Irene Weiss was born Perl Ruchel Fogel on November 21, 1930, in Bótrágy, Czechoslovakia (now Batrad’, Ukraine) to Meyer and Leah Fogel. Meyer owned a lumber yard, and Leah managed their home and cared for Irene and her five siblings—Serena, Moshe (Moise), Edit (Edith), Reuven, and Gershon.
When Nazi Germany dismembered Czechoslovakia in 1938-1939, Bótrágy, located in Subcarpathian Rus, came under Hungarian rule. The Hungarian takeover changed the lives of the Fogel family. The Hungarian government enacted antisemitic laws, restricting Jewish life in Hungary and its occupied territories. During World War II, Hungary, an ally of Nazi Germany, required tens of thousands of able-bodied, military-aged Jewish men to be inducted into Hungarian forced labor brigades under military command. Among them was Irene’s father, Meyer, who was conscripted in 1942. Six months later, Meyer returned home, only to find life more restrictive and harsh for Hungarian Jews.
In March 1944, Nazi Germany invaded Hungary. Under German influence, Hungarian antisemitic policies quickly escalated and Irene and her family experienced dire hardship. As Jews, they had to wear a yellow Star of David badge on their clothing. In April 1944, Hungarian authorities rounded up thousands of Hungarian Jews, including the Fogels, and crowded them into a ghetto in Munkács, a brick factory that was never intended to house people.
Hundreds of families were forced to live in overcrowded conditions. The only restroom was a latrine in the shape of a trench, which the inhabitants were made to dig outside. Shortly after their arrival, all girls under the age of 16 had their heads shaved. Irene’s mother gave her a scarf to wear around her bald head, which made Irene look older and probably helped save her life during a future selection at the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing center.
Over a two-month period beginning in May 1944, about 420,000 Jews were deported from Hungary to Auschwitz-Birkenau, including Irene and her family. Irene was 13 years old. Upon arrival at the camp, her family was separated. Her father and older brother Moshe were put in a line with the men. The rest of the family was put in a line with women and children. During the selection, her mother and three younger siblings were sent to the gas chambers and killed. Irene and her sister Serena were selected for forced labor.
Irene’s father was selected to perform forced labor and worked as a prisoner in the Sonderkommando, removing corpses from the gas chambers and cremating them. While still in the camp, Irene’s aunt learned through a boy from their hometown that when Meyer could no longer perform this work, the SS shot and killed him. Her brother Moshe’s exact fate is unknown, but he did not survive.
Irene, Serena, and two maternal aunts, Rose and Piri Mermelstein, worked in the “Kanada” section of Birkenau—storage warehouses located near two crematoria—for eight months until January 1945, when the SS forcibly evacuated the camp. The prisoners were made to march on foot through the cold on a death march. The four of them ended up in the Ravensbrück concentration camp in central Germany. Then, the SS transported them to Neustadt-Glewe, a subcamp of Ravensbrück, east of Hamburg. There Piri became ill and was killed.
One day during morning roll call, the SS separated Serena and other prisoners from the group, deeming them too weak and emaciated to work. Irene said to a camp guard, “She is my sister.” The guard replied “you can go too.” They were locked in a room with other prisoners to await the transport truck, which never arrived.
As Soviet troops approached, the SS personnel fled, leaving the camp unguarded, and the prisoners gradually left. Irene, Serena, and Rose found temporary shelter in an empty house in a nearby town. Soon after, the three women made their way to Prague to look for relatives or other survivors.
In Prague they found Joseph Mermelstein, Serena and Irene’s maternal uncle. He had emigrated from his hometown to Palestine and returned as a soldier in a Czechoslovak unit of the British Army. A few aunts and uncles survived, but Irene and Serena were the only surviving members of their immediate family.
Irene, Serena, and Rose lived together with their surviving relatives in Teplice-Šanov in western Czechoslovakia. Irene attended a Czech school, Serena worked in a factory, and Rose remained at home, ill with tuberculosis. With the sponsorship of relatives and financial aid from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Irene, Serena, and Rose immigrated to New York in 1947.
Irene married Martin Weiss in 1949 and they moved to northern Virginia in 1953. She earned a bachelor of arts degree in education from American University and taught in the Fairfax County Public School system in Virginia for 13 years. Martin passed away in January 2013. Irene and Martin have three children, six grandchildren, and 3 great-grandchildren. Irene is a volunteer at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.