USC Shoah Foundation is saddened to learn of the recent passing of Henry Bawnik, who survived a Jewish ghetto and four concentration camps during the Holocaust, only to nearly die on one of the last days of the war, when British warplanes bombed a German ocean liner that he and thousands of other Jewish prisoners had been forced to board. The vast majority were killed.
Bawnik, who shared his life story with USC Shoah Foundation in 1996, died Aug. 20 of a stroke in a hospital in Buffalo, N.Y., according to The New York Times. He was 92.
Bawnik said growing up Jewish in Lodz, Poland, before World War II was "never great."
“Poland was a very antisemitic country," he said in his USC Shoah Foundation testimony at age 70. "You did not dare walk out at night in the street. … You always heard about stabbings and beatings and so on.”
Bawnik, who was born Chaim Hercko Bawnik on Nov. 16 of 1925, was interned at the Lodz ghetto with his mother and sister in early 1940.
Soon after, he was sent to the Gutenbrunn concentration camp, a former brewery in Posen, Poland, where he was forced to work grueling jobs that included making mortar from sand. At Gutenbrunn, Bawnik slept amid the straw of an emptied horse barn. Once, when riding in the back of a truck past women laborers during his daily trip to work, Bawnik tossed a can on the road containing a note asking if his sister or cousin was in the vicinity. Both were. The next day, while en route to work, a woman stood in the road and stopped the truck. It was his cousin. With help from his sister, she’d brought several loaves of bread and some sugar for him.
“If somebody would have come with diamonds, I would have taken the bread and forgotten the diamonds,” Bawnik told the Institute. “That’s what made me survive this camp because, in another four to six weeks, I would have probably been dead. … There just wasn’t enough food.”
His mother, meanwhile, was still in the Lodz ghetto. He later learned that she'd jumped out of a third-story window when raiding Nazi soldiers came to take her and others to Auschwitz in Poland. She was transported to the death camp with a broken leg, and killed upon arrival in the gas chambers. Also killed on arrival at Auschwitz were his sister and cousin who'd delivered bread to him at Gutenbrunn.
Bawnik himself was sent to Auschwitz in 1943, but within weeks was transferred to an Auschwitz subcamp called Fürstengrube, where he worked as a bricklayer. By the time the Nazi regime was collapsing, he was at the Dora-Mittelbau camp in central Germany. After Hitler's suicide on April 30, 1945, the besieged Germans loaded thousands of concentration-camp inmates onto a giganitic passenger liner called the Cap Arcona.
On May 3, Bawnik was among the last to board, and found himself on the top deck of the ship docked three miles off the Baltic coast. He and other prisoners were advised to strip naked, in case they needed to swim. They complied. That afternoon, a series of explosions shook the boat -- bombs from a squadron of British fighter planes, attacking on the assumption that high-ranking S.S. officials were aboard, according to The Times. The ship went down in flames, taking with it the lives of up to 7,000 concentration-camp inmates. Bawnik, who couldn’t swim, clung to a rope for hours. When the 300 survivors were ferried back to shore, they were free, but starving.
In his testimony, Bawnik remembered roaming naked with the group of hundreds into a German-run Nestlé factory, where they guzzled milk from 15-gallon cans. Then they found a swiss cheese factory and feasted again.
He remarked on the tragic irony of the horrific day.
“All those people that survived the war all along died the last day of the war on the ship,” he said.
Bawnik moved briefly to New York City in 1949 and quickly relocated to Hartford, Conn., where he landed a job at a bakery. He later worked as a construction worker and eventually owned a bakery. He married Linda Gordon, who worked in a clothing store where he shopped. He joined the U.S. Army and the couple together went with his unit to Europe.
In 1953, they visited the site of the sunken Cap Arcona; it was still in the water.
Linda Gordon died last year. The couple is survived by three daughters, seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Bawnik attributed his survival to luck.
“It’s nothing that I did,” he said in his testimony. “I went through everything that everybody else went through. And they tried to kill me as much as anybody else. But somehow they didn’t do it.”