Joe Engel was 14 when the Nazis came for him. He watched the murder of 250 young people from his town of Zakroczym, Poland, before being transported to the infamous Auschwitz death camp. He witnessed the skin of his friends and fellow Jews being pulled from their bodies to make lampshades and gloves, and saw gold teeth plucked from living men and women.
After Engel had been at the camp for nearly four years and lost his brothers to the gas chambers, the Allied forces moved into Poland. The Nazis responded by packing over 100,000 people onto a cargo train to Germany. “People had been dying out like flies when they put us on that train,” recalls Engel. “It was snowing, and we kept our mouth open just to get a little bit of water. We had nothing. I said to myself, ‘If I stay on this cargo train, I’m not going to make it anyhow,’ so I took my life in my own hands.”
With the train moving about 55 mph, Engel estimates, he leaped. The train stopped, but the boy, now 18, was able to escape without being shot. He spent the next four weeks hiding in a foxhole that he dug from the dirt with his hands, trying to stay warm from the frigid cold and snow of January in Eastern Europe. At night, he’d sneak out to steal food from a nearby farm.
Eventually, Engel made a connection with a small pocket of resistors. He stayed with them until the war ended and fought alongside them as they attacked German ammunition trains. Five years later, he moved to Charleston, where his aunt lived. For 36 years, he ran a dry cleaning shop on King Street.
“I’m lucky to be alive,” Engel says. “It’s for the people that didn’t make it that I continue to tell my story wherever I go, so that they won’t be forgotten.”
On Fri. Jan. 25, Engel will be one of five prisoners of war to tell their stories in a special program on internment aboard the U.S.S. Yorktown at Patriots Point. A collaboration with the Charleston County School District, the program brings together students from Burke High School, Addlestone Hebrew Academy, Northside Christian School, and Palmetto Scholar Academy. Friday’s program will be recorded and streamed live through the CCSD’s video conference feed, allowing any teacher in the county to show the event to their classroom in real time.
During the forum, students will view brief introductory videos introducing the Holocaust, WWII, and the Korean and Vietnam Wars. The surviving POWs will then take the stage in a panel discussion that includes Engel, Korean War veteran William Funchell, Vietnam War veteran Quincy Collins (who spent over seven years in a Hanoi prison, including 18 months as John McCain’s cellmate), the son of WWII POW Ned Montgomery (his father perished in captivity), and Mary Murakami, who was held at a Japanese-American internment camp on U.S. soil for three years.
The least expected of those stories — at least for the students — may be that of Murakami, an American who was held in the Utah desert at Topaz internment camp throughout WWII. Within hours after the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan, the predominantly Japanese neighborhood where Murakami lived with her family in San Francisco was under siege by the U.S. military.
“We were living a normal life until Pearl Harbor,” Murakami recalls. “We looked up the street and saw that all traffic had been blocked going in and out, and we knew our lives would be changed completely.”
After months of curfews and lockdowns, her family was transported to an internment camp Utah in the spring, where she completed high school. They were initially crammed into horse stalls before they were later moved into austere barracks with regimented American food and rules. Upon the war’s end, each person was given $25, an Army blanket, and a train ticket.
Many of Murakami’s most troubling stories are about the challenge of assimilating back into an American culture that was highly suspicious of Japanese Americans. Still, she says she never questioned her loyalty to the U.S. despite having “no civil rights.”
“My father felt that this was the country of his children’s birth, and this was the country we would be loyal to,” Murakami says, adding that many people she encounters today don’t realize that some U.S. citizens were interned for years. “Of the 120,000 people put into camps, 70 percent were born in the U.S. Even today, you have to be very aware that your civil rights are in danger if you don’t do anything to protect them. It is such a fragile thing in this country, especially in times of war.”
Now in her 80s, Murakami still speaks to school groups because she doesn’t want what happened to her to ever happen again. That’s also the motivation of Joe Engel.
“I was in a death camp,” Engel says. “I tell the kids, ‘These things could happen again if we don’t watch out.’ ”
Patriots Point internment program occurs at 10 a.m. on Fri. Jan. 25 in the auditorium at the U.S.S. Yorktown. It is open to the public, with overflow seating and screens within the ship’s hangar. The broadcast of the program will be viewable live and following the presentation at patriotspoint.org.