It was August 1944 when the last trains rolled out of Radogoszcz station from the Łódź ghetto. The trains were headed for Auschwitz, and my great-grandfather Edward (Yehuda) Biderman was on one of these ill-fated transports.
He had suffered so much already. Born into poverty on October 3, 1911, in Poland, he dropped out of school when he was 11 years old to become a carpenter’s apprentice. Before the war he was imprisoned in Łódź by the Polish regime for being a communist; he could not bear the social injustice, anti-Semitism and poverty he witnessed all around him.
For four years under a cruel German occupation, he witnessed the starvation, brutalization and murder of his people in the Łodz ghetto. From apartment 83 on 38 Franciszkanska Street in the ghetto, he went to work without pay in one of Lodz’s many woodworking shops and furniture factories.
By the time my great-grandfather boarded the train, which took him out of the ghetto forever, his first wife, Yenta, and his 6-year-old daughter, Leah, were already long dead — victims of earlier deportations to the Chelmno death camp. My great-grandfather fully expected to die in Auschwitz.
Instead, my great-grandfather was put to work as a carpenter in one of Auschwitz’s many slave labor facilities. That fall of 1944 was particularly harsh, but my great-grandfather knew the war was ending soon. Intense Russian artillery was frequently heard in the distance, and air sirens rang out with urgency. My great-grandfather reasoned that if he could make it until Christmas, he would survive the war.
Several weeks before Christmas, he was given an unexpected reprieve. A Nazi officer who had noticed his carpentry skills asked him to make wooden toys for the officer’s children for Christmas. My great-grandfather reassured himself that he would not be killed if he were involved in such a task. He diligently produced the toys and gave them to the Nazi officer. Four weeks after that, my great-grandfather was freed. Soldiers of the 60th Army of the 1st Ukrainian Front of the Soviet Red Army liberated Auschwitz on January 27, 1945. My great-grandfather continued to work as a carpenter for the rest of his life, first in Poland after the war and then in Australia, where he immigrated to in 1958 with his second wife and their two daughters.
Although I never knew my great-grandfather, I grew up hearing this story from my father and grandmother. So I knew that as a 10th-grade student at Baltimore City College High School, my personal project (as part of our school’s International Baccalaureate Program) would focus on memorializing Edward Biderman’s inspiring story of survival. My goal was to specifically learn the skill of woodworking to build a model of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp out of wood as a tribute to him.
Initially, I did not get much support from my immediate family. My younger sisters insisted I take on a cheerier topic, like giraffes or minions. My mother rejected my idea because she “did not want to come home to Auschwitz every night” for the entire school year. My father assumed that no one, myself included, would be interested in learning about Auschwitz in this day and age of prosperity and entitlement. Nevertheless, I persisted, spending about five hours each week over a six-month period of time working on my project.
The end result is a 20 square foot replica of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, made out of wood. The model includes over 100 barracks; four crematoria; “Camp Kanada,” where victims’ stolen clothing and personal items were sorted and shipped back to Germany; the “Sauna,” where inmates’ clothing were disinfected, and a water filtration plant. There is also the infamous main entrance and guard tower under which countless trains rolled while bringing innocent victims to Auschwitz from all over Europe; miniature victims disembark from a model train. Luggage is stacked. Watchtowers and barbed-wire fences surround the camp to prevent escapes. All barracks are painted in dark and light shades of brown to make them look wooden and worn. I painted the windows to the watchtowers and the main entrance with black gloss, giving them an eerie appearance. Military vehicles, soldiers and inmates are scattered among the camp. One inmate is covered in blood after being shot by a Nazi guard.
My completed project was displayed at my school on April 15 for students and faculty to see. The responses I received at school were overwhelmingly positive. My principal told me my project was “awesome”; my technology teacher took several photographs of it, and my AP literature teacher gave me a fist bump. My friends had all texted me messages of support prior to this presentation at school; they had all been to my home to see the project during its various stages of construction and completion on the Ping-Pong table in my basement. On April 21, my project was displayed at school for the general public. My local synagogue displayed it for Holocaust Memorial Day.
Despite my parents’ initial hesitations, they are now proud of my work. I photographed my project and turned it into a PowerPoint presentation on YouTube. Since then, countless emails have arrived on my parents’ computers. My grandmother and her sister were moved to tears by the emails; they both found my project to be an eloquent testimonial to a father they adored and admired.
As for me, I feel somewhat redeemed as a sophomore student by completing this project. As one of my mother’s co-workers told her, “You can’t complain to me anymore that Andrew is a lazy teenager.”
Andrew Altman is a 10th-grader at Baltimore City College High School.
Andrew Altman is a 12th grader at Baltimore City College High School.