For my father it was important that I learn Hebrew and Torah. I was good at reading and knew how to read sifrei kodesh. From those books I learned modern-day Hebrew as well. My father wanted me to be well rounded. He made sure to hire a tutor for me (which was hardly done in those days) to teach me secular subjects. He wanted me to be a person who would be able to function in the world.
Later on, my father sent me to learn in a city called Arad, about 80 kilometers from our home. There were no cars; I traveled there on a wagon with rubber wheels drawn by horses. I lived with my maternal grandparents for a full year. My grandparents received me with love and warmth. There I learned the Talmud and Tosafos and, in addition — incongruous as it may sound — math as well.
When did you begin feeling the pressures of the war?
I recall the first time my father was taken away in Munkacs. My mother told us to wait at home and instructed me to say Tehillim while she went to the house of the priest to plead on his behalf. Being the oldest child, I tried to comfort my siblings while my mother slipped out at night, but I, too, was afraid. People tended to disappear; I was anxious to see my father safe and back home with us.
It seems her mission was successful, because my father did come home. However, our relief was short-lived, and two weeks later it happened again. That was the last time I saw him.
The local authorities worked diligently with the Nazis. Since my father was well known in the county, he was taken away early on and swallowed up somewhere in the Ukraine; we were left alone to wonder forever what happened to him. I still dream about finding him.
I cannot forget our beautiful home, the home of a stable, well-known family — until the day a German officer flung open the door and chose a room for himself. He chose the biggest and nicest room and declared that from this day on, that room would be his. He would go and come as he pleased and we could not lock our door.
Our hearts pounded each time we caught a glimpse of him. He was dressed impeccably in a starched uniform with mirrored buttons. Another room was given to a Ukrainian teacher. From that day on, my childhood was lost. From that day on, my childhood became more and more unanchored, until they chased us from our home and took it over entirely.
Our neighbors who had greeted us in the past with friendly words changed quickly and used every opportunity to join the bloodbath and turn us in at every chance that presented itself.
Did you experience ghetto life?
On March 19, 1944, the Germans occupied Hungary. We immediately experienced ominous changes. We were forced to sew the dreaded yellow star on our clothes and were accompanied by jeers of “dirty Jews” wherever we went. Eichmann ordered that a ghetto be erected and forced about 10,000 Jews to live in an impossibly small area, with just the clothes on their backs. Many froze from the cold that gripped the city. There was no place to hide. Eichmann was efficient and organized, as the Germans were known to be, and excelled in his mission. Consequently, hundreds of thousands of Jews were sent by train from Hungary to Poland under his watchful eye, where they were exterminated in death camps without mercy.
On the streets, terrible events were occurring on a daily basis. Old men were forced to kneel down and scrub the streets with a toothbrush. Peyos were shorn off, usually on one side only. The same children with whom I used to play soccer suddenly turned into jeering, taunting partners of the Nazis flooding our streets. They heaped insults on me, and knocked the hat off my head, rolling it in mud and using it as a ball. When I am asked what the worst moment for me was, I have no answer; I can only reply, “Netzach Yisrael lo yeshaker.”
My family was forced out of our house in the ghetto, as were about 15,000 Jews of Munkacs. The previous ghetto scene was repeated all over again. We marched to an unknown place, a small building into which they crammed as many as would fit. The rest remained outside to shiver in the cold and rain, without warm clothes or blankets. Mothers tried to comfort their crying children.
to be continued…
These survivors’ memoirs are being compiled by Project Witness.