Irving Milchberg Z"L
Irving Milchberg, who as a plucky Jewish street urchin escaped transport to concentration camps three times and sold cigarettes to Nazis in the heart of occupied Warsaw while smuggling guns and food to resistance fighters, died on Sunday in Toronto. He was 86.
His death was confirmed by his son, Howard.
Mr. Milchberg’s improbable saga was chronicled in a 1962 memoir by a Holocaust survivor, Joseph Ziemian, called “The Cigarette Sellers of Three Crosses Square.” The square was in the heart of a Warsaw district that German authorities had taken over. A nearby Y.M.C.A. had become a barracks for SS troops, another building was a German gendarmerie and a third building housed Hungarian soldiers collaborating with the Germans. A Gestapo secret police office was nearby.
The square itself was bustling and noisy, and much of the racket was contributed by about 14 cigarette sellers, most of whom were orphaned boys and girls hiding their Jewish identities and sleeping either on the streets, in cemeteries or with nervously accommodating Polish families.
For a year and a half, Mr. Milchberg and the other children hustled, sometimes fighting among themselves over customers, who included not only Poles but also the hundreds of Germans who could shoot them on the spot if they discovered they were Jewish. The fact that Mr. Milchberg had sandy hair and blue eyes made it easier for him to pass as a Polish gentile.
“This group of Jewish children, wandering around under the very noses of a thousand policemen, gendarmes, Gestapo men and ordinary spies, constituted an unexplained and inexplicable phenomenon,” Mr. Ziemian wrote.
Mr. Milchberg, who had taken the Polish name Henrik Rozowski but was known by the nickname Bull, was a leader of the group.
Born Ignac Milchberg on Sept. 15, 1927, into a Warsaw housewares merchant’s family, he saw his fairly comfortable world begin to crumble after the Nazi invasion in September 1939 and the walling off of a Jewish ghetto about six months later. The family was assigned to a room over an abandoned grocery store, and Ignac and his father were sent to work in a lumberyard outside the ghetto, sometimes bartering for food that they would sneak back.
In 1942, his father, while on the work detail, was killed by a Gestapo officer who found him hiding bread, then ordered him to run before shooting him in the back. Ignac, who had been working nearby, managed to slip back into the ghetto to bring food to his mother. When he returned, the body had already been taken to a mass grave.
One day he was seized in the street and taken to the Umschlagplatz, where Jews were put aboard trains to the Treblinka death camp. But during the night he scaled a fence, fled and returned to the ghetto. There he encountered an empty apartment. His mother and three sisters had been sent to Treblinka.
He made it out to the Aryan side and joined another work detail, but those workers, too, were taken at gunpoint to the Umschlagplatz and put aboard a train. When the train was stalled, Mr. Milchberg managed to break the bars of a car window and scramble out, roll into a ditch and flee.
“To tell you the truth, I never thought much,” Mr. Milchberg said in a 2013 interview, trying to explain his daring resourcefulness. “If I had to do something, I did it. I didn’t have time to analyze it.”
He took a series of jobs that allowed him to move between the Jewish ghetto and the outside world, and he smuggled in food. While they were loading coal for a railway, his mother’s brother, the family’s only other survivor, put him in touch with rebel fighters. Not yet 16, Mr. Milchberg, according to the Ziemian memoir, smuggled guns to the ghetto in hollowed loaves, twice by spiriting through the sewers.
For several weeks in April and May 1943, as the last remnants of the ghetto were being “liquidated,” the fighters, armed with guns, grenades and firebombs, staged a quixotic revolt in what became known as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, a milestone of Jewish resistance. Mr. Milchberg, who had visited his uncle for Passover but did not actually fight in the uprising, was rounded up and put aboard a train to the Poniatowa camp. But when the group was switched to another train, he mingled with a crowd of Polish boys selling water and escaped.
He made it back to Warsaw’s Aryan side, but he badly injured his leg while running from a gendarme. He managed to persuade a Polish doctor he had known before the war to treat him. He ran into some youths he had met before, who were now hanging out with the cigarette sellers of Three Crosses Square, and joined the clique. The boys had nicknames like Conky, Hoppy, Toothy and Frenchy.
According to Mr. Milchberg’s son, surviving meant balancing “extreme fear and extreme hubris.” And indeed, some boys perished. The boy known as Frenchy was flattered by the attention of an SS man, thinking that might be an advantage, but for reasons they never learned, Frenchy was taken to the Gestapo and never heard from. Fearing that Frenchy might expose them all, the cigarette sellers scattered and went their own ways until the Soviet Army liberated the city.
In 1945, Mr. Milchberg made his way to Czechoslovakia, then Austria, then to a camp for displaced people in occupied Germany, where he learned watchmaking, his lifelong occupation. In 1947 Canada allowed 1,000 children to immigrate, and he became one of three cigarette sellers who settled there, while most went to Israel.
He ended up in Niagara Falls, where he opened his own jewelry and watch business. In 1953 he met his wife, Renee, who had survived the war because she was sent with an aunt and an uncle to a Russian labor camp. She had come to Niagara Falls as a tourist.
In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Milchberg is survived by a daughter, Anne, and three grandchildren.
In old age, Mr. Milchberg wound up in Toronto, in a neighborhood of survivors who met regularly over tea or coffee in a courtyard and traded jokes and stories of the war.
In 1993, he took a trip to Poland with his son for the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and visited Treblinka.
“He completely broke down,” his son said. “I’d never seen him do that before.”
Correction: January 27, 2014
An earlier version of this obituary failed to list Irving Milchberg’s wife,