Mr. Yaakov Berger

Can you tell me where you were born?

I was born in the town of Satmar, Romania, in 1922.

What memories can you share with us about your family?

I was the second child of seven children. My paternal grandparents, as well as many of my father’s siblings, lived close by. Parnassah wasn’t easy. My father peddled his wares in the marketplace and my mother helped him out. Although they worked very hard, my parents were not able to make enough money to support their family. My parents packed up and moved to a small town near Klausenburg. When it didn’t work out well there, either, my parents moved into the town of Klausenburg.

What kind of education did you receive?

I attended a Romanian public school run by the Jewish kehillah. The first half of the day we learned secular studies and during the second half of the day we learned Jewish studies. My sisters went to a Jewish Romanian school.

Did you feel anti-Semitism prior to the onset of war in your town?

One day, while my father was unpacking his wares in the marketplace, a gentile came up to my father calling him, “+Zhid, Zhid.” My father, being a strong-minded person, beat him up. My grandfather was quite worried that they would retaliate but the gentiles were scared and they left him alone.

Did you know what was happening in other parts of Europe?

We had heard, but we never imagined that it would come to our town.

When did you begin feeling the pressures of the war?

I was in my 20s when my older brother and I were drafted into the military. We went each day by foot to work. I made a friend in the military but he deserted me when I wasn’t feeling well. It was Friday night, the night of the Pesach Seder. I sat alone in the dark without anyone and recited Ma Nishtanah. Suddenly someone approached me and asked me if I wanted matzos. I gladly accepted them.

Were you taken to the ghetto?

What a neis that we were not at home at the time the Germans invaded, for we would have been taken with my parents and the rest of my siblings to the ghetto in Klausenburg. A year later I returned from the military to Klausenburg to find that no one had remained. I traveled back to Satmar to find a few surviving cousins.

It wasn’t long before I, too, was caught and taken on a transport. We were lined up in rows of four and we began walking towards the border. It was dark already. We stood outside in the cold while the SS, holding their guns, were shooting randomly. I received a bang on my head with a club. We continued walking for two days and two nights. (These were the two nights of the Pesach Sedarim.)

We reached our destination — a camp deep in Hungary — where we were put to work again. We were put into barracks and given minimal food to eat. Here we were told to dig big, deep ditches. Their purpose was to prevent the Russians from coming in. (However, this didn’t help, for when the time was right the Russians just covered the ditches and marched right in.) We remained in this camp for a few months. It was May of 1944 when we were transported to Mauthausen. Many died along the way to Mauthausen.

For 10 days in Mauthausen we weren’t given food; we survived on grass. We found a small pot where we boiled the grass to make it edible. We spent a few weeks in Mauthausen under German control. We then traveled to another camp where we remained for another few weeks.

Did you know when it was Shabbos or Yom Tov?

At the beginning we were still able to keep track of the calendar; however, by the time we reached Mathaussen, we didn’t know anything. Here and there someone would get hold of a siddur. When I was liberated I had a pair of tefillin and the sefer Noam Elimelech. I’m sure you are wondering how that was possible. When we arrived on the first transport we were instructed to hand everything in and spread our hands out to show that we were not hiding anything. Somehow, when they took all our belongings, the sefer and the tefillin were left behind and I took them back. I managed to hold on to them until the very end.

Can you tell us about liberation?

We were so weak already we could barely move. One day, one of the häftlinge (inmates) came in holding a stick in his hand with a white flag hanging from it. He stuck it out of the window. This was the symbol to us that we were free! We were liberated by the Americans.

When we looked outside we saw the German soldiers grabbing their rucksacks and running. We took over the German housing and everything that they left behind. There was plenty of food to eat and drink; there were sleeping quarters, etc.

I was lucky that I wasn’t feeling well enough to eat too much. Those who overate got very sick and many of them died. We remained there for a few days; and then we split up and went searching for surviving family members.

Were there any survivors from your family?

My parents and brothers were taken away together to Auschwitz. My older brother was quite strong and he was sent to the right. He witnessed my parents and some younger siblings being sent to the left — to death. He survived the war and is living today in Eretz Yisrael.

Another, younger brother, survived Mauthausen and was liberated in Feldafing. He came in search of me for he heard that I had survived. We remained together for a short while longer and then we decided to return home to see if anyone or anything remained. In addition, we had to find some way to support ourselves.

We wandered about for a few months. My brother wanted to return to Feldafing to retrieve the sefer Torah that he had left there. I waited around and then heard that my brother had returned to Klausenburg.

At the same time, I heard about a kindertransport leaving for England. My brother, who was younger than I, was accepted onto the transport and I remained in Romania. There I met up with two more surviving sisters; one of them became a successful seamstress.

In 1949 we decided to leave. However, we were caught at the border and we were brought back to Klausenburg. I settled down and became a melamed for the 30 children who were there. I remained in Klausenburg for 10 years. In 1960, I traveled to Eretz Yisrael.

to be continued…

These survivors’ memoirs are being compiled by Project Witness.

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