5. Those Who Stayed Behind
The National Socialist regime had from the start been concerned to reduce to a minimum the influence and presence of Jews. From 1933, Nazi Germany marginalised its Jewish population and systematically excluded them from most spheres of social, educational, professional and economic life. In Austria this process happened at a faster pace, following the ‘Anschluss’ in March 1938. After the violent November pogrom in 1938, the remaining Jewish population was desperate to find ways to emigrate. The outbreak of war in September 1939, however, greatly reduced the possibilities of emigration. It forced the Nazis to consider other means of ridding Germany of Jews, as well as enabling them, under cover of wartime conditions, to embark on more radical measures, such as the deportation of Jews from cities like Vienna to a ‘Jewish reservation’ in Nisko, Poland, in October 1939. The Nazis also began to separate Jews in big cities from the rest of the population, by concentrating them in certain quarters; this facilitated the coming mass deportations to the East.
In October 1941, the regime banned any further Jewish emigration. This marked a key turning point, when Nazi policy moved to the outright extermination of Germany’s Jews. Within a very short time, work started at the first death camps, Belzec and Chelmno in occupied Poland; gassings at Chelmno began in December 1941. From that point on, the fate of the Jews of Germany merged with that of Jews in the rest of occupied Europe during the Holocaust.
Though Jews had been imprisoned and killed by the Nazis ever since 1933, the systematic extermination of Europe’s Jews only began after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941; the precise date remains to be ascertained. Behind the lines of the advancing German forces, units known as Einsatzkommandos were sent in to kill Jews; the largest massacres were the killing of some 33,000 Jews of Kiev at Babi Yar over two days in September 1941 and the killing of some 50,000 Jews in Odessa later that year by German and Romanian troops. The mass shooting of Jews spread to Poland, where some 42,000 Jews were killed in Aktion Erntefest (Operation Harvest Festival) in November 1943, and to other lands in the East. The numbers killed were enormous; it has been calculated that they were at least equal to those killed in the gas chambers.
As many as two million Jews were killed at the death camps of Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka, situated in remote areas of Poland away from public view. These were extermination camps pure and simple, employing methods first tested in Germany in Aktion T4, the programme of mass murder by involuntary euthanasia; transports of Jews were brought in by train and killed, leaving only very few survivors. Auschwitz not only contained the largest of the extermination camps, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, where at least a million Jews were killed, but it also, like Majdanek, contained a work camp, where it was possible for Jews like Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel to survive to bear witness.
The Nazis had established concentration camps from 1933, on the model of the camp at Dachau, outside Munich. These included such notorious sites as Sachsenhausen, outside Berlin, Buchenwald, outside Weimar in central Germany, and Mauthausen, near Linz in Austria. Though they were originally intended for political enemies of the Nazis, many Jews were also detained and murdered there over the years. To the principal camps was added a large number of sub-camps; by 1945, a vast network of camps, often labour camps, had spread across Germany and beyond. But the concentration camps, for all their horrors, should be distinguished from the extermination camps. Many German Jews were killed in concentration camps; some were sent to the ghetto/concentration camp at Theresienstadt (Terezín) in Bohemia, which the Nazis tried to present as a model camp; some were deported and killed in mass shootings, at sites like Maly Trostinec, near Minsk in Belarus. But the greatest number of Germany’s Jews died in the extermination camps.
The aim of the Holocaust was to kill the entire Jewish population of Europe. From Norway to Rhodes in the Dodecanese Islands, from Brittany to Transylvania, Jews were deported to the death camps; not even the communities in Albania or the Channel Islands escaped the fury of the Nazis. In the occupied areas of the East, Poland, the Baltic States and the western Soviet Union, the Germans could act without hindrance, carrying out mass shootings followed by deportations to the extermination camps. Where they met with military resistance, as in occupied Serbia, they proceeded with extreme violence in which the local Jewish population was caught up. In western Europe, the Nazis set up transit camps, like Drancy, a suburb of Paris, Westerbork in Holland, Fort Breendonk in Mechelen (Malines) in Belgium or Fossoli in Italy, where Jews were detained before being transported to the East. The Vichy French authorities provided a notable example of the collaboration of a state apparatus with the Nazis. The Jews of Denmark, however, were mostly saved, by being shipped to safety in Sweden.
In central, eastern and south-eastern Europe, the Germans could rely on the cooperation of puppet regimes like that in Slovakia, eager to be rid of its Jews, or Croatia, bent on eliminating minorities that were not Catholic Croats. In Greece, which was under military administration, the Germans proceeded to deport Jews without hindrance. The Bulgarian government was successful in protecting its Jewish citizens from deportation, though that protection did not extend to Jews in the areas of Greece occupied by Bulgaria in 1941. The Romanian government carried out massacres of Jews independently of its German allies, though it also collaborated with them in the territories it occupied in the Soviet Union; its record in areas like Bessarabia or Bukovina was appalling. The last mass deportation of a nation’s Jews occurred in Hungary, following the German occupation of that country in March 1944; by then, the machinery of deportation organised by Adolf Eichmann was working with maximum efficiency, transporting several hundred thousand people to the death camps. Following international pressure, the deportations from Hungary were halted in July 1944.
In the face of the advance of the Red Army, the death camps were mostly destroyed in haste by the Germans; their surviving inmates were taken on death marches towards the west or transported to camps like Bergen-Belsen.
And we went into Belsen, and my father was separated from us, and I was with my mother. And I do remember various things about the so-called washing arrangements. Showers which I don’t remember really using more than about once or twice. I certainly remember the food… what there was of it. It was dreadful. It was water, a turnip boiled in water, and that was known as a soup. And this one piece of turnip, and a piece of black bread - very hard. And that was the day’s ration. My parents gave me theirs. It wasn’t enough to keep body and soul together, but I took theirs because I was hungry and I didn’t know any different. And… they starved to death. My father in December ‘44 and my mother in January ‘45.
Well we got in the morning [in Bergen-Belsen] a crust of… stale… bread. And this had to last until the evening. And and some liquid which they called coffee. Coloured- A coloured substance. And then in the evening, they gave something which they called a kind of soup or vegetables with turnips and water. And that was the eve- dinner. And that didn’t even always arrive, and, because sometimes there were bombings or so going on so they left that… out of …our hands.
So what - what was significant was that we had very little food. …Occasionally my father would get something on, on, on the black market. I remember he once got a kid, a small, you know, it was quite small, but you had no refrigeration. That was unheard of. So it was a bit on the off-side by the time we got it. But what you did was, you got from the chemist… super-permanganate. Super-permanganate is a red crystal. It’s K2MNO4. It’s manganese but it has four atoms of oxygen, and if you dissolve it in water, you liberate the oxygen. And that would get over, in a way, the …the signs of, of, of the thing not being as fresh as it, as it should be. You know, you tried all sorts of things. We also had some coffee. Green coffee, which we’d taken along from Berlin. Now it was difficult to roast. We had a gas cooker, and we had a little gadget to roast them in, which was a cylinder which you could open, put your coffee in, shut it. You rotated it over the gas fire, and when the skin of the bean started to float out of that little container you knew you were ready. It was an excellent thing, but it was dangerous because it smelt lovely. And everybody, you know if you had an open window everybody would know you were roasting coffee. And that was highly dangerous. You know, you were not supposed to have it. You know, things like that that impinged on your mind.
Our youth had been taken from us. We didn’t go- We were not allowed to go to public meetings, to watch football, go to a concert, go to any meeting. We were not allowed to- into swimming pools or gym halls or any, any, any mixing with - with others. With the population at large. And so we were on our own. We – all we could think of was our own misery.
My father went into a concentration camp... and I only heard that after - many years of after the war obviously - when the soup came around... and they have got a bit - there was a bit of meat in it - he would drink the soup because he had to, but he would not eat the meat. Sounds strange, but that's how frum he was.
And that’s how they [her father and brother]- that’s how… their lives went. And he, this German officer [her father was working for] was going with her all over looking for them. As if the earth opened. Nowhere to be found. They were nowhere to be found! So, until today, we tried through the Red Cross. We tried through everyone. We don’t know whether… they were taken to Belzec [present-day Poland] because that particular selection, everybody - Belzec. So the trains were going all the time to Belz... Whether they were taken to Belzec… or whether they were shot somewhere- either way. Apparently, apparently… people said, neighbours said that the Gestapo who was standing on the courtyard there, wanted to take the boy away. Wanted the boy to, to, to run, to go. But he didn’t want to leave my father. He didn’t want to. So he stayed with him. He was six years of age.
And I thought- “Whatever happens. If they shoot me, they shoot me. What can I do? What can I do?” I walked. And I come to a soldier standing guard. He doesn't see me. I walk past. The other one on the other side. Now I passed him. Now he’s going to shoot me from the back. I was convinced that he is going- one or the other is going to shoot me from the back. But they didn’t! Nothing! They didn’t see me. Isn’t that amazing?
And there we were [in the flat of a German lady, Irmgard Wieth]. I didn’t understand or speak a word of German at the time. My mother did. Very- she was very fluent in German. And so there we were. And she started- she had to share her… rations. Because we had nothing to eat. She was going to work and come back at six o’clock or so in the evening. And we had to sit and not move… the whole day long. Not- no toilet, nothing. Sit there, because… this was the house which was completely requisitioned for high SS Gestapo. That’s all. Plus… one family which was the- who was the head of the Ukrainian police. And he was immediately underneath us. Immediately. So we mustn’t move because everybody knew that
..the mother superior [Mother Iosefa] took us in. Very lovely. And she said to my mother, “You will stay with me.” She spoke- spoke Polish to her. My mother could not learn one word of Ukrainian. She spoke German, she spoke English- some, she spoke some French. Ukrainian she could not: impossible. She couldn't learn it. It was like a psychological- you know. “And you Lili, you’ll be Lydia, Litka…” and so on. “You will stay…” and there was the orphanage just with the- attached to it. And that’s how it was. And we stayed there until the Russians came again in 1944. And we felt, I mean, I felt quite safe there
Well, we had a great surprise when we arrived. The tone was much harsher, the SS and staff, it was always ‘Quicker! Quicker!’, ‘Schneller! Schneller!’, everything at the double. And you got your number, you got your-. First, you were adorned with red oil-paint, marked across the jacket, to mark you as a prisoner, and across your back, and generous stripes along the trousers, and later you got your uniform, the usual uniform, but then that saved them the paint. Instead of that, you got your number... to sew on
I was what they called in our language a Moselmann, that means one who couldn’t die yet, you know, one of those skeletons who hung between heaven and earth. Wasn’t quite dead yet. And again, by one of the miracles, I was allowed to be ill. Otherwise, people who were ill were killed or sent to the ovens. And I, again, one of the many miracles was that officially I was allowed to be ill. Certificated. And there the Russians came, one day, I mean I was lying there on that cot, half dead, and there the Russians came in. Unbelievable! It was Easter ‘45. Wait a minute, ja, ‘45. And another miracle was that although I was an enemy alien as a German Jew, they took me to their Russian army hospital and nursed me back to life.
And on the third morning I woke up in the dark, and what woke me up? The train stopped and it was quiet. I lay there and I realised that we must have arrived somewhere [Auschwitz] because it was very quiet and we could hear the soldiers going about and it got a bit lighter and a bit lighter and as I sat there, my father was opposite me, and the light came down, now he still had a beard, he had cut a little bit but he still had a beard, and as it got lighter I kept looking, there was something different about my father. I looked again, I can't see, and as it got lighter, he had a white streak, he got grey overnight. Now after he survived, we survived, and we started talking and I told to him “Do you remember that last night that you got white?” He said, “Did I?” I mean there were no mirrors or anything. And I said, “Yes.” And then when he turned the other side, just the two streaks, he got white. He said, “I will tell you why, when they took the water, the buckets down, there was an old German”, and my father’s German was fluent, not Yiddish, German, and he said to the man, “Tell me. Where are they taking us? What is going to happen to us?” And father said, he looked at me, and he told me. So he sat there the whole night knowing what is going to happen to us and he got grey.
It’s so peculiar. I had one Aufseherin [female guard] and she had a pair of earrings, was always shaking in her ear. And whenever I see – first of all I would never buy earrings that shake – you know what I mean? Because that woman always reminds me, poor woman I’m sure she’s dead a long time ago but you know the way she patsched [slapped] you and the thing in her face you know shaking. And every time I see somebody wearing earrings like this so I just keep away from it. Maybe it’s the personal things I suppose you remember.
And as I said, there were citizens that we knew they were anti-Semitic but nothing really strange happened, but by 1943 we had to give up all silver. There were orders, we had to give up all silver, all furs, carpets, everything, and they came systematically, and the police always said, we get orders, and we have to do that. And I do believe, that some of them, they had no idea, no idea. And one day I went into, I had a boyfriend, and I went up to their house, and her, she was sitting by the fire, and she was chopping up her Persian lamb coat into little bits and putting it in the fire, because she knew that they were going to take it, and they took away everything, even poor people had their silver candle sticks or things like that, so all those things went, and the fur collars or whatever you had, that went.
22nd June 1941. The Red Army was taken by surprise and they fled. Lithuania was occupied by the German Wehrmacht. On the first day of the hostilities, there was a chance for us to escape. We could have packed our luggage and tried to escape. We had to make that big decision what to do: stay put or escape and survive under Russian control. On that day, 14 members of our immediate family gathered to take that fatal decision and decided to stay put. It would be easier to survive under the Nazis than escape to Russia and finish up in a slave labour camp. Well, out of the 14 members I was the only one to survive, because they all perished.
And we were free [liberated from Kaufering concentration camp]. That is how it happened. Unbelievable. Oh, you felt euphoric. I mean to begin with, you really felt euphoric. It took a couple of days until you realised what had happened, and as the days went past you saw that there were very few of us alive, and it didn’t feel very good. Altogether it was a strange existence. It didn’t happen overnight.
In Flossenbürg, the people in charge were the air force personnel. They only called us out to go to work and nothing else. It was less than five minutes to walk to the workshop. We were 12 hours a day 7 days a week. There was no time off at all, because the work was [the] aluminium part, that built an aeroplane. Eventually they built the aeroplane further away, the Luftwaffe themselves.
[Being in hiding in a loft space] It turned out that at the end of the day we were 28 people instead of 4, which was a tremendous thing; it was a small area. A four-year-old child starts crying or makes the slightest noise, everybody gets endangered. If I wanted to cry or be upset so I cried in a cushion; I never raised my voice. I had to learn to speak only quietly. For quite a while afterwards I had no voice. …We were there for six weeks.
It was September 1st 1939 - a beautiful day. Suddenly, I saw three planes flying overhead. I was aware of political tensions. I said: ‘Oh, they’re German planes.’ And everybody said: ‘Nonsense.’ And then the bombs dropped on Lvov and life changed entirely. The 3rd of September news came that Britain and France declared war on Germany. We said: ‘Oh well. The war is won now. It’s OK now.’ But of course it wasn’t.
[About his time in Siberia] We were families together. But the people who were single who were sent to Siberia, they were treated very badly. Like real prisoners. I mean we couldn’t go anywhere; it was in the middle of the forest. We had no transport, no paper, no radio, we didn’t know the world existed, or anything like this. We couldn’t see at night, because of the lack of vitamins. One of the Russians said “If you get hold of a piece of liver and eat it, your sight is going to be restored.” And eventually we got hold of one, and it came back.
After liberation – so what do you do? Where do you go? How do you go? So we went to every station - railway station - wherever the train went we just climbed on it on top of the oil tanker. Doesn’t matter if it’s south or east or north, doesn’t matter. Got no idea, so we just went and then had to walk to the station. And my sister kept telling me ‘Come on. Come on!’ And I couldn’t, because I had TB – an active TB – which we didn’t know! Didn’t know (mimics being out of breath) because they were after us. Anyway, so eventually we arrived to Újfehértó after four weeks. I don’t know where we ate or where we slept. It’s just incredible, really. We arrived in Hungary, in Újfehértó - of course nothing there. Empty. A few youngsters came back and they already moved into their house and there was some food already. And my sister took me straight away to a doctor and I went to a sanatorium in Debrecen – a TB sanatorium.
My parents were preparing us for going into hiding. They wouldn’t take families of 4 – we had to be separated. They tried to explain that we couldn’t go together and that after the war we’d be together again. They’d try to see me occasionally. I had to help look after my brother who was 3 years younger, who couldn’t understand the situation at all.
We were Jewish in every way because of my mother’s strong leaning towards it, but nobody realised we were Jewish. They just said ‘oh, there is the English’ - So we were classed as English and orthodox. They didn’t know. Even through all the years in Germany, the prisons and camps we were in, none of them ever realise we were Jewish. So we went through all the war, not denying our religion but not coming forward with it neither.
We did get some food and we were told it was a Red Cross parcel. And if I could say to them ‘thank you’ because those parcels saved our lives. We used to get one a month. My Mum didn’t smoke, she didn’t drink tea and Bella used to weasel her way around and get us bits of food in exchange for the things we didn’t want. And that…throughout the war, for three and a half years we went doing that.
I seem to remember a family meeting some time before the worst part of the- the war started, where it was considered to go to Australia. But the family was very large. The elder grandparents wouldn’t move. My father wouldn’t move without them. So it was decided to, to stay and to- to get false identity papers. We were all fitted out with false identities. I had to learn my name, and… had been told how to behave and how to protect myself from being recognised that I was Jewish. How to go to the toilet.
[Father] had found a job in a bakery. And that’s where he spent the rest of the war years. Two weeks before- and he came out- he came to us and assured us that he will be safe, because there are three big ovens there and one is always empty. And when the bombs come he can, he can hide himself. He can get into one of the ovens and- and he did. And two weeks before the end of the war, apparently, a bomb destroyed the whole house and he suffocated in the oven.
We stayed in that cellar where we ended up the war - all the way. In fact, I remember when the first Russian soldier came in and opened the door and all, all- all the people have been moving out. And they got knives and things and there was a dead horse there and they took the horse meat. They haven’t seen any- they haven’t had any meat for a long time. They took the horse meat to go…
And interestingly enough, when I was… around six years old, I was already entered at Liszt Music Academy as a special talent. And I was studying there until 1943, April, interestingly enough, because that was a very difficult period. And by that time Jewish children were not allowed to be in- in the Academy. But then the music director, Dohnányi [father of Hans von Dohnanyi, German resistance, Righteous among the nations, died in Sachsenhausen 1945], who was a great musician, he somehow was fighting to keep Jewish musicians there. And I managed to be there until 1943. And then I had to stop because that was already too dangerous. So actually I, I was studying until ’44 – April. I always wanted to be a musician and later on I continued my studies at the Academy. And I became a concert pianist.
Well, we were thinking that we were assimilated as Hungarians. And we always thought that we are Hungarians. It just happened to be that we are Jewish. But… unfortunately it wasn’t the case, because they treated us differently. And even some people tried to change religion. And I didn’t- I never wanted to change but many people thought that if they change- if they convert, they will be treated differently. But they were not.
And then we had to leave this camp because I think the Russians were advancing. So their- the- the Austrians or Germans, I don’t know who were looking after the camp, were moving us all the time to- towards Theresienstadt. And I remember walking quite a lot. And it was winter and cold. And I remember walking through woods and there were planes coming and dropping bombs. And I remember that we had to lie down. And my mother put her head over my head. And she said, “If we have to die, then we have to die together.” That’s another little thing that I remember.
I remember the Russians coming into Theresienstadt. I remember that very clearly, because we were standing in the street. And by that time I think the Germans must have fled. And they were coming in trucks. And they were throwing off the trucks pieces of chocolate and pieces of bread. And all the things we haven’t seen - in years. And we were absolutely over the moon, grabbing what we could. And they said that we were free to do what we wanted and that was unbelievable.
I remember coming out of the, the cellar when the Russians came and I remember somebody must have told me what is the Russian word for ‘bread’. Because I still remember I was asking for chleba, which is - bread. And as far as the food was concerned, as far as I know, during the war, we survived on beans and hazelnuts. Where my mother got them from, I, I- I don’t know.
One of the first times we went back to Hungary, my daughter must have been about eight years old and we went with the three children to visit. And we went to my aunts. And my daughter had a little Star of David, little necklace. And we went into the room and my aunt, without saying ‘Hello’ or anything, noticed this little Star of David on my daughter’s neck - and put it behind her sweater. Without- it, it was so subconscious. It was- she just - just like that! Done it so quickly. And that was quite a few years after the war. So that’s what I mean that… That’s how the Hungarian Jews were left. She didn’t say why, or how, or said ‘Hello’ to us..
They told me ‘You’re going to England to get away, thank goodness.’ But they stayed. My mother didn’t want to leave my father. She could have gone, as a maid. But she had nursing training at the end, under the Nazis in a children’s hospital or something like that. That stood her in good stead in Auschwitz, I believe. Because as far as…I could never quite gather – she didn’t say very much. But I think she must have worked in the hospital or something which meant she could steal more or something you know. That’s how she survived. She was never backward in coming forward my mother
And my mother, she was sent, I thought it was earlier. But according to my book it is March ‘42. They were sent, she was sent in a big transport of 1700 people just outside Riga to the woods and they shot them there. And we know because they took their clothes from them, or maybe they made them take them off before obviously and sent the clothes back through Riga. And they, the people there had to sort through them. And this relative found these clothes of my mother. My father, he lived quite a long time in Riga, until ’43, and then they were sent to Salaspils, which is a camp, I’ve heard of that before, and then to Auschwitz.
Yes, well it was- he [Rudi Vrba] was unrecognisable [after his experience in Auschwitz] because he was a sort of very attractive young boy. Trusting and with a wonderful sense of humour before. And very sort of… engaging person. And then when I saw him again, there was tremendous change. He looked quite different. And not only because he was two years older and strong and muscular, but it was in his eyes that was sort of quite different.
But it was terrible to leave her [mother] there actually [in a Gestapo prison]. That was a terrible decision. And I did- I was sort of doubting whether it’s the right thing. But then I remember, I went to the window to shake out the dust- dust or something. And there was outside there, and there was life there. I couldn’t resist it. So I jumped out of that window.
They wanted to know if we had any Jewish people staying in the hotel. I said ‘No’ which of course was not true. Then they left & every 5 minutes or so I heard lorries drive up… I was wondering what was going on… are they perhaps coming for me? The next morning, I discovered that close to the hotel was an open space where they brought Jews they'd found & assembled there. That was the coming & going of the lorries all through the night. In the morning one of our waiters came, brandishing a newspaper & showed me the headline: ‘Jews have been removed from the life of Denmark’ or something like that. He asked me: ‘What does that mean?’ I said: ‘You have been outside, I don’t know what it means, you tell me. In the hotel was a cinema with a sweetshop & the sweetshop had a elderly lady to run it. I was a good customer there. She said to me: ‘If you want to disappear, come to my place’, which I did. I left there & then, with a little suitcase, & I went to that lady’s place.
The matron had one room where she hid Jewish children, about 4 or 5 of us. I was basically very unhappy there. She made us help in the house, taught us how to sew. When there were holes in the sheets, we had to put pieces in. She made us peel potatoes just to keep us occupied. We played together but that wasn’t really a very happy time. I stayed there till after the war. I had to accept it. I made friends with other [Jewish] children. I got quite close to them. We were just like a little group because the others [non-Jewish patients] were terribly disabled & mentally disabled. So we couldn’t communicate with those children at all.
Summer wasn't too bad, but the winter was awful because all we had was straw and one blanket each. And I always suffered from the cold. I've never suffered hunger. I only suffered cold. Ruth was always warm. She was hungry but she had terrible boils on her legs from nutrition, you know... I was, I had lice so I just shaved my hair off and there's a photo with my hair shaven, which to me was the second most traumatic thing because my hair was, I liked my hair.
I have my grandmother - paternal grandmother’s - Heimeinkauf contract. In other words a contract to buy into an old-age home which said, you know, you have so much money, shares, house, money. You, you, you give so much for the journey to the home, the food on the journey, the care in the home. And what’s over, is given to people who can't afford it. And of course… that's how the Nazis took all her money from her. And the care home turned out to be Theresienstadt. So, she paid for her own death
They were horse-thieves. But they had enough humanity not want us killed; in so much as they gave us sanctuary. There was a river. [My father] went in first to check the depth of the river. It came up to his neck. He went back for us & carried each of us across the river until we got to the other side, he knew someone who lived in a house. He thought ‘We’ll get immediate hiding in this house’. But the person was reluctant But the person was reluctant to take us on but he gave us good advice, where to go, what to do, etc, etc.. And for the next two years we hid in different places. We had to move because the Nazis and the Ukrainian militia were always on the lookout for Jews. That was the first important thing, apparently, you know, winning the war wasn’t as half important as finding and killing Jews.
A German psychologist prepared it. First they took girls from 16 to 40, single women. Imagine you only had one daughter and she got a letter: 'You must come on Saturday'. Always on Saturday to punish the Jews even more because, on Saturday for them to travel was something horrible; it was a sin. You can have some luggage, 20kilos & some food for 3 days’ travel, by train. And this was really… something very painful. But they did it [like that] because when the girls left, the parents had only one idea: to follow them. To be with them, together. From there they took the people to the railway station and put them into the…wagons. At the border the Germans accepted them. They counted the persons there & they paid for every person to the Slovaks I think 500 Crowns. And the boys said when the girls left 'We’ll go too, we want to do work, we’re not scared. The Germans are… not so bad'. Modern slaves.
We were sat down in the middle, on the grass. All around in the tribunes, there were machine guns. The optimists thought Tattersall was very close to the Keleti railway station, what they are going to do is shove us into wagons & taking us wherever. Deportation. The pessimists thought that no, they won't do that. They will just shoot us with their machine guns. We stayed for 2 or 3 days - nights as well. It was not cold. I remember something very vividly. It's a small thing but to me it means a lot. I was very fond of eating sardines. And for my 10th birthday, the present I received from my mother & grandmother was a tin of sardines. which I didn't eat, because it was too precious. We took it with us when we were taken to Tattersall. & my mother said that we might as well have it now before they take it away from us or kill us. So I remember opening this tin of sardines & eating it - in that grassy area.
A number of non-Jewish people watched us. Some were crying because they knew us & were ashamed. Others were laughing: rather glad to be able to take over Jewish property, Jewish flats or workshops. One event that was quite serious for me: a man came & shouted at my mother & I: 'I hope you die.' I always felt up till then that anti-Semitism happened to somebody else."
Instead of going to the railway station, John & his mother. were taken to an abandoned block of flats.
"There must have been about 10 flats & there were 600 people. And the situation looked so bad, that a number of old people climbed up on to the roof & jumped off."
INTERVIEWER: "Did you see that?"
John Dobai: "Yes."
I didn’t really have a feeling of hardship, apart from being hungry all the time. My grandmother was working in the kitchen. Every so often she stole a carrot for me. My mother had a manicure set. She was doing manicuring to other people in the camp. They gave a little bit of their stew. A little bit extra for her, for doing the nails of these people. These are silly things that I remember. Not the- Not the serious things. We were allowed to to learn to read & write & to play with clay. So it wasn’t as bad as some other factories. & places. Apart from the starvation. We slept in straw. You could see these bedbugs. Big, big things, moving about. In the straw. Our hair was full of fleas. I remember things like that & a lot of itch. But basically this was still a better place than some of the people went through in these horrendous other camps. Yes, we children, we certainly had a better time than some other children where they were just taken and killed.
I don’t know if you know, but Majdanek was one of the first camps that was established near Lublin. It was a ‘Final Solution’ camp. They had all the crematoria & everything… The Americans did this unbelievable thing. They took us to a place called Bad Gastein, in Austria, right at the border with Italy. The American Army rented out all the hotels & put us in the hotel, which meant that we didn’t live under tents. We actually lived in - in rooms. Teachers came to teach us Hebrew, to prepare us to go to Palestine. We had food…not wonderful food, but we had food. We had heating. Marvellous. So the place was beautiful. I can’t tell you how lovely Bad Gastein is if you don’t know it. Absolutely beautiful. In the summer it’s high mountains but it’s green. The houses are magnificent. It’s a spa place. In the winter it got all magic—covered with snow. Icicles hanging everywhere, beautiful. After 4 years in the camp it must have just looked magnificent. The American Army would come into the town & see us, & give us things: chewing gum, tinned milk. They'd also give a little bit of money. My mother bought a little bit of material & made clothes for me. In fact she kept two of the coins, the dollars, in her wallet for a worse day. A day she really will need it. She never spent them. We—I’ve still got them.
In Annecy, we met the main madricha [youth leader], Marianne Cohn. It was so beautiful, around the lake. She reassured us, she did us kind words. Then she said, ‘Children, I have to tell you something. We've missed the train but a lorry will take you to the crossing to Switzerland.’
The lorry, it was very hot. We hardly could breathe. The chauffeur didn’t know that we were Jewish children. I heard that much later. We arrived at this clandestine border in the forest. As soon as the lorry dropped us off, one young boy said, ‘Oh, Monsieur, les Allemands aiment voyager en Citroen.’ A Citroen drove up with 4 officers, Gestapo. They stopped, & behind was a big lorry with German soldiers. We were children. What could we do? They stopped & asked Marianne, ‘Where are you going?’ She said, ‘The children just suffered from bombardment in Lyon. I'm bringing them to a holiday camp in Pas de l’Echelle.’
Off we went to Pas de l’Echelle. The person in charge received us & said straight away to the Gestapo, ‘That’s not the children I expect. I only expect boys, there are girls too.’ We learned later that she was a collaboratrice. We were interrogated. They ask us individually, ‘What’s your name? Are you Jewish? What age? Are you Jewish?’ Each question, ‘Are you Jewish?’ But they knew straight away, because our identity cards were not even finished. We had false names. Mine was Blanché. My parents had given my elder sister a few Swiss francs. She put it in her mouth & swallowed it.
We were taken to the Prison du Pax in Annemasse. The Mayor visited us & tried to help. Marianne came one day. I remember her face: red & swollen. She said, ‘Oh children, you can see everything.’ The most severe torture. In the cell next to us, we heard people. It was terrible. When you are tortured, the last scream before death. So it was a terrible surrounding.