WALK IN MY SHOES
Collected Memories of the Holocaust
WORLD WAR II AND THE HOLOCAUST
as told by Peter Kleinmann in his
We went to the Spiegel lumberyard in Munkacs, where we followed the Hungarian troops as they filed into Munkacs.
There were foot soldiers marching to music played by their military band. They were carrying Hungarian flags, vibrant military banners, and appeared to be very proud. The soldiers' ceremony lasted a little more than an hour. As they marched from the town square, my friends and I followed them until they reached the barracks. Villagers were standing and cheering along the way. Even the bearded Hasidim were intrigued. It was a mild fall day after Yom Kippur, following the grape harvest.
As the platoons approached us, the soldiers asked where they could find postcards and flints. Seizing the opportunity to make some money, the following day I bought postcards in town and sold them to the soldiers for a profit. I dreamt of accomplishment and recognition when engaging in this small business adventure with the Hungarians.
The two Hungarian army barracks were on the street where I lived. The larger one housed about one thousand soldiers and the other one about five hundred. The officers' building was a beautiful villa with a big garden and chickens and geese roaming the yard. Sometimes I used to steal the chickens. l made a hole under the fence, where I placed corn threaded with a needle. When a chicken spotted the kernel, l pulled on the string and as the chicken approached I grabbed it and ran. My father became acquainted with the cook in the officers' barracks. He used to sell us flour, sugar, and other basic necessities he could snitch.
The occupation hurt people in our meagre economic circumstances. Unlike living under the Czechoslovakian government, the poor were not eligible to receive food and health benefits. Social assistance was slashed. We had used this additional subsidy each month to buy bread and other staples. Under the Hungarians, only those who were Hungarian nationals were eligible to receive government assistance. There was definitely a lack of funds, though we still received a subsidy from the Jewish self-help organizations.
I remember when there was a change in the currency, people with money approached my father to exchange their money. They gave him Czech koruna, which he traded for Hungarian pengo. People were allowed to exchange only a fixed amount of koruna. My father did not have personal wealth in excess of the amount allotted for the exchange. He made a commission changing the currency for the more financially secure people.
By this time, my sister Zsenka was 15, Piri, 14, Bumi, 18, and me, Dudi, 13--a Bar Mitzvah. Zsenka was a seamstress. I worked at Kroo's furniture store and factory carrying lumber, washing windows and floors, and delivering furniture. Mr. Kroo was one of the richest men in town. He had a garden abundant with fruit trees and vegetables. Sometimes I collected a bonus, which was paid in fruits and vegetables. The Kroo family lived across the courtyard from us in a large home that they owned.
In Munkacs, as far as I remember, there were no class divisions in the living quarters. Of the rich families in the city I remember the Spiegels and Jakovers in the lumber business; and the Mermelsteins and Spiegels in textiles; and the Kallus and Sajovits families owned the brick factories. I never met the Kallus or Sajovits children. In the Jakover family there were four children, Edu, Moricz. llu, and Valerie. The oldest son, Edu, ran the factory and the younger Moricz was very sociable and had many lady friends. The sisters were beautiful girls. I was friendly with the Jakovers' cousins.
Though the poor and the rich lived side by side, it was quite uncommon for children from one background to mix with children from another. There were, however, some exceptions. For example, there was a relative from our family who fell in love with a boy from a wealthy family of bakers--a higher social class than ours. A shidduck was made. There was a wedding, late on a Friday afternoon. The chupuh was set up in the courtyard on Puspok Street and the Sheva Brakhot took place the week following the wedding. I remember the wedding was festive. People sang. The traditional food was served: chick-peas and wine. After the wedding, there was no social contact between my family and the groom's. It was not socially acceptable to marry outside of one's social class. Despite the marriage, other family members were estranged.
I felt that my parents lived in a very restricted, closed environment. I wanted to have more opportunities, financially and socially. I saw the life that my parents led, and vowed that mine would be different. My father would wake up and go to work while it was still dark outside and come home when it was dark. I knew that I didn't want to be like him at his age. His life was spent maintaining only a physical subsistence. I dreamt of leaving town and of achievement. I wanted to leave a legacy. I wanted to be famous through wealth or knowledge. I never discussed this desire with my parents or my brother. My parents were not all that interested in my dreams--they didn't take me seriously. They said that I was too young to make such critical decisions. My mother realized that I wanted to be a businessman or a merchant. She saw that I was always bringing money into the house. As a child I was contributing to the family income as an adult.
Though I had no heroes, l had been impressed with Vladimir Jabotinsky, a Zionist leader. In 1936, I listened to his assured manner of speech and watched the way people used to greet and cheer him. I reverenced his fame and accomplishment. On Saturday afternoons, students from the cheder would congregate with the rabbis to discuss the portion of the Torah they had studied during the week. After mincha, we had a traditional meal, seudah shelishit, which usually consisted of fish, challah, peanuts, and beer. The Rebbe was a tall man with a long red beard. He was knowledgeable and highly respected. I was amazed at how much this man knew without even opening a book. I wished to be like that later on in life.
Most of the money I earned, I gave to my mother, and not to my father, because I did not want to shame him. She didn't know where the money came from. She never questioned how I acquired the money. In the village square I bought pumpkins, chestnuts, and ice cream from the vendors--treats that I did not get at home.
I also got paid for helping my father make crates in the lumberyard owned by the Jakover family. With this money I stood in line Thursdays for movie tickets and sold them on Saturdays. My father didn't know that I scalped the tickets. With this profit I would go to a soccer game at the stadium in the city or to nearby swimming pools. Soccer was a very popular sport, especially in our town. There were even a few Jewish teams. Every Saturday the Jewish boys played and Sundays there was a match. I sold pretzels for the vendors while watching the games. Some of the teams were the Duchnovic, Slovak Potharing, and the Munckaz Schport. The organizer of the inter-city matches and founder of the clubs was Dr. Peter Zoltan.
In the winter I worked in a bowling club setting up the pins. I was tall for my age and looked older. This enabled me to watch and play billiards. Participating in this was restricted to boys over 16.
On Thursday nights I sold fish at the market. After the winter was over, many fishermen would go to the Lotorico River located on the border of Munkacs. They used sticks to direct the fish into nets, which were set up a little further down the river. If the boss gave me fish, I brought them home. If not, I took. I always found a way to get what was needed. My older brother wouldn't have done this, my sisters certainly not, so who was left?
When the Hungarians moved in, all schools that taught in Czech were ordered closed. I had to switch from a Czech school to a Hungarian one. This was a drastic change. My sisters and brother remained in the Ukrainian schools they were attending. Hungarian schools existed in our town even before the army took over that part of the Carpathian, but under the Czechoslovakian administration, citizens were free to choose which school to attend. I was in grade six or seven at the time. In the Hungarian schools, the classes were mixed: Hungarians. Ruthenians, and Swabians. German was taught as a second language. There were no German schools in Munkacs. From that point on we had to sing the Hungarian national anthem each day.
It was a shock to be put in a new school and to have to learn a new language that I only minimally understood. In this school, I had new teachers, and it was located in a different building across the street from the Czech school. We spoke some Hungarian at home. My parents had gone to Hungarian schools because, as children, they lived under Austro-Hungarian rule.
Obviously, I liked the Czech school more than the new Hungarian one. In the old school, I was always seated in the front row because I knew the subjects well and wasn't afraid to speak up in class. In the Hungarian school, I sat in the back row. It was my choice. I didn't feel as confident.
At that time I still wore a kippa at home but not in school. After my Bar Mitzvah, I continued for a short while to put on tefillin. When my father went to work early, I would try to avoid davening. I tried to get away with praying for a maximum of five minutes. My mother checked my arms for marks from the tefillin. This made it difficult to deceive her. My brother laid on tefillin but not as regularly as I did. I think that he laid them on more often as an adult than he did in Munkacs.
Bumi argued many times with my father in matters of politics and religion. He expressed his own desire to rebel against father's beliefs by growing his hair, something I was not allowed to do. He said that if my hair was too long I wouldn't be able to put on tefillin properly--one cannot lay tefillin on hair. We shaved it off with a machine or a razor. Religious people in Munkacs never had long hair. My brother was older and had the strength of character to defy my father.
The Zionist movement was not welcomed by all Jews. As is often the case with people from lower socio-economic classes, new ideas were often regarded with extreme suspicion and were accepted reluctantly. My brother and father had a serious confrontation over Bumi's involvement in the Socialist Zionist movement, Hashomer Hatzair. After many disagreements, my father followed Bumi to where the meetings took place and beat him in front of all the people in the room. He regretted it afterwards. My brother's relationship with my father remained strained.
We had a sense that the new conditions under the Hungarians were not temporary. Already in 1938, we heard there was trouble for the Jews in Germany. We expected something to happen. We were aware that there was serious antisemitism in Poland and Germany. After the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, many Polish Jews fled to Czechoslovakia through the Carpathian Mountains. I distinctly remember that for one week, after the Germans had defeated the Poles, Polish soldiers on horseback poured into the city along with civilian refugees, some wounded from the war. Munkacs was in a strategic location in relation to the Carpathians. The Hungarians confiscated the tanks and cannons that the Poles brought. Apparently the Polish Jews took advantage of poor border security and of the chaos in Poland, slipping across the familiar border openings. Many refugees lived on the streets of Munkacs. They may have stopped in other villages beforehand, but eventually they landed in Munkacs. Some wanted to reach Romania. Some were searching for relatives. With the help of Zionist groups. some of the families emigrated to Palestine.
At that time, Hungary was not at war with Poland but was collaborating with Germany against Poland. Later, the Hungarians joined the Axis powers and fought with the Germans. From 1940, antisemitism was on the rise and it was apparent in almost every aspect of city living. At the end of 1940, laws were passed requiring Jews to transfer ownership of their businesses to non-Jews. Consequently Jewish businessmen "sold" their establishments to Gentiles although most of the original owners retained effective control. The employee became the employer for a mutually agreed upon sum. My neighbour Spiegel, who had a store in which Gentiles worked, sold his business to one of his employees. As soon as the Hungarians occupied Czechoslovakia it was mandatory to change the lettering on the signs of the businesses from Hebrew to Hungarian. I knew of many rich Jewish entrepreneurs who were affected by these new laws.
People were apprehensive and on guard and kept to themselves because they were afraid. Upon seeing a Hungarian gendarme I would cross the street or redirect my route to avoid contact. If we passed a guard, we had to salute him. We took off our caps or our kippot, and if he didn't like our attitude, he could slap us across the face. If he wanted to hit one of us, he would provoke us with any comment in order to justify the violence. I often ran around without shoes and l remember a close call when a gendarme stopped me and asked me why I did not have shoes on. I didn't want to tell him that we were poor and couldn't afford new ones; instead I said that my feet were hot so I had removed my shoes. There was no predicting or understanding what would precipitate their aggression. We lived in fear and trepidation that any move could provoke hostility Life was changing. Change was to become indicative of malevolence.
Under Hungarian rule, on 25 May 1940, all Jewish men between the ages of 20 and 48 were drafted into special labour service units. Bumi and Zsenka's boyfriend, Josko Stern, had to report at the same time to the work brigades. In the fall of 1940, Josko's older brother, Herman, Krooís oldest son, Mendy, and my brother's friends, Dezo Austreicher and Locic Friedman, were taken with many people of that age. No one but Josko has told me anything about their experiences. My father tried to exempt my brother from going. He requested that he be allowed to continue in school but he was refused. Most Gentiles were excused from army duty if they wanted to continue studying in university but Jewish men were not given that option.
The young recruits had to build a wooden trunk that was used to transport their clothing and other essentials that the army did not provide. They took my brother into the Hungarian labour battalion and gave him a uniform that was different from the others in that there was a six-pointed star on the sleeve and on the back. He was not an ordinary soldier. Antisemitisrn was widespread at the time. Jews did not fight on the battleground but were used on the front to dig trenches, to transport military hardware, pave roads, and clear mines. The more fortunate worked on the outskirts of cities. During the first year, Bumi was in a work brigade that came home about once a week; after that he was sent somewhere in the Ukraine, and we no longer saw him. We received letters sporadically. Then they stopped. My mother cried when Moishe Avrum was taken away. No one told the recruits that they wouldn't return home. This was the last time my parents saw my brother.
There were those who could afford to bribe their way out of army service, but most could not. Emil Kroo's brother, Mendy, was quite rich. Like most Jews, he was trying to avoid joining the army. He pretended to be deaf. The authorities took him to the bottom of a four or five-story building. where they put a barrel at the top of the stairs and let it roll down. They figured that if he had normal hearing, he would know that the barrel was approaching and move out of the way. If he didn't move before it hit him then that was proof enough that he was deaf. Kroo's trick worked for a while but he wasn't able to escape from the battalions altogether. Eventually, because he was Jewish, he was taken into the brigades despite his false claim and proof of deafness. As the Germans advanced into Russia, they and their allies needed more recruits. This resulted in the escalated deportment of Jews.
My sister's boyfriend, Josko, also found a way to temporarily fool the authorities. he pretended he was crazy. His trick was whenever he saw a piece of paper he would say, ďThatís not it!" Later on we asked him what he meant. He explained that he was referring to the fact that the paper in question was not the release form from the army. Because his father had money he was able to return home at the beginning of the war. There were people who would tell the Hungarians that Jews were tricking them. Josko and Kroo's son, Mendy, bribed everyone who knew them not to tell the authorities of their pretence.
During the Czech period, in the years before my Bar Mitzvah, my father had joined a Communist or Socialist Party. This was done purely out of necessity and had nothing whatsoever to do with his political beliefs. Of this I'm sure. He joined the party for the benefits to its members, such as weekly rations of food and clothing. The party distributed coupons that were used instead of money at the grocery store. On May Day, while parading down the main street of Munkacs holding a red flag, he wore some kind of a disguise. My father didn't want it known that he was one of them.
Sandor Kleinmann's membership in the Communist Party would cost him. Because his name was on the list of Communist "collaborators." he was repeatedly questioned by the Hungarians. Most of the Jews who were in the Communist Party were drilled. My father was taken several times to the Kornerkaste--a state-owned building that was used by the Hungarians for interrogations. It was located on the same street where we lived, on Bereksas Street. On some occasions he was kept overnight and other times he was held only during the day. When he was released and returned home, he refused to answer questions. His facial expressions were sullen and I could tell that he was profoundly disturbed. He told me that on the walls he had seen scribbles written in blood by prisoners. I know that he wasn't the same man when he came back home as he was before the interrogation. He was a broken man. Those who are tortured remain in this condition. Torture brings man, through pain, face to face with death. This journey is never made in the mind but through bodily suffering. It causes immutable change to ones psyche. After this, my father was not the same, as a man cannot really live after knowing death.
He was also taken for questioning to the Kohner castle in the nearby town of Polanko, where the majority of the residents were Swabians. During the Czech regime, people played and picnicked on the castle grounds. We amused ourselves in the surrounding woods. There were no guards and we climbed the big steel fence to get onto the grounds. The terrain was well maintained. This place inspired much fantasy play in the youth of Munkacs.
The Hungarian army occupied the castle from
the time they marched into Munkacs. People were beaten in cells and many
of those taken for questioning never returned. Every time my father was
taken away, my mother, sisters, and I feared we would never see him
again. Sometimes we asked the rabbis for their blessings and looked to
them for consolation. The intervals between my brothers letters were
increasing. I felt pressured to become more responsible and provide for
my mother and sisters. The interrogations at the Kohner castle seemed to
be more severe than those at the Kornerkaste. My father's brother,
Shammu, was also summoned to this castle, although for a shorter period
than my father.
Isadore continued to live outside of Munkacs in Bustyahaza. He managed the lumberyard and the mill even during the Hungarian occupation. He was the most successful of my father's brothers.
Shortly before I turned 16 in 1941, the Hungarian gendarmes rounded up many Jews in Munkacs and sent us off on a train. At the time, my father and I did not know our destination was to be the village of Tluste. The train stopped in many towns along the way picking up people, sometimes entire families, and in Svalyava, my fatherís sister Devorah Wolfe, her husband, Jacob, and their two children boarded this train to a destination from which they would never return.
When we arrived, we joined other Jews already being held in the village. The outskirts of the village were patrolled by Germans. We were detained for about two weeks. Each day we lined up to receive our ration of food--scanty portions of bread and soup. My father was alone when he was questioned. He was scrutinized on several occasions. During these times I wandered around aimlessly searching for my aunt who disappeared a few days after we arrived. My father and I were sent back to Munkacs about two weeks after arriving, not knowing why we were there in the first place. This was the last time I saw my aunt and her family.
In 1942, I joined Betar, a Zionist organization that was composed of young men and women who were dedicated] to establishing a state for the Jews. On Friday nights after my father was asleep I slipped out of the house and went to the social gatherings. Before leaving I went to the outhouse and removed my tztzit, putting them in my pocket so I would not be thought of as a religious Jew. Jews from Palestine recruited youth from Europe to make their home in Palestine. They warned us about the difficulties Jews had in Poland and Germany. Trouble was going to come. I proposed to my father that we go to Palestine but he adamantly refused, stating that we could not leave without my brother. One family I knew, the father was a broommaker, left for Palestine with his family in 1941. They were the Austreichers.
In 1943, reflecting the increased anti-Semitism, a quota system for Jews in schools was implemented. I started to work full-time in Kroo's factory and continued helping my father in Jakover's crate factory. Swabians came into town. They vandalized businesses and attacked Jews while the police turned a blind eye. They wore German military shirts and paraded proudly around Munkacs. There seemed to be a change within this ethnic group. Their arrogance and chauvinism increased with the occupation of the Hungarians.
|Peter Kleinmann||3 ►|
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