Peter Harringer will celebrate his 80th birthday next month.
He’s in good shape mentally and physically, a man who retired after a long career at the old Contadina food processing plant in Riverbank and now owns a photography business.
That he’s completing his eighth decade isn’t unusual. Instead, Harringer wonders how he ever lived to nearly 80 in the first place. How, from the time he was 8 years old, did he survive 27 months in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II? Why, in a camp that housed more than 15,000 children throughout the war, was he among the 96 who weren’t sent by rail to the death camps of Treblinka or Auschwitz?
“I have no idea,” he said. “I don’t know.”
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Imagine being a young boy trying to navigate that part of life in a time and place when the world was, indeed, coming apart at the seams. Imagine being bounced from family to family in the ghettos, at their mercy and never a priority. Imagine being always the outsider, until living inside prison walls became a way of life, and all before your ninth birthday. Harringer’s story blends tragedy, will and a bit of luck.
He was born in Breslau, Germany (now part of Poland), in 1934 to a Protestant woman and Hungarian Jew who worked as a window dresser in Budapest. “They didn’t marry,” he said, which is why his surname is the same as his mother’s and not his father’s, which he said he doesn’t know. He remembers being in school, where every student saluted Adolf Hitler each morning.
“I saw him once on his birthday,” he said. “There was a birthday parade for him in Breslau.”
When World War II broke out, Harringer’s mother told the Germans about his father, which put 5-year-old Peter in the Nazis’ radar as well.
“My dad, I think he died in Auschwitz,” Harringer said. “I was a mischling (German for mixture).”
His mother handed him off to others to raise, and he didn’t see her again until 1941, when they met briefly in Berlin. “I was 6 years old,” he said. “She brought me some honey-flavored candies.”
He became totally reliant upon others for food, clothing and security, and lived for a time in a nunnery, where he converted to Catholicism.
“I’ve never been in a synagogue and I never went to a Protestant church,” he said.
A nun named Sister Caritas looked after him and hid him from the Nazis. “She knew my mother had turned my father’s name in,” he said.
He also stayed briefly with a woman named Schmidt who treated him horribly. “She’d force-feed me with a wooden spoon, shoving potatoes down my throat,” Harringer said. “Sometimes she made me take baths with her.”
When he learned later that bombs struck the woman’s home and killed her, he felt no sadness.
He lived briefly with a Jewish family that had a 13-year-old daughter. One day he returned from confession, and she asked him, “How do you feel?”
“As clean as an angel,” Harringer said he replied. “She told her father what I’d said, and I got a whipping for comparing myself to an angel.”
One day he awoke to an eerie quiet in the home.
“Everybody was gone. They were trying to escape Germany,” he said.
The church tried to hide him. So did a nurse named Frida. “She took me underground all over Berlin,” Harringer said.
Finally, he was taken in by a Jewish family that lived in a part of Berlin still standing today, he said. He came home after playing in the snow one day, and the mom was packing all of his belongings. “We’re being fetched,” she told him. “Take everything with you.”
“I never saw them again,” Harringer said.
A German soldier ushered him into a truck at gunpoint, and Harringer soon found himself en route to a women’s prison. There he was interviewed by Alois Brunner, aide to Adolph Eichmann, the Nazi SS officer who oversaw the mass relocation of Jews to the ghettos and death camps. Brunner himself ordered the deaths of more than 140,000 Jews during the war. As recently as 2003, still wanted for war crimes, Brunner supposedly was living in Syria (he would be 102 now).
Escorted into a dimly lit room at the prison, Harringer noticed a gun on the desk.
“As I walked in, the pistol went away and a big red apple came out,” he said. Brunner talked to him for what seemed like a long time, questioning where he’d been and the families he’d lived with over the years. When Harringer listed one of the families he’d stayed with, the Collmans, Brunner told him smugly they had been captured and shot. The boy found it difficult to care much because of the way they had treated him.
“And I never got that apple,” Harringer said.
The Nazis put him on a train and sent him to Terezin, a town named for the Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa in what is now the Czech Republic. The concentration camp there housed more than 150,000 Jews, 88,000 of whom were sent to Auschwitz, Treblinka or other camps to be killed, while others died from torture and malnutrition at Terezin.
Those in the camp existed on a diet of bread and margarine, and whenever people ask Harringer today what he thought about while in the camp, he tells them: “Food. I was always hungry.”
Other senses trigger recollections as well.
“People don’t understand what a concentration camp smells like,” he said, referring to the stench of death, along with the overwhelming smell of the living. “Nobody had soap. There was no deodorant. The men stunk. The Nazis stunk. I certainly wouldn’t have lived like that. And there were lots of fleas and bedbugs. Flea bites went away in a couple of days. Bedbug bites lasted a long time.”
Why did the Nazis, who knew he was a mischling, spare him?
“I don’t know,” Harringer said.
He does remember this: “The Nazis gave us Catholics a place to worship. There was a loft, with a big crucifix. I don’t remember anybody preaching, but we could go up there and pray.”
The collapse of the Third Reich meant the end of the war in Europe and Soviets marching into Terezin to liberate the camp. After sending him to a castle that once housed the Hitler youth, they asked Harringer – only 11 years old – where he wanted to go. He chose England, and stayed there for more than a decade through the 1948 London Olympics, the funeral of King George VI and the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1952.
In 1958, he visited with his mother in Europe. She never explained why she left him so vulnerable, so endangered. She never apologized.
“What happened happened,” said Harringer, who came to the United States in 1960 and became a citizen five years later. “I never called her ‘mother.’ But as soon as I saw her, I knew it was my mom.”
He returned to Terezin in 1997, visiting the camp he was forced to call home for more than two years and finding his name and inmate ID – 10676-I/87 – on a roster there. During that same trip, he also visited Auschwitz, where so many of his Jewish friends died.
“To me, it’s the saddest place,” Harringer said, ever mindful that he, too, could have been shipped there to die instead of now preparing to turn 80 in Oakdale 16 days from today.
“I still wonder why I’m still alive,” he said. “I ask myself that all the time.”