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< Behind Every Name a Story

Miriam (Rot) Eshel

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

 

  • 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.

  • Section of the form Miriam Eshel submitted to the Survivors Registry. This section lists the locations in Miriam's story.

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 photos on this page to explore the story behind the faces in the family portrait. Also explore the postcards.

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.

After the Holocaust, Miriam and her brother wanted to leave Europe. In Miriam's own words:

Those who had money, bought certificates for entry into the US or England or Eretz Israel. But we did not have money, so we went to school and learned as much as we could. One day I told my brother that I decided to go to the Joint to inquire about our situation. I did not want to stay like this indefinitely. I wanted to go on. They told me they could transfer us to France. There, there was a group of grownups being organized to go to Israel. Since we were very young, it was up to us to join them. The Joint would help us. We said: "We want to get to Eretz Israel at any price." By cover of night, they helped us cross the border between Germany and France, illegally of course. We were put in a secluded house in a forest, near Cap d'Aix, in the French Riviera between Nice and Monte Carlo.

We were no longer hungry. We hadn't been hungry for quite a while. We had sufficient food: bread, herring, soup, meat. We looked better. There were families there who wanted to adopt me, but not my brother. I refused. I told them I was leaving for Israel. We stayed there for several months, but nothing moved. I talked to the person responsible, and told him that we were young, and we wanted to get to Israel. It wasn't our fault that the certificates for the adults were taking such a long time. We were young and eager to go. They told us they couldn't get us to Israel yet, but that they would send us to join a group in Paris, which was preparing to go to Israel as members of the Betar movement…We were there several months, and they promised that this would be the last station before arriving in Palestine.

Miriam describes the sea voyage to Haifa and being transferred to Cyprus.

From there they took us to a town called Trets, about 50 kilometers east of Marseille where again we stayed for a while, awaiting the opportunity to sail to Israel. From there it was possible to get to port, by cover of night. A sailboat, with a motor, was waiting for us. We sailed in that ship, named "LA NEGEV" in January 1947, packed tightly with very little room for all of us. It took us 21 days to sail from Marseille to Palestine. The whole time we had to empty the water that got into the boat. The motor rattled badly the entire way, and food was scarce: we had crackers and water from rusty barrels. We threw up the entire time.

After 21 days, we arrived into the port of Haifa. We knew we had arrived to a port because there were huge reflectors on the beach. Suddenly, they illuminated our boat. Within 3 minutes, we were surrounded by three British battle ships, and British soldiers.… We were transferred to one of the British battleships. What did they do? They took us to Cyprus! But this was not a torture camp. They gave us food, there were outdoor showers and whoever wanted to study could do that. Many groups were organized. I studied Hebrew.… We stayed in Cyprus from February 1947 until August 1947. Then, the younger people (up to the age of 17) were allowed to enter Palestine, as members of the Youth Aliyah, without certificates. The adults had to wait in Cyprus. They took us to a little town--Atlit--south of Haifa.

Since we were with the Betar movement, we were taken to Shuni, near Biniamina. …We stayed there until the spring of 1948. …

Miriam enlisted for military service in Israel in September 1948.

When we went to the missions, my brother was sent with an Etzel unit to take the Arab town of Ramle, some 15 kilometers east of Tel Aviv. …I enlisted for military service in September of 1948. When you enlist in the army they ask you questions about your family and about who should be contacted if something happens to you. It was a painful feeling to be alone in the world and to become a soldier… I worked in several military clinics, together with a doctor, after taking several specialized training courses in nursing, first aid and other medical treatment procedures.

Coming back to my brother, when I returned from the Ephraim hills to Shuni, and asked where he was, I was told that he was sent on a mission and would soon come back. I waited several days. I went out to the road every day to wait for him.

That is how I found out that my little brother was no longer alive.

As I told you, I enlisted in September 1948. In 1951, army rabbis came to me to tell me that an Arab villager had shown them the burial place of a group of youngsters near Ramle. They requested that I give them some details about my brother, to enable identification. I told them about the shape of two protruding teeth and about a belt which he had with a certain emblem on it. In 1952 the group was buried in a collective grave in Givat Shaul, the main military cemetery in the Tel Aviv area (sobs).

On Memorial Day, that year, they were recognized officially as soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces. I really wanted the authorities to recognize him as a soldier. A child, who survived the hell of the Holocaust, who was in Dachau, who survived the death march. A cousin of ours worked in the kitchen of Dachau and identified my little brother. He began to steal some food for him and that is how he saved him.

For me it was not a matter of receiving any pension benefits on his account. Thank God I have enough to eat. I did not want my brother recognized as a hero but as a child who gave his life for his country after surviving hell and suffering. I participate every year, at his grave, in the ceremony of Memorial Day for the Fallen of IDF. I also have a memorial plaque in my synagogue for him and for my entire family, of which no one but my brother and I survived the Holocaust.

Miriam was married in May 1953.

Jacob and Miriam Eshel, ca. 2000.

However, God did not forget me after all. I was lucky and in the army I met my husband… He also comes from a religious family. We married in May of 1953 and with God's grace we started together a new tribe, all living in Israel. I pray to God to keep them all in health and prosperity. ... He was born in Berlin in 1929 and in 1933, when he was 4 years old, his family arrived in Palestine. When his father saw Jews being molested in the streets of Berlin, he returned home and told his wife, Sara, that they should move to Israel without delay. She immediately agreed and the family traveled to Krakow, Poland, where the grandfather, a well-known rabbi, lived with the whole family. The entire family stayed behind but my husband's parents insisted on continuing their journey to Israel (Palestine in those days). His mother told me that her mother was running after the coach crying for them not to leave. They covered their ears, refused to look back and arrived in Eretz Israel. Thanks to this, they survived while the rest of the family was annihilated.

Here we established a home together…

Miriam summarizes her story.

I think that a poem (one of many) which my husband wrote for me on the occasion of our 50th wedding anniversary, very adequately sums up what I was trying to tell you. Here it is, freely translated into English.

She concludes:

So, this is my story. Most of it I remember quite vividly. I remember the hunger, the cold, the fear, the beatings, the endless degradation, the total loss of hope and of humanity. My whole family ended in Auschwitz. Some people deny the Holocaust, claiming that it never happened. But it did. You go to Auschwitz and you see the crematoria. I did not revisit Auschwitz yet. My husband and I are still debating the issue. On the one hand, remembering is imperative but, on the other hand, can we muster the strength to return to that hell? … I don't want to break down and shame my children and grandchildren. I have to struggle with myself to remain strong. It is not easy, not easy.

Sometimes, at night I am caught with terror. I don't know what I am afraid of, I am simply in fear. I don't even mention it and I try to calm down and remain in control of myself. I hope I can make it. There is a purpose to my life: I have a wonderful family to live for.

However, we live in times of continued anxiety. When there is an explosion in Jerusalem, and we have great-grandchildren there, I immediately try to call them and if the connection is not immediate, I start shaking maybe they were there, maybe they were on that bus or in that market. Where was he supposed to go, or his wife or his children? The children don't travel alone, they travel with their mother. I always worry. We live in constant tension and we don't see the end of it. I have been here since 1947 and it is 2003 now, that is 56 years. I cannot remember even a few weeks without Jewish victims. Now we have a grandson who is an officer in the Tank Corps. Tell me, how much moral strength is a person allotted? You must be a hero to overcome everything and still say: "I will go on". But, where is the strength supposed to come from?...

Yes, I live for them. May God keep them, and may there be peace in Israel. I couldn't stand any more losses. I had more than enough already.

The children all have their own lives. They are very loving and devoted. They are religious. They don't have any doubts. A parent is a sacred person, very honored, and in religious homes the parent's love is paramount.

There is no other way.

Miriam's husband, Jacob, has written many poems for her. This poem, created on the occasion of Miriam and Jacob’s 50th wedding anniversary, celebrates Miriam’s strength. In her own words:

I think that a poem (one of many) which my husband wrote for me on the occasion of our 50th wedding anniversary, very adequately sums up what I was trying to tell you. Here it is, freely translated into English.

Whence your strength
To rise from the ashes
And to life return again

Whence your strength
To go through hell
And God's image retain

Whence your strength
To survive all alone
And with pure soul remain

Whence your strength
To never forget
Yet start up again

You came out of distant lands
Born on the waves of sea
You came to our land
As whole as could be.

You left behind mother and father
Brothers and sisters and family
There they died with prayer on their lips
Because that was God's decree

You brought with you one little brother
Handsome and young in years
He alone survived together with you
But fell among the Fallen here

Thus, Miriam, old words came true
Seven times shall the righteous fall but rise
From loss and mourning and the goblet of tears
You found in yourself the unusual strength
To rebuild a new family tree

No wonder then that I repeat and ask
With ever rising admiration

Whence your strength
For a jubilee of years
To be my companion, to be at my side

Whence your strength
So to care for us all
Young and old alike

Whence your strength
With no rest or pause
To fill us all with so much love

With the jubilee trumpets sounding
I stand in prayer
Oh God, please preserve for ever and ever
The strength of Miriam

Postcard depicting different sights in Munkacs. Czechoslovakia, 1938.

— US Holocaust Memorial Museum - Collections

Postcard depicting sights in Munkacs. Czechoslovakia, 1938.

— US Holocaust Memorial Museum - Collections

Postcard depicting sights in Munkacs, Czechoslovakia. 1938.

— US Holocaust Memorial Museum - Collections

Related Links

Survivors Registry
Holocaust Survivors and Victims Resource Center
Postcards from Munkacs

Related Map Links

Czechoslovakia 1933, Munkacs indicated
Extermination camps, Auschwitz indicated
Auschwitz environs, summer 1944
Major camps in Greater Germany, Stutthof indicated
Stutthof environs, 1944
Stutthof concentration camp, fall 1944
Evacuations and death march from Stutthof
Detention camps in Cyprus, August 1946-February 1949
Jewish immigration to Israel, 1948-1950
State of Israel, boundaries as of 1949