Sixteen years after World War II ended, Gershon Young of Chicago, a survivor of some of the Nazi’s most notorious concentration camps, walked in to a courtroom in Aurich, Germany, to testify at the war crimes trial of Dr. Werner Scheu for his role in the massacre of Jews in Lithuania.
“When he saw me, he turned white,” Mr. Young recalled in a 1995 interview with the USC Shoah Foundation.
Mr. Young was one of only about five people outof a Jewish population of about 300 in the town of Kvedarna, Lithuania, to survive the war.
Mr. Young’s daughter, Judy Litz, said the World Jewish Congress brought him and other survivors from Israel and Australia to testify against the doctor, who was accused of participating in an SS murder squad that shot 220 Jews.
In the camps, the guards referred to prisoners as ‘sauhund’ — bloody swine — and excrement.
Mr. Young recalled that he “just walked over to him sitting by the door” and said, “Now comes the time I’m going to call you what you called us.’’
Scheu was convicted and given a life sentence of hard labor.
It was a turnabout both psychological and physical for Mr. Young, who recalled in the Shoah Foundation interview how weak he’d been when American troops liberated Dachau.
“I was lying on the floor,” he said. “I lifted up my head, and I dropped it to the ground.”
After the war, his nights were filled with nightmares and his days with thoughts of the family members he lost to the Holocaust — more than 20 of them.
Gershon Young Family photo.
Then, he immigrated to Chicago, where he met a kind beauty named Bernice Gruber and proposed. During 60 years of marriage, “She was like a mother to me,” he said. “She made what I am today.”
They had two daughters, Litz and Merra Young, five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. He called them all “zeeskeit” — sweetness.
Mr. Young died of pneumonia in June at the Park Plaza Jewish Senior Living Community, Litz said. He was 92 and had worked in sales for 41 years for Capitol Hardware Mfg. Co.
In the oral history, he recalled how, on June 29, 1941, the SS came to Kvedarna “in black dress clothes” and rounded up the Jews, forcing them to board trucks.
He never saw his mother Merra or his two sisters Masha and Tobie again, he told the Shoah Foundation. His father Shia was with him for a few weeks in the Heidekrug work camp in Germany until the “young beasts” of the SS took him, saying they were sending Shia Young and other men, including the town rabbi, back home.
But after the SS members returned, “They brought the clothes back from the dead people,” Mr. Young said. “Just imagine that, the heartache that we went through.”
School days in Kvedarna. Young Gershon Young is second from the left in the front row. Family photo.
Scheu ordered captives transferred to the largest Nazi extermination camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland, where Mr. Young had his arm tattooed with an ID number: 132747.
People were divided into lines. Some were put on a truck. Mr. Young asked why. More experienced Jewish prisoners, conscripted to help, told him: “The people who went on the truck, they told us, were going to go into the oven.”
In 1943, he and other prisoners were sent to Warsaw to clean up the ruins of the failed uprising in the Jewish ghetto. He contracted typhus. “When I came out of there, I only weighed about 70 pounds. I was — they called it a muselman, a skeleton.”
An uncle in Chicago spotted his name on a survivors’ list and sponsored him to come to the United States.
He met Bernice Gruber at the Max Straus Jewish community center in Albany Park.
When they got engaged and sent a photo of themselves to her Romanian-Jewish parents in Toronto, their reaction to seeing the nattily dressed Mr. Young, according to Litz, was, “My God, she’s marrying a gangster from Chicago!”
The engagement photo that prompted the nattily attired Gershon Young’s future in-laws to say their daughter Bernice was “marrying a gangster from Chicago!” Family photo
Gershon Young and his daughters, Merra Young (left) and Judy Litz. | Family photo
The only time they were apart was during his trip to Europe for the trial of Scheu. As age led to hospitalizations for Bernice Young, Judy Litz said, “he saw her like a bride,” pushing her wheelchair everywhere.
Services have been held.
Gershon Young with one of his great-grandchildren. His Birkenau death camp tattoo is visible on his left arm. Family photo.
“He would always show people his [tattoo] number,” his daughter said, “and he would say, ‘I survived Hitler.’ ”