Rabbi Yosef Herman – Part II

When the Nazis took over Hungary, you and your mother went into hiding as gentiles and hid in a country village, where your sister was born. During that time, your father was in a forced labor unit. What happened to your family toward the end of 1944?

In October, 1944, there was a change in the Hungarian government. For a few hours, the Jews thought that this change meant their freedom. My father escaped from the labor camp and returned to the apartment building in Budapest. However, in a few hours it became clear that the change was much for the worse. My father was able to sneak back into the labor camp to save his life.

His forced-labor unit had 116 Jews. One day, a Catholic priest came to their barrack and told them that all the Jews would be killed. The only way anyone there would be saved was if they agreed to convert to Christianity. All but three men — my father and two others — agreed to convert. Shortly after this, as the Russians were approaching, the Germans marched the Jewish laborers to the highway, away from the battlefront. During this march, my father and the two others escaped by jumping behind bushes. They blended in with the gentile peasants who were crowding the highway, also fleeing from the advancing Russians. The 113 men who had agreed to convert were all killed.

My father, together with many hundreds of other Jews, spent the last weeks of the war in Budapest, in a “safe house” under the Swiss flag. He was one of the few in the house who, at the risk of their lives, would sneak out each day to scrounge for food for all the Jews hiding in this house. One night in late December, 1944, everyone in this house was marched outside to see a line of trucks waiting to take them to the Danube River, to be shot. They remained for hours in the sub-zero weather, standing at gunpoint with their hands up in the air. Then, suddenly, they were ordered back in the house safely.  They discovered later that last- minute negotiations with Eichmann had saved their lives.

How long did you remain in hiding?

Shortly after birth, my sister became dangerously ill. There were no doctors or medicines in the village where we were staying. By that time, the Russians had already pushed the Germans out of the region. However, the battlefront was still nearby. My mother pleaded desperately with the local Russian commander to help save her baby. The Russians, too, had no doctors. Out of pity for her, they provided an open army jeep to take her and the baby to the nearest medical clinic many miles away. My mother bundled my sister into her coat as the open car took them in the sub-zero winter weather. The Russian commander warned her not to tell the other Russians that she was Jewish, because the Russians also hated Jews. When they arrived at the clinic, they discovered that there were no medicines there either. The best the doctors could do was to give my sister a blood transfusion from my mother. This saved her life. It was yet another miracle from Hashem.

Would you tell us about the liberation?

On January 18, 1945, the Russians liberated Budapest. My father knew where my mother was hiding. He traveled the 150 miles to her village, partly by train, partly by foot, often walking in waist-deep snow in the middle of the bitter Hungarian winter. When he got close to us, he used his powers of persuasion and his false Swiss documents to commandeer a horse-drawn sled and a driver to pick us up and bring us all to the nearest train station.

When my father arrived, my mother was busy baking a loaf of bread. One of the local girls recognized my father from his picture and ran to tell my mother that her husband was outside. My mother had not heard from my father for several months and did not know his fate. She rushed out, white as a sheet, not daring to believe the good news. My father told her to gather the children and belongings quickly. She wanted to wait until the bread was done. However, my father feared that the battle that was still raging nearby might return to the area. In the rush, my mother left her baking bread and a suitcase behind. However, our family was reunited.

When our family arrived back in Bonyhad after the war, we were the only family to have survived as a complete unit. Some Jewish men who arrived before us, who had no surviving family, began to rebuild from the ashes, starting with a community kitchen. When we arrived, my grandmother took control of the common kitchen. She was afraid to walk the streets with her children because of concern for ayin hara. I remember how lonely it was as a seven-year-old boy with no one to play with. At shalosh seudos on Shabbos afternoons in the beis medrash, the men would all ask me to sing the zemiros. As I sang, many were picturing their own sons, who just a short while before had been singing these zemiros at their own family tables.

My family is fortunate to be among the few that Hashem spared during those tragic years.  Everyone who was spared can tell stories of overt miracles that allowed them to survive. We may never stop being grateful to Hashem.

When reading these stories, everyone should remember that all of our lives are filled each day with miracles. We just have to open our eyes to see them.


 

These survivors’ memoirs are being compiled by Project Witness.