Łódż is closer than you think: Loretta Kiron talks about Auschwitz, white-flight and tennis
Loretta Kiron: Oral History Excerpts
Q: Tell us a little about your parents’ origins.
LK: They were both first generation. Their parents were from Poland. My husband, too, was from Poland. So, I tell my children they are purebreds.
Q: Tell us whatever you know about where they came from and how they got here.
LK: My grandparents on both sides of the family were from Łódż, Poland, a large textile manufacturing city. My husband was actually born in Łódż which is an amazing coincidence. My grandfather on my mother’s side came to this country to avoid conscription by the Russian army. My grandmother on my mother’s side was already here with her parents. Her father, my great grandfather, owned a lot of real estate, which he lost during the Depression.
Would you like to know how I met my husband?
Q: We would!
LK: I grew up in Washington. My husband was a Holocaust survivor.
Q: Tell us what you can about that story.
LK: He was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944 where he was separated from his mother, never to see her again —and later to another concentration camp called Dora-Nordhausen from which he was one of the few people to escape. Dora is a camp that is not well-known. It was liberated by an American Army unit with Laura Bush’s father.
Q: No kidding?
LK: No kidding. We were invited to the White House on Memorial Day. I can show you the picture.
Q: We would love to see it.
LK: It is around the corner. Let’s have a look. (We move to the next room and view the picture of the Kirons with President George W. and Laura Bush. Other pictures and mementos surround it).
While we are here, also have a look at this plaque. Can you make out the wording?
Q: It says “Dora---Allan Kiron”.
LK: And do you see the leather? Those straps are from belts. Dora was a concentration camp where the Nazis were constructing an underground rocket factory in the Harz Mountains in Eastern Germany to assemble and launch V2 long range ballistic rockets, which they were going to use to attack the Allies. They didn’t want anybody to know about it, so they had the inmates, slave laborers, dig out with their hands and pick-axes and carry the heavy rocks out from the mountain to build this place. It was, as you can imagine, very hard work. There were big boulders to carry and they didn’t have anything to protect their hands. Slave laborers owned two things: a leather belt to hold up their pants and a spoon to eat with. My husband was a very creative person., When someone died from exhaustion or malnutrition, he would take the spoon, rub it against a rock and whittle down the end to make a tool so he could cut the belt which he fashioned into a cross making a kind of glove. He was able in this way to protect his hands so that he wouldn’t cut himself and avoid getting gangrene. When the other inmates saw what he was doing, they would trade him food for him to make the same type of thing. He had to be very careful that the Germans wouldn’t see what he was doing. And that is how he survived that concentration camp.
Q: How long was he there?
LK: I don’t know how many months, but I do know that when the Allies were coming and the Germans knew they were going to be defeated, they took all the inmates out on April 14, 1945 and they marched them to a town in Germany called Gardelegen where all the prisoners were put in a barn which was set on fire to kill all the people inside. He was one of those people, but he managed to get out through a hole made by the explosion. His clothes and body were in flames. It was dark, so he knew the Germans could see him. He rolled on the ground to extinguish the flames and crawled on the ground through the forest to get away from the Germans.
Q: What an amazing story!
LK: He was one of I don’t know how many people who survived that.
Q: The world is better for having had him around.
LK: With the war over he was sent to a refugee camp in Germany. From there, at the age of 16, he was able to get onto the SS Ernie Pyle, a ship transporting people to the United States. He arrived in NYC knowing only one word of English, “OK,” From there he was sent to a Jewish Orphanage in Cleveland, Ohio and was later sent to Kanas City, Missouri, where a mid-western Christian family took him in as a foster child. There he was able to finish high school. I don’t know how he did it, but he finished high school in one year and learned English. He was very smart and knew he wanted to go to college. He enlisted in the US Army and after his discharge was eligible for the GI Bill of Rights to get his education.
Q: What years were those? Sounds like the 1950s.
LK: His Army service was in Korea from March 13, 1949 to October 1, 1952. He graduated from the University of Missouri in 1956 after which he came to the United States Patent and Trademark Office, where we met. I graduated from high school in 1955 and had gotten a summer job in 1956 working in the Patent Office as a typist. The government used to hire young people back then just for the summer. My brother also worked at the Patent Office and told me about the job opening. I was assigned to the same division as my husband—Division 59 organic chemistry. In those days we didn’t have computers. He would submit to me his hand-written responses to patent applications which I was supposed to type up but I could not read his handwriting. So, I constantly had to go back to his cubby hole and interview him: “what is this word?” One thing led to another…
Over the years we developed a mutual interest in gardening. Do you know Scott and Helen Nearing? They were the original back-to-the-earth movement people. They lived up in Maine and were promoting organic gardening. We were interested in that and went to visit them. We had a mini farm in our back yard growing corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, beans and even figs. A neighbor took a photo of us in our “corn field.” It is a take off on the painting, “American Gothic”. Here is our version:
Q: Could we go back—I wanted to ask about Allan’s wartime experience. He was a teenager when he was in the camps?
LK: That’s right. His family name was Choroszcz. That, actually, is the name of a small town in Poland that his family had come from because people used to take the name of the town they lived in. Łódż, where he was born and grew up, was a big textile manufacturing center.
Q: But you knew about his wartime experiences…
LK: Oh yes. He showed me his tattoo number. It was the first thing he actually showed to me. I had never seen something like that. I was about 18 years old. I knew about the war and about what happened to the Jews. I am Jewish and I knew about the persecution of the Jews, but I really hadn’t any first-hand knowledge of that.
He couldn’t entirely escape the terrible experiences of the war. In addition to being a chemist in the Patent Office, he was a technical advisor to the Congress. One day in his duties as an advisor, Werner Von Braun was being interviewed. You may remember that Von Braun was the German scientist responsible for developing the V-2 rocket, which was being done at the Dora Concentration Camp where Allan was a slave laborer. Von Braun periodically made visits to the camp to note the progress of the program and was aware of the harsh conditions there. Allan saw him many times. He, Allan, was supposed to ask Von Braun some questions but his war time memories were too painful and he asked to be relieved of that responsibility which he was.
Q: OK—it is 1968 and you have four kids and you are making decisions about DC. You made a fundamental decision: you decided to stay in DC.
Q: Give us a flavor of the conversations you were carrying out with neighbors at that time who were not staying.
LK: Their main concern was the schools—and I know a lot of people are still concerned about them. But we always felt that a lot of our children’s education was going to come from the family. Arthur, the curator, was on the Wilson High School team competing against public and private schools on a radio show called “It’s Academic” and they got to the finals. Education was always a big factor in bringing up our children. I read books to my children and we took many trips to the wonderful museums downtown. We thought we found people who shared our values. And we were right. And we weren’t afraid, you know. Maybe there was some doubt. But the determination to stay here was stronger than any doubt we might have had. I am glad we did stay. I think we made the best decision for our family. I didn’t want to move out to suburbia with all those cookie-cutter homes.
Q: Tell us about your experience in the neighborhood and its connections with DC more broadly.
LK: I joined the League of Women Voters because I hoped to get voting representation for the District of Columbia. I am not a real fan of statehood but I can remember my parents living in DC and every four years going to New Jersey to vote for the President, which at that time DC could not. When DC finally got the vote it was very important to me. I joined the League because I thought I could make a difference. Obviously I did not, but I did work on the household hazardous waste committee which I chaired. I was interested in the safe disposal of things like batteries, oil paints, antifreeze and the like. I have always been very interested in the environment. Clean water, clean air, and healthy food are an important part in my life. After reading up on household hazardous waste it occurred to me that the League could work with the city to set up a collection program for this. And we did. It used to be that the waste could be brought to a collection point at Carter Barron. Now you can bring it once a month to Fort Totten.
We used to be active up at the school working at the Lafayette Fair and raising a lot of money for the school. I also taught tennis at the 16th Street Courts.
Q: Tell us about that.
LK: After my children were all in school, I went back to playing tennis.
Q: Did you also teach up at the 33rd Street courts (Lafayette)?
LK: It wasn’t as easy to teach there. At that time Chico—do you know Chico?—was there. I have a picture of him. Would you like to see it?
Q: Yes, please.
LK: I have to actually tell you that when I learned tennis, he was actually the one who taught me when I was living on Sheridan Street. Takoma Park Recreation Center was in my neighborhood and had tennis courts and Chico used to teach there. Well, my parents couldn’t afford tennis lessons. So I used to approach Chico with “Oh, Chico, how do you hit the forehand?” It’s funny, because the people Chico taught for money never did anything with their tennis. But the kids who played on public courts and didn’t take tennis lessons were the ones who became more serious with it. We really wanted to learn how to play.
When we moved here, I saw Chico and we revived our friendship. By that time I was a grown woman. Can you see the wooden tennis racquet in the photo?
Q: Yeah. So you deferred to Chico by taking students on the 16th Street courts.
LK: That’s right.
Q: So, how did this picture come to you?
LK: When he died, a man by the name of Sal Arrigo and I became the executors of Chico’s estate because he didn’t have a will. He had no family that we knew of so it was up to us to take possession of his property for him. This picture was in one of the boxes that he had.
Q: We have heard that his funeral was well attended.
LK: Yes. It was very nice. Two Catholic Priests played Spanish music on guitars and gave him a nice eulogy. He was buried in The Gate of Heaven cemetery in a plot that I selected.
Q: Where is that?
LK: On Georgia Avenue in Maryland. He wanted to be buried in a Catholic cemetery.
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