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More than 30 Boy Scouts from Troop 89, along with their parents and adult leaders, gathered on Thursday, September 5, at Medfield’s Memorial School to listen to 93-year-old Aron Greenfield’s account of surviving imprisonment in nine concentration camps during World War II.
The Holocaust survivor and Norwood resident, along with his wife, Martha, spoke for nearly 90 minutes. They’ve been running a Norwood store, Brenner’s, which is patronized by both Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and their parents, for 46 years.
Greenfield has spoken about his Holocaust experiences in many places, including colleges and the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, but this was his first time addressing a Boy Scout Troop, he said.
“Our Scouts improved their knowledge of history and, as a result, are better citizens because Aron and Martha’s presentation,” said Troop 89 Scoutmaster Jim Hatch.
Born in Poland, Greenfield experienced anti-Semitism before World War II broke out, saying he had a difficult time making it to the 6th grade because German Chancellor Adolf Hitler started placing anti-Semitic propaganda in his native country before the war started.
“I was beaten up by other students who weren’t Jewish,” he said during Troop 89’s meeting. “Young people swallow up everything they hear and read in the headlines, and what they heard was that the Jews were the cause of their misfortune.”
He described Poland as mostly Catholic, saying many of his fellow countrymen collaborated with the Nazis, especially after Hitler’s troops overran the country in September 1939.
“It just goes to show that if you’re going to swallow up a country, you go after the minority and leave the majority to do what they want,” he said.
Originally from Szczakowa, Poland, Greenfield was one of nine children. By the time the war ended, only he and an older sister, Sarah, were the family’s survivors.
His family experienced Nazi brutality shortly after their country was conquered, when he and his two brothers, in January 1940, violated a curfew to acquire milk for their five-year-old sister from a farmer their parents knew.
“We left at 3 a.m. in the snow,” he said. “We carried the milk back but someone squealed, and we were hauled into a gymnasium. They called the whole town to see what they do to Jews who don’t follow orders.”
A local woman, noticing he was a skinny 13-year-old, intervened on his behalf. But for his brothers, it was a different story.
“I had to watch them be beaten,” he said.
In 1941, they were forced out of their homes and marched into a Jewish ghetto about four miles away.
The Nazis pushed three or four families into one apartment, he said, and people slept on tables or the floor. He also said there wasn’t much food.
One day, after working in a bakery, he stole three pounds of bread, eating two pounds of it when he returned home.
“My mother encouraged me to eat, saying, ‘When you were little, I had to pay you to eat. Now you’re eating bread like you’ve never eaten it before,’” he explained.
“One day, the authorities told us to come outside. We knew what they meant. It was a selection. My three brothers were already in a concentration camp, as was my father,” he said.
“I was skinny and starving and wearing short pants. My mother told me to put on long pants and told me to lie about my age, saying I was 16, not 15,” he said.
By doing so, he was spared from being sent to one of the Nazis’ most notorious concentration camps, Auschwitz. About one million people were killed at Auschwitz, according to the National Holocaust Museum in Washington. The Nazis operated more than 40,000 concentration camps across Europe.
“A friend of mine, who was thinner, went to the left,” he said. “I went to the right, as did Sarah.” He never saw his friend, his mother and younger sister again.
He survived the concentration camps, he said, because he was crafty and entrepreneurial.
“One day, I decided not to go to work,” he said. “The guy in charge was a German criminal before the war – he killed his own grandmother – and he was crazy. I went to the kitchen, grabbed a broom and started sweeping the stairs. When he came looking for me, I told him he told me to sweep the kitchen. He hit me with a whip and told me to continue.”
“That gave me a chance to steal potatoes when the cooks were asleep,” he added. He was able to trade the potatoes for cigarettes and, with the cigarettes, he was able to trade with other prisoners, acquiring their bread and soup rations.
As a result, he gained weight and it helped him to survive a death march with 6,000 concentration camp prisoners as the war was ending. Two thousand of those prisoners, he said, were killed during the march because they couldn’t walk.
“If you couldn’t walk, the Nazi guards shot you,” he said.
His wife, Martha, was born in a concentration camp and was brought by up a woman guard until her mother found her after the war.