CLEARWATER — In early 1945, Bert Beigel, an 18-year-old German Jew, broke free and fled during a death march from Auschwitz.
"We all thought he was gone," said his brother, Gerald Beigel, who now lives in Delray Beach. "We never thought we'd see him again."
Instead, Mr. Beigel walked 300 miles and returned to his native Berlin, where he hid from both the Gestapo and SS until the end of World War II in May.
After his close call, he would live more than six decades, eventually settling in Pinellas County and becoming a commercial real estate agent. He died Monday at age 82.
• • •
Thirty-five members of Mr. Beigel's family were sent to concentration camps. Only he, his brother Gerald and their father Leo survived.
Bert and Gerald were taken in April 1943 to Auschwitz, where they were separated. Gerald was taken to Buchenwald and then Dachau. Gerald was told by friends that his brother was killed trying to escape.
It wasn't until months after the war that Bert, Gerald and their father were reunited in Berlin. The family relocated to New York City shortly thereafter.
Mr. Beigel, who spoke no English when he arrived in America, never lost his German accent.
He went to work cleaning a factory in New York, and later opened a cleaning store and became a salesman. He met his wife, Liane, a fellow Holocaust survivor, through Gerald.
The couple moved to Clearwater in 1972, where Mr. Beigel began a successful career as a commercial real estate agent.
"It was like being the daughter of a movie star," said Larraine Beigel, his daughter. "Wherever I went, people knew him and loved him."
Mr. Beigel lived by many names. He was born Horst Beigel, became known in America as Bert, and his granddaughter, Sabrina Tropf, always called him Bucky.
Tropf, who found out she was pregnant the morning after Mr. Beigel's death, said he was like a father to her.
"He taught me everything I know," said Tropf, 27. "He taught me to drive before I was old enough. He taught me to ride a bike. He always chauffeured me around town with my friends. He was always giving. He put me in the finest schools. He really took care of me and my mother."
Mr. Beigel's wife died in 2002 and for the past several years, Mr. Beigel suffered from Alzheimer's disease.
Tropf said the symptoms began slowly. Mr. Beigel would forget where his keys were, or lose other valuables.
In the early days, when he was still driving, he would also come home with dings on his car.
"One day he had green paint on his car," Tropf said. "When I asked him about it, he said he hit a bush."
Mr. Beigel died of kidney failure, family members said, but his brain had also failed him. He couldn't speak, didn't remember people, didn't eat and struggled to breathe in his last days.
But for some reason, he remembered music.
"Lyrics, he'd remember," Tropf said.
So as they said goodbye, the family played Frank Sinatra at his bedside.
Unable to speak, he mouthed the lyrics.