Start of Main Content

Eyewitness to History: Arye Ephrath

Arye Ephrath was born in the Nazi German client state of Slovakia in 1942. His family avoided deportation for a number of years before going into hiding in Šišov, an isolated village in western Slovakia, in 1944. Arye spent the rest of the war hiding with a local shepherd and his family and pretending to be a girl to avoid suspicion, while his parents were hidden by a different family in a hole beneath a barn floor. Read Arye’s full biography.

Transcript

Arye Ephrath:

My name is Arye Ephrath. I am a Holocaust survivor and a volunteer at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

I was born in Bardejov, Czechoslovakia during World War II to my mother, Miriam, a Hungarian born housewife known to everyone as Manci, and my father, Shmuel, a Slovak storekeeper.

I was told that it was a sunny Tuesday in early April of 1942, when the first Nazi transport departed Bardejov, which is a small town in eastern Czechoslovakia.

These transport included 20 or so railroad cattle carts, each one packed with 100 or more Jewish men, women and children.

They were on their way to Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland, where many would be murdered immediately upon arrival.

My parents, although residents of Bardejov, were not on this transport. My mother was delivering her first baby, me. She was in the basement of their home to avoid detection by the Nazis.

Our housekeeper was tending to her as both my mother’s obstetrician and my father had fled to the forests surrounding Bardejov to avoid deportation.

My parents managed to evade the next few transports as well.

My father’s job in the town’s general store was considered “essential” and shielded him from being sent to Auschwitz.

My mother smuggled herself and me into neighboring Hungary, where she hid under an assumed, non-Jewish identity after depositing me in a Catholic orphanage.

When I was about two years old, my parents decided they had stretched their luck long enough and that it was time to go into hiding.

They, and another couple with a little boy of their own, selected to hide in Šišov, an isolated village in western Slovakia.

There they met the village’s shepherd, Jan Mierni, who, with his wife, Irena, agreed to take in the two toddlers, with two conditions: one, that should the parents not survive the war, Jan and Irena would have the right to adopt us as their own sons; and two, that we would be dressed as girls to blend in with their own four daughters.

And so, I became Annička Mierni, mixing with the sheep and the goats during the day, sharing the eldest Mierni’s daughter’s bed at night, jumping into a coal bin to hide on a moment’s notice when strangers came by and enduring Jan Mierni’s punishing belt whenever he returned drunk from the pub at night.

Another village couple, Jan and Pavela Galko, offered to hide my parents and the other two adults.

The Galkos lived with their children in a one-room hut, without any visible means of adequately feeding and sheltering themselves, never mind four strangers.

My father thanked them for their courage and generosity, but expressed doubts about this being a practical arrangement, whereupon Pavela Galko burst into tears.

As a good Catholic, she said, this was a gift from Jesus, a chance to save the lives of four human beings.

How could they think of depriving her of fulfilling her calling?

The four adults spent the next eight months in what they called their “bunker,” a shallow ditch in the ground that Jan Galko dug underneath the haystack in his yard.

They only came out after dark to stretch their limbs and to eat.

This lasted through the winter of 1944 and the spring of 1945.

Their ordeal ended when the Red Army liberated Czechoslovakia in April of 1945 and we were all reunited.

We went back to Bardejov only to find that the once thriving Jewish population there had been wiped out completely.

None of the relatives we had left behind survived.

Shortly thereafter, we immigrated to Israel.

It goes without saying that the Miernis and Galkos, villagers of very limited means, took on an enormous burden, accommodating multiple strangers. But more importantly, they took on enormous risk.

The penalty for harboring Jews was for the entire family, and often their neighbors as well, to be shot on the spot.

And yet, faced with a choice, they did not hesitate.

After the war, both the Miernis and the Galkos were honored by Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust Memorial, as Righteous Among the Nations.

Personally, I consider them saints.

And I ask myself: the world is still a dangerous place; refugees still flee oppression and death; hate, religious, and ethnic discrimination are still very much with us.

If put to the same test today that the Miernis and the Galkos faced, what would each of us do?

It would be easy to say, we as a people should, or we as a country should, or our governments should address these issues of hate and oppression.

This, however, is not what the Miernis and the Galkos did.

Nor, what the other Miernis and the Galkos of the world say.

They take personal and individual responsibility for countering evil.

Should not each one of us do the same?

Let us remember the Museum’s motto, “What You Do Matters.”

Thank you very much.