as told to her daughter, Gloria Garfunkel
“Little did Hungarian Jews know they were an island of Jewry in a Europe being slowly bled of its Jews.” Lucy Davidowitz, The War Against the Jews
I am telling you this story not to upset you or make you sad or hurt you. Why should I do that? So Hitler can still hurt people I love all these years later? No, I am telling you these things so that you should never forget what they did to us just because we were Jews. So you can help to make sure such a thing never happens again to anyone who is different from anyone else.
I am also telling you this story to remind you that it is possible to find strength inside of yourself that you did not even realize you had. That you can survive terrible things, much worse than you ever thought possible, and still go on to live a good and happy life. It is true that the losses of loved ones stay with you forever. You never stop missing them. But knowing how that feels, you have the power to comfort and help others in pain. I don't understand why it all happened, what it all means, only God knows that. But I am very thankful every day for what I still have.
I was born in September l927 in Nyirbeltek, a small village near Debrecen in Hungary. My mother was Gisella Berger and my father was Herman Klein. They were known by their Yiddish names, Gittel and Hayim, known affectionately as Hayim Bacsi.
It was an especially lovely spring after such a harsh winter in our village of Nyirbelteck, Hungary in l944 and we were all ecstatic because Apukam, my father, Hayim, was finally coming home. He had been away for two years of forced labor in the Hungarian army, for Jews were not trusted to be actual soldiers.
There were stories going around, horrible stories. But we had faith in our government. They would protect the Jews of Hungary. The war had been going on for three years and we were still safe from the Nazis, though the Jews in the countries all around us were not so lucky.
In l942, when I was fourteen, Apukam, your Zeidika, was drafted into the Jewish labor force of the Hungarian army. The Germans were occupying the countries all around us, Poland and Czechoslovakia, closing in on Hungary. So the Hungarian army took Jewish men to the Russian front. They would send the Jews ahead of their troops so if there were land mines, the Jews would blow up instead of their soldiers. Other Jews emptied trains of food and cleaned the kitchens. Daddy was gone for one year, then returned home only briefly before he left for another year.
While he was away, my younger sister Ibika and I ran the place, as best we could. There was no one else to help. My mother was taking care of the whole family. Food was being rationed in Hungary, like flour, rice and sugar. And my father’s partners refused to help. Daddy sent us some money from Germany.
When unloading the food trucks for the Germans, your Zeidika would steal some chocolates and sell them for money to send home.
Ibika and I continued going to school during the week but we would keep making and delivering seltzer after school and on Sundays to help support the family. Our orphaned cousins next door also had to support themselves. The oldest spun angora wool into yarn.
Early in l944, we began to wear Jewish stars on our clothes, right after Purim. I helped my mother do her usual thorough cleaning for Pesach, washing the bedding, furniture and floors. It was a special Pesach, because Apukam was home from the labor force. He had been away for most of the last two years. The night before Pesach, we followed Daddy around for Bedikas Chametz.
Apukam sat at the head of the table, looking so handsome like now in his white kittel, reading from the Haggadah. My brother Aaron was twelve, almost a bar mitzvah, and told us of different interpretations of the stories he had studied with his rabbis. Avrohom, who was ten, made mischief to keep eight-year-old Hava and six-year-old Lazer from falling asleep. We didn't know it at the time, but this was to be our very last Pesach together.
At the end of Pesach, when it was time to put the Pesach dishes away and bake bread, Daddy was called again to the labor force. The minute three stars were out, I drove him with the horse and buggy, though it was so dark I could hardly see. My cousin was with me because she had to drop off the small daughter of the people she wove wool for in the next town. When we got to that town, a policeman stopped us, saying, “You can't go any farther. You have to go to the shul.”
The whole yard of the shul was crowded with all the Jews of that village. There were rumors that all of the Jews in surrounding towns had also been rounded up in their shul yards. We were there all night, knowing that my mother must be worried. The next morning, we recognized one of the policemen who was a neighbor of ours. Daddy asked him to let us go back to our house. He said that my cousin, the little girl and I could go, but that Daddy had to stay.
So we went back home. But they were rounding up Jews in the shul yard there too. I helped my mother to pack, though we didn't know where we were going or for how long, nor what to pack that we could carry. We packed some bundles of warm clothes for everyone and food for the little ones. They didn't give us much time to think or plan. We closed up the house, and left all the animals behind, asking our neighbors to feed them for us. My mother slipped off her wedding ring, her only piece of jewelery, and handed it to her Christian friend next door for safe-keeping.
As we gathered at the shul, policemen loaded us onto horse-drawn wagons that took us to a big town, Nyiregyha'za. The police had moved the occupants out of one section of town and moved us in there, ten families to a house. We slept on the floor or in the yard wherever we could find a corner. We were there for two weeks.
From there they took us out to a big tobacco farm. They crowded hundreds of Jews into a large shed where we slept on the floor like animals for three weeks. By then we realized we were never going home.
At the end of that time, we were forced to walk to a freight train. I will never forget that, old people and my little brothers and sisters carrying bundles and walking to the train. We were packed so tightly into freight cars we had to stand. When they closed the doors, it was so dark we could not even see. We were like cattle. There was no room to sit down. The smell was so horrible, we could hardly breathe. There was no food, no water, no toilets. You just went in your clothes. People were screaming and moaning and crying, grown-ups and children and babies. We were on that train for three days and nights. When they unloaded us in Aushwitz, many people had died. My grandmother Clairel, Zeidika’s mother, was one of them.
As we got off the train, they told the women and children to get on trucks. We thought they would be saved. So some of the mothers tried to take their older children along with them, so they could be saved too. Ibika and I ran after our mother, wanting to stay with her and the little ones, but a German soldier dragged both of us back. We were crying and screaming and a Hungarian soldier yelled: "You foolish girls! Don't you know that if you go with them you will die too? They are going to the gas chambers to be killed! Only you will be left alive!"
I thought ‘ How could that be? How could he say such a stupid thing?’
But it was true. I remember seeing them walk to the trucks. My littlest brother, Lazer, had lost a shoe. He was walking on the stones, limping, with just one shoe. I'll never forget that, the last time I saw them.
Even in the days and weeks and months after that, as Ibika and I clung to life in Auschwitz, we didn't want to believe that the women and children had been killed. We wanted to believe that they had somehow been saved, that our mother and Aaron, Avrohom, Hava and Lazer were all still alive and safe somewhere. Even though every time new trainloads of people came, more smoke poured out of the chimneys. Even though everyone said that the women and children were being gassed and cremated. We didn't believe it. We couldn't believe it. We kept hoping that it wasn't true.
But after awhile, despair set in. And the understanding that not only had they all been murdered, but they were in fact the lucky ones. The daily routine of Auschwitz became too much to bear. Eventually, I stopped thinking altogether. I thought the whole world had turned into one big concentration camp, that we would never get out of there. I lost all hope that there would be any freedom again anywhere in the world.
And so I would not give the Germans what they wanted. They wanted us to feel abandoned, without family, without God, alone in a universe ruled by Nazis. They tried to separate family members, but Ibika and I were two of the very few sisters who stayed together, because we knew we had to stay together to live. We would never stand together, because we looked like twins. And we pretended that we were not related. But each of us knew that if the other one died, life would be over for both of us.
One day, I don’t know, I must have been sick. My cousin, Yolika, worked in the kitchen and would throw butter over the electric fence and I went to get it and reached out my hand to touch the fence. I don’t know what I was thinking. And Ibika cried out “Ilonka, don’t leave me here alone.” And I took my hand back and she saved our lives for if I had died, she would have, too.
We did not stay for too long in Auschwitz, in that place they called the Finctung, the Destruction Place. There you had no numbers, that is why I have no numbers on my arm. This was the Lager they used to put the new people who came in. So when women and children were not arriving for the crematorium, they would take people from our barracks, just wake us up in the middle of the night and make selections of a few hundred people. This way they didn’t bother with numbers. We were just there to keep the crematoriums going. After three months there, there was a selection to go to a small work camp in Frankfurt. We knew by then the people who did the selection and what type of people they picked. If they were picking for the crematoriums, they picked the sicklings. If they were selecting for work, they picked the stronger ones. We were not strong, but Ibika and I stood up as straight as possible and we pinched our cheeks to look healthy so they would pick us. And we were very lucky. They picked us both. At that time they picked two friends of ours too, but not their mother.
The work camp in Frankfurt was better than Auschwitz. We got better food so they could use us for labor. We would carry heavy stones, to build railroad tracks. We were there for three months, from September to December. There in Frankfurt, even in the fall you had very cold days. When the commandant knew that it was Yom Kippur, an icy rain was falling, so cold it was freezing on our skin as it came down. And they took us out to the airport where we used to work. Instead of letting us work, he took us out to stand in straight lines in the icy rain and said, “Now you can see, today is your Yom Kippur. Where is your God now? You can pray to your God and see if He is going to help you. And you will stand here until you freeze to death.”
In April when the Germans saw the war approaching, in the middle of one night they woke us up and we had to start walking. The whole Lager got emptied. Our Lager and Ravensbruck Lager. And we marched, for hundreds and hundreds of kilometers. I don’t know how long we walked, how far we went. We just walked day and night, and whoever was not strong enough to continue was shot. There were bodies all over the sides of the road. So no matter how far, you walked. Many times we were just holding on to each other, to keep going. And if one of us was so weak and tired she wanted to sit down, the other would just drag her no matter what. We were close together there, a few friends. We helped each other. And as you passed on the side of the road you saw the bodies that were shot because they did not have anyone left to help them. And some people, if they saw a dead horse, they cut off pieces and took it with them. And at nights when we rested they let us put on a fire because it was cold and they used to barbecue the dead horse. They ate it no matter how long it was dead, because they were hungry.
Then one night they herded us into a big barn where they put tobacco to dry. We slept on the floor, and in the morning when we awoke there were no more Germans. When walking, many times we realized that under their uniforms the soldiers were wearing civilian clothes. So all of a sudden one night all of them vanished, there was not one German soldier around. And we heard shooting, like the war was coming closer. We were between two fronts. The Americans and Russians were coming from two sides and shooting the Germans. We saw the American soldiers first, then the Russians took over. They liberated us.
So then we had to worry about the Russian soldiers. When they heard we were Jewish, they said “How come the Germans didn’t kill all of you?” They were very rough with women, any woman who came their way.
But one Russian soldier, a Jew, built a big bonfire and told us in Yiddish that we should all stay outside around the bonfire at night. “Don’t you dare go back into the barn to sleep or the soldiers will hurt you. Don’t you dare move from this fire.” And he sat there and guarded us all night. And in the morning we heard about how many girls were taken in the barn by Russian soldiers.
Right after the liberation, for the first few nights, it was very disorganized. Everyone was on a rampage, including us. We wandered around, tried to grab food wherever we could. We went into German houses and we just took whatever we could and walked out. And sometimes we knew they hid their food in the hayloft and would just go straight there. Many houses were abandoned. I don’t know where the people were hiding, but they were afraid of the Russians. An occupying army are not the nicest people, not to the Germans, the Jews, not to anybody. It was lawless.
We decided to stay in one of the houses. There were still people living there, but we took over two rooms, no questions asked. We didn’t destroy anything. We just used their stove to cook whatever food we could get. We took vegetables from gardens. We had to eat. There was no law. But we didn’t hurt people. They lived in one section of the house and we lived in the other. And if they had something we needed, like a pot, we took it. We didn’t take it with us. We left it for them when we left. We just had to eat something.
And then the Russians took us to a camp, like a displaced persons camp. And then little by little the tracks got fixed and they started transporting us back to Hungary. They put us in big cattle cars. But it was not like coming to Germany. It was open. You could get off if you wanted to, but you were better off staying on because with the Russians, you just didn’t play around. So we were in a group.
After a month we got back to Hungary to find out if anyone was alive. When we arrived at Budapest, they put us in a big building. I don’t know who organized it. I remembered where the youngest of my orphaned cousins, Ezhikeh, was adopted. I remembered the address. I asked around. I didn’t have the money to take public transportation. I asked how far is it, and it wasn’t too far, so I walked to where she used to live. And I asked around and went to where the store used to be and they said the store was a little farther, so I knew already at least they were alive. A lot of Jews in Budapest weren’t taken because that was the last place occupied by the Germans. So Ibika and I went there and we walked in and a woman asked, ‘Who are you?’
And we asked if she knows the Wertheimers. And she said yes, and then started screaming, ‘You are Hayim Basci’s two daughters! When your father finds out you are alive, he will be so happy!’
So that’s when I found out that Daddy was still alive, and I passed out. When I regained consciousness she told me that my cousins Yolika and Abie and Eshikeh were still alive, and that Daddy was at home.
There was no way of contacting Daddy by phone. So we went to see Abie who gave us enough money for the train ride home together. And we went back to Nyerbelteck. But when we arrived at our house, another family was living there, and refused to move out. A neighbor told me Bodri, our dog, had starved to death on our doorstep, refusing to eat, just waiting for us to return. She gave me back my mother's wedding ring. I had to leave there very quickly. It was making me sick to see another family living in our house, using our things.
My cousin Yolika was in her house, so we stayed with her. Yolika sent Abie to get Daddy to come to see us. He did not even think we were alive, because the girls that were with us in Frankfurt didn’t want to encourage him to think we were alive because we were both so skinny when they last saw us in Ravensbruck. They were sure we didn’t survive after that. So when Daddy saw us, he couldn’t believe we were alive.
“And then I looked around and saw what was going on in the town. The Hungarians were sure no Jews were coming back to that town. Well, almost none did, just two other people. The others who lived, a few young girls, stayed in bigger cities. They didn’t come back yet from Germany.
So when I saw the way they treated us, like trespassers, I said to Daddy that I don’t want to stay here another day. We have to leave. So we stayed just long enough to get some money to pay off the border guards so we could leave Hungary. “
Ibika and I ended up living in Paris for two years while Daddy came here to earn money and get us visas to come to this country.