Portrait of the Rot family, taken by a photographer in Munkacs ghetto, Hungary, 1944. After the Holocaust, Miriam—the eldest daughter—recovered this photograph. It is the only surviving portrait of her family.
Behind Every Name a Story (BENAS) is a project of the Museum's Holocaust Survivors and Victims Resource Center. The BENAS web project consists of essays describing survivors’ experiences during the Holocaust.
One day, a man with a camera came to my mother and said: "If you give me your bread, I will photograph you all." (In addition to our morning milk, each family would get a daily loaf of bread). My mother told him she would give him her portion, her husband's and also that of the older children's, not the portion of the younger ones. He agreed, and mother gave him more than half a loaf. The man photographed us and after a few days he brought the picture he had taken. My mother then called my brother and me and said to us: "We will bury the picture. Whoever comes home first will dig it out." (She already felt we may not survive). She put the picture, wrapped in paper, into a tin box and buried the box in the earth. And another thing I should mention: My mother always told me not to say how many children we were, for fear of their lives or maybe because of her religious upbringing (The story of the sons of Jacob in Egypt). This was a secret not to be revealed. Only after I was married a few years I told my husband and only then I showed him the picture. (A few years ago, we succeeded to reconstruct the damaged picture through some advanced electronic photo-screening technology).
So this is the story of this picture.
Miriam was the first to return and she recovered the photograph. It is the only photograph of Miriam's family that survived. Miriam sent a copy of it to the Survivors Registry together with her registration form. Read excerpts from Miriam's 2003 testimony and browse the maps and photos on this page to explore the story behind the faces in the family portrait.
Miriam (Rot) Eshel was born and grew up in Irshava, east of Munkacs, in Czechoslovakia. In her own words:
I was born in the summer of 1930 as the first daughter and second child to my parents. We lived in the town of Irshava, 30 some kilometers east of Munkacs in the Carpatian Mountains, then Czechoslovakia. At that time, the country enjoyed the liberal democratic rule of its founder and first president Tomas Masaryk. The Jews enjoyed full and equal civil rights. I went to elementary school where I was treated as all other children, fairly and decently. Over the '30s, our family grew to nine children. When my younger brothers reached school age, they too went to school in the mornings and to Cheder in the afternoons.
We were a strictly orthodox family, in the best of Jewish tradition. My mother wore a wig over her shaved head. My father sported a beard and gave a weekly talk on Talmudic issues in our synagogue, on Shabbat. He owned a retail store, which handled mainly housewares. In short, life was modest but pleasant and peaceful. We grew up in a loving and warm Jewish family. All that came to an abrupt end with the arrival of the Hungarian fascists, collaborating with the German Nazi regime, in our area late in 1940 or early 1941. From that moment onward, Jewish life changed dramatically. Trading by Jews was prohibited, their businesses were confiscated and my father faced increasing difficulties in his efforts to provide for the family. Attending school turned into a daily ordeal, with Jewish kids being shamed and discriminated. The situation was going from bad to worse but, at least, we still lived together as a family.
In 1944 Miriam and her family was forced to leave Irshava and take up residence in the Munkacs ghetto.
…then they took us to the ghetto, to Munkacs where we stayed for another 4-5 weeks, in an old brick factory building…They shaved half the beard of my grandfather, who was 85, and he had to walk around like that. My father had to go every morning to get our ration of milk--which was diluted with water. That was our morning drink. He would leave us, carrying a huge pot to bring the milk. One day he took longer than usual. My mother was very worried. I told my mother I would go and see what was keeping him. I saw that the Germans had put the pots over their heads as a hat, and they had them walking like that around the camp: some tripped and fell, some were injured. They returned home half dead. From then on, I told my mother: "Father isn’t going to do that anymore, I will." But, since I was not strong enough to carry the pot, and I was also afraid they would do to me the same they did to my father, I brought the milk in the small individual bowls we had. Since there were 9 children, plus mother and father, I had to go five times to bring the milk.
From Munkacs they were deported to Auschwitz, where Miriam was separated from the rest of her family.
One day, we were gathered and loaded on a train in cattle cars, with tiny windows. There was not much air. Some of the elder men were praying aloud, asking God for mercy.
We arrived in Auschwitz the day before Shavuot. I was carrying my little sister, and my mother carried the one who had been sick, who was still very weak. When we got off the train, we came to the crossroad where ... [the SS man] stood there like a conductor with a baton. He motioned to me to let go of my little sister. When she saw this, my mother let go of my other sister and took in her hands the little one (who still could not walk). People were sent to the right, to the left… As far as I remember, I went to the right and they to the left. My mother started to yell: "My Mirale, come to me, come to me." But the SS men were already pushing me forward with the butt of the guns.
I started to cry that I wanted my mother, but of course it didn't help. It was the beginning of May 1944, I think. I was 13 and a half. When we arrived in a large barracks, they told us to undress completely. We did. They took away our jewelry. I had a pair of gold earrings, which I constantly dropped, so that my mother had the jeweler solder them shut. Since they couldn't remove them, they cut my ear lobes to do it. They also took a gold ring I had received for my Bat-Mitzvah, a chain too. I did not care about that. I wanted mother, that was important to me. …
After an hour or two, they brought us to Barrack "A." They were barracks with huge shelves on which we slept. There were four or five of us on each of these shelves, which were as large as a bed. We did not do much, except to stand at roll calls that lasted hours, while they counted us over and over…We received a soup portion once a day, and we were so hungry that we expected it eagerly… until one day I saw a human finger in the soup, and from then I couldn't eat it anymore. So I had a problem, because I wanted to live. So every time I got the soup, I would sip a little bit and vomit, sip and vomit. And I drank a lot of water: that we did have.
We were there until July.
Miriam was later sent to a labor camp near Stutthof.
In July we were transported, by trucks, to Stuthoff. It was summer. It was very difficult. They dressed us in furs, boots, hats and gloves and we were supposed to run for hours in the camp… There was a short SS man, cross-eyed and cruel, who inflicted severe punishment. When the colder days came the girls would use their quarter blankets as an extra layer under their thin dress. He did not like it, claiming that the extra burden would impede our progress in the diggings. So, he would come to check, lifting our dresses, and hitting us hard if he found the piece of blanket. The girls would warn one another, saying "the eye, the eye" if we spotted him coming. If we were lucky, we would remove the blanket and hide it in the snow, but more often than not, we were caught. The blows, we received on our skins, because we did not have any underwear.
Selections were made almost regularly once a week and those found unfit for work were deported.
It continued like this until two months before liberation in the spring of 1945. It was winter. Our living conditions were horrible, as we were laying on the snow, or the water. Our legs froze.
We did not hear any news from the front.
From Stutthof, Miriam was forced onto a death march.
One day, at roll-call time, we were told to start marching. It was the beginning of the death march. Some 1,000 women left the camp. Only 100 survived. Everyone was watched: if one stopped walking, she got a bullet instantly. I tried to walk in front, because those in the back received worse treatment. We walked from early morning to late night. We passed villages and towns. They tried not to go through populated areas. On the way, a German would throw us sometimes a piece of bread from the window. The women would fight for it. The SS would shoot into the group fighting for bread, killing a few. Sometimes we would see the village women collecting a few potatoes and other food for their pigs: we would attack them and steal the food… and the SS would shoot. I decided I will not fight like that anymore. What saved me were a few pieces of sugar beets that grew in the fields we passed, and also there was a lot of water from the snow. Can you imagine that I weighed 30 kilograms?
The march lasted until the end of April or beginning of May 1945.
Miriam was finally liberated by the Russian Army.
One day, I felt feverish and had diarrhea. We were three friends who decided not to go to the next roll call. The punishment, we knew, was death by shooting. Two of us were ill, one was healthy. We hugged each other and decided not to go out. We heard the whistle that meant for us to go out and the shouts of "Raus, raus." We were in panic, awaiting our end. Suddenly there was silence. They did not come looking for us. It appeared that the Russians were approaching and the Nazis did not have the time to come for us. By then, we had reached the area of Bamberg, in the eastern part of Germany.
The Russians came. Some of them behaved like animals, but we will not talk about it now. One Russian soldier, who was obviously Jewish, asked us if we were Jews. He gave us food and told us to go. We had no clothes, so they gave us uniforms that were too big for our bodies but we managed by tying them here and there. And, like that we started to go. If the war was advancing this way, we went that way… without knowing where.
Of her immediate family of eleven only Miriam and younger brother Baruch survived. Yet their harrowing story did not end with liberation.