In June 1942, I became an inmate of Forced Labor Camp Mielec, which later became a concentration camp. The camp was outside the town of Mielec, from which the Jews were removed in March 1942.
The camp was an adjunct to an airplane factory, the Heinkel Werke. It employed about 3,000 Jewish inmates from the camp, about 1,000 Polish civilians and several hundred German personnel.
The main product was the Heinkel 111 bomber, but there was also a facility to repair other models of airplanes damaged in combat.
In the severe winter of 1942-43, I was working on a garbage detail at the German compound. The Germans lived in two family units. Our job was not only to remove the garbage, but also to help when called upon in any chores required by the residents.
We had a little room in one of the basements where we could take our lunch break.
One day, when dumping the contents of a garbage can, we noticed a brown bag with some sandwiches, obviously left by some merciful hausfrau. A few days later the same thing happened, and we tried to find out who that kind person was.
When I was sweeping the street one day, a lady passing by quietly asked, “Did you find the package?”
“Ja, danke schoen (yes, thank you)” was all I could utter.
About a week later, she asked for me to come into her house to help her hang some curtains. It was just a pretext to serve me some hot tea and a snack.
The weather was getting nastier, and I was running a severe cold the next time she asked me to her house, and she said: “You do not look good. The job will kill you. Let me help you. My husband is a big wig in the plant. Let me talk to him. Maybe he can think of something.”
The lady must have taken a liking to me or pitied me as the youngest of the group, for she started to find chores for me to do by myself.
One day she asked me questions about my background and the whereabouts of my family, then volunteered some details about herself. She came from Yugoslavia, of Croatian parentage. Her husband was German and was an engineer in the plant. Their name was Pusch.
She offered to ask her husband to find a job for me in his department.
A few days later I was assigned to the Werkstoffprüfung, the materials-testing laboratory. That department under engineer Pusch encompassed some of the most vital responsibilities of the Heinkel Werke plant.
Mr. Pusch’s materials-testing department included the X-ray facility, the chemical laboratory, the heat-treating room and the cyanide bath facility. The last two were used to make the aluminum alloy components malleable so they could be shaped into parts for the wings and fuselage of the aircraft.
Mr. Pusch was of medium height, with smiling blue eyes and an occasional impish grin. He wore a Tyrolean hat with a colorful feather, much like my Uncle Lipek used to wear.
On my first day, he greeted me with a thorough once-over and said: “So you are my wife’s pet. Come on, I will give you a nice sit-down job.”
He took me into a bright, large room filled with strange machinery and several desks manned by neatly dressed Poles. “This is Norbert,” he said. “Treat him right.”
He left me in the hands of Mr. Jankowski, who invited me to sit at his desk. “What do you know about this kind of work?” he asked me.
“Very little,” I said, although I had some knowledge of physics and metallurgy from my days at the Jewish Vocational School in Krakow.
Mr. Jankowski explained the work they were doing. They conducted sheering and hardness tests on samples made of strips of aluminum, which had to be machined into given shapes. After the stress tests, they calculated the pounds per square inch that the strips could withstand.
They also cut through samples of welded parts, polished them to high finish, applied acid and examined them for any flaws in the welding.
In contrast to other parts of the plant, the working conditions were relaxed. No one seemed to overwork himself, although everyone tried to look busy, especially when Nazi dignitaries visited.
Next to the physical lab was the X-ray facility. Zoltan Rosner, who bunked with me in Barrack 4, operated it. Upstairs was a chemical lab manned by a Polish chemist assisted by another Jewish inmate, Ernest Noble.
Engineer Pusch would occasionally drop by our department, always inquiring about my work: “How is he doing, my wife’s pet?”
Soon, he started to bring in little food packages, which he said were from his wife. I always shared with Ernest and Zoltan. If the package contained eggs or sausage, Zoltan and I would fry the food in the X-ray room after locking ourselves in.
We would turn on the red light outside the sliding, heavy lead door, indicating that X-ray examination of parts was in progress. When Mr. Pusch was about to bring someone on a tour, he would alert us by buzzing the X-ray room with two short and two long rings, and we would open the windows and turn on the fan. The smell of fried eggs and sausage in the X-ray lab would certainly invite questions from visitors.
When high-ranking SS officers inspected the plant, Mr. Pusch found himself in front of the X-ray room with no chance to warn us. The red light was on, though, and despite the insistence of the SS officers, he refused to open the heavy, lead-reinforced door.
The SS officers dropped all cordiality and became forceful, and he said: “All right, all right. I will let you in, but I will not be responsible for all of you becoming sterile because of the heavy radiation.”
The gamble paid off. The group decided to tour other installations and come back to the X-ray room later.
In the summer of 1943, a young German boy, obviously related to some influential figure, was assigned as an intern in the chemical lab. Once, while pretending to clean his revolver, he shot Ernest in the thigh.
While Ernest was being treated, the young German said, “One less Jew.” He knew a wounded inmate, unable to work, would be executed.
Mr. Pusch was livid and took Ernest to the German dispensary, where the plant doctor removed the bullet, and he put Ernest in the camp sick bay. He impressed upon the German doctor that Ernest was essential to the chemical lab and had to be saved.
Whenever it was necessary to save one of his Jews and he had to justify it to the head of plant security, the dreaded Mr. Stein, that inmate always turned out to be the most indispensable cog in the plant machinery.
An elderly Orthodox Jew, Mr. Reichman, who was interned with his three sons and was working in the cyanide baths, was taken to the killing ground in Berdychow to be executed by the Gestapo because of some infraction. We ran to notify Mr. Pusch, who jumped on his bicycle and rode to Berdychow.
Zimmerman, the executioner, refused to hand the prisoner over to the engineer, so Mr. Pusch said he would report Zimmerman to Berlin for sabotaging the war effort. Mr. Reichman, he said, was the only man capable of running the cyanide baths.
Mr. Reichman was saved, at least for the time being.
Mr. Pusch detested the Nazis and would do whatever he could to undermine them. The German authorities must have sensed it because he was relocated in the winter of 1943 to Rostock, a facility the Allies frequently bombed.
After the war, Ernest Noble, whose life Mr. Pusch had saved, opened a factory to produce tooth powder in Schweinfurt, Germany, and made the engineer his partner.
I have often wondered how it was possible, amid that malignant sea of cruelty, for one man’s decency to create an island of humanity.