Israel “Izzy” Arbeiter, a 92-year-old Holocaust survivor, made a rare public appearance in Malden in early November where he spoke before a large group of local high school students and painted a riveting portrait of tragedy and survival at the hands of the Nazis. Israel was born in Poland in 1925, the third of five brothers. In February of 1940, when he was 15, Israel, his parents and three brothers were sent by the Germans to a slave labor camp in Central Poland to a town called Starachowice.
On the morning of his 20th birthday, April 25, 1945, Israel recalled that he wept tears of joy. He and others had just been liberated from the clutches of Nazi SS guards who were leading a death group of concentration camp survivors when they encountered French and British troops in the waning days of World War II in Germany’s Black Forest. The Nazis fled and the survivors were free. Later that day there were more tears from Israel, this time tears of anguish. “I just sat there by the side of the road in a foreign country and realized that five and half years of my life were gone, ripped away. Since I was 14 years old, I had no education, had not seen any of my family for over five years and I had nothing but the rags I was wearing,” Israel recalled, while addressing some 400 Malden High School seniors. “What’s going to happen to me? What kind of future could I have?” he recalled. “I broke down. I could not hold it in any longer.”
Israel Arbeiter was at Malden High School to speak as a gesture of gratitude for the attention and appreciation after a number of Malden students made two trips to the Holocaust Memorial in Boston after it was determined that one of their classmates was involved in the vandalism of the shrine to the over six million Jews and others who were murdered by the Nazis in Germany during World War II in the Holocaust. The Malden students commemorated and honored both victims and survivors at the Holocaust Memorial and on both visits met personally with Israel, a Newton resident who played an integral role in the planning and eventual dedication of the Memorial.
“I am so impressed with the resolve of our Malden High School students and we are so fortunate they were able to develop such a bond with Mr. Arbeiter,” said Malden Mayor Gary Christenson, who picked up Israel at his Newton home and then drove him back after the Holocaust survivor’s talk to the students. “I also consider myself very lucky to have developed a strong friendship with Mr. Arbeiter.”
Israel recalled his nearly six years of captivity and slave labor with the Nazis who began their persecution of the Jews just days after they overran and began their occupation of Poland at the start of World War II in 1939. “Immediately, at the age of 14½ I was deprived of all civil rights, declared a slave and condemned to death,” he said. “My only crime was being born to Jewish parents.” The following two years were harrowing as all Jews were forced to live in overcrowded ghettos in Poland and stripped of most valuable possessions and ownership rights. But the worst was yet to come.
Israel openly wept when he then spoke of the events of October 26, 1942, the last time he saw his parents and seven year old brother alive. “It was the darkest day of my life,” he said. October, 1942 was the beginning of the implementation of the Nazi’s “Final Solution.” Arbeiter, 14, and his three older brothers were separated from their parents and sent to a labor camp. Their parents and seven year old brother were sent on trucks to a new concentration camp which Israel later learned was the Treblinka gas chambers. Only the young and strong were spared to work as slaves at the camps. Israel never heard from or saw them again as they and millions of others were killed by the Nazis in the gas chambers.
Israel told harrowing tales where he cheated death on several occasions, including one where he was one of 87 patients recovering from a typhus outbreak in a makeshift hospital in the Starachowice labor camp in Poland and only survived by escaping out a window. The other 86 men were shot and killed. Too sick to work, his brothers covered for him but didn’t have enough food to feed him. Fourteen year old Chanka (Anna) Balter, who would later become Israel’s wife, lost her whole family to the death camps and was working in the Gestapo camp kitchen. Through a hole in the barbed wire fence, Israel’s brother asked her for food for his sick brother and she stole it from the kitchen and snuck it through the fence. When the Starachowice slave labor camp closed in July of 1944, all prisoners were sent to Auschwitz where they were tattooed and told “the only way out of here is through the chimneys” which was a reference to the crematoriums. Israel, his brothers, Anna, and the other prisoners were taken from Auschwitz in the middle of the night in late 1944 and sent to various slave labor camps, and sometimes were on foot for many weeks. Many people died of starvation.
Shortly after the liberation by the Allied Soldiers in April of 1945 Israel located only one of his brothers and wanted to find Anna so he could thank her for sneaking him food and saving his life. He found her living in a tiny room in a displaced persons camp with four other girls. He was 20 and she was 19. They married soon after and had their first child in Germany before immigrating to the U.S. with the help of family already here. They settled in Newton where Israel ran a string of tailor shops until he retired in 1995. For 40 years he served as the President of the American Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors in Boston.
“Who would have known I would go on to speak before Congress, testify against Nazi war criminals, have four children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren,” Arbeiter said. “It has been my lifelong mission to tell as many as will listen about my own experiences in the Holocaust,” he added. “The war against intolerance must be fought daily. Don’t let this ever happen again on this earth. Don’t let them get away with it.”