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Plaszow Concentration Camp

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The Stairway of Death

Melk Concentration Camp



A Survivor's Story

I leafed through my note pad looking for Joseph Kempler's phone number. All I knew about Joe Kempler was that he was a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust. When I picked up the phone to dial his number I didn't know what to expect. What I found out was an amazing true-life story of struggle and survival.

Joe Kempler was eleven years in 1939 when the Second World War started. Joe and his family; his mother, father, older sister, older brother and grandmother; lived in Krakow, Poland for the beginning of the war. There, Joe and his family experienced anti-Semitism even before the War started. There were huge forms of disrespect and sometimes even isolated beatings. When Hitler and the Nazis first marched into Poland, Joe Kempler and his family started to feel the first effects of the Holocaust. One of the first things that the Nazi's did was to physically label everybody who was Jewish by putting a Star of David armband on them so they wouldn't be mistaken for a non-Jew. This in itself was a struggle; to be labeled had to have been a frightening experience. Businesses were taken away and the Jews were moved into ghettos. Mass killing wasn't common knowledge yet but there were isolated killings at this point. Joe and his family knew about the "Final Solution" but never accepted it has being true or that it was even possible. When times in Krakow got rough, Joe and his family were forced to move to a little village outside of Krakow. His sister was moved to a different town in Germany and his brother was sent to a labor camp in Krakow. So he moved to the little village with his mother, father and grandmother.

In the village they knew that it was only a matter of time before the Nazis sent them elsewhere. During the time in the village Joe and his family learned of the mass killings and the gas chambers in Auschwitz. So when the Nazis started to round up the people in the village Joe and his family escaped into the woods. There they lived and found out what it was going to take to survive this nightmare. They spent several months living off the surrounding land. The longer Joe stayed in the forest the more he wanted to survive. The Nazis knew of the Kempler's escape so they payed local Polish people 2 kilograms of sugar to find Joe and his family. The Kemplers kept moving constantly. Joe Kempler knew that they would eventually be found and if he stayed with his family he would probably die. So at the young age of 14 he left his mother, father and grandmother. His desire to survive became so strong that he was going to do everything he could to ensure it. He became numb to feelings and humanity. He didn't want to leave his family but he realized that it was necessary. After Joe moved back to Krakow his family stayed in the forest for a little longer then moved to a nearby ghetto. Three months later they were all murdered in a gas chamber by the Nazis.

Joe Kempler was back in Krakow and he had no place to go and nothing to do but to survive and be very careful not to make a wrong decision. He volunteered at the labor camp in Krakow where his brother was. They were separated though. The labor camp he was in wasn't run by the SS but by volunteer non-Jewish people. It was basically like slave labor.


Sick has a dog on the road / A couple of nights ago...

After Joe had spent time at the labor camp he was moved to Plaszow, which was a concentration camp outside of Krakow. There he had some very close to death experiences. People at Plaszow worked in groups of fifty; they came from different barracks so you had to be very organized. His group of fifty happened to be a very good group, they were organized, worked hard and didn't have any runaways. At that time in the camp if anybody escaped from your group, your entire group was lined up and every other person was shot. This was to show everyone that running away wasn't going to get you anywhere but dead.

Although his group was good, one morning when they were lined up for row call they only had forty-nine people. One had escaped. Joe and the other 48 members of his group were to be hanged at lunchtime that same day. It was to be a public hanging in front of the entire camp. So the gallows were set up and Joe Kempler was minutes away from death. Somebody in the crowd before the hanging told the Nazis to stop and mentioned that these were good, strong hard working men. "Why should you kill them?" the man said. "If you're gonna kill somebody you should kill the misfits of the camp not the strong hard workers." So the Nazis talked about it and it made sense. So they walked around and selected 239 other men to be killed. Then they took those men to a field and shot them.

This was just another part of survival for Joe. Survival was based on being at the right place at the right time. Joe realized that every time his life was spared someone else died, he knew this but couldn't care because he so badly wanted to survive. After spending some time in Plaszow, he and many others were loaded up on trains. The trains were very crowded because they packed so many people into them. Normally they packed 70-90 people into one train car but because so many need to be loaded onto this particular train they packed 140.

It was on a hot August day when Joe was loaded on to this train. People died from heat exhaustion, starvation and suffocation. People were dropping like flies right in front of the now 16-year old Joe Kempler. They all were very aware where they were going. The train was headed to the death camp of Auschwitz. They arrived in Auschwitz at night but only spent a few hours there because there was no room for them. The camp was backed up because at that time in 1944 the Nazis were shipping Hungarian Jews by the thousands to Auschwitz. In Auschwitz during that time they were killing Jews at the rate of 10,000 per day. So after spending a few hours at the camp Joe and all the Jews on the trains were moved to the Mauthausen death camp in Austria. Joe had survived the woods of Poland, the labor camp in Krakow, the death camp in Plaszow, the train ride and a glimpse of Auschwitz.

Now in Mauthausen, Joe would experience even more horrible and pointless violence against Jewish people. In Mauthausen they had a rock quarry. To get to the quarry you had to walk down the Stairway of Death, a 106-step staircase that lead down to the rocks. The job the prisoners were forced to do was this: walk barefoot down the 106 steps and pick up a rock weighing about 110-115 lbs. This being a rock quarry, there were many sharp objects to cut their bare feat while they carried the rocks back up these 106 steps.

Joe made this march everyday about 6-7 times a day for one month. The survivors of this month were few, but were then sent to other camps. This was the point where Kempler became an animal. Hope for surviving the War was completely out of question, the only thing Joe could focus on was surviving the next minute or hour. He was treated so badly by the Nazi's that he started to believe he was less than human.

He was shipped off once again, this time to Melk camp in Austria where he experienced some very different things. In Melk he saw some Germans in the same camp he was in. They were Germans who wouldn't cooperate with Hitler and the Nazi Party. They were Jehovah's Witnesses who refused to do what Hitler asked of them. It was against their religion and they stuck to their beliefs. The only thing they had to do to leave the camp was to denounce their religion and show support for Hitler, but they refused. This confused Joe. He couldn't understand why they wouldn't leave if it was possible. The way the Jehovah's Witnesses survived was by taking care of each other and showing love in every possible way. They showed Joe that humanity and love still existed and that if you believe strongly about something you can live through anything. The ability to show hope and have hope is very important to survival.

Melk was eventually evacuated and the prisoners were lead on a seven-day death march. The prisoners were given a small portion of bread on the first day and nothing afterwards. If people slowed down they were beaten and shot. There was a long trail of bodies left behind the path of marchers.

The gruesomeness of the march didn't take Joe's life. He continued on his struggle for survival and continued to do anything and everything he could to survive. He was moved to the Abensee death camp. At Abensee prisoners were only fed about 2 1/2 ounces of bread per day and most of that bread was made out of sawdust. Bark was also a source of food for many at the camp. They would also receive potato skin soup that to often lacked potato skin. This was barely enough for a person to live off of. That is the reason why some of the prisoners resorted to cannibalism. "They would get off flesh from bodies and trade other prisoners for cigarettes and other things" Kempler remembers. Kempler said only once he ate human flesh and he only ate it because it was food and it was available at the moment. Abensee was the last camp Kempler would go to before liberation.

The day Abensee death camp was liberated Joe Kempler was 12 hours away from death by starvation. At the age of 17 he weighed 60lbs. When the soldiers first arrived they saw the condition that the camp was in and went to a nearby warehouse where beans and pork were stored. Then they fed it to the survivors. Only the survivor's bodies couldn't handle the pork and beans. Many died while eating their first meal of liberation. Joe paced his eating habits so he could survive.

After liberation Joe stayed in the death camp for six months because he had no place to go and the US Soldiers had no place to take him or the other former prisoners. Everything they once had was completely gone. So at the age of 17, Joe was liberated but not free. He couldn't gain wait and grew very weak. The hospitals wouldn't accept him because they said he wasn't sick enough even though he was on the verge of death. Even at the liberated camps the ex-prisoners weren't being feed enough. They often dug in the trash after the US soldiers ate and eat the scraps. Finally some one took 17-year-old Joe Kempler to a hospital that was set up for Nazi PWOs and demanded Joe to be taken care of. So Joe then spent 5 months recovering. Surrounded by Nazis, while in the hospital he never admitted he was Jewish out of fear.

Soon Joe was reunited with his sister and they stayed together in a Displaced Persons camp or DP camp. He and his sister were the only surviving members of his family. Two years after the war had ended, when Joe was nineteen, he was shipped off to New York City where he and his sister lived with a Jewish family who decided to take them in. A couple years later his sister was married and then after that he was married. His first wife Marion died at 26 of Hotchkinns disease.

Joe believes that there are very important things to learn from the Holocaust. "First of all hatred needs to be stopped. To stop another Holocaust from happening we need to show love and compassion. Not only show it but act on it, because without love and compassion, hatred will always be present. Today's youth are tomorrow's leaders. So as you move through life remember love and compassion are the most important things in life."

Joe Kempler currently lives in Reno, Nevada with his wife, he has two kids and worked has a engineer until he retired in 1994. He lives a happy life with his wife, has many different hobbies, and volunteers with his wife for different bible study groups.

Remember Joe Kempler's story is one of many and there's many things to be learned from the Holocaust and people like Joe Kempler. Education is always the Key to the future. So take advantage and get educated when ever the chance is there.

May Peace be with you,


Please email me at: nick@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Stephen - The sweet solace of a farm in war time
Becky - Suit up! It's time for Zooting in Los Angeles
Irene - You are a U.S. citizen but we will still put you in a concentration camp
Daphne - Saving the world is a full time job
Nick - You work hard and still that isn't good enough
Becky - The making of the world's largest vaporizer: The Bomb
Stephen - What did the war mean to the fighters?
Team - Why wouldn't you help, if you could?