The cap that Hanoch Kolman wore as a prisoner at Auschwitz-Birkenau in the bitter winters of 1943 and 1944 was, in many ways, quite ordinary. Naturally, it did what any cap was designed to do: it fit snugly around his shaved head, and it provided some warmth. He wore it as he worked repairing the bricks at the ovens, which were constantly cracking from overuse, at the Auschwitz-Birkenau crematoriums.
What made the blue-and-beige-striped cap really exceptional was that there was a lining inside that diminished the life-threatening loss of body heat. Yet what was truly wonderful about the cap is that it was made for Hanoch Kolman by a friend when his original one, the thin, standard-issue Nazi cap, had deteriorated. Such kindness, often undertaken at great personal risk and sacrifice, not only preserved lives but also helped to shore up the sense of humanity and dignity of both giver and receiver. This gesture was particularly significant at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest and most deadly of the Nazi killing centers.
When the war came to Hanoch Kolman in his small town of Rypin, in north central Poland, not far from the Vistula River, which runs north into the Gulf of Danzig, he was not quite fifteen and a half years old. He was active in the pioneering Jewish youth movement, Hashomer Hatzair, a Zionist group inspired by socialist values and Jewish nationalism.
The second youngest of six children—his oldest brother was a soldier in the Polish army—Hanoch had just received a scholarship on the eve of the war, to attend an agricultural school whose goal was to send its students to work as farmers in Palestine.
Trying to evade the Germans, Kolman and several of his siblings eventually fled to Wlodawek, on the eastern side of the Vistula. However, when the Germans began bombing this city, they returned to Rypin. There, they found not only that the Nazis had arrived, but that they had already shot the town’s prominent Jews, including Hanoch’s father. The Germans then transported the remaining Jews of Rypin to the nearby town of Mlawa, where a ghetto was set up in early December 1940. In an act designed to terrorize the community, the Germans burned down the Mlawa synagogue and all the synagogues in the vicinity.
For two years, Hanoch Kolman and his family lived in the Mlawa Ghetto under conditions of accelerating starvation, disease, and the sustained terror of continuing roundups and deportations. Kolman, however, was sent to forced labor at Nosarzewo, a labor camp twenty kilometers outside of Mlawa. Although conditions at the labor camp were also terrible, he was able to steal food with an eye to supplementing the meager rations being provided to his family. Yet how could he transport it back to the ghetto? Eventually, he was befriended by a German guard at Nosarzewo, who arranged for Kolman to be assigned work that permitted him to shuttle back and forth from the labor camp and to spend one night a week with his family.
When the Mlawa Ghetto was liquidated in November 1942, Hanoch Kolman and his sisters were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. His sisters were murdered there, but he managed to stay alive because he was chosen to be part of a group of young men who were to be taught bricklaying, a job that the Nazis considered vital; they especially needed these trainees to repair the cracked ovens at the crematoriums.
When he had first arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Kolman was given the typical uniform—thin, striped coat, jacket, and pants—and also a cap, equally thin. After six months, when he was transferred to work in the nearby Birkenau death camp, his hat had become threadbare and badly deteriorated. It was here that he made a friend who worked in one of Birkenau’s factories and who sewed a new cap for him. In Auschwitz, he also met his sister-in-law, Jean; at the time, neither of them knew that her husband, Hanoch’s brother, had already been killed.
Finally liberated in February 1945 at Danzig, where he had been transported and forced to work repairing German submarines, Hanoch Kolman made his way back to Rypin. There he discovered his family’s house was occupied by a Polish family, who at first refused to leave. He reconnected with his sister-in-law, Jean, whom he married in Rypin, and they eventually retrieved ownership of the house.
However, this was quite a hard-fought victory and a relatively unusual success, given the continuation of antisemitism in postwar Poland. In the confusing and chaotic months after the war, Kolman and his new bride decided to leave Rypin for the relative haven of the DP camps.
Through the assistance of Jewish organizations, such as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), the Kolmans were eventually able to immigrate to the United States. Through concentration camps and DP camps and for many years
after, Hanoch Coleman (now Henry Coleman) kept that cap with him. It was a remnant and reminder of what he had lived through. When visitors view it at the Museum, they may begin to comprehend how the harshness that inmates endured in the concentration camps was mitigated—however slightly—by ingenuity and friendship.