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Walter Saltzberg

 


EVERYONE IN BOMBED BUILDING KILLED EXCEPT HIM - HOW WALTER SALTZBERG SURVIVED THE HOLOCAUST

By Rhonda J. Prepes, P. Eng.

While his parents and brother perished in the Holocaust, Walter Saltzberg managed to evade death repeatedly. His story of survival displays a young man’s overwhelming will to live and his powerful hope for the future.

Saltzberg  told his personal  story to an audience of 125 people at the Chevra Mishnayes Synagogue on April 12, 2010 at an  Annual Warsaw Ghetto Commemoration program  presented by The United Jewish People’s Order and Sholem Aleichem Community. It was part of the annual Holocaust Awareness Week remembrance events sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg.

Walter (Wacek) was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1931. He, his parents and his brother who was 6 years older than him lived in a nice large apartment on Leszno Street in Warsaw before the onset of the Second World War.

Photograph of the Saltzberg family
Photograph of the Saltzberg family,
Walter as an infant taken in 1932

They owned a car and lived a pleasant upper middle class life. He attended a French immersion school uneventfully for Grades 1 and 2. As a child, Saltzberg faced no anti-Semitism in his hometown before the war. His mother even travelled to Israel (then Palestine) to visit her brother.

When the war broke out on September 1, 1939, Walter was 8 years old. When the Warsaw ghetto was built in November 1940, the Saltzberg apartment was just inside, so they didn’t have to move. The family was obliged to take in people from other parts of Poland. The once spacious apartment now housed three separate families in each of the bedrooms. But, his parents were able to look after his needs and Walter did not suffer in the ghetto.

 

Walter with his mother in Warsaw
Walter with his mother in Warsaw,
Poland in August 1939.
His parents and brother worked in a German factory that made typewriters and adding machines so they were considered to be useful to the German war machine. They were concerned about Saltzberg’s well being as the Germans had begun to deport the elderly and the young from the ghetto to the camps. Saltzberg was forced to spend his days in hiding while his family went to work.

A family friend, a Polish doctor, tried to convince the Saltzberg family to go into hiding. The family felt they were safe enough where they were so they chose not to. They were concerned about Walter’s well being, however, and his parents arranged for him to go into hiding with the doctor. Saltzberg hid in the doctor’s apartment for two years with no books, radio, or TV.  He said, “I passed the time dreaming and hoping that the future would be better.”  Saltzberg last saw his parents and brother in the spring of 1942 when he was 11 years old.

Once when the Gestapo searched the apartment for 2 hours, he hid terrified but undiscovered under the bathtub. At some point the doctor’s access was cut off to the apartment and the building was bombed. Walter was afraid to remain in the apartment so he left to find another place to hide. When he exited the building, he could barely walk due to lack of exercise for two years. He eventually found another apartment building where other Jewish people were hiding and they took him in.


There he met a boy about 10 years older than him, named Peter Jablonski, who began taking care of Walter. That building was bombed in the fall of 1944. Saltzberg  described that moment, “If you’ve ever heard the whistling of a falling bomb, you will never forget it. The sound that is makes as it pierces the air is the most horrifying sound that you can imagine.”

Everyone in the building was killed except him. He was buried up to his head under rubble with a cut and broken leg. As Saltzberg begged for help, Peter and others dug him out and carried him to safety to another building. Peter led him through a trap door in the floor, down a narrow twisted hallway, into a small hiding space. Salzberg lived there for five months with Peter and three others.

For the first two months they existed on a meager supply of food. For the last three months, all five lived on a sack of rotten onions and water that Peter found in an abandoned building and some food left for them by a friend of Peter’s. Saltzberg received no medical attention for his leg. The break and wound eventually healed, although his leg was twisted and shortened.

Recalling that time in hiding, Saltzberg said “During the five months that we were hiding, I was dreaming about having a full glass of water. Every day was daily terror. Every single day, we anticipated that we would be found. We lived by night. During the day, we lay there silently trembling expecting to be discovered. But, somehow we were not.”

Saltzberg was 17 years old when he came out of hiding with Peter.  After the war, Saltzberg ended up in a Jewish orphanage outside of Warsaw and went through an unsuccessful operation on his leg in a Russian military hospital. He was later sent to Sweden to undergo another operation on his leg, this one somewhat successful. 
Walter Saltzberg, P. Eng., FCSCE
Walter Saltzberg, P. Eng., FCSCE

 

Leszno Street in Warsaw, Poland today
Leszno Street in Warsaw, Poland today
Although Saltzberg  had relatives in the USA and Israel, none searched for him after the war or offered to help him.  After a story about him and other orphans appeared in a New York Jewish newspaper,  friends of his parents arranged for him to come to Winnipeg in 1947, where he had distant relatives.

Upon arrival in Canada on December 2, 1947, he had a “bum” leg, a Grade 2 education, no money, and spoke only 301 words of English.

He obtained an education in Winnipeg. After being a pharmacy apprentice, a cook’s helper at a construction camp, and an instrument man on a surveying crew, he began working as an assistant to a bridge engineer for  the  Canadian National Railway, and  thus embarked upon his destiny to become a bridge engineer.

 

 
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