01 July 2016

Journey Through Darkness • Durch die Hölle • Itinéraire dans les ténèbres

Wollheim Memorial: Willy Berler was born in Czernowitz in the Bukovina region on April 11, 1918. His father was a merchant, and the family, which also included Willy’s older brother, led an upper-middle-class life. Willy, a member of Zionist youth organizations, made a trip to the British Mandate of Palestine in 1936. Starting in 1937, he attended an agricultural school there, but returned a year later, at his parents’ urging, to study chemistry in Liège, Belgium.

His parents survived the war in Romania, as they managed to bribe Romanian officials and live in hiding. When the German Wehrmacht invaded Belgium in 1940, Willy Berler and two Jewish friends fled to France and went to a refugee camp near Marseille. Lack of money led him to return in October 1940 to Liège, where he earned his living by teaching German to adults. He was arrested by the Gestapo on April 1, 1943, after one of his pupils denounced him, and put in a transit prison [SS Camp Fort Breendonk].

Mecheln-Auschwitz 1942-1944 - The Destruction of Jews and Gypsies from Belgium: Only a few miles away fom the SS Camp Fort Breendonk, the Dossin Barracks were used from 1942 until 1944 as a transit camp for Jews and gypsies from Belgium and the North of France, assembled here to set out on their journey of no return to Auschwitz. Leon Messing, was 15 years old and the youngest deportee from Bukovina on the date of departure of Transport 10 on 15 December 1942. The oldest deportee from Bukovina was Abraham Moses Reder was 76 years old on the date of deportation on Transport 11 of 26 September 1942. Just like my [Edgar Hauster's] uncle Maximilian Hauster, born on 26 November 1909 in Czernowitz, deported with  Transport 19 of 14 January 1943, neither would return in 1945. Only two women and two men out of 104 deportees (INDEX OF NAMES), who had their roots in Bukovina, survived after 8 May 1945: Sara Adler and Theresia Breitner from Czernowitz, Wilhelm Berler from Nepolokoutz and Juda Meier Fleischer from Siret. 96,2% of the people originated from Bukovina deported on in total 28 Transports were wiped out.

There he became friendly with Michel Zechel, a Jewish doctor. They were deported to Auschwitz on April 19. Willy Berler was sent to the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp and placed there in the “lumberyard detachment,” carrying heavy logs with his bare hands. After a week, totally exhausted, he entered the infirmary. After his release, his block elder took pity on him and arranged for his transfer to the Auschwitz I main camp in early July 1943. There he was sent to the prisoner infirmary and, with the help of Michel Zechel, was placed in the block for the very weak who needed to convalesce.

In late January 1944, as a former chemistry student, he was assigned to the SS Hygiene Institute at Rajsko, where he had to work in a plant cultivation lab. During the night of January 18, 1945, along with the other prisoners at Auschwitz, he was forced to go on the death march. Passing through the Gross-Rosen concentration camp, he reached the Buchenwald concentration camp on February 6. There he was freed by the U.S. Army on his birthday, April 11, 1945.

Willy Berler returned to Belgium. In 1946, he and his brother, who had fought in the Red Army, brought their parents from Romania to join them. He worked in industry and married his wife, Ruth, in 1947. In collaboration with the historian Ruth Fivaz-Silvermann, Willy Berler wrote the book Durch die Hölle. Monowitz, Auschwitz, Gross-Rosen, Buchenwald (published in English as Journey Through Darkness: Monowitz, Auschwitz, Gross-Rosen, Buchenwald in 2004), most of which is the story of his survival. The rest of the book consists of short, separate texts contributed by Fivaz-Silvermann, providing background information that supplements Berler’s account with annotations and source references.