About 10 years ago, when director Steven Spielberg was interviewing Holocaust survivors as he researched his movie “Schindler’s List,” Charles Pierce of Camarillo was among the victims of the Third Reich’s genocidal policies who was asked to tell his story.
“He wasn’t ready to talk about it at that time,” recalls Pierce’s son Mark, who said he hadn’t heard the entire story of his father’s experiences in Nazi-occupied Poland at that point either.
But six years ago, when Mark’s daughter Lindsey asked her grandfather to speak to her history class about his ordeal, he decided he was finally ready to discuss the horrors he had seen as a Nazi prisoner and during his narrow escape.
“That was the first time he had spoken publicly, and the first time I’d heard all of his experiences,” said Mark, 51. “It’s a tough story to tell, so I asked him to write it down.”
For the last several years, Pierce, now 90, has not only spoken annually to Camarillo High School teacher Jeanne Nelson’s class, but given presentations in local high school auditoriums. He has also co-authored a book with writer J. Marlando, The Art of Survival, describing what happened to him during World War II and his life after arriving in the United States.
“You people should know what happened; there’s no teachers, no books to tell this,” Pierce told several hundred Oxnard High School students gathered in the school’s performing arts center on March 15. “In fact, they didn’t know until a few people like me came forward.”
Pierce was accompanied at his most recent presentation by his son Mark and by Libby, his wife of 55 years. Mark read some of his father’s written account for students, who then asked Pierce questions.
Born and raised in Poland, Pierce was 18 when Hitler’s troops invaded the Sudetenland (now a part of the Czech Republic). From 1939 to 1945, he survived hard labor and starvation in Jewish ghettos as well as the Auschwitz, Treblinka and Dachau concentration camps, while his parents and two of his brothers were among those killed.
“I had a big family; the whole family was wiped out, just me and a couple of my brothers remained alive,” after the war, said Pierce.
Separated from his family after they were turned in by Nazi collaborators — “The Nazis had spies in every city” who identified Jewish professionals, explained Pierce — he never saw his parents again. A member of Hitler’s youth brigade armed with a rifle marched him through his hometown of Kielce to the Nazi headquarters there.
He described the next six years, spent moving from one death camp to another, as the darkness of a jungle, as he and other prisoners were forced to provide slave labor in tanneries, lumber yards and paper mills where the chemicals smelled so bad they made him sick.
He and other prisoners worked for businessmen who contracted with the Nazis — once, even for a man who had been a friend of his family — and were forbidden to speak to each other for fear they would plot their escape, said Pierce, who described signs above electrified fences that read “Talking is silver, but silence is gold.”
The camps were run by Nazi SS officers whom Pierce said were psychopathically cruel and sadistic. “I remember watching a soldier shoot a man simply because he didn’t like the way he looked,” said Pierce, who added that sometimes Polish volunteers would bring food and clothes.
He narrowly escaped death more than once by sheer luck, such as the time a Ukrainian guard who stopped him for a suspicious bulge in one of his pockets, but misread the number on the tag attached to his pants. When Nazi soldiers burst into his barracks moments later, calling for prisoner 969, Pierce realized the guard had read the tag upside down, and quickly reversed it so that it read 696.
At Auschwitz and Dachau, bodies were hung from fences as a scare tactic, and he could smell other bodies being burned in the camp’s crematorium, said Pierce, who described meeting a boy at Dachau who walked awkwardly because the camp’s “Angel of Death,” Dr. Josef Mengele, had removed blood vessels from his legs.
“I lost my faith, and asked ‘If there’s a God, how can he let these atrocities happen?’ ” said Pierce, adding that it was a mystery to him how he survived. Despite being malnourished and not being allowed basic hygiene — he once went 18 months without a shower — Pierce overcame dysentery and typhoid fever.
His rescue in the final days of the war was yet another close call: A guard fleeing American and Soviet troops forced Pierce to push a cart with the guard’s belongings in it, saving him from a last-minute execution as Allied forces closed in.
“I didn’t know it then, but the war was being lost by our captors,” said Pierce. “After three days, he took off, I drove myself to a barn with cows and pigs,” where he stayed until the next morning, when a woman alerted him to the approach of American soldiers. Pierce was put in an Army truck and taken to a hospital.
After he recuperated, Pierce spent several years tracking down his brother Abe; and several years later, after learning he had relatives in Brooklyn, he emigrated to the United States. Arriving in Boston, he recalled “For the first time, I knew I was a free man.”
As students lined up at a microphone to ask questions, one girl wondered when he recovered his faith. “When I came (to the United States) as a free man, met my wife, raised my family, that’s when I recovered my faith,” answered Pierce. “I tried not to think about the past, tried to wipe out any past.”
Libby elaborated on his answer, “I always say God saved him for me,” drawing a round of applause from students. She added, “We’re not a religious family, but we celebrate Christmas and we celebrate Hanukkah.”
“What gave you faith to keep going and not give up?” another student asked. “I wanted the world to know what happened during those years,” said Pierce, adding that the Nazis launched “a war to destroy the whole world,” even going to Africa to draw its resources.
“One ounce of bread a day and a cup of soup, grass, potato peels,” over a 12-hour work day, Pierce said, answering another student who asked what his longest period without food was. “My stomach was shot — if not for the hospital that treated me (after the war), I wouldn’t be here.”
What can we do to prevent the Holocaust from happening again, another student asked. “The main thing is education. You people have a chance to do anything you want,” said Pierce. “You can travel. Our young people have education and spread the word of love and not hatred.”
The Art of Survival is available at Charles Pierce website, www.thesurvivalstation.com. Pierce is available to speak at events by contacting Karen Kleyla at 444-3411