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Chapter 7


1944: The Destruction of Hungarian Jewry

The year started with accelerated attacks against German positions across a wide front. Even the staunchest supporters of the Nazis now understood that the end could not be far off. The mood in Hungary changed drastically. The Jews became secretly jubilant and were more confident of an early end to their suffering. Some, such as my Grandmother Mali (Pikkel), were still pessimistic. She used to say to me, 'Tibale (as she used to call me), they will not rest until there are no longer any Jews around. I hope I am wrong, but I have the feeling of a great catastrophe." Although she was a religious and God-fearing woman, I did not think that she had any powers of prophecy. Even now, I wonder whether hers was just a gloom-and-doom mentality or if she had the gift of foretelling the future. In any event, it turned out that her prediction came true in a way even more dramatic than she could have suspected.

The mood among the Hungarians also changed, favoring a more moderate approach towards the Jewish population. With every Russian advance, Hungarian anxiety grew, especially among the igenyl, those who had requisitioned Jewish stores and enterprises. Their nervousness was such that some closed their businesses and returned to their old homes in Hungary proper. Others stayed packed and ready to move out on short notice.

While the ZsidŰ t–rvČny, the Jewish laws, were not repealed, they were not enforced with their former vigor. There were still some excesses carried out against the Jews, but they were no longer large-scale nor government sponsored. Chust was a garrison city. As the war wore on and Hungary's support of Germany increased, many battalions were sent to the Russian front. It was customary to give the departing soldiers the last two nights off, to give them a chance to say farewell to their sweethearts. Previously, this had resulted in a free-for-all in which any Jew caught on the street was beaten. Many unfortunate men were assaulted and some badly hurt. On such occasions, the gendarmes completely disappeared from the streets and gave the soldiers a free hand. Now all this changed. No longer were soldiers sent to the front at such frequent intervals, and those who went, left quietly.

I myself came very close to becoming a victim of a "goodbye" beating. With no beard and no sidelocks (payes), I usually had no problem and neither did my father or any other family member. The soldiers could easily recognize a Chassidic Jew by his clothes, beard and payes, but they did not dare attack anybody who did not look Jewish enough. But on one occasion, as my friend Srul Yankel Hoffman and I were walking down the main street, we were accosted by four soldiers who demanded to know why we two Jews dared to walk the streets. Of course, we denied that we were Jews but had trouble convincing them of it. We told them we had no identification on us. I asked them in a bold voice, "Why would we have to carry any papers on us? The Jews have to have them, not us." They just would not believe us and the likely outcome was beginning to look hazardous to our health. Luckily, along came Laci Almasi, whose father was the town's Vice-mayor. He was a gentile and a very good friend of mine. It took a great deal of effort even on his part to convince them that we were not Jews, but he finally succeeded. This, by the way, is the only time in our lives that my friend and I ever denied our religion.

Srul Yankel now lives in Chicago. We've met several times, and each time always recall that episode.

Germany became more and more politically isolated, and this did not escape the Hungarians' notice and they were now carefully watching every change in the political arena. In January, on the pretense that an espionage ring had been discovered, Argentina severed relations with Germany and Japan. The dictator of Spain, Generalissimo Francesco Franco, kept delaying the help he had promised the Axis. Beyond the thousand men he sent in 1943, the so-called "Blue Brigade", he gave no additional support to Germany. Sicily and Sardinia and the portion of mainland Italy liberated by the Allies were returned to the government of a free Italy.

The fighting on the Eastern front went from bad to worse for the Germans. In January, Novgorod fell in the North. In February, about ten German divisions were trapped in Cherkassy and mostly destroyed, the few remnants were taken prisoner. In the same month, the Russian armies reached the borders of prewar Poland. The Hungarian Second Army was practically destroyed. In one radio broadcast, the announcer gave this account of events: "Today our troops inflicted heavy losses on the enemy while retreating, in accordance with a well-defined plan, to a prepared position. Our losses were minimal." In contrast to this, the liberal Magyar Nemzet reported openly the great loss of Hungarian life. Unfortunately, the Jewish work brigades suffered even greater losses. Many of them risked their lives in crossing minefields, facing added danger not only from crossfire between the warring armies, but from bullets fired at their backs by the Hungarians. Thousands died in such attempts, but many thousands also managed to escape in this fashion. Those from the former Republic of Czechoslovakia were organized into the Eastern Czechoslovak Army and, after a short period of training, were sent to the front. Their Commander, Colonel Svoboda, later General Svoboda, spoke very highly of them and praised them for their courageous acts on the front. It is noteworthy that our men from the Carpathians were well represented. Many of them, having served in the Czechoslovak Army before 1939, became officers and some even achieved high rank.

The Russian drive in March carried them to the Rumanian border and the collapse of the Eastern German Army was now visibly imminent. Jews held high hopes for liberation. In Italy, the Allies were held up at the monastery of Mt. Casino, where rough, hilly terrain left few roads passable by tanks. The Germans dug in and constantly shelled the only road. Progress came inch by inch.

On March 22nd, a catastrophe of unheard-of proportions occurred. Germany occupied Hungary. Jews were completely taken by surprise; probably even the Hungarian government had no advanced warning. Reading later accounts, it is evident that this was not a sudden decision on Hitler's part, but had been a well-planned operation. Several months before, Marshal von Rundstedt visited Hungary. The Regent of Hungary, Miklos Horthy, gave a gala ball in his honor, inviting many guests from the Military and Diplomatic Corps. With the party well in progress, Rundstedt asked the Regent what Hungary would do if Russian forces neared the Hungarian borders. The Regent carelessly replied, "You know, Marshal, in war and politics one must bend with the wind." On his return to Germany, the Marshal reported to Hitler that the Hungarians could not be relied upon as they would go the way of the Italians, Bulgarians and others that defected at the first sight of an Allied army. Hence, the fate of Hungary was sealed and, to an even greater and more catastrophic extent, the fate of Hungarian Jewry.

The Germans did not need to move in with a big army, which they could no longer spare in any event. The occupation of Hungary was accomplished with a mere 5,000 men, mostly from the Wehrmacht with officers drawn from the infamous SS. Such a small number would not have been able to occupy and control the country without the able help of the Gendarmes. This group was under the command of Colonel Laszlo Ferenczy, a well-known anti-Semite, who received orders from Eichman's Sonderkommando (Special Command).

When the news broke, I was in Volove and hurried home immediately. The Jewish community was in turmoil. Even before the Germans arrived in Chust, the Gendarmes ordered a Judenrat (Jewish Council) established, which henceforth would receive orders and be fully responsible for the prompt execution of all regulations. The Germans arrived the next day, and a flood of orders was issued almost hourly.

For starters, all Jews were placed on standby for work brigades. I myself was called into a work force preparing artillery positions for a yet-to-be German army. We built encampments and brought up tremendous supplies of ammunition, but did not see any artillery pieces. It was probably a defensive position to be taken by the German Army when it retreated. One Wehrmacht soldier told me, "We are soldiers. You will not suffer at our hands. We are here only temporarily to prepare the defenses. Watch out for the SS troops. They are cruel."

Just a few days later, thirty Jews were arrested. As it turned out, this was the modus operandi of the Eichman gang. Upon entering a town, they seized a number of the leading citizens and demanded a large ransom payment, with the threat of killing the hostages if the ransom was not paid promptly. In this way, the Jews were impoverished overnight. This exercise also gave the SS credibility. They promised to release the hostages upon receiving the ransom payment, and they did. Therefore, Jews had no reason to doubt their word that no harm would come to those to be moved into ghettos that would be established shortly. The Jews were content to wait for liberation by the Russian forces that crept closer every day. Odessa fell to the advancing Russians at the end of March and, a few days afterward, Tarnopol fell. Great progress was being made on other fronts, too.

Four different areas of Chust were designated as ghettos. Each consisted of a group of Jewish houses. If a gentile house was in the way, it was taken also and the owner was compensated with a larger home seized from a Jew. On April 15th, the move into the ghettos began. The resettlement of some 10,000 Jews from Chust and vicinity was accomplished in three days. We didn't have to move. But now instead of housing four members of our family, the place became a home for as many as could fit in. All the furniture was thrown out and given to the gentiles. We all slept on the bare floor, although later we purchased straw to cushion it. Kitchens had to be established. The people had to be fed and looked after. A water shortage developed when the pump in our yard couldn't supply enough water. But slowly, we solved all the problems. Each ghetto had a commander responsible to the Judenrat, which in turn was responsible to the SS. My father was initially named commander, but he relinquished the post to my Uncle Meir, who was an able organizer, always composed, with an amount of patience seldom seen. Under his leadership the ghetto functioned almost perfectly, especially considering the difficulties we faced.

With limited resources, Uncle Meir managed to keep everybody fed and taken care of. Hygiene became a problem with the danger of lice in such crowded quarters. My uncle foresaw this, too, and kept the place as clean as possible and free of lice with the frequent use of disinfectants. There weren't too many other people, including my father, who could have accomplished what Uncle Meir did. There were some tragicomic situations.

For instance, one poor man told someone who was formerly rich, "You see, Reb Mendel, now we are both equal. I'm as rich as you are."

The ghetto has its own police, of which I was a member. Our duty was to patrol outside the ghetto and apprehend anybody trying to leave. Movement at night was totally forbidden and during the day was permitted only with a pass. The job was fine with me, since it exempted me from any additional work. However, the problem was, that on several occasions Hungarian soldiers came to the ghetto and beat up some of our boys, including some of my very good friends. I was not eager to incur such a beating. A gentile I knew well owned a bakery that ran at night. He agreed to let me spend my nights on duty there.

On May 15th, the deportations started. We were told the Jews from Chust would be transferred to M·teszalka, a city in Hungary, where we would be resettled in more comfort, each family together. They needed replacements for men called to serve in the army, especially for those who had been working on farms, in brick factories and lumber yards.

The skeptics were silenced when confidential information was received from an interesting source. The wife of one of the members of the rich Kraus family had been having an intimate affair with a captain of the Gendarmes while her husband was somewhere in the Ukraine with one of the Jewish work battalions. She was kept outside the ghetto, and got the latest news directly from her lover. What the SS told us was true. We were to be settled in M·teszalka. We had no reason to doubt the SS. Did they not keep their promise to release the hostages? So why doubt their promise now?

We didn't know it at the time, but it later turned out that the deportation was part of a larger scheme called "The Final Solution". Since 1942, the Germans had discussed it off and on with Kalloy, the Hungarian Prime Minister, pressuring both the Prime Minister and Horthy, the Regent, to eliminate the Jews from their midst once and for all. But they both resisted. Kalloy, while not a friend to the Jews, was not enough of a Hitler supporter to surrender the Jews to the Germans. He did favor an orderly resettlement of the Jews, but not to be implemented until after the war. It is even questionable whether he really was an anti-Semite or simply played that role out of necessity. In 1944, he certainly no longer had any doubts about the demise of the Third Reich.

It was a well-organized plan with everything carefully scheduled. Within three days, Ghetto No.2 was liquidated. Jewish properties became available for the local population's taking. Our ghetto's turn came in the second week and we were among the last group to leave. Hungarian Gendarmes and soldiers carried out the evacuation, with the SS present only at the brickyard where the Hungarians checked our meager possessions. Money, jewelry and furs had to be surrendered.

We were told to mark our luggage clearly, so we could easily identify it at our destination. My friend, Laci Almasi, was a civilian inspector working with a Hungarian soldier. With some help from him, I managed to get into the line at his post. He let us through with all our possessions, arguing with the soldier over every piece the soldier wanted to eliminate. As others who went through his checkpoint later told me, he behaved honorably. After the inspection, I never saw him again.

We had to walk to the brick factory but our possessions were put on a horse-pulled wagon. After the inspection, we had to carry our luggage about a half-mile to the waiting railroad cars. Thanks to my friend Laci, I was overloaded with suitcases. As it was, Father was no great help. He carried what he could, as did Anne and Tommy, but I was simply overloaded and made slow progress. I was "helped" along with kicks and beatings from the soldiers every time I stopped to change the load from one hand to the other. I finally got to the railroad car, half-dead.

When we got underway, I had time to look around. I saw familiar faces. Berish Freilich, our faithful employee, was there with the remnants of his family. So were Uncle Meir and Aunt Klara with their three daughters, my Bubbe Sara, and a host of others I knew. There was no place to move around. There was not even enough place to sit comfortably. The freight cars had small windows that only a very skinny person or a child could squeeze through. To prevent this, they had been screened with barbed wire. For about one hundred people in the car, there was only one bucket of water and a single waste bucket.

I was close to Berish and had always considered him to be a very wise man. I asked him what he thought, as I had my own suspicions, "Reb Berish, this does not look to me like we are being taken to work somewhere in Hungary. It looks to me more like we are prisoners." He replied, "Maybe you are right, but let's wait until we get to Kir·lyh·z. If the train goes to the left, then it is towards Hungary; to the right, it means we are going towards Slovakia and Poland." The train turned to the right.

Berish said to me, "Tibi you are young. You may be put to work and survive. But me, I'm an old man. The Germans will not feed me for nothing. For me, it is the end of the line. I hope you and the young ones like you will survive." How right he was!

The journey itself was pure hell. The suffering was nigh impossible to describe. How do you describe women having to use the already-overflowing waste bucket? How do you describe the suffering of the hungry children? The only way to stretch out was to stand up. Just to get to the buckets was pure terror, having to step over other bodies including those of children. Hundreds on the train died during the journey. Many committed suicide or were driven insane by fear and the confinement. Others were robbed and even killed by the SS whenever the train stopped.

I do not remember how long it took our train to reach its destination. We were told to disembark and line up in rows of five. The SS were everywhere, their automatic weapons at the ready. I do not know whom they feared. The officers were walking around yelling orders to a gang of men in striped uniforms. I figured out that they were prisoners. One of them was not working but was constantly giving orders to speed the unloading of the wagons containing our baggage. I worried that the baggage would be so mixed up that I would not be able to find my own, but it turned out that I didn't have to worry about that. The one with the striped suit giving the orders wore an armband with the letters CAPO on it. I did not yet know that a capo was the head of a work group.

Not far from where we unloaded were huge chimneys with fire shooting from them, high into the sky. The smell reminded me of being in a blacksmith shop in Volove when the smith put new horseshoes on a horse. In the process of shoeing, he burned off the dead parts of the hooves that gave off a smell similar to the one I now experienced.

One by one, we approached an officer (only much later was I to learn that he was Dr. Mengele, the infamous "Angel of Death"). When we got within ten feet of him, he motioned us to the left or to the right. I noticed that old people, women with children and single children of certain ages were ordered to the left, while those who were more or less able-bodied were sent to the right. At the time, this circumstance was not revealing in and of itself. I thought that those sent to the left would perhaps get more favorable treatment. I also remembered my conversation with Berish, but I was too tired to think the situation through. It did not take me long to learn.

Those sent to the right were again separated, this time by sex. The men were led into a huge shed and told to undress. Completely naked, we were then led to another section of the same shed, where men in the same striped uniforms started shaving our heads, underarms and genital areas. They then applied a stinging disinfectant to our shaved parts. We felt the sting for a considerable time.

On the ground where we undressed, we could see currency from many countries. Dollars, English pounds, Swiss francs, large quantities of Hungarian pengo and even German marks. We tried to converse with our fellow prisoners--the barbers, but could not get a word out of them. We could see them falling asleep from exhaustion. I guessed they were overworked with the many transports of Hungarian Jews arriving in a steady stream. My father, Uncle Meir and I stayed together, and managed to do so for a long time. We were all given the same striped clothes we saw the prisoners wearing.

We were then taken to a barracks with bunks lining both sides of a central aisle. The bunks were probably originally built to accommodate six to eight adults. But since the camp was running out of space for the many new arrivals, the bunks had to accommodate twice as many bodies, and even more. It was cramped. If one person wanted to turn, everyone had to turn. It was daylight before we were assigned a bunk and we fell asleep immediately. After the long trek to Auschwitz and the exhausting night, everybody was so dead tired and incapable of functioning further. People were falling off their feet. We were awakened a short while later. It was time for Appel (muster). Again lining up in rows five deep, we were left standing for a long time while the count proceeded. We learned that this was the normal procedure, used to break our spirit and physical resistance.

Every barracks, called a block was numbered, "Block One" on up. Each unit had a Block”ltester, head of the block and, in our case, six Stubendienst, or chambermen. I never saw the Block”ltester, but the six subordinates kept very active with their rubber hoses, meting out punishing blows for the slightest infraction and often just for the sheer pleasure. It was new to me then. Later, as I came to understand the whole system, I saw how clever the German tactics were. Orders were given to the block leader, who in turn ordered his six helpers to carry out the orders to the letter. The seven of them combined, formed an efficient bunch of murderers. If, for instance, a block was overloaded, an order went out to reduce the population by, let's say, 200. During the night, the six murderers beat the victims' heads with iron rods. The block leader helped and supervised the process.

Not following the order meant death for all seven. Only hardened prisoners, who were willing to follow any order, were chosen. Their reward was a separate room for the block leader and a comfortable place for the six helpers, with plenty of food for all of them. They ate good quality meals from the same kitchen serving the enlisted SS men, and were also able to prepare their own meals on the electric hotplate placed at their disposal. While I was there, I observed that they did not have to attend the Appels and even had girlfriends, holding the same positions as they did, from the women's section of the camp.

The Appel was something that everybody dreaded. It was a twice-a-day affair, held in the early morning and the late afternoon. The six ruffians, who themselves did not have to stand in line, took the opportunity to abuse the rest of us. Waiting for the SS to come to count the prisoners sometimes took hours, during which we were not allowed to sit down. When the SS finally arrived to commence the count, we had to stand at attention. Even a slight movement was rewarded with a severe beating. Everybody had to be counted, even the sick and the dead. While they treated us as sub-humans, they counted us as if we were precious possessions.

Over the next few days, the rest of the Jews arrived from Chust, and we met those from the last transport. Among them were my younger uncle, Mojse Pikkel, and my Great uncle Laci Pikkel and his son Sanyi. We also learned about the gas chamber and the secret of the big chimneys belching flames. They were atop a crematorium--that's what gave off that irritating smell. I was not sure what happened to those selected to go left, but my feelings about their fate and even our fate were not overly optimistic.

We had to stay close to our block and were not allowed to wander around the camp. A barbed wire fence surrounded the camp, reinforced by a second fence charged with high voltage. Beyond the fences were watchtowers manned by SS with clearly visible machine guns. As we slowly fell into the routine, we started to look around us and tried to get as much information as possible about our chances for survival. On the third or fourth day, I finally made small progress with one of the Stubendienst in our block. He was a Slovak who had been in camp since 1941. I overheard him cursing somebody in that language and took the next opportunity to speak to him. He did not hit me, a success in and of itself, and even spoke a few words to me. When I asked him what would happen to us, his reply was noncommittal, "This is Birkenau. Here some survive, but many die." That was all he said, but now I knew we were in Auschwitz-Birkenau. As I was to learn much later, it was the Vernichtungs-Lager, the "Camp of Destruction".

On one of my forays to the toilet, I met my last girlfriend, Magda Schlesinger. She was a few blocks from us and she gave me news about my cousins Elvi and Hedi, Aunt Klara's children. For Magda and her sister Lonka, I arranged a meeting with their father, who was in our block. Their mother was also with them, and all four met for a few minutes. It was the last time Mr. Schlesinger would see his wife and daughters.

One of my most interesting discoveries, not far from our block was a group of smaller buildings in a separate fenced in encampment, similar to our block but smaller and neater. To everybody's surprise, we saw men, women and children there, all together, all speaking Czech and all in civilian clothes. Curiosity would not let us stay away, even at the risk of physical harm. Many of us approached the fence and started a conversation with those on the other side. It turned out they came from various places in Bohemia and Moravia and had been kept together as whole families. They looked reasonably healthy. We never saw an Appel held there, nor saw any beatings or heard any yelling.

They spoke to us with reservation, not saying too much. They knew why they were being held separately and given preferential treatment. But it was only after the war that we learned the whole truth. They were prisoners held for show. When a Red Cross commission requested to see how Germany treated its civilian prisoners, the "Czech Camp", as it was called, was transported to any one of several well-kept facilities. These places were situated in different parts of Poland, Germany and Austria, usually near known, large concentration camps. In this way, when the Red Cross commission arrived, they were shown happy families, with well-equipped hospitals, schools, kindergartens and even libraries. They even had a band playing for the visiting idiots (dignitaries) from the Red Cross, who in turn managed to convince the world of the "humanitarian" treatment they had seen. In later years, I had another opportunity to observe how one-sided the Red Cross was. While they promptly recognized the Red Crescent, the Arabic equivalent of the Red Cross, they refused to accept the Mogen David, the Israeli counterpart.

About my sixth or seventh day in Birkenau, my Slovak connection told me that we would soon know our destiny. He said that he did not know it himself at that moment, but would tell me as soon as he found out. I had no idea what he really meant. Did it mean that, in spite of being chosen as capable of performing work, we still could all be eliminated, or was it only a question of where we were needed? On the seventh day, the Slovak waited at the entrance of the block for the Appel to finish and grabbed me as I was walking back to my bunk. All he said was, "Now you are saved." He would not elaborate, despite my further inquiries. It had been made public: in two or three days, we were to leave for an Arbeitslager (work camp) of unknown location.

I will not go into a detailed description of my life while in Birkenau, because I, like everyone else, had only the fate of my family in mind. It seemed as if our own personal situation was of less importance. The food was so bad that, these days, a dog would refuse to eat it. After three to four days, we did eat, because the only alternative was starvation. It is unbelievable to realize how a human being can adjust when the need arises.

Late in the afternoon of the ninth day, it finally happened. We were taken to a railroad siding where each prisoner received a loaf of bread, a piece of liverwurst and a small piece of cheese. "This is for two days," we were told, "for tomorrow and the day after." We were herded into freight cars, against both sides, leaving the middle open for the four SS guarding each car. Without any luggage to contend with, it was roomier than the first trip we experienced on our way to Auschwitz. After suffering cursing and an occasional beating from the SS, we arrived at our destination: Warsaw.

We were welcomed by a large contingent of SS troops and officers, who yelled and kicked us into the usual formation of five men deep. We were marched through a part of the city with hardly any people on the street. Security seemed extremely tight, and many of us wondered why. They certainly did not need such precautions against us, who were unarmed and hardly a threat to the SS troops with their automatic weapons at the ready. Not much later, we solved the riddle. The SS were protecting themselves against the Polish underground, which was very strong and getting stronger with the Russian advance. It was also the reason that no civilians could be seen on the streets. They had learned to stay away from the Germans. They did not want to prevent a partisan attack by their presence, or get caught in the crossfire.

We entered a section of the city in complete ruins and passed through a heavily-guarded checkpoint with tall watchtowers. In the distance we could see a camp, with its watchtowers and electric and barbed wire fences. After a few more minutes, we reached the gate, entered and marched through a street lined with fellow prisoners, dressed like us in striped suits, who yelled loud greetings at us. We were led through another gate into a large empty field and ordered to stop. I could not see what was going on in front of me, but word came back that we were being registered and given numbers. In Auschwitz-Birkenau we noticed that other prisoners had numbers on their arms, but our transport was not tattooed.

As we reached the front of the line, I saw the procedure. At each of several tables sat a prisoner wearing an armband marked Schreiber (scribe). When we registered at the tables, we were given two pieces of cloth, each with a matching number, and also two triangles, one red, the other yellow. We were to sew the triangles in the form of a Star of David to the left side of our jackets. The numbers had to be sewn on the left side of our pants and on our jackets, just above the Star of David. They gave us no needles or thread, but left it to the ingenuity of the many tailors we had in our ranks to accomplish the impossible. My father, Uncle Meir and I went through this together with Magda's father, who was one of the finest tailors in Chust and did the job for us. As a veteran of World War I, he had known that a needle might come in handy and managed to stash some needles away. We obtained thread by pulling yarns from some old rugs we found.

Then, we were taken to a second gate, where we were assigned to a crew of three, one block leader and two helpers, who took us to our barracks. Our block was Number Six. It was to be our home for the next three and a half months.

In transit from Birkenau to Warsaw, I met a man from Chust who had been in the last transport riding the same wagon as Mrs. Kraus, who I thought would have been saved by her lover, the Captain of the Gendarmes. I was also told of a family who had tried to save a very young child of theirs by placing it in a monastery. After the parents already left as part of a previous contingent, the child was returned and simply deposited in one of the wagons, where a woman with her own children looked after the baby. We all knew, by then, how this tragedy had ended.

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