I hurried down the corridor and out the front entrance to the huge courtyard that ran the length of the hospital. Three men were coming in as I was leaving. Later I learned that they were policemen in plainclothes. They had gone straight to Frimele’s room and had shown her a photograph of me. Frimele told them she did not know who I was, and they did not press her any further.
As I was rushing home, I met an acquaintance in the street who informed me not to go to the Rebbe’s house. He warned me to go straight to the Pearlsteins’ bunker — fast! During the next few weeks, the gendarmes came to the Pearlstein house several times, and each time we would pull back the opening to the bunker so that I could run down to the basement.
Where was your brother, the Munkatcher Rebbe, taken?
During this time, the alte Munkatcher Rebbetzin was working ceaselessly to bring my brother back to Poland. She learned that my brother was being held in the Polish town of Jagielnica, in the ghetto. She talked to army officials, to the police, to the government, to the foreign consulate; she was afraid of no one and left no stone unturned. She did not eat, sleep or, in fact, do anything else until she located her son-in-law, and most miraculous of all — she did bring him back, six months later!
For how long did you remain in Munkacs?
After my brother’s return, he decided that it would be best for the family to leave Munkacs altogether. He wanted to go to Budapest. So the alte Rebbetzin and I traveled to Budapest along with some chassidim to begin looking for an apartment. The year I spent in Budapest was like a spinning wheel of hopes and fears. We were never safe, only buying time.
Reb Baruch’s Chassidim put him in touch with a Hungarian countess who turned out to be from the chassidei umos ha’olam, a righteous gentile. She had connections, and with her help my brother was able to arrange visas for many Jews to escape to Brazil, Australia and other distant countries.
I was the only member of the entourage who had come to Budapest on false papers. It was still too risky to stay in my brother’s apartment. Most of the time I spent at the home of the Marines, a wonderful family who took me in. Mr. Marine was involved in the manufacture of false documents and took great risks to help escaping Jews.
There were no concentration camps in Hungary as of yet, but the Hungarian authorities had established a labor force into which they randomly enlisted able-bodied men. In order to avoid being drafted into a munkatabor unit, the Rebbe went to a sympathetic doctor who induced a temporary hip displacement so that he walked with a limp and needed a cane. When he received the labor summons and reported, he was indeed excused because of his disability, but he was ordered instead to a local camp where he was given lighter work.
One day I saw my brother through the bars that surrounded the compound. A sharp pain went through my heart; my brother was right in front of me and yet I could do nothing to help him. Naturally, he could not eat the treif food given out there, and so I smuggled food to him every day. One day, as I pushed the contents of my package through the bars, a guard spotted us and began running toward me. I fled in terror, the guard close behind me. As I sped by a tall building, a janitor reached out and pulled me in. He took me downstairs and hid me in the boiler room. I heard the sounds of a search going on above me — footsteps, voices and banging — but once again I was not discovered.
Were thoughts of going to Eretz Yisrael together with your brother still on your mind?
My brother and I felt that all these cities that we had passed through were only stepping-stones to the final stop. I knew, too, that I had family waiting for us in the holy land. My sister Devorah managed to get sponsorship certificates for us. Jacob Landau was very influential in the Israeli branch of Poalei Agudas Yisrael and managed to send us immigration certificates within the next few months. We would then be cleared to make Aliyah. Still, two obstacles remained: how to get out of Hungary, and the alte Rebbetzin’s disapproval. The Rebbetzin did not want to leave the country. She, like so many others, could not accept the possibility that the Nazis might actually reach Hungary or that the Jews there were in any danger.
These survivors’ memoirs are being compiled by Project Witness.