Zvi-Herschel Unger was born in 1929 in Sosnowiec in the Zagłębie region, southwest Poland, the fifth of Chaim and Breindel née Hamburger's nine children. He started attending Heder at age three, and when he was seven, he went to the Jewish State primary school. His father, who was affiliated with the Aleksander Hasidic dynasty, was a travelling salesman and a community figure. On the eve of World War II, he was raising funds for the Polish war effort against Germany.
When the war broke out on 1 September 1939, Chaim hired a wagon and horses, and the family fled its home in Sosnowiec for the town of Wodzisław, where Breindel had relatives. In June 1940, the Ungers were confined in the ghetto together with all the town's Jews. In 1941, Chaim and Breindel decided to send Zvi and two of his brothers to relatives in neighboring towns in Zagłębie where the situation seemed slightly better. "The separation from our parents was meant to be temporary", relates Zvi. "To this day, I feel as though I didn't really say goodbye to my parents". Not one member of Zvi's family survived. Between September – November 1942, the Jewish community of Wodzisław was annihilated, its members deported to the Treblinka extermination camp.
Zvi reached relatives in Zawiercie, while his brothers made their way to relatives in Będzin. During the first months, Zvi managed to correspond with his family. In August 1943, the Zawiercie ghetto was liquidated. During the Aktion, Zvi, his relatives and other Jews hid in an attic, but were found out a few days later. Most of those caught were deported to Auschwitz. Zvi was one of a small group left to work in the ghetto.
In September 1943, Zvi was also deported to Auschwitz. As he got off the transport, a prisoner whispered the instruction to say that he was 18. Thanks to this advice, he passed the selection and was sent to Camp A in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Submitted to numerous subsequent selections, he survived many by hiding under the wooden bunks. Looking back on his time in the camp, Zvi says:
It was a period in which I disappeared from myself. … I wasn't myself. … I had no memories, no family and no yearnings. I don't recall any kind of human element at work there. … I don't remember anything except for my animal instincts. … And today I can understand why I ran away from myself, because that was the only way to survive.
Six months later, Zvi was transferred to Camp D, where he worked pushing and pulling a massive wagon that passed through the camp and was loaded up with objects. He met members of the Sonderkommando in the camp, and witnessed their uprising. On 17 January 1945, the evacuation of the camp began, and Zvi and his fellow prisoners were forced on a death march. Whoever lagged behind was shot.
Recalling the death march, Zvi relates:
They gave us two loaves of bread for this journey. It was a long journey, and there were no provisions along the way. So the main job was to hold on to your bread, a more important job than helping the person next to you. … I don't recall anyone being supportive. People were more concerned about avoiding the next bullet.
After some ten days of marching, the prisoners were loaded onto cattle cars and taken to Buchenwald, where Zvi was assigned to the children's block. On 11 April, the Americans liberated the camp.
Zvi was hospitalized at Buchenwald, and released about two weeks later. In June 1945, he travelled with a group of "Buchenwald Boys" to Écouis, and from there was transferred to another children's home near Paris. In 1947, Zvi left the home and joined the "Poaeli Zion" Hachshara (pioneer training scheme) in southern France, in preparation for his immigration to Eretz Israel (Mandatory Palestine). After a few months, he was sent to a Haganah course in Marseille. He worked with the Aliyah Bet personnel, and immigrated to Eretz Israel in February 1948. He joined the youth group at Kibbutz Ramat Hakovesh and fought with them in the War of Independence. In 1949, he was one of the founders of Kibbutz Malkiyah on the Lebanese border. Zvi married Naomi, a Holocaust survivor from Lodz, and they had four boys. Their son Nitzan, an IDF soldier, was killed in a training accident in 1984.
In the memoirs he penned together with his wife Naomi, entitled "NItzanim Al Hakraim" (2006), Zvi wrote:
In 2000, Zvi Unger submitted Pages of Testimony to Yad Vashem in memory of his parents Chaim and Breindel, and his siblings Chana, Fela, Akiva, Shlomo, Leah, Moshe, Gitel and Zlatka, who were murdered in the Holocaust. In 2008 Zvi was a torchlighter at the State Opening Ceremony of Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Day at Yad Vashem.
I never thought about writing down my story. It was a story "in shreds"…. What burst out of me could not be put into words because the words so urgently needed were not available. Since then, I gradually found the words to express part of what was within me. … Today I know that the words still don't exist to describe those things. I think that the things that were beyond the capacity to absorb and comprehend were relegated behind a barrier. The lack of available words preserved the inmate's strength. I remember – when liberation came, the first emotion was sadness. Everything started to sink in. I realized that I was alone. I wanted to translate the sadness into words, but I couldn't. The yearnings that found no words just expanded the sadness… The words buried deep within me couldn't relate to the words I used to fit in to my new life… Inside me a struggle always raged, between the desire to remember, and the things that had accumulated and been suppressed, thus enabling me to continue my new life.