By Alex Davidson
When Michael Preisler was a teenager in pre-World War II Poland, he had always expected to take over his father’s architectural firm in the town of Jarocin.
Preisler, 84, a Catholic now living in Richmond Hill, said the best part was that the father and son team would not have to change the sign because both were named Michael.
Those plans, however, came to halt in 1939 when the German army invaded Poland. Preisler, who was just out of high school, was forced along with his parents and 12 siblings to flee to the town of Czestochowa.
It was only two years later that Preisler was arrested for being a member of the Polish Underground Army and sent to the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz.
“The commander said to us when we got there, ‘There is no way out of here. Only through the chimney,’” Preisler recalled from his Richmond Hill home. “I said to myself, ‘I have to get out, but how?’”
Now almost 60 years after being liberated from the Nazis, Preisler said surviving his experience as a Catholic prisoner for nearly four years in Auschwitz-Birkenau — where a million Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, Jehova’s Witnesses and other Catholics were put to death — has given him a mission.
His goal is to educate young people and others about “the other 5 million,” or the non-Jewish victims, of the Holocaust. He wants all groups persecuted by the Nazis to work together so no one will forget.
“We all suffered together, we were all treated the same way,” Preisler said. “From the back, we all looked the same.”
Preisler came to Queens in 1949 and first lived in Jamaica, later moved to Ozone Park and then ended up in his current Richmond Hill home. Along with the help of the Polish American Congress, he regularly lectures about Polish Catholics who were killed at the hands of the Nazis. He said he has been troubled by the lack of awareness among American youth of the Holocaust and other genocidal acts committed by Adolf Hitler that affected more than just the Jewish population.
“We were in the same boat,” Preisler described. He said he slept alongside Jews and other persecuted groups during the 3 1/2 years he spent in Auschwitz from 1941 to 1945.
Preisler estimated that at least 70,000 Poles died in Auschwitz, with a total of 2.5 million Christians dying during the Holocaust. Auschwitz had a capacity of thousands of people at one time, Preisler said, not counting other nearby camps such as the one at Birkenau where the prisoners were killed.
During his time at Auschwitz, which was followed by what Preisler calls a “death march” through Czechoslovakia to Austria in 1945, he had a variety of jobs and ended up keeping track of people coming into the camp and those who had died.
Preisler, who is 5-foot-6 and weighed only 80 pounds at the time of his internment, worked with all ethnic groups in Auschwitz because of his administrative role, he said. The 84-year-old described conditions in the camp, such as starvation, disease, and random executions by either firing squad or hanging that involved all people at the death camp regardless of race or religion.
“We worked together, we were beaten together,” Preisler said.
Preisler, who settled in Munich after the war, married and then came to America, criticized the depictions of the Holocaust in Hollywood movies and said they were inaccurate. He said the movies exaggerate certain elements at Auschwitz and leave other matters unresolved.
Films, Preisler said, largely ignore the “others” who died in the Holocaust, such as the Catholics. He said more than 2,000 priests were killed during the Holocaust, along with academics, resistance fighters, lawyers and doctors of Polish heritage.
“To me as a survivor, no film, no book can show what happened behind the barbed wire,” Preisler said. “You had to be there to know the whole story.”
Preisler said one Catholic priest who is remembered as a hero at Auschwitz is Father Maximillian Koleb, who voluntarily substituted himself for another man selected to be executed. Koleb, who immediately identified himself as a priest, was not put to death and instead kept from eating for two weeks, Preisler said.
Koleb later died when SS guards got frustrated and decided to kill the priest who had been starving for 14 days, Preisler said.
“This was tyranny against the whole human race,” Preisler said. “We are all humans created by God. But we do not have to fight each other.”
Preisler’s office is filled with books, letters and other notes chronicling the history of Catholics persecuted in the Holocaust. He will be part of an upcoming anthology detailing the lives of interned Catholics at Auschwitz and plans to speak this spring during Holocaust Remembrance Day in Washington, D.C. — the first-ever Catholic to make the address.
Although he said he has not yet written his speech, Preisler said he would probably discuss the commonalities among all groups targeted by the Nazis. He said as survivors of World War II’s atrocities begin to die, it is important to continue to tell their stories and ensure that people remember the hardships Holocaust victims endured.
“Be specific, who are the others?” Preisler said. “I can forgive, but I will never forget.”
Reach reporter Alex Davidson by e-mail at email@example.com or by calling 718-229-0300, Ext. 156.