Listen to or download this article:

Katrina Shawver, a journalist for a Phoenix newspaper, was seeking a story for her weekly column. She had heard from a friend that a Holocaust survivor named Henry Zguda and his American wife, Nancy, lived in Phoenix. She called Zguda and was invited to come to his home, only a few blocks from her own. Shawver quickly bonded with both Henry and Nancy. Then she and Henry decided to have a series of weekly interviews, which she would draw on for her column and, later, for a book—this biography.

The horror story of Henry Zguda, a Catholic Pole born and raised in Krakow, Poland, begins with Henry walking down the street toward the YMCA for swim practice in 1942. A Gestapo car screeches to a stop beside him. Two men leap out, arrest Henry on the spot, throw him into the car, and take him to prison. After several days of torture, a practice used by the Gestapo to obtain information (of which Henry had little), he is taken to the train station and shoved into a cattle car so filled with people that it is impossible to do anything but stand, shoulder to shoulder. The door is slammed shut, and the train pulls out of the station. Henry has no idea what fate awaits him.

Most of his fellow passengers were Jews, which Henry was not, but under these circumstances, it made no difference. They did what they could to accommodate each other over days of travel, until they reached their final destination, Auschwitz. Many of the Jews would find themselves in the gas chamber in short order. Only those strong enough to work were allowed to live—at least long enough to finish building the camp.

His story covers more than two years in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. As a young man, he is characterized by his courage and tenacity to live under the most horrendous circumstances and his valor and compassion in helping his fellow prisoners—most of whom he met there, and some who had been childhood friends in Krakow. Somehow, Henry never lost hope, which would have been a death knell…as it was for many prisoners. He characterizes himself as lucky, very lucky.

Henry tells Shawver about his youth in Krakow. Most of all, his love for swimming. Henry was a member of the swim team at the YMCA founded and built by Americans. Despite the German presence, he had fun with his family and friends.

It is with some reluctance that he begins to give her details of his years in the concentration camps, but that is what she needs to know. Supporting his memories are photographs obtained after the war as well as official cards recording his Auschwitz registration, train passenger lists, personal effects inventories, and records of money sent to him by his family. These offer interesting details of life in the camps, as do some of Henry’s more pleasant memories. Prisoners participated in theater performances and concerts for the prison staff and their families as audiences.

As the interviews proceed, Henry intuits when it is time for him to tell Shawver what transpired as the camps’ main objective—killing Jews—was fulfilled. He explains how Jewish prisoners met their fate through such horrible means as being left, still alive, hanging from hooks in dark basements; being lined up in rows and shot to death in view of other prisoners, including family members; being told they must remove their clothing to have showers, only to be herded naked into the gas chambers (their clothing left behind as booty for the guards who led them to their fate); or being tortured to death by nonchalant Germans.

But in 1944, WWII finally drew to a close. As American forces approached the concentration camps, the Germans fled. The prisoners were free! Some prisoners left on their own, while others awaited the Americans bringing food, clothes, medical care, and the means to go home. Henry returned to Krakow, to spend time with his mother and earn money for her to continue living there and for him to emigrate to America.

It was difficult for Henry to relate his story, and it is difficult for us to read it. Still, both Henry and Shawver saw in this effort a purpose—to warn all people that they must do everything possible to ensure that the atrocities of WWII never occur again.

Henry: A Polish Swimmer’s True Story of Friendship from Auschwitz to America won First Place in the CIBA 2018 Journey Awards for Memoir.