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Autobiography of Freddie Knoller, A Holocaust Survivor

He was born into a cultured Viennese family in 1921. When the Germans entered Austria, he fled west. He became a "tourist guide" and pimp for the Nazi soldiers in Paris. He joined the French Resistance, but was betrayed to the authorities by a spurned lover. The French police handed him to the Gestapo and he was sent by cattle truck to a concentration camp. As the allies advanced, Freddie went on a number of death-marches from one concentration camp to another. His supreme optimism and determination to live saved him. His parents perished, but his two brothers had escaped to the U.S.A. Freddie married an English woman, and became a successful businessman.

Synopsis of the proposed book:

For many years, I have been lecturing to school children throughout Great Britain about my life during the tragic years under the Nazis. So often I have been asked by the children and teachers to put my story in writing.

It is the story of a young naive boy trying to live life to the fullest extent, a life so vivid and stirring. My attitude of hope and optimism helped me to overcome the ordeal and was one of the reasons why I am still alive today.

My father was an accountant and quite strict. My mother loved life - very easy-going, always happy and very musical. She made sure that her three sons received musical tuition. My oldest brother, Otto, played the piano. Eric, learned to play the violin, so naturally I had to learn the cello at the age of 6.

By the time I was 10, we performed on the stage and at charity functions.

From early childhood, my family and I were subjected to anti-Semitism, for which the Austrians were so well-known. I was ever so often set upon by Christian children on my way to school.

After the Anschluss, these attacks became even more virulent. On the night of the 9th November 1938, when the Nazis burnt down all the Synagogues, my parents insisted that we, the children, should emigrate.

Eric was the first to leave, on a visa to Florida in the U.S.A. I was the next one to leave, going illegally to Belgium. Otto, was the last one to leave our parents, he went illegally to Holland and from there to England. My parents did not want to leave, saying that they were too old, so nothing could happen to them.

My destination was Brussels, and then Antwerp, where I was given the address of a diamond dealer, who helped me morally and financially. There I was, a very young and naive 17 year-old boy, for the first time, away from parental control, wanting to taste all the things which a boy, in normal circumstances, would not have been allowed to experience. The Jewish Committee provided living quarters which I had to share with two other refugees of about my age. In their company, I learned how to play poker, and how to smoke. They also introduced me to alcohol and bad women. This freedom was stopped when the Jewish Community gave me the choice, either to join a camp for Jewish refugees or to be without further assistance from them.

I chose Merksplas and later Exarde, a camp for younger refugees, where I joined the camp orchestra.

When German troops invaded Belgium in May 1940, everyone in the camp fled on foot to France. On the border, I was arrested by the French as an enemy alien, and taken to St Cyprien Internment Camp for the enemies of France, regardless of whether they were Jewish or real German Nazis. The food and hygiene at this camp were disastrous and soon typhus broke out. I escaped during the night, walking 10 km to the next town, Perpignan. From there, I proceeded to Gaillac, where my aunt, uncle and cousins lived.

In the meantime, the Germans had occupied Paris and the northern part of France, but Gaillac was still in the unoccupied Zone, ruled by the Vichy Government. I became bored, craving for new adventures. I decided that I must see Paris, the town of my dreams.

My relatives fought with me and tried to stop me going into the "Lion's Den." However, I insisted and off I went. In Paris, I became fascinated by the night life of Pigalle and earned my living by taking German soldiers to night-clubs, to brothels and to cabarets. I earned a percentage, at these places, of whatever the soldiers consumed. At the clubs, I organised myself with false identification papers and became "Robert Metzner" born in Metz, Alsace-Lorraine. I met all kinds of people: decent German soldiers, homosexuals, abusive Nazis and French collaborators.

I met a wonderful Frenchman who worked in the Resistance. I met some very nice women, and some tough prostitutes. At one occasion, I was arrested by a Gestapo officer who claimed to be an expert on recognising Jews. He agreed with me, that as I was born in Alsace Lorraine, my ancestors must have been of good German background. He could recognise this from the shape of my head. The officer warned me not to go back to Pigalle but to work for the German Reich.

In May 1943, I joined the Maquis near Figeac in unoccupied France and lived in an abandoned shepherds hut on top of a hill. Among us were a number of Jews, quite a number of French Communists and some young people, who did not want to work in Germany under the new law of "Service du Travail Obligatoire" for the young people. Apart from political discussions and arguments, we did not do much resisting except for one attempt to blow up a German troop train. We did, however, work for the peasants and farmers in the region who paid us with food.

I had a relationship with a young girl from the next village, with whom I thought I was in love. Like a fool, I admitted to her in a moment of lovemaking that I had false papers and that I was hiding because I did not want to work for the Germans.

One day, we had an argument and I told her that I will not see her again. A few days later, I was arrested by the French Police. When I showed them my papers, they just laughed. They asked me for the names of my Resistance unit and wanted to know where I came from. In order to avoid torture, I told them that I know nothing about a Resistance unit, but that I was a Jew from Vienna hiding up in the hills. They took me to Gestapo and was then taken to Drancy, the infamous transit camp for the east.

At the beginning of October 1943, my name came up for deportation to the east on the 10th October 1943.

We were taken to the railway station and close to 100 of us were squeezed into each "Cattle Wagon." There was not enough room for everyone to sit on the floor. We youngsters made room for the old people, women with their babies and the infirm.

In the wagon, there was one bucket with drinking water and one empty sanitary bucket.

We travelled for three days and three nights, to our destination. I will never forget the stench, the arguments, the screaming of the babies and the moans of those dying. I was squeezed against a middle-aged Frenchman called Robert, a gentle person who looked very much like my father. I took a liking to him and made him as cosy as I could.

During the trip, we became good friends. He told me that he was a doctor and I did not realise then, that because of him, I am alive today.

When we arrived we saw a sign "Osviecim" on the railway platform. We guessed that we were somewhere in Poland. The platform was full of SS with dogs and there were some young people in striped prisoners clothes.

The SS selected the younger people who were to walk into the camp, but the older men and women with their children were taken away by trucks. This was the time when we were taught German discipline through blows and killings.

Some heard alarming rumours which very few believed, but others believed them and went straight into the electrified fences. I realised that there were two choices:

You can either give up and within 2 or 3 days you are dead or you fight to live and adjust yourself to the situation "by hook or by crook." I chose the latter.

I did not look at others who suffered and moaned about hunger, or those who gave up their personal hygiene - a sign that they had given up. But wanting to live, I had to take care of myself - I was number one. I had one mission, only, to survive, in order to tell the world about the barbarism of the "cultured" people of Germany.

On a visit to the hospital I saw my doctor friend from the train there. He told me that he was put in charge of the camp hospital. He told me to come to him every evening when I return from work, and he will try to give me extra food. He was helping me because we had become friends on the train.

At work, I had to carry 25kg of cement bags on my back, day-in, day-out. To do this work and survive with the minimal rations of food we were getting was not possible. The extra food I received from my friend Robert was surely the reason of my survival.

When the Russian approached our camp, the whole camp was evacuated. The date was January 17th 1945. We were lined up in rows of 5 and were told that we will have to walk, and that anybody trying to escape will be shot. It was very cold and it was snowing.

We went westward walking in our wooden shoes on icy snow-covered roads. We were still in our striped thin clothes. People dropped like flies. Many collapsed and they were shot on the spot. We had to take the corpses and throw them in the ditch next to the road. The SS surrounded each of our column and were ready with their guns.

After walking the whole day and part of the night, we reached a brick factory where we were allowed to rest and sleep undercover. Only half of us were still alive when we arrived at the factory. One in our group, a French political prisoner did not wake up. He was dead, frozen stiff. I took his red triangle from his tunic, showing that he was a political prisoner, put it in my pocket hoping to exchange it later on for my Star of David insignia.

Finally, we were taken to a railway station and squeezed into cattle wagons, about 80 to each wagon, standing room only. We thus travelled through Austria and Germany seven-days and seven-nights until we reached our destination. Nine in our wagons died during the journey.

Our new camp was Dora-Nordhausen. This is where they manufactured the V-1 and V-2 in tunnels underneath the Hartz mountain. We worked in the tunnels pushing wagons on rails and carrying heavy metal objects. We experienced a lot of hangings of prisoners, Russian prisoners of war and even civilians in the tunnels, who were supposed to have committed sabotage. One night, the Allied planes bombed the entrance to the tunnels. Many of our comrades who worked there in the night-shift died.

The next day we were given shovels in order to repair the damage. As the American troops were nearing our region we were again evacuated to Bergen-Belsen. There was no more food available, and the beatings stopped. The SS disappeared and were guarded by Croatian and Hungarian SS units. We dug into the ground to find some edible roots. Many collapsed from hunger and dysentery and died where they collapsed.

On 15th April 1945, the British troops entered Bergen-Belsen. We were given hot milk with rice, which we devoured like wild animals. Many of us died having stuffed themselves with the food which the stomach could not digest. A British officer asked for volunteers to go to nearby farms and bring back any food we could find. I joined this group, with a British soldier carrying a gun. We searched for food, loaded them onto a trolley in view of the protesting German farmer and his wife. When I found a large picture of Hitler hidden behind a wardrobe, I took a knife and cut the picture to pieces. The old farmer got red in his face and shouted to me "Du Sau Jud." Without hesitation, I sank the knife in his belly. We left the farm soon after this.

I returned to France after being told not to go to Vienna because all Jews have been deported from there. With the help of the American Embassy in Paris, Eric found me in a little village where I was sent by the French Government to recuperate.

Our reunion was very emotional. Eric being a soldier in the American Army, was ordered by his Commanding Officer to search in all concentration camps for his parents and myself. He went to Vienna and found out that our parents were deported to Terezienstadt. He told me that Otto became a doctor, was married, and lives in New York.

In 1947, I emigrated to the U.S.A. and became a naturalised U.S. citizen. In 1950 I met my wife, Freda, on a blind date. We got married on the 31st December 1950. After two years in Baltimore, my wife became homesick and we made our way back to her parents in London. We have two daughters Marcia and Susie who were born in England.



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