Currently on DVD from Ron Small, Anchor Media Group and the Holocaust Education Film Foundation is the amazing story “To Auschwitz and Back: The Joe Engel Story.”
Joe Engel has an incredible story to tell in this documentary. He begins telling the story of his family in Zakroczym, Poland in 1927. They lived 10 miles from the train station and his father used a team of horses to get anywhere. He learned early that being Jewish was a painful experience, recalling when they were required to wear the yellow Star of David and others who were taken out and shot.
In the Warsaw Ghetto, the Nazis took all their belongings and they spent a two-day train ride arriving in a demolished city. The war had taken its toll, leaving them with no electricity or running water with 20-30 people to a room. Living in fear of the Gestapo, they also feared the Jewish police who were equally as cruel.
He tells about the loading of the trains with people from the Ghetto not knowing where they were going but knowing they didn’t return. Eventually, Joe was 14 when they came for him, separating the entire family. The train he rode on arrived at Birkenau to see the ironwork sign ARBEIT MACHT FREI (If you work hard enough you might survive) and after having his head shaved and tattooed with a number, he learned that Joseph Mengle was there as well.
Thousands and thousands of Jews were dispersed throughout the camps and Joe was the third person in a four-bunk bed. Living in the cold, they got up at 5 a.m. for roll call, a slice of bread for breakfast and they were set to work. Coming home at day’s end, everything was done in reverse.
One day soldiers came looking for volunteers to go to Auschwitz and, believing that Birkenau was the worse place on earth, Joe agreed to go. He learned to lay bricks and eat a little better, but he also saw people starving and dying before his eyes. If anyone was sick, the doctor would report them to the Germans.
Joe is horrified still that one man could have such control over the German people causing them to treat fellow human beings with such atrocity. He learned himself of that cruelty when he was punished for an infraction yet he survived.
In January of 1945, Joe was 17 and was forced on the Death March, where trains were waiting to take them to Germany. The trains did not have any roofs and it was snowing so feeling he had nothing to lose, Joe escaped. Now he is learning survival of a different kind not know who to trust.
He meets a man who introduces him to the Resistance and he becomes a freedom fighter going on missions to bomb German police stations. The Liberation in 1945 by the Red Army, he ate well for the first time since he could remember. Returning home, Joe was hoping that everyone would return to their hometown. In the months that followed, no one came home. He left for the American DP camps until they sent him to the United States. Finding family in the U.S., he ended up in South Carolina.
After the war, Joe discovers that his some of his family survived the Holocaust but they wanted to know how he survived! As a way to never forget, his nephew Dr. Michael Engel tattooed the number 84009 – the number Joe was given when he arrived at the concentration camp.
In Charleston, South Carolina, there is a wall that is in memory of 6 million Jews who suffered at the hands of the Nazis. Joe believes it is very important to not forget the past but remind ourselves so that it will never happen to anyone else in the future.
The Holocaust Education Film Foundation was established in 2018 and has built an international, interactive online community one Holocaust survivor at a time. Through full-length documentaries, distributed globally through numerous platforms, the online site and educational programs, the 501c3 foundation seeks to ensure that we never forget.
“To Auschwitz and Back: The Joe Engel Story” is a story told exactly as it happened to a very young man in 1927 Poland. Joe tells it with such memorable detail that I could not help but soak in every word he said. Even when talking about what he did in the resistance, Joe held my attention as if holding my chin with his own hands and looking into my eyes.
It is that presence that brings Joe’s story the ability to reach deep down and remind us that those who died are to be honored and those who lived should be listened to with every fiber of our being. Thank you Joe, thank you.
The desert will bloom with flowers. It will be very glad and shout with joy! (Isaiah 35:2) and in that – Joe blooms.