Under the cover of night, German SS soldiers, tugged by the leashes of snarling German Shepherds, shattered the door to the Oster family’s one-bedroom apartment. On that Saturday in 1941, Henry Oster, 12, thought he still had two more nights in his hometown of Cologne before having to report for resettlement.
“They didn’t wait for us to report,” Oster, now 86, recalled. “We were highly undesirable and hated.”
Oster and his family were taken to a collection center near a railroad station, where he and nearly 1,000 others awaited their fate. The next morning, they were put on the train to Lodz, a ghetto in Poland where human waste flowed in the gutter and illness was common.
On Tuesday, many people around the globe commemorated the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Oster is one of the few that survived the Holocaust out of the nearly 2,000 Jews ripped out of his hometown. He survived Auschwitz’s Birkenau extermination camp and staved off death by starvation at Buchenwald, where he was eventually freed.
“How I was chosen in so many instances to live when it could have been the other way, I don’t know,” Oster said. “Hope comes to you when you have nothing else.”
Oster went on to work as a respected optometrist in Los Angeles after immigrating to the U.S. in 1946, often lending a hand — and a set of glasses — to some of the city’s poorer residents.
“When I came here at about 17, I had no English, no money ... just memories,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do. My uncle and aunt said, ‘well, you have to go to school.’ ”
After graduating, Oster decided he wanted to be a dentist — a result of the weekly dental treatments he needed to salvage his teeth after the Holocaust, he said. Instead, he studied optometry. Oster later opened a private practice in Beverly Hills, which he ran for about 50 years.
Oster’s father died of starvation in the Lodz ghetto within six months, he said. Only he and his mother remained, sharing a small, cramped room with about 20 others. They escaped nighttime raids — announced by a loud noise, yelling, shooting and the barking of angry dogs, he said — in which Nazi soldiers emptied the buildings and sent many to their deaths.
One day, Oster noticed a trap door in the ceiling of his cramped apartment. The hidden spot would protect him and his mother during two raids.
Although he was only a boy, Oster said, he had to physically hold his mother the first time so that she would not run out when the soldiers rousted people.
“I lifted the trap door and I jumped up and put my mother up with me,” he said.
Oster worked for the agriculture department of the Lodz ghetto and used his job as a chance to steal food to survive. He cut potatoes into quarters to plant them later, or hid a few in the field and tried to retrieve them at night after curfew.
Small acts of kindness from others, paired with ingenuity during a time of tragedy, helped him and his mother survive.
Oster remembers two Jewish brothers in the ghetto who sometimes handed him an extra slice of “ill-gotten bread” — usually on Mondays.
“I cannot describe the treasured value that had,” he said. “I shared with my mother. I was always grateful for that.”
But like Oster and others, the brothers had their forced jobs. Oster remembers one Sunday, during one of the regular executions, in which the brothers were the executioners. It was just one way in which the Nazis perverted humanity.
“They were the hangmen of the ghetto,” he said. “It was quite a shock to say the least.”
He and his mother survived the ghetto, but his mother was killed at Auschwitz. He said he lost his faith.
“My faith was destroyed when those who were pious would stand there and pray and be the first ones to die,” said Oster, who was taken from home two weeks before his bar mitzvah.
Instead of putting his trust in prayer, Oster explained, he used his energy to survive.
“Susan believes I have a guardian angel,” he said, referring to his wife with tears in his eyes. “Not going to argue with that.”
“I believe this guardian angel protected him so he can speak out about his experiences,” she said. “He should not have been able to survive so many things, and he did.”