EL PASO — Starving and trudging for 12 days through snow and freezing rain in lice-infested rags, 16-year-old old David Kaplan was marching to an almost certain death.
During four years in Nazi concentration camps, Kaplan survived by using his wits, borrowing, trading, and stealing. In Dachau Concentration Camp, Kaplan took advice from another inmate —a Hungarian doctor— and boiled pine cones to get some vitamins into his emaciated body. At the time of the death march the boy weighed 70 pounds. “I did what I had to do to survive,” Kaplan told journalism students recently at the University of Texas at El Paso.
When Kaplan was 12 years old in 1940, the German army occupied his hometown of Kaunas, Lithuania, displacing the Russians who were ruling the country. Thousands of Jews were murdered in the streets by their Lithuanian neighbors and the Germans. The survivors were given 18 days to abandon their homes and relocate to a ghetto.
Kaplan, along with his grandfather, mother, brother, and sister was forced to live in a one-bedroom apartment. The Russian soldiers had sent Kaplan’s father to Siberia a year earlier. The Germans gave each of them a daily ration of a half-pound of bread and a few vegetables, which meant they would certainly starve to death. “I was a confused 12-year-old boy,” Kaplan said.
One evening, Kaplan went to visit a girl who lived around the corner from his apartment building. “Even there my hormones were starting to work,” he said. At the time, the Jews had to observe a 9 p.m. curfew. Kaplan was 10 minutes late coming home from the girl’s house and was caught by the Jewish police in the ghetto. At the time, the Jewish police were very harsh or else they would get punished by the Lithuanian police. The Jewish police took Kaplan to the jail, which was located on the ground floor of his apartment building.
While the boy was being booked, another man was stopped and Kaplan saw him drop a paper bag. After the police took the smuggler away, Kaplan managed to grab the bag, run it upstairs, hide it and get back to the police office before anybody noticed.
When Kaplan returned home, he found his mother, brother, and sister, hovering over the bag he had snuck in. It held 150,000 German marks, which allowed them to survive for a year and a half. His grandfather, however, died in the ghetto. “I never was one to steal, but in these times, you found yourself doing things to survive you would have otherwise never even thought of doing.”
Kaplan discovered that he had mechanical talent. He designed a small wood-burning stove that could cook meals and heat the apartment in the sub-zero Lithuanian winter. He made more stoves from metal he scavenged from drainpipes and made money selling them on the black market to other Jewish families in the ghetto.
A year later, the Germans closed the ghetto and took the Jews to concentration camps. The Nazis divided the Jews into two lines. One for death, the other for work. They put his mom in the line that was going to the death camp. “She is still young, and has a lot of work left in her,” Kaplan pleaded with the Nazis as they formed the lines. Kaplan’s mother was then put in the work camp line with him. Though the men and women were separated, at least Kaplan knew his mother would live at least for one more day.
When they arrived at the camp, the Nazis asked who had experience making shoes. Kaplan, who had only watched someone make shoes before, told them that he knew how, and so he was put to work. The Nazis immediately saw that Kaplan did not know what he was doing and were about to send him back with the other children when a very experienced shoemaker said, “Stop! Let the boy stay with me. He can polish the shoes after I make them and I can get more work done that way.” The Nazis agreed and within a couple months, Kaplan became an experienced shoemaker. That job would save his life.
“One day I was inside the factory, making shoes, when these buses came and loaded up all the children and the elderly,” Kaplan said. The Nazi’s were rounding up all the “useless” people and sent them off to be killed. When the parents returned from work that evening they found their children missing. “They screamed. Some of them threw themselves on the electric barbed wire and died right there in front of me,” he said.
Soon after that the Jews were loaded into cattle trains, 50 of 60 to a car, and taken to other camps. Kaplan and his brother were separated from his mother and sister when the train stopped in Poland and he never saw them again. The boys were taken to Dachau, near Munich, where his brother died soon after their arrival. Here, 14-year-old Kaplan, unloaded heavy bags of cement used to build an airplane parts factory. “It was always raining and we only had one set of clothing. I was constantly getting cement on my clothes, in my eyes, and up my nose.” The weather was so bad, and they were so underfed that even a simple cold could kill a man. He knew that unloading cement would kill him. But then Kaplan caught a break. He was picked to be the house attendant for the Jewish boss on the factory project. “He wasn’t much nicer than the Nazis, but I was able to find ways to steal food from him.”
On April 22, 1945 the Nazi’s summoned the men. “Listen gentlemen (now they called us gentlemen), the Americans are near, and you are to be traded for German POWs.” They knew the Nazis always lied, but with hopes a little high, the men began their death march. Over the course of the next twelve days, the men were given next to nothing to eat. Thousands died in the snow.
“I was so hungry that I cut a piece of meat off a dead horse and boiled it with snow water to eat,” Kaplan said. “It was delicious.” An icy grave was almost certain for these Jewish men, until a German army officer appeared and told them that the Americans along with liberation were about an hour and a half away. Kaplan hid in a nearby barn until the American forces arrived and ended the nightmare.
“I never wanted to have to speak of these events again. I had put all this behind me and forgiven all who wronged me.” He gave this account of his personal experience of survival, not for recognition, he said, but to testify against those who claim that the Holocaust is a myth. Determined to live the rest of his life in peace, Kaplan said he forgave them all, even the people who murdered his family, or else the hate burning inside would consume him.