01 July 2016
Wollheim Memorial: Willy Berler was born in Czernowitz in the Bukovina region on April 11, 1918. His father was a merchant, and the family, which also included Willy’s older brother, led an upper-middle-class life. Willy, a member of Zionist youth organizations, made a trip to the British Mandate of Palestine in 1936. Starting in 1937, he attended an agricultural school there, but returned a year later, at his parents’ urging, to study chemistry in Liège, Belgium.
His parents survived the war in Romania, as they managed to bribe Romanian officials and live in hiding. When the German Wehrmacht invaded Belgium in 1940, Willy Berler and two Jewish friends fled to France and went to a refugee camp near Marseille. Lack of money led him to return in October 1940 to Liège, where he earned his living by teaching German to adults. He was arrested by the Gestapo on April 1, 1943, after one of his pupils denounced him, and put in a transit prison [SS Camp Fort Breendonk].
There he became friendly with Michel Zechel, a Jewish doctor. They were deported to Auschwitz on April 19. Willy Berler was sent to the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp and placed there in the “lumberyard detachment,” carrying heavy logs with his bare hands. After a week, totally exhausted, he entered the infirmary. After his release, his block elder took pity on him and arranged for his transfer to the Auschwitz I main camp in early July 1943. There he was sent to the prisoner infirmary and, with the help of Michel Zechel, was placed in the block for the very weak who needed to convalesce.
In late January 1944, as a former chemistry student, he was assigned to the SS Hygiene Institute at Rajsko, where he had to work in a plant cultivation lab. During the night of January 18, 1945, along with the other prisoners at Auschwitz, he was forced to go on the death march. Passing through the Gross-Rosen concentration camp, he reached the Buchenwald concentration camp on February 6. There he was freed by the U.S. Army on his birthday, April 11, 1945.
Willy Berler returned to Belgium. In 1946, he and his brother, who had fought in the Red Army, brought their parents from Romania to join them. He worked in industry and married his wife, Ruth, in 1947. In collaboration with the historian Ruth Fivaz-Silvermann, Willy Berler wrote the book Durch die Hölle. Monowitz, Auschwitz, Gross-Rosen, Buchenwald (published in English as Journey Through Darkness: Monowitz, Auschwitz, Gross-Rosen, Buchenwald in 2004), most of which is the story of his survival. The rest of the book consists of short, separate texts contributed by Fivaz-Silvermann, providing background information that supplements Berler’s account with annotations and source references.