Jerry Koenig, Holocaust survivor who shared his painful story, dies at 87

Jerry Koenig

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Jerry Koenig, a Holocaust survivor who shared his harrowing story with a multitude of audiences in the bistate area, died Monday, June 11. He was 87 and a longtime resident of Chesterfield. The cause of death was complications from abdominal surgery and pneumonia, according to a family member.

Mr. Koenig for years was reluctant to share his Holocaust experiences because “my story is not a nice one, and it is painful to tell.” But his wife, Linda, encouraged him to do so.

Through the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center, where he became a docent and a compelling speaker in demand at colleges, universities and high schools, Mr. Koenig shared his story with thousands of people.

He and his brother Michael shared a set of experiences that sound like a screenplay for a movie thriller, except that it actually occurred. The Koenig brothers and their parents were hidden for 22 months in an straw-lined bunker under a Polish farm family’s barn from 1939 until they were liberated in 1944 by the Soviet Red Army.

Mr. Koenig was born in Pruszkow, Poland, on Jan. 1, 1930, to Isadore and Mary Koenig. On Sept. 1, 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland. 

In the winter of 1940, when Mr. Koenig was 9 years old and his brother was 6, the family was removed from their small town to the Warsaw Ghetto, where conditions were horrific.  

“There were thousands of Jewish people crowded into this very small area,” Mr. Koenig said in a story published in the Southern Illinoisan in April 2012.  “There was not enough food available to feed everyone.  People were starving to death and dying of disease.” 

Before their number came up to be deported to the Treblinka concentration camp, the Koenig family made a harrowing escape from the Warsaw Ghetto.

Mr. Koenig, his father, mother, brother and paternal grandfather fled to the small town of Kosow in eastern Poland only two miles from Treblinka. There they found the Polish family, the Gorals, who agreed to build a bunker under their barn and hide the Koenigs in it in exchange for a 60-acre farm owned by Isadore Koenig elsewhere in Poland.

After 22 months in the bunker, never seeing the sun and being fed soup and a loaf of bread once a day, the Koenigs were finally liberated as Russian soldiers were pushing the German army back across Poland. Of the 3½ million Jews who lived in Poland, only 10 percent survived. 

After World War II, the Koenig family went back to their hometown of Pruszkow but left there after the infamous Kielce pogrom against Jews who returned to their homes. 

In 1946, Mr. Koenig and his family left Poland for the American Free Zone in West Germany. The family went to work, and Mr. Koenig received his engineering degree in Munich. From there, the family eventually made their way to Davenport, Iowa, supported by a small community of Jews who wanted to help refugees.  

In 1951, during the Korean War, Mr. Koenig was drafted into the U.S. Army and returned to Germany for his military service. After his service, he and his family eventually settled in St. Louis, where he had a successful 35-year career as an engineer for Laclede Gas Co.

In a statement on behalf of the St. Louis Holocaust Museum, executive director Jean Cavender, and curator Dan Reich, wrote:

“The HMLC lost a good friend and a powerful voice with the passing of Jerry Koenig. Thousands of visitors were moved by Jerry’s experience of living in a small underground space for 22 months, not far from Treblinka. Listeners would hear the horrific experiences Jerry and his family endured and the resilience required for them to rebuild their lives after liberation.”

Survivors include his wife of 17 years, Linda; daughters Laurie Horn (Jeff) and Lynn Dyer (Ted); brother Michael (Nomi); three grandchildren; and several stepchildren and step-grandchildren. 

Mr. Koenig’s favorite pastimes were walking, biking, ice skating, volunteering through the Holocaust Museum and with the Volunteers for Israel program in Israel.

A celebration of life will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday, July 23, at the Jewish Federation Kopolow Building, 12 Millstone Campus Drive. Memorial donations preferred to the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center of St. Louis, 12 Millstone Campus Drive, St. Louis MO 63146.