By Bryan Boggiano
On July 6, 1924, Herman Haller was born in Berlin, Germany, a child of middle-class Polish-Jewish parents who owned a furniture shop.
Haller said that nothing was out of the ordinary in his early childhood, but that all changed in 1933, when the Nazis rose to power and boycotts against his family’s business began.
His parents divorced around the same time, and his father moved to the former country of Palestine –now Israel. By 1937, the rest of his relatives began to move to Israel, Czechoslovakia, and The United States.
At the time, Haller stayed with his mother in brother in Berlin.
Unable to attend public schools, Haller attended a Jewish school until November 9, 1938. That night, the Nazis carried out Kristallnacht. Between Nov. 7 and 10, 1938, the Nazis killed at least 91 Jewish people, destroyed 7,500 Jewish-owned homes, businesses, synagogues, and schools, arrested 30,000 Jewish men, and sent them to concentration camps.
“We couldn’t stay in Germany anymore,” Haller said.
Over the next six-and-a-half years, Haller fought for survival in World War II-era Europe, struggling to find food, water, and shelter while evading persecution by the Nazis in any way he could.
After Kristallnacht, his mother put Haller and his brother on a train from Germany to Antwerp, Belgium, to save them from the Nazis.
When Haller and his brother arrived in Belgium, they lived with an uncle. But, Haller said, they stayed in the country only briefly. His uncle arranged for a distant relative, Uncle Manuel, to take care of him in Paris in 1939, and him and his brother left the country.
But, Paris would not be Haller’s final stop in pre-war Europe.
Haller and his brother stayed in Paris only for a few months before returning to Belgium. His mother, who was in Berlin, eventually fled to England to work as domestic help.
Haller and his brother, once in Belgium, were resettled with a family who took them in. They were unable to flee to England with their mother. But in Belgium, they had a stable living condition, for the time being.
But by May 1940, Germany invaded Belgium, Holland, and France, and Germany occupied all three countries within two weeks.
At the same time, since the family caring for Haller and his brother did not receive money from the Jewish Agency in Belgium any longer, they threw him and his brother out.
His brother found a place to stay, but Haller was not as lucky.
Haller was not a Belgian citizen, and since he was Jewish and in Belgium illegally, he could not work easily or get ration cards. For Haller, finding food was nearly impossible.
“I had to fight for myself,” he said.
To survive, Haller got a job in a bakery stocking ovens with wood. He would sleep on top of the ovens at night to keep himself warm. At the time, he was able to do the bare minimum to survive.
But by 1942, everything changed again.
The Nazis required Jews to register with special committees, and they were given special permits to stay in the country. Jews were also not allowed to work.
Later that year, the Nazis deported Haller to northern France, where he worked on constructing the Atlantic Wall, a Nazi-constructed system of coastal defenses along Europe’s northern coast.
Here, guards with the Organisation Todt overlooked Haller and the other deportees as they constructed the 1700-mile-long fortification system.
Being overworked was not the only obstacle that Haller faced. While there, he contracted typhus and spent time in a French hospital. He said that at the hospital, he had food, water, and adequate shelter.
But in Fall 1942, everything changed for Haller once again, when The Todt guards told Haller that they no longer needed him in France.
From France, he was loaded on a train heading for a concentration camp: Auschwitz.
After the train arrived, Haller walked two grueling miles to the main camp.
Those who could walk went with him. Those who could not walk and women and children were separate.
The Nazis gave Haller and the other arrivals the impression that those unable to walk, and women and children, would be transported directly to the camp, but that did not happen.
“[They] went to the gas chambers, and we never saw them again,” he said.
On the way to the barracks, Haller recalls seeing prisoners wearing pajama-like uniforms. They whispered, “walk, walk, walk” to him as he walked by.
In the barracks, the SS guards made Haller and the other prisoners’ strip, shaved their heads, and carved a numerical tattoo on their arms-their new prisoner names.
At Auschwitz, Herman Haller was now number 72554.
After the war, the German government offered to pay $900 to remove the tattoo surgically, but he refused.
“That is your shame, not mine,” he said about the offer from Germany. “I’m not gonna remove it.”
While at Auschwitz, every day was a fight for survival.
Haller estimates that the average life expectancy in Auschwitz was four to six weeks for most prisoners, either from starvation, disease, exposure to the elements, or execution.
The only food he received was rations consisting of small pieces of bread and a liter of soup, which he said was really water with leaves.
To get more food, Haller did whatever he could,, including risking his own life.
During his time at Auschwitz, Haller worked with Polish bricklayers to construct a new factory. With SS-issued paperwork, he had more freedom to travel between the factory outside of the camp and Auschwitz.
During this time, Haller had a friend who worked in Kanada. This was the portion of the camp where the SS stored confiscated property from Jews.
His friend and other prisoners smuggled clothes and other valuables from Kanada and gave them to Haller and the factory workers.
Haller would exchange the smuggled property with the Polish bricklayers for bread and margarine.
Haller also mentioned that he smuggled water from the kitchen and almost got away with smuggling three loaves of bread.
When he tried to smuggle bread into the camp, guards stopped him and asked what he was doing with it. Haller claimed that a truck hit a pothole, and the bread came out and that he would return the bread to the kitchen.
The SS eventually let him off the hook.
“I was worried. I figured that was the end of me,” Haller said.
One night at his barracks, Haller wasn’t as lucky.
An SS guard asked Haller his name, and he replied with his last name.
Puzzled, the guard asked him again.
This time, Haller replied 72554.
The guard punished Haller, making sure he would never forget his name.
The guard took him to the factory and made him do 100 knee bends with a pistol pointed at Haller, who shouted at him with each bend he made.
When Haller got to 20, the SS guard made him start over. When he got to 100, the guard pushed him to do 100 again, counting backward.
Lastly, the guard forced him to do two sets of 10 pushups.
Haller said that he could not walk at the end of the grueling punishment.
He stayed in the factory’s rear furnace room between two cabinets to lie down and recuperate.
His friends in the factory said that if any SS guards came looking for him, they would let Haller know and cover for him. Nobody ever discovered him.
There was one incident; however, he recalls, when two engineers went into the room for a smoke break.
They looked out the window, staring at smoke billowing from a crematorium.
He said, “One [of the engineers] clearly said to the other, ‘Can you see clearly how the Jews are burning?”
Haller was in Auschwitz until January 18, 1945, when the SS sent him on a death march with 58,000 other Auschwitz prisoners to Kněžnou.
In March 1945, the SS packed Haller into a rail car with 120 people. They were all deported to Buchenwald.
He spent five days and nights on the train, where he ate snow to survive. Other people drank their own urine.
Only seven people in his car survived, but Haller did not escape unscathed. He contracted frostbite on his feet, and most of his toes froze. A butcher on board the train amputated eight of his toes.
When he got to Buchenwald, the SS put him in a part of the camp for sick people, where rations were even less. But luckily for Haller, he did not spend too much time in the camp.
On April 11, 1945, American soldiers liberated Buchenwald, freeing Haller and everybody else in the camp. At the time, Haller was 5’9 and weighed only 55 pounds.
“That was my second birthday,” he said. “If it would have lasted another day or two, I wouldn’t have made it.”
The Americans took him to a hospital in Weimer, where doctors gradually fed him and rebuilt his strength. They started with baby food, then hot cereal.
After getting discharged from the Weimer hospital, Haller moved to another hospital in Brussels. After that hospital stay, he moved to a villa where he recovered alongside three other Holocaust survivors. He remained friends with them.
While in Belgium, Haller also slowly learned to walk again. Having only two toes made it difficult, and to this day, he requires special shoes to walk.
In 1947, he moved to the United States, where he worked and lived with an uncle on a farm in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
But while Haller enjoyed his new life in the United States, he wanted something different from what farm life had to offer.
“ I didn’t like the chickens, he said. “I was a city boy.”
So, he moved to New York, working during the day while attending school at night. While in New York, he joined the New World Club, a social club for immigrants.
While there, he met his wife, Lore, and the two married on Christmas Day 1949.
They have two daughters, four grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren and reside at an assisted living facility Park Summit in Coral Springs.
“He is one of the [kindest] men you will ever have the pleasure of meeting and always has a smile on his face,” Park Summit Senior Living wrote on Facebook. “We are very honored to have him as a part of our Park Summit family.”
As for Haller’s brother, he survived the war and moved to Israel, where he married and had two children. His mother, too, survived the war and stayed in England.
For Haller, educating young people about the Holocaust is vital since few Holocaust survivors are still alive. Besides giving interviews to various outlets, Haller has also spoken at schools for almost 30 years.
At each school, Haller said that the students sincerely appreciate what he has to say about his experience surviving the Holocaust and his life after.
But Haller also appreciates his own children’s knowledge of the Holocaust.
When his daughters were younger, Haller recalls his daughters saying, “Daddy, please don’t tell us about those terrible things.”
But as they grew older, Haller said his daughters have spoken at Holocaust memorial events, and when he hears their knowledge and passion, it makes him proud.
“I was amazed about how much my children knew about this,” he said. “They read about and heard about it, but they heard from somebody else.”
But Haller believes that everybody needs to know about the Holocaust to prevent prejudice from ever happening again.
As more Holocaust survivors pass away, he said it becomes more important to educate others and not let hate win.
“People should know about discrimination and not discriminate,” he said. “People should respect other religions and other people.”
On April 20, 2022, Haller accepted a proclamation from the Coral Springs City Commission in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Surrounded by his wife, Lori, his daughter, Heidi, and Heidi’s fiancé, Michael, Haller thanked the American soldiers who liberated him from Buchenwald and America for taking him in with open arms.
Multiple city officials spoke highly of his courage and determination, including Mayor Scott Brook and Vice Mayor Joshua Simmons, who presented the proclamation, and Police Chief Clyde Perry.
Mayor Brook spoke candidly about Haller’s life and the horrors of the Holocaust, pausing multiple times, struggling with emotion.
Mayor Brook said, “we need to ensure that those that survived those horrors can live their remaining days with dignity and in comfort.”
- A University of Florida journalism graduate, Bryan is pursuing his masters in geosciences at Florida International University. He has a strong interest in weather, entertainment, and journalism.
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