Jose Urbach's first memory is the sound of hammering.
“The were constructing a gallow…to hang somebody," he told students at Tuesday night. "And that was a young man who had stolen a piece of soap.”
It was the winter of 1945. Urbach was five years old, and at that point, had never not known war.
Urbach was born in Poland in 1940, a few months after the German invasion that began World War II. He spent most of the first five years of his life in prison camps, an experienced he likened to being born blind.
It's just how he thought the world worked: men stole soap and were hung. Everyone in the camp had to watch. The man hung there for 15 days, until his body resembled a puppet.
Urbach, told his story as part of a series of events at Lafayette leading up to Holocaust Remembrance Day. An artist now living in New York City, Urbach said the first few years of his life have informed his entire career.
"Everybody Knew What to Expect"
Urbach described a situation that progressively more horrific for his family and other Polish Jews: a loss of rights, a move to cramped ghettos, and eventual deportation to camps.
He and his family started in a work camp. Prisoners weren't killed off en masse like in places such as Auschwitz, but Urbach said conditions were brutal. Eventually, the Germans started selecting people to go to a different camp, mostly older or sick prisoners.
Among them were his grandparents. The Nazis said they'd be going to a camp where work was easier. But that was just to avoid panic. In reality, the prisoners were gassed to death soon after their arrival. The train conductor who delivered them to the camp told Urbach's mother what he had seen there.
"From then on, everybody knew what to expect," he said.
The Distance Between Life and Death
Urbach and his parents were held in a camp where the adults made bullets for the German army.
His father was deported to the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany, and died on the trip when the British bombed the train. Some prisoners escaped; Urbach said his father was too weakened. Had the deportation happened later, his father might have survived; the Soviet army liberated their camp the day after he left for Buchenwald.
Experiences like that one seemed to be common. Urbach recalled a story his mother told him. At two years old, he came close to reaching up and yanking an SS commander's cap from his head as the Nazi was selecting prisoners to go to an extermination camp. His mother managed to stop him in time.
"Sometimes the distance between life and death is just a fragment of an inch," Urbach said.
In the spring of 1945, Russian forces took Poland. Urbach said his mother told him of seeing the Soviet tank commanders go past the prisoners.
"The men who were driving the tanks were adolescents," he said. "They were 15 years old, 16 years old. They were almost children."
Free, But Not Safe
They wandered for two weeks, sleeping in peasant houses.
The rural Poles had very little food. “Sometimes they would share with us…sometimes would just give us potato peels," Urbach said.
They were free, but not safe. Jews were still unwelcome in some parts of Poland, Urbach said. The family returned to their old home, only to find a Polish family living there.
“When they recognized us, it was like ghosts, coming back from…they thought no one had survived," he said.
Eventually, he and his mother settled in the city of Lodz, where they lived for two years. In 1947, they moved to Colombia, to live with his mother's sister, who'd left Poland before the war.
Urbach would spend several years there, hence the name "Jose." (His given name was "Josef.")
He's never gone back to Poland. "I don't know what I'd be going to look for," Urbach said. "I don't have any point of reference."