Tears came to the eyes of audience members in a capacity-filled auditorium at Eckley Miners' Village when, on Sunday, July 28, a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor spoke, fulfilling his promise to not let the world forget.
Severin Fayerman, of Wyomissing, Berks County, who spent his adult years in the United States as owner of the Baldwin Hardware Company, made a promise at Auschwitz. As a family friend was selected to go the gas chamber, he looked at Fayerman and said, "Severin, avenge my innocent death. Don't let the world forget what's going to happen to me today."
All the Nazi prisoners were tattooed on their left forearms. Fayerman's number was 171952.
Fayerman was born in Poland, and was 17 years old in 1939 when Russia, Germany and Austria were dividing the country. He grew up with his father, mother and uncle. Living in the German sector, they spoke Polish and German. He took lessons in French and English.
He joined the family business and, rather than to work in the office with his father, he chose learn the blacksmithing trade, apprenticing to his grandfather.
"When I finished my apprenticeship my grandfather said, 'Severin, you need to learn to become a tool maker. Tools are the heart of every metal manufacturing. Without tools a factory cannot exist," Fayerman said.
He became a toolmaker.
In 1939, Germany invaded Poland and instituted "Judenfrei" (to make the Third Reich free of Jews). Then, Poland had a population of 33 million, more than six million of whom were Jews. Fayerman's town was about 70 percent Jewish.
"One Sunday morning, my family was arrested and taken to a labor camp where we cleaned and fumigated Jewish houses to make them ready for non-Jews," he said.
"Most unfortunately, we were only 35 miles north of Auschwitz, one of the most notorious, terrible extermination camps. We were loaded in box cars headed for the camp," Fayerman said.
"When we arrived, we were surrounded by soldiers, guns pointing at us, snarling dogs. They separated the men and women. They had us form lines. They had old men and children stay behind. They said that trucks would come soon and take them into the camp. They said because they were young and old, they would be given a ride and not have to walk. The ride went directly to the gas chambers," he said.
Auschwitz was surrounded by barbed wire, with soldiers manning machine guns in towers. Chimneys spewing heavy smoke thick with the smell of burnt human flesh.
"I didn't realize what was happening," Fayerman said. "My father told me that if we survived, we would meet in our grandmother's house in Salzburg.
"They had us remove all our possessions, jewelry, wristwatches, money. Next door we were stripped naked and had all the hair shaved from our bodies. Then we went to the showers. Then prison garb was issued: blue and gray striped pajamas, and a cap, a bowl, a cup and a spoon," he said.
Fayerman was placed in a quarantine camp, a place of hard work which tested the prisoners.
"Whoever was unable to do the work was eliminated. Every two months the prisons were checked, and the weak were eliminated. A constant inflow replaced those eliminated. Few survived," he said.
Fayerman's knowledge of German and English often got him a reprieve from digging trenches to bury the remains from the crematoriums. Sometimes, he was able to get extra food, like cleaning up the leavings when a new train of prisoners arrived. Getting food was the secret to survival.
Because Hitler drafted all available men into the army, factories turned to slave labor to continue running. Siemens Electric Company came into Auschwitz looking for skilled workers, and selected Fayerman to go the factory as a toolmaker.
"They needed us so we had good food and good lodging," Fayerman said. "Life was as good as it could be while in prison."
With the Russian army approaching Auschwitz, the Germans marched the prisoners out of Auschwitz and sent them to the Buchenwald. Fayerman and a group of prisoners were pulled from the forced march and assigned to clean up the roads damaged by Allied bombing.
"It was easy work because we were hardly supervised and we were able to find food because there were kitchens abandoned from the bombing," he said.
Siemens traced Fayerman to Buchenwald and transferred him to their headquarters in Berlin. The factory was massive, covering six city blocks, and was demolished by American and British bombing.
"It was a frightening experience for me," Fayerman said.
Another squadron of strafers and bombers destroyed the Sachsenhausen concentration camp where Fayerman was housed.
"The Germans marched us out of the camp. We slept In the forest in a quarry surrounded by Germans with machine guns," he said.
"When I awoke there were no Germans, no machine guns," Fayerman said. "I climbed out of the quarry. A remaining German guard said that Americans were coming from one side, the Russians from the other. The guards had left. 'You are free,' the guard said to me. He didn't have to say it twice."
He hiked to the American lines, helped as a translator for U.N. Helping with the refuges. Eventually, he hitchhiked to Salzburg looking for his family.
He went to the Office of Prisoners of War.
"I went to the man behind the desk and told him who I was looking for," Fayerman said. "The man didn't answer. I was thinking maybe he didn't understand. Then he collected himself and responded, 'I know what you're talking about. I know all about you. Your father, uncle and mother come here every day and ask about you. You are the first person whose entire family is here. Come, I'll take you to your family.'"
"My whole family survived," Fayerman said. "You can imagine our happy reunion for the whole family."
After a disappointing attempt to return to Poland, they came to the United States on a troop ship, arriving in New York City where they were given new papers, a room for a week, and $20 apiece. Within a week the entire family had jobs. Fayerman got a job as a tool maker.
"My father said we should start a business," he said.
Fayerman posed as a German, negotiated a deal with a German businessman and started Baldwin Hardware. Before he retired, and sold the company, its sales were in the $100 million range.
"This is the only country in the world where this is possible," Fayerman said.
Severin Fayerman's story has been made into book and published as A Survivor's Story.