Martin was one of nine children born to orthodox Jewish parents in Polana, a rural village in the Carpathian Mountains. His father owned a farm and a meat business, and his mother attended to the children and the home. Everyone in the family helped take care of the horses and cows.
1933–39: Martin attended the village's Czech schools, which were quite progressive. Like many of the other children, he looked forward to leaving the provincial life in Polana. In March 1939, his life was changed dramatically when Nazi Germany and its allies dismembered Czechoslovakia. Hungarian troops occupied Polana, and Jews were subjected to discriminatory legislation. Czech schools were closed, and the students had to learn Hungarian. The villagers all resented the new rulers, and the democratic freedoms that they had enjoyed under Czechoslovakian rule disappeared.
1940–44: After the German invasion of the Soviet Union, conditions in Polana worsened. Two of Martin's brothers were conscripted into forced-labor battalions. The family soon learned that some Jews from the area had been deported to the occupied Ukraine where they were killed by SS units. In April 1944, Hungarian gendarmes transported the village's Jews, including Martin's family, to the Munkacs ghetto. In May, they were deported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing center. Martin, his father, brother, and two uncles were selected for forced labor; the other family members were sent to the gas chambers. Martin and his father were sent to the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, and then to the subcamp of Melk, where they were forced to build tunnels into the side of the mountains. His father perished there.