The Power of the Pen
by Jeanette Friedman
Ernie Michel was a 15-year-old from Mannheim, Germany who remembers the Night of Broken Glass, the night of November 9, 1938, very well. On that night, the German government, the Nazis (short for National Socialists) sanctioned the first official acts of discrimination against the Jewish people, and burned their synagogues, looted their shops and homes, breaking windows everywhere.
Ernie was in a local suburb that night and watched the local synagogue burn to ash as everyone stood and watched. That night, he barely escaped being arrested by the Gestapo and grabbed the first train back to Mannheim to find that his father, a tobacconist whose shop was confiscated by the Nazis, was arrested. Panic stricken, Ernie’s mother went to find him, and he was released the next day.
Ernie and his family were no strangers to discrimination. He and his sister, Lotte, had been expelled from school, and Ernie never made it past the 6th grade. Yet in the spring of 1939, his Papi insisted that he study calligraphy, the art of handwriting. Ernie couldn’t understand it. But his father was adamant. He told his son: “You never know when it might come in handy, and in the meantime, it will keep you busy.”
Then, after years of waiting, the family’s application for an American visa was rejected. A few weeks later, Lotte was smuggled into Palestine by a Zionist group. Then on September 3, 1939, the Gestapo arrested Ernie and ordered him to show up at the train station at 6 a.m. with no more than one suitcase and 50 Deutsche Marks. He was pressed into slave labor at a nobleman’s estate near Berlin, and was able to keep in touch with his parents until they were deported to Gurs, the concentration camp in France. Later he learned they were murdered in Auschwitz in August 1942.
Ernie and a team of 100 (called a Kommando) were sent from the estate to a place called Paderborn, where for a year, they were slaves in the sanitation department, doing jobs no other human could bear to do. After a year there, they were put into cattle cars and sent on a journey for days on end. People died of hunger and thirst, but the Nazis only stopped the train when they wanted to know who had thrown a postcard out the window. A young boy stepped forward and they shot him on the spot.
After six days on the death train, in February 1943, Ernie and his fellow passengers, all swollen with thirst and hunger, woke to harsh sounds. They were brutally welcomed to Auschwitz, the notorious concentration camp. The unfortunate Jews went through the selection process, got their tattoos and began to be absorbed into the Auschwitz system. For some it was their last day on earth. For others, the torture would continue. A few days later, Ernie and some of his fellow survivors from Paderborn were assigned to build the notorious Buna rubber factory at Auschwitz.
In the summer of 1943, a Nazi guard called Ernie a lazy Jew and hit him in the head, hard, with his rifle butt. Ernie was knocked out by the blow, and his scalp was bleeding. After a few days he developed an infection and had a splitting headache. This was as good as a death sentence, for those who reported to the Auschwitz infirmary were usually dispatched “up the chimney.” By this time, Ernie could barely work. His friends were covering for him, so half-dead, he consented to go to the infirmary, where he knew his chances of survival would be slim.
A guard directed him to a barracks where world famous doctors, imprisoned by the Nazis, were doing the best they could to treat their patients. Ernie simply wanted to have his wound cleaned so that he could go back to his working group, and had no choice but to wait his turn.
Suddenly, after more than an hour, an important prisoner, a man named Heyman, walked into the waiting area and asked if anyone there had a legible handwriting. Ernie hesitated for a moment, wondering if there was a catch, but as the man turned to leave, he raised his hand and said, “I do.” By that time, Ernie felt he had nothing to lose. Perhaps they would give him an extra piece of bread in exchange for his work. “I studied calligraphy at home,” he said to the man.
Heyman stared at him and led him to another room, where he handed Ernie a pen and a piece of paper. “Write the name, the Auschwitz number and the word Koerperschwaeche (weakness of the body) down.” He watched for a few moments, as Ernie relearned how to hold a pen and began writing the words he was ordered to write. Then Heyman said, “You’ll do.”
Before he began his task, Ernie pointed to his wound and asked if he could get some help. Within minutes, his head was cleaned and bandaged.
Ernie made lists and realized that he was writing down the names of those who died of starvation, exposure and disease. Two hours later, Heyman brought him food to eat and offered him a permanent job as a clerk. After a few days of rest, during which Heyman protected him from the selections, Ernie went to work as an orderly in the infirmary and was given extra food. He brought some of this food to people he knew who were starving in the barracks, and helped save many lives.
Almost two years later, after being a slave in a number of camps, Ernie escaped from a death march that began on January 18, 1945. He made his way back to Mannheim after the war and was taken under the wing of Rabbi Abraham Hazelkorn, a chaplain in the U.S. Army, who introduced him to Lt. Al Hutler, an American officer who worked with Displaced Persons in that region. Ernie found a childhood friend, located his sister in Israel, and was given writing assignments as a journalist—that included covering the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials. He also worked for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee before he came to America. Ernie arrived in New York aboard the USS Marine Flasher, one of the first survivors to come to the United States.
Because his father insisted that he learn something he didn’t understand, Ernie’s life was transformed, and he survived to devote his life to helping others and perpetuating the memory of the Holocaust and its lessons.
He began his American life as a journalist in Port Huron, Michigan, and then became a fundraiser for United Jewish Appeal. With the teams Ernie built, billions of dollars were raised for Israel and Jewish causes from every corner of the world. Eventually he became vice-president emeritus of UJA/FedNY, one of the largest charitable organizations in the world, a post he still holds. When he wrote his book, Promises to Keep, he gave all the profits to charity and was awarded an honorary doctorate by Hunter College of the City University of New York. He is currently raising millions of dollars for impoverished Holocaust Survivors in the UJA/FedNY region, and his new book, published by Barricade Press, is called PROMISES KEPT. Again, any profits will go to charity.
While in Auschwitz, Ernie and his friends conceived of the idea that ultimately became the World Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors in Jerusalem in June 1981. This event gave voice to Holocaust survivors around the world and empowered them to teach the world to become a better place and led to the creation of the American Gathering. He is now Honorary Chairman of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants.