Monday, January 10, 2011

An Adventurer

In my continued series, Darkness into Life: Alabama's Holocaust Survivors Through Photography and Art, I'd like to introduce you to Stan Minkinow of Huntsville.

I met Stan one hot Saturday afternoon after a pleasant drive to Huntsville. The home he shares with his wife, Doris, is beautifully decorated with enchanting art. Stan is an avid art collector and can tell you exactly where on his worldly travels he lovingly purchased each piece. He is strikingly tall and has the posture that comes with being a life-long member of the Army. I was immediately drawn to hear the story of this Green Beret and retired Army Major.

In January 1942, when Stan was ten years old, he and his parents were forced to become residents of the Lodz Ghetto in Poland.

Approximately 160,000 Jews, more than a third of the city’s population, were forced into the ghetto, the second largest in the Polish-occupied territory. Barbed-wire fencing isolated the ghetto from the rest of the city. Using Jewish residents for forced labor, the Lodz Ghetto soon became a major Nazi production center. Living conditions were horrendous. Lack of running water and sewer systems, along with overcrowding, hard labor, and starvation, reduced the ghetto by more than 20 percent.

“Even before we were sent to the ghetto, I began to adapt,” he shares. “Jewish children weren’t allowed to attend school, so boredom and curiosity tempted me out onto the streets.” Those streets became his classroom where he witnessed the unusual becoming the ordinary. From carts carrying corpses to finely dressed people pocketing rotten potatoes, he watched as the daily events of his life changed.

“I stood on the street corner near my grandparents’ apartment and watched as Jews filed through the gate,” he recalls. “I saw young people, old people, some pushing baby carriages, some arriving on foot or by horse-drawn taxis, others getting out of fancy cars.” 

Inside the Lodz Ghetto, the living quarters for his family consisted of one room with a stove, one bed for his parents, and one couch where young Stan slept. Food was scarce; their main staple was yellow beets; even their bread was made from beets. The family considered it a feast when they were able to acquire horse meat. “At night I often thought, ‘I hope I wake up as a German tomorrow so that I will have enough to eat.’ ”

Stan and his parents bribed their way from the Lodz Ghetto to the Warsaw Ghetto. Less than a year later, his family made another daring escape, this time from the Warsaw Ghetto. Without even a suitcase, they approached the gate guarded by three policemen: one Jewish; one Polish; and the third, German. Stan’s father showed the German his passport, while his mother showed the Pole a booklet with cash inside. The family fled to the village of Radość, outside Warsaw, renting an apartment using their maid’s last name and living as Poles.

“If the Polish officer had been doing his job, he would have shot us,” he says.

After the Russians liberated Poland, Stan’s father was arrested for his involvement with the Polish government in exile. After a year, in yet another escape, Stan’s mother bribed a Polish guard to take her husband to Berlin. Stan recalls hearing gun shots as he and his mother were smuggled across the border sometime later. For a short time after the war, the family lived in a displaced persons camp in Berlin. Stan learned that his grandfather, Hein, had died at Auschwitz.

Not surprisingly, what started in the ghetto with a young boy’s curiosity and thirst for adventure played out in Stan’s life. In 1951, he saw a U.S. Army recruiting film in Munich. He enlisted and became a member of the elite, newly-created Special Forces, later becoming an American Cold Warrior and a Green Beret. He completed Officer Candidate School and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Infantry. A tour of duty in Korea was followed by two tours in Vietnam. Among his numerous medals are the Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star, and the Air Medal. He retired as a Major in 1979.

“I am what you would call an adventurer,” he says with a smile.