Can you tell me where you were born?
I was born in Yagelnitsa, a small shtetl in Czechoslovakia.
What memories can you share with us about your family?
I was born to Reb Yankel and Genendel Weinberger. The Weinberger family hailed from a long line of staunch Satmar Chassidim. My maternal grandfather was the esteemed Rav of the shtetl. I was the oldest child of six children; I had four younger brothers and one sister. My father was a successful businessman, who traveled the landscape of Eastern Europe, purchasing seasonal fruits and vegetables for resale.
I would say that my childhood was a comfortable one; we had a nice life.
When did you begin feeling the pressures of the war, and how were you affected?
In November of 1938, Czechoslovakia was forcefully annexed to Hungary under the first Vienna Award. When I was 14 years old, our lives became a nightmare.
One Friday morning in 1943, the Jews of Yagelnitsa were rounded up and placed in a non-Jewish school building. My father left behind his shtreimel with a neighbor for safekeeping for when he returned. The next day, the town’s Jews were carted off by cattle trains to Berakas, a ghetto in Hungary.
Can you describe the conditions in the ghetto?
The living conditions were miserable, but families were kept together. In Berakas, we hoped that life would change for the better, but it was not to be. After several months, the ghetto was liquidated and the Jews were once again shoved into cattle trains. My father was cuddling my baby brother and repeating to him over and over again, “You would be better off if I would throw you out of this window, than where we are going.”
Being that my father did a lot of traveling, he knew the length, width and breadth of Europe, well. He understood unequivocally that their final destination would not bode well for any of them.
What greeted you upon your arrival in Auschwitz?
When the cattle train pulled up to Auschwitz, my first glimpse of the face of evil was the SS guards. They pulled my grandfather off the train by his beard. The notorious selektzia ensued, with every man, woman and child summarily pointed to right or left, life or death.
I was holding my sister’s hand, walking alongside my brother. The SS guard motioned with his stick for me to move to the right. I started to cry because I wanted to stay with my mother. My brother insisted that I follow the guard’s orders. I let go of their hands and separated from them. My brother saved my life — although I did not know it at the time. My entire family except my father was transported right after the selektzia to the crematoria.
Days later I was still in the dark about what happened to my parents and siblings. At the first opportunity, I asked the Gestapo guard the whereabouts of my mother. She told me I would see her right now. I was delighted and thanked the guard profusely. She motioned me to the window and said, “Look up at the smoke in the sky, child — that is where your mother is.” From this excruciating realization, I began to understand that this camp was not an internment camp; it was a place of death.
I was assigned to forced labor in the Krupp’s factory at Auschwitz, affixing rings in the revolvers. A slice of bread was the only means of sustenance for the camp’s prisoners. Before leaving for work, I and some other inmates would hide our bread inside our mattress. When we’d return, the bread was often gone; we had nothing to eat and we wouldn’t dare grab potato or beet peels from the barrel for fear of getting shot. I was in Auschwitz for 10 nightmarish months.
What happened after the 10 months in Auschwitz?
From Auschwitz I was transported to Allach, the largest subsidiary of the Dachau concentration camp. For the next few months I suffered from the harsh, brutal winter and extreme hunger. Then I and the other inmates were placed in cattle trains to be transported for immediate death. We had been hearing for some time that the Nazis were losing the war. They were attempting to hasten the Final Solution.
Can you tell us about liberation?
After much traveling, I realized that we were back at our departure point. The Americans and Russians were on either side of us and closing in on our location. We watched with wide eyes as the SS guards waved their white flags in surrender. Baruch Hashem, liberation had finally come.
Did you return to your hometown?
I did go home. When I arrived in Yagelnitsa after the war, my father’s shtreimel was returned to me. Many people had told me that my father would be waiting for me in Yagelnitsa. Sadly, my father was niftar in a hospital two days after liberation. I was never reunited with my father.
I found an uncle in a Hungarian town, but I longed to see who else had survived the ravages of the Holocaust. I traveled to Varnsdorf, a Czechoslovakian town, in search of a cousin. When I arrived at the address a woman told me that my cousin had moved out of the apartment. The night was cold and dark and I was hungry and despondent. I begged the woman to stay the night on the steps and leave the next day. The woman agreed. I prayed to Hashem for a miracle. Just then a man walked past me and gave out a cry, “Is this Chana Mindele?” Incredibly, my cousin had forgotten something at his old apartment and had come to retrieve it at that precise time!
When did you travel to America?
After some time, I began giving thought to my future. I wanted to go to America. My mother had a sister and some cousins living in Brooklyn, N.Y. They vouched for me to come live with them.
What message would you like to impart to today’s generation?
I do not know what strength we had to move forward, but we never gave up hope. I am so fortunate to be a survivor of the Holocaust. I could not have asked for a better life after surviving. We must always believe in Hashem and never give up hope. If I was able to survive and go on with my life, you can, too. I beseech the community to reach out to others in need and be kind to them. Believe that there is good in the world and do as much as you can to bring out good for others.
Above all, be a mentch. Treat people with dignity and don’t hold yourself higher than anyone else. When it comes to the dignity of Holocaust survivors, treat them with utmost respect. Be there for them in any way you can; at the same time, respect them. They hold their self-worth close to their hearts and want to be valued.
These survivors’ memoirs are being compiled by Project Witness.