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Norman Katz; his memoir tells of surviving Holocaust

Norman and Frieda Katz at a German displaced persons camp. Norman and Frieda Katz at a German displaced persons camp.
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / September 8, 2011

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Norman Katz first glimpsed the horror of the Holocaust in his Lithuanian village as he peered from the window of a jail cell that minutes earlier he had shared with eight other Jews who, like him, were arrested without provocation or explanation.

“I alone was left behind,’’ he wrote 50 years later in a concise, powerful memoir. “I looked out through the bars on the window, and I saw how they put nooses around their necks, and tied their hands behind their backs. A half hour later, I heard them shooting, and I understood that they were shooting them. I stood there and cried, and shook like a leaf on a tree in a strong wind.’’

That was the first time death brushed by. “I understood that the same fate awaited me,’’ he wrote, and time and again during World War II, it seemed as if his life would surely end in moments. Instead, he lived for decades, long enough to write a poignant reminder of what happened - though at the time, he wasn’t sure why he was spared.

“I could not understand in what way I was better than the other Jews, that God had protected me,’’ he wrote, adding: “I raised my hands to heaven and praised God for the miracle he had shown me till now, and prayed that he would continue to protect me.’’

Mr. Katz, who ran a lumber business in Dorchester for many years, died of heart failure Aug. 9 in Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He was 88 and lived in Newton.

Twenty years ago, he hand-wrote the first draft of his memoir in Yiddish.

“Over the years, he would talk to me about the story,’’ said his granddaughter Rebecca, of Los Angeles. “He would have tears in his eyes and look off and look mournful. I can’t even begin to imagine how he lived the rest of his life with those images in his head.’’

Relatives asked a Brandeis professor to translate into English what Mr. Katz wrote. That allowed everyone, through his words, to experience what he endured.

“Ever since then, this memoir has been circulating in my family,’’ his granddaughter said. “To pass it along in our circle was something sacred to us, to share his story so that something like this would never happen again.’’

Mr. Katz’s life encompassed more than the few war years when he took refuge in attics and on farms, in forests and in a burrow dug near the edge of a field. Those trials reinforced who he was and helped define the life he would lead.

“He just was built to be a decent man, a good man, a generous man, a compassionate man,’’ said his son Harvey, of Canton. “He always taught us to do the right thing, to be good to other people.’’

The childhood of Nachum Katz, his name before he changed it to something more amenable to English, was calm until history intervened.

“No open anti-Semitism was experienced by us in our little town, in which we had lived for generations together with the gentiles, and had done business with them,’’ he wrote. “But when Germany took over Poland in 1939, Hitler’s violent incitements against Jews also reached into Lithuania, and into our little town as well.’’

After those with whom he shared a jail cell were shot, an aunt asked a priest to intervene on behalf of Mr. Katz. The reprieve was tenuous and short-lived. People in town “used to run around the entire village like wild animals who only liked the blood of Jews,’’ he wrote.

One day, all Jewish men were ordered out into the streets, where a crowd beat them, then began shooting with rifles. Mr. Katz and a few others tried to flee.

“The murderers pursued us, and kept on shooting at us,’’ he wrote. “After running for a few meters, they shot the man running ahead of me, from behind, and he fell down. I jumped over him and kept on running. . . . They kept chasing after me, and continued to shoot at me.’’

Of 28 men led outside to be shot, only Mr. Katz and one other survived. Beginning years of concealment, Mr. Katz hid in the woods and was later joined by his father and an aunt.

At times, families took the three of them in for a night to let them get warm in the winter, only to send them away the next day in fear for their own safety.

Mr. Katz wrote that “we suffered for three years, summer and winter, day and night, because our lives were in danger, every day, every moment.’’ And yet, “the instinct to stay alive was so strong that it endured all the troubles, suffering, and torture.’’

When the war ended, they first returned to their village, which “looked to us like a cemetery, and every Jewish house looked like a tombstone,’’ he wrote.

With relatives, Mr. Katz went to a displaced persons camp in Germany, where he lived until immigrating to the United States in 1951. At the camp, he met Frieda Cane, whom he married a couple of months after they settled in America.

Working first with a brother, Mr. Katz entered the lumber business, “and from that time on I was fully independent in my life,’’ he wrote.

“He was a very smart man,’’ his son said. “He never went through a lot of formal education, but he was really extraordinary when it came to math and numbers.’’

Mr. Katz and his wife had three children and six grandchildren, living for many years in Milton before moving in the late 1980s to Newton. Summers were spent at a second home in Hull.

“His peaceful place, I think, was with his family,’’ his granddaughter said.

“Looking at the fine families of our children, with the grandchildren, is for me and my wife the proud pleasure and compensation for the suffering that we went through in our life,’’ Mr. Katz wrote.

With his family, Mr. Katz “was very kind of subdued most of the time, but he had this cute little smile. I can’t really describe it in words,’’ his granddaughter said. “His eyes would sparkle when he saw us. He would glow with this kind, sweet smile that would show just how much he loved his grandkids. And he felt, I believe, so privileged to have created a Jewish family.’’

A service has been held for Mr. Katz, who in addition to his wife, son, and granddaughter leaves two other sons, Lou and Alan, both of Newton; and five other grandchildren.

“I think his entire experience, to those who now survive him, is sobering and also inspiring,’’ his granddaughter said of Mr. Katz and his memoir. “How can you not be inspired to be the best person you can be after reading something like that, or to try to make the world a little better?’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at