Holocaust Survivor Remembers Pain of War

While time has helped heal his wounds, the memories will never fade.

Nov. 11, 2008— -- At Gelson's Market in Los Angeles, 84-year-old Fred Wolf is always the oldest box boy on the clock, bagging groceries for the rich and famous who live nearby.

"I like my life now," said Wolf. "I work for Gelson's. I like it. I see people every day, and people know me."

But every once in a while, he surprises customers with something they didn't know.

"My father was murdered at Auschwitz," he told a woman as she unloaded low-fat yogurt and whole-grain bread onto the belt. "And I was at Auschwitz."

"I never knew that," she responded. "I'm so sorry."

Most of Wolf's customers don't know of his miraculous life journey. As his tattoo shows, he is a Holocaust survivor. Born in Merl-Mosel, Germany, Wolf's father owned a shop that made men's suits before the war. While he fondly remembers his childhood, Wolf recalls feeling different.

"I didn't want to stand out," he said. "When I was playing outside with the non-Jews they would say, 'You killed Christ, didn't you?' They always nagged me, but we played together."

From 1942 to 1945, he was a slave laborer for the notorious German arms maker I.G. Farben, which produced the poison gas that killed so many Jews like him.

"I remember crying, 'God, what did I do?'" he said. "'Why me? I'm a Jew, but I'm no criminal. Why did they take me?' And so they did."

He endured three horrible years of hard labor, a starvation diet and beatings.

"Each one had to march out. We had to unload 50 kilos of cement -- 12 hours and a half-an-hour lunch. Some miserable water soup. And I'm thinking, 'I'm not going to live through this,'" he said.

He survived the most feared death camps at Mauthausen and Auschwitz -- even a face-to-face encounter with Dr. Joseph Mengele, known as the Angel of Death.

"He came walking, and all of a sudden he stood right in front of me. He asked, 'How old are you?' '18.' 'You know how to work?'" Wolf said. "And we found out after the war -- this was Dr. Mengele. And it's unbelievable. He let me stay and let me go to work."

"I don't know why. I was just an 18-year-old kid."

While Wolf made it out alive, his father and stepmother weren't as fortunate; both were gassed at Treblinka, a place where 99 percent of prisoners were dead within two hours.

"Something terrible," Wolf said, shaking his head. "I will never forget it."

When the war ended, Wolf was in the last camp to be liberated by the Allies. The war's end marked the beginning of his eight-year journey -- first to a U.S.-run refugee camp in Austria, then to Israel, where he fought in the Arab-Israeli war as a member of the Israeli Air Force. And in 1953 he immigrated to America.

In November, after 63 years, Wolf returned to Germany, this time as a distinguished guest of the German government to open a memorial at the former site of I.G. Farben's headquarter in Frankfurt, where so much suffering took place.

The company was charged with war crimes for powering deadly concentration camps. Its main building has since been converted into a university, but the campus is still marked by the photographs and serial numbers of some of the victims.

"I am happy that from the I.G. Farben headquarters they built a university," he said. "Finally I.G. Farben has been eliminated, and we are above them now."

Wolf hopes the university's students understand the legacy of this place and know that "we are all God's people. … We should all get along."

For Wolf, visiting the memorial was an emotional reunion, providing a chance to heal but also to connect with the fellow survivors who became his family.

"You talk about so many things," Wolf said. "'What did you do? What commander did you work? What block, what barrack?'"

It was also a time to put this all behind him and move forward, enjoying the freedom of a simple life.

"It's like I'm free," Wolf said. "I can do what I want. I can work where I want. It's open for me."