What type of education did you receive?
We attended a public school through the fifth or sixth grade. The Czechs were very strict. If a child didn’t go to school, they could easily arrest the father. From eight o’clock in the morning until noon we attended regular classes. Then we went home for lunch.
From one o’clock to seven o’clock in the evening we went to cheder. The Rebbi in cheder was not from our town. He would board in our town and go home to his family once in six months. Each day he ate at the home of a different family. Tuesdays he would eat at our home.
How did you spend your summers?
We spent just about every summer with my grandmother in Romania. We were there for four to six weeks. The area where we lived was a popular resort area, and many people spent their summers vacationing there. In the Chassidic community playing sports was not acceptable.
Did you feel any anti-Semitism before the war?
The Jews lived very peacefully, until 1939. Then Hitler took over Czechoslovakia. The military marched in and at their head was a high-ranking officer. I was standing at the entrance to our house. He walked up to me; pulling on my peyos he asked me a question. I didn’t know the Hungarian language at all. I repeated what the officer had said to my mother. Loosely translated, it meant, “What do you need these peyos for, to collect lice?” This was my first interaction with the Hungarians.
Did you know what was happening in other parts of Europe at this time?
Definitely. By 1936-37, although we did not have a radio, we had heard, and we were very aware of what was happening in other parts of Europe. We got the Hungarian newspaper and a newspaper from Warsaw. In shul, before and after davening, people would gather and discuss bits and pieces of what they had heard. We children picked up on just a little bit of what was happening.
There was a hardware store in town that had a radio. Every afternoon people would gather outside that store to listen to the news report. One time when Hitler was going to speak on the radio everyone came out to listen. Although I didn’t understand one word, his tone of voice and screaming frightened me and everyone else present.
Our town was located about 30 km from the Polish border. Many times, when we arrived at shul in the morning, we found Polish men, who were trying to escape, hiding in the shul. They informed us of what was happening in Poland and Germany. Although we believed them, the Hungarian Jews never imagined that we would be directly affected.
Later on, when we were already in Auschwitz, the Polish Kapos said to us, “You Hungarians didn’t believe that it would happen; while you were still eating stuffed liver, we were already suffering here in Auschwitz.”
When did you begin feeling the pressures of the war?
It happened slowly. Every few months there were new gezeiros. In 1941 they confiscated all Jewish stores. Local gentiles took them over. Being that the person who took over my father’s business knew nothing about it, he asked my father to stay on and conduct business. In return he gave my father a small salary.
We suffered all along. Although the older generation of Hungarians were anti-Semites, the younger ones outwardly showed their hatred. When we returned in the evening from yeshivah we made sure to walk in groups. Anyone who walked alone was sure to be attacked by the young gangs. In 1944 the decree to wear a yellow star took effect. This was a very difficult time.
Many people were arrested for what the Hungarians deemed to be criminal acts. In addition, many were arrested for their support of communism. One such person was Herschel the shoemaker. He openly showed his support for communism. At that time, I was learning in yeshivah in Ungvar. I was on my way to learn at 5:30 a.m. when they were gathering everyone together. We were all brought to the prison gates to watch as Herschel the shoemaker received his punishment. He was hanged. A few innocent people were arrested as communists. One person was beaten to death, another was sentenced to 10 years in prison, etc.
Food was being rationed. Getting white flour was almost impossible. One time I was able to get enough white flour for my mother to bake challos for Shabbos. The local police, the gendarmes, were terrible. Most of them were not intelligent people. That Friday night as we sat around the table, the gendarmes burst in. My father covered the challah with the challah cover. The head of the police said to my father, “I know that you have white bread for Shabbos, you should know that I am aware of it.” He simply came to bother us. Anyone who fell into their hands paid for it dearly.
There was a Jewish neighbor who reported everything to the police. He knew everyone’s business and it was best not to get in his way.
to be continued…
These survivors’ memoirs are being compiled by Project Witness.