Last night I was invited to a Hanukkah celebration. I am not Jewish and didn’t grow up in an area with many people of the Jewish faith, and had never been to any Hanukkah celebrations before. So I was very excited to go and learn more about it.
I thoroughly enjoyed myself there. Everyone welcomed me and some spent time explaining their traditions, their faith and what the holiday means to them. At this party, there were a lot of like-minded spiritual souls and I could feel the energy in the room. We ate, drank, sang, danced and read poetry. It was truly amazing and I was honored to be there as a guest.
What I wasn’t expecting was the opportunity to talk with a Holocaust survivor. I had never before met anyone who had survived this terrible tragedy and I was touched beyond belief by this gentle, sweet man who told his story to me off and on throughout the night. We talked in between poems, prayers and songs and since I wasn’t taking notes, some of the details may be a bit fuzzy. Each time we spoke, he added more to his story. The evening soared as if I were reading a suspense novel, as I couldn’t wait for the next break to hear more of his story and how he escaped with his life when so many did not.
So what follows is my recap of his complex experience. It is a complicated story, as I imagine many of the survivor stories are, and he spared me from those horrific details. The images from history and the media can write between the lines in this story. All I could do was listen in amazement at the fact that he got out alive. I may have some of the sequencing of events listed incorrectly, as he was telling his story in bits and pieces, throughout the night. So look for his story in the future as he has recorded it for one of his sons to share with the world in the future.
His name is Alex and his ordeal lasted three and a half years. He was born in what he referred to as “ex-Czechoslovakia.” He was a young adult when he first went to a concentration camp in Russia. While there, he escaped being killed three times. He had grenades thrown at him and still lives to this day with pieces of that in his body. On the third occasion where he escaped death, the soldier had a gun pointed at his head and asked him his name. He was spared in that moment because he had the same last name as the soldier!
Miraculously, he escaped from that camp and found some Hungarian army clothes that just happened to fit him perfectly. He was 22 years old when he escaped. This landed him in the Hungarian army for one and half years, where he “pretended” to be Hungarian. He said he had bright red hair, and people were suspicious of his way with words and his speech and he even had a commanding officer ask him once if he had Jewish family. He said the officer remarked about his intelligence, his educated conversations and that’s why he asked if he had Jewish roots. He told him he didn’t know.
This man was able to pull off passing as a Hungarian during that time. He speaks many languages. He described having to go to Catholic mass every Sunday and how his knowledge of Russian helped him through that time as he could read what to do and say by reading the Russian. He also quickly learned to cross himself as the Catholics do and to kneel at the right time.
When his battalion was relieved of their duties, he returned to his home at the time. In this community, all the Christians lived at the bottom of the hill in the village and the Jewish families lived on the hill. Upon his return to his community, one of the men in his unit asked him where he was going, as he saw that he was headed up the hill. Alex told him he was going home. His “secret” was out and no sooner had he returned home than was he locked up again, as the Marshall came looking for him almost immediately. He had a chance to run for it at the time, as he was warned of the Marshall’s coming, but he didn’t run because he knew that they would make his family suffer, as this was the standard practice at the time. So Alex was arrested, being accused of killing the Hungarian soldier who once owned the clothes that this man used to hide behind.
He was court-martialed by the Hungarians, and described seeing huge black candles during the court-martial hearing. He remarked that he had never seen black candles before. He told the authorities that he did not kill the Hungarian soldier, that there were always plenty of clothes and other things lying around during wartime and that he only put on the clothes. He said that the officials believed his story, so they “only” sentenced him to six years in prison, which he described as bearable since he wasn’t expecting to get out of that situation alive.
Since the war was being fought with greater tenacity during that time and there was a lot of fighting going on in Budapest, the prisoners were being forced to move their location from one side of the river to the other. There was another young, Jewish man with him on that occasion. They seized the opportunity that presented itself before reaching the other side of the river to escape once again.
Traveling together, this time they knocked on the door of an unsuspecting older couple, who were initially scared that there were two strange men at their door. But their fears subsided when they heard that the two men were looking for some food and drink. They explained that they were Jewish and were running for safety. The couple took them in, fed them and provided support so that they could hop a train in Budapest to continue on their journey. They didn’t have any money, but were assured that no one was checking on the trains at that time, since there was so much war activity going on and people were coming and going, and few were paying for tickets.
Alex got caught again and ended up in the camp, Bergen-Belsen (which is also where Anne Frank died, I have since learned). While there, he was selected in a line-up of men to be a guard, which I believed is called a Capo. He spent some time telling me how he was known as a nice Capo, because many of the Jewish guards were not nice with the power they were given. (Capos must have been in a particular moral dilemma as they were prisoners themselves, yet placed in what must have been impossible situations by their SS “bosses.”) Alex told me that he would let cold prisoners sneak into warm buildings to warm up, while he lied to the German soldiers when asked if everyone was accounted for. He would let others sneak past the spotlights at night,helping them with the timing so they wouldn’t get discovered while getting much needed supplies. He said it took 30 seconds for the next round of lights to reach a spot, so prisoners had to get down very low and move fast.
One day, the Germans came in and ordered all the men to leave. Their excuse was that the men were going to be transported somewhere else “to work.” He said they all knew what that meant. They herded the men up and packed them onto a train. The train reached a particular crossing point in Germany and it stopped. At this point, there were American soldiers waiting in the bushes to ambush the train. He said that the American soldiers didn’t know what they were capturing: only that they knew it was a German train. When they opened the doors to the train, they saw all the men, huddled together. He said he heard that one of the soldiers accidentally shot one of the men, although he personally never witnessed it. He described seeing a man bowing repeatedly at the feet of an American soldier in appreciation for his freedom.
He described how the other former prisoners eventually hoisted him up in the air and paid a tribute to him as the “Czech Capo” who was nice and kind to them. (Many of the other Jewish guards were not so nice, so there was some backlash towards the Jewish prisoners who served as Capos.)
So the war was ending but the men were sent back to a rehabilitation camp before being released in Belgium. He described the day when they entered Belgium as an extremely joyous one, where the women had sandwiches for them, just as they had for the American soldiers. His eyes lit up as he described the warm reception they got that day from the Belgian people.
It was there that he met his wife, I believe. He described that setting, as she told him about and pointed to another man at the far end of the room who had taken a keen interest in her. She said he was a doctor or dentist and that he really liked her. When Alex asked her if she wanted to be with that man, she kindly remarked that she did not. She said she wanted to be with him and the rest is history.
To hear him talk about his wife was the most touching, moving display of love and devotion that I have felt and heard in a long time. She died some 7 years ago, I think he said, and it is obvious he misses her so. They were married 54 years.
One would imagine that surviving a Holocaust would be the worst event in the life of a person. Yet I got the feeling from this survivor that the Holocaust wasn’t the worst in his mind as he mentioned often that at least he was alive. He would recount story after story, with a statement and a sentiment of optimism because he was still alive. But when talking about his wife, he became sad and you could sense the loneliness in his eyes. He misses her so much. She was his life-time companion, his friend, the woman he knew would be with him from the moment he met her. It was the loss of his wife, his soulmate, the love of his life that he mourns for now; the void in his soul where her daily expression of love used to be and the loneliness without her that makes him sad. He gazed off with sad, sunken eyes when he spoke about losing her. He showed me some old photographs of himself with her when they were younger. What a handsome couple they were!
The love that he had for his wife can be expressed and illustrated by one of his simple, yet profound statements about making latkes, the potato pancakes eaten for Hanukkah. He told me that he used to make the best latkes. He talked about how even his wife used to beam with pride that her husband made the very best ones. But since her death, he says they just don’t taste the same. So although the recipe is the same and he knows how to make them, they are not the same without her.
So in this Hanukkah time, my wish is that we all may be so lucky as this Holocaust survivor to have the love of our life with us for so many years, to fill our lives with meaning and purpose. Love is the recipe for happiness. And may we never forget. Happy Hanukkah!
For further study on other survivors:
A Project from Louisiana
Oral Histories from University of Michigan-Dearborn