Peska Friedman (Part X)

Can you tell us about your experience on the cattle train?

The most important friend I made on this journey was the Satmar Rebbetzin. With Hashem’s help I climbed into the same wagon as she. The Rebbetzin never had children of her own and so her life was given over to others. She recognized me from Budapest and took me under her wing immediately. I came to value not only her compassion but her keen, practical way of thinking.

We found places on the floor and went to sleep on our rucksacks. I awoke at about five in the morning and found my head at the feet of the Satmar Rebbe. He was sitting on a bench davening in his tallis and tefillin. Quickly, I drew away from him. “Don’t move away, child, remain here and go back to sleep,” he whispered softly. That is how I met the Satmar Rebbe.

The compartments were stuffy and airless and lice were swarming around us. There were no windows and no toilets, but we were fortunate that they let us out into the fields from time to time to take care of our needs. Some people who had left families behind took the chance of escaping while we were still in walking distance of Budapest; but I thought of what my mother had always said: “Anah miPanecha evrach?” There was no place to run and hide. Hashem was everywhere and could help us everywhere. I decided to go on and I believed that Hashem Yisborach would help, and if He chose not to help, chas v’shalom, then I would be no worse off.

Where was your train headed?

We stopped in the next Austrian town of Linz. We were led off the trains and taken to a huge, empty warehouse. The guards announced that we would be deloused. They divided the men and women into separate rooms. We were ordered to take off our clothes and throw them into a pile. All those who wore glasses were told to take them off and throw them into a separate pile. We were led to showers, men and women in separate groups. Female guards watched the men’s showers and male guards watched the women.

Afterwards they shaved off our hair. We were then herded into a room that looked like a cage with barbed wire surrounding it. At this point I no longer felt like a human being. At this point the realization hit that they wanted not only our lives but also our humanity.

After a while the Germans chased us out to retrieve our clothing from the pile. Three thousand people had thrown their garments into the pile and we were now ordered to find our own things. The soldiers stood around and watched in amusement as swarms of naked people scrambled in the heap. Somehow we managed to separate the items and get dressed, but it took an entire night. The next day the train trip continued.

When the train finally stopped in Celle outside of Hanover, Germany, the sign read “Welcome to Bergen Belsen.”

What greeted you upon your arrival?

We were chased off the wagons with shouts — “Raus! Raus! — Out! Out!” — and with rifles and dogs. We were marched forward and soon found ourselves passing along a tall wire fence. Behind the wire fence were rows of barracks. We walked and walked past all the units. Suddenly we heard some noise behind the fence and turned to look. Standing on the other side, at some distance, we saw a group of live skeletons.

They looked like bundles of bones covered with dry, scaling skin. Their cheekbones protruded and their ears jutted out from the sides of their shrunken heads. They had no eyes, only deep black holes. They wore uniforms that looked like striped pajamas. On top of their shirts was the yellow star.

We were ordered to stand on endless lines to register. Soon enough it was my turn to give my information to the clerk. She asked me my name and my date and place of birth. I answered truthfully on all counts. But when she asked for my citizenship, I said, “I am Hungarian.” I don’t know why I said it. The clerk wrote down what I said and asked me no more questions.

When everyone was registered, we were ordered to stand for appel — roll call. After the appel, men and woman were divided into separate groups and assigned to barracks. Small children stayed with one parent. Our jewelry and valuables were taken away. I held onto the ring my mother had given me when I turned 12 and the twenty-dollar bill that I had sewn into my belt.

Rows of bunk beds lined the walls in the barracks. There was only one window in each barrack. Black coffee and bread were distributed and we were assigned to bunks. We each received a blanket, but I had no idea that the blankets were made of human hair — Jewish hair. I was very relieved to find a few people I knew in my barracks.


 

These survivors’ memoirs are being compiled by Project Witness.