A gentle giant of a man who just turned 92, there is inspiration in his life story, especially as his generation dies off and society begins to lose direct connections to those who survived the Nazi death camps.
For Ray Pierzchajlo, a four-year journey into hell began with a sacrifice he made at the front door of his family’s Warsaw apartment.
Facing the German secret police, he took his brother’s place.
On Dec. 5, 1941, the Gestapo came looking for his 14-year-old brother, who had been delivering flyers for the Polish resistance. Pierzchajlo, 20 at the time, pretended to be his brother, figuring the Gestapo would let him go when they realized their mistake, while giving his brother time to go into hiding. “I whispered to my mother, ‘Send him (my brother) away.’ ”
But the Nazis kept Pierzchajlo, and after three months in a Warsaw jail, he was shipped to Auschwitz. Just before he left, he smuggled a note to his father, who was being held in the same jail.
At the camp, prisoners were divided into different lines. Most Jews were sent to the gas chambers. Pierzchajlo, young and strong, joined the lines for forced labour.
With the number 12632 tattooed on his arm, he worked alongside other political prisoners, Jews and Gypsies, barely alive on thin soup and bread full of sawdust.
Through his barracks window, he watched Nazi guards shoot hundreds of Jews, Poles, Russians and Germans as they walked out of a nearby “death barracks.”
Then, in 1942, the trains filled with Jews began arriving. They were systematically killed in the gas chambers in the nearby Birkenau extermination camp, built in 1941. It is estimated between 1.2 million and 2.5 million died at these two camps, mostly Jews but also Poles and Gypsies. Pierzchajlo remembers the smoke from the chimneys and the terrible smell.
“It was terrible watching the Jewish people being slaughtered in gas chambers,” he recalls. “I could not believe what the Nazis were doing.”
Most prisoners lived only a few weeks in Auschwitz.
“But I survived one week, then another. Then I was determined to make it through this and I wanted to take revenge on the guards.”
Eventually, he got a job in the camp carpentry shop, which helped him survive the harsh winters. A devout Catholic, Pierzchajlo recalls the prisoners occasionally organized a clandestine mass after the guards locked the barracks at night. A priest among the prisoners led the service, though it was dangerous. They knew they’d be shot if discovered.
But faith is what sustained Pierzchajlo.
Tears well in his eyes when he recalls the moment of liberation on April 23, 1945. By then, he’d been moved out of the camp to work in a bomb factory. When the Allies began bombing, the factory was abandoned and the prisoners were put on a forced march. The destination was a quarry where they would be killed.
Weaker prisoners fell at the side of the road and more than 100 were shot, Pierzchajlo recalls.
Then one day, over a hill, a tank appeared. Many feared it was the Russians.
But a U.S. soldier poked his head out the top of the tank.
After the war, Pierzchajlo was reunited with his younger brother, who had survived the war in hiding.
Both later came to Edmonton, where Pierzchajlo and his wife, Jadwiga, eventually had careers as school teachers.
Looking back, Pierzchajlo counts his blessings — his four children, Richard, Karl, Jan and Megan — and 10 grandchildren.
“It’s like a miracle, the good Lord looking after a sinner like me,” he says.
His son Karl was always impressed with his father’s resilience and upbeat outlook on life, given his experiences.
“I cannot recall a time when my Dad complained about anything, he’s such a positive guy,” says Karl. “This experience made him stronger and closer to God, more spiritual, not negative — and that’s amazing.”
Like many survivors, his father didn’t talk much about Auschwitz and “we didn’t pry,” says Karl. But in the last few years, Pierzchajlo has been telling the story to get it on the record.
By the time the war ended, he’d seen enough killing and brutality, and lost his desire for revenge against the German guards. “It just evaporated,” he says.
But how was it possible to keep that sense of the goodness of humanity when he had been surrounded by so much evil?
“I’ve always said, ‘If you are a good person and treat people like you should, there would be no problems.’ ”
There was another small miracle. In 1945, after the war, the authorities in Warsaw opened a massive grave of prisoners executed by the Nazis. His father’s body was found, identified by the note Pierzchajlo had written to him just before leaving for Auschwitz. It was perfectly preserved in his shirt pocket.
Shortly after the war, Pierzchajlo was travelling by train when a pregnant woman fell between two carriages. He heard her screams and pulled her out. The husband was so grateful and wanted to be friends, and even asked Pierzchajlo to be godfather to his children. The man told him he had been a top Nazi official in the area.
Still, Pierzchajlo agreed.
“The human race got crazy,” he says about those terrible years. “But in the end, a person is a person.”
His wife of 64 years, Jadwiga, died last year. A few days after the funeral, Karl took his father back to his apartment, worried the old man would be lonely.
“He was sitting in that very same chair, looking out the window and smiling. I said, ‘What are you smiling at?’ And he replied, ‘I’m thinking about how lucky we are.’ ”