Recently I helped a woman on the other side of the US who had some Holocaust artifacts. She showed me photos of her objects and one of the things was a rabbit skin hat. A hat like that was instrumental in my father surviving the Shoah.
My dad, Harry Toporek, and his brother Sam were together during much of the Holocaust. They were in Auschwitz II – Birkenau for several weeks and very anxious to get out of there. One day the Nazis said they needed electricians so Harry and Sam, who had no such experience, answered the call. It did not matter that they were not electricians as they were sent to work in the coal mines in one of the two coal mine subcamps of Auschwitz: Jaworzno (A.K.A. Neu Dachs).
When they got to this camp, Harry noticed some domesticated rabbits in cages. He presented himself to the German running the camp, the Lagerfuhrer (camp leader), who was himself a prisoner, and said he knew how to take the rabbits and make usable fur for hats and gloves. Before the war, Harry had worked as a tanner.
The man in charge had a tattoo: his number was 1 and his name was Bruno Brodniewitsch. He had a reputation for brutality, imprisoned for allegedly murdering his wife, but this man ultimately saved my father’s life. Twice.
Bruno asked Harry what he needed to make the furs. Salt, flour, and a stone, possibly potassium alum. In order to get the salt and flour, Bruno gave Harry free access to the camp kitchen. Access to the kitchen saved the brothers from starvation. The food rations provided in the camp were sufficient to allow the prisoners to starve to death in a few months. The hard physical labor working in the mines expended more calories than the prisoners were allowed to consume. The brothers survived this camp due to the additional food source.
Sam and Harry both became ill in Jaworzno and had to go to the barrack designated for sick prisoners. This was a very dangerous place to be because at any moment those prisoners could be collected and sent to Birkenau for extermination. This is precisely what happened.
A delivery of bread was trucked in, and an order was given to bring back a designated number of prisoners to Birkenau. Sick prisoners were the first collected, including Harry and Sam. Bruno, the Lagerfuhrer, was standing outside the hospital barrack so Harry approached him. He reminded Bruno that he was the tanner who was working with the skins and asked if he might be allowed to remain. Bruno agreed so Harry was exempt from this transport. But what about Sam?
Harry approached Bruno again. He explained there were 6 brothers and 2 sisters in his family, and he had only one brother left. He asked that Sam also be allowed to remain. Bruno replied that Harry need not worry about his brother, he’d be going to a convalescent home. Harry said he knew where his brother was going and what happened to people there. If Sam left without him, he would never see him again.
The Lagerfuhrer asked Harry to identify his brother and when Sam was pointed out Bruno said there were not enough people in the hospital to fulfill the order for victims. He could not allow Sam to remain.
Harry offered to go with his brother. Bruno seemed surprised that, despite knowing what Sam’s fate would be, this brother still wanted to be with him. As Harry made moves to join his brother, Bruno decided to save them both and allowed them to stay in Jaworzno.
This man Bruno had earned a reputation for brutality and was referred to as “Black Death” by prisoners who knew him. For whatever reason, he saved Harry and Sam.
And it all came together on account of a rabbit skin hat.