I had a chance to meet Martin Becker this week. At 87, he is a rare, living artifact: a survivor of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp who lived to tell the tale, and who lives on to keep telling it.
He is a gentle man, a buoyant spirit – but no ordinary survivor. Born in Karlsruhe, Germany, Martin Becker was sent to Auschwitz in 1941, as a child of 11. His parents and grandparents were marched off to the gas chambers. He was handed a pliers and ordered to pull gold from the teeth of gassed corpses, individuals — he recalled in my living room this week — who moments earlier had been alive.
Martin Becker lived and worked in this death camp for four years, forced to serve as a Sonderkommando, one of the cursed crew charged with disposing of corpses, removing valuables and putting them in the ovens.
He did his job, day after day, in the freezing cold, in the swelter of summer, in the blessed breeze of spring, as thousands — hundreds of thousands — passed before his eyes alive, then dead. Old men, young women, small children holding their parents’ hands. He witnessed all of this, while he was himself still a child.
How did he survive? I have met many Holocaust survivors in my life. I have never met a Sonderkommando. They are rare indeed.
From Wikipedia, which cites several scholarly sources:
“In most cases they were inducted immediately upon arrival at the camp, and were not given any advance notice of the tasks they would have to perform. They had no way to refuse or resign other than by committing suicide. Because the Germans needed the Sonderkommandos to remain physically able, they were granted much less squalid living conditions than other inmates… and, unlike ordinary inmates, they were not subject to arbitrary, random killing by guards. As a result, Sonderkommando members tended to survive longer than other inmates of the death camps — but few survived the war.”
The Nazis were careful to kill the Sonderkommando at regular intervals. They were witnesses to crimes, and as such, needed to be liquidated. Martin Becker said that at a key moment of liquidation, he slipped into a line of Russian children and was overlooked.
Also from Wikipedia: “Fewer than twenty out of several thousand members of the special squads are documented to have survived until liberation and were able to testify to the events… among them: Henryk (Tauber) Fuchsbrunner, Filip Müller, Daniel Behnnamias, Dario Gabbai, Morris Venezia, Shlomo Venezia, Alter Fajnzylberg, Abram Dragon, David Olère, Henryk Mandelbaum, Martin Gray. There have been at most another six or seven confirmed to have survived, but who have not given witness (or at least, such testimony is not documented).”
Incredibly, Becker survived with a brother, who was not with him at Auschwitz, and was liberated in 1945 by the Russians. After the war, his brother went to Israel, while Martin came to America, determined to find his fortune. An orphan and penniless, he was sent to the Midwest. He was subsequently drafted into the military and served for four years, sent to the theater of the Korean war.
Eventually, Becker started his own business selling scrap metal. He married, had a family, and knew the American dream. His daughter, Gail Becker, is now a senior executive at the global PR firm Edelman, and one day she told me about her Dad.
I asked Gail if she would grant me the privilege of meeting her father, and introducing him to my sons (pictured). How rare it is to be able to talk to, to touch, a living link to human history, an eyewitness to the events that scar the history of human civilization. The survivors of the Holocaust are dying out; Martin Becker’s moments with us are precious.
“It was terrible,” he said simply, with devastating understatement. He recalled a friend he made among the Sonderkommando, Eric, who missed some of the gold in the teeth. He was thrown in the oven by a Nazi guard, still alive. He recalled 1944, when the Hungarian Jews were shipped to their deaths in Auschwitz: “They had a lot of gold in their teeth.”
This week he was in town to help raise money to preserve the crumbling structures of Auschwitz-Birkenau (oh, the temptation to burn this place of evil, but no, it must be preserved for human memory).
Hours after meeting him I am still fighting back waves of rage and sadness. He was a child, forced to endure a living hell. “After Auschwitz,” he said, “anything was good.”
I saw “Schindler’s List.” I saw “12 Years a Slave.” I’ve read dozens of tales of injustice and seen a million movies about the Holocaust. I’ve never met anyone like him.
At 87, Martin Becker has every right to be angry, bitter, vengeful. To harbor hatred, or self-pity. He has none of those things. Instead he exudes kindness and optimism.
Guess what: Martin Becker wins.