TAMPA ― Hiding in a haystack from Nazi guards, Nat Ross sought to conceal his identity by scraping the prisoner number tattoo from his forearm.
He failed and was captured. But they let him live.
That was one of several times during the Holocaust that Ross thought he’d end up in a mass grave.
He was liberated and eventually moved to the United States.
On Tuesday, Ross celebrated his 100th birthday.
The Tampa Bay Times asked for his secret to longevity.
Ross ignored the question and talked about the millions who did not survive the Holocaust. Those include his parents and five of his eight siblings.
“They took my family,” Ross said three times between heavy sobs.
It was a rare emotional moment, son Jay Ross said. His father typically tries to remain stoic when reliving the horrors of the Holocaust. That was the case even during a return to Ross’ native Poland around 15 years ago that consisted of a tour of the Auschwitz concentration camp, where he was detained.
“He showed me the exact barracks, the exact place he slept,” Jay Ross said. “He saw the worst places of his life, but he didn’t cry. I cannot imagine going through what he went through.”
Ross was born and raised in Pultusk, Poland, a small town around 40 miles from Warsaw.
He was 17 when the Nazis rounded up Jewish men, including his father, who was shot, killed and dumped in a mass grave.
“His father turned and looked at the family with terrified eyes,” granddaughter Dana Arschin Kraslow says in an online video detailing Ross’ story. “And that was the last time they saw him.”
His mother took the kids and left for Warsaw. They walked at night and hid in the woods during the day. But they were eventually captured in Warsaw and sent to a ghetto outside the city.
The conditions there were “subhuman,” Nat Ross said. There was neither medicine nor doctors. “Whoever lasted, lasted.”
The Nazis demanded that one male from each family work in a forced labor camp. Ross volunteered because he believed he was the strongest and could survive.
He “didn’t know it would be the last time he would see his mother and most of his siblings,” Kraslow said in the video.
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Ross cleaned sewer systems as part of a group of 50 men. While working, he’d eat rotten potatoes that he hid in his uniform and boiled in the water that disinfected his clothes every few weeks.
That sustenance kept him healthier but also led to a beating when he was caught. The guards then forced him to dig a grave. Ross thought it was his, but someone else was thrown into it.
Auschwitz was next for Ross. He arrived in a cattle car and was tattooed with an identification number.
“They wanted you to forget your name,” Ross said. “They only called you a number.”
Ross stood in line for selection every day for three months. Josef Mengele, known as the Nazi’s “Angel of Death” for performing experiments on and torturing prisoners, chose who died and who went to work.
Ross eventually was sent to an Auschwitz subcamp, where he spent two years working at a power plant and coal mine. He recalled how 18 prisoners were caught trying to tunnel to freedom. They were hanged as thousands of prisoners were forced to watch.
In January 1945, as the Russian Army advanced, Ross and nearly 60,000 other prisoners were rounded up and forced to walk more than 30 miles to Germany in the cold without food or rest. That trek is now referred to as the “Death March” because prisoners were killed once they became too weak to walk.
It was during that journey that Ross escaped and hid in a haystack. When captured days later, he convinced the Nazis that he was not Jewish. So, he was sent to a prisoner of war camp.
Ross does not know why the Nazis believed him.
He was liberated by the United States while later being marched from that camp.
Ross moved to England, Canada and then New York, where he met his wife, Celia, and raised two children, Jay Ross and Sharon Arschin, and worked as a patternmaker for women’s and girl’s clothing.
“He always said he would never go back to Poland,” Jay Ross said.
But his son convinced him to return.
“I wanted to better understand where I came from and what my father had to go through,” Jay Ross said.
They flew into Warsaw, where customs agents asked why they were visiting.
“I told them we were there to see our roots,” Jay Ross said. “But my father rolled up his sleeve, showed them his number, and said, ‘Look what those people did to me.’ ”
Even at 100, Ross remains physically fit. He walks without assistance and has a firm grip.
Kraslow wonders if Ross’ genetic gifts helped him to survive the Holocaust. Perhaps the Nazis found him useful as long as he was fit to work.
“Luck and wit also helped him,” she said.
Trembling, Ross shook his head when the Times asked why he thinks he survived.
He did not want to answer that question either.
Instead, he again repeated, “They took my family.”