By BOB KERR JOURNAL COLUMNIST
NEWTON, Mass. — It seems best to start with the motorcycle, the one Izzy Arbeiter got on, fell off and got on again. In those first days of freedom, it was the motorcycle that took him to Anna.
“After what she did for me, I had to try to find her,” says Arbeiter as we talk at his home in Newton.
He is 87 and Anna is 86, and they have numbers tattooed on their arms that are stark reminders of their time in the Nazi death camps and a testament to their unlikely survival. They have been married for 66 years and live in daily confirmation of good triumphing over evil.
Early this year, Arbeiter spoke in Berlin. He has spoken often in Germany about the things that happened in Auschwitz and Treblinka and the Jewish ghettos.
“I want Hitler to look back from the grave and know that this little Jew he wanted to kill is the proud patriarch of four generations,” he told his German audience.
Those four generations are all over the house in Newton. There are pictures of children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They are pictures from an American life born in the ruins of Europe in1945 and shaped by a Jewish man on a motorcycle he didn’t know how to drive.
Arbeiter went back in April to the places where he lived through the horrors of the Holocaust. He has gone before, with children and grandchildren. He wants them to see the places they have heard about, to see where the Nazis did their slaughter and where two people came out alive to tell the story.
This time, he went back with Rhode Island filmmaker Tim Gray. Gray, who is chairman of the World War II Foundation, has produced outstand ing films about World War II and the people who fought it. He first met Arbeiter at the World War II Museum in Natick, Mass.
“I heard his story,” says Gray. “And I turned to my cameraman and said, ‘We have to get this guy back to Poland.’
On Jan. 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Gray’s film “A Promise To My Father” will be shown for the first time at the Seaport World Trade Center in Boston.
The title of the film is taken from what Arbeiter describes as the darkest day of his life.
“It was October 26, 1942. The SS came to the town where we were and ordered everybody out. The young, who could work, were separated. The very young and the elderly were put on the other side of the marketplace.”
That meant he and two of his older brothers were on one side, his parents and his 7-year-old brother Josek on the other. The cruel separation took place in the Jewish ghet to of Starachowice, where his family had been taken from their home in Plock on the Vistula River.
Arbeiter looked over and did what a son would do.
“I sneaked over to my parents.”
His father told him to go back.
“He said ‘go back over there and try to save yourselves. And make sure that you carry on the Jewish life and the Jewish traditions.’ ”
His father, Icchak, his mother, Hugara, and brother Josek were taken to Treblinka death camp, where they were among the estimated 900,000 Jews murdered.
Arbeiter and his other brothers — Aaron, Motek and E-Lick — were put to work as slave labor in the Nazi war machine. Izzy, Aaron and Motek would survive. E-Lick was never accounted for.
“I was put to work in a munitions plant,” says Arbeiter. “We were making 105mm shells. There were two 12-hour shifts, and very little food.
“That’s where this young lady comes in.”
He turns to Anna, who puts her arms around him and says this is a good man she has been married to all these years.
And she remembers the time in the camp at Starachowice, where she worked in a kitchen, when she learned Arbeiter was sick and she snuck food to him at great personal risk.
It was an insane time. It was a time when the depraved had free rein. Arbeiter remembers the commandant of the camp at Starachowice. He wore a submachine gun around his neck and sometimes invited friends to the camp to watch him shoot prisoners. And Arbeiter remembers too well the time he and other prisoners were run out of their barracks and shot down as they ran.
“I was the only one of 87 people who lived,” he says. “I see it in front of me every day.”
We have heard the stories from the survivors so many times in so many ways that the pure, consuming evil perhaps doesn’t register as it should anymore. But Israel “Izzy” Arbeiter continues to tell of that time when millions were marched from their homes and starved and shot and gassed. He continues because it is a vital part of him to be the historian and the teacher who honors that promise to his father.
And we need to listen and think about that time when a cultured, civilized society made itself accessory to mass murder. We need to hold on to the idea that the darkest side of human possibility has no end date.
In the autumn of 1944, Arbeiter was sent to Auschwitz, where one of his jobs was to haul the waste from the latrines in a wagon. He strung a wire inside the wagon and hung smuggled food from it.
“I knew the guards wouldn’t look there.”
At Auschwitz too, he stayed alive because he could work. But others got off the trains and were sent straight to their deaths. The sounds of children screaming for their mothers and fathers stay with him still.
His captivity ended in southern Germany, where he and others were being marched to a place where they thought they would be left to starve to death. But Russian troops were close and the German guards ran.
“For a week, I was numb. After 5½ years, living in sick, horrible conditions — the filth, the beatings, the dead…”
Among the saddest memories are of the people who, when liberated, ate too much food, on stomachs that had been empty for too long, and died.
Arbeiter broke down.
“I cried, I was screaming ‘who am I?’ ”
He walked out into the early days of postwar Europe with no idea what he would do, where he would go. An American major helped him. He got him a shower, clothes, and, most important, papers that would get him through military checkpoints.
Then he found the motorcycle. He spotted it in a garage in a village. It had a full tank of gas, so he figured it belonged to a German. And the German wouldn’t miss it.
“I borrowed it,” says Arbeiter. “I had never ridden a motorcycle before. I fell off, but I got back on.”
Rumors were rampant. People knew people who knew where other people might be. The postwar grapevine was filled with informa tion about lost people looking for other lost people. Arbeiter learned that Anna Ballter, the girl who had gotten food to him in the labor camp, was still at Bergen Belsen, the concentration camp in northern Germany that had been liberated by British forces.
“I found her barracks. I walked in and said to her, ‘Would you like to go for a ride with me on my motorcycle?’
Anna was living with four other girls. They had only one pair of shoes and a different woman got to wear them each day.
“Today is not my day,” Anna told Izzy.
Izzy bribed the girl with the shoes.
Anna was warned. Don’t go with this man, the other girls told her. He is a gigolo, a real Casanova.
“That was 66 year ago,” says Izzy. “She’s still around.” They were married in 1946. Their daughter, Harriet, was born in 1948. The next year, an aunt living in Boston sponsored them to come to the United States.
Arbeiter got a job in a cloth ing factory at 75 cents an hour. He got a second job with a tailor at 50 cents an hour. He went to night school. He and Anna celebrated his first paycheck by splurging 10 cents on day-old bread.
He put together some savings, borrowed some money, and opened a small tailor and dry cleaning shop on Talbot Avenue in Dorchester. The business grew. He bought another cleaning business in Newton, where 40 years ago he also bought the house that is now filled with all those family pictures.
He retired in 1995. He did not stop speaking. The promise to his father endures. He is president of the American Association of Holocaust Survivors of Greater Boston.
There is a scene in Tim Gray’s film in which Arbeiter walks through Auschwitz, pointing to the places where Jews took “the long walk into the unknown” with soldiers, dogs and machine guns on both sides of them. He points to where his bunk was and to the spot where people waited before being led into the gas chambers.
“So many stories to tell from here,” he says. “If that ground over there could talk …”
He encounters a group of students:
“It is a very good thing, bringing you here,” he tells them, “so young people can learn.”
Gray says Arbeiter’s memory is incredibly sharp, filled with vivid detail.
But at Treblinka, Arbeiter broke down.
“It’s where his parents were killed,” says Gray. “I remember it was a very dark night and there was almost complete silence.
“You could feel the torment of the soul.”
For information on the premiere of “A Promise To My Father,” go to http://wwiifounda tion.org/events/promise