The day a Holocaust survivor got revenge on his tormentor
Martin Greenfield, an 84-year-old Holocaust survivor, owns and operates Martin Greenfield Clothiers in Brooklyn, NY.
He survived the savagery of the Holocaust, made it to America with barely a penny and became a world-famous tailor in Brooklyn, dressing celebrities and presidents. In his new memoir, “Measure of a Man,” Martin Greenfield tells the story of his extraordinary life. In this excerpt, he explains how the concentration camps nearly stripped him of his humanity at age 16 — and the day he got it back.
While at Buchenwald, the SS assigned me to work in the munitions factory. But early one morning after roll call, a soldier placed me on a 12-prisoner team to perform repairs outside the camp in nearby Weimar.
Working in the city was a welcome distraction from camp life. Sometimes you got lucky and spotted a potato in a field or smuggled a trinket to trade for food. Either way, it was a chance to see the sky, escape the stench of rotting corpses, and confirm that there was still a world beyond the barbed wire.
We loaded our gear and marched the few miles to Weimar. The soldiers stopped us in front of a bombed-out mansion, home to the mayor of Weimar. A big black Mercedes sat out front. The soldiers commanded us to sift the rubble, clear the debris, and begin repairs on the mansion.
I walked alone to the back of the estate to assess the damage. Dusty piles of broken bricks lay scattered across the yard. Seeing the cellar door ajar, I slowly opened it. A shaft of sunlight filled the dank cellar. On one side of the space sat a wooden cage wrapped in chicken wire. I walked closer and noticed two quivering rabbits inside the cage.
“They’re still alive!” I said to myself with surprise.
Inside the cage were the remains of the rabbits’ dinner. I unlatched the cage and pulled out a wilted leaf and carrot nub. The lettuce was browning and slimy, the carrot still moist from the rabbits’ gnawing. Excited, I wolfed down the lettuce and tried to crack the chunk of carrot in half with my teeth.
My luck was short-lived. “What are you doing?” a voice yelled.
I whipped my head around toward the door. A gorgeous, smartly dressed blond woman holding a baby stood silhouetted in the door frame. It was the mayor of Weimar’s wife.
“I . . . I found your rabbits!” I stammered with a cheerful nervousness. “They’re alive and safe!”
“Why in the hell are you stealing my rabbits’ food?” barked the woman. “Animals!” I stood silent and stared at the floor.
“I’m reporting this immediately!” she said, stomping away. My heart pounded in my emaciated chest. A few minutes later, an SS soldier ordered me to come out of the cellar. I knew what was coming, and the knowing made it all the worse.
“Down on the ground, you dog! Fast!” yelled the German. He gripped his baton and bludgeoned my back. I do not know whether the mayor’s wife watched the beating. Given her cruelty, why would she want to miss it? On the hike back to Buchenwald, I replayed the scene over and over in my mind.
How could a woman carrying her own child find a walking skeleton saving her pets and have him beaten for nibbling on rotten animal food? I thought.
In that moment, my numbness to death melted. In its place rose an alien blood lust, a hunger for vengeance unlike any I had ever known. The surge of adrenaline and rush of rage felt good inside my withered frame.
Then and there I made a vow to myself: If I survived Buchenwald, I would return and kill the mayor’s wife.
On April 11, 1945, 3:15 p.m., the Allies liberated Buchenwald.
Physically, I was free. Emotionally, I was in chains. I’d made a promise to myself. And I intended to keep it.
I located two Jewish boys who were well enough to make the walk to Weimar. I told them what the woman did and what I was prepared to do about it. We could rummage machine guns from the mountain of German weapons seized by the inmates and Americans that lay in piles on the Appelplatz.
The streets outside camp were electric with an ominous sense of disquiet. A smattering of prisoners in striped pajamas ambled in search of noncamp food. I kept my eyes open for SS. We gripped our guns and got to Weimar as quickly as possible.
My heartbeat quickened the closer we got to the mayor’s house. Pent-up rage from all I had seen and experienced surged through me. Killing the mayor’s wife could not repay the Nazis for the terror they had inflicted on us. But it was a start.
We walked a few miles before turning down the street the mayor’s home was on. I pointed to a house several paces down the road: “I think that’s it.” The big black Mercedes was not out front.
It took me a moment to make sure I had the right house.
“The car isn’t here. Looks like the house is empty,” I said. “The plan is we take our guns and go in through the side door. Then we hide and wait so I can kill the blonde bitch that had me beaten.”
The boys nodded.
We crept up to the side door. I slowly turned the knob. It was unlocked. I entered the house quietly, with my gun drawn. The boys fell in behind me and eased the door shut. We stepped softly to mute the sounds of our wooden clogs on the floor.
“Hello?” a voice around a corner said. “Hello?”
Just then the beautiful blond woman turned the corner and let out a screech. She had the baby in her arms again.
“Don’t shoot!” she screamed. “Don’t shoot!”
“Remember me?!” I yelled. “Do you?!”
Her blond tresses shook violently. She hid her face behind her upraised hand as if shielding herself from the sun.
“You had me beaten because of the rabbits. I’m here to shoot you!” I said, sounding like an SS.
“No! Please!” she quavered. “The baby, please!”
I aimed the machine gun at her chest. The baby wailed. My finger hovered above the trigger.
“Shoot her!” one of the boys said. “Shoot her!” The woman’s outstretched hand trembled in the air. My heart pounded against my chest like a hammer.
“Shoot her!” the other boy yelled. “That’s what we came here for! Do it!”
I froze. I couldn’t do it. I could not pull the trigger. That was the moment I became human again. All the old teachings came rushing back. I had been raised to believe that life was a precious gift from God, that women and children must be protected.
Had I pulled the trigger, I would have been like Mengele. He, too, had faced mothers holding babies — my mother holding my baby brother — and sentenced both to gruesome deaths. My moral upbringing would not allow me to become an honorary member of the SS.
Still, extending mercy felt weak. I tried to save face in front of the boys. If I couldn’t be a hardened killer, I could at least be a car thief. “Where is the car?” I yelled.
“There is nothing,” she said.
“Where is it?!” I barked.
“It’s not here,” she said.
I lowered the gun and stomped out of the house and went around back.
“You made us come here for nothing?” one of the boys huffed.
“I couldn’t shoot her,” I said. “She had a baby!”
“How many babies did they kill?” he quipped. He had a point.
We walked to the large barn behind the house and unlatched the heavy wooden doors. There, covered with hay, sat the big black Mercedes. “That lying Nazi bitch!” one of the boys yelled. I was livid. I’d spared her life and she lied to my face.
“Wait here,” I told the boys. I marched back in the house, gun drawn, and found her. “This time, I’m really going to shoot you,” I said. “Give me the keys!” She gave me the keys. I jogged back to the boys and the car. “I got them,” I said rattling the keys in my hand.
“Who knows how to drive?” one of the boys asked.
“Don’t worry, I do,” I said. We brushed off the hay and hopped in the car.
“Hurry up! Let’s get out of here,” one of the boys said.
What a sight we must have been: three teenage Jews in striped prisoner uniforms, armed with machine guns, driving a black Mercedes in Weimar, Germany, on our way back to the Buchenwald concentration camp. We smiled, laughed, and talked tough like the men we weren’t.
“Did you see how scared she was?” one boy said excitedly. “I bet she made in her underwear!” We chuckled and drove on.
“Look!” one of the boys said pointing out the window. “Two girls!” I pulled the car to the side of the street.
We invited the German girls to take a ride. They must have been so mesmerized by the Mercedes that our raggedy uniforms failed to give them pause. To my surprise, they hopped in. This was the closest any of us had been to attractive girls in a long, long time. They rode with us a few blocks before we dropped them off.
I contemplated ditching the car. After all, we were driving the mayor of Weimar’s Mercedes. If that didn’t give us away, the license plates would. But then I thought, What the hell? When’s the next time you will get to drive a Mercedes?
So I drove the car all the way back to Buchenwald. In fact, I drove straight through the camp gates. Only this time, the irony of the slogan emblazoned across the gates — “To each what he deserves!” — made me laugh.
Prisoners stood motionless and stared as we coasted into camp. They must have assumed an important dignitary or the mayor of Weimar himself would step out of the fancy car. When they saw our striped prisoner uniforms, they rushed us. “How did you get a Mercedes?” someone asked.
“Well,” I said smiling, “we just got it.”
Throughout my life I had heard that everything happens for a reason, that God’s ways were mysterious but purposeful. I believed that. But something I read decades after my showdown at the mayor of Weimar’s house proved to me that in the end, in this life or the one after, God ultimately achieves justice.
A friend shared with me an article from a 1945 issue of Life magazine about Nazi suicides following the war. Here is a portion of what it said: “In the last days of the war the overwhelming realization of utter defeat was too much for many Germans. Stripped of the bayonets and bombast which had given them power, they could not face a reckoning with either their conquerors or their consciences. These found the quickest and surest escape in what Germans call Selbstmord, self-murder . . . In Hitler’s Reich, Germans stopped killing others and began killing themselves. In Weimar, the mayor and his wife, after seeing Buchenwald atrocities, slashed their wrists.”
That day at the mayor’s home, God pricked my conscience. In so doing, He spared me the guilt and shame of killing the mayor of Weimar’s wife.
I didn’t need to kill her. She did it for me.
Excerpted with permission from “Measure of a Man: From Auschwitz Survivor to Presidents’ Tailor” (Regnery) by Martin Greenfield with Wynton Hall, out this week.