Jack Betteil. Photo by Matthew Betteil.
Jack Betteil. Photo by Matthew Betteil.
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‘This is my last interview,’ says centenarian Holocaust survivor

“You can ask me anything you want, and I’ll answer you,” Jack Betteil, 100, told JNS.

It is painful for Jack Betteil, 100, to remember the concentration camps he survived during the Holocaust, narrowly escaping death many times. But after offering chocolate babka and water to JNS in his New York home, he agreed to discuss his life to testify to his experiences during the Holocaust and to memorialize those he has loved throughout his long life, including those who helped him survive.

He shared haunting memories that his son Matthew Betteil, who was on hand, says often make it impossible for his father to sleep.

“This is my last interview. I’m not going to make any more,” the elder Betteil told JNS. “You can ask me anything you want, and I’ll answer you.”

‘Work faster’

Betteil was about 15 when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939. He and his family were forced into the Krakow ghetto. When he was 19, in March 1943, his family was deported to the nearby Płaszów slave labor camp operated by the German SS, which Steven Spielberg depicted in “Schindler’s List.”

He remembers being in a cattle car on a train. “The train would stop for hours,” he told JNS. “The doors were locked. There was hardly any air. All the people were yelling to God, ‘Water! Water! Water!’”

“There were about 100 cattle cars with people. Each cattle car had 100 inmates,” he said. “It was horrible.”

A fight broke out when some of the Jewish inmates ripped open the train floor to escape. Some were against it. “They said, ‘Let’s not run away because they’re gonna kill all of us, with machine guns, the Nazis,’” Betteil said. “There was such a fight. ‘Yes, let’s go!’ Or ‘No. Let’s not go!’ There was nowhere to run. We didn’t know where we were going. Nobody knew.”

“If I could do it over again, I wish I would’ve jumped through that hole and just run,” he said.

Everyone was yelling, screaming, crying and praying when the train arrived in Płaszów, he remembered. “Finally, the German officer says, ‘OK. Give them water.’ So they open up the hydrants and splash all the trains with water,” Betteil said. “You know what happens if you put cold water on a stove? It sizzles.”

Jack Betteil
Image of a concentration camp, 1943-45. Credit: From the photo collection of Holocaust survivor Jack Betteil.

People were dying in the steam. “It was terrible,” he said.

In Płaszów, Betteil was assigned to build barracks and to carry and stack bodies. He was assigned the latter grim duty at other camps as well.

“They made me carry bodies piled up to one flight up,” he told JNS. “I had to carry legs and the other guy was arms.”

At one point, a Nazi officer looked at the “arms guy” and shot him to death. The Nazi looked at Betteil and said, “Work faster.”

Betteil told JNS that he had a friend in Płaszów whom he wanted to acknowledge. He never learned the young man’s last name but remembers that Giovanni helped him survive in “hell” by showing him what he could eat.

“He showed me how to eat any kind of garbage,” Betteil said.

“We never could find out what happened to Giovanni, or even his last name,” Matthew Betteil told JNS.

Jack Betteil
Jack Betteil in post-war Italy. Credit: Courtesy.

“Giovanni didn’t make it,” the elder Betteil said.

To this day Betteil—a sculptor who works in metal, copper, glass and other media—pays tribute to his friend in all of his works, which he inscribes with his pseudonym: Giovanni Yankle Betteil.

‘I had to take it’ 

Betteil shared a picture of his beloved maternal grandparents, Chaim and Feiga Kempler, with whom he was close and who lived in a small Polish town.

“When the Nazis came into Poland, the first thing they asked was, ‘Are there any Jews in this town?’” Betteil said. His grandparents were the only Jews in the town. One of his grandfather’s friends, a Christian, pointed Chaim and Feiga out to the Nazis. “They shot them right on the spot—him and her,” he said.

Betteil’s father, Moshe/Moritz (Matthew) was a learned man, he told JNS. His mother, Rosa, “a very bright woman,” ran a store.

Betteil told JNS that his parents and his sister Salusha, Sally, all died in the gas chambers. Another sister, Cescia, survived the camps as he did.

Jack Betteil
Jack Betteil in Italy after surviving the Holocaust. Credit: Courtesy.

“I am the only one left,” Betteil said. “I miss my family.

“Thank God, I got my son,” he added. “He is fantastic.”

Matthew Betteil shared stories about his aunt Cescia and her husband, Karol Braunhut, both of whom survived the war.

When the elder Betteil got sick from the slave labor forced upon him in Płaszów, he went to the infirmary. “The Nazi doctor was going patient to patient and injecting them with air bubbles to kill them because they weren’t good slaves,” Matthew Betteil said. “His brother-in-law, Karol Braunhut, tapped on the window and said to Jack, ‘If you stay here, you’re going to die.’”

So Betteil crawled out the infirmary window before the doctor could reach him.

Matthew Betteil prompted another of his dad’s memories. Betteil was taken on a forced march to a concentration camp in the Austrian town of Melk, during which he and others passed through an apple orchard. Starving, Betteil pulled an apple from the tree as he walked by.

“Dad, you said you ate the entire apple in one bite, right?” Matthew Betteil said.

Betteil nodded.

“They caught him doing it,” the younger Betteil said.

At the end of the march, the Nazis sat Betteil down in front of everyone.

“They took my pants down and gave me 25 lashes with a leather whip,” he told JNS. “The officer gave me a few lashes. After that, he handed the whip to the kapo. The kapo hit me harder for the next 12 or 15.”

“If I made a sound they would’ve shot me,” he told JNS. “So I had to take it.”

‘I’m going to shoot you’

Matthew Betteil told JNS of his aunt saving his father’s life after the war.

Jack Betteil
Jack Betteil, 1946. Photo by Heather Robinson.

Cescia Betteil and her brother were in the Austrian concentration camp Ebensee in May 1945. The Nazis were fleeing ahead of the approach of American troops and discarding their weapons and uniforms to blend in with civilians. At first, many prisoners were scared to leave the barracks.

Betteil’s sister, who was then 19 or 20, left the women’s camp and found an abandoned, loaded gun. She walked to the men’s camp and located her brother, who was dying of typhus. In the immediate chaos after U.S. forces liberated the camp, “she managed to find a horse and wagon, put Jack in the wagon and set out into the Austrian countryside for help,” Matthew Betteil said.

“It was Jack in the cart, sick, and these other women who had survived with Cescia,” he said of his dad and his aunt.

Cescia Betteil found a farmhouse and knocked on the door asking for food and blankets.

“They said, ‘No. We don’t have anything for you,’” Matthew Betteil said. “Cescia pulled out the gun. She said, ‘If you don’t give me something, I’m going to shoot you and take it.’”

At gunpoint, the family gave her food and blankets, enabling Cescia Betteil to save her brother’s life.

Jack Betteil
Jack Betteil teaching art to his great-grand-nieces on Long Island during the pandemic. Photo by Matthew Betteil.

Matthew Betteil remembers his aunt, who lived to be 93, “clenching her small fist” 65 years later at her granddaughter’s wedding, saying, “I wasn’t going to let them say ‘No.’ I’d do anything for my brother.”

“She had the will to live also,” Matthew Betteil said.

Life after hell

The elder Betteil came to the United States in the 1950s, after spending two years in Italy, including in a displaced persons camp.

In Italy, he served in the Irgun, loading boats with survivors headed for Israel. In one operation, he hung a Star of David flag at a British Army post.

“We opened up the window in an attic, me and two guys. We stuck the Israeli flag,” he said. “British soldiers lived in the building, and they woke up to see a Jewish flag.”

Jack Betteil
Jack Betteil. Photo by Heather Robinson.

He also helped Jewish refugees get to Israel, loading them up on pontoon boats and paddling them to ships.

“I could have jumped on a ship, but I didn’t,” he told JNS.

He learned to speak Italian fluently at that time, traveling around the country with other survivors. They had little money, but everywhere, people gave them food.

“In every city in Italy—Barzanò, Bologna—the Italian people, they would say, ‘Mangia, mangia,’” Betteil said, using the Italian for “Eat, eat.”

“They saw we were starved. They were very sweet, very nice to us,” he said. “Italy is a wonderful country and the people are marvelous.”

“The Italians are good people,” he added.

Betteil went on to forge a long, productive, happy life in the United States.

He met his Jewish-American wife, Helen Balamut, on the beach at Coney Island in 1952.

“She was beautiful,” Betteil recalled. “I took her out for spaghetti.”

They traveled to France and England. In addition to their son Matthew, they had a daughter.

He became a radio and television repairman; he learned karate. Once, he told JNS, he successfully defended himself against a man who tried to mug him in an elevator with a bayonet. He kicked the man in the kneecap. “He fell to the ground crying and said, ‘You didn’t have to do that,’” Betteil told JNS. “But I did have to.”

Betteil has one granddaughter and dozens of nieces, nephews, great-nieces and great-nephews, many of whom gathered recently for Betteil’s 100th birthday party at his son’s Brooklyn home.

Jack Betteil
Jack Betteil with his family, including his son Matthew, nieces, nephews, grandnieces, grandnephews, great-grand-nieces and great-grand-nephews, at his 100th birthday celebration. Photo by Matthew Betteil.

Current events

Betteil told JNS that he doesn’t think the United States should be involved in the war that Russia launched against Ukraine two years ago. He is especially against American boots being on the ground there.

He told JNS that he witnessed the extreme brutality of Ukrainians toward Jews during World War II. He also said he has no use for Russia because of the extensive antisemitism in Russia.

“I wasn’t in Ukraine, but we saw the Ukrainians killing Jews. Piling up and killing each one of them,” he said.

He told JNS of the Einsatzgruppen, the “mobile killing squads.”

“They were Ukrainians. I saw it. I saw them killing Jews. Women, children. That’s why when people ask me, ‘What do you think about Russia and Ukraine?’ I say, ‘I’m not interested in either one of them.’”

He supports Israel’s efforts to press on in its mission to eradicate Hamas.

“You have to fight back,” he said.

JNS asked the centenarian for his advice on longevity. “Take care of your health,” he recommended. “Eat oranges.”

“I had a good life in this country,” he added. “America is the best country in the world.”

Jack Betteil
Jack Betteil. Credit: Courtesy.
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