It was difficult to plan an escape, and in addition, I did not have legal papers. I was living under my assumed name of Rochel Landau with papers that Wolvie Friedman had acquired for me in Munkacs. The police were constantly on the lookout for false documents and on more than one occasion I found myself trapped. For some inexplicable reason I was not arrested. To this day I do not understand it. Hashem had granted me special protection that made people look favorably upon me.
Then disaster struck. Our Palestine certificates finally arrived and mine was not in the envelope. I had no certificate. I could not go to Eretz Yisrael with my brother. I would be left alone in Budapest. I tried to rationalize this disaster. Surely it was for the best. Certainly this was an act of hashgachah pratis. I never allowed my brother to see even a hint of my distress.
In the winter of 1943 my brother left. When the train was out of sight, I took a deep breath and looked for Hashem. There was no one else to help me now. The alter Rebbetzin insisted on returning to Munkacs where her husband, the alter Munkatcher Rebbe, was buried. I pleaded with her but the impending war played no part in her logic. She left town. She did not actually make it back to Munkacs but went instead to a town called Nyiregyhaza, where she had friends. I had contact with her and sent her packages. The last communication I received from the Rebbetzin was a postcard in which she informed me that the Germans had come to Nyiregyhaza. The Rebbetzin was taken away shortly afterward and died in a concentration camp.
This was the bleak beginning of my solitary sojourn in Budapest. Somehow I managed; somehow I always managed. One or another of my brother’s chassidim always seemed to come to my rescue when I was most desperate.
Now that you were really on your own, where did you go?
I had offers from different families that I was acquainted with to go Czechoslovakia and Romania. I turned them all down. Then I heard about a transport that was being organized to go to Palestine. I had no idea whatsoever of the politics behind the transport and as far as I know neither did most of the other people on the list.
I remember with gratitude four special acts of kindness that marked my departure from Hungary that spring. The first was the Pesach I spent with the Kiviazhder Rebbe and his wife, distant relatives of mine who welcomed me warmly into their home. During the first Seder the air- raid siren sounded, signaling the first bombardment of Budapest. In spite of this frightening intrusion and the escalating panic in the city, the Rebbe and his wife did their best to make the Yom Tov a pleasant one for me.
I received the second chessed when I went to say goodbye to my brother’s gabbai, Chaim Ber Geenwald, and his wife, affectionately known as Baila Neni. That day she said to me, “Peska, you are going away. Let’s bake some cookies for you to take along.” These cookies sustained me on the long train ride out of Hungary and for quite some time afterward.
Herschel Halberstam, one of many refugees in our circle, proffered the third chessed of my departure from Budapest. He gave me an American twenty-dollar bill. “American money will go further than European currency, especially on the black market,” he said. “You never know when you will need it.” I sewed it into my belt where it stayed for nearly a year.
The fourth chessed I received was on my way out of Budapest. Somehow, no matter how bad things got, there was always some sort of protection that came through, some friend who came to my aid at the last minute. An old acquaintance came in and brought supper. I still think about how wonderful that supper was because it was so hard to get any decent food then. Then he took me to the home of a couple where I spent the night. I inscribed that evening in my mental register of the evidence of hashgachah pratis. It felt as though an invisible monitor was lodged in my brain, pushing the right buttons, making the right decisions — because it wasn’t me. I never had any idea why I did the things I did or why I merited the protection of so many strangers.
It was Friday, June 30. About two thousand people gathered in the pouring rain at the gate in the courtyard on Andras Street.
Just as I crossed through the gate, the gendarmes began spraying bullets randomly into the air in order to scare people. We were loaded onto horse-drawn wagons and driven to the outskirts of the city. We stopped in the middle of an open field. There a cattle train waited for us. We had been promised that we were going to Palestine. We didn’t know what else to do except board the train.
These survivors’ memoirs are being compiled by Project Witness.