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
I met Josef Mengele, the German physician known for his barbaric and torturous medical experiments performed on Jews in concentration camps. It was an afternoon in Lager C in Birkenau, my home from May to November, 1944 when Mengele strode in to inspect the living conditions of the 800 prisoners housed there. He looked like a movie star in his high boots, white gloves and impeccable SS uniform. “Good afternoon, ladies. How are you? Are you comfortable,” he asked us politely. No one said a word. There was only complete and utter silence. We were immobilized with fear; afraid that the penalty for daring to speak to this terrifying figure would be death. The people on the bottom level of the three-tiered bed were crouched over; they had no room to sit up straight. We looked like animals in a cage with our shaved heads and the ripped rags wrapped around our emaciated bodies. “When will I see my mother?” one woman finally asked in a very low voice, almost like a whisper. “In a few weeks, don't worry,” Mengele answered politely and pleasantly. “When will I see my little girl?” a second woman got the courage to ask, when she saw that the first woman hadn't been beaten for speaking up. Mengele gave her the same answer. We almost believed him. He looked so elegant and civilized compared to us that we felt like we were looking at God. Of course he meant that we'd see our loved ones in a few weeks when we joined them in heaven after going up in smoke from the crematorium. Mengele said he would visit us again, but he never came back.
My journey to Auschwitz-Birkenau began on May 19, 1944 when I boarded the train with my parents, three younger sisters and two brothers. Our homeland, Czechoslovakia, had been annihilated in March of 1939. Our region was returned to Hungary from which it had been taken after World War I, while other sections of the country became a German Protectorate. I was 21-years-old in early April, 1944, when my family and I were forced to leave our home in the predominantly non-Jewish area where we lived in Munkachevo, and moved to Jewish Street in the Jewish ghetto. We brought only those possessions we could carry, and lived on the floor of someone's house. Jewish Street was the dirtiest street I ever saw. A few weeks later, the order came for us to get ready to leave for “relocation.” Germany was weakening against the onslaughts of the Allies, but the shipments of Jews to concentration camps were continuing on a regular basis.
We arrived at a brick factory along with hundreds of other people from the ghetto, and we were told that it would be several days until we were moved to the rail station to board our train for relocation. We waited at the brick factory for five days while German and Hungarian soldiers stood guard. We all built temporary shelters for ourselves from the bricks that were scattered around. The soldiers tortured us there for their personal entertainment. We had to climb in and out of the little brick shelters like dogs. The soldiers hit people with a stick while making them jump around on all fours, and after they had their laughs, they sent them back to their holes.
Finally, we boarded a train that was used to carry cattle during ordinary times. We had no idea where we were going. My family and I did know that two of the older sons in our family of ten children were already dead. In 1942, Michael was taken by the Hungarians to work in a labor camp, and we received a notice that he was killed in action. Herman, who had run away from home at the age of 16 to fight with the Czechoslovak army against the Germans and Hungarians had also been killed in action. Samuel and Nathan tried to leave the country in 1942, but never made it. The borders were already closed. They were taken prisoner by the Hungarians and sent to Terezin [Theresienstadt], at once a ghetto, concentration camp, and forced labor camp near Prague in Czechoslovakia; that became famous after it was opened to officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross as “proof” of how well Hitler was supposedly treating the Jews. Nathan was one of the Jews taken from Terezin to Poland to help build Birkenau. I remember we received a letter from Nathan that he had smuggled out from Terezin. We should have mercy on him and send him some food, he wrote. The lice were eating him up and he was starving to death. But we had no food to send him and he would never have gotten it even if we did. We never heard from him again. When I arrived at Auschwitz, I met a friend of his who showed me the scaffold where he was hanged. I found out that he had been working as an orderly for an SS man, a high position for a prisoner. He had gotten hold of some money and jewelry that was taken from new arrivals to the camp, and he wanted to buy his way to freedom. He paid off a guard to give him his SS uniform and let him escape. But the guard never showed up to the appointed place. Nathan was 28-years-old when he was hanged.
After the war I learned that my brother, Samuel, had been taken from Terezin to the concentration camp, Dachau. I never found out what happened to him, only that he never came back. Another brother, Benze, was taken by the Hungarians in 1942 to help dig ditches for the Hungarian soldiers. However, what he really did was help the Hungarians evacuate Jews to the front. He witnessed the executions of countless German and Polish Jews, and returned home in the fall of 1943 with white hair. He was there on that spring day in 1944 when we boarded the cattle train to Auschwitz.
The trip lasted three days. The 80-100 people jammed into each car received no food or water during those three days. There was no room to lie down, only to kneel or sit crouched against other miserable people. It was a nightmare. People were dying and going insane; screaming. The only sanitary facilities we had were pots some people had brought along for their relocation, but after three days, those pots didn't help the situation. When it rained we took turns standing by the window to catch a few drops of water on our tongues.
Cliffside Park, New Jersey