High school students at the Urban School of San Francisco conduct and film interviews with Bay Area (San Francisco, California) Holocaust survivors in their homes. Students then transcribe each 2-plus hour interview, create hundreds of movie files associated with each transcript, and then post the full-text, full-video interviews on this public website as a service to a world-wide audience interested in Holocaust studies.
This is the story about Dr. Dora Apsan Sorell.
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I am Dora Apsan Sorell. I was born in Sighet, Romania, 1921, September 2nd. I spent all my pre-war years there in my hometown. I was taken to Auschwitz in 1944 together with the Hungarian transports. I was one year in Auschwitz and in a second camp, Weisswasser. I was liberated two days before the end of the war. I returned to Romania and I married and went to medical school. We got stuck in the communist regime for about 16 years, before we could come out and meet my remaining brothers who were outside during the war. I have three children and seven grandchildren. I am a physician and I am retired. I moved to California about eleven years ago to be with children and grandchildren.
Why are you telling your story?
I am telling my story because some of my past has an importance to the present generation. It would not have been so important if I wouldn't have lived through the Holocaust, but the Holocaust was such a trauma to the family and to my future, and if the new generations would know, I think there is a way to learn the lesson and to prevent another genocide.
What is your first childhood memory?
My first childhood memory is when I went to heder with my boys—with my brothers, I had seven brothers—they all went to heder and they sent me too. I must have been four or five years old. There was this Hebrew class, an old teacher, it was dark, it was a long table, many many children. And in the back yard he had some doves. I was a very curious girl, and I wanted to see what he had there and I opened it and the doves flew out. That rabbi, melamed, was so mad, he slapped me. I was very upset about it. When I came home, my mother and father they had company, my aunt—one of my aunts came to introduce her fiancé. I was so upset I couldn't talk to them. That's about all.
What is heder?
A heder is a Hebrew school where the children went to learn from a melamed. Hebrew—and it was not the modern Hebrew, it was Lushen Kodesh this is how they call this. There were prayers and the history. When the boys became six—seven years old, it was parallel, half a day they spent in that heder and half a day in the official school. And because everybody was a boy in my family, they sent me also to heder. Apparently I was a very good student there.
Were there not many girls there?
Almost none at all.
Can you describe your home to us?
My hometown—it was Sighet—is in the northern part of Romania, and it was bordered with Czechoslovakia. It was a frontier town, very close, we could go cross the bridge and have a pass and everybody would to go to Czechoslovakia to do shopping. It was a town with about 30,000 people, and they were equally divided between Romanians, Hungarians, and Jews. Actually there were 12,000 Jews in this town. It was a very Jewish town. I wouldn't say shtetl because it was not a village. It was a town with many, many cultural activities and even a theater and movie house. The Jewish life was extremely traditional. There were many, many synagogues of many denominations and there lots of shuls, little praying places in private homes. Everybody was observant. I would say that my father, he was part of one Hasidic sect called the Vishnitzer sect. They were a little bit more modern—the Vishnitzer rabbi was in another town, also in that part of Romania—and he was a little bit more enlightened in the sense. He also went to Yeshiva—my father—and in the Yeshiva he learned Hungarian and he learned German and a little accounting. After the First World War he first had a grain store. I don't think it went well, the grain store. Then he became an insurance agent to an Austrian company. Is this okay what I'm saying? He read a lot and he was very proficient in Hungarian and in German. Our town had many schools, had many organizations. I remember how I attended many Zionist organizations. There was a time when I was with Mizrachi and then latter with the Aviva Barisia. That was where we learned a little Zionism and the history of Zionism and we learned about Palestine. And we had our own entertainment there—we met boys.
Since there were a lot of Jewish people in your town, did you have any contact with people who were not Jewish?
At school only, in school. I started school at the age of seven and, sure, there were Romanian and Hungarian girls. It was elementary school—four years. If one wanted to go to high school, one didn't have to go further. There were eight years, actually, of elementary, for those who did not follow the academic line. But—this is what I want to say—my father was more enlightened because he allowed me—he accepted me to go to high school. I remember that he made a rule, "You can go to school, but you never take notes on Saturday." So, I promised him I would not take notes on Saturday. In the elementary school, yes, I met many Hungarian and Romanian girls. Actually, I sort of tutored one of the Romanian girls. This one went on to high school I tutored her and she was always the number one, obviously. I was number two. In my third year, I tutored. Her name was Bitsa. But our friends were only the Jewish girls and we met every Saturday and we sang and we cracked nuts and—how do you call those seeds? I forgot. And we sang many Zionistic songs. The friendships, I had very good friends. abrupt cut
My first year of elementary school I had a friend whose name was Suri. After the first year we moved to another part of the town, so my second year was in another elementary school. I was very upset about having to leave the school and to leave Suri. The funny part is that Suri became my best friend. We had only one year together and every Saturday I visited her and the other Jewish girls. Suri is still alive. She was born one day before me and she remembers my birthday. She just called me on September from Netanya [Israel], so it was a good friendship. She stayed with the elementary school eight years. She became a dressmaker as it was the most preferred profession for Jewish girls. Can I tell you a joke about this? You can use it, or not. When I was already a doctor in New York—and I like very much to sew and to knit—I decided to take a course at Sears, a sewing course. I went together with a friend of mine, Margie, and I told her, "Margie, don't tell them that I am a doctor." So, we go to the course and we introduce ourselves and she just couldn't keep her mouth shut. "My friend the doctor." So the other ladies said, "You are a doctor, so what are you doing at this sewing course?" And I said, "My mother always wanted me to be a seamstress, but see, I'm a doctor instead."
That's the joke. Because that was a very good profession, but very few Jewish girls went to high school. So, when I finished elementary school I started high school. It was a very elite school, very few girls went to high school and very few Jewish girls went to high school. It was also very expensive and I remember how we had to pay the fees. It was a lot of money. Only after a few months did my father realize that he's a veteran of the First World War and he might be exempt of the tuition. And indeed, I became exempt and I got back the money, which was a good thing—we were all very happy about that. It was much easier to continue high school. When I went to high school—again I was a very good student—from the third year of high school, I already tutored, Bitsa and others. There were two Jewish girls whom I tutored at the age of thirteen, and I got paid by them. Well, I would say we were not poor, just middle class, but you know me making some money made a difference, I really could choose what I wanted for winter, my own winter coat, ordering and whatever to be done.
All along in high school, I tutored students. The anti-Semitism was such that it was always harder for a Jewish girl to make it. I do not remember any pogroms in our hometown. I don't remember anybody to have been expelled, but there was a lot of discrimination, and we were always second-class citizens. When I was in the upper classes—we had eight years of high school—when I was a junior or a senior, again, at the end of the year they give—how do you say—awards, and Bitsa, whom I tutored, got the first award, the best student. She passed in the senior year with 97 out of 100. I was number two with 96 out of 100. I remember very well how we met after our class—how do you call it?—class mistress?—and Bitsa was in front of me, she didn't see that I am coming and she said "Bitsa you made it!" So it was very important to make her number one.
The school was quite strict and we learned very serious topics because if you have a high school diploma from Romania at that time, they equated with three years of college here. I remember that I had French for eight years, we studied Latin for six years, German for four years, Greek for two years. This was all language because we didn't have too many science teachers. I really was the smartest at the age of eighteen. I was never as smart, I never knew so much. Zoology, botany, and sociology, psychology and even cooking, housekeeping, sewing, knitting and so on and so forth. This was our curriculum. In my senior year of high school I even had a boyfriend. If you ask, sure, he was Jewish, there was no other way, right? We spent our free time at this age hiking the Carpathian Mountains—we were very close, and there were some resort places in our province—and we had very good times. I also went to dancing school every Saturday, dancing with boys. My parents didn't even know that. It was not allowed.
Why were you not aloud to take notes on Saturdays?
Because father wouldn't allow me, it was a sin to take notes, he was very observant and girls—I mean, you didn't write on Saturday.
Could you tell us about your religious life, how religion was a part of your life?
I would say that everybody was religious, everybody was observant. If we knew a Jewish person who was not kosher, he was not considered a mensch, I mean he's lost to us. So yes, observant, everybody was, but there were various degrees of observance. We also kept kosher, obviously. I just remembered one incident about this. I must have been fifteen or sixteen years old and it was Yom Kippur. I visited some cousins and they had an orchard and we walked on the orchard and they had walnuts. I found a green walnut on the ground and I cracked it and I started to open it, and then I realized it is Yom Kippur, and I had to spit it out. But I had sinned already, I knew that I had sinned, this is how it went, right? Sure those feelings evolved, but we were all very observant.
What was the name of your synagogue?
Vishnitzer synagogue. I told you my father was a Vishnitzer Hasid and latter on I will tell you how he wrote a book about that.
Was there a fair bit of segregation?
No, I would not say. But most of the Jews lived in the center of the city and almost all the businesses were Jewish. Sure, there were Hungarian businesses, Romanians, and in our courtyard not all were Jewish, no, you could live wherever you wanted at that time.
How did anti-Semitism affect your life?
I did not feel it but, I knew, right, that we are minorities and they don't like us as much. But I did not feel that somebody would discriminate against me personally. Also I had a very Jewish—I'm sorry—Apsan was a very Romanian name. There was in the city another Apsan, a Romanian guy, I do not no how my family got that name, probably a few centuries before. There were two villages in the province—our province in Czechoslovakia—upper Apsan, and lower Apsan. There is a possibility they got the names from there. But since it was a Romanian Apsan some considered me Romanian. I also spoke Romanian very well, and sometimes they didn't know I was Jewish and it pleased me to trick them. But the only think is that they wouldn't let me be number one, which, we understood that.
Can you tell us some more of your experiences with anti-Semitism, when you felt discriminated against?
No, I could not tell you, as I told you, I felt quite comfortable because the Jews were the majority—there were 12,000 Jews out of 30,000—and because we had a very good Jewish life with synagogues, and with Zionist organizations, and with crowds. I did not feel it. My Romanian colleagues were very nice, I tutored most of them, I told you, and no, I would not say.
Can you clarify in your community who were Romanian's who were Hungarian and who were Czech?
This part of Romania was called Transylvania, and in this part—it is northern Romania—and this was part of Austro-Hungary. And during Austro-Hungary, the majority were Hungarians and Jews. During the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Jews had it very well. They were allowed really, to prosper. After the First World War, the Romanians got it, and there were many Romanians in the villages, and then they moved into the cities—into the town to. So by my time—and some Hungarians too—by my time they were almost equal number. I have to tell you, there were many Germans in that province, it was called Maramures, Sighet was the capital of Maramures. There were a few villages with German people, there were many Gypsies around who were come and going. There were some Ukrainians. It's very interesting, when I was going in the summer to visit my grandparents—our summer vacation was spent with—in the villages we had at least thirty or forty relatives—grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins—in various villages. It was very interesting to realize that one village was Hungarian, one village almost completely Romanian—this is my mother from that village. The next village was completely Ukrainian—Rutanian they called them—my father was from that village. They were various minorities. And then after the war Ukrainians took all the part which was beyond the border of Romania at that time. There is more to geography to understand what happened there.
Can you tell us about your family?
I told you, my family consisted of—My father was married before and he had three boys, and his first wife died after she had the third child—the third boy. This was in Czechoslovakia because before my parents married, all of this was Austro-Hungary that then became Czechoslovakia. It's a little complicated I know. Ater the First World War, my father married my mother who was from the next village, Sapantza—father was from Remetz. He married, and everybody was wondering, a young girl of twenty-one marries a old man of thirty-two with three boys? But my grandparents had eleven children, and there were seven daughters and they were really happy not to need dowry for one of them because they did not need dowry. But later on they realized that my mother had the best marriage of all of them.
I still have a cousin in Israel who just wrote his autobiography in Hebrew and he has my father's picture and he says—this what I just told you—everybody was wondering, "A pretty young girl marrying..." But he was the nicest man. Then they had four other—five other children. I was the first, and four little ones. So we had seven brothers. But at that time the young men didn't stay at home, after the Bar Mitzvah they went either to school or to learn a trade, or to Yeshivas. This way we almost never had really the eight—seven brothers around. But I felt really privileged having so many brothers, they all loved me, and I was only girl who had a birthday party, the only sibling to have a birthday party, everybody knows my birthday. I didn't know all the birthdays of all my brothers but the knew my birthday. So, three older and four younger brothers. I had my grandparents in one village Sapantza, and I had many, many cousins. I traveled every summer to another village to stay with a relative. I have a whole story about some of the villages where I visited.
What were your family traditions?
Whenever I read things written by the Eastern Jews, it was very, very similar. I think the Jews from Maramures were Jews from Galitsia, so they had the same traditions as the Polish Jews. It's also called the Subcarpathian area, it's all a special region. Sure we had very nice Friday nights. I remember how on Friday day time, the schnorers, how do you call it, the beggars came from the all villages and everybody got his coin or whatever. We always prepared for the schnorers Friday, because they had to go back for Friday night to there homes. And Friday nights my father, always with the boys, went to the synagogue and then they came home for the dinner. It was a very traditional dinner. Saturday morning, I think, my mother went sometimes. On the holy days mother also went. Mother wore a—when she was married she was shaved, as all the religious women, and she wore a wig, a blond wig. But latter on she grew her hair, and at home she didn't wear her wig anymore. As I told you, we were modernized, so she did, only when she went to the synagogue Saturday, she put on the wig, or on very festive occasions. Father had a little little, little beard, never had peyos, always at home he wore a kippah, it was a black shiny kippah, and on the street he wore a hat.
He was quite versed in history, he always studied my books. I don't have to tell you about how Shabbat was and how they brought the cholent. I remember when I had to go to school Saturday, and they first made it much earlier, so I just remember when I came home and my mother was waiting for me with the leftover of the Shabbat dinner, and there was always a dish like an egg with onions and then there was this cholent, and she just sat with me and asked me about my school, and how it was and there was always a little compote, probably apple and prunes, and always some dessert. And that was our day of entertainment, Saturday afternoon, meeting with friends and talking and singing and going to those Zionist meetings.
Rise of Hitler
Were you aware of the rise of Hitler?
Yes, we were aware, but I'll tell you something, I was too busy probably, with school and friends, and boyfriend, at that time—during school time—and working, to pay attention to politics. But my parents were worried some times, there were rumors. Only latter, after my graduation. I graduated high school 1940. It will give you a little historical explanation, this is when things started to happen to us, after graduation of high school.
When did the anti-Semitism become more extreme?
We knew that there is a Hitler. We knew when he came to power. I never read newspapers at that time. But by 1940—I will tell you the events of 1940, because it was already war time, right, by 1940 Hitler has asked our neighbors, the Hungarians, to be his allies. The Hungarians accepted, but there was a price to it. They got an award and their award was to get northern Transylvania to become Hungarian again. This is when everything changed for us. I graduated high school in June of 1940. I took my baccalaureate, which was a very strenuous exam, and had to be given in larger cities. I had to go to a city called Satu Mare—you've probably heard of Satu Mare Hasidism—which was about eighty kilometers from us—to take my exam. I was very happy that I finished with school. In September our whole area given to the Hungarians, and the Hungarians marched in. This is when the war actually started, with us. The war, not the Holocaust.
What was happening around you at that time with family, and friends, and your boyfriend.
In 1940 everything was still okay. What really happened, was after the Hungarians marched in, because when the Hungarians came it was already a fascist regime, and they tried to apply all the laws to us. There was a lot of discrimination. They came and every day there were new rules and regulations to make life of Jews more difficult. they came and they confiscated—in a few weeks or months they confiscated all the businesses, every Jewish store had to take a Hungarian partner, lots of people were fired, they lost their jobs. My father lost his job. Who would make life insurance during the wartime? He did life insurance for a so called Wernicke Company, from Vienna. Then some people were evicted from their homes because they needed it for offices. Then they decreed—when the Hungarians came and they took over the administration obviously—they decreed that Jewish children cannot attend anymore public high school. That was really a blow for the Jewish parents. Its important to understand that at that time in 1940, only two brothers were home out of seven brothers, and this will seal their fate, more or less.
In 1940 one of my brothers was already in Italy studying medicine. Another brother—want to know more about my brothers?—another brother went to Budapest to become an apprentice as a printer. Another one was already there. A third brother, I mean one brother, this was something very special—when the Hungarians came in, my little brother—my closest, he was one year younger then me, he was seventeen—he was very reckless and restless, and together with a group of students—friends—with a group of friends, they wanted to run away from the town, because with the Hungarians, the border of Russia came very, very close. It was the Soviet Union, and they thought that the Soviet Union gives a lot of chances for young Jewish men. So the group of young men—it was just in the 40's—they ran away, and they went toward the Soviet Union, and they had to cross the Carpathians. It was very difficult, but they got all the connections. But then it turned out that when the arrived in the Soviet Union, they arrested them and sent them to camps in Russia. But we didn't know this, we just knew that he left, and we never heard of him. In all the war years from '40 until my parents lived they thought that he was not alive anymore, that he must have died crossing the Carpathians, frozen to death. This is why my brothers were not home.
My two brothers who were home were Moshi, my older brother of twenty-nine who was very handsome, a very talented artist who made caricatures—and was in some exhibits before the war—of the important people of the city. He was the only one among the older brothers. Among the younger brothers, Yoncu was fourteen, he was too young to be an apprentice, so he was home. We were very lucky when the Hungarians came that Moishi and I could work. At the beginning, everybody needed the signs to be changed into Hungarian so we both worked on the signs. Then he got a job at the movie house and it was really a very happy fact because, not only did he enjoy his work, I also helped him very often. He made the posters, the placards—everything that the movie house needed, even slides. And then we could go to the movies—me and my mother—whenever we wanted because he took us in. And I helped him quite a lot.
But then when the things were cleared and the Jewish kids they could not go to high school anymore, the Jewish parents came up with an idea of what to do with the children to continue studying. So those who had money moved—went to other larger cities that had private schools—Hebrew schools—and they stayed in school—there is another name for it, not campuses—so they stayed in school. But those did not have money—most of them did not have—registered their children in those schools and they would study at home with a tutor and then at the end of the school semester they would go and take exams. Most of the children were private students and they needed a tutor. I became one of the most important tutors in the city because I graduated high school and I spoke Hungarian. And indeed, for years I was working with the students and helping my brother. I had students in my home, like a school, from the morning 7:00 the first student. They came in twos or threes or fours, depending on how much they could pay. This helped support my family, me and my brother. So there was a lot of hardship. You couldn't travel anymore. If they found elderly Jewish men traveling—they were in Jewish garbs—they throw them out of the trains. It was hardship.
Were you the main provider for your family? Did tutoring make enough money for the family?
Tutoring? Well, tutoring—and he getting more money from the movie house—was really better than before. I remember it was the first time that I could buy for my little brother a suit from scratch, not only wearing the suits of the older brothers. Moishi, who was very handsome had girlfriends, bought two beautiful suits. You will see later on what happened to those suits. So we made good money and the students did very well in school, they worked very hard. It was strange that we didn't have libraries, atlases, nothing, it was just text books. But they studied so hard that they always passed. We worked hard. Until my brother Moishi was drafted, but you probably have some other questions that you want to know.
What were other anti-Jewish actions that affected you and that you experienced?
I'm getting to that. About one or two years after the Hungarians came in—it was, I told you a fascist government—they started to arrest young Jewish men, beginning the resistance. How much could you do? You couldn't sabotage the war, but they started look for the literature which was prohibited, like socialist and communist literature. The boys were taken, they were arrested and my boyfriend was among them, he was also arrested. And later on in the following year, they took them first to a Hungarian concentration camp—political camp. Then they brought him back for trial. He got five years. It was quite an event, right? He was under escort when they decreed the five years. If you want the story, the court house was the third building from our house—we lived on the second floor of a long building, and between us and the courthouse lived a priest, and there was backyard, and then came the court house.
I remember how—I was working then, I got another job, I was working for the local newspaper. It was a very fascist newspaper, but they had to hire a Jewish girl as secretary and a Jewish reporter as a writer. The manager of the newspaper knew how interested I was in the trials of my communist boyfriend, so he took me to the court when the trial was decreed. Then when they said it was five years, I ran to the corridor where the windows faced my building—my father was reading on the hall—and I waved him from the window until my father noticed me, and I told him, "Five," that he got five years. Now, just imagine, my father having an only girl waiting for her to get married to a man who is not a communist and who is settled and has a job and so forth, and now he is a communist in jail for five years. And then, I remember I went back waiting for the jailed boys to come and I ran to him and kissed him, and he left. Later on he ended up in a military jail in the capitol of Transylvania, Cluj-Napoca. This was one of the things—in other words, they drafted the young men. My brother Moishi was drafted to go to the front. And those draftees, the Jewish draftees, they were sent to the front without being given uniforms, without arms. They were supposed to walk in front like scouts—in front of the German Hungarian army—to sweep the mines and to dig ditches. Many of them were hit by the mines, and were injured, and some even died. When Moishi was there he was lucky, the people discovered he was so talented. Officers asked him to stay in the office and make them all kinds of mementos for the war, so he really was not in danger. He got more food, and he came back just when we were taken to the ghetto.
Then I was all the time with my little brother at home. This was the hardship of the year—we were worried about Moishi, we didn't know what happened to Yossie who went to Russia, we didn't hear about Miki—Michael, who was in Italy studying medicine. It's very interesting, many, many years latter I found that my brother—who was in Italy—I found a letter from my father, who wrote him at this time, and he talks about the hardship, and how I am working so hard to support the family because my brother was taken. He said, "Dori," this is how he called me, "Dori wanted so much to study, and she applied to Cluj—we know she will never enter, but why shouldn't she try." I have to tell you, when my brother was drafted we were very sorry for the job at the movie house, it was a very good job, so he went to the manager and told them, "I have a little sister who is a good draftsman, why don't you take her in my job?" And he took me! I was not good, I was very nervous about it, and since he was so smart and talented and so creative, he got from the manager the list of movies that would be coming, and he made me little sketches. So at least for a few months I had sketches, which is very good. But then I didn't have—by then I had learned the lettering, I knew how letters can cry, and letters can laugh, and letters can smoke, and letters can burn—those kinds of things. I remember some of the movies which came like Pinocchio, I remember how I did placards for Pinocchio. At the same time I could take my mother to the movies and my little brother. It was a dream job, under the circumstances.
Did you get to see your boyfriend while he was in prison?
At the end of this period—before the Holocaust—my boyfriend was Cluj and I went to visit him. My parents were very unhappy with me going to visit my boyfriend, but since I was the only breadwinner, they allowed me to go and visit him. I went with his little sister, Gugi, you will hear about Gugi latter. We went to Cluj, and I visited him. Luckily, those who were in the military—in the military jail—they worked at the city nursery, so everyday they took them to the nursery and there I could meet him at the nursery—they planted trees. So we could meet everyday. One day—he had some relatives in the city and they surprised me with an opera ticket to Tosca. I had never been to the opera so I went to see Tosca. You know the story of Tosca? Cavaradossi was the man who was jailed because he was for freedom—no, I'm sorry, Cavaradossi hid his friend who was a freedom fighter, and he wouldn't say where he hid him, so they tortured him. The beautiful songs when he's tortured and when Tosca is crying for him. I cried on my way because I thought of my boyfriend who was tortured just like Cavaradossi from the opera. It was my first opera. I didn't see him for a long time, before that and after that I didn't see him.
After you saw your boyfriend, what was the next major change in your life?
By then I was alone, right? I was alone with my parents. By then the fear started to grow because war had broken out in 1939—you know this—the Nazis attacked Poland and by then Czechoslovakia was occupied. There were lots of refugees from Poland and Czechoslovakia who came to our place and then they were deported—those who were from Poland. We knew France was occupied. We started to hear horror stories. We knew that there were very bad things happening in Poland and in Czechoslovakia and all the other countries. We were sort of happy that in Hungary we were still at home. And probably, we were the only place in the whole Europe that the Jewish population was still home.
How did you prepare for what was coming?
I did not know what was coming, I did not prepare—until '44 nothing happened. I just remember that I had those friends and we were so eager to continue studying that we went to the library and got chemistry books. We still tried to study, but I was so busy with so many students in the house and with the movie house and—it's extremely—I was working very, very hard. And my father was so sorry that I had to—I remember how he was up at night with me when I had to prepare for the lectures for the following day. He tried—when I didn't know enough Hungarian, he looked in the dictionary how to spell this and that. He felt very bad that I was the breadwinner. I was only twenty-one, twenty-two.
Is there anything else before '44?
This is the period between '40 and '44 when war was going on, but we were still in Hungary. I really don't know—I still don't understand how the Hungarians were able to stand up to the Nazi's request to open the the doors because the Hungarians very much were the allies of Hitler. And apparently very often they came—Eichmann—came to Hungary to ask to open the doors. The Hungarians said something that they want to Jews to work for them in Hungary, not in Germany. We knew that something was going on, but not exactly—the political situation. I still have to find out how the Hungarians were able to keep the Jews a few more years.
Could you tell us a little bit about the ghetto?
I said before, right? That we were spared for a long time, but on March 19, 1944 apparently—historically, the Nazis invaded Hungary because they wanted the Jews to be deported like they deported all the others. When the Nazis came, everything happened so fast. They came on March 19, and in one month, we were all in the ghetto, and in two months, all the Jews—12,000—were on their way to Auschwitz.
The moment the Nazis arrived they started to make lists of the Jews, which was probably done from before. They started the raids on the houses, they took lots of valuables—whatever they found they confiscated. We had only two, three rooms, they confiscated one of them for one of the officers. He was very nice when my father asked, "What's going to happen to us?" and he was so nice—“What do you think we are, monsters? The Germans are nice people.” Sort of, he was calming us. But then they started—I told you—making the raids on the houses. In about two, three weeks they started to move us into the ghetto.
By then, in two weeks, literally, the ghetto was ready. They separated a small part of the town—the small streets at the edge of the town, they moved out all of the Hungarians and Romanians into the center. They emptied it and the 12,000 Jews moved into the ghetto. When they came to us and they said, “Tomorrow morning you're moving to the ghetto. You can take with you one suitcase of belongings for every person. You can take food for two weeks, and mattresses and everything has to fit into a pushcart.”
By then, Moishi was not home yet, only Yancu was home. They told us to leave everything in the house and leave it open. And indeed, we were ready in front of our house on that morning when it was decreed. From every street corner people came, pushing their pushcarts to the edge of the town. There was a gate at the entrance of the ghetto, some guards took our names and walked us in one of the small streets, stopped in front of a very small house and went in and opened the door to our room and said, “Put here your belongings,”—a small room. There was already a family in that home so we put the mattresses for my parents.
That house had all together two rooms, a kitchen and a porch and an outhouse and a backyard. A few hours later, another family was brought in. In the evening, another family. The following morning another family. In one week, 12,000 Jews were amassed in the ghettos—with about six, seven, eight little streets—in those small houses, every house had about ten families. We were extremely crowded. The young people slept on the porch or others on the mattresses on the floor. We had to stand in line for the kitchen—there was no running water, there was no heating, nothing. We brought with us some dry food.
There was no market in the ghetto. There were no stores in the ghetto. There were no doctors in the ghetto. They discharged the patients from the city hospital to the ghetto and since they were so sick, there was no place in those little crowded rooms, so they organized the infirmary in the synagogue—one synagogue from the ghetto. And I remember how I volunteered in the infirmary and there were patients ready to die, patients with sores. We had to take dirty dressings and wash them, boil them, iron them, and roll them up again and those were the dressings we used. And we had no medicine, we had to go back to people who had some medicine. People were dying on us.
Luckily, the ghetto did not last long. In one week, the ghetto was so jammed. They started the raids in the houses. I remember this is when Moishi returned—and many other young people returned. And we just couldn't understand—why did they return? Maybe this is because they are going to take us somewhere to work and they need young people. And we just hoped, really, that they would take us somewhere to work.
The ghetto lasted about two and a half weeks, by which time we didn't have food anymore and me working in the movie house, the first few days I had a pass to go out. But if I went to the city, everybody—I was the only Jewish person with a yellow star. I forgot to tell you—when the Nazis came, we had to wear a yellow star and there was a curfew. So the manager dispensed of me so I couldn't go to the city anymore. When I was in the city, I got some food for my friends. There was a lot of hardship.
Moishi, when he came back from the front he had a severe toothache and we didn't have medicine for him and we didn't have a dentist. I told you that they ransacked all of the belongings, took his suits and then it was decreed that the following morning we were going to leave the city. By then—I don't know exactly the date, but it must have been the beginning of—the end of April, just after Passover. I don't have memories of my last Passover. It bothers me very much because I wrote one of the letters about Passover, I could not remember how the last Passover was with my parents. So, for me, the ghetto, looking back, was really the last happy days with my family. My mother worked very hard to cook something, my father was writing his book in the ghetto. The last image I have of my father there in the ghetto was having a little table, writing in the backyard—and writing, and writing, and writing his manuscripts. We never knew what he wrote about.
Shipped to Auschwitz
That morning when we had to be on the streets for the first transport, 3,000 people, early morning and there's a lot of crying and screaming and children crying and people arguing and everybody's saying where they think that they are going to be taken. We could take only one backpack or a handbag. Moishi had so much pain. I remember I sat down with him somewhere in a ditch and he put his head on my lap and this is one of the most saddest images of mine because Moishi did not survive and he was my older brother who was so handsome. I leaned so much on him. He was just suffering with a toothache.
Finally, they decided that we were ready to march to the railroad station and they started to chase the whole crowd of 3,000 people through the streets of the city. They were hitting us, whipping us, screaming at us and we had to run sometimes. And the elderly were losing—the elderly were stumbling, and people were dropping their belongings. We wanted to help the elderly. The five of us held hands together so as not to get lost in the scare and commotion. The whole street leading toward the railroad station was strewn with discarded stuff—food and pillows and blankets, even strollers were discarded. We had to run sometimes and holding one the other and helping those who stumbled. Finally we arrived at the railroad station and they said to wait and wait. We had to wait for a long time because the train didn't arrive.
And something happened there, very strange. As we were there, the 3,000–and I forgot to tell you that my boyfriend's family—his little sister Zsuzsi, mother, grandmother—they all were close to us in the ghetto and they were all with us there at the railroad station—more so Zsuzsi who was five years younger and she always relied on me to help her out. And as we are there, we are very, very anxious and afraid of what will happen.
A military train arrives to the station and one young man steps down seeing the crowd, and I recognize my older brother, Alter, there in this train and I start waving to him and he finally sees us and he runs to us and says, “Where do you go?” I say, “We don't know—maybe Hungary, maybe Germany—where do you go?” “Well, I'm sent to the front from Budapest.” And his train whistles, and we just hug and kiss and cry and then we just watch how the train leaves. And I had the feeling then that I will never see him again. And he was the only brother who I saw again after the war.
Everything was so fast. Zsuzsi, the young girl—I was by then twenty-two and Zsuzsi was five years younger—and Zsuzsi looked and said, “What happened? What are you looking? Who—what was on the train?” It was only a few minutes when all of this tragic drama happened.
Finally, a long cattle train is brought, arrives to the front track and they start to divide sixty, seventy, eighty in one car. Very, very rude—they separated families, they separated sisters. When they have their number they push us inside, inside, and they lock the door. Those cattle trains had no benches, had no seats and no lights. There was a little opening high up with barbed wire—you could hardly see the cities you passed. There was no food, no water. There was no toilet—they took a bucket in the middle to use it. And the train left and we traveled in these conditions for three days and two nights with no food, no drinks. Everybody was hungry, everybody was thirsty, people were crying, children were crying.
Very, very uncomfortably, my mother was crying all the time. My father tried to calm her and you know just under the little window was my mother, my father, me and Yancu and Moishi was in the middle, and this is how they stacked one on top of the other. I remember at night I put my head on Moishi's chest and I tried to curl up around mother to protect her from being hit at night by others because there was no room to sleep obviously. It was very uncomfortable and mainly, not only the hunger, but the thirst was awful and the bucket and the smell.
And there was a little boy, my boyfriend's nephew was five year-old. He was crying all the time, “I want water, I want water.” So we told this little boy how to say in German, "Please give me a little water." When we arrived at larger stations, the train would stop. They would un-board the train, and they would ask for someone to bring out the bucket and empty it. They would ask if there were dead people—and there were always dead people—and they just threw them like sacks of potatoes on the platform. And this is when we lifted the little boy to the window to say, "Please give me a little water," but nobody gave him water.
This thirst was such that I remember a thought as the train—the second day—I felt that my throat was so dry, and I remember how we crossed a bridge. I heard the clicking on the wheels, I saw the arches. "My God," I said to myself, "if now they would bomb this bridge and our train would fall into the water and I would drown, what a relief such a death would be." It didn't happen, nobody bombed it. By the third the day we were so exhausted, and we were so panicky because we're just trying to—you know at night, people are crying, the elderly were praying. If we had to go to relieve ourselves, sometimes they would put a blanket around just to protect us—I mean to give us a little privacy. And we had eaten everything. I just remember when I finally arrived to Auschwitz, I had a little basket with a little marmalade left.
How cramped were the cars? Could you lie down?
No, nobody could lie down. I told you, I had to lie down on my brother's chest and they were one on top of the other. People are pushing, and there is calling and screaming and crying and we're perspiring. I remember how I took something to make a little vent for my mother and my father. Mother was very panicky.
Did you meet anyone on the train? Did you make any acquaintances?
No, you couldn't have. They were all from our neighborhood, they were all from my street in the ghetto. I had there my boyfriend's family, his sister—she had a boyfriend and all the time they were together. The boyfriend did not survive—seventeen years old. In his family, there was his mother, his two sisters—one had been married and had a little boy, Yortso, and the younger sister of seventeen and the grandmother—five people. Later, you will see only Zsuzsi entered the camp, the way that only I entered the camp.
How did you spend the three days?
I cannot tell you because there was a lot of crowding, a lot of suffering, a lot of hunger and a lot of trying to calm those who were either sick or children—children were crying. It was a lot of despair. Despair, panic, a lot of guessing—"Why do they have to take us so far away?" I just remember one thing—I was saying all along after that that I didn't know about the camps, but I must have known because I remember that when people realized that the train was changing direction, that we were out of Hungary. By then, the guards started to change into Nazi guards. We were out of Hungary to Poland and somebody says, "We are going to Poland to Lublin." That hit me that there were some atrocities around Lublin, I think Maidanek must have been near Lublin. I remember that Lublin scared me too. I was just sure that now they were going to take us to a forest and machine gun us, so I must have known what happened to other Jews, because I was afraid of that. The forest and all of us being killed there. There was a lot of speculation—they cannot take us to work because there are children and elderly.
How was it for you seeing the people that were close to you suffering?
There was a lot of crying, and a lot of speculation. I remember I told you there was Zsuzsi with her boyfriend. Later on she was telling me, "I feel so guilty that all the three days I sat with my boyfriend, hugging, and I didn't stay with my mother." She had this guilt feeling that she didn't—like I spent with my parents—the last three days.
I have a question before the train. Could you describe to us your first experience with a Nazi soldier?
There were no Nazi soldiers.
Oh? Not until you got to Auschwitz?
No, really. I did not—I don't remember seeing—yes, I had seen a Nazi officer that was in our house. We had seen officers, but I do think that the ghetto was entirely run by Hungarian guards.
What were you thinking about when you were in the ghetto?
I told you. I was thinking they would take us to our death by then, I was really panicky—everybody was panicky. make one segment
Did you have any sense why you were being treated this way?
No, you know it's very funny. There was a time when we marched to the train and I had this feeling that they're taking us to work. Me, my brother—even my parents were not old—we could work. But then when we were in the train, the doom was following us. We were so far from home—"Where do they take us?" We just couldn't get it. If they want to kill us, why didn't they kill us at home?
One last thing—at the end of those three days, you had no water, no food, right?
Could you describe what that felt like?
It felt awful. We hadn't slept and we were all sweaty, and we were all dirty. We couldn't relieve ourselves as we should have and it was smelly. It's hard to describe. I think it was a very confining place and even the thirst started to be confining—this is all our life. We were happy to jump into the water and die in the water.