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Democracy Shattered

By Martin Weiss

We I came to the United States, I was 16 years old, and I went religiously to night school, anxious to learn everything about my new adopted country such as the language, the Bill of Rights, etc. Mrs. Durst, my teacher, was a very nice person and a good teacher. She stressed the greatness of the Constitution and the “Four Freedoms.” As time went on, she suggested I read the New York Times to improve my language skills. By that time, I spoke four languages and was able to read and write in all of them.

I was in grade school in Czechoslovakia in the 1930s and we had “democracy” as well. Our schools were similar to those in the United States. My older brothers and sisters visited the cities, and my older sister Cilia was going to college in the city of Mukachevo (Munkács in Hungarian). I also picked up a lot from those who traveled from Budapest and other places to visit the summer resort in our town. So, when I was ten years old, I knew about democracy.

But in March 1939, our world shattered forever. Germany declared war and invaded Czechoslovakia. The state I lived in was called Carpatska Russ (Carpathian Russ). The Hungarians allied themselves with the Germans so they occupied our state. Our lives were changed immediately. Cilia was thrown out of school because she was Jewish. And that was only the beginning. In a short time, Jewish professionals lost their jobs, and Jewish-owned businesses were given to Hungarians. For some unknown reason, our family’s meat distribution business was not confiscated, but the government did not give us an allotment of livestock for our business. Meanwhile, Cilia was able to negotiate a contract with the Hungarian Army to supply them with meat for the troops that were stationed in our town. This created a problem as they were not allowed to buy from a Jewish vendor for fear we might poison them. So, father made a deal with the Hungarian butcher who sold pork only. We would do all the work for a share of the profit and would use his name on the billing.

We had to buy the cattle from the farmers in secret, and we had to slaughter during the night around 1 or 2 a.m. in a dark stable by candlelight. I would hold the candles and my older brother prepared the steer for the kosher ritual slaughterer. Sadly, we couldn’t even trust our Russian neighbors who hated Hungarians, which is why we had to be extra careful. Another thing that could have made life more difficult for us is that the police had a cook and she shopped for meat in our store. My father gave her a big discount to keep our relations intact. Often when the detectives would be ready to spy on us, the cook would warn us.

My two older brothers, like all Jewish men from 20 to 45 years old, were drafted into labor battalions where they performed manual labor, such as cutting down the trees in the forests so the partisans could not hide there. My oldest brother, Mendel, was stationed in Hungary most of the time. In 1945, when the Russians were advancing into Hungary, the Hungarians took thousands of these Jewish men on a forced march into Austria. When Mendel and some friends realized their predicament, they decided to escape. They were all young and handsome and they befriended some German girls who helped them to survive until they made it back home. By then, the Russians had occupied the Carpathian area.

Few men attempted escape. If someone was missing in the morning, the Hungarians would count one to ten and shoot every tenth person. My cousin Jack was on the same march as Mendel, but he ended up in Gunskirchen concentration camp, where I ended up as well, having survived a death march from Mauthausen to Gunskirchen. Our march was horrific. Our rations consisted of a palm full of mildewed bread crumbs and a cup of warm water made from sugar beets that was used for the cattle. Many men didn’t have the energy to walk, so they fell down and the guard would shoot them. We would continue marching. One incident I will never forget was marching on a country road and noticing a potato on the ground. Two men leapt for it and started to fight over the potato. The guard simply raised his rifle and shot one man in the face; his jaw just dropped away. This guard grew up in one of the most advanced cultures in Europe. I still find this behavior hard to fathom.

© 2019, Martin Weiss. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.