Chil Benus

I was born into a family of poor tailors in Lodz, Poland. I was only 17 when the Nazis occupied my town. A curfew was imposed, and it became difficult to get food. I often had to risk being caught in order to get food for my family. I remember being picked up for violating the curfew and being taken to an army barracks. There, I was forced to labor for ten hours before I was released. In November I was sent to borrow an iron for my father. I was caught and badly beaten. The brutality and killings continued until I decided that leaving my beloved city was the only alternative.

In vain I tried to persuade my family to leave, but was eventually forced to leave by myself—a decision that was one of the most difficult things I ever had to do. With great determination, I jumped a cattle car and headed for the Russian border, but was, once again, caught and beaten by border guards. For a while I found refuge in the woods outside of Bialystock but was eventually caught and deported to Russia where I chopped trees for a year. Later I was transported near Iran to work in an army factory making acid. Until 1941 I was able to communicate with my family, but when Germany and Russia went to war, all contact was lost. I remained in Russia for the next five years.

After the war, I made my way back to Lodz, only to learn that my family had been murdered in Auschwitz and my proud city, once a world-famous center of Jewish culture, was destroyed. For years after the war, alcohol was my only solace. The drinking almost killed me, but it was the only way to escape the pain. Slowly, I began to rebuild my life in Poland. I married and had two children, but life in Poland was difficult. Antisemitism was rampant and the Communist government was all too reminiscent of the hated Nazi regime.

Finally, my wife, my son and I came to Rochester where I worked at Xerox Corporation. Nine years later, with the help of Congressman Frank Horton, I was finally able to bring my daughter and son-in-law to America. I am proud of my four grandsons and their accomplishments. I try to teach them what can happen if we do not act to prevent hatred.

Biography from the Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights Project, Monroe Community College
Photograph by Louis Ouzer