Tofino Profile: Kurt Dolinas
by Shirley Langer, Tofino
Kurt has a tattoo. Not a red heart pierced by an arrow surrounding the name of a sweetheart. Neither is it something more new age--a multi-coloured mandala.
Kurt's tattoo is simple. B12397 tattooed on his left inner forearm in purplish ink when he was fifteen, when he was "shipped" to Auschwitz, the nazi concentration camp in Poland. Kurt is a holocaust survivor. The three years he endured shuffled about, exploited in work camps, treated callously and cruelly, always hungry and bone-tired, so demoralized and weak by the end, he and his companions were not able to even feel--those two years were only a short period in Kurt's life. After all, he's well over seventy now, and 1942 was a long time ago. What Kurt experienced in those three years, however, are like the tattoo, indelible, burned into his mind and memory, unforgettable.
Prompted by my questions, Kurt told me his story without drama. Perhaps the time that has elapsed has drained away the horror and sensations that accompanied it. Or maybe Kurt has buried those feelings so he won't have to feel them, re-live them.
Growing up in Czechoslovakia, on the border of Germany, anti-semitism was a fact of life. This fact became a bigger problem when political machinations resulted in the area where he lived suddenly falling under Polish occupation just prior to the Nazi occupation of Poland. Kurt remembers large placards appearing: don't buy from jews. Kurt and other little Jewish kids would tear them down, then run like hell to hide in places they had staked out. Hoping to get Kurt and his older sister Edith to what she thought was a safe place, Kurt's mother engaged two sympathetic Christian men to take them across the border to their grandmother in Prague. On the train, Kurt remembers feeling terrified as nazi Gestapo went through the railway cars examining documents, looking for Jews.
Kurt's parents got to Prague too, and things were not bad there until 1941. Then the German Gestapo required all Jews to pin the yellow star to outer clothing to show you were a Jew. Jews were not allowed to go to school, or use public transpor-tation. The roundup of Jews began. Kurt was part of a forced work group whose "work" was to clear out the homes and apartments of Jews who had been required to report to collection centers where they were evacuated to the detention ghetto of Teresienstadt. Eventually Kurt's family was evacuated there too, but Kurt was separated from his parents, though they were able to see each other. As many as 80,000 Jews from many nations were concentrated in Teresianstadt, before being shipped to various concentration camps.
In October of 1944, Kurt's journey into a hell-on-earth began. He was sixteen. Probably some of you have seen documentaries about this. He and hundreds of others were loaded into closed railway freight cars--no food, no water, a few pails. The destination was Auschwitz, but Kurt and the others knew nothing about this place. When the doors opened, everyone was forced out and hustled to the infamous gates of the concentration camp. It is at this point that the selection process began. A nazi standing at the head of the line assessed the people coming up to him. If the person was old, a young child, looked sick, feeble or handicapped, they were directed to the right--to the gas chamber, the crematorium. Their last stop on earth. The "final solution" to the problem of Jews. Kurt, a short but strapping 16 year-old was sent to the left, to former horse barns where he slept on the bare floor, hunger, cold and filth always present. He wore the infamous striped pants, shirt and thin jacket, thin socks, and of all things--sandals. Guards would taunt them, point at the crematorium and say, 'Tomorrow it's your turn to take a ride up the chimney.' The smell of death was in their nostrils always.
Those who went "to the left" were used as slave labour. Unloading salt from railway cars. Cleaning up a bombed oil refinery. Digging out ticking, unexploded time bombs. Cutting trees and digging deep holes to make upright barricades in roads. Forced marches, long rides in open freight cars with no food, licking snow balls for thirst, hunger, beatings, unloading dead bodies of those shot trying to escape or those whose health or will to live gave out. At times they were showered and de-loused with ddt powder and issued clean stripes.
"What did you think? What did you feel?" I asked Kurt.
"Nothing", he said. "My mind was reduced to nothing--only waiting to be the next to die."
"How did you manage to hang in," I said.
"I used to think of my mother," he said, silent tears brimming and rolling down his cheeks for the first time during the interview.
In May of 1945, columns of Jews and prisoners of war began a long forced march to Luebeck, a city on the shore of the Baltic Sea. There were many columns, 10,000 souls in each column. These were the last weeks of the war, but those weak and demoralized men didn't know that. Any who fell down or lagged behind at the end of the column was shot on the spot. Diarrhea was prevalent. You did your business moving, or else. Kurt marched with an infection in both eyes that worsened each day until he could barely see. Buddies helped him along. On the outskirts of a village not far from Luebeck, the column straggled between farmers and villagers lining the road. Something snapped in Kurt, and he veered from the column and lay down. "I had had enough, and thought a bullet would soon come." A German bystander hoisted the skinny Kurt up, and with "a vicious kick in the ass" booted Kurt back into the column. Marchers grabbed him and kept him going. Kurt rubs his hip. "It still hurts sometimes."
What I heard next was unbelievable. A mere hundred or so meters ahead, the whole thing ended; the horror simply dissolved. The German guards suddenly scattered and disappeared. A Yankee soldier appeared in a jeep, driving through the crowds of barely alive men asking, 'Anyone got any German Lugers?' The war in Europe was over.
"When it sunk in that we were free, some of us went into nearby woods, dropped to the ground, and slept. I don't know how long I slept. When we got up, we went into the village and stole food intended for pigs. Eventually u.s. soldiers gathered us up. We stayed in camps until each country made arrangements for us to go home."
Kurt had been in the second "death march" column. The first column had reached Luebeck, was forced onto barges which were towed out to sea, then bombed. Only four people survived. Kurt was a lucky man. Kurt's parents and sister didn't survive. He returned to Teresienstadt and found out they were among the last group shipped to Auschwitz, to the crematorium. Kurt, one uncle and a couple of cousins were the only survivors of a large family. "I was messed up for a long time," he said.
The rest of Kurt's life is another story. He worked, made a living, married, had kids. Kurt is the patriarch of the Dolina family here in Tofino. You know--Surfside Pizza and Tofino Sunrise B&B. He has a wicked sense of humour, a man always ready to schmooze over a cup of good coffee. He's not bitter, but he is cynical. The holocaust, he says, was everyone's fault.
When Europe's Jews were trying to get out before the war, very few countries accepted them, including Canada. Boatloads were turned away from ports everywhere, nowhere to go except back to meet their fate.
Shirley Langer describes herself as a woman about town with a well developed civic consciousness.