I was born in 1923, in Kiviatch, a small town near Munkatch (Munkatchevo) in Ukraine. It was a very frum town. Harav Halberstam was the Rav.
My mother, Sara Rivka, was born in a small town called Bilka, which had been part of Czechoslovakia before it was annexed by Hungary in 1939. My maternal grandfather went to America by himself in 1937. My grandmother, however, refused to leave Europe.
My paternal grandparents lived in Kiviatch, as did many of our relatives. My father, Avraham Elya, was a man of many trades. Since most people were poor and there was very little money to go around, my father got paid in flour and potatoes. We raised our own chickens and geese, which my mother would bring to the shochet in town to shecht for us.
What kind of education did you receive?
I am the oldest of six children. We were three boys and three girls, but my two sisters and a brother died in infancy. In Kiviatch, there were three public schools: a Hungarian one, a Czechoslovakian one and a Ukrainian one. We Jews all attended the Czechoslovakian school. The boys also went to a cheder after school.
I was married before the war, three months before my eighteenth birthday, and I moved to Budapest, in Hungary.
Did you experience anti-Semitism prior to the onset of the war?
Definitely. Except for the neighbors who lived around us, the population was extremely anti-Semitic. My brothers wore caps instead of a typical yarmulke so that it wouldn’t be obvious they were Jews. We closed the window shades on Friday nights and Yamim Tovim to prevent the non-Jews from throwing stones through the window. In school, we were treated differently, too.
In 1939, I went to visit my cousins in Bereksa, Hungary, for Shabbos. On Sunday, I took the train home. During the trip, the Jews on the train were beaten. There was no use in trying to escape, however, because there was trouble all over Europe.
My husband and I had a baby boy. At that time, it was illegal to have a bris milah. My husband was scared to do it, but I wouldn’t hear of not doing it. I said, “If he’s meant to live, he’ll live as a Jew. If he is meant to die, then let him die as a Jew.”
When did the war begin for you?
In 1939, Hungarians soldiers marched through Budapest. My husband insisted that I send our son to his parents’ home. My husband was drafted to work in a labor camp and then into the Hungarian army. I did not know his whereabouts for three years.
A ghetto was formed in Budapest and the people from the surrounding towns were brought there. However, many transports from the smaller towns were taken straight to Auschwitz. I received a letter from my father telling me that they were being taken to a Hungarian town called Mateszalka. That was the last time that I heard from my parents.
We were in the ghetto for a year. Our house was in the ghetto and other families moved in with us. Some people worked while others had nothing to do. We had very little food.
We were allowed to leave the ghetto only once the stores were already closed for the day. A new law demanded that all Jews purchase and wear a yellow star. But I was a rebel. Since I spoke Hungarian fluently, I took off the yellow star and I went out dressed as a gentile woman. There was no time for me to be frightened.
Then, the Germans began transporting us to Auschwitz. They put us on trains, but midway there, the Hungarian president intercepted the transport. He insisted that we return to Hungary. From there, we were sent to the Swedish Homes. [The Swedish Homes were 32 buildings procured by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg to save Jews. He claimed the buildings had extraterritorial diplomatic immunity, which meant the Nazis could not harm the residents, as they were under the protection of the Swedish government, which was neutral during the war. – Ed.]
I stayed in Hungary, pretending to be a gentile. I called myself Bolok Margit and hid in Hungarian homes for two years. I spent many nights on the streets with nowhere to go, sleeping on park benches.
I worked at the home of a woman whose husband was a general in the Hungarian army. The woman was also Jewish and she helped many children escape to the Swedish Homes.
Once, as I was cleaning her kitchen, I found a crust of bread lying on the table. I was so hungry that I took it. At that moment, the woman walked in. I froze, with the piece of bread in my hand. I started to cry and begged her, “Please don’t report me; for three days I have eaten nothing.” She let me have the bread. I lived like this until the liberation, in May 1945.
Would you describe the liberation?
We were liberated by the Russians. They were barbaric. Many people were tortured and killed. Once, a Russian soldier held a pistol to my head. However, I spoke to him in Russian and this saved me. It is a miracle that I am alive.
At that time, I was part of a group of 27 people who were hiding in a basement. We never spoke about the fact that we were all Jews. Only after the liberation did people, one by one, disclose their identity to each other.
Did you return to your hometown?
I never went home. I knew that no one from my family had returned, and I had no interest in seeing our house. I stayed in Budapest. I checked the bulletins each day for names of survivors. One day, I found four listings for Engelman: my husband, his two brothers and his sister.
In 1948, we emigrated to America.
These survivors’ memoirs are being compiled by Project Witness.