Mr. Yitzchok Yaakov Kupferstein (Part II)

After this we were sent to the front. My job was to put the ammunition for the Hungarians into their cannons. Being that the noise from the cannons was so loud, the Hungarians had protective gear covering their ears. We were not given anything to protect our ears and therefore my hearing was affected for life.

The Russians and Hungarians were in very close proximity to each other. I saw many nissim. One time a Hungarian soldier came close to me with a revolver aimed in my direction, insisting that I was a Russian partisan. I showed him my Hungarian army cap and convinced him that I was a Hungarian soldier; I spoke the language. He put away his weapon and let me go.

After this, the Russians captured us and we were taken to a camp in the Ukraine. We walked for three days without food and arrived there on Tishah B’Av. There were some German prisoners in the camp but most of the people were Jewish.

Typhus broke out in the camp. The overall living conditions in the camp were so bad that one time I heard the German prisoners speaking between themselves, and they said, “What is this, Auschwitz?” This was the first time I heard about a camp called Auschwitz.

Shortly after, an order was issued that 200 prisoners, a combination of Germans and Jews, were going to be transferred to another labor camp. Nobody wanted to go, but I was among the youngest of the people there. They took 170 Germans and 30 Jews. Although this was in Russia, the German Lagerfuehrers were in charge. This selection turned out to be for the best. Here they disinfected us and we didn’t contract typhus. I heard that those who remained in the first camp died of typhus.

What were the living conditions in the new camp?

We were given food and the sleeping conditions were passable. The food was not kosher so instead we ate bread and jam. Sometimes we slept on mattresses but most of the time we slept on the floor. Once in a while we were permitted to take showers. We worked in the coal mines.

How long did you remain in this camp?

We remained there for a year and a half, before the next order was issued. We were going to be sent before a team of three doctors to be checked. Those who were deemed too weak to work were going to be sent to another camp and those who were strong enough were going to remain in the camp.

Up until then I was together with a friend by the name of Eckstein whom I met while in the labor army. Eckstein was a real ehrliche bachur who moved to England later on (and came to visit me in Williamsburg). We were a small group of bachurim who would only eat kosher food and that is how we became friends. We gave each other chizuk, which helped us survive from day to day.

There, my friend and I were separated. He was sent out of the camp because he was sick; I was to remain. I did not want to lose my friend, so I returned to the doctor and complained about an ache in my foot. At first he would not listen, but after much pleading and complaining he sent me to join those who were leaving the camp. B’chasdei Hashem, we were sent back to Hungary.

Did you return home?

When the war was over I returned home. When I arrived in town I found a man who was a friend of the family and he went ahead of me to break the news to my parents that I was, b”H, alive and home.

Was this a shock to your parents?

My parents had heard from people that I was seen on a wagon headed to the death camps. My mother always hoped that I was alive, but she never believed she would see me again. As I was told later, after the war was over, my parents traveled to Romania to the Vizhnitzer Rebbe. The Rebbetzin went with my mother to speak with the Rebbe. My mother cried to the Rebbe that her son did not return home. The Rebbe promised her that I would come home. When my mother received word that I had arrived home she was not in shock; she knew the Rebbe’s promise would come through.

Throughout the horrors of the Holocaust, did you know when it was Shabbos or Yom Tov?

We knew; there were a few men who kept track of the calendar. We knew when it was Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkos.

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we had a baal tefillah by the name of Teitelbaum. He knew the tefillos with the nusach by heart and he led the tefillos for the Jewish prisoners. On Yom Kippur we fasted. We found some materials to be able to put together a kosher sukkah. On Pesach we were able to get a hold of some matzah. Those of us who wouldn’t eat chametz were able to get from the Russians a few cooked beans.

What message can you impart to today’s generation of children?

It’s important to let the children know what happened. What will be in future generations, when there are no survivors left to tell the story?

to be continued


These survivors’ memoirs are being compiled by Project Witness.