Kurt Baum was born Kurt Feigenbaum in a suburb of Stuttgart, Germany in September, 1921. His parents, Emil and Claire Feigenbaum, were secular Jews. Kurt had a younger brother Werner. (See also Werner Baum) They were the only Jewish family in the town. Kurt had a Bar Mitzvah but only to please his grandparents. As a youth, he had many Gentile friends and did not experience antisemitism in his environs. His father was a respected businessman, employing many townspeople. All in all, the family was well assimilated and considered themselves to be loyal Germans.
By the mid 1930's, with the passage of the Nuremberg Laws, the Baum family's Jewishness became an issue. "The Nazis taught us that we were Jewish," said Mr. Baum. When the situation for Jews became more precarious in the late 1930's, the Baums left Germany and moved to Brussels, Belgium, where the elder Mr. Baum had business connections and where Kurt attended college.
In May 1940 the Nazis invaded Belgium. Kurt and his father were arrested by the Belgian authorities. They were considered aliens and told to report to police headquarters. "As good Germans, we did what we were told," said Mr. Baum. Father and son were placed on a train and shipped to southern France to work as forced labor for the German-controlled Vichy regime in France. Kurt' s mother and younger brother were not arrested and survived the war in Belgium. His father was injured and subsequently died as a result of German bombing of the train transporting the Belgian Jews to internment camps in France.
From the summer of 1940 to the summer of 1942, Kurt worked as a forced laborer in several different camps operated by the Vichy French. In August 1942 he was sent to Paris and imprisoned, awaiting "resettlement" to the east along with other French Jews. Soon he was transported to Poland. His descriptions of arrival at the camp at Kochanowitz and the "selection" process are detailed and graphic. For the next two and a half years, until the spring of 1945, Kurt Baum worked in several different camps in Poland including Blechhammer, a work camp in the Auschwitz complex. He provides vivid descriptions of the camp routines as well as individual incidents in his camp life.
A very interesting part of his testimony on tape is his discussion of how he survived. He talks about how he and a small group of inmates agreed to take care of each other . He also talks in detail about the need for a prisoner to retain his self- respect and dignity by fighting back against his captors in small ways . The tiniest of victories helps the individual defeat his captors. Whether it is in slacking off on the job, or stealing an extra crumb of bread, or secretly breaking a rule, an individual retains his human character and will to live by fighting back.
In April 1945 Mr. Baum was liberated by American forces at Buchenwald, when he was imprisoned after a forced march from Poland. He went to work for the U.S. Army as an opinion pollster in Germany, apparently part of denazification effort. Convinced that there was no future for a Jew in Germany, he returned to Belgium where he met and married his wife Margo in 1948. They emigrated to the US in 1950. He settled in Rochester, New York, where he worked at Labelon in Canandaigua, New York.
Prior to 1985 Kurt never discussed his wartime experiences. What prompted him to go public was some literature that his wife received from a revisionist organization which denied the facts of the Holocaust. He decided that it was his duty to educate people, and that his experiences would help the public understand.
He has spoken to civic groups and school groups. He currently is planning how to talk to his grown children about his experiences, something he has never done.
Biography written by: George Adler
Photograph by Louis Ouzer