Ernest Michel

Ernest W. Michel – Survival through Calligraphy

Michel.PhotoA.WEBHolocaust survivor Ernest W. Michel, the son of cigarette manufacturer Otto Michel, was born July 1, 1923 in Manheim, Germany. His sister Lotte, was born five years later. At 13, he was no longer able to attend school on the basis of the Nuremberg Laws. At first he worked at a cardboard packaging factory, but after Kristallnacht the Jewish owners could no longer employ him. Numerous attempts to leave the country met with no success. Only his sister Lotte was able to go to France on the Kindertransport. His father found an apprenticeship for Ernest, to train as a calligrapher.

Ernest said, “It was Sept. 2, 1939 and an SS man appeared in the doorway. He looked at me and asked: “Ernest Michel?” I nodded and he then said: “Be at the train station tomorrow morning at six o’clock.” I tried to ask a question, but he just said: “Shut up.” That evening was the last time I ever saw my parents. The next morning I was taken to my first camp, Fürstenwalde, to work on the potato harvest. Later I was taken to another camp in Paderborn.”

Ernest worked doing many things there and wasn’t treated so badly, nothing compared to how he was treated at Auschwitz, which came after nine months of labor. He described the journey: “I was then taken to Auschwitz in a cattle train. The journey lasted four days and five nights. I had never heard of Auschwitz before, so I didn’t know what being taken there meant. There was such a strange smell in the air.”


Promises to Keep by Ernest W. Michel

There he was working in a factory making synthetic rubber. One day he was hit over the head by a member of the SS, the wound got infected and started to fester and he was forced to go to the camp hospital. While Ernest was in the hospital a well-dressed gentleman turned up looking for people who had very good handwriting, and he volunteered. Good penmanship saved his life. The documents filled out were death certificates.

The reason for death was never “the gas chamber,” he wrote either “physical weakness” or “heart failure.” On January 18, 1945, the SS forced them to go on the death march westward. They reached the Buchenwald concentration camp, where they were selected for mining work in Berga. On April 11, Berga, too, was to be evacuated, and the prisoners were forced to head east once more. They escaped from the column on April 18. After three days in the forest, they came to a place where they were given lodging in exchange for working on various farms, until they were liberated at last.

After the war, Ernest covered the Nuremberg trials for a news agency. He signed his articles “Special Correspondent Ernest Michel. Auschwitz number 104995.” About being an objective reporter, Ernest said:

“It was very, very difficult. But I did it. I had to. You know, they all sat just meters away from me: Göring, Hess, Keitel, Kaltenbrunner, Streicher. There were times when I wanted nothing more than to jump up and grab them all by the throat. I kept asking myself: How could you do this to me? What did my father, my mother or my friend Walter ever do to you? But then one day, Göring’s lawyer suddenly came up to me during a trial recess, and said that Göring wanted to personally meet this Auschwitz prisoner, Ernest Michel, whose articles kept appearing in the paper. So we went to Göring’s cell and the door opened. Göring smiled, came up to me and wanted to shake my hand. At that moment I suddenly froze. I couldn’t move. I looked at his hand, his face, and then his hand again — and then just turned round. I couldn’t do it.  I just couldn’t speak to this man. Not one single word.”

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