This was originally published on SILive.com.
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- “We were ordered to evacuate Ostroleka,” said West Brighton resident Chaim Ben-Aron, explaining how the Nazis forced him and other residents to leave their hometown in Poland in 1939.
He crossed into the Russian town of Lomza and later into Derechin, Poland, where he lived with his mother while his four brothers and father moved into the Vilna ghetto in Lithuania.
When the Germans attacked Russia in Operation Barbarossa, Chaim’s brother, Yitzchak, thought that the Vilna ghetto was safer than Derechin, so he bribed a German to help bring Chaim and his mother to the ghetto.
This began Chaim’s story of surviving the terrible conditions in the Vilna ghetto and three concentration camps: Kivioli One, Kivioli Two and Stutthof.
In the Vilna ghetto, he witnessed the Nazis forcing Jews into the woods, where they dug graves. Once they were done, the Nazis shot them and buried them in the holes they dug.
When the ghetto was liquidated, Chaim was sent to Kivioli One and later Kivioli Two, where he had dig trenches to prevent the Russians from advancing on the camps. Eventually, he was able to get a job with Yitzchak, making shoes for the Germans. That saved his life, because he was able to work inside rather than outside in the cold.
In Stutthof, he described wearing paper bags as clothes.
“You did not want to think about it,” Chaim said. “At night, I wake up and it comes in [my] memories.”
I first met Chaim at Café Europa in 2017 where he and his youngest son, Rabbi Mark Ben-Aron, were singing Hebrew songs with other Holocaust survivors and their families. Chaim was shy and soft spoken, but his son’s beautiful voice brought the words to life and encouraged everyone in the room to join in.
In October of that year, when the survivors were celebrating the holiday of Sukkot, I asked Rabbi Ben-Aron if I could interview him and his father.
They both agreed, but Rabbi Ben-Aron mentioned that Chaim’s memory was not what it once was. During the interview, Chaim couldn’t recall some names and dates, but Rabbi Ben-Aron filled in most of the blanks.
“There are so many survivors at this point that are dying off. We have deniers in the world,” Rabbi Ben-Aron said. “Without these stories, people are going to believe the deniers.”
Chaim tells his story so that future generations will understand the impact of hate and will never let this happen again.
We invite you to watch Chaim’s story in the above video.