My Story: Sorrow and Gratitude

Jewish Historical Museum, Belgrade Hungarian gendarmes oversee a group of Jewish forced laborers in Senta, Yugoslavia, May 1941.
Jewish Historical Museum, Belgrade
Hungarian gendarmes oversee a group of Jewish forced laborers in Senta, Yugoslavia, May 1941.
The destroyed interior of the Senta synagogue. (USHMM)
The destroyed interior of the Senta synagogue. (USHMM)

I was born in 1924, in Senta (Zente), Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia at that time was a new, independent country carved out of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires after World War I. Senta was once part of Hungary, so even though the official language was Serbish — that’s the language we used in school — we spoke mostly Hungarian among ourselves. Although we had a king, King Alexander, it was a democratic country. I was a young child when the king was assassinated. Everyone was crying; it was very sad because he was beloved by the people and, for a long time I remember everyone talking about it.

Senta was a nice-sized city, with a high standard of living; in fact, our part of Yugoslavia was called “little America.” There was no anti-Semitism — not from the government and not from the local populace. There were beautiful stores selling textiles, coats, shoes, leather goods — everything we needed. Many beautiful parks dotted the city. On nice days after work and on weekends people dressed up and strolled in the parks. Musicians played; in the winter we would watch the ice skaters and in the summer we watched the people playing tennis.

There were a few hundred chassidishe families and two shuls: the beis medrash and the big shul. We had one Talmud Torah for the boys from the alef-beis class to mesivta to beis medrash. The frum girls attended public school until grade six and, once a week, we had classes where we learned kriah, some Jewish history and other Judaic subjects. Our kehillah was well organized, with our own Rav, Harav Lebowitz, and our own shochtim. I can’t begin to tell you how serene our life was then, but it lasted such a short time.

There was also a large Neolog community with their own shul, led by a very chashuve Rav who was highly respected by the Orthodox community, and in general the relationship between the two communities was respectful.

My father, Reb Yehuda Leib Minitzer, was born in Kiev, Russia. He was drafted into the Russian army during World War I. Because my father was musically gifted, he became part of the army orchestra, and was thereby saved from combat. By the end of World War I, he was taken prisoner by the Hungarian army. In Senta, there was a wealthy man by the name of Yisroel Pollack. When he heard that there were three Jewish boys who were prisoners of war, he redeemed them and brought them to Senta. He took full responsibility for them, marrying them off and setting them up with a parnassah.

My mother’s family, the Shlagers, were refugees from Galicia. My grandfather died before World War I, leaving my grandmother with five children. She fled with her children during the war and somehow ended up in Senta. Yisroel Pollak was the shadchan between my parents; he also set up my father as the alef-beis melamed in the Talmud Torah.

I find this a little strange because my father spoke with a litvishe havarah; he was a Chabad Chassid and, in Senta the chassidishe Hungarian havarah was used. How he taught the children to read, I still can’t understand. All I know is that he was such a successful teacher that, whenever the menahel wanted him to teach a more advanced class, the parents of the incoming class didn’t allow it, claiming that nobody could instill such yiras Shamayim into the children like my father.

My father had an interesting method of discipline. He would throw candies (tzikerlach) to the children when they behaved. At the same time, a belt was hanging on a hook, and whenever a child misbehaved, he would point to the belt, and that was enough to set the child straight. Not once did he ever hit a child, and that is pretty amazing considering that hitting was the standard form of discipline at that time. I would sometimes meet people 50 years later who told me that they still harbor such fond memories of their devoted and caring alef-beis rebbi. Those reminiscences warmed my heart anew each time I heard them.

I was the oldest in the family; three boys were born after me. My father made a decent parnassah. We had our own house and were generally quite comfortable. My grandmother was the matriarch of the family, a very pious woman and highly respected in the community. Her home was the center for the family; every day that was where the aunts and cousins gathered, which made us into an extremely close- knit family. When I was a young teenager I was chosen to sleep in my grandmother’s house. Yes, I washed her feet every day, put on her shoes, kept her house neat, and generally took responsibility for her. She bentched me all the time and I attribute my survival to her brachos.

My uncle, Moishe Batchi, was a distinguished man, an esteemed personality who represented our community in Belgrade, the capital of Yugoslavia. We had an official Chief Rabbi in Yugoslavia, Dr. Rabbi Isaac Alkay and, as the askan of the community my uncle met him a number of times. In fact, after the war, we somehow got a message that Rabbi Alkay was in New York and was looking to meet survivors of the Shlager family. Tatte did try to pursue this but never ended up meeting him.

These few interwar years were exceptionally good years for the Jews in Yugoslavia, but they lasted such a short time. In 1940, Germany attacked Yugoslavia, and our part of Yugoslavia was given over to Hungary. That wasn’t too bad; other parts of Yugoslavia suffered much more — not only the Yidden, but the gentiles also.

We did have some restrictions, like a curfew, and we were only allowed to bake challos from dark flour (how silly!). We were not allowed to go to the marketplace before 10 o’clock and, by then, there wasn’t much to buy, so our neighbors, the non-Jews, would do our shopping. One Sunday morning, the prominent men in our community were forced to clean the streets. Another incident I remember from that time is when a dentist was imprisoned on false charges of espionage and was hung in the public square. Otherwise, life pretty much continued normally, although we did live in fear and apprehension. Our part of Yugoslavia was still one of the safer places in Europe.

By 1942-43, young men were forcibly inducted into the munkatábor — labor battalions. Life was harsh there and the men suffered greatly. You probably remember when Tatte told us how, in the middle of the night, he was forcibly taken out of his home — leaving behind his first wife, who was expecting, and their three little boys, never to see them again. His youngest baby, a girl, was born shortly afterwards; he never saw that child.

At times, thugs roamed the streets. One day my father didn’t return from cheder. My mother asked me to go see what was happening. When I got there, a neighbor was helping my father wipe off the blood from his body. A group of thugs had entered the cheder and beat him up in front of the little children. Oh, to see my dear father beaten and bloodied!

In 1944 the Germans took over Hungary, and Yugoslavia became a German puppet state. The terrible times began then. The gentiles didn’t collaborate with the Germans, but neither were they able to help us. The Nazis hated the Slavs and, in other places in Yugoslavia many non-Jews were also taken to the camps and they too suffered, so they lived in constant fear.

Soon after Pesach 1944, we were evicted from our homes, rounded up and taken to a ghetto in Segedin where we stayed for two weeks. It’s hard to describe the terrible experience of being forced to leave our homes. Home is family, home is love, home is security. As we stepped out of our house for the last time, my father embraced his sefarim shrank and cried bitter tears as he bade farewell to his precious sefarim. We were transferred to another ghetto in Boya where we spent another two weeks. That is where my father’s beard was cut off. When he came home, we didn’t recognize him. We were devastated — the pain, the humiliation! How we all cried!

One scene keeps replaying in my mind: As we were walking to the central gathering place for deportation, I saw Reb Aharon Kohn leaving his stately home. Reb Aharon was a tall, distinguished, wealthy man, and he was wearing his luxurious fur coat. Suddenly, a Nazi hooligan ran after him and tore off his coat, laughing uproariously. Now, I saw much worse scenes in the next few months, but to see the helplessness, the humiliation, of such a respected person hurt me to the core.

Friday afternoon, Erev Shabbos, the deportations began. Sunday and Monday were Shavuos. I peeked into the cattle car and saw that the only place to sit was on the floor. There was no way my grandmother would be able to sit on the floor. My body shaking with fear, I approached the SS soldier and asked for a stool for my grandmother. He could have killed me, but Hashem was with us and he actually gave us a stool which I placed in a corner so she could lean on the wall for support.

We traveled for three nights and two days. We had brought some food along, but the conditions were awful. My two older brothers — frum, ehrlich boys — refused to eat because they couldn’t say a brachah there. My parents begged them to eat; they said they’ll eat when they get to the destination — which, of course, didn’t happen. After all, how can a human being ever imagine the brutal, inhumane experience awaiting us at our destination — Auschwitz? So they got to Auschwitz weak and hungry. The most pitiful were the little children, who didn’t stop crying in that crowded cattle car — they were dirty, thirsty, hungry — and the anguish we suffered not being able to comfort them! Together with us in our car was my cousin Blimie with her three young children. At one point, her five-year-old son, holding on to his grandfather’s hand, said, “Zeidy, sing V’hi sh’amdah to me one more time.”

We arrived in Auschwitz Monday morning, the second day of Shavuos, and were ordered to get out of the cars. It was a scene out of hell: chaos, bedlam, barking dogs, the cursed Nazis yelling “Schneller! Schneller!” and the cries of families being forcibly separated. Behind barbed wires, we saw women, shaven, begging us to throw over any food we had. “This is an insane asylum,” we said to each other. Little did we know that a few hours later we would look just like them.

I was the last out of the cattle car because I was leading my grandmother. I never saw my mother again. I was walking with my grandmother, and the Jewish boys were pushing me in a different direction. I refused to be separated from her, but they gave me such a push I had no choice. They were also pulling children out of their mothers’ arms and placing them into the hands of older women. We were furious at them. It’s only later we realized they were trying to save the young women.

As I was being shoved on line nearing my turn in front of the malach ha’maves, Mengele, I suddenly heard my father’s voice calling my name, “Gitta, Gitta!” As I turned around, he threw his tefillin over to me. Until today, I keep on asking myself, Why did he do this? Did he know that tomorrow he won’t be wearing his tefillin anymore? And why to me and not to my brothers? How did he know I’d be the only survivor? Sadly, those holy tefillin were in my hands only seconds before I had to give them up. But I’m telling you, these resha’im took away the physical tefillin, but the spiritual tefillin, their kedushah, has remained with me forever.

My parents loved me dearly, especially my father, maybe because I was their oldest child born to them after 10 years of marriage, or maybe it was my status as their only daughter (probably each of my brothers felt especially loved). As a child, each day as I left to school my father would give me money to buy myself a big pretzel as a snack. It was a special treat. I’m convinced that it was the memory of those pretzels, so lovingly given to me by my father, that nourished me in the dark days ahead.

I found myself together with my two cousins, Blimie and Leah. We were shaved, tattooed and given shmattes to wear. No more were we human beings; we were numbers. A-9919 — that’s my number. We looked like monkeys and hardly recognized each other. We were shoved into a bunk house like sardines. Everybody was crying, “Where’s my mother, where’s my sister?” The kapo pointed to the black smoke and told us that’s where our mothers and sisters are. The worst off was my cousin Blimie, whose three beautiful children were torn away from her. It was so pitiful; she didn’t stop crying.

As we found out later, our whole transport — men, women and children who were pointed to the left by Mengele’s murderous finger — were murdered on that day, the second day of Shavuos. That is the day we all keep yahrtzeit. I have a special ache in my heart for my youngest brother, Yitzchok Eisik’le, who was all of 14 at that time. He was a smart, lively child, but he held on to my father and followed him into the gas chamber. He was a spunky kid, and had he been forcibly removed, I keep on thinking, he may have survived. Whenever I think of my little brother innocently walking into the gas chambers with my father, of their last moments, my heart breaks again and again.

The next morning, we were introduced to appel, the grueling roll call. We were woken up while it was dark and stood outdoors for two hours in the worst weather conditions. Then we were marched out with music to our worksite, to dig ditches. Blimie was in no condition to work, and I did her work too. Her grief was just too overwhelming and a few days later she died of a broken heart.

At the worksite we were guarded, not by the SS, but by the Wehrmacht. These were also German soldiers, but they were older and more humane. They would let us rest occasionally, and when the SS officer showed up, they would blow their whistles and we would get back to our back-breaking work. One day, a soldier came over to me and appointed me as an overseer. Being in a position of authority was terrible and I was devastated. When I tried to help someone who was struggling, I was pulled back and told very firmly never to do that again. Hashem helped me and the next day this soldier was gone.

At one point, Polish peasant women came to work with us. They had plenty of food, but needed kerchiefs and other articles of clothing. Some of the girls managed to get these for them and, in payment, they brought us food. Those were good weeks. Our little conspiracy, however, was discovered and they punished us. Just outside the Auschwitz gate was an area covered with small pebbles. We had to kneel on those pebbles for hours without moving until we thought we’d faint. Finally, one soldier had pity on us and allowed us to rise. We spent the next few hours trying to remove pebbles from our torn, bloody knees.

One day I began feeling intense pain in my left leg. Within a few days my leg swelled to triple its size and I couldn’t walk. It was very frightening: Firstly, I knew it was terribly infected and there was no medical intervention available (the hospital was a one-way street), and how could I go to work? But staying behind was also a death sentence. I was zocheh to an open miracle. Our kapo announced that a contagious disease was discovered in our bunk, and we would be quarantined for 30 days. For 30 days we were “on vacation.” The Nazis were afraid to come near us; food was sent into our bunk, and I sat in the sun and slowly, day by day, the sun healed the infection. By the time the 30 days were over, I was ready to work again.

Once a week, they took away our shmattes to give us clean ones. We would wait hours in an unheated, drafty cement building, waiting for the clean clothes. We huddled together like shivering chickens. By the time they handed us the clean shmattes, we were so frozen we could hardly move. Oh, what torture!

It was now January 1945, and we had been in Auschwitz nine months. We were living zombies, standing appel in frigid weather, scantily dressed, working long hours with little food, people dying like flies from disease and starvation — but the worst was yet to come. One day, I don’t remember if it was January 18 or 28, we were told that we’d be leaving. (At the time we had no inkling of the reason, since we were completely cut off from the rest of the world. Later we found out that the Russians were close by and the Germans were desperate to get us out of there to cover their tracks. Soon after we left, Auschwitz was liberated by the Russians, but as we were told by the girls left behind, it was no picnic. The Russians were wild animals and attacked the women. At night the women barricaded themselves in the barracks and by day they lived in constant fear. It was a nightmare.)

And so began the infamous, torturous march to Bergen Belsen. It must have been my grandmother’s tefillos, because again I was zocheh to an open miracle. For some reason, a group of us was chosen to travel by cattle car. We were each given one loaf of bread and a blanket. The SS guard was in our wagon, and he brought along a small oven to warm himself, so although it was far from comfortable, the trip was bearable. My good friend Leah Lebowitz was unfortunately one of the marchers, and when she reached Bergen Belsen, we didn’t recognize her. She didn’t look human. Our minds can’t begin to fathom the torture of this terrible march. There are no words adequate enough to describe the horror of these death marches. Remember, this was January; they marched hundreds of miles in frigid weather, dressed in rags, with almost no food. It’s a miracle anybody survived. Tatte was also on one of these death marches and he said it was the worst part of his suffering.

Bergen Belsen was a Gehinnom. I spent four-and-a-half months there, from mid-January until the end of May. With almost no food, we just wandered around in a stupor, one torturous day blending into another. The last six weeks we got nothing to eat, not a crumb. I don’t know how we survived; the sun nourished us. The cursed Germans poisoned the bread at the end. They distributed the bread in some parts of the camp, fresh bread to entice the prisoners. But for some reason it was never distributed in our part of the camp. My good friend, who was a kallah, died that way. Her chassan survived.

The dead were piled up like mountains. One day, when they came to gather all the dead, my cousin Leah, although I saw she was still breathing, was also taken away. That night I sneaked into that barrack and called her name over and over. I was about to give up when I heard a feeble voice answering me. Although I was so weak I could hardly stand, I managed to drag her out. She somehow survived and went on to build a beautiful family.

If this ordeal would have lasted even one more week, not one person would have survived. All of a sudden, we heard an announcement on a loudspeaker. “The war is over.” The British had come. It was April 15, 1945. We had no idea of the world situation, and when that announcement came, we were shocked. Did we celebrate? Did we dance for happiness? No. We were so weakened from disease and starvation, our minds could hardly focus. The British were exceptionally kind and tried to help as much as they could, but they too were totally unprepared to handle the situation. Disease and death continued to claim thousands of victims after liberation. There were two sisters from Senta, beautiful girls; one died 10 days before liberation and one died two days after liberation.

Our bodies were infested with lice, and one of the first things the English soldiers did was spray us with DDT. After two applications we were rid of the lice. A few days later, we had access to warm water and the British handed out ointments and salves for our skin, which had been eaten up by lice and the unsanitary conditions.

The food situation was still terrible; the English just weren’t prepared with special food that our emaciated bodies needed. They handed out crackers and begged us to wait a few days for food shipments, but many people were so crazed from hunger that they broke open the German food storage house, and within an hour many of them died a horrible death.

And what happened to the Germans? I imagine some of them escaped, but those who were caught were recruited by the British to bury the dead and as we watched them, we would spit in their faces. The British didn’t allow us to throw even one stone at them. In the men’s division, they did manage to take revenge on some of the kapos and Germans, but the liberating armies tried to prevent it.

What was uppermost in my hazy mind was the question of who had survived. A few days after liberation, I went to the men’s division and, walking through the barracks, I kept on calling out, “Yugoslavia! Yugoslavia!” hoping somebody might have some information about my brothers. Already in Auschwitz I knew that my parents, grandmother, youngest brother, aunts, uncles, and young cousins had perished, but I was still hoping my brothers had survived. One man answered my call, but he wasn’t from my hometown and had no information for me.

The Red Cross did distribute lists of survivors, but I didn’t see my brothers’ names on them. When I returned to Senta, I met some survivors who told me the dreaded news that both my brothers had perished. That left me the only survivor from my immediate family. My dear brothers, so young — Avraham Ber, only 18, and Sholom Mendel, 16 ½ — innocent, eidel neshamos — became victims of the Nazi brutality. Hashem yinkom damam. Is it possible for such a wound in my heart to ever heal?

A few years later, when we lived in Williamsburg, I met the Sigheter Rav, who later became the Satmar Rebbe, the BerachMoshe. He had been the Rav in Senta a few years before the war and knew my family. The Rebbe told me that he had been together with my brothers, and when they had to stand appel, he and some others only wanted to stand next to my brothers because they knew Tehillim by heart and while they would be saying it he would say it along with them. He also told me that my brother had promised Hashem that after the war he will also keep “appel” and get up to learn instead. The Rebbe would repeat this to me and my children many times, and although I cried each time I heard it, it brought me some comfort.

One day, about two weeks later, some English officers came around shouting, “Yugoslavia, Yugoslavia?” When the Yugoslavian Kaiser escaped to England at the time of the German invasion, many of the top brass and soldiers escaped with him and joined the British army to fight the Germans. Among the British forces who liberated Bergen Belsen were three Yugoslavian officers and they took responsibility for the Yugoslavian girls in Bergen Belsen.

We were about 150 Yugoslavian girls, mostly Yidden but a few non-Jews also. The non-Jews were girls who had joined the partisans and were captured by the Germans. They gathered us and took us to Austerbald, a town near Bergen Belsen, where we were divided and settled into three luxurious mansions. Five times a day we were served delicious meals; once a week a doctor came around to weigh us and treat us; some evenings the officers would take us out to concerts; in short, we were treated royally. The very sick girls were taken to Sweden. We were there from the beginning of May until mid-August.

In mid-August, the British-Yugoslavian officers escorted us to Belgrade, and in Belgrade we separated, each group going its own way. It seems our friends were informed of our homecoming, so when we arrived they welcomed us into their home. The Joint Distribution Committee had set up a community kitchen and dining room; twice a day we ate our meals there, and Jewish life slowly began to take shape again. At that point, none of us was thinking ahead; we were just basically surviving from day to day. And shortly after, the marriages started.

There was a young handsome man who was courting me, and although he was frum, deep down I didn’t think my father would have approved of him. Now remember, I was a young girl of 20, all alone in this world with nobody to talk things over with, nobody to guide me. Instead, I married Tatte, who was 13 years my senior, had been married before, had lost a wife and four young children — but I knew my father would have approved of him. I returned to Yugoslavia at the end of August, and by December I was married.

We heard stories of survivors who returned to their homes and found their houses occupied by gentiles who refused to compensate the Yidden. In fact, Yidden who tried to get their homes and possessions back were endangering their lives. This wasn’t so in Senta. Survivors who returned got everything back — homes, furniture, possessions — everything. I had no interest in getting my parents’ house back, so the gentiles paid me $300 for the house. In those days it was a lot of money. Tatte used to tease me — he would say that when he married me he had not anticipated that I would come along with a naden!

Tatte had been a successful businessman before the war; he manufactured umbrellas. When he returned to Yugoslavia, the machinery was returned to him and he rehired his old workers and started his business again. After we married, we moved into Tatte’s beautiful home. We knew this was all temporary because almost nobody was planning to stay there. There were few survivors, the kehillah was too small, and Eastern Europe was being taken over by the communists. We lived in Senta a year and a half.

A year after we married I gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. You have to understand what a miracle this was. In Auschwitz the Germans put some medicine into the food. The fact that so shortly after enduring disease and starvation we were able to have healthy children is an open miracle. It seems that the baby must have swallowed some meconium during birth and he developed pneumonia. The baby died three days later. I don’t know how I lived through this tragedy.

One day, a few months later, there was a knock on the door. A friend entered and frantically cried out to Tatte, “Run, get out of here, they’re coming to arrest you!”

It seems that when Tatte had set up his business again, he didn’t reapply for a license or he didn’t pay some taxes (remember, government regulations were still in turmoil). Yidden at that point were still feeling very vulnerable, and we became very frightened. We packed two suitcases, closed the door on our beautiful home and left everything behind — the business, furniture, and most of our belongings. That night we met a guard at the border who would lead us across the border to Budapest, Hungary. In the darkness, we waded through a river, then walked miles until we were safely across. I was expecting at the time and, as you can imagine, this whole episode was very traumatic.

In Pest, I had an uncle and some family members, so we didn’t feel completely lost. We rented a room and tried to get ourselves settled again. Pest was a large, bustling city, the site of an ingathering of thousands and thousands of survivors. It was a temporary stop for most Yidden, just a place to stay until we could figure out where to go next.

East Europe was turning communist and we were all looking to get out. Most of the Yidden were aiming for America or Israel. You would think that a country like the United States, being fully aware of the horrors we went through, would open their doors to us. But no. They had a strict quota, which means that only a certain number of people from every country were allowed to immigrate. Although Tatte had a Czechoslovakian passport and mine was from Yugoslavia, and both were considered “good” quotas, we heard that if we settled in Italy for a while our number would come up sooner. We stayed in Budapest a few months, where my second child was born [that’s me – F.H.B.] and soon we were on the road again, this time to Italy.

The year was 1948, and we sojourned in Italy for a year and a half, part of it in Rome and part of the time in Milan, where my next child was born. Italy was a nice country, warm and friendly. Tatte even had a nice parnassah there; he was a shochet and a mohel. Remember when Tatte told us the story of when one day he was sitting on a park bench, a priest came over to him and said, “You Jews deserve what happened to you …” (Generally we did not feel anti-Semitism in Italy.)

After that incident, Tatte couldn’t wait to get out, but it wasn’t so simple. Besides the quota issue, one also needed an affidavit from someone in America who promised to take responsibility to support one’s family, so they shouldn’t become a burden on the country. Baruch Hashem we contacted some acquaintances in America who sent us the required affidavit and we were finally able to leave. We heard that a few months later the United States did ease their restrictions (thanks to President Truman) and many people immigrated.

The trip to America wasn’t exactly a pleasure; for two weeks we rocked and rolled in the ship. When we arrived, in January 1950, a relative was waiting for us and we were taken straight to a nearby hotel on Amsterdam Avenue. The Joint was wonderful. They paid for our accommodations for a few weeks, which gave us a chance to look for an apartment. They also supported us for a year, so we were able to adjust somewhat and look for a source of parnassah. Our first apartment, on Taylor Street in Williamsburg, didn’t have heat, but we only lived there for one year. Our third child was born there. We then moved to Hewes Street to a nice apartment where our fourth child was born. Life was good in Williamsburg. Yiddishkeit began to flourish, Bais Yaakov and yeshivos were established; the rebirth of Klal Yisrael began, with much siyatta diShmaya.

Every time I read or hear about the Arabs calling for the destruction of Israel, or other anti-Semitic ravings and acts of violence against Yidden, I begin to shake and shudder. I was hoping that the suffering and horror that my generation experienced were the chevlei Moshiach. Has not our cup of tears run over? But of course, as maaminim, we trust in Hashem and pray daily for our Redemption and the coming of Moshiach. I have deep gratitude to Hashem for the open miracles of my survival and the tremendous zechus of rebuilding my beautiful family, who are all bnei Torah, carrying on the legacy of my dear family, the legacy for which they were sacrificed al kiddush Hashem.

Two years ago, 2012, Shavuos came out the same as the year we were deported. First was Shabbos and Sunday, Monday was Shavuos. Friday we were herded into the cattle cars and on Monday, the day we arrived at Auschwitz, most of my family was murdered. On the second day of Shavuos, last year, the day I keep yahrtzeit, I was zocheh to become a great-great-grandmother. Thank you, Hashem. What better ending can there possibly be to my story?