By Martin Abramson
February 1961 Coronet Magazine
Escape to Life
Cheating death at the hands of the Nazis and Arabs, he became one of America’s most brilliant students.
Note from Iris: My father was born on 11/11/24, in Czernowitz, Austro-Hungarian Empire (Cernauti under Romanian rule). His parents were Samuel Schmatnik and Ettel Blei Schmatnik. His birth name was Karl Schmatnik. In Israel the family changed their last name to AlRoy. The below story was reported to author Martin Abramson in 1961 for Coronet Magazine. Bolded notes are my own—Iris AlRoy 2019
One morning in June 1959, 2334 seniors took part in the colorful commencement exercises of the City College of New York. It was a memorable occasion, because one of the graduates had scored the highest record in the 112-year history of the academically demanding “subway college”. Gil Carl AlRoy, a handsome, 30-year-old student born in Rumania, had received an “A” in every subject, surpassing the records set by such CCNY alumni as Bernard Baruch, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter and Dr. Jonas Salk.
Actually, Gil AlRoy is lucky to be alive. For this young man has literally come back from the dead – eluding Soviet slave labor hunters, climbing out of a mass grave after being shot by the Nazis, and surviving Arab gunfire – in one of modern history’s most fantastic escape sagas.
AlRoy was born in the Rumanian city of Cernauti, the only child of a Jewish couple who ran a hairdressing shop, and quickly displayed near-genius qualities. He was able to read Rumanian, German, and French newspapers as a five-year-old, and spoke six languages fluently by the time he was eight. In school, he was placed with boys several years older, yet finished at the head of every class and every institution he ever attended.
On June 28, 1940, Russian troops poured into Cernauti as part of their deal with the Germans to dismember easter Europe. The AlRoys (Samuel and Etel Blei Schmatnik) soon had their shop and savings confiscated and, though only 12 (he was 16), Gil himself had to hide out in the woods to avoid being shipped to a forced labor camp.
Then, in June 1941, Hitler double-crossed Stalin and German troops poured across the Austrian border to attack Soviet forces. After four days of fighting, the Germans occupied Cernauti. Flushed with victory, Nazi storm troopers – guided by pro-Nazi Rumanians – began to round up what they called “Jewish Reds”. A storm trooper stopped Gil, but let him go because his blue eyes, blond hair, fair complexion and ability to speak German without a trace of an accent, seemed to qualify him as a “perfect Aryan”. But then a Rumanian stool pigeon screamed “I think he’s Jewish!” and the youngster was ordered to identify himself.
“I ran for it”, Gil recalls, “but three of them caught me and began to beat me with their rifle butts. One smashed me in the face with his butt, breaking my nose, and blood ran all over the street. Then they threw me on the floor of one of their trucks.”
The truck convoy headed for the banks of the Prut River, where Gil and 2k fellow prisoners were given shovels and told to dig trenches. Those who dawdled were clubbed or bayoneted. When the trenches were finished, they were told to line up in front of them. The terrifying suspicion that had been gnawing inside them was now confirmed: they had been digging their own graves. Some tried to run, some screamed hysterically, some begged for mercy, and some just stood motionless, murmuring a final prayer to God. For more than ten minutes, bursts of machine-gun fire sent bodies toppling back into the trenches. (This description aligns with data I’ve found on “Known places of mass burial of Jews in the Chernovtsy area – 1941).)
Gil was hit in the leg and tumbled back into his open grave, unconscious. Two other men, shot in the head, fell on him and lay across the bottom half of his body. It was dark when he awoke to hear the voices of peasants who had come to loot the dead. When they removed the two bodies on top of Gil, he opened his eyes and rose up on his knees.
“I saw a scene so ghastly, so hideous, I will never be able to blot it out of my mind”, he says. “Dead men, women and even children were piled up like heaps of garbage. The odor was so horrible I blacked out again from nausea. When my eyes opened once more, I tried to tell myself it was all a bad dream, that human beings simply could not turn into butchers who would slaughter other humans. But when the peasants noticed me and began to shout that I was alive, I knew this was no dream.”
The looters threw Gil into a cart and took him to the headquarters of the Rumanian police. They wanted a reward for turning in a “criminal” who had escaped execution, but the police threw them out, snarling, “Why didn’t you just let him die with the others?”
Though Gil had cheated death, he felt it was only a temporary reprieve. His face was a mass of caked blood and burned with fever, while his wounded leg throbbed painfully. Finally, the police sent a doctor to patch him up and threw him into a jail cell. For a week, he subsisted on water and bread that was so stale that it was pocked with green fungus.
Gil’s parents, in hiding, persuaded a sympathetic Rumanian policeman to find their son. The policeman located the half-starved boy in prison and managed to secure his release. In the candle-lit gloom of their cellar, Mrs. AlRoy nursed Gil back to health, feeding him from a dwindling supply of canned foods. One night, three drunken soldiers, armed with rifles and bayonets, smashed in the door to the cellar. “I was lying on the bed, too frightened to move,” Gil recalls, “Because of what I’d been through my face looked as black as death, so my mother acted quickly. She put a few candles next to my bed and knelt as if in prayer for the dead. The soldiers thought they had stumbled into a funeral parlor and they ran out. Mother’s quick thinking had saved us.”
Subsequently, the Germans herded all the surviving Jews into a special ghetto. (ITS records show that rather than “in hiding” as of October 1941 Gil and his mother were living in the Czernowitz ghetto, and his mother was listed there from 1941 to 1945.) The older people were weeded out for shipment to the gas chambers, while the young were put to work on fortifications. One night, Gil violated curfew restrictions to go out and forage for food. He was picked up, beaten and sent to a forced labor camp. (ITS Records show he was in a forced labor camp in Buzau, Rumania in November 1943.).
“I found that most of the inmates at the camp were resigned to their fate,” he remembers. “Even if they had a chance to escape, they wouldn’t take it. Years before, I had read a book by the French writer, Andre Malraux, which had made a deep impression on me. Its title was Man’s Fate, and its theme was that even the most downtrodden person should retain the hope of freedom. In that Nazi camp, I tried to think and act according to Malraux’s philosophy.”
Five days after his arrival, Gil escaped, found his way back to Cernauti, and hid out with a Jewish family that had been released from the ghetto to perform special Government work. He was picked up again, but gave a false name and thus escaped being shot as a wanted fugitive. However, under his false name, he was sent to his second forced labor camp. A month later, he escaped again – only to be arrested for the third time.
Sent to still another camp, he promptly made his third escape and slipped way back into Cernauti. There he learned that his school was conducting a speed-up program to allow top students to receive their diplomas. “I was so anxious to graduate that I decided to risk going back to school under my real name,” Gil says. “The war had caused such chaos that his return was accepted without question. None of his teachers was aware of the fact that he was a three-time escapee from forced labor camps. (Note from Berti Glaubach: Cernauti was freed on 3/29/44. No Jews graduated from high school during the Romanian occupation. Note from my mom: He told me that he graduated from a Russian-speaking high school).
In June 1944, however, shortly after Gil had been graduated from high school at the top of his class, the Nazis decided to check on reports that labor camp escapees had filtered back into the schools. Gil was apprehended and compelled to show his diploma, which revealed his true name. His next destination was Rumania’s infamous Doaga concentration camp, a maximum-security enclosure surrounded by high walls and electrically charged wire fences. (ITS records show he was in a forced labor camp Baekau-Doaga – Bacau – in August 1944)
Fifteen hours a day, the inmates – Jewish slave laborers, Rumanian political prisoners and Russian prisoners of war – built fortifications. They lived in tiny underground cages with no sanitation system and disease and filth were rampant. Each day, men dropped dead of TB, beatings, and malnutrition. Nevertheless, Gil refused to give up hope.
One day, he struck up a conversation with an enemy officer and impressed him with his command of languages. An Austrian, the officer became friendly when Gil revealed that his father had fought for Austria-Hungary in WWI. The officer slipped Gil extra rations and cigarettes.
“I found that it was possible to find a decent human being even though he wore a swastika,” Gil says. “This officer hated the Nazis but he was afraid to express his feelings openly. He told me he prayed they would lose the war, but that there was no hope for me or any of the other prisoners. The camp commandants, he said, had vowed to kill every last one of us before the Russians could free us.
“This gave me the courage to ask him if he would help me escape. I think I can get out if you can find me a German uniform,” I told him. He was very startled, but a few days later he agreed to help me. I think he felt this would ease his guilt feelings about serving the Nazis.”
The officer arranged for Gil to be transferred to a cage set apart from the other inmates of the camp. Late one night, he unlocked the door and threw a bundle inside. In it was a Nazi SS uniform. Gild put it on, then waited until shortly before dawn, when he knew that German sentries at the camp gate were replaced by Rumanians.
“I felt it would be easier for me to bully Rumanians than Germans,” says Gil. “As I headed for the gate, I kept thinking of passages from Malraux’s book to give myself courage and self-confidence. As I approached the gate, I shouted in German for the guards to open it. They jumped to obey, and never realized that I was too young to be an SS man.”
Doaga was later liberated by the Russians, but Gil heard that many of the inmates were slaughtered first, just as the commandant had promised. He never learned what happened to the helpful Austrian.
After shedding his uniform, Gil headed for the town of Bacau/Bakau, where he had friends. But Rumanian troops were scouring the area, fearful that Soviet paratroopers had landed. A patrol captured Gil, convinced that he was a Red paratrooper disguised as a civilian. After a drumhead trial, he was condemned to be shot. In desperation, however, he managed to get word of his plight to a local industrialist whom his family had once befriended.
One morning, three guards came to Gil’s cell and took him out into a courtyard. He was certain that the end was in sight. Instead, he learned that he had been paroled in the custody of his industrialist benefactor.
Shortly thereafter, the counter-attacking Red Army rolled into Bacau. To Gil, this was no army of liberators but rather a case of one tyranny replacing another. He knew he had to flee again, particularly when he heard that natives of Cernauti – which the Russians now claimed as part of the USSR – were being deported to work in Soviet munitions plants. Through his industrialist friend, he acquired a Hungarian passport and, under the aegis of the International Red Cross, joined a Jewish caravan bound for Palestine. He celebrated the end of WWII in the Jews’ historic homeland. (He appears on a World Jewish Congress list of “Immigrants who arrived in Palestine on January 11, 1945” see post January 11 1945)
In 1948, the state of Israel came into being, but before long the armies of seven Arab nations attacked the new little nation. Gil became a lieutenant in the Israeli tank corps and was wounded once in an Egyptian air raid. A month later, his tank was hit by a shell and Gil was hurled 14 feet through the air. When a medical aid man reached him, he found no pulse and marked Gil as “dead”.
But whatever angel had watched over young AlRoy for eight years was still working overtime. A nurse checked his “corpse” in a field hospital and, to her astonishment, found a slight pulse beat. He was quickly given oxygen and soon was breathing normally.
When Gil recovered from his wounds, he was treated to yet another miracle – a reunion with his parents, whom he thought were dead. They, too had been in a concentration camp (see post Samuel Schmatnik to Samuel AlRoy) While believing Gil to be dead, they had never stopped searching for a definite answer. The Red Cross finally located Gil for them in Israel.
After the war with the Arabs, Gil began working in the office of the US Consulate in Haifa. James A. May, then US vice-consul, was so impressed with AlRoy’s high IQ and command of eight languages that he urged him to emigrate to America and resume his education. Gil arrived in New York in 1954 and, after his father’s death, brought his mother to live with him. He worked at odd jobs, but found it impossible to finance an education in a tuition college.
Then he learned that New York’s City College offered free education for municipal residents who had compiled outstanding high school records. Gil was allowed to enter the college as a part-time student, while he tried to secure his high school transcripts from Rumania. (possibly Colegiul National “Ferdinand I” Bacau) After some delay, the photostats arrived.
As a full-time student, he progressed so quickly that he was allowed to enroll in one honor seminar after another and took courses virtually around the clock.
AlRoy is now at Princeton University, studying for his master’s and doctorate in the social sciences under a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship. He expects to go into college teaching but also hopes to aid the Government any way he can.
“Americans are still too complacent about the danger the world is facing from totalitarian systems,” he says. “People who have always enjoyed freedom tend to take it for granted. This can be a tragedy. If you’re not on guard all the time, today’s freedom can easily become tomorrow’s tyranny.”