MORE THAN SIX MILLION JEWS WERE MURDERED IN EUROPE DURING THE HOLOCAUST, BUT AGAINST ALL ODDS, JACK PUTERMAN MANAGED TO SURVIVE. DEBBIE REYNOLDS COMPILED THIS ARTICLE ABOUT KZN’S LAST LIVING HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR
Jack Puterman is 90 years old and has lived in Durban for 64 years. He is married to Marcia and has five sons, four daughters-in-law and eight grandchildren. Jack is too frail to talk to me now, so, to tell his story, I relied on his book
Testimony: The Story of a Holocaust Survivor and an interview he did for the Spielberg Holocaust Project with the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation Institute. The first time Jack spoke openly and publicly about his terrible experiences was for the Shoah Foundation interview in 1996. It was only in 2008 when the Durban Holocaust & Genocide Centre was opened that he agreed – with much trepidation – to share his traumatic history.
“Not only had I never spoken publicly about my experience, but I had barely disclosed even to my closest family much detail about what I had endured during the terrible years of the Shoah (the Hebrew term for The Holocaust),” he wrote. It is easy to understand why Jack chose to bury his painful past, preferring to look to his future.
He was born into a “comfortable middle-class existence” in 1929 in the Polish industrial town of Skarzysko-Kamienna, where his parents owned a grocery store. He lived a “pleasant and happy” life until 1939 when the Nazis invaded Poland and forced Jews into ghettoes.
He was just 13 in September 1942 when his family, along with about 10 000 people from the Skarzysko ghetto, were rounded up and selected for various concentration camps in the area.
With his mother fighting for him not to be separated, they were finally marched to a concentration camp, Camp C, where they lived in appalling conditions and were forced to provide labour for the surrounding factories.
“These camps were not extermination camps like Treblinka, Majdanek and Auschwitz, but they were nevertheless death camps and inmates had watched the continued replacement of those who died with people from the ghettoes,” said Jack. It was here that Jack lost his father to typhus. Only 37, Josef Puterman had lost the will to live after hearing of the death of his parents and daughter – Jack’s baby sister, Cymale.
Jack and his mother, Bronia, survived near starvation, typhus, unspeakable brutality, freezing winters and exhaustion for two long years before being loaded on to a train and sent to Germany in July 1944.
Torn away from his mother, 15-year- old Jack was sent to Buchenwald concentration camp, while his mother was taken to a camp in Leipzig. Jack was then transferred to Schleben, a fairly new camp where he said conditions were “tolerable”.
In March 1945, with hopes of the war ending, a “good German” offered to save some of the Jews by marching them to the Russian front where he landed in a make-shift camp guarded by the dreaded Gestapo.
“The Russian and Polish army liberated us on May 9,” says Jack. “Although my life was saved because I was not sent to one of the death camps where so many of my family and friends perished, none the less I was incredibly lucky to have survived the Holocaust at all since for four- and-a-half years I faced danger at every turn, whether from malnutrition, disease or sheer cruelty from the German Nazis, Poles or Ukrainians.”
He then went in search of his mother, cycling across Germany and returning to Poland, before finally finding her back in Skarzysko. They moved to the town of Bielawa in Polish-occupied Germany where Jack started a second-hand clothing business.
Through the Red Cross Jack discovered that his uncle, Yair Puterman, who had survived Auschwitz, was living in Sweden and had offered to sponsor Jack and his mother.
They arrived in 1947 and a year later Jack enrolled at a trade school to learn upholstery. They enjoyed eight good years in Sweden where Jack finally experienced “the normal life of a youth – swimming, singing and dancing and socialising with friends”.
But they hankered to come to South Africa, especially Durban where his uncle, Jack Puterman, had a successful grocery business in Old Dutch Road.
“We finally arrived in Durban in May 1955,” says Jack. “My uncle and his family lived at 251 Moore Road and we were welcomed into his home and provided with full board and accommodation.”
In January 1956, with his uncle’s help, he purchased the upholstery business, Bartlett & Dunster Fabrics, which his family still run today.
He married his wife Marcia in December 1958. “Marcia has been a wonderful wife and a tower of support to me for all these years and it is she who encouraged me to tell my story.”
Jack says he was also blessed to have his mother enjoy “a golden life in South Africa” and live to the ripe old age of 93.
“When I look back at my life I realise that it was the close bond I shared with my mother that helped me to survive … giving me a reason to go on living when conditions were terrible.”
He says although he survived the Holocaust, he experienced horrors that no one – let alone a young child – should have to endure.
“For six years we were surrounded by danger, the enormity of which I cannot describe fully. I live with the memories of this terrible ordeal and even today, some 70 years later, I still feel the pain of these experiences as though they occurred yesterday.
“While I was one of the lucky ones to live, escaping the fate of the six million, I ache for all the family and friends who had to face death in the most painful and tragic circumstances. My family is now my pillar of strength and I cherish each and every member.”
JACK’S BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT Durban Holocaust & Genocide Centre, and costs R120.