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< Behind Every Name a Story

Irene (Blász) Csillag

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The Museum’s Behind Every Name a Story project gives voice to the experiences of survivors during the Holocaust.

IRENE’S STORY

I was born in 1925 in Satu Mare, which was in Romania at that time but in 1940, became part of Hungary. We were four in our family: my mother, father, and one sister, Olga, who also survived and is still living.

The Jewish community was very large in Satu Mare in 1939. Most Jews were Orthodox. We had a very nice life. My schooling went as far as high school but I could not finish it because my father passed away and we, the children, had to help out. So I went to learn a trade and became a dressmaker. The language spoken in our home was Hungarian, even though my mother's background was Romanian. My father was Hungarian and he couldn't speak Romanian. We also learned to speak German from our father, who spoke it beautifully because my father's background was German. Our life was good and I cannot remember that we had any problem with antisemitism while Satu Mare was Romanian. We had a very good relationship with our neighbors and were good friends with everyone in our small community.

When the Hungarians took over, it was no longer the same. The situation definitely worsened and stayed that way until 1944, when the Germans occupied Hungary. Shortly after the occupation, we had to wear the yellow star. I still went to work though, every day. Then a strict curfew was established for us Jews and four weeks later, we had to move into the ghetto that was created in Satu Mare itself. The actual ghetto started at the next street to ours, where my mother's brother and his wife lived. We all moved in with them. So did my grandparents and all my nieces and nephews. The conditions in the ghetto, while crowded, were not too bad. We had enough food and our Gentile (non-Jewish) neighbors were very kind to us. We were not fenced in, but the German SS was in charge of the ghetto and their personnel stood on guard at all times. The ghetto was enforced approximately four weeks. Then, during the month of May 1944, we were deported.

We all had to leave our houses in the ghetto and march through the town to the railway station, where people cheered and clapped that we were going. It was a very long march, especially for my grandparents who were in their late seventies. The march took us through the Jewish cemetery and I visited my father's grave and told him what was happening to us.

The authorities told us that they are taking us to Debrecen, which is a large Hungarian city, not too far away, and that we would work there. So my mother baked a lot of dry cookies and put them all in a large flour sack. At the train station, the SS packed us all into cattle cars. I have no idea how many of us were in one car. All I know is that we were standing in there like packed sardines. Then the train started to move and we travelled and travelled; no toilet or any sanitary facilities for our needs. Conditions were so bad that one of my sister's school friends died on the way. I was in a daze. We must have travelled 3-4 days, I think. Some bread and something else was thrown to us once to eat but basically we were traveling without food and water supplies; no sitting down; no sleeping. We finally arrived somewhere, but we didn't know where. We had arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau. My mother was holding her brother's two-year-old child to help her pregnant sister-in-law. The Polish prisoner, whose job was to get us out of the cattle car, asked my mother whose baby that was. When my mother answered that the child was her sister-in-law's, he ordered her to give back the child to his pregnant mother. Then they took away my grandfather's walking cane and he began to cry to my grandmother about that.

My mother, sister and I were sent to the right. They took us all into a very large hall where, immediately, some men and women shaved off our hair. They then ordered us to undress; take off everything. So, there we were, completely naked in front of all those SS soldiers and were ordered to take a quick shower. After that we received a long, gray, rag to wear. They then marched us off to camp "C", and assigned us to a barrack but I cannot recall the number on it.

By this time all the others; the old people like my grandparents, or the pregnant women like my aunt, or my cousins who were too young; were sent to the left. The Nazis didn't need them. We never saw them again. None of them came back. Not one.

In the barrack, there were three tiered bunk beds and my mother had to climb to the top bed. Naturally that wasn't easy for her, but she made it because at this point she was still in good shape. We were in this camp "C" for about six weeks. Every day there were "Zählappell" (roll call) No matter how hard it rained or cold it was, we had to stand there, twice a day, to be counted. I don't know why. Then one day something unusually terrible happened. As we were standing for roll call, one of the women gave birth to a premature baby. None of us knew that she was pregnant. We just couldn't tell, so I don't think she was nine months pregnant. Anyway, the tiny baby just slipped out as we were standing there and right there we made a hole with our feet in the sandy soil and buried that tiny infant. If the baby had begun to cry we surely would have been killed. Only those of us who stood nearby saw all this happening. It was so horribly sad.

On another day, after the roll-call, we had to line up to be tattooed on our arms with numbers. After a long wait, suddenly it was announced that no more tattooing was to take place that day, but now we had to wait in line for "selection". This usually meant that some people were selected to stay and some to be taken away. I was very much afraid that we would be separated from our mother. I gathered up all my courage and went up to a man doing the selection, who turned out to be Victor Capesius. I told him, in Romanian that my mother is 46, still young and in very good condition and we would like it if he'd let us stay together. He must have felt good at that moment because he said "all right." And then all three of us were transported to another camp called Stutthof; again by cattle car.

Stutthof, a concentration camp, while smaller than Auschwitz, had pretty much the same set up and routine: the same kind of barracks; bunk beds; roll-calls. Shortly after we arrived, they told us that there will be some kind of work for us. The capo or guard was a girl from Slovakia and she spoke Hungarian. I told her I wanted to work. She assigned me to clean the toilets that had to be done early in the morning before the others got up and started to use them.

Later, I was allowed to work in the kitchen. That meant that after work I was allowed to collect the potato and beet peels, and the used up coffee grinds and take them to my mother and sister as extra food, but my mother couldn't eat it. She was deteriorating quickly. She liked to talk about cooking, though. She was dreaming about the time when we would get back home and all the baking and cooking she would do. But her condition didn't get better even with the food I brought to her.

I kept on hoping and working energetically. Maybe that helped me. I said to myself that even if everyone dies, I will live! I was determined to stay alive. On one very cold and snowy day, I was very cold and before I went to work, I told my sister that I would like to wear the brown scarf we owned. She said "I put it on mother's neck last night because she was also cold." So I took the scarf off my mother's neck but noticed that she didn't move. I asked Olga what's happening to mother when she answered that "mother died last night but I didn't want to tell you because you had to get up so early in the morning to get to work." So, my mother was dead.

There was a woman in our barrack who knew my father's family from before the war and whose job it was to get the dead people out of the barrack. I told her that my mother died. I pleaded with her not to throw my mother's body down from the top bunk. With our help she gently took her body off the bed. She had a prayer book tucked into her brassiere and we said the prayer for the dead. Then my mother's body was taken outside and laid down along with all the other hundreds of bodies outside our bunks; covered with mud and snow. My sister kept asking me every day as I returned from work, "is she still there, is she still there?" She lay there for about a week. She was hardly recognizable from all the fallen snow covering her body. Then one day a wheelbarrow came and all the corpses were removed, including my mother's body.

A few days later, I noticed that my sister was very ill and very weak. She couldn't walk. I really was frightened. I kept telling her, "you must try to walk, you must. Now there are only the two of us left." Her body was still a little plump, so one couldn't tell that she was sick. I took her off the bed so that she could stand and I put her left leg in front the right one and kept alternating. I did this exercise with her twice, every single day until one day, she was able to walk again. Even today she maintains that without me being there for her, she wouldn't have survived.

My sister never worked in Stutthof. Not everybody did. Many just did nothing; waiting to die of hunger or to be taken away. That's why I was so worried about her. If she wasn't able to go and stand at roll-call, they would come and check the barrack. Those who were still in their bunk-beds, unable to be up and around, were all taken away to be killed in the gas chambers. I saw what happened to these friends of mine; two sisters. One of them developed a skin rash. The doctor ordered her to go to the "hospital" to be treated with aspirin. The other sister insisted on going with her. Nobody ever saw those two sisters again. They perished together.

We stayed in Stutthof until sometime after the Jewish Holiday of Purim, which is usually in March. Then we were taken by cattle car to a work camp in Danzig. Here, most people were taken every morning to work in ammunition factories and brought back at night. I didn't work in Danzig. The conditions here were only slightly better than in Stutthof. Still, even here, we didn't have enough to eat, sanitary facilities were non-existent and all of us were covered with lice.

The war was coming to an end. The Russians and Americans were closing in on the Germans and the Nazis kept running from them, dragging us along. One day we reached water and they put us on a small ship, crowding us into a small cubicle. After a while, they let us out on the deck of the ship. As we were standing there, excruciatingly hungry, cold and wet, I spotted a cabbage floating in the water. I reached for it, and with the help of others, grabbed it, and while it was oil soaked and dirty, it didn't matter. We quickly tore it apart and many of us had a little piece of it to eat.

We had no way to measure time; we didn't even know what day it was. I think we spent at least one week on that ship. The ship was moving though, and we heard a rumor that the Nazis intended to throw us all in the sea. As the ship got closer to the shoreline, people started to climb down on a ladder. My sister was ahead of me and she jumped from the ladder to the ground on the shore. At this very same minute, they took away the ladder and my sister was yelling to me "come, hurry, and jump" but the ladder was gone. Everyone started to push and shove and I fell into the water. I couldn't swim then and started to drown.

Somebody, I don't know who, saved my life by pulling me out of the water. It seems that in the water, I lost my clothes because, when I was pulled out, I was completely naked. Someone had a wet blanket which they wrapped around me. The SS, even then, forced us to march on. We dragged ourselves for a few hours, when we noticed that there were fewer and fewer SS soldiers with us. They were running away. Finally they all disappeared. We shortly arrived at a soccer field, where we saw all these jeeps with soldiers in them. They were throwing chocolates and cookies and cigarettes to us. People were yelling "the British are here, the British are here."

The British soldiers were overwhelmed by what they saw and wanted to feed us. There were barrels set up all over the soccer field; filled with cherries, figs, dates, honey, sauerkraut; all sorts of sweets that we shouldn't have eaten at that time. What we really needed was hot soup or something very light, but, because we were so hungry, we ate everything in the barrels. The next day, most of us were sick and had to be taken to the hospital. Many died as their stomachs ruptured. The hospital was nice and clean, with many nurses attending to us. Then I noticed that they wanted to cut off all of our hair. I was thunderstruck. I ran out of the hospital saying: "Not again, not again. They won't cut my hair again." (The nurses did this because we had head-lice.) While they let me go, I had to sign a paper that I was leaving their care on my own accord and take full responsibility for myself. My sister Olga stayed in the hospital.

We were given accommodation in a very nice school; three to four girls in one room. They looked after us with all necessities of life; even a little pocket money to buy things in town if we so desired. In about a week, Olga joined me. She was still weak but otherwise healthy. While we were given clothing to wear, we still yearned for something prettier. We decided to do some sewing. From our cotton-gingham bed linen, we made a few very cute dresses. They were all sewn by hand since we didn't have a sewing machine. This was sometime in late May or early June 1945.

While life was all right in Neustadt, I had the urge to go back to Satu Mare and search out any surviving family members. I did just that. I rode a train with some Rabbis to Satu Mare. Back at home I found an uncle, my mother's brother, who was a World War I hero and as such was exempt from deportation. He and my aunt were very happy to see me and were very good to me.

I found my house and our old neighbors were living in it. I asked if I could just come in and look around. The answer was no and through the opening of the door, I saw the pillows my mother had embroidered. I asked for one as a memory of her. The door was slammed in my face. I just wanted something that my mother had touched; something that was hers; something to remember her by, but to no avail.

Disappointed, I left Satu Mare in a hurry. With the help of a Jewish organization and changing trains numerous times I arrived back in Germany; in Neustadt, Holstein, where I rejoined my sister and all the other girls who were still there.

At this time, my sister and I were in touch with an aunt in Philadelphia. She wrote to us that she would love to have us there and to give us a home in her house. Right after the war, Germany was divided into four zones. To be able to emigrate to the US, one had to live in the American Zone and we were located in the British Zone, having been liberated by the British Army. So we moved to Einring that was in the American Zone.

Einring is where, inadvertently, I met a man, Ede, (Teddy) who, in time became my husband. After he asked me to marry him, I said that I would, but not without a wedding ring. We had neither money nor any way to find a ring. Each week, we received a Hershey bar and we collected our chocolate bars until we had enough to trade it for a wedding ring. To this day, I still wear a ring that is engraved “to Bobby” inside. At this time, my good friend began to date my fiancée's good friend. We married in a double ceremony. After the wedding, the other couple said that they would settle in Holland but, to my amazement, when we arrived in Montreal, we ran into them. They attended my newborn's brit milah (circumcision) in April 1957 and we rekindled the friendship. Many years later, my son Ron, then in his mid twenties, serendipitously ran into their daughter and two years later, married her. Some things in life are just basheirt (meant to be)

My husband and I joined a Zionist group, with the intention of going to Palestine and ended up in Waldheim, Austria, where we stayed for a while. Eventually we were supposed to leave for Palestine but, at this point, my husband changed his mind and we didn't go. He felt a need to return to Budapest to see if any if his family survived

We went to Budapest but the city had been bombed to the ground and we could not find a place to live. With some luck, we found a woman whose family had not returned from the camps and had a two bedroom apartment. This woman, Elizabeth, asked us to come live with her in her apartment, giving us the larger living quarters while she took the smaller of the bedrooms. When our daughter, Judy, was born in 1951, Elizabeth became like a grandmother to her. We re-established our lives and lived in Budapest for ten years. The revolution came in 1956, and brought new emerging, antisemitism in Hungary. On the day that my husband came home, telling me that written on the front window of his shop was “we will take you back to Auschwitz,” we decided to emigrate. It was a nightmare of running again, hiding and slipping across the Austrian border.

On January 10, 1957, we arrived in Canada with our five-year-old daughter, and I was seven months pregnant. In April, our son Ron was born in Montreal. After the initial hardships, which most immigrants experience, we had and still have a good life in Canada. Three years after our arrival, with the help of the Red Cross (and false papers claiming she was my mother), we sent for Elizabeth to join us. She lived with us as the children's grandmother until her death in 1984.

Related Articles

Introduction to the Holocaust
"Final Solution": Overview
The Holocaust and World War II: Timeline
World War II in Europe
Liberation of Nazi Camps
The Aftermath of the Holocaust

Related Links

Survivors Registry
Holocaust Survivors and Victims Resource Center

Related Map Links

Romania, 1933
Hungarian expansion
Ghettos in occupied Hungary, 1944
Europe 1943-1944, Auschwitz indicated
Auschwitz environs, summer 1944
Auschwitz I camp, 1944
Auschwitz II (Birkenau) camp, summer 1944
Auschwitz III (Monowitz) camp, 1944
Major camps in Greater Germany, Stutthof indicated
Stutthof environs, 1944
Stutthof concentration camp, fall 1944