Henry Bawnik, Survivor of Death Camps and an Inferno at Sea, Dies at 92
Henry Bawnik was 15 when his concentration camp odyssey began. Rounded up with others in the Jewish ghetto of Lodz, Poland, during the summer of 1941, he survived hunger, desperation and beatings as he moved from Gutenbrunn to Auschwitz and from Füurstengrube to Dora-Mittelbau.
Yet as brutal as the camps were, Mr. Bawnik came closest to dying at the hands of the British in the final days of the war in Europe.
Hitler had committed suicide on April 30, 1945, and the Germans were within days of surrendering to the Allies when Mr. Bawnik and hundreds of other evacuated prisoners of Dora-Mittelbau found themselves on the northern Baltic coast of Germany.
There, they and an estimated 10,000 other prisoners from German camps were finishing the long process of boarding three ships in the Bay of Lübeck: the Deutschland, the Thielbek and the Cap Arcona — a luxury cruise liner that had stood in for the Titanic in a 1943 German propaganda film. None were believed to be seaworthy.
On the afternoon of May 3, with Mr. Bawnik on the jammed top deck of the Cap Arcona, a squadron of Royal Air Force Typhoon fighters bombed the ships, believing that top-ranking SS officers were fleeing on them. The pilots had not received intelligence from the R.A.F. that would have canceled the attack.
Mr. Bawnik held out little hope of riding out the attacks.
“We were just counting the hours before we were going to be dead,” he told the Holocaust Resource Center of Buffalo in an interview in 2016. “I couldn’t swim.”
Yet he survived. He clung to a rope on a side of the Cap Arcona that was not yet ablaze, and a fellow prisoner later pulled him to safety. With the attack over and the ship sinking, he and other survivors from it were plucked out of the water by rescuers in small boats and ferried to safety.
“What camp are we going to now?” Mr. Bawnik recalled asking his rescuers, believing he was still a German prisoner.
“No more camp for you,” he said he was told. “The British are in town.”
Mr. Bawnik survived another 73 years, mostly in the United States as a construction worker and the owner of dry-cleaning businesses. He died on Aug. 20 in a hospital in Buffalo, near his home in Williamsville, N.Y. He was 92.
His daughter Tammy Bawnik Basist said the cause was a stroke.
Chaim Hercko Bawnik was born in Lodz on Nov. 16, 1925. His father, Yakov, was a baker. His mother, Nacha (Baran) Bawnik, tried to run the bakery after her husband died of diabetes in 1932 but closed it and started money-lending and dressmaking businesses.
Soon after the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, the Bawniks split up: Henry, his mother and his sister Rywka moved first to Warsaw and then to Lublin, while his brother, David, and his sister Dora fled to Russia. Henry, his mother and Rywka returned to Lodz in early 1940 — shortly before the Nazis established part of it as a Jewish ghetto and sealed it off.
“They gave you so much bread for a week,” Mr. Bawnik told the Holocaust Resource Center. “You ate the bread up the first day because you were starving, hungry.” His mother, he said, “would hide some bread from her own rations and give us a bite during the week.”
Mr. Bawnik said there were several thousand people in the roundup that sent him from Lodz.
“We didn’t know where we were going,” he told The Buffalo News in 2015. “They chose the young people that they could get work out of and put us in the warehouse.” He assumed that he would soon die.
At Gutenbrunn, in Posen, Poland, he helped build railroad tracks. At Auschwitz, where he arrived in 1943, he looked at the entrance sign that said, “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work Sets You Free”) and thought he had come to a better camp. He did not at first believe the talk of prisoners being gassed to death.
Mr. Bawnik remained at Auschwitz for a few weeks before being transferred to Fürstengrube, a subcamp of Auschwitz in Wesola. While there he became a bricklayer thanks to a cousin who was a kapo at the camp.
“Because you were a professional, a bricklayer, you were treated well,” he told The Buffalo News. “You weren’t beaten to death.”
He endured a 10-day trip by rail to the Dora-Mittelbau camp in central Germany in January 1945, which ended with the living dragging dead bodies out of the train’s teeming cattle cars. They heaped the corpses onto a pile of skeletons, and all were quickly incinerated.
The Germans emptied the camp in April, and Mr. Bawnik and about 500 other prisoners were moved on barges, and then on foot, to where the Cap Arcona awaited them on the Baltic coast.
Not long after the ship was filled with thousands of prisoners, who could only wonder about their fates, the fiery aerial assault began.
“I was on the right end, and the wind was going the other way,” Mr. Bawnik said in a private video interview with his grandson Jeremy Elias, who also wrote an article about the attack in The Jerusalem Post. “It took three, three and a half hours, and I could see the floor was starting to melt; you could see it smoking, it was wood on top of steel, and not long after that it started tilting.”
As he and others clung to a rope, Mr. Bawnik looked down and could see many people who had jumped sinking into the cold waters.
“They’re going down,” he recalled thinking. “A lot of good friends, my God.”
The ship was capsizing, and Mr. Bawnik could not hold on much longer. He believed he was about to die as well. But then a friend, Peter Abramowicz, called to him, leaned over the side, scooped him up and carried him to a partly submerged part of the ship, where they and others awaited rescue.
The British — now in charge at the shore — ordered the Germans to take boats out to pick up the Cap Arcona survivors.
As many as 7,000 prisoners died in the attacks.
Mr. Bawnik quickly moved on. He stayed in Germany for four years, living in Ahrensbök, a municipality near the Baltic, where he sold cigarettes on the black market and drove a taxi. In a telephone interview, Mr. Elias said that his grandfather had found Ahrensbök to be an oasis, where Germans who had been his enemy for so many years were now friendly and generous.
“He describes those years as among the best of his life,” Mr. Elias said.
While in Germany, Mr. Bawnik was reunited with his brother and his sister Dora. His siblings then left for Israel, but later emigrated to New Jersey. Their mother and his sister Rywka had been taken from Lodz after he was deported and probably died in Auschwitz.
Mr. Bawnik emigrated to the United States in 1949. He lived briefly in New York City, then moved to Hartford, where he met his future wife, Linda Gordon. She died last year. Besides Ms. Basist, he is survived by two other daughters, Jamie Elias and Cindy Ashton, as well as seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Mr. Bawnik, who was not religious, attributed his survival in the German camps and on the Cap Arcona to luck.
“If you really believe in God, how could he do this to his people?” he told The Buffalo News. “How can you believe in God? It doesn’t make any sense.”