October 19, 2008
By Martin Weiss
We couldn’t believe that the Nazi soldiers hadn’t killed us. We never thought that we’d be free again. After we discovered that we were liberated from the Gunskirchen concentration camp in Austria, we found out that there had been orders to shoot us all, but the captain in charge had decided not to carry them out.
There we were, the five of us: Moshe, my cousin Jack, two of his friends, and me. They ended up in Gunskirchen from Hungary where they had been in slave labor battalions. As the Russians kept pushing forward, the Hungarians kept on retreating into Austria. As a result, the others ended up in Gunskirchen just as I had after a forced march from Mauthausen. One of the other fellows also had his Uncle Hershel with him; he was older, about 55. At the time that was considered very old to still be living.
When we finally walked out of the camp the following morning, the first thing on our minds was to find food. We decided to explore the countryside. Soon we found a German army truck locked and abandoned in the field and we saw a tub of lard on the front seat. One of the guys hit the window of the truck with his fist and the glass fell into the lard. Carefully we scooped out the glass with the palms of our hands. Then we climbed into the back of the truck and found leather hides ready for use. We got very excited. All of us took as many hides as we could, figuring we could take them to a shoemaker and he could make us shoes. As we continued walking, we saw a farmhouse. We decided to stop there, hoping to find some food. When we got to the house, we knocked on the door and a lady opened the door just a little. Politely we asked her for some flour, eggs, and water, and she obliged. There was a barn in the back yard with a big primitive kettle. We mixed all the ingredients with the lard and made dumplings and cooked in this kettle. They were delicious. That was our first meal after we were freed.
After our meal, someone suggested that each one of us should contribute and give some hides to the lady of the house. For years I never thought about this incident or what it meant. What is amazing to me even now is that we didn’t feel like human beings. We were angry and so full of hate. To us, every German was a Nazi, and justifiably so. In spite of our bad experiences, we behaved civilly and it puzzles me even today. To understand our behavior, I have to give credit to our parents, who instilled in us the ethics and morals of our ancestors.
After spending the night in the barn, we walked in the morning to a main road and soon we heard that the American army had set up a gathering camp to feed and delouse us. When we came in contact with the American soldiers, we were overjoyed—to us they were true heroes. The first thing they did was delouse us and give us fresh clothes. These turned out to be German army uniforms and boots. Of course, we were apprehensive to wear them because we were afraid someone would mistake us for German soldiers, especially when we came in contact with Russian troops.
We were billeted in a stable with clay floors, but we had straw to sleep on and they also gave us clean blankets. As soon as we got there I got very sick. I had a high fever and my throat closed completely. I couldn’t swallow and couldn’t even stand up; I didn’t know what was wrong with me. My cousin Jack had to stand in line for hours in the hot sun just to get an aspirin and a jelly sandwich, but all I could dowas lick the jelly because my throat was closed.
In about ten days I started feeling better. Then all we could think of was going home. When I got better I found out that Hershel had died because he couldn't tolerate the food given to him. The tragedy was that the same thing happened to many thousands more.
After three weeks in this American camp we felt stronger. We decided to go home and find out who had survived. We figured everyone would do the same no matter where they were. As we were walking around the area, we noticed that people were getting on an open truck. We found out the truck was going to Plzen in the Czech Republic. We didn’t waste any time and got right on. When we reached Plzen the truck stopped in the city square. We were very happy to be on Czech soil again. Some men had made up a sign saying that we had been in Mauthausen. It made a big impression on the locals as they were very well acquainted with that camp because thousands of Czech citizens were tortured and killed there.
The proprietor of a fancy restaurant came out and invited us into his restaurant. He had the tables covered with fine tablecloths and fancy silverware. We could not believe our eyes. He fed us all. What made this even more remarkable was that there was still a food shortage. To me this man was proof that goodness exists even in the worst times.
So here we were in Plzen with no money or agency to help us and we were anxious to get home. Somehow we got to the railroad station and got on the train going homeward. After a short distance we came to a bombed-out bridge so we had to disembark and walk into a ravine and cross over to the other side to continue our journey. This happened several times.
Eventually we met up with some Russian troops and immediately we found differences between them and the American troops. At night, when we slept in the bombed out stations, the Russian soldiers would steal our boots. As a matter of fact, they stole two right-foot boots from two different individuals and ended up without a pair.
I recall one humorous incident. We came to a bombed-out train station where only the walls were standing. The place was packed to capacity so you couldn’t move. As we pushed our way in, we found a group of men from our hometown. We found ourselves all the way in back of all those people and we knew that most us would not be able to get on the train. This one guy from our vicinity who was known to be a prankster said to us very simply, “When I start moving, hold on to me and ignore everything around you and we’ll get on the train.”
As the doors opened he very nonchalantly started to gesture as though he was picking lice off his clothes and tossing them to both sides. Seeing this, many people parted and we advanced towards the front exit to the platform. We got on the train but there was no space anywhere. People were hanging on to the sides, holding on to the handles. A few of us got on the roof of the train, where we just stretched out and sometimes even dozed off. When the train turned around a bend, we would awake with a jolt.
When we arrived outside Bratislava, Slovakia, we found out we had to pass through a tunnel. I remember being very scared so we lay very flat and still until we passed under it. From Bratislava we made our way to Budapest, Hungary. When we got there, there was nothing standing. The whole city was in ruins. The Russians didn’t spare anything and didn’t treat the Hungarians very kindly. After all, they were the Nazis, and I remember saying, “Good, let them suffer.”
Without wasting too much time, we continued our trip home by train. When the conductor asked for our tickets, we started cursing in Russian and after that he didn’t bother us. The Hungarians were fearful of the Russians. While on the train the Russian soldiers were constantly walking from car to car, looking for loot. One of them stopped when he saw a man with a watch. He approached him and said, “Give me your watch. I’ll trade you for all these.” Then he rolled up his sleeve and he had six or eight good watches on his arm. He gave them all to him in exchange for one watch that had been wound. The Russian soldier didn’t know that you had to wind watches.
A man told us of another similar incident that took place in Budapest. This Russian soldier took away an alarm clock from a Hungarian family, and as he was crossing the street, the alarm went off so he put the clock on the curb and shot it with his Kalashnikov rifle, thinking it was a bomb.
As we continued our trip we reached the border of Hungary and Karpatska Rus (now Ukraine). We had to change trains to continue to our destination and the only thing available was a freight train so we hopped on it. All of a sudden we realized we were going back to Hungary and the train was moving fast. We were still in the station area with the tracks crossing in all directions. All at once, we made a decision to jump off the moving train. I don’t know how we didn’t get hurt.
Our destination was Mukachevo (or Munkach, in Hungarian). We arrived at this big city railroad station and I ran into someone I knew and he informed me that my oldest brother, Mendl, was back and living in a town by the name of Bilka. His wife’s family had a house there so he had settled there. After hearing this news I separated from the others and went off in the direction of Bilka. The train didn’t go all the way there. I must have walked the rest of the way to Bilka, about five miles or so. Somehow I got there. I don’t remember how. I didn’t have any money, I was 16 years old, and I didn’t know the area. To this day, I can’t explain how I did it.
©2008, 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.View All Blog Posts