In 1941, 27-year-old Polish Jew Meyer Hack was deported to Auschwitz along with his mother, two sisters, and brother. Upon arrival, his family was split in two. The men were sent off to labor at Birkenau, a satellite camp of Auschwitz. The women died in the gas chamber.
Hack’s brother, Gershon, was beaten to death by supervising Nazis, including an SS officer, with a two-by-four. Hack saw the whole thing.
He was the only one of his family to survive. His secret weapon? A piece of string that he tied around his neck and pulled in order to bring "the blood from my toes to my face,” explains Hack, now 92, from the living room couch of his Brighton home. “If you have a yellow face, out you went into the gas chambers. I knew about this. This piece of string saved my life." As he talks, I notice his eyes. If the rest of his face has grown stiff with age, his eyes remain animated.
Under the impression there'd be a photographer with me, Hack is wearing a suit. But apart from this one miscalculation, his mind, or “computer” as he likes to call it, is pretty sharp. Sharp enough to read his own press and take issue with it.
In profiles, he’s been categorized as a “laundry worker” or as part of a “laundry crew” at the concentration camp. But neither of these are accurate terms, he explains. Instead, he worked in a section of the camp called the bekleidungskammer, where stacks of discarded clothing belonging to incoming prisoners were stored. Hack worked with these bundles and distributed striped uniforms to prisoners.
One day, as he was going about his business in the bekleidungskammer, he made a discovery. “I was sitting like you’re sitting here. Something pinched my back. I take out the bundle. I take out the jacket. I take a knife. I cut it out, and American gold piece came down,” says Hack, his gray hair slicked back well beyond his deeply lined forehead. For the next few years, Hack fished out jewelry and other treasures from the stacks in this way, keeping what he found in a stocking.
“My sense is that these pieces represented a certain part of his survival, that the idea that somehow he could continue to exist as a person in an absolutely horrific environment where essentially any kind of personal existence is wiped to nothing,” says Dr. Dean Solomon, a longtime friend and one of the few people Hack told about the jewels later in his life.
Hack was forced to part with his collection in early 1945, when he and some 18,000 other prisoners made the Death March toward concentration camps still under Nazi control. Upon entering a camp at Dachau, Germany, Hack and the other prisoners were lined up to undergo the disinfection process (typhus and other diseases were running rampant in the camps). Knowing that he would have to part with his stocking or face the consequences —“they would have killed me,” he says — he handed over the jewelry to a childhood friend, Avram Guttman. Hack would later sneak into Guttman's barracks at night, only to discover that much of his collection was missing.
Hack was eventually liberated, and in 1950, he left Europe for Boston on a supply ship with his wife Sylvia (also an Auschwitz survivor). In his new home, he found work at a department store, then went on to own a bargain jewelry store. He raised two sons — “both doctors,” he boasts. As for the Holocaust-era jewelry: it's been in his possession for the last 60 years, hidden away in his attic.
"Meyer had kept the existence of these artifacts quiet for a long time…He felt that they weren't his. He had always imagined they'd be in a museum or on display somewhere. But he never really wanted to bring it out. He basically didn't know what to do with it," says his friend Solomon.
Now, with some help from Solomon and local writer Susie Davidson (who devoted a chapter of her 2005 book about Boston-based Holocaust survivors, I Refused To Die to Hack's ordeal), Hack will be getting his wish. On January 20, the collection will be featured alongside an Armenian Genocide exhibit at the Armenian Library and Museum of America in Watertown.
"The only way to deal with continuing global genocide is to stand together," says Davidson, the event's organizer, regarding the exhibit. The next and final stop for the jewelry, according to Hack, is Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, where it will eventually be on display.
Among the 16 pieces to be displayed this weekend is an ornate Eastern European pin, a diamond ring, a jeweled watch, and a simple gold key with one end of it in the shape of a heart. Some of the pieces have dulled with age, but the diamonds still twinkle. As I’m examining the jewelry, Hack comes from another part of the house with a magnifying glass ― an instinct perhaps left over from his days in the jewelry business. He lifts a piece for me to inspect, telling me that something similar sold for many thousands of dollars. It's hard to know how to react to this information. "I'm not sure how exactly I'm supposed to be feeling about this…It's a nice collection, but…," I say to him. He nods in comprehension.