As stalwart as a Lion

GARDEN CITY — Ernest Lion, a survivor of the Holocaust, has decided to become a Catholic. It’s a decision his pastor, Msgr. Thomas Duffy, has helped him make, with healing assistance from the St. Michael Church adoration room.

Lion doesn’t like to talk about his past, but he has written his story. It’s a story that makes one ashamed to complain about the everyday travails of one’s life.

“Do you know what that is?” Lion asked, pulling up his sleeve and revealing a blue tattoo of numbers.

Lion donated his manuscript, “The Fountain at the Crossroad,” to Coastal Carolina University. It is a spell-binding story of courage, stamina and triumph over tribulation.

A CCU English professor, Randall Wells, and Suzanne Thompson, a lecturer, assisted him with the 101-page book that recounts the tragedies and resilience of a man who has suffered unimaginable pains.

Lion was born Dec. 15, 1915, in Brambauer, Germany, to Leo and Berta Lion. His parents, who were Jewish, operated A. Steinweg & Co., a dry goods store.

In his book he wrote that in November 1938 he was arrested and sent to Buchenwald concentration camp. At 5 a.m. each day, the prisoners were beaten out of bed with truncheons and screams of anti-Semitic slogans, then herded naked to a latrine. They worked in a stone quarry during the day.

He was released in December 1938 and returned home to work in his parents’ store and, later, in a musical review. He met his future wife, Liesel Mosbach, and the two were married Dec. 18, 1939.

In August 1942, his father, mother-in-law, and 14-year-old sister-in-law Gretel were arrested, taken to Zamosc, and shot. His mother had died before the arrests. His father’s sister Rosette survived the Theresienstadt camp, but other family members weren’t so lucky. His aunt Helene committed suicide before being deported; his uncle Arthur died in Theresienstadt.

In February 1943, Lion and his wife, Liesel, were sent to Auschwitz.

“Keep cool and calm; don’t make waves; don’t be surprised about anything. You are now in hell!” a prisoner told him at the camp.

“Someone shouted, ‘Women to the left, men to the right! You will be reunited after checking in!’ All the women were led away,” Lion wrote. “My wife looked at me for one last time before she disappeared. It was dark now, and I saw her walk away like a shadow.”

The man who tattooed him said, “You’ll be dead within three months.” From then on, Lion’s goal became survival. He was assigned to Block 10.

Also in the camp were Catholic priests who had preached against Hitler. “That had cost them their freedom because Gestapo agents even attended church services,” Lion wrote.

Lion lost weight and his ribs protruded, he wrote, but he refused to eat grass as others did.

“On the side of one barrack I saw naked bodies of those who had died from starvation, stacked like cords of wood, criss-cross, so that the pile would not collapse,” he wrote.

Lion’s foot became infected when he stepped on a nail. The prison hospital’s doctor turned out to be his wife’s cousin, Dr. Erich Mosbach, who helped him.

Near the end of the war, on a forced march to Fussen, Lion tried to drink water from a city fountain at a crossroad. A guard pushed him back with a rifle butt before he could get a drink. When an opportunity arose to slip away from the other prisoners, he made his escape. He was helped by a family who lived in a farmhouse.

“The next doorbell I rang was that of a Catholic priest, who still wore his white collar and black frock. When he saw my prison garb and looked over my condition, he waved me away as a signal not to come near him,” Lion wrote. “And I still hear the loud slamming of his door. A priest. A man of God,” Lion wrote.

Though he had escaped death at Auschwitz, double pneumonia nearly took his life afterward. He weighed only 85 pounds and was covered with lice. He remembers being found by an American soldier and hearing the soldier shout: “Somebody come here and help me with this man!”

Lion was taken to a Catholic hospital in Fussen. A young nun gave him the news that the war was over.

After he recovered, Lion took a job in a military club kitchen. He met special agents of the 317th Infantry Counter Intelligence Corps and did intelligence work for them. With their references and a sponsorship from his Aunt Hanna in Washington, D.C., he was able to come to America.

In 1953 he married his second wife, Inge, now deceased. He became a founding member of the Kennedy Center and joined the Lions Club.

Lion moved to Horry County after a visit in 1979. When he signed up for a CCU creative writing course, his teacher encouraged him to write about his personal Holocaust experience, and the result is the gripping account he shared on paper.

The book’s end is quite moving, with his friend Elisabeth Lohr convincing him to return to Buchenwald, now a museum. A woman in the Archives Department assisted him in finding his name and those of his relatives.

“It’s not always easy being me,” Lion wrote. “I don’t let on, but sometimes I get depressed because I have now lived the longest time of my life and have only a few years left to live. It is not that I mind dying … writing this was not easy.

“It has been an overpowering experience — at times causing fright and great anger,” he wrote. “Often I had to interrupt the effort for days until the sleepless nights had passed, and I could find new strength again until the blurred vision had cleared and reassured me that I had nothing to fear as the American I have become.”

Lion’s friend Stacy Cretzmeyer says that to her, the remarkable thing about his story is that every step of the way, when he had almost given up, somebody came along and helped him. “It was like God was always sending somebody … to get him out of this or that awful situation.”

“Ernie has given a great deal to his community over the years,” Cretzmeyer said. “He is just a lovely person.”

Lion’s caregiver, who is a member of St. Michael, introduced him to the church. He began attending frequently and started to go to adoration. He was counseled in his quest for faith by Msgr. Duffy.

Msgr. Duffy met with Lion, talked with him, and provided a catechism for him. “He kept saying, ‘This is what I want,’ ” Msgr. Duffy said.

The last sentence in Ernest Lion’s book is uplifting.

“These events had been locked away for decades. I have re-examined them and conclude that my life, after all, has been worth living.”