When Michael and Marvin Heimlich were little, they used to ask their father about his missing baby toe.
Sometimes, Larry Heimlich joked that it fell off. Another time, “He said a bunny rabbit ate it,” said Michael Heimlich.
Mr. Heimlich didn’t tell them what really happened for 60 years.
As a Jew forced to do slave labor during World War II, he knew he could be shot for even appearing to be sick. His brother Herman’s captors torched an infirmary in Poland with him and other slave laborers inside.
“One day, they just burned the whole building down, with the sick people in it,” Larry Heimlich said in a 1995 interview about his wartime experiences, “and I never saw him again.”
Mr. Heimlich, who did slave labor in Romania, Hungary and Poland, developed an infection in his toe from frostbite.
The only thing he wanted to do was survive.
“He cut off his own toe with a knife,” Michael Heimlich said.
Lawrence “Larry” Heimlich, a longtime resident of Wilmette, Palos Park, Skokie and Chicago, died April 21 at Park Plaza Jewish Senior Living Community in Chicago. He was 93.
Like many Holocaust survivors, it took decades for him to talk about the war.
It had hurt when his boys were little and they asked why they had no grandparents. He wanted them to know why, he said in an interview with the USC Shoah Foundation in 1995.
In his later years, Mr. Heimlich began doing question-and-answer sessions with students studying the Holocaust. While at a displaced persons camp in Traunstein, Germany, he had a trunk made to carry his possessions to America. It’s now on display at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie.
He was born in Esen, then a village near the border of Czechoslovakia and Hungary. His family had a small farm on which they grew corn, potatoes, beets and oats and raised cows. A traveling Hebrew tutor came to teach young Larry Heimlich about Judaism.
With the rise of a Nazi-collaborationist government and the growing influence of Hungary’s fascist Arrow Cross party, anti-Semitism came into the open, he said. “The farm was taken away from us in 1942,” he said in the Shoah recording. “A Jew could not own any land.”
Forced into slave labor, he and other prisoners had to drag heavy equipment to destroyed bridges to help retreating German and Hungarian soldiers. Hewas sent to Romania, where slave laborers dug trenches to hold dynamite on roads being bombed to block Russian forces.
Fear and hunger ruled his days. Finding berries on a tree could mean another day of survival.
“Many times, you know, when we were building a road, and they weren’t satisfied with the amount of work we did, then they lined us up,” Mr. Heimlich said. “They said every 10th [person was] gonna be shot.”
Though the guards never opened fire, it was excruciating.
In the final days of the war, his captors, knowing the Russians were approaching, told prisoners, “Now, we’re going to march, and who[ever] won’t be able to march will be shot on the road.”
Sick with typhus, Mr. Heimlich had had enough. “I said to myself, what’s the difference for me, they’re going to shoot me on the road, or they’re going to shoot me here, so I stayed, hid, and I cover myself with straw.” Two days later, the Russians arrived. He was free.
He returned to the family home in Esen. Neighbors had taken every stick of furniture. All he found was a picture of his brother’s children, torn to a sliver. “They didn’t even want to have a picture around of a Jew,” he said.Nearly all his family had perished in the gas chambers at Auschwitz, including his mother, Zali; his father, Markusz, his sister-in-law, Roszi, a niece, Ilonka, and two nephews, Miklos and Andor.Only his sister, Eleanor, and a second cousin, Elizabeth, survived.
In 1946,he and Elizabeth married in Budapest. They waited three years in displaced-persons camps before they were permitted to move to Chicago, where she had relatives. The Heimlichs lived at first in Jeffery Manor on the city’s Southeast Side, later moving to Skokie, Palos Park and Wilmette.
“We are very happy to be in the United States, the greatest country in the whole world,” he told the Shoah Foundation.
The Heimlichs tried to forget Hungarian and spoke only English at home.Mr. Heimlich went to night classes at Lake View High School to master English and trained to be an electrician. He worked for United Light Co., NILEC Electrical and as a partner in Devon Electric in Alsip, Michael Heimlich said.
Mr. Heimlich’s wife died in 1997. Services have been held.
He glowed when he talked about the offspring who, if the Nazis had their way, wouldn’t exist — his four grandchildren, Aaron, Joey, Matthew and Sarah, and two great-grandchildren, Phoebe and Shea. “They are our treasures,” he said.