In 1949, Joe Engel took the first boat available from Poland to New Orleans, then a train to Charleston, SC. He opened his dry cleaners on King Street in Charleston, SC a few years later. He says he had his CPA, “cleaning, pressing and alterations”, for 36 years.
Understandably, it was hard for him to talk about the Holocaust for a while. Now, he wears a sign of his name and “Holocaust Survivor", not to mention a very proud American. We got the chance to sit down with Joe, where he took us deep into his heroic story and gave us an all new definition of what it means to be an American.
Born in Zakroczym, Poland, he was one of nine kids. The deck was stacked against him from the start in Poland as anti-Semitism ran wild. Joe's story starts out in chilling fashion, "When the German soliders came, they asked all the Jewish people to wear a star of David. The soldiers would randomly shoot people in the street." Joe was beginning to live his life in constant fear, not knowing what terror lay ahead in the next many years.
In search of protection, his family fled to Warsaw. When they arrived, 80% of Warsaw was bombed. They lived in abandoned homes in search of food and clothes. More and more people were dying each day all around him. When he was 14, the Nazis took Joe and put him on a train. He never saw his parents again. He arrived at Arbeit Machttrei, a German concentration camp. The first thing the soldiers did was shave all of the prisoners’ heads, and choose who should live and who should die. They decided he could live, and tattooed a number on his arm. Every morning, the prisoners were given a slice of bread and margarine. For lunch, they were given warm water and at dinner another slice of bread. He would live off of just 60 calories a day for the foreseeable future. Joe thought nothing could be worse than the situation he was in, so when a chance came to volunteer to go to a new camp, he took it. What he didn't know was that the camp he was transferred to was the worst of all camps, Auschwitz.
Joe still doesn't understand how 85 million people could be under the spell of one man, Adolf Hitler. Auschwitz proved to be the closet Joe has come to death. Among the typical daily terror, one day he was working in the middle of the winter and German soldiers came over and dunked him in ice cold water, leaving him to die in the field. He says he literally "turned into a block of ice". Left there laying in the freezing cold for hours, luckily his fellow inmates noticed and brought him back inside their quarters to literally come back to life. Within a few hours of his life, it's amazing how Joe keeps the perspective how he was one of the lucky ones.
When Joe was 17 years old on January 19, 1945, he was put on a train with an undetermined final destination. He says this is where his luck turned around and he was determined to create his own final destination. The train had no roof and as soon darkness fell, he decided he was going to escape. “I have nothing to lose. I have a 99% chance they’ll catch me, and 1% I’ll survive”. He jumped over the top of the train car, into the snow and hid in the snow for hours. He dug a fox hole with his bare hands and found some leaves for cover. After hiding out, he eventually found a farm about 5 miles away from where he jumped. He stole food from the farmers house, having gone far too long without anything to eat. Finally, he met the farmer and decided to tell him who he was. He risked everything by his admission, but luckily the farmer was a good man and offered to help. That was the start of Joe's path to freedom.
He was liberated in 1945. He decided to go back to his home town to Zakroczym, Poland and lived there for 5 years in an American Displaced Persons camp. With his parents and the majority of his family gone, he didn't know what to do. He was able to find out some of his family had fled to America and landed of their feet in Charleston, South Carolina. He had never heard of South Carolina but was told that his family will take care of him. Joe took another leap of faith and set out for America.
He says his biggest regrets are "losing his parents, youth, and education". He told himself that if he survived, he would make it his goal to tell his story over and over again. Fueled by his hardships and the unthinkable adversity that he's endured, Joe became a model citizen and a beacon of hope across his community. He is a man of great faith, a family man, a community leader, a patriot, an entrepreneur and someone countless people have learned from. He came to America, began contributing immediately and hasn't stopped for decades since.
Joe is a prime example of the melting pot that makes up our great country. We all have different backgrounds, different hardships and different successes, but it's amazing to see what we can learn from each other when we come together and open our minds. When asked what America means to Joe, he answered “everything, everything, everything”. What does it mean to you? #showallegiance