Surviving the Holocaust

Maurertown resident survived Nazis’ persecution of Jews in Poland during World War II

By Henry Culvyhouse

FRONT ROYAL– When Maurertown resident Mark Strauss was 11 years old, German soldiers rolled into his town of Lvov, Poland, on tanks, motorcycles, bicycles and trucks, commencing a reign of terror and mass slaughter on the town’s 100,000 Jews.

Strauss, 85, is a painter, an author of four books and holds a doctorate in chemistry. A man of many accomplishments, he has seen a lot in his life. On Thursday, he relayed some of this experiences surviving the Holocaust in Poland to students at Randolph-Macon Academy.

As a young Jewish boy, Strauss told the students that he was impressed by the German soldier’ morale as well as being terrified of their arrival.

“They were good looking people, handsomely dressed [and] nicely dressed in crisp uniforms. They were a happy bunch,” Strauss said. “I was sick to my stomach watching them because I knew wherever the German army came, they would persecute Jews.”

The persecution began swiftly, according to Strauss. Ukrainian militias collaborated with the Einsatzgruppen, a specially trained German death squad, to round up Jews, place them on trucks and take them to the edge of town to execute them en masse. Within a year of occupation, 85,000 of Lvov’s Jews were murdered.

Strauss said he and his family witnessed many the Germans kill Jews in the middle of the street.

“I remember walking on the street and seeing a group of people congregated, watching soldiers beat a tall man severely,” Strauss said. “Blood was pouring from a gash on his head and they knocked him down and started stomping on him on the sidewalk. They murdered him right in front of us.”

He said when his parents were fleeing Lvov, they witnessed the execution of the last Jews in town when they hid in a local cemetery.

“The Jews were lined up in front of a ravine at the back of the cemetery, forced to hand over any jewelry and stripped naked,” Strauss said. “In the last moments, family members hugged one another, some prayed, then they were shot.”

Strauss said after the executions, his parents heard voices coming from underneath the pile of corpses.

“There was bodies on top of bodies on top of bodies, and some people were bleeding to death while others suffocated. That was the Holocaust. People died painfully, slowly and humiliated,” Strauss said.

Strauss said sometimes sympathetic locals rescued the survivors.

“There was a group of Polish people who would go to the execution sites and listen for someone and when they heard them, they would dig through the pile of corpses and pull them out,” Strauss said. “Not many did that and not many were rescued.”

The remaining 15,000 Jews were forced into a sectioned-off portion of town called a ghetto. With no running water and very little food, hunger and disease were rampant. Strauss and his family were relocated to the ghetto where they lived in an apartment with 20 other people.

Strauss said the lack of running water was a major reason for the spread of disease because people were unable to use their toilets to dispose of their waste.

“We relieved ourselves off the balcony of the apartment or just around the house,” Strauss said. “I’m not exaggerating, we lived in crap. Typhoid fever spread around the ghetto because of all the excrement.”

Strauss’s father was able to provide his family with a little bit of food he would smuggle into the ghetto from when he was allowed to work manual labor jobs for the Germans. About 300 Jewish men from the ghetto worked for the Germans as laborers and were forced to march and sing.

Strauss said sometimes soldiers would come to the ghetto to round up more Jews for execution. When this happened, Strauss and his mother hid in a hole his father had dug near their apartment building.

“My mother would sit in the hole, then I would sit in her lap and my father would cover us up with trash,” Strauss said. “We would sit there for eight or 10 hours. We know how terrible death was, but life was just as horrible.”

Strauss’s father eventually smuggled him out of the ghetto to live with a Polish Catholic family in a small room where he could not stand or walk.

“The lady who took me in was an angel,” Strauss said. “She fed me what she could and made sure the Germans did not find me.”

In 1944, Lvov was liberated by Soviet troops. Strauss said that was the happiest day of his life.

Strauss said despite all he has been through, he does not harbor any resentment toward the German people.

“I do not hate people for who they are, I treat people based on how they act individually,” Strauss said.

After the presentation, Strauss shared some of experiences of living under Soviet occupation.

Before the German invasion in 1941, the Soviet army occupied Lvov, up holding their end of a deal cut between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union to divide Poland. Times were tough for all citizens of Lvov under Soviet occupation, according to Strauss.

“The Soviets were communists and they went after people like my grandfather, who owned an apartment building, taking their property,” Strauss said. “It wasn’t pleasant, but at least they didn’t single out Jews. We didn’t live in fear of who we were.”

The Soviet occupation was brutal, as evidenced in the Katyn Massacre, where 22,000 military officers and other Polish citizens were gunned down by NVKD, the Soviet secret police. Amongst the victims was one of Strauss’s relatives.

“The Soviets could be just as murderous as the Nazis, but they didn’t kill my relative because he was a Jew, they killed him for political reasons,” Strauss said. “I don’t talk much about the Soviet occupation because that was not Holocaust.”

Contact staff writer Henry Culvyhouse at 540-465-5137 ext.184, or at hculvyhouse@nvdaily.com