Branded No. 68233, he survived four Nazi extermination camps

SIEGFRIED Halbreich [13-11-1909 — 17-9-2008], a survivor of four Nazi concentration camps who devoted the second half of his long life to public education about the horrors that Jews experienced during World War II, has died of heart failure at his Beverly Hills home, aged 98.

Halbreich was among the first Jews to be sent to the camps in 1939. Five-and-a-half years later, he was one of the few to emerge alive. “Very few people were imprisoned as long and in as many prisons as he was,” said John Roth, a Holocaust scholar and emeritus professor at Claremont McKenna College.

Halbreich said he did not enjoy talking about “the horrible past” but felt obliged to inform and warn people of the Nazi campaign of extermination so that it never happened again.

Born in Dziedzice in what is now southern Poland, he had a degree from the University of Krakow and worked as pharmacist until the war began. In 1939, after Germany occupied Poland, he tried to escape to what was then Yugoslavia, but was caught and deported to the Sachsenhausen camp in Berlin. In 1941, he was transferred to the Gross-Rosen camp, and a year later, he was sent to Auschwitz where, because of his pharmacy training, he was assigned to work in the camp hospital.

Secretly he led resistance efforts; he sheltered younger prisoners, gave them food and medicine and helped many escape the brutality of their captors. Halbreich had been at Nordhausen-Dora, a forced-labor camp in central Germany, for a year when it was liberated by Allied forces in April 1945.

After the war, Halbreich, who spoke several languages, worked with the US Government’s war crimes branch as an interpreter and investigator. He gave evidence at the trials of Nazi war criminals, including Adolf Eichmann, the senior Nazi who was abducted by Israeli agents from Argentina and hanged in Israel for his role in the Holocaust.

In 1946, he emigrated to the US and spent the next 13 years in Cleveland, where he met his wife, Ruth, and started a family. In 1959 he resettled in California and ran a custom picture framing business in Santa Monica. In 1960, after a visit to Israel, his rabbi asked him to give a talk about the Holocaust. Halbreich agreed to tell his story — and then kept telling it again and again for the next 45 years.

He spoke of losing his parents and both his brothers; of seeing Jews treated worse than cattle on trains bound for gas chambers; of a Nazi commander who sent Jews to hard labor or death with a flick of a thumb; of fellow prisoners shot dead for no reason other than they turned their heads at the wrong moment.

He recalled how one day after liberation, while serving as an interpreter for General Dwight Eisenhower, the Allied supreme commander noticed the “68233” that the Nazis had engraved in his skin and asked, “Did it hurt you very much … ?” Halbreich was stunned and didn’t know what to say. He thought, “My gosh, what kind of people are the Americans? They see what’s going on here, full of bodies, dead people … and he asked if this was hurting?

“But later on, I understood, he had no idea.”

In addition to his wife, he is survived by a son and a daughter, and two grandchildren.

Source: Elaine Woo, Los Angeles Times

Webmaster note: Another life cut tragically short by the Holocaust.