Life & Culture

The extraordinary tale of the Jewish shoeshine boy to a Nazi commandant

Harry Balsam lived in the villa depicted in Schindler's List, cleaning shoes for Joseph Müeller and ended up a Windermere boy


Today marks Yom Hashoah, Israel's day of commemoration for the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust.

Amidst all the history, destruction and tragedy, one individual’s story stands out for its extraordinary tale of survival. It's the story of Harry Balsam, a Jewish boy who went from shoeshine to a Nazi commandant to a Buchenwald survivor.

His granddaughter, Natalie Meltzer, from London is now writing a book based on his hours of testimony to Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation. "I feel it is my duty to dedicate part of my life to Holocaust education. We need to make sure that we never forget - in the hope that one day we learn from the past and take action."

Harry Balsam was born in Gorlice, Poland on August 15 1929 to Moses and Adela. His first nine years of life were happy, always having fun with his four siblings. Harry described himself as a ‘lobbus’ - a mischievous person full of chutzpah.

When the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939, Harry’s parents decided to leave the country. They loaded as many belongings as they could onto their horse and cart. Harry’s father and eldest brother got onto the train as the rest of them threw up their belongings. Then without warning the train started moving away, travelling too fast for Harry's father and brother to jump off. Harry and the rest of his family rushed to the next station hoping to find them, but they were nowhere to be seen. The train had, in fact, taken them straight into Russia, where they worked in the mines throughout the war.

Adela didn’t know where else to go, so they headed home, but when they returned to their bread mill, the Nazis were there too. They took as much flour as they could carry and were ordered not to return.

On Rosh Hashanah in 1940, approximately a year after the Nazis invaded, Harry and the family were at his cousin’s house trying to keep some sort of ‘normal’ life with a family meal. They were joined by his cheder teacher, Rabbi Noah Schribber, and his family. The Gestapo stormed in, grabbed the rabbi and his son outside where they were shot dead on the spot. They told everyone else to disappear. They then killed the rabbi’s whole family.

Shortly after this, Harry and his family were forced to move from their home into the ghetto established in Gorlice, where they had to share one house of two rooms, with five other families. There were no wires around the ghetto, it was merely three streets where all the Jews were forced to live.

One afternoon Harry was walking with his older brother through the town square and one Gestapo officer came over and put his hand on his brother’s shoulder. He said: “You are a Jew”. He took out his revolver and shot him dead.

The Nazi officer screamed at Harry and told him to disappear. Harry ran for his life, having to leave his brother’s body on the road. He saw one of his old Polish classmates, a boy who he considered his friend. He later found out that this was who had told the Gestapo they were Jewish boys walking without a yellow star.

Harry hid under a stairwell for hours. When he eventually returned home, he had to tell his mother her son had been murdered, the hardest moment of his life.

Whilst in the ghetto, the Jews were rounded up daily, to go and clear the snow from the roads for 12 hours a day. Harry never got paid for his work, but was happy to work outside the ghetto as it gave him an opportunity to bring back bread, butter, or whatever he could get hold of.

In 1941 in the middle of the night, the Nazis started shouting on megaphones and shooting their rifles in the air. They were ordering everyone to come to the streets. Harry and his family ran downstairs and hid in the cellar. By dawn, the shooting had stopped but the Nazis were still shouting as they knew many people were still hiding. They screamed that everyone had two hours to leave their hiding spots and if found they would be killed instantly. The deportations from the ghetto had begun.

Everyone was rounded up and separated into groups of 100. There was hysteria, as no one knew what was happening. Harry was standing with his family when he was pulled out of the group. Harry tried to hold onto his family, but he was dragged away by a Nazi guard. They were screaming for each other, but they had no choice but to carry on moving with the crowd. Harry never saw his mother, sister or brother again. Forty cattle wagons were filled that night with over three thousand Jewish people. They were taken to Belzec and sent straight into the gas chambers on arrival.

Harry was left in a group of 30 - 40 young boys, who had been kept behind. They were marched back into the ghetto. Harry was now 11 years old, and completely alone. Killing and shooting became a normal daily event.

In 1942, Harry’s name was called out for deportation. He arrived in Plaszow, after an overnight journey in a cattle car.

The guards were waiting and told them to throw any jewellery and money they had onto a pile. As people started throwing their possessions, they pulled a man out of the line, found he still had money on him and shot him on the spot.

They stood in line waiting for the commandant of the camp, Joseph Müeller, for four hours. Müeller marched along the crowds, looking them up and down. He was furious when he realised there were many young boys in the group. He started screaming, he only wanted men who could be put to work. He ordered all of the boys to be kept separate. Harry was one of the smallest and got shoved to the front where Müeller was standing. Harry shouted at the other boys to stop, but as he did, Müeller walked past and grabbed him out the line to the front. He started begging with him that he’d done nothing wrong, but Müeller told him to simply follow him. He thought he was to be shot.

There were two young Jewish prisoners working in the office. The boy was dictating something to the girl, who was working on a typewriter. Müeller started talking in German, but Harry was Polish so he didn’t understand. The girl and boy explained to him that he was to become his putzer, or ‘shoeshine boy’. Harry ran up to him and asked him to sit down, take his boots off and he would clean them.

Realising he had nothing to clean them with he ran outside into the camp. He found an old Jewish cobbler to help him and when returned, Mueller said he knew he had “picked the right boy for the job.”

Whilst Harry lived as Müeller’s shoeshine boy for the next few months, he witnessed the atrocities carried out in the camp. There were parties and frequent visits from Oscar Schindler, Amon Goeth and other high-profile Nazis like Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS.

Harry saw the multiple suitcases Müeller had hidden under his bed filled with Jewish people’s jewellery, family heirlooms and money. He frequently took food and medicine into the camp for several Jewish prisoners.

Then Mueller was relieved of his duty as commander and the decision was made by the SS to move the prisoners.

From Plascow he was taken to Starzysko, digging trenches for the anti-aircraft in freezing conditions with barely any food. He was then taken to Czestochowa where he worked in an ammunition factory for a few months.

In December 1944 he was transported again to Buchenwald for five weeks, where he was given a striped prison uniform to wear. It was a particularly cold winter, and they had to stand in the snow for seven hours a day.

In January 1945 he was moved by lorry to Rehmsdorf, another camp, this time an oil refinery that had been bombed by the Allies.

But at the beginning of April, the guards rounded up all the prisoners and started marching them by foot with no food or water. Prisoners who could not walk fast enough or had no more energy and stopped for a moment, were shot.

They walked from Germany into Czechoslovakia for three weeks, in what is now known as the 'Death March'. When they started in Rehmsdorf there were approximately 3000 prisoners, when they arrived at the concentration camp Theresienstadt, there were 600 remaining.

Harry had only been in Theresienstadt for a few days when he became very ill with typhoid. He was close to death.

Yet on May 8 1945, the Russian army came into the camp, liberated them and saved his life.

The war was over. Harry was free, but he had no family and could not return to his home country. It took several months for the British government to agree to take in 1000 Jewish children, however, by this time only 732 could be found. They became known as ‘The Boys’, even though some were girls, and they were no longer children after the loss, pain and suffering they had been subjected to.

When ‘The Boys’ arrived in Carlisle, England, buses were waiting to take them to begin their rehabilitation in Windermere, where they got a welcome reception. They were there for four months and described it as ‘paradise’. When Harry left Windermere in early 1946, he and some of his friends were taken to a youth hostel in Loughton, Essex.

In 1947, Harry was contacted by the Red Cross and found out that his father and brother were alive.

They were reunited in a displaced persons camp in Germany, from where his father and brother were leaving to go to Israel. They wanted Harry to join them. However, ‘The Boys’ had become Harry’s family and he didn’t want to leave them or the new life he had started.

Harry Balsam came to England the day before his 16th birthday and built a new life. He had to learn a new language and culture but he became a successful businessman.

He married Pauline in January 1958, and had two sons Stephen and Colin.

Harry passed away on October 2 2003 at the age of 74.

This story is part of The Shoeshine Boy by Natalie Meltzer, Harry Balsam’s grand-daughter.

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