William “Willie” Isadore Jacobs
Birth: March 17, 1919 in Zachodniopomorskie, Poland
Death: October 26, 1993 (age 74) in Victoria, B.C.
William was born in Belchatów, a town in central Poland with a population of 58,326. It is located in Lodz Voivodeship, 160 kilometres from Warsaw.
He dedicated his later life to making sure that the Holocaust would always be remembered. He gave presentations at many schools, and was largely responsible for the Holocaust Memorial being built in the Jewish Cemetery.
From Keeping the Memory, edited by Rhoda Kaellis, 1991.
Willie was nineteen when the Nazis invaded Poland.
These are his words as recorded in the book:
“When the war broke out, my two brothers were called to the Polish army and we run away to Lodz. The Germans shot any civilians they saw walking in the fields with machine guns. But luckily they didn’t hit us … my parents, two brothers and my grandmother.
“The Nazis took us by force, about five hundred guys, they send us to Posen, west of Poland about four days by cattle train. We built the autobahn, the highway. At night we come back to the barracks… All Jews. We had barbed wire and guards around. I was there with my two brothers. One got killed on the autobahn. He got sick, a guard hit him over the head and killed him with a crow bar. I saw. What can I do? He was thirty years old. They buried him right in the road. That autobahn is a Jewish cemetery. So I worked there about eight months.
“They took us to Auschwitz, by cattle car. It took three days. We came, we saw a band, music playing. We didn’t know what’s going on! They dipped us in Lysol, shaved our hair off, gave us striped suits, put the number on our hand. We worked in a munitions factory. We had to run to work every day. I got phlebitis in my log. My leg was swollen up. I couldn’t limp because they pull me out, they kill me right away. Somehow it healed itself. They didn’t feed us at all. You had to steal, do anything to survive. When you’re hungry they can kill you. I was in Auschwitz six months.
“They sent us to Buchenwald working on a stone mine for five months. Then they sent us back to Auschwitz. We were sleeping on straw. The lice was tremendous. Typhus broke out. They burned the barracks with the people in them. I didn’t get typhus. It was 1943 -all the Germans were in the war, so they needed us to work. Then they sent us back to Buchenwald again.
“When I worked in the factories, there were Polish workers. We stole things from the camp and traded gold, a shirt, for bread. I bribed the kapos for good jobs, food. So I survived.
“When I worked on the autobahn, the president of the project, a man named Hoess, took five of us to work on his house, garden. We wore civilian clothes. He gave us the full food ration we were supposed to get; bread, sugar, salami, marmalade. He never called us Jews. He called us ‘my boys’. His wife cooked for us and washed our clothes. We slept in bunks he made in his garage. For thirteen months we stayed with him from ’42 to ’43. All of the five ‘boys’, we survived. One was my uncle. We had to leave because Himmler decreed no more using Jews for private people. I tried to find Hoess after the war. He said we should have patience, the war had to come to an end.
“We went back to Auschwitz and from there we were sent to Mauthausen, to the coal mine. I stayed almost a year. I wanted to kill myself. Very bad in the tunnels, natural gas escaping all the time. Such hard work. We started at six in the morning and came back ten at night. I tried to hurt myself with a little axe we had for work. I couldn’t do it. When we finished the coal they send me back to Auschwitz. It never came to my mind, except in the coal mine, that I could be dead. I don’t understand it myself, why I kept going – it was so terrible.
“My next job was with a blacksmith for a year. It was 1945, January 7. All of us who were able to walk, with snow up to here, we walked two nights to another camp in Czechoslovakia and then in cattle cars back to Buchenwald. They took all our clothes and wooden shoes away, all we had was one blanket. In a couple of weeks they took us to a camp near Stuttgart. We worked in a chemical factory. Then we were moved to a place near Dachau, then to Tyrol. Back and forth, we didn’t know what’s going on. I asked a Polish guard. He said the Americans were near. Ten o’clock. April 17. I’ll never forget this, some big tanks coming in and the Germans with their hands up. We were fourteen days locked in the cattle cars going back and forth. We couldn’t understand the Americans. They sent soldiers who spoke Yiddish, Polish. etc. They let us out. It’s a real miracle. I don’t know if I’m real. They convinced us, and we got out of the car. We couldn’t walk straight. My sister died three days after the war from eating too much..
“I met my wife in the DP [Displaced Person] camp. She said she was going two days later to Palestine and somehow I kept her back. I said I was going back to Poland to see if anybody’s alive. This was July, 1945. Helen went with me. I came to Lodz, I met a landsman there, he said. ‘Don’t go into Poland, they’re killing the Jews.· We turned back so we were able to get to Prague.”
Rabbi Victor Hillel Reinstein gave the following eulogy at his funeral:
Funeral: October 28, 1993; 13 Cheshvan 5754
Yohrzeit: 11 Cheshvan
We are touched by a sense of shock as we gather to bid farewell to this vital man, Willie, Jacobs. We are painfully aware that the voice of a survivor is still. As we reach out to you Helen, and to you David and Michael, let us consider that Willie’s death represents both a miracle and a victory. It is a miracle that he lived to be able to die after full and good years beyond the kingdom of death. It is a miracle that he lived ans was able to love and bring children into the world and die a quiet, peaceful natural death in the arms of his beloved wife, whose survival is also a miracle. That peaceful death is also a victory over the beasts who sought to kill him long ago. The natural death and holy Jewish burial of a survivor is a statement of hope and affirmation in the continued life of the Jewish people, one more cry in the song of our survival. “We are here, we survive!” And we are torn apart as we say good-bye to yet another survivor. We are filled with grief as this husband and father and zayde is now laid to rest.
Willie was a survivor from birth. He was born in the small Polish town of Belchatow in 1919. He was the youngest of 8 children in a family that was desperately poor. The trials and deprivation of his early years schooled him in the ways of survival and gave him the strength that would help to see him through the horror to come. It was also during these tender years, and in spite of the difficulties, that Willie imbibed the deep sense of Yiddishkeit that stayed with him throughout his life and became part of his will to survive. The old ways were the ways of his survival and for him a loving bond with the past.
As for all survivors, there is the before and after in Willie’s life – and the searing chasm of fire that swallowed the bridge of continuity that is part of normal life. Six years in the hell of Nazi slave labour and death camps destroyed past and future for Willie. His life as a survivor became a process of reclaiming both. The holocaust images that Willie bravely shared, the rabbi, the baby, his brother… endless frames of horror, where the nightmares that haunted Willie by day as well as by night even until now. These were the on-going tests, the “Akedahs,” that he had to rise above daily. He had to find a place in his consciousness in which to sort and file the memories, so close to the surface, and yet go on with his life. Willie was remarkable in his ability to do that.
Like many survivors, Willie and Helen quickly sought to affirm life as the new day dawned on still soldering embers. They met in ad “DP” camp and were married there in 1945. Less than a year later, there in the camp, David was born. Soon they left the old world behind and came to New York. Michael was born and re-building life after the Holocaust began in earnest.
Life in New York in those early years was difficulty. Called upon yet again to be survivors, Willie and Helen laboured together. They lived in a tenement in the teeming city. Willie worked excruciating hours. He began as a fruit vendor, both door to door and with a cart in the open air market on the famed lower East Side. Willie soon drew on skills learned as an apprentice tailor in Poland and found various jobs in the garment industry. He rose from line work to become the manager of a ladies coat company. Coming through the hard years, the family moved from Manhattan to Queens. A new life was forged. As you recall those years, David and Michael, you have said, “It was a real joy to see him because he worked so hard.” He often came home after you were in bed. There came to be those summers in the country, and he’d come for weekends. He always had a good sense of humor and a twinkle in his eyes, even back then after all he’d been through. He loved to tease kids. He had little education himself but he stressed education to you, his sons. He expected you both to go to college and you did. From Europe to the new world, and to a new generation that came after the storm there were bridges to build. As for so many, it was a remarkable feat of adjustment, however imperfect, upon which you respectfully mused, David, “I don’t know how he did it.”
In 1978 Willie and Helen journey yet again, this time to join their sons on Vancouver Island. These latter years in Victoria were undoubtedly the most peaceful years of their life together and indeed of their entire lives. They naturally sought out and became involved with the Jewish community immediately. Becoming settled in their new community, Willie reached out in quiet unassuming ways over the years to help others in need.
The most important role that Willie played here, in the far-flung reaches of galut, of exile, was that of witness and survivor. Here, in seemingly providential fashion, he was called to tell the survivor’s tale. It was a holy task. Willie was always available to speak. He never said no. He travelled tirelessly, rising again and again above the pain of memory in order to remember and tell the tale. In hushed teenage classrooms Willie spoke with towering dignity, calmly sharing the deepest pain and shame and pride and rage. He would roll up his sleeve and calmly show the ghastly number on his arm, proof in his flesh of the horrors he had known. There would be silence and tears and aching questions and awe. Students would come up to him when he finished and simply hold his hand and say. “thank you.” They sent cards that he treasured. He brought the students into his world. If there was any doubt, he unmasked for them the racist lie of hate-mongers and deniers and their pitiful defenders. Willie was to speak today, at this very hour, with students on Thetis Island. When Michael Peters called and asked Willie to come to Thetis Island, Willie said “Where?” and to Michael’s repetition Willie said, “Where’s that?” Immediately Willie then said “Oh never mind. I’ll go anywhere to speak. Just take me there.” Little did he or we know that he had another meeting to keep. Willie and Helen’s long time and dear friend, fellow survivor, Rysia Kraskin said, “We lost a man who did a lot for us, who educated non-Jewish kids about what we went through. I don’t know who will do it now. He was never too busy.” Willie spoke with our Hebrew School children and our youth. On Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, he spoke to us from that monument, but the gate of the cemetery, which he passionately laboured to build and give to our community. It was his mitzvah, a memorial stone for the 6 million. Now it is a mitzvah for him as well, even as his soul joins the souls of the martyrs whose memory he honoured.
As survivors die we all become survivors, and it is for us to take up their mantle, their torch, and their memory. We who have heard their words must now tell their tale. Their memory and testimony of what they have witnessed is now passed to us in sacred trust. As we accept that trust from you Willie, your legacy, we pledge that we will not forget and we will not let other’s forget. As we speak in your name we will give life to your words and your memory and to the memory of the 6 million. To you Helen and David and Michael, we reach out to you in your grief. We shall be with you and we shall help you and we shall look ahead with you, as together we honour the memory of your friend, your beloved husband and father and zayde, Willie Jacobs, May his memory be for an inspiration and a blessing.
Gravesite Details: Row Q – Plot 21
Star of David on either side of last name
פּ״נ (Here lies)
In Memory of Beloved Parents and Grandparents
Hebrew Name: Zev Vulf b. Dovid HaLevi v’Rochel
Belchatov . Poland
Mar. 17. 1919 – Oct. 26. 1993
In Sacred Trust Their Words Shall Live
ת נ צ ב ה
abbreviation for Biblical quote: “May their soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life.”
Helen Ber Jacobs (1918-1993)