Retired OU Prof’s Auschwitz Survival Story
Dr. Leon Zelby, wearing the hat he sported during his days as an Oklahoma horseman.
The saga of Norman resident Leon Zelby, Ph. D. professor emeritus at the University of Oklahoma School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, is a startling reminder that even now, we live amidst epic history. Also, why I think that Vol. 2 of (Will Rogers Medallion Finalist) The Oklahomans will be even better than Vol. 1.
This brilliant, gregarious gentleman of ninety-two was living the somewhat frolicsome life of a well-educated fourteen-year-old Jewish boy in 1939 Poland when Nazi Germany unleashed its fearsome blitzkrieg on the nation. His parents were attending the New York City World’s Fair and he would not see them again until after the war. He was staying with his grandparents and after Hitler’s soldiers took them away, he would never see them again.
Women and children deemed "unfit for work" being led unknowingly to Gas Chamber #4 at Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration/Extermination Camp, where Dr. Zelby was imprisoned.
As the soul crushing Nazi terror enveloped Poland—magnified by Stalin’s brutal Communistic Soviet Union carving out a huge chunk of the nation for itself—the occupiers began transporting Jews and others to concentration and extermination camps. As stories of death and terror began to emerge from these, Zelby’s aunt killed his sister, her own children, and herself rather than go to one. He escaped the same fate because he was staying with other relatives that day.
When the Germans took him to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp in 1943, they put him to work as a wood turner, an important job in which he had experience and which he believes many times spared him the often seemingly-random death through shooting, hanging, and gassing that ravaged the camp. Once, he and two other prisoners, all three of them ill, were taken from an assembly to a camp hospital to be subjects of a medical experiment. The medicine actually cured his illness—and spared him from the annihilation by gas that wiped out everyone else that was assembled that day and ordered “to the showers.”
Surprisingly, aside from the many executions, Zelby recalled very little brutality committed by the Germans in the camp. “They were just soldiers who had been drafted and were doing their job,” he said.
Leon showing the arm where his Nazi captors tattooed him upon his entrance into Auschwitz as a teenager.
When the Allies closed in at the beginning of 1945, the Germans evacuated Auschwitz. All of their enclosed railroad cars were transporting troops to fight the Russian hordes on the Eastern Front of the European Theater, so open air coal cars were used to move Zelby and his fellow prisoners west into Germany, away from the advancing Soviets. Late one afternoon, at an opportune moment, location, and train slowdown, he and five other young men leapt from the top of their coal car and landed down below—in a soft mountain of snow that prevented injury or perhaps even death and hid them from view until dark, when they fled east back into Poland.
There, Zelby and the one young man with whom he was traveling were fed and lodged by locals, until someone betrayed them and Nazi soldiers took them to jail. They were slated for execution the next morning. When asked how he felt and what went through his mind that night, after so much loss and suffering the previous five years, he answered: “Nothing.”
Then, a courageous band of Poles risked their own lives by sneaking into the jail and rescuing Zelby and his companion, and getting them to the large city of Krakow, which the Russians had already seized from the Germans. He spent the remainder of the war there.
Master Sergeant Leon Zelby, United States Army.
Many months later, by way of Czechoslovakia, Sweden, and an oceanic voyage, Leon Zelby was reunited in New York City with his parents, whom he had not seen in six years—on their wedding anniversary. Within three weeks, he was drafted into the U.S. Army, which wanted him to go through Officer Candidate School. Zelby told them no, cracking that, “I prefer to remain a slave.” Three years later, he received his honorable discharge from the National Guard, possessing the rank of master sergeant.
A few years later, during his honors-laden academic pursuits at the University of Pennsylvania and California Institute of Technology, his mother showed him a picture of one of her closest childhood friend’s daughters. The two friends had not seen each other in years, as the Zelbys had stayed in America since 1939 and the other family, the Kupfermintzes, had moved to Israel before the war. But his mother's advice coupled with the beautiful image he stared at in the picture compelled Zelby to begin a written correspondence with the young lady immediately. In 1954, he journeyed to Israel to meet her. When asked his impression upon finally seeing the stunningly beautiful young woman in person, he replied: “I asked her to marry me two hours later and she accepted.”
Rachel Zelby, legendary CENTURY 21 Goodyear Green realtor in Norman and wife of sixty-three years of Dr. Leon Zelby.
And thus he returned to America as a husband, his wife following him here shortly thereafter, and he built a future for the new generations of Zelbys, including his own children Laurie and Andrew. Half a century ago this year, while serving on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, he accepted a position to lead the University of Oklahoma’s brand new School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. OU President George Lynn Cross became a close friend and “one of the men my entire life that I most respected.” Zelby chaired the department from 1967-1971 and taught, researched, and wrote books until his retirement in 1995.
He continues to live in Norman, full of years and honor, with that beautiful girl from Israel, his bride of sixty-three years, CENTURY 21 Goodyear Green International Hall of Fame Realtor Rachel Zelby.