If former Oceanside resident Otto Delikat was asked how he survived the horrors of Nazi occupation, a year in prison, a deadly disease or five concentration camps — including Auschwitz, Birkenau and Dachau — the self-described realist might say boundless hope kept him alive.
“It was not due to your craftiness or your smartness that you survived,” Delikat said during a 1983 interview, housed in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, in which he described his experiences as an Austrian Jew before and during World War II. “You just had to have a continuous will to survive, to look for tomorrow, and then everything was up to fate or luck, whatever you want to call it.”
The Holocaust survivor, who settled in Oceanside in 1957, lived there until 2008 and was a respected businessman and member of his temple, died in an accidental fall on Dec. 23 in Coral Gables, Florida. He was 96.
Luck, fate or something other than Delikat’s philosophy may have played a role in sparing him from execution when a German SS guard incorrectly wrote down the identification number tattooed on his arm.
Why, though, did he beat potentially fatal typhoid fever as a Nazi prisoner and why wasn’t he executed like so many sick prisoners? Even Delikat was unsure what protected him from the fusillade of bullets fired from a German machine gun trained on Jews like him during a forced dayslong march of weary prisoners from Warsaw, Poland.
Good fortune, though, brought him to a displaced persons camp in Feldafing, Germany, where he met his wife of seven decades, the former Pearl Sofer, herself a survivor of the Auschwitz and Muhldorf camps. She died in May 2014.
Delikat’s journey began on Oct. 22, 1922, when he was born in Vienna to David and Janka Delikat.
He attended primary and middle schools, and then a bookbinding trade school before he worked in a brickmaking labor camp in Austria's Carinthia region in the late 1930s, said a granddaughter, Stacey Delikat, a reporter for WNYW Fox 5 News in Manhattan.
Otto Delikat said during the 1983 interview that he was placed in prison in Nazi-occupied Austria in 1940, held for a year and handed over to the Gestapo — then shipped off to a concentration camp in Flossenbürg, Germany, the first of five such camps he would endure.
Auschwitz, Birkenau, Muhldorf and Dachau would follow.
In Auschwitz, he was forced to join a labor group that removed and searched the luggage of incoming Jews as they came off cattle car trains. He recalled a day in 1942 when a dead infant was found in the luggage, and the prisoners decided to give the child a proper burial rather than hand the body over to the Germans who would have thrown it into a crematorium, he said.
“We buried the baby there at the site,” he said. “This is one thing that stands out in my mind.”
Delikat came quite close to being killed on several occasions, once when he was caught at the Auschwitz camp taking food. The SS guard mistakenly recorded Delikat’s tattooed identification number, which was 69840, as 69340.
“When he called out the number inside in the camp, nobody answered,” Delikat said. “I wasn’t going to answer. I knew he had made a mistake. So, by this slip of one number I survived that day certain death or at least 40 lashes — and that sometimes meant certain death.”
On another occasion, in 1944, he was among perhaps thousands of Jews being led from the Warsaw Ghetto, where he had been sent to work as the Russian forces advanced, when German soldiers sprayed the prisoners with machine-gun fire as they ran toward a river to quench their thirst during the dayslong march.
By the time the guns were silent, though, hundreds of Jews lay dead.
After the Allied forces routed Nazi-held cities in Europe, the tables turned for Delikat, so to speak, and he helped the American Counter Intelligence Corps find SS guards in Dachau for war crimes tribunals.
He said he was armed in his new duty as a Nazi hunter, but never took revenge.
“We had guns,” he said. “Even though I should have killed everyone I saw I still couldn’t do it. ... They were brought to trials and we were at the trials in Dachau, the war crimes trials and everything."
He married in 1945 and the couple had their first child, Janet, in 1946 and immigrated to the United States in 1947. The family settled in Oceanside in 1957, where Delikat opened Otto Delikat Electrical Contracting. A son, Michael, was born in 1952.
He was active in his local synagogue, Oceanside Jewish Center, where he worshipped for 51 years. He was named Man of the Year by the temple in 1994 and had served as its chairman of the House Committee.
Delikat collected stamps and assembled an impressive array, his granddaughter said. He loved to sing, joining several choirs, and enjoyed keeping active, playing chess and tennis. He was also a member of Knights of Pythias of Oceanside.
"It will be what it will be," Stacey Delikat recalled as her grandfather’s simple outlook on how he survived. "You make the best of it. ... You had to believe, tomorrow will be a better day."
In addition to Stacey Delikat, survivors include daughter Janet Katz of Miami, Florida; son Michael Delikat of Greenwich, Connecticut; three other grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Services were held on Dec. 24 in Boynton Beach, Florida.