Can you tell me about the town where you grew up?
I was born (in 1924) and raised in the town of Kerestir. The town had a population of 2,000 people, of which 100 families were Jewish. Yiddishkeit flourished tremendously. Even those people who were not shomrei Torah u’mitzvos were not mechallel Shabbos in public. The stores in town were all owned by the Jews.
What memories can you share with us about your family?
My father was 18 years old — just the age when a boy is drafted into the army. After he was examined by the doctors, it was determined that he was eligible to serve in the army. Part of the process of being admitted was a requirement to shave off one’s beard. My father insisted that he never touched his beard in the past and would not allow them to, either. The guard in charge didn’t know what to do. He called in a higher officer to make the decision. My father said to him, too, “I can serve in the army but I will not allow you to touch my beard.” The guard immediately discharged him from the army, and my father married my mother who was just 16 years old.
We were a family of 12 children; I was the youngest. I had five married siblings and 30 nieces and nephews. My father, Reb Elimelech Fishman, came from Czechoslovakia. He was the gabbai of Reb Shaya’le Kerestirer. He continued in this position with his successor for two more generations after Reb Shaya’le, until we were taken away to Auschwitz. My mother, Yitta Bracha Fishman, née Harnic, originally from Romania, was a homemaker. My mother was small in stature but large in all the responsibilities that she had. She took very good care of the family. We had a room in the house that was the orchim shtieb; many guests came to stay there. My mother was a poor sleeper. During the night she would read by candlelight instead of using the electric light bulb, which might disturb others from sleeping. My mother taught my sister and me to enjoy reading, which I still do today.
Our house had a small garden attached to it where we grew various vegetables. In addition, we had a large field, which my father hired gentiles to work in. My mother cooked all the food from scratch for the family. We spent a whole year preparing for the following season. As children we were never bored.
What kind of education did you receive?
We attended a public school. The little bit of Jewish studies that my sister and I had, we received from bachurim my parents hired to teach us the alef–beis and how to read Hebrew. There were two chadarim in town; one was very frum and the other was a little more modern. There was no religious school for the girls. We got our Jewish education by watching our parents. When we traveled out of the city, we had to sit and say Tehillim while waiting for our ride. We were also required to daven on Shabbos.
Did you know what was happening in other parts of Europe before the Germans invaded Kerestir?
We were not a modernized town; there were no newspapers, no telephones and no way of receiving outside communication. We didn’t know anything. We never would have imagined that such cultured people would act in this manner.
Did you feel any anti-Semitism prior to the onset of war in your town?
The gentiles never liked us. However, we went to school together and we played together.
When did you begin feeling the pressures of the war?
It was the year 1944. I had a sister living in Debrecen, and my parents sent me to help her with the children. While I was in Debrecen, yeshivah bachurim were performing the famous “Yosef Shpiel.” Thousands of people came out to see it. In the middle of the performance, without any prior warning, the curtains went down. The SS stomped in, and everyone was instructed to go home.
I couldn’t get to the train station; everything was at a standstill. A few days later I was able to leave, and I returned home to Kerestir. Back home, the gentile children didn’t want to play with us anymore; the washerwoman and the cleaning help wouldn’t come either. We were instructed to put on a yellow star. All the men, including my brothers, were taken away to work camps. My father was over 60 years old, so he no longer qualified to be taken to work.
to be continued…
These survivors’ memoirs are being compiled by Project Witness.