November 01, 2017
by Martin Weiss
Growing up in a rural area where many people were uneducated, I always thought that in the cities, especially in Western Europe, where people had access to higher education and city life, they would behave in a more civilized way than people where I lived. Growing up in a democratic country like Czechoslovakia, even as a seven- or eight-year-old kid, I felt very proud of our country, because we were treated as citizens. That does not mean that our neighbors who were “Russ” were not antisemitic; they were. However, we did coexist and got along.
In 1939, when World War II started, I was ten years old. Stories of what was happening in Germany to fellow Jews were unbelievable. It was so hard to understand because we thought the German Jews were well integrated and that they were proud German citizens. I remember my father discussing this with his friends. He had a hard time understanding that one of the leading countries in Europe was violating the rules of a modern and civilized world. After all, the Germans were leaders in science, music, and philosophy. No one could imagine that a modern society in the 20th century would be capable of committing the atrocities that we were hearing about. What I could never understand is that the population supported it.
In 1945, after I was liberated by American troops from the Gunskirchen camp in Austria, I eventually reconnected with my older sister, Cilia, in Karlovy Vary, Czechoslovakia. She had found her boyfriend, Fred, from home and gotten married immediately. I moved in with them. We had a nice, modern apartment with an elevator and a modern kitchen. However, most of us were very angry at the Germans; in fact, we hated them.
The Sudeten Germans had been very successful in Czechoslovakia; they switched their allegiance to Germany and sided with the Nazis. After the war, the Czech government decided to confiscate their businesses—just as the Germans had done to us Jews—and deported them to Germany. We all felt this was justified. The Hungarians had drafted all Jewish men between the ages of 20 and 50 into labor battalions, which were used as slave labor under army oversight. So, thousands of these Jewish men had ended up on the eastern front, including my two older brothers, Mendel and Izsak. Some of their jobs were burying the dead, clearing minefields, etc. However, many of them escaped or were captured by Soviet forces. Once they were in Soviet territory, some joined the Czechoslovak Legion and returned as liberators.
After the Czechs deported the Sudeten Germans, the government turned over their businesses to the liberators. Fred got an auto parts store, where I worked with him. However, we soon realized that the Soviet Union would have a big influence in the country. Fred felt we should emigrate to the United States as soon as possible. He had a brother in New York, and we had a sister who had gone to the United States two weeks before the Hungarian occupation. After much effort, we were able to locate addresses and get in touch with these relatives. They sent us affidavits, so we could get visas for travel to the United States.
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