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Brown strap wrist watch worn postwar by a former labor camp inmate and aid worker

Object | Accession Number: 1999.155.2

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    Brown strap wrist watch worn postwar by a former labor camp inmate and aid worker

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    Brief Narrative
    Dark brown leather wrist watch worn by Hirsch Birman after the war as a refugee in Vienna, Austria. Hirsch and his father Abel lived in Kovno, (Kaunas) Lithuania, which was occupied by Germany on June 22, 1941. They fled, but were caught and brought back. On August 15, they were forced into a sealed ghetto. Hirsch was sent to Kedahnen concentration/labor camp in September, and Abel arrived in spring 1943. When the camp was being evacuated on July 9, 1944, due to approaching Soviet forces, they escaped through holes that Hirsch cut with pliers in the barbed wire fences. They hid in the forest until told by local farmers that it was safe to come out. They returned to Kovno but conditions were very bad and they decided to leave even though they had no permits. The war ended on May 7, 1945, and they arrived in Vienna, Austria, in September. From 1945-1948, Hirsch lived in displaced persons camps and worked for Bricha, a group that organized the illegal immigration of Jews to Palestine. He and Abel emigrated to the United States in 1952.
    received:  approximately 1945 July
    use: Vienna (Austria)
    Credit Line
    United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Collection, Gift of George Birman
    front, face, black paint : CHRONOMETRE / PAGE [curved text / underscored]
    Subject: George Birman
    Hirsch Birman was born on May 31, 1922, in Konigsberg, East Prussia (Kaliningrad, Russia)), to Abel and Zlata. Abel, a lumber merchant, was born on October 2, 1887, in Kovno (Kaunas) Lithuania. When Hirsch was 6 years old, the family moved to Klaipeda, Lithuania. In the early 1930s, Zlata fell ill. She and Hirsch moved in with his maternal grandparents and aunts in the Gargzdai shtetl. Hirsch went to a Jewish grammar school, attended synagogue, and ate kosher. Abel stayed in Kovno and Hirsch visited him during school vacations. When he was 10, Abel gave him a camera and Hirsch photographed friends, family, and daily shtetl life. In 1933, there was a strong and well supported Nazi presence in Klaipeda, a former German territory, Memel, given to Lithuania after WWI, but Hirsch did not experience antisemitic behavior. Zlata died in 1939. Hirsch remained in the shtetl and was raised by an aunt. In 1939, he returned to Kovno.

    Germany annexed Klaipeda on March 23, 1939. On June 15, 1940, the Soviets occupied Lithuania and annexed the city in August. They outlawed Hebrew, closed Jewish schools, and suppressed the Jewish culture. On June 22, 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union and occupied Lithuania. Many Jews fled Kovno, including Abel and Hirsch. German soldiers apprehended them and forced their return to Kovno. In June and July, there were violent pogroms against Jews, and German Einsatzgruppen [mobile killing units] and Lithuanian auxiliaries massaced thousands.

    Abel and Hirsch were forced into the Kovno ghetto which was sealed on August 15, 1941. They lived in a single story wooden building with another family, with a wood stove and without water or indoor plumbing. On September 19, Hirsch was assigned to work the night shift digging up the Kovnos airfield. They moved several times and at one point lived with Hirsch’s paternal uncle and cousins.

    In September 1942, Hirsch volunteered to go to Kedahnen labor camp in Lithuania. He shoveled gravel into railroad cars and was responsible for calculating the amount needed to fill each car. As a hobby, Hirsch built crystal radios; he brought one with him and hid it in his barracks. Camp life was bearable; prisoners were permitted to leave and barter with the local peasants, relax after work, and return to the ghetto to visit family. Hirsch even had a girlfriend, Margot, a fellow prisoner and camp cook.

    Between May and June, 1943, the Germans transferred 300 prisoners, including Abel, from the Kovno ghetto to Kedahnen to build an airfield and barracks. Hirsch became the chief electrician and installed lighting and wiring. In the spring of 1944, all but 47 prisoners were sent to work at another airport; Abel and Hirsch remained. By June, Hirsch could hear the Soviet army approaching, and fearing evacuation, decided to escape. He had managed to keep over 150 photos with him throughout his imprisonment. On July 9, he gave them and other documents to Abel, who worked as a cook, and Abel wrapped them in wax paper and buried them under the kitchen. Hirsch then hung a blanket on the barbed wire fence and used electrical pliers to cut the fence in 3 places. The next day, the Germans told the prisoners they were being evacuated to the Kovno ghetto. The transport came and while the guard talked to the truck driver, Hirsch, Abel, and another man approached the fence. The blanket shielded Hirsch from view; he bent the fence, cut through the second fence, and they escaped. They crawled along a ditch and hid in a field. The camp guards realized they had escaped, but did not pursue. Hirsch located the peasants he bartered with and they provided the men with food and shelter. As the Russians approached, they hid in the forest and dug a trench for protection. The peasants let them know when the Russians arrived and that it was safe to come out.

    In August 1944, Hirsch and Abel returned to the labor camp, dug up the papers and photos, and photographed the abandoned camp. They returned to Kovno and stayed in the apartment of a cousin, Iasha Polunski , who was exiled to Siberia before the war. They had no food and Hirsch stole electricity from military electrical lines. He traded his watch, which he had kept throughout his imprisonment, for food, and went to work cleaning up bomb damaged areas. Hirsch joined a Zionist organization and planned to emigrate illegally to Palestine with Abel. He traveled to Poland with false papers claiming he was Polish and had the right to repatriate. He arrived in Łódź and found his old girlfriend Margot. When the war ended in Europe, on May 8, 1945, Hirsch was at a train station in Warsaw, watching celebratory fireworks.

    He and Abel arrived in Vienna, Austria, via Czechoslovakia, in September 1945. They lived at the Rothschild Hospital and worked for Bricha, a group that organized the illegal immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe to Palestine. Hirsch registered the refugees and Abel was a supply manager. In August 1946, Hirsch was the camp leader at Rupertusplatz displaced persons camp for trnasient Jews. He entered the Technology Institute of Vienna and studied engineering. In 1947, he smuggled a group of Jews over the Italian Alps to board illegal ships bound for Palestine. He finished school in 1951, and in anticipation of emigrating to Israel, Abel and Hirsch sent their belongings ahead. In February 1952, the Jewish Institution in Vienna ran out of eligible people to send to the United States. They pressured Hirsch and Abel to change plans and emigrate to America. They settled in New York. Mutual friends introduced George to Pola Schell, a nurse. Pola was born on July 13, 1923, in Bedzin, Poland. She was a survivor of Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen concentration camps. George, 87, passed away in 2009.

    Physical Details

    Object Type
    Wrist watches (lcsh)
    Physical Description
    Wristwatch with a rectangular, silver metal case, converse glass cover, and dark brown leather band. The gold colored, off center face has painted black Arabic numbers. The face has a dark gold border with black painted diagonal lines marking the hours and minutes. Below the hands is a rectangular subdial with a single hand and a dark gold border with black painted diagonal lines to mark the hour. There is a gold grooved knob on the right side of the case. The band has a metal buckle and tine, a movable leather loop on 1 end, and 6 holes on the pointed end. The pointed end inserts into a slot in the top of the case, passes underneath, and exits through a slot at the bottom. There is French text on the face.
    overall: Height: 9.125 inches (23.178 cm) | Width: 1.000 inches (2.54 cm) | Depth: 0.375 inches (0.953 cm)
    overall : metal, leather, glass, paint

    Rights & Restrictions

    Conditions on Access
    No restrictions on access
    Conditions on Use
    No restrictions on use

    Keywords & Subjects

    Administrative Notes

    The wrist watch was donated to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1999 by George Birman.
    Funding Note
    The cataloging of this artifact has been supported by a grant from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.
    Record last modified:
    2022-07-28 18:23:45
    This page:

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