Germany on November 19, 1922. My father was a Lutheran and my mother was Jewish. I had two sisters and we were raised as Jewish kids. When I was little, I was the first grandson, first son, and the first uncle. I was spoiled rotten! I had a wonderful life and I went to school until March of 1936, when the Nazis started coming in. Then I learned life was not all roses. We had been treated miserably, but I wanted to go to school. I wanted to learn. When Hitler finally became Grand Chancellor of Germany, he told my Dad to divorce my mum. My Dad said, ‘Why should I divorce her? I love her.’ For that he was sent to work camps. His parents tried to help us as much as they could, because we couldn’t go on the sidewalks and buy things, we had to walk in the street. We also had to wear the Jewish star. Some of our neighbours, though, were fairly good people.
When I was seventeen years old in November 1938, after the Kristallnacht, or ‘Night of Broken Glass,’ I was taken to the marketplace, and I had to take a toothbrush. I didn’t know why. There was a cart of people there, and the Germans walked out. We had to scrub with a toothbrush, the walls of the buildings and the street. A lot of people were killed too. When it was all over there were about sixty or seventy people dead, and we had to carry the bodies into the synagogue, and it was set on fire by the Nazis. We thought we were going to burn too, but they let us go. I went home and my mom said, ‘What happened?’ I told her nothing had happened.
About a week later, they came and picked me up. They took me to Sachsenhausen, one of the first concentration camps, close to Berlin. There were many people already there including many political opponents, communists, and some Jews. I was very upset because the only crime I had committed was being born of a Jewish mother.
We had to stand in line in the morning for about an hour, sometimes two hours. We went ‘home’ in the evening to our barracks with conditions like you see in the movies. I said I don’t know why this has happened, but I know one thing: If I come out of this camp alive, I will kill every German I come across.’ When I said that somebody tapped on my shoulder. I turned around: it was an elderly Catholic Priest, I found out later. He said, ‘Listen, if you want to do that, then you will put yourself in the same category as the Nazis.’ That started me thinking, but you have to understand that I was young. So from then on, I changed my mind. After all, my younger sister was being hidden by German neighbours.
In Sachsenhausen, one morning- I had been there a year and a half – we were in roll call when some of the SS men asked if anyone had any knowledge about airplanes. I stepped forward, but I had no idea what I was talking about. I had hoped that getting out of this situation (Sachsenhausen) would bring about a better possibility. We were put in cattle cars, like sardines, and for two and a half days we were without food, water and toilet facilities. We arrived at Buchenwald. Some of the people fell down and died. The smell , I can’t get it out of my mind. Anyhow, I got out and the Nazis separated younger people, but the older people had to stay at the station where trains from Holland and Belgium came. We had to take suitcases and put them in wagons. My first encounter was when young mothers came and their babies, who were three weeks old, were taken away from them. Some of the babies were thrown on a pyre or used as target practice. That was the whole situation. I could have killed several Germans after that, but that would have been no good, because they would have killed me, possibly two hundred or three hundred others. It was a terrible situation but you see if we had the chance to get out , we wanted to do what the Nazis said. I had no feelings anymore. It was a horrible situation and it made you feel like you were nothing. When we walked along there were some older children around and a little girl with outstretched arms saying, ‘Take me with you.’ Jewish people are not different . A human being is a human being. If you treat me like a human being, I’ll treat you like a human being.
At Buchenwald, I was chosen to build streets and roads. I was beaten pretty badly all the time with the butt of a rifle. I hardly have a hip anymore. They had some military men from the Ukraine, and they were really bad, they hated Jews. I made it, but somebody came and simply said you have to go.
We were transferred to Poland, and when I saw the sign Arbeit Macht Frei, I knew I was in Auschwitz. It was a worse situation, much worse, but I was strong, and the food was pretty good. We had one loaf for a week and sometimes in the morning we had coffee, which I would definitely not drink today. In the evening, we had some soup made from potato peels – if you are hungry you will eat anything. I am sorry to say we were looking for rats and mice to eat. A lot of people committed suicide.
One morning, I was standing around when a German said ,’ Come along with the two guys next to you.’ He gave us a push-cart and I said, ‘Where are we going?’ He took us to the place where they gassed people . The gas chambers were located underground, and then they put the canisters of cyanide through the roof. I went down there and the smell of dead bodies. Well I hope you never have to smell it. Anyway, I put the bodies on the cart and brought them to the oven. Then the other guys told me that I would be here three months and then I would go the same way. I said, ‘I do not care anymore.’
Later, an army officer, not an SS officer, told me, ‘Do you want to get out of here?’ I said ‘Yes.’ So he took me, along with three or four other people. After a bit, he took me to Hindenburg camp, with its stone quarry, on the German / Polish border.
Interview recorded by Tim Turnquist and Rachel Samson on December 31, 2002
Copy: Holocaust Historical Society Archives
Chris Webb is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Founder at Holocaust Historical Society. See his profile here.
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