Judith Mark-Piser was cleaning her house a short time ago, and, rummaging through old boxes in her garage, she came across an old pair of leather sport cleats she couldn’t identify.
It took her a minute, but she suddenly realized that the worn shoes exemplified what saved her father Andre Mark’s life during the Holocaust — soccer.
“Soccer saved his life,” Mark-Piser said of Mark, the grandfather of CSU student Alexa Piser.
As the unlikely Jewish survivor of the genocide that claimed so many of his people’s lives, Mark’s story spans nearly two years of barely avoiding death by execution and starvation in four concentration camps and finally ended in a miraculous escape.
Living in a culture of hopelessness and misery in four different concentration camps, Mark’s first hope for survival came one day when a Nazi officer asked for inmates who played soccer. Mark stepped forward, telling the officer he had been standout in high school.
The officer had Mark transported to another barrack at the concentration camp in Auschwitz, Poland, where he and others played soccer all day as two teams of 11 inmates.
What he later learned was that the Germans used the soccer team and the image of the comparatively healthy prisoners to disguise the massive death rate in the camp from Allied Forces planes that flew overhead.
As a member of the team, Mark was given water and enough food to sustain his energy to play –/a privilege that was reserved for athletes in the camp. But the cleats Mark-Piser found in her garage were not part of that privilege –/the prisoners were forced to play barefoot.
Mark, labeled as prisoner No. 59,527, was forced to labor every day, but couldn’t bring himself to detail it to the Collegian.
“I won’t even describe it to you; you wouldn’t believe me even if I told you,” Mark said.
One day a Polish officer warned that the teams would be killed and replaced because they were too fit and could escape to tell the world about the camps and send for help.
The next day, Mark, fearing the pending executions, escaped death once again when the Nazis asked for a mechanic and he volunteered even though he knew nothing about the trade. He was sent to the Birkeneau concentration camp in Poland. The remaining soccer players were killed.
Mark lost his entire family in the Holocaust — two sisters, a brother, an aunt and both of his parents. Nazi soldiers killed most of them shortly after the initial invasion of his homeland in Hungary in 1944. His sisters and father died in the concentration camps.
Later in his time at Birkeneau, Mark met two German sisters, who forever changed his opinion of Germans. Wibbeke and Anna Bochum befriended him, risking their lives by sneaking him food and other essentials through the camp fence to help him survive.
It was from this experience he realized not all Germans were evil.
“Every survivor has a story, and for my dad, it was the little bit of human kindness that saved his life,” Mark-Piser said.
Mark’s escape came on a day he saw a Russian officer struggling with some empty milk buckets and asked if he could help carry them. The officer accepted and in turn allowed him to sneak by the German guards. He escaped.
At first chance he ducked away and snuck under one of the barracks where he stayed for 10 days with no food and little water.
On the 10th day, U.S. Sherman Tanks invaded the camp and liberated the survivors, including Mark, who, at 65 pounds, was near death.
“I believe in God, and God has helped me through tough times. How else would have I survived?” Mark asked.
Today, in spite of everything, Mark’s life message is tolerance.
“I think (discrimination) is a little better (today),” Mark said, who first shared his life story during a 1982 radio broadcast. “I used to speak to school children and tried to teach about hatred.”
“We are not to hate.”
His granddaughter, Piser, said she can sense that anti-Semitism is still around though she has never been disrespected or mocked because of her heritage. She, like Mark, said hate is what caused the Holocaust.
“Hate is destroying our world. We hate because we just don’t know, we don’t know anything about them,” she said. “We are scared, so we decide to hate.”
Piser said her grandfather taught her to remain optimistic and to live her life without fear of discrimination.
“One of my grandfather’s main sayings is, ‘things will always get better, and better, and better .'” she said.
Staff writer Scott Callahan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.