Faces of Cedars-Sinai: Charles Selarz, Holocaust Survivor and Volunteer
Jan 18, 2017 Cedars-Sinai Staff
Charles Selarz, 97, reports for work every Monday morning as a volunteer at Cedars-Sinai, as he has for two decades.
In a small conference room in the North Tower, Charles shows up neatly dressed, white trousers and a white shirt under a blue Cedars-Sinai jacket. He sits at a table and stuffs envelopes, attaches address labels, whatever is needed.
Charles rolls up the left sleeve of his shirt and points to a pale blue number tattooed on his upper left forearm:
"This is Auschwitz," he says, his finger on the tattoo. Charles is a Holocaust survivor, one of a handful who work as Cedars-Sinai volunteers.
"I'm the only survivor"
Every one of his relatives perished in Nazi gas chambers in World War II. He barely escaped death several times, surviving three concentration camps, including Auschwitz in southern Poland.
"I'm the only survivor from my family," Charles says. "I can't believe it. I can't understand it."
"Parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews. Nobody," he adds slowly in an accent tinged with Yiddish. "God left me. I don't know how."
Charles wants to talk about his experiences. He says he could fill volumes with his memories and still fall short of capturing it all.
Before the war, Charles worked at a bank in a small town near Lublin in Poland. His Jewish family had lived there for generations.
Then the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939. Charles' family fled to nearby fields and hid for several days. When they returned, their home had been destroyed, along with much of their town.
A poor Polish Catholic family took them in. The head of the household was a commander of the local fire department who had been taken away by the Nazis. The Polish man was later killed, Charles recalls.
His family was eventually rounded up. His parents and grandparents were taken away and were told they were going somewhere to help make a Jewish state.
Treblinka, Majdanek, Auschwitz
"They took them to Treblinka," Charles says. "It was not a working camp. They dropped you off, you go inside, and that was it."
Charles was about 21 then. He was young and strong, and his ability to perform hard physical labor helped keep him alive. The Nazis took him to Majdanek, a concentration camp near his hometown in eastern Poland.
Charles left Majdanek in 1942. He eventually wound up in Auschwitz.
Upon entry, he was ordered to undress. A man carefully looked him over, front and back and pronounced him fit to work.
He toiled in a coal mine under the watchful eye of local police and German soldiers. He dug and fortified mine shafts. He helped lay munitions. He labored 10 hours a day. When his crew left, the site had to be spotless. Once, a guard saw a stray piece of coal. Soldiers rousted him and his team around midnight and forced them to perform military-style exercises in the snow for more than an hour.
The Russian army was closing in on Auschwitz by January 1945. Charles says he could hear the Russian guns pounding the countryside near the camp.
The Nazis emptied the camp and ordered about 60,000 prisoners on a "death march." Charles walked in freezing temperatures from Auschwitz to towns more than 30 miles away. An estimated 15,000 prisoners died during the winter evacuation.
"If you couldn't walk anymore—boom, boom. That was it," he says.
The Nazis sent survivors to other camps away from the front lines. Charles went to Dachau in southern Germany.
American soldiers liberated Dachau in 1945, about a week before the Nazi surrender. He was free.
In the weeks of chaos that followed the collapse of the Nazi regime, Charles somehow ran into a young woman he used to know who had been liberated by English soldiers.
"This was my girlfriend from our town," he says of his future wife, Miriam. "We used to be together."
Coming to America
The couple married in the American occupied zone of Germany. After waiting four years to get permission, they emigrated to the United States.
Charles and Miriam settled in Los Angeles. They raised two children. Their children in turn gave them four grandchildren. Miriam died of cancer 21 years ago.
That's what brought Charles to Cedars-Sinai. After his wife's death, his daughter persuaded him to volunteer. He has been here ever since.
Charles is in excellent health. Still tough. Still strong. He has no intention of retiring.
He still wears his gold wedding band. "I don't want the girls to run after me," he jokes.
"He's right," says volunteer Doreen Horowitz, who drives Charles to Cedars-Sinai every Monday and works beside him. "Everyone comes down here to give him a hug."
Want to be a volunteer like Charles? Learn more about volunteering at Cedars-Sinai.