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Eyewitness to History: Emanuel (Manny) Mandel

Manny Mandel (born in 1936 in Riga, Latvia) grew up in Budapest, Hungary. Manny was chosen for a special exchange in which the Nazis traded his life and those of other Hungarian Jews for money and war supplies (the “Kasztner Train”). He survived internment at Bergen-Belsen before finding refuge in Switzerland and immigrating to Mandatory Palestine. Read Manny’s full biography. 



Manny Mandel: My name is Manny Mandel.

I'm a survivor of the Holocaust and I'm a volunteer at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

I do this because we survivors need to see to it, best we can, that as first person witnesses to what took place, we are able to in some way convey this. So when this generation is gone, the next generation will keep up the information. This is very important in terms of the history of the world.

Specifically, let me talk about my history. I was born in Latvia, and I mention it only because I have no Latvian connection.

My parents are both ethnically Hungarian. My father's from Transylvania. My mother is from southern Hungary, which is Yugoslavia. But my father, because of earlier developments after the First World War, could not get working papers in Hungary. He found a position in Latvia, and since you have to be born where your mother is, I was born there.

In 1936, my father received permission to go to work in Hungary and we moved to Budapest, where we lived until 1944.

The first experience I had, happened in 1941, in the winter. As I said, my mother was from southern Hungary, which is Yugoslavia, and we went there to visit with my grandparents, her parents.

On the second or third day when we were there, we heard a knock on the door. We were told to come out for a census. It was peculiar to have a census in the middle of the winter for no reason, but the Nazis believed if they knew where people were, they could control the population.

We marched for several hours. I was carried, I walked, I was only five and a half years old, to a place which I recognized as a beach area on the Danube River. In the summertime, I'd been there in August.

We noticed that as we were marching along, or rather, ambling along the sidewalk, with the stockade fence on our left, some people were making a left turn into the fenced area, some 150 yards ahead of us.

As we were approaching this, a policeman on the right said to my father, "What are you doing here?" He said, "I'm visiting my family." To which he said, to which the policeman said, "That's your business. But your being here messes up the census because I know you're not from here."

My father asked him, "How do you know that?"

He said, "Well, I'm a foot patrolman in your neighborhood in Budapest. I've seen you on the street many times. I know you don't live here. Step aside."

We stepped aside. Soon thereafter, the razzia was over. We went back to the apartment, my aunt's apartment where we were staying. Phone calls began to come in with large numbers and we were told what was really happening.

Apparently, some partisan activity had taken place in the general community. The Nazis retaliated by lining up hundreds and hundreds of people. And everybody who walked through that gate, and turned left was marched to the Danube, which had been, ice had been broken open by cannon fire that morning. They were shot into the river, never to be seen again, but to be found downriver or when the river thawed out in March.

I had no idea what this was in the sense neither did the adults, but at least they could understand what had happened. I've heard about it many times since, but that was my first experience of Holocaust-related events.

First grade, as everybody had to do, not in first grade, but at all times, had to wear a yellow star. And I was marching to first grade with the yellow star. I thought it was a major mark of distinction because the adults had a yellow star and so did this kid and all the other kids.

What I didn't know is that some people, in fact, were marching behind me, my father or somebody else, just to protect me from somebody who had decided that maybe it's time to whack this kid on the head.

They don't want my shoes. They don't want my coat or my books. They just want to whack me on the head because that's what you do to a yellow star.

It didn't happen to me and I didn't know about it, but certainly it was something that I learned from.

The yellow star was a matter of distinction, I thought, until I asked my father, on one of his visits home from his labor camp assignment, to get me a bicycle. I had a tricycle I had outgrown.

He said, "I can get you the bicycle, that's not the problem, but I won't. Why? One, it's a hassle to truck it down the five floors," where we lived in the fifth floor in an apartment building where the elevator often didn't work. "But more importantly, if I go out with you to the park and you ride the bike, somebody sees the yellow star, they might whack you right in the head and leave you in the gutter. Not because they want the bike, they just want to whack you in the head."

That began to raise in my own young mind the fact that maybe this mark of distinction, which I thought it was, was really a target. And it was.

The Holocaust is not known to us in Budapest yet, and it's not known until the 19th of March 1944, the day that Adolf Eichmann comes to the city. As you know, he was appointed as the manager of the concentration of deportations in 1942.

The last country he comes to is Hungary because at one point, Hungary and the Nazis were allies. He comes in 1944, at which point the deportations begin at the rate of 12,000 a day.

The day that he arrives, within days, two men from kind of a self-appointed rescue committee approach him and say, "Colonel Eichmann, we would like to discuss a possible trade with you."

The trade was proposed as 10,000 trucks that he would be receiving for the release of 1 million Jews out of camps.

Problem? He no longer had a million Jews in camp, not this late in the war. And as far as trucks are concerned, they didn't have a hubcap, let alone 10,000 trucks.

One of the two was sent to Egypt to discuss the matter with the British, who held the logistics and the vehicular arrangements for all of the European theater. He was arrested as a spy, spent the rest of his time in a Cairo jail, survived the war. No trucks.

These discussions went from 10,000 and 1 million to 1,700 people for a great deal amount of money and jewelry and varied valuables. Somehow, my mother and I and my uncle, not my father, were included in this group of 1,700 to be put on 35 boxcars to be taken out of Europe.

You remember that Hitler wanted all Jews out of Germany, which he achieved. He wanted all Jews out of Europe, which he didn't quite achieve, and he wanted all Jews out in the world, which he didn't achieve at all.

Anyhow, we were in the train boxcars for nine days. We were told to bring some food and some clothing. Nobody starved. You don't starve in nine days. And we were given some provisions from field kitchens at night when the train stopped and we had water. But 40 people in the car is very crowded.

We arrived at a place that nobody recognized. Again, I didn't. But I was a kid. But the adults did. The name of the place was Bergen-Belsen. Bergen-Belsen was a major concentration and labor camp in northern Germany, very close to the city of Hanover.

I visited there twice since the war. But Hanover was a well known, rather, Bergen-Belsen was a well-known concentration camp, not a terminal killing camp.

However, because we were a particular group that was, in a sense, a barter group, we were given certain privileges because they were not, the Nazis were not paid, the money that was collected for that purpose until we were released.

We were released, almost six months later. Life in camp was difficult. Food was very, very precious. The conditions were difficult. We had to be outside for hours and hours, again for these various censuses. Many people got sick. Nobody died.

After six months of this kind of life, we were taken out by the Nazis in troop trains and taken to Switzerland. In Switzerland, my war was over. My mother chose to go further south, which had been the original intention at one point. We wound up in what was then Palestine, later Israel, came to the United States in 1949.

My father joined us in Palestine, so the family was reunited. I've lived in Silver Spring, Maryland, for almost 50 years. I'm a retired psychotherapist. My wife is a retired state legislator. I have two children, three grandchildren and no dogs.

I would like to end this conversation by saying to you folks that I do this because I think it's terribly important that my children, who are not kids, and my grandchildren, also who aren't kids anymore, know about what my history was and how that represents the history of the Holocaust and the Second World War.

We want to be reminded of George Santayana. Santayana said, those of us who do not learn our history well, we are doomed, perhaps, to repeat it. I'm not saying we're going to have another Holocaust but since we can't learn from the future, but can learn from the past, we must learn what the past was, so we can plan for the future.

I thank you for your attention.



Bill Benson: Welcome. Thank you for joining us for First Person: Conversations with Holocaust Survivors.

I'm Bill Benson, and I have hosted First Person since it began at the Museum in 2000.

Each month, we bring you first-hand accounts of survival of the Holocaust.

Each of our First Person guests serves as a volunteer at the Museum.

We are honored to have Holocaust survivor Manny Mandel share his first person account of the Holocaust with us today.

Manny, thank you so much for agreeing to be our First Person.

Manny Mandel: Hi, Bill. It's very nice to be here and thank you for the introduction.

Bill Benson: Manny, you have so much to share with us in a short period.

So we'll jump right in.

You were born in Riga, Latvia, in 1936.

Before we turn to the war years, please introduce us to your parents. 

And let's start with your mother, Ella.

Manny Mandel: My mother was born and raised in what was southern Hungary, and then after the First World War became Yugoslavia with the Trianon Treaty change of land lines.

She was a trained to be a schoolteacher, an elementary school teacher, which she did for seven years before she and my father married in 1930.

Bill Benson: And your father, Yehuda, was born into an observant Jewish family. 

Tell us about him.

Manny Mandel: My father was born in what was then known as Transylvania.

Today it's in the Ukraine.

It's interesting for me to always remember that he was born in what was then Austria-Hungary.

It then became Czechoslovakia.

Today it's the Ukraine.

The community didn't move, but the ruling parties, the various authorities did. 

As a consequence, the place change from country to country.

My father all of his life was a cantor. 

The cantor is the man in the synagogue who chants or sings the prayers.

And these people were in some places, major stars of their own.

My father's hope in life was to be one of the chief cantors in the city of Budapest,

which was probably one of the ten most important positions in all of Europe.

He trained in Vienna and all that.

He was offered then a very prestigious position in Vienna. 

Upon graduation, he chose to stay in Hungary, then Vienna being in Austria.

Then he moved to the city of Novi Sad, which was then Hungary, Yugoslavia.

And there he met my mother, who came there in 1927, I think, and maybe '28, I don't know exactly.

And they were married in 1930.

They then chose to leave Novi Sad in 1933, 1933, '34.

And he took a position again of some significance in the city of Riga, where I was born there, waited.

He was looking to go to put up where they couldn't get working papers.

This is the beginning of sorts of the antisemitic kind of moves.

He was unable to get papers because he had been an Austrian-born Czech citizen who became a Czech citizen because he was conscripted into the Czech Army Reserve for, what, a year and a half, whatever the requirements were. 

But as I say to Riga, I was born there where we got papers in 1936 to be able to get employment in Budapest, which was the dream of his life, which he did.

Bill Benson: We have a photograph. Tell us about this photograph, Manny.

Manny Mandel: This is in Budapest and this is at the banks of the Danube River, where we would walk out to just the outside the -- I don't know the name or who that youngster was, was with me, but it's based on the size of his looks.

It must be a lot of my friends, one of my classmates, and they cleared the streets of the and crowded up on the banks there. 

And I decided to move all of this with my large shovel and my large pail.

Bill Benson: Manny, World War II, of course, began September in 1939, when Germany invaded Poland.

In 1940, Hungary formally allied with Nazi Germany. 

And then in 1941, joined in the German-led invasions of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union.

Please tell us what you remember about the bombing raids early in the war.

Manny Mandel: Well, Budapest, when we lived in an apartment building, five stories -- we were on the top floor.

The bombing was not too significant.

As a matter of fact, the bomb, the alerts, the various raids, were more frequent than the actual bombing.

We were told to go down to the basement, which was the shelter.

Once, twice, sometimes three times at night. Now, some of those trips to the basement also resulted -- not resulted, but also were where the bombings took place. 

But it's important to note that Budapest was not severely hurt, much as Warsaw and other kind of cities.

It was bombed, but it was bombing lite.

However, very dangerous and for me as a child, my recollection had to do with that being the war.

This is before Holocaust issues that after all, if a bomb fell in the building next door to us and did some damage, it could have in some way hurt or killed a couple of the kids who lived there with whom I may have gone to school. 

So the frightening part was the noise and the result of craters and whatnot created by bombs and some destruction of buildings.

That was my first recall in connection with the war.

Bill Benson: And as you said, although the difficulties that you experienced and saw early on were related more to the war, like the bombing, the Hungarian regime was antisemitic and actively discriminated against Jews, and there were a few antisemitic laws passed that impacted life in your household.

Please tell us what happened to the maid that your family employed.

Manny Mandel: Well, the Hungarian Numerus Clausus, which were the various kinds of restrictive laws about who could work, where and how many could work wherever were passed in the Hungarian legislature in the twenties.

They were not put into effect until the mid-to-late thirties, which is after the ones that came out of Nuremberg.

Certain rules came up and said that at some point the middle class families, most of whom employed some kind of domestic help, we had a maid in the house who had her own quarters, her own bedroom, and was my buddy because she was about 17 and I was seven or six.

And in a sense, it was the closest to my age.

And she was a farm girl.

And we had a chance to at least play some games together.

But she was told she had to leave.

Why? Because you could not employ household help.

Now, she wanted to take me with her back to a farm village not far from Budapest.

My parents did not like the idea.

She thought that I would be safer there and she probably would have been right.

But my parents would not agree, and I'm glad that they didn't.

Other kinds of things began to happen.

Most of these were minor in one sense.

However, as time went on, they became more important.

For example, man comes to the door one given day and says to whoever opened the door, it wasn't me.

"I came here to take your telephone."

So the question was asked, now did my father use the telephone?

Not extensively.

I'm not sure I ever used it.

It's not like today.

But the point is, he had to take the phone because the law said Jews may not have telephones.

Now the logic of that doesn't exist, but those are the kinds of things they did.

Later on there were other things that happened that had to do with the Nazi government, the Hungarian Nazi government's rules.

Bill Benson: And in fact, although early in the war, most Hungarian Jews were initially spared deportation until the German occupation began in 1944.

But that did not mean that all Jews had been safe under Hungarian rule.

In January 1942, while you were visiting relatives, you had a horrifying experience.

Tell us what you remember about what happened.

Manny Mandel: Well, as you said, Bill, the rules of life did not become severe until a little later on during the war. 

So 1941, in December, actually, my mother, my father and I decided to take a trip south of my mother's hometown.

We could go there by train about two, two and a half hours, maybe 3 hours by train.

I spent a week or so with my grandparents, my aunts, my mother's sisters, and my cousin, the daughter of one of her sisters, the year younger than I.

We got there.

We were there for a day or two.

I don't remember exactly how many.

And somebody was coming up the stairs of the elevator and said, "There's something funky going on on the street." 

Within minutes of that time, knock-knock on the door.

Two uniformed policeman come and said, "Ladies and gentlemen, you need to dress warmly. You need to come outside now."

Please understand, this is December.

It's cold.

It's not bitter.

It's not blizzardy.

There's no seven feet of snow, but there's some snow on the ground and there's winter.

So we got dressed up in warm clothes and boots or whatever and went outside.

We were told to stand on the sidewalk and then eventually, after a few minutes, turn left and start walking in the direction which we did.

Now, we walked for several hours, as I recall, and I can tell you, I'm five and a half years old. 

I'm a little guy. 

My mother carried me.

My father carried me.

And much of it I did walk myself until we arrived at a place which interestingly, I recognized.

This was the scene. 

There was a seven foot stockade fence on our left.

There was a sidewalk on which we were walking.

And there was a major road going right.

Why did I recognize it?

Well, in European cities, which are not on the sea or on a lake, the folks who live there would make beaches out of rivers.

The Danube River flowed about three or 400 yards to our left inside this stockade fence.

And I'd been there the previous -- that summer, maybe in August, when it was warm and sunny and was able to enjoy the hot pool, the cold pool, the wave pool, restaurants, playgrounds, whatever inside.

It was a lovely beach setting, which, of course, in the wintertime was closed down.

This is December.

The ice was frozen, I'm told, about three feet thick and the place was locked down.

But for some reason, it was opened up. 

And as we saw ahead of us on the road, the gates, the entry gates into this place, which is part of the stockade fence, were open and folks went to that point, turned left towards the river. 

We had no idea why. 

Later on, we found out why.

As we were walking in that direction, the police officer turns to my father, says to him, "Mister, what are you doing here?" 


My father says, "I'm visiting my family."

He says, "Well, that's not my issue. This was supposed to have been a census." 

Understand, please, that the Nazis did censuses, if that's the word, every 15 minutes.

I exaggerate.

But they thought if they knew exactly where everybody is, they could control the population.

And they were right. 

So they called this a census, which it wasn't.

But he thought it was.

He was brought in from Budapest.

He said he is a foot patrolman in the neighborhood where we live and said he saw my father on the street many, many times going to here, going there to an office or to a grocery store or whatever.

And he recognized him and he said, "Please leave the group that you're with and you and this little group of yours step aside."

As he told us to step aside, within minutes, a staff car came down the main road.

A uniformed officer came out, had a discussion with his buddies.

And what he did at that point is, in fact, got on a bullhorn and said, "The requirements of the census have been met.

Go home.

There's a school down the block.

There's hot chocolate and coffee.

You can help yourself. Go ahead."

We didn't do that.

We went right back to my aunt's apartment where we were staying, and the phone calls began to come in.

As the calls began to come in, we began to understand something which I couldn't understand, but at least I can remember.

This was an event whereby everybody who made that left turn towards the river, towards the Danube, got to the river, which had been blown open that morning by cannon fire so that the ice was cleared.

People were shot in the back into the river and floated down river to be found in March when the river thawed out, or to places where the ice was a little thinner, where they could come up.

This was a pogrom.

This was the retaliation on the part of the government for some partisan activity that took place in the general area on Novi Sad, which is a city where we're talking about.

And this was a particular experience that obviously I wasn't a victim of what I know about.

And I was present when this took place.

Several hundred people were killed.

Bill Benson: We have a film clip of your father reflecting on this harrowing experience that you all experienced.

Let's hear from your father.

Manny Mandel: It's interesting that this video was done of my father's interview at the Holocaust Museum when he was 86 years old, which interestingly, is precisely what I am today.

Bill Benson: Yeah.

That really is.

Thanks for sharing that.

Shortly after this experience, Manny, you would see your father far less often.

The Hungarian government established a discriminatory forced labor service for Jewish men.

And your father was conscripted into a forced labor battalion in 1942.

Please tell us more about these battalions and share what it meant for you and your family and also mention, tell us a little bit about this photo.

Manny Mandel: Well, this photo is in a public parkway between our house and one of the markets where we used to go. 

My father used to go there occasionally to buy certain things.

Although the major shopping was not done by him.

And I'm here, maybe five years old or thereabouts.

And somebody took the picture, I don't know who. We have several pictures of this particular excursion.

I liked that I would always ask him to buy some fresh green peas, and I would eat hem on the way home. 

So by the time we got home, half of the peas that he bought, whatever a pound or so, were gone.

But this is just the recollection I have of my father and I. 

In 1942, I was six years old, the rules were activated whereby the Hungarian male population was in the army and they were fighting actually on the Russian front.

So what the Hungarian Nazis, the Hungarians, Nazis and no Nazis, in fact established was a labor battalion calling Hungarian Jewish men into these battalions, they could not be eligible for the military to do certain kind of work that would have to be done by the men who were in the army.

This has to do with mining and road repair and other kinds of work.

What you see here is a picture from someplace. 

You notice that these men, a couple of them have these garrison caps on which were issued because it was actually a military-type of battalion arrangement, and they're repairing some kind of -- not a railroad.

I think this is must be some mine, because these looked like these mine carts which had to be rolled out of the mines on these rails.

And it looks to me like this had been damaged by, probably by bombing or cannon fire.

And they're repairing it.

The work was physical and very hard.

And it was particularly hard because these men and men that were conscripted were -- none of them, I shouldn't say none of them.

A vast majority of them were not people who were used to physical work. 

My father was in his early thirties.

He was strong as an ox, but he had to get used to working with a shovel, which he had not done very much of in his life.

He would receive a phone call, when we still had a phone, or a man would come to the door, or a letter that says on Tuesday at 3:00 or whatever, you ought to report to this train station. 

You will be going to a particular location. 

You'll be gone for a day, a week, a month, or an undetermined period of time.

And he was away from home more than he was home. 

Bill Benson: Manny, you were just seven years old when German forces occupied Hungary on March 19th, 1944. 

Antisemitic persecution increased dramatically then. 

Soon, all Jews over the age of six were forced to wear the yellow Star of David.

Tell us how wearing that star affected your daily life.

Manny Mandel: Well, first of all, I went to school with a star on my overcoat, and I thought that was terrific.

Here I was, a six year old, a six and a half year old in first grade and I went to school. 

And I had the star on, which was a demarcation, just like all the adults.

And I guess six year olds want to be like little adults.

And I thought it was terrific.

I thought it was a mark of distinction until I found out that it wasn't.

And I can mention that now or we can come back to that later.

Bill Benson: No, go on, please. Yeah.

Manny Mandel: I went to school and the school was at number 44 of the street where we lived.

Our apartment building was number 13.

So you can imagine it was very close. 

As a matter of fact you could see the school building from my parents' bedroom on the corner of the fifth floor of the apartment at two streets.

Yet I was told somebody would follow me to school almost every day. 

My father or somebody.


Because there were incidents whereby kids walking to school with the yellow star were whacked on the head.

Nobody wanted their books.

Nobody wanted their backpack, or their coat or their shoes.

They just wanted to whack them on the head because this became a target to people who wanted to do mayhem.

A little later on on one of the times that my father was home from this labor camp I think I said to him, "Pop, would you be willing to consider to buy me a bike?"

I had a trike, but I was big enough by this time, maybe seven or so, seven and a half, to have to ride like an 18 inch bike.

I was, in those days, we were very much older than our years in many ways. 

So I could ride.

He said, "Well, I suppose I could buy you a bike.

It's not a problem. 

But there are two reasons, minor and major, why I will not."

The minor reason was that we lived on the fifth floor and the bike would have to be schlepped down from the fifth floor to the street, to go out to the park to ride the bike, and then schlepped up. 

We had an elevator, but the elevator was as old as the building itself, which is about 50 years old then. 

It still stands, and now it's about 120 years old. In any case, the elevator often broke down because the mechanical parts that were needed for its repair were now to be repaired in shops which were now involved in military hardware repair. 

As a consequence, it was very low on the rolls of repair orders, and often it was not working. 

As a consequence, the bike would have to be taken down. 

My father said, "You know, although that's an unpleasant" -- now remember I'm seven years old or so.

I could not physically take a bike down five floors and up again -- my father says, "Although that's not a particularly pleasant prospect, I will do that. 

However, when we go out into the park," -- which was in fact very close to the house, several blocks -- "you'd go out there and you'd ride the bike. 

If you're out of my sight with your yellow star for 12 seconds, somebody might decide to whack you on the head." 

Again, nobody wants the bike, my shoes, my coat, my hat or whatever, but they want to whack me on the head.

I began to understand at that point that this is not a mark of distinction, but a target.

Bill Benson: In May, in mid-May 1944, the Hungarian authorities began to systematically deport the Jews from the countryside.

In less than two months, nearly 440,000 Jews were deported, mainly to the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing center.

Please tell us what happened to your grandparents and other family members.

Manny Mandel: Well, as I mentioned we had visited my mother's parents in '41.

They both lived in Novi Sad as did my two aunts and my cousin. 

Their husbands had already been taken into these labor camps, and they never made it after the war. 

They were killed or they died or whatever.

But my grandparents and aunts were taken by transport with my cousin to Auschwitz.

And we know when they arrived because my aunts could tell us about it. 


Well, in those days there was a selection process when the trains arrived at Auschwitz. 

There were two lines.

One line was of young kids and older people.

My grandparents and my cousin who was a year younger than I. 

And they were probably murdered within 24 to 48 hours. 

The other line was for people that were able-bodied to go to work, where my aunts in their thirties could go.

Since they were there together and since my aunt survived, they knew very precisely what were the days when this took place, and they could estimate that my grandparents, their parents, in fact were murdered within one or two or three days of the time of arrival.

And they had a date for that, which I don't recall off-hand, probably in August of 1944.

My father's mother was living with us in Budapest.

But as I said earlier, there were seven adult children who grew up, and she had probably two or three others.

And there she is. 

My grandmother had some difficulties with her feet.

My father used to have to go to a special store to make shoes for her to be comfortable.

And my father and his youngest brother, who also lived in Budapest, was going to school still, decided to ship her back to the village where they all were born in Transylvania. 

While the village was primitive, there were no bombings.

There were no need to go from the fifth floor to the basement three or four, two or three times a night for air raids.

Well, that's true there were no air raids, but what there was is that Eichmann, in fact, cleared the area.

And she was taken to Auschwitz as well.

And we don't have a definitive date when that was, but it was sometime in the fall, probably in September.

Bill Benson: Manny, you, your mother, and your paternal uncle David were among a group of Jews who were part of an extraordinary negotiation.

Jewish leaders secured refuge for 1,700 Jews from Hungary in exchange for money and other valuables.

Jewish leader Rudolf Kasztner negotiated directly with Adolf Eichmann, one of the central figures in the Final Solution, who was responsible for sending many of Europe's Jews to their deaths.

Tell us about those negotiations.

Manny Mandel: Eichmann arrives in Budapest on the 19th of March 1944 and establishes his headquarters at the Excelsior Hotel.

Two men from kind of a self-generated rescue committee want to approach him, to negotiate some kind of a deal for lives.

Now, understand, please, that to go see Eichmann in those days was about done with the same ease as if you were to go to Rome today and say, "I want to see the Pope now."

But these men were able to talk their way into see Eichmann and they negotiated an issue.

Now, why did they negotiate?

You want to understand why this time all of this is only March of -- well, March or April '44. 

Most everybody, with the exception of Adolf Hitler himself, knew that Germany would lose the war. 

This is before Normandy, but the way things were going, that's the way the progress was to be.

Nazi leadership all the way up to Heinrich Himmler, who was number three in the German government, were looking for ways to in some way either feather or establish their nests after the war, because after all, they all knew they couldn't go to the employment agency and say, "I'm Heinrich Himmler, I want a job."

So they were looking to make arrangements, some kind of negotiated deals.

And there were a number of these. 

Ours was not the only one, but I don't know about the others specifically, except this one.

They began to negotiate on what they called "Blut für Ware," blood for materiel.

And the deal was that Eichmann was to release a million Jews from the concentration camp in exchange for 10,000 trucks laden with certain materiel that he would order, and that would be an arrangement.

Well, there was a problem.

The problem was absolutely absurd.

He, even if he wanted to release a million Jews, couldn't, because by this time there were no million Jews in the camps.

They'd been all, mostly murdered.

There were some, hundreds of thousands, but not a million.

As far as the 10,000 trucks, these guys did not have access to a hubcap, let alone 10,000 trucks.

The deal was that we were to be put on trains and be taken to a neutral port to be shipped out of Europe because Hitler said,

I want Jews out of Germany.

He got that. 

We want Jews out of Europe, you almost got that. 

We want Jews out of the whole world, he did not get that. 

We were to be put on in a neutral port and more than likely shipped to Palestine, which was a place that would accept us.

Eichmann made available 35 -- 35 boxcars.

These are freight cars of the railroad and 1,700 people or so were put into these cars to be shipped to this neutral port, possibly in Spain or possibly in Turkey.

Bill Benson: Manny, just before you tell us about actually being on the train, tell us how you, your mother, and your uncle were able to be part of that group.

Manny Mandel: Sure. The selection process is unknown to anybody.

However, what happened is that this group, this relief organization or this rescue organization was composed of all manner of Hungarian-Jewish leadership.

The old, the young, the religious, the non-religious, the Zionist, the non-Zionist.

And each was kind of allotted a certain number of people that they could put on the particular train.

I have no idea, I was never able to find out. 

And I have to admit, I did not do extensive research on trying to find out what group had how many seats. 

However, in one of the groups we were able to find space because my father had a position of some notoriety in the community. 

He was known and so did my uncle, who was involved with some elements of the Hungarian native kind of underground.

The underground here was not with guns, but he was involved with some people who would forge papers.

As a consequence, he and I and my mother and a very distant cousin, and his future wife actually, had space.

His future wife was deported to Auschwitz and never joined us.

But she did survive the war.

So the four of us were in this group and we were shipped by these 35 boxcars.

And after nine days we arrived to the place, not the neutral port, but a place that none of us knew called Auschwitz.

No, I'm sorry. 

Called Bergen-Belsen.

I was never in Auschwitz.

Bill Benson: What do you remember?

Well, two questions, Manny. One is, your father was not with you. 

Why was that?

Manny Mandel: Well, because he was in the labor battalions and he couldn't just say, "I'm leaving now."

Bill Benson: Right.

Manny Mandel: The consequences were very, very severe. 

Although it was only 60 kilometers from Budapest, he could have easily transported by train, but he couldn't leave. 

He was under absolute guard.

And as a matter of fact, anybody would try to leave, the punishment for the group was something called decimation.

Decimation was they lined everybody up and every 10th man was shot, period.

As simple as that and as complicated as tragic as that, he couldn't just walk away.

I mean, he couldn't do that and he survived, obviously, but not with us.

Bill Benson: So without your father, you go. It's a nine-day journey in these boxcars and you end up in a place called Bergen-Belsen.

What do you remember about your arrival at Bergen-Belsen?

Manny Mandel: Well, again, in some odd ways, the eight year old, almost eight year old and student who's traveling finds some of this as kind of either exciting or maybe in some way dramatic, or in some way kind of adventurous.

But we arrived in Bergen-Belsen.

We got out of the train on a platform, and we're told to march in a certain direction when we arrived at these barracks each holding about 100 to 120 people.

It was not enormously crowded, but it was not, you know, it's not leisurely either.

We were divided into various groups of men, women in different barracks. 

And then there was a barrack that had to do with families, which usually meant mothers and children.

I and my mother were, in fact, in that barrack.

The barracks were sparse.

The barracks had three-tiered bunk beds.

My mother and I had the three tiers, and that's where we stayed.

That was that was home, as it were.

Bill Benson: What was the community like and how did you and your mother spend your days?

Manny Mandel: Well, my mother and I and everybody else essentially spent our days in similar non-activities.

There were two things that we were concerned about every day. 

The first, we go back to something with which she talked about earlier, called the census.

In German, it's called the Appell, the counting of people.

Not the leadership but the Nazis decided that we have to be counted every day. 

We were told at dawn, we're to be outside of the barracks, lined up in a formation to be counted.

The problem was that they would come not at dawn.

They would come at five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, 11, not 12:00. 

I think the latest ever was 11.

But for several hours every day after it began to start raining, it was August, September.

The weather was not good. We would be out there in the mud and the mire waiting to be counted. 

They would count us and then we would go back into the cabins.

That was a major stressful situation for us for some time until one of the officers said, this is absurd.

I mean, some logic did exist.

He said, "I'm going to be here at 8:00 in the morning.

I don't care if you get here 5 minutes late, but be here at 8:00."

Well, we weren't there at five of 8:00, maybe it's 730.

But 25, 30 minutes of waiting for them to arrive went an awful lot better than hours on end. 

The second activity had to do with food, or what you called food.

Our food deliveries were twice a day.

In the morning as it happened, our particular set of barracks were across the main road from one of the many kitchens in Bergen-Belsen.

At one time, Bergen-Belsen had 25,000 people.

So you can imagine there were various kinds of field kitchens. 

Some men from our group on the guard would literally cross the road, not very far, and come back with vats, kind of like garbage cans. 

Not garbage cans, they were clean, of some liquid in the morning, some dark liquid and bread.

The bread was very good.

Occasionally, some butter came with it.

The dark liquid was coffee or that's what they called it. 

I don't know what it was, but the major good part of it was the fact that it was warm.

Now we were told to bring some food with us for the train ride and people brought food and people brought thermoses.

And of course, that was all used up.

Well, much of it was used up, but the thermoses could be refilled with this warm liquid, which gave us some warmth during the day to warm up a bed or to warm your hands or to warm your insides by drinking it.

Was it good?

Probably not, but it was warm.

In the afternoon, 4:00 or 5:00, I don't know exactly when, the same thing took place.

Now, what came back again was some bread, no butter and some brown thing with some stuff floating in it, maybe a carrot, maybe a potato, maybe a piece of meat.

Maybe it was horse meat, I don't know.

But again, the people who then dealt with the food, the women, the mothers, did miraculous things with these things that they would recreate in various fashions.

And obviously, we didn't starve to death.

Now, we didn't have a lot of food.

We were hungry all the time, but we were not the skeletons that you see in Bergen-Belsen three or four months after we left, when the camp was being liberated in April 1945.

Bill Benson: Manny, what you're describing was what you experienced along with the others that were part of the Kasztner train. 

How did your experience differ from other prisoners at Bergen-Belsen?

Manny Mandel: The major significant difference for all 1,700 or so people was that this -- remember, Bergen-Belsen was not a death camp.

Lots and lots of people died of malnutrition, of starvation and of typhus, which is a major disease, which I didn't have.

But the point was that they died, among other reasons, because they were turned out to work everyday in farming and agriculture, in mining, and whatever.

They would march out in the morning and march back at night.

Our group was not turned outdoor.


Because the arrangement for the Nazis to get the loot was to get the loot after we were released, whenever that was.

And it was a per capita kind of an arrangement, whereby if some of us had died, the loot would be reduced.

There was x-amount of whatever valuables and a couple of thousand dollars a person.

And if ten people died, that's $20,000 less.

And I'm making up those numbers.

They're close, but I don't know precisely.

So they were very concerned that although we didn't have major food and other things, and when we went out to showers periodically, we didn't know until after then a year, sometime later, that some showers and some places didn't have water, but gas. 

We had water.

We didn't know that either.

But they were concerned that we stay alive on some condition and nobody died, including me.

Bill Benson: Out of the entire group. 

That's amazing.

Manny, in December 1944, after six months in Bergen-Belsen, you and the majority of the group you arrived with were sent to Switzerland.

Tell us about what happened after you arrived in Switzerland.

Manny Mandel: Negotiations continued that after six weeks at Bergen-Belsen, about 350 of the people, I've no idea of by choice, were in fact taken out of Bergen-Belsen, put on German troop trains, which were not first class trains, but they were not boxcars and shipped to Switzerland, which was willing to accept them. 

Some months later, at the full six months that I spent -- I was not in the first group – we all were taken out of Bergen-Belsen and taken to Switzerland. 

The Swiss are very clever people. 

The gauge of the railroad in Switzerland is different than the gauge in Germany.

You can't drive a German train into Switzerland, which also means you can't invade Switzerland by railroad.


We arrived near the city of Sankt-Gallen in the German part of Switzerland.

We came out of our troop trains also, not boxcars, which were dark and without electricity, without lights.

Walked across the platform into these lit, beautiful, warm, inviting Swiss trains, which then took us into the city.

We were offered hot chocolate, other kind of chocolate, lots of nice things.

The first thing the Swiss did to us when we arrived is decided that after coming out of Bergen-Belsen, with good reason, we should be fumigated so we don't bring vermin into Switzerland, which is a very clean country.

We were there. From there we were taken to the French part of Switzerland, which is near Montreux, into a beautiful resort hotel which was at that time run by the Red Cross.

And we were fed well, a lot of potatoes.

Somebody once asked, what was our first meal?

I said, I don't remember the first meal, but I do remember with a certain amount of authority that potatoes had been part of it. 

They thought that with potatoes and things of that nature, we would gain a few pounds. 

Now we were not skeletons, but we could use a few pounds.

We were there for several weeks, at which point the group had to be divided up.

Some people went back to Hungary, not to Hungary, but to other environs in Switzerland.

Some were shipped elsewhere, and I and 19 other kids, ages 6 to 14, were shipped to a boarding school in the German part of Switzerland, in Appenzell province in the city of Heiden, to be there for whatever length of time we didn't know, but we were there until September of that year. 

And rather interestingly, one of the people who was shipped with us was my mother.


They knew that she had been a teacher.

Now the 20 of us needed some kind of, quote, education. 

Now how you run a classroom for kids from ages 6 to 14 is difficult.

But she came along as a guardian, as a caretaker, as a referee, because among other things and the most important part was that my mother had very good German from school.

She had a considerable amount of French as well. 

And none of us did anything so Hungarian.

What you see here is, I think the 20 or whatever number of us, the group. 

You see on the very right, the woman with the hat is the nurse.

She didn't speak a word of Hungarian.

Somebody had to translate for her.

My mother's in the middle with a circle around her head.

The man on the left with the bald head is Mr. Mueller, who was the director of the camp, who was a Viennese German – a Viennese Jew.

As a consequence, somebody had to be there to translate the most elementary of discussion with the people who were there.

I mean, if we needed toilet paper, we didn't know how to say that in German or French. 

You can see my mother has a circle on her head and I have a circle on my head on the bottom on the left.

Bill Benson: Briefly describe what was life like at the children's home for you.

What was that experience like for you?

Manny Mandel: Well, it was a boarding school experience.

We ate meals together.

We, you know, did our clean up together.

We went to school together.

I can't describe precisely how it was divided because obviously the 14 year olds were not learning how to read and write with a six year old. 

And he was the youngest of the bunch or the seven or eight year old.

Most of us were probably between nine and 12.

I was eight. Well, we were in Switzerland in the school, and it was a lovely place. 

There were some -- we could go skiing, go hiking.

We could go into the forest. 

Life was very nice. 

As a boarding school, life would be [...] in any situation.

The fact that we were Holocaust survivors was not important.

We had some contact with the other kids and as we learned some German and a little bit of French, we could communicate.

There were other kids there from Belgium and Holland and German-Jewish kids.

Well, as I say, the first problem was we couldn't talk with them.

So we kind of talked our own language, which was with our hands and our feet.

My life was very nice for me from December or so until September of the next year or August of the next year, 1945.

And I was there as the war ended, which ended on the 8th of May in 1945.

Bill Benson: Manny, tell us what happened to your family once the war ended.

Manny Mandel: Well, we discovered what parts of the family were around.

I mentioned earlier two aunts of my mother -- my mother's sisters who in fact survived the war and were back in Yugoslavia, eventually moved to then Palestine and Israel.

Her youngest brother was drafted into the Yugoslav Army. 

Very shortly after he was sent to Italy. 

He was taken P.O.W. in Italy and survived the war as a P.O.W.,also returned to Yugoslavia.

Her two older brothers both died in labor camp or some other fashion.

Her parents died in the same way.

My father's two older brothers -- no, two younger brothers died in labor camps.

The youngest brother made it to Israel with us and was there. 

Unfortunately, at the age of 35, having received a very prestigious teaching position in the city of Haifa, died of a stroke or heart attack or both very suddenly in 1949.

Other than that, their children, you know if, as I said to you, the children who would have been with us would have been alive.

Cousins also were killed in various kinds of death camps.

Bill Benson: What was the reunion with your father like?

Manny Mandel: Well, as we talked about earlier, from '42 to '44, I saw him sporadically and irregularly.

From '44 to '46, I didn't see him at all.

We got to Palestine then in 1945 in September.

He was unable to get there until August of 1946. 

That's a whole other story. 

But the point is, when we met, we kind of -- we had now been in a different country.

We had a different language.

I was speaking Hebrew.

He knew some Hebrew, he knew a lot of Hebrew.

But it was no longer the language with which we parted in 1942.

We had to get reacquainted.

I had missed four years with him, kind of.

And there were things that I didn't understand and he didn't understand because he had not been a father for four years.

And those are four formative years for his son.

Bill Benson: I have just one more question for you today, Manny.

As we face rising antisemitism, related conspiracy theories, and Holocaust denial, please tell us what we can learn from you about what you experienced during the Holocaust.

Manny Mandel: It's not so much what you're going to learn from me, but what you can learn from what I experienced.

I'm a fan of a philosopher that came up with a phrase which all of us remember, although we don't remember his name. He said, "Those of us who do not learn our history well may be doomed to repeat it, parts of it, or elements of it."

His name was George Santayana.

He said this in California as a professor 120 years ago or thereabouts.

The point I want to make is that if we don't learn what happened, whether it's my experience or the experience of thousands and millions of others, we are making a mistake because we cannot know what's in the future unless we have a very clear understanding of what took place in the past.

Today we talked about my past, which has been helpful in my present, and I hope that will be helpful in my future, which I hope is around for a few more years.

Thank you.

Bill Benson: Thank you, Manny, so much.

This conversation has been edited in length for educational and classroom use. View Manny Mandel's complete First Person: Conversations with Holocaust Survivors program.