Thursday, August 20, 2009

Holocaust survivor, 91, awaits potential reparation payment


From the Baltimore Sun:

Food was scarce at the Nazi concentration camp, but the work was relentless. Morris Kornberg toiled day after day in a 1,500-foot-deep, pitch-black coal mine. His weight plummeted to 60 pounds, almost half what it is today. The starvation diet and hard labor stripped him of not just his girth, but also of his will to live. "When I was in Auschwitz, I gave up," he said. "I didn't want to live anymore. Whatever they were going to do to me, I just wanted it over."
And yet today, even as he recalls watching hundreds of his fellow prisoners kill themselves by running into the electric fence around the camp, he can't explain why he didn't do the same. Why did he live to tell about the horrific experience and eventually celebrates a 91st birthday in January? And why does he now stand to receive a check from the German government that attempts - at least symbolically - to atone for its World War II atrocities?
Kornberg doesn't have the answers; he just knows that, if his story is ultimately verified and he receives a 2,000-euro check from Germany, he will immediately hand it to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. It's a decision he made before June's fatal shooting of a security guard at the museum by a Maryland man with a long history of ties to neo-Nazi organizations, but one Kornberg feels even more strongly about now.
"For going through [ the Holocaust], 2,000 is not a big deal," Kornberg said. "This is not for my enjoyment. I just don't want to leave the money for [the government]."
Kornberg, who lives in Waldorf, is one of more than 50 Maryland residents seeking restitution.

In January, he underwent a lengthy application process and follow-up interview, describing how he was arrested in his native Poland in 1941, then endured four years of confinement in concentration camps. If the German government verifies his story, he will be eligible for the one-time payment equal to about $2,800.

Kornberg is one of the few survivors willing to speak publicly about conditions in the concentration camps, according to groups that assist victims in getting reparations. The youngest of six children, Kornberg was born to a Jewish family in Przedborz, Poland. His father owned a business that supplied factories with raw metal materials. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Kornberg and his family were ordered to provide metal for the war.
But in 1941, Kornberg was arrested, beaten until he passed out, revived by having his head placed under a water pump, then beaten again. He was taken to Auschwitz and never heard from his family again.
Kornberg said he was one of the first Jews to arrive at the concentration camp, where conditions deteriorated to a virtually unliveable state in the two years he spent there. Kornberg's job was to fill underground holes where coal had been removed to prevent collapses. It was dangerous work with no pay, he said. Jewish laborers were given one day off a month, and Kornberg watched many detainees electrocute themselves.
Kornberg, who was sent to two other camps after Auschwitz and was finally liberated by the Russians in 1945, moved to Maryland in 1949. He had met his wife of more than 50 years, Herta - whose German family was anti-Nazi - before leaving Europe. With no place to call home, Kornberg and his wife moved to Czechoslovakia, then applied to come to the United States through a relocation program. Once here, Kornberg worked his way up to supervisor at a wholesale appliance company plant and stayed for 38 years.

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