Retired crossing guard recalls pain of Holocaust

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(L-R): Marilyn Geller, State Police Colonel Marian McGovern, Bank of Canton President Stephen Costello, Oren Segal of the Anti-Defamation League; former CPD crossing guard Israel Geller, and Canton Police Chief Ken Berkowitz. (Courtesy of Bank of Canton)

To a generation of Canton kids who attended the Luce Elementary School, Israel “Izzie” Geller was their neighborhood crossing guard, a kind, old man with a European accent who helped guide them safely across the street at the intersection of Sawyer Avenue and Pleasant Street.

To the Nazis who imprisoned him, however, Geller was nothing more than a number, an object of their prejudice and wrath who was taken from his family and stripped of all humanity.

“Coming out of the shower in Auschwitz, my name was not Israel Geller. My name was 159320,” said Geller from his Canton home last week, brandishing the tattoo on his forearm that he will never remove.

He was barely a teenager — not much older than the kids he helped across the street — when Hitler’s army invaded his native Poland and packed the more than two million Jews into ghettos. Forced to wear the yellow Star of David on his clothes, Geller went on to endure more than five years of suffering in various concentration camps before he was finally liberated by American soldiers in the spring of 1945.

That he lived to tell about it is nothing short of a miracle, as an estimated six million Jews were killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust, including both of his parents and all four of his siblings.

To this day, Geller still gets emotional when he recalls this painful period in his life. And yet he has shared his harrowing tale on countless occasions, including most recently in front of a gathering of law enforcement officials at the Bank of Canton headquarters on Turnpike Street.

The purpose of the event, which was co-sponsored by the Canton Police Department and the Anti-Defamation League, was to address current trends in domestic extremism. However, Canton Police Chief Ken Berkowitz also took the opportunity to publicly recognize Geller for his ten years of service to the town as a crossing guard.

In his introductory remarks, Berkowitz, who is also Jewish, described Geller as a “good friend” and a “true hero.” He also reminded officers of their collective responsibility to separate “what is good from what is evil” and urged them to think of Geller whenever they have any self-doubt or do not believe they can make a difference.

Afterwards, Geller stood before the officers and delivered a heart-wrenching account of survival in the face of despair.

He spoke about his earliest memories of the Germans, who arrived in his hometown of Pabianice without warning and almost immediately began restricting the movement of his family, friends and neighbors. He recalled how the Germans began ordering people to work for them, and how he volunteered to go in place of his father.

“Daddy,” he said to his father at the time, “you stay. I’ll go.”

Even in those early days, Geller took risks in order to help others. For instance, he managed to obtain a letter that permitted him to go outside of the ghetto, and every morning he would remove his yellow star and head to the bakery to get some bread for his family.

Geller’s freedom would be short-lived, however, as the Germans began rounding people up to send them to labor camps.

After hearing the news from his kid brother, Geller tried to hide out in a neighbor’s shop, but the very next morning, at “6 o’clock exactly,” he was discovered and ordered onto a train. From there he was taken to a factory, and after a short stay he was shipped out to Benchen, where he spent more than two years performing forced labor on the railroads.

As he later told the Citizen, Geller did anything he could to survive while at Benchen. He performed odd jobs — anything and everything that his overseers asked of him. He collected discarded cigarette butts and accumulated a secret stash of potatoes, which he shared with others at a great risk to his safety.

He even engaged in acts of sabotage in order to avoid the wrath of a particularly cruel police officer.

“The only way we could get rid of him was to take the sacks of cement and rip them apart so he wouldn’t dare go in,” said Geller. “He couldn’t see anybody, that’s how thick the cement was.”

Fortunately for Geller, the German who was in charge of his particular group was kinder than the others. But the men in the other groups, which included one of his cousins, were beaten regularly and watched like hawks.

Meanwhile, life in camp grew considerably worse by 1941, around the time that the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union. By then, Geller recalled, the soup they were given looked like “water from the sink,” and the “loaf of bread that was once divided for two was divided for six or eight.”

If it weren’t for those potatoes they would not have survived. And yet the potatoes also directly caused the death of five men, two of whom were brothers, after they were caught smuggling them into the camp.

A few weeks after those men were hanged, another three were put to death for not being ready to go to work and for resisting a beating from a guard.

When it finally came time to leave Benchen by train, there was a brief moment when Geller thought he might be headed home.

“But we didn’t go to home,” he said. “We went to Auschwitz.”

Although his stay was brief at the infamous concentration camp, Geller was at Auschwitz long enough to be branded with a number and to witness the mass slaughter of Jews.

He still vividly remembers arriving at the camp and smelling the fumes from the crematorium. He then watched in horror as German guards brought wagons full of corpses to be incinerated.

“There were children in those wagons,” recalled Geller, fighting back tears. “Those kids came out dead, the mothers with the kids together.”

From Auschwitz, Geller was sent to Warsaw, the largest ghetto in Poland, where he was ordered to perform demolition work in the wake of a Jewish uprising.

He later spent time in two other camps — Dachau and Meldorf, both in Germany — before boarding another train that was headed for the Alps, where the prisoners were to be executed.

But they never reached their destination as American troops attacked the engines, stopping the train and liberating all of the prisoners aboard.

Just 20 years old, Geller was a free man but had “nowhere to go.” He ended up moving in with an elderly couple in a small town outside Frankfurt, where he found work as a police officer.

Four years later, without money or family, he arrived at Ellis Island in New York. From there he went to Roxbury, where he met his future wife, Marilyn, and the couple later settled in Randolph before moving to Canton 17 years ago.

More than six decades have now passed since Geller left Europe, but the memories of those dark days still remain.

“It was hard to go through in life, this what I’ve been through,” said Geller, reflecting on his experiences in the Holocaust.

By far the most difficult part was losing his family, although Geller was overcome with joy years later when he was able to track down relatives both in France and New York.

He has also since gone back to visit Auschwitz and other sites in Poland. He initially resisted the idea, but Marilyn convinced him to go for their 50th wedding anniversary, and he was grateful that she did.

“I told him,” said Marilyn, “This was your homeland. You have to go back, just this once. I didn’t care if he picked up a handful of dirt. You know, it’s like the old cliché: You came; you saw; you conquered.”

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