In the Clutches of the SS
by Max Garbuny, Father of Carole Garbuny Vogel
Copyright © 1994 by Max Garbuny
This essay was originally published in We Shall Not Forget: Memories of the Holocaust, edited by Carole Garbuny Vogel (Lexington, MA: Temple Isaiah, 1994).
My brother and I left Berlin on the 28th of July 1938. I was 26 years old and my brother was 24. At that time we thought we had all the time in the world to leave—partly because we didn’t know what really was going on in the concentration camps already in operation and partly because we didn’t know the true intentions of the government of Germany.
We had actually received a visa for entry to the United States three months earlier, but waited to leave because I needed to finish my doctoral thesis in physics and take my oral exams. We had planned a trip that was almost like an excursion. We were going first to Amsterdam to look around, then across to England, where we would board a ship for a 14-day journey to New York. My brother and I were in a holiday mood that was shared by many of our contemporaries in Germany. We did not see the danger around.
We were given a great send-off at the train station in Berlin, and we were cheered by the large number of friends and relatives who had come. We didn’t realize that this send-off was very much noted by the German authorities.
My parents were pale but held their own. Only Aunt Fanny burst into tears. She gave us a large summer sausage, in case we got hungry, and indeed later we did. Uncle Bruno and Uncle Siegfried were there, and on their lapels they wore the honor medal that had been given to them as front-line soldiers of merit during World War I. Uncle Bruno and his wife would be gassed in Auschwitz. Uncle Siegfried and Aunt Fanny would die of starvation in the Lodz ghetto. Their 16-year-old son would be murdered in Auschwitz. Of course, all this and the fate of the others in the send-off party we couldn’t know at the time.
We actually slept on the train. In Hamburg we went sightseeing, and then we took a train to Bendheim on the German-Dutch border. Although we did not find seats, we put our bags–all six of them–on overhead racks. We did notice that we were of unusual interest to the SS–the Nazi police that came around in their black uniforms and asked time and again to see our passports and our intentions of travel.
My brother went to the washroom, and an SS guard followed. “Do you have a gold or platinum ring?” he demanded. My brother said no, but the guard did not believe him.
When we arrived in Bendheim, we were suddenly ordered to disembark for a thorough inspection. We were told to bring our baggage along because we would not be able to continue on this train. As we disembarked, we noticed that every window was occupied with people pressing their noses against the glass. We could see the look of pity in many of their faces. They probably thought they were the last to see us alive.
We were accompanied by about 25 SS to a room in which they stripped us and opened our suitcases. For two hours the Nazis interrogated us and searched our belongings for hidden jewels.
The SS officer who searched my brother was well-spoken and told my brother he had been a medical student. He treated my brother decently and even got somewhat chummy. However, the guard who searched me found a picture of a bullet that had been photographed in flight. This had been taken in my ballistics course at the Institute for Applied Physics. Naturally this looked like something worth putting somebody in a concentration camp for. Words like spies and espionage were bandied about. But, oddly enough, the SS officer who had searched my brother turned around and said, “Hell, such pictures you find in every textbook on applied physics.”
This was a blatant lie, but it saved the day, and certainly it saved us. To this day, I have no idea why the Nazi officer spared our lives. The search continued, and the SS found all sorts of things that were of interest to them and for which they could hold us. But we managed to produce satisfactory explanations.
One of our suitcases had been turned over, and everything in it had been strewn on the floor. An officer said to my brother, “All right, pick it up and put everything back in.”
My brother said rather coldly, “I did not make that mess and I’m not cleaning it up.”
For a moment I thought we would be executed on the spot. But instead, we had the extraordinary experience of a Nazi officer doing things on command from a Jew. The Nazi actually repacked the suitcase, and then we were released.
We had two hours to kill before the next train to Amsterdam. We were in such a hurry to get way from the interrogation room that we didn’t bother to reclaim our luggage. My brother and I went to a local tavern and sat at a table drinking beer. We noticed that we were constantly circled by people who were listening to us, and so we kept our conversation chatty. We compared brands of beer and finally decided that the local brew was actually quite good.
We returned to the train station and were greeted by a porter named August. August said he had already put our bags in a certain compartment on the train, and indeed we found them there. We gave August the last of our German money—all of $3.50.
My brother and I felt an indescribable relief when we crossed the Dutch border. At the train station in Amsterdam, we were surrounded by quite a few porters representing various hotels. With their wagons they would transport the luggage to the hotel they recommended. I announced to the flock of porters in front of us that we had absolutely no money. And at that moment one stepped forward and said, “Then you are for me. We are taking people who have no money.”
And sure enough, he took our bags and took us to a little hotel. We were told where to go the next morning to get help from Jewish Dutch organizations that would give us money. Once in our hotel room, we sat down, took a deep breath, and realized how hungry we were. Aside from the beer in Bendheim, we hadn’t had anything to eat since early morning. We remembered Aunt Fanny’s sausage and blessed the woman as we devoured the food. Later we wrote home saying that we found that our suits had gotten pretty badly wrinkled. This was our code for having encountered difficulties in crossing the border.
I don’t think that I have ever been in a dizzier, more light-headed mood than I was that evening. We didn’t have a penny on us, but we were in a free land. We walked around in this mood and then returned to the hotel. The next morning we went to the refugee organization where we each got the equivalent of $10. This was enough to pay our hotel bill, to go sightseeing, and to have a beer and a little bit of lunch. We made the evening train to Hookwein, Holland, and then we were off to England and America. Our parents joined us a year later. But the others who bade us farewell on the platform in Berlin were not as lucky. Most perished. And of those who survived, all were changed forever by their terrible experiences in concentration camps.
Dr. Max Garbuny was born in 1912 in Königsberg, Germany. In 1936, he received his diploma of engineering degree in physics at the Technical University of Berlin and his doctorate at the same institution two years later–both magna cum laude. He was spared the expulsion from the university inflicted upon other Jewish students in Germany because his father was Russian born and Max was considered by the Nazis to be a Russian citizen. Max married Melitta Löwy, and was the father of three grown daughters. He spent most of his career with Westinghouse Electrical Corporation at their Research Labs in Pittsburgh, PA. Max died 1999.