Collected Memories of the Holocaust



Munkács Ghetto-- Jews Alone

as told by Peter Kleinmann in his autobiographical memoir.

Peter Kleinmann.


Just after Passover, on April 1944, the kehilla announced with posters and proclamations by drummers that all Jews must move into ghetto. It was located in the Jewish section of the city and included Latorca, Munkács, Csokoli, and Malom Streets. Within a week, 13,000 Jews from Munkács and some 14,000 from surrounding areas were rounded up like cattle and held in the Sajovits brickyard. We were advised to try and stay with people we knew. The ghettos were administered by a Jewish Council, whose president was Sandor Steiner.

Unlike others, who were either relocated with total strangers or had no place at all to accommodate them, we were fortunate to stay in the house owned by the Sterns—Josko’s family. We made a few trips to bring our belongings to the ghetto. The streets were lined with people coming and going, carting their possessions. There was mass confusion. People did not know where they were being sent or why. Once in the ghetto, we were told that we were to be resettled again but it did not make sense.

Many women brought down-filled pillows and comforters, which were cherished articles from their dowries. A sense of danger and fear were the predominant moods.

We struggled in our attempt to prepare for the unknown. Furniture, concealing clandestine documents or valuables in hollowed-out legs, was transported with the greatest of difficulty. There were all manner of objects brought to the ghetto. Musical instruments were of value to some, others brought family heirlooms, and some were more practical and brought pots and pans. We moved into the Stern's single-family house at 9 Furdo Street, which was both spacious and familiar. Only Josko’s widowed father, Solomon, and sister, Rosie were living in the house when the five Kleinrnanns arrived. Soon thereafter, we were asked to take in two more families, the Adlers and the Schwartzes, who together numbered nine, totalling 16 people living in four rooms.

People were always anxiously walking about in streets. It felt like a time bomb was set to go off. We were afraid but we didn't know of what. We knew that something was not right. The future was uncertain. No one came into the ghetto from the outside and warned us.

Solomon Stern at the entrance to 9 Furdo Street, his home
located in the Munkács ghetto during April 1944. (KFF Archives)

On a typical day, the men would gather early in the morning in shule. After davening, everyone would speculate about our future. There were as many opinions as there were people. l listened to the BBC news on Josko’s father's radio. At that time, the use of radios was forbidden but some brave people kept them. We were permitted to move around freely during the day. At night, we were not allowed to leave our houses. Few homes had electricity and there was only, the occasional street light. Most people used kerosene lamps The streets were closed to traffic. There were no cars anywhere near us. Whoever had a horse had absolutely nowhere to go. Where would we go? We were alone.

The Hungarian authorities chose people at random to work as guards from their own lists of volunteers or from those provided by the Jewish Council in the ghetto. The council was made up of the most prominent Jews in the city. l volunteered to be a guard hoping this would give me additional opportunities to obtain information. There were about 24 guards patrolling the ghetto borders around the clock. I wore an armband with a yellow star on a black background. I also wore a yellow star on the back of my jacket. If you were appointed as a guard you couldn’t refuse the offer. There was no choice in the matter. I did not get paid for doing this work and was not armed.

The only responsibility guards had was to make certain that no one entered or left the ghetto or broke the curfew. We patrolled the gates. The Swabian thugs paraded outside the ghetto as if they owned the place. The Nazis gave them a free hand to do with the Jews as they pleased. If the Hungarian gendarmes saw someone walking while we were on duty, they blamed us for not being efficient, and battered us on the spot. If they caught anyone leaving the ghetto without permission, we were severely punished. We sometimes allowed people to go by when the coast was clear, signalling that it was safe to pass the post.

I spent most of my time walking around the ghetto, watching who was being taken away, listening to conversations, looking around. When I wasn’t walking, l was covering my post. When my duty was over, l went either to the Sterns' and slept or to shule, hoping to hear news from the outside.

The issue of food was on everyone’s mind. Of course, food was scarce in the ghetto. When the gendarmes took us out of our homes, they warned us to bring enough supplies to last a few days. Before we left, we collected as much canned and preserved food as possible. We stood in line and waited for the insufficient rations that were distributed. Rich and poor alike waited to receive their staples, such as bread and potatoes.

There was no grocery store or bakery within the ghetto area. There was nothing. There might have been bakeries in the surrounding area, but without it was impossible to bake. Whatever flour most bakers or shop owners had, they sold. They knew that eventually the flour would be taken away from them and they couldn’t hide the bags.

The only way to eat was to steal. Again, l expected to support my family but in more difficult circumstances. As a guard, I was stationed about two blocks away from Josko’s house. I performed my duties daily for about three or four hours from ten to two at night or four to six in the morning. l chose those hours because they were so late in the evening and so early in the morning that few people were around. It would begin to get bright out during my morning shift. I was able to sneak in and out of the ghetto through the gates to pilfer desperately needed food.

Gendarmes continuously patrolled the area. The fence was not so high that you couldn't jump over it. Alternatively, you could dig a hole and crawl underneath. l would dig a hole big enough to get through and when I left, I filled it with dirt so there would be no trace of my escape. l always walked by the sides of houses so that no one would see me. It was already April or May by that time and there were fruits growing on the trees. I climbed the trees and brought back fruit. I usually went into Kroo’s garden which was outside the ghetto, and took the fruits and vegetables growing in his yard. I also went outside the ghetto and asked for food from people I knew. I exchanged money for food. The prices would increase each day. I would also run to our vineyard, about a half hour away, and take the vegetables and preserves that had been stored for the winter.

At night, I planned where I wanted to go and how I would obtain provisions for the next day. I continuously thought about what I could bring back for the family and for the people in the house where we were staying. I sold the balance after we took for ourselves. Money was no object then. It had little value. I knew that something was not right—food was scarce and money was abundant. It didn't make any sense.

Snitching food outside the ghetto was dangerous. It was risky but the alternative was worse. I moved around freely. I was always a daring person and took advantage of opportunities as they arose.

My parents worried about me. They were aware that I was leaving the ghetto, that I might get caught and be punished. I didn’t express my fear. They never asked me where I was going or what I was doing. Many words remained unspoken. In the ghetto we had enough to eat, I was caught at times and beaten up by the Swabians. If they asked me what I was doing, I told them I was lost. I took many chances and had to pay the consequences. They beat me viciously and took away my food but within the hour, after going home, I resumed my search. Life in the ghetto meant taking risks.

Guards check the IDs of women entering the Munkács ghetto, 1944.
(Beit Lohamei Haghettaot)

One night I was caught stealing food by a Hungarian gendarme who brutally hit me with the butt of his rifle. He demanded to know what I was doing. I had my armband on at the time. I usually wore the band because if f removed it and the gendarmes discovered that I was a Jew, they probably would have flogged me on the spot. The food was confiscated and then I was searched for money. I managed to run away. I was too young and too insignificant to be arrested. I didn’t want my parents to know what had happened to me, so I cleaned myself. The next night I resumed my search.

There was also trading at the gates of the ghetto with the non-Jews who had already occupied the Jewish homes and were ready to make deals with the Jews. Even people from distant villages moved into the city to appropriate Jewish homes. The village inhabitants who had taken over the Jewish houses came by the gate of the ghetto attempting to trade jewellry for food. There was much bartering between those on the outside of the ghetto and those on the inside despite the fact that this was illegal.

Residents of the ghetto dismantled chimneys and broke up floorboards to hide valuables. We also did this in our homes and businesses before entering the ghetto. We believed, while at the same time only hoped, we would return. The authorities told us that we were going to be sent to Germany to work. We were only in the ghettos for about two weeks. That was not enough time to find hiding places for ourselves. In two weeks what could one do? No one wanted to think of the future. The present was all consuming and plans for the future were impossible.

I don't know if there were any attempts to escape from the ghetto. Josko’s father and sister were taken out before us. I think we were the last to leave the house. We expected our turn to come. If we decided not to go when we were told to, they would eventually come to look for us. The Germans would send the Hungarian gendarmes after us. Everyone was afraid of them. They were definitely able to intimidate and scare anyone into revealing the whereabouts of those in hiding. Two weeks was not time enough to organize a resistance effort or to plan an escape.

After a few weeks in the ghetto, Jews were moved to the brickyard near the train tracks on the outskirts of town. I was afraid of the members of the kehilla because they were supplying the names of people taken from the ghetto to the brickyard. Each time my father had been taken away he returned in worse condition than when left. l did not want to be the first to leave the ghetto.

It was better to be in a place that you knew rather than in a new one.

“Kleinmann family, report to gate….”

From that gate, we walked to the brickyard and remained there for the next two or three days.

There were railroad tracks in the brickyard, which in normal times were used to hold freight cars that were loaded with shipments of bricks. When the factory was operating, the bricks were dried out in the open air under long canopies. We arrived, along with thousands of others from Munkács and neighbouring small communities. We were told to find a place under one of the covered sheds. This was to be our protection from the sweltering midday sun, the wind, and the rain. There were latrines, which hundreds of people had to share. It was a rat's haven. The heat, the smell, the overcrowding, and the uncertainty were the conditions that distinguished our new shelter. A typhus epidemic claimed many lives.

     People brought everything imaginable from their past to build their future. There were objects everywhere. We tripped over parcels, valises, and even ourselves as the circumstances were so crowded, there was barely a square foot of space to call one`s own. Colourful wool blankets were spread on the ground marking a family’s domain. To leave the spot unattended meant relinquishing your position. The families from 9 Furdo Street attempted to stay together. Strangely we had acquired from the crowded living conditions a sense of security.

     The area was enclosed by a wire fence, outside of which were posted armed Hungarian militia. Germans were actually in charge of all supervisory duties. Often, when a soldier spotted a man praying or putting on tefillin, he would shove him to the ground or order him to march several times around the factory grounds, all the while beating him with the butt of a rifle. I witnessed Germans ruthlessly cutting off men’s beards and side locks as they beat and ridiculed them. They humiliated us verbally with abusive names and mocked the religious.

The previous distinction I felt from the Orthodox and Hasidic Jews vanished during these attacks. It was as if I myself was being assaulted. For me this behavior by the Germans was something incredible. I could not believe that these people who looked like normal human beings would torture someone for absolutely no reason at all. This was beyond my understanding. I was angry and frustrated because I was of no help. How could I do anything? The guards were heavily armed. I was afraid that physical resistance might make things worse. I actually felt relieved a few days later when I was forced on the train by the Germans, for this meant a reprieve from their brutality.

The episodes in the brickyard were my first encounters with the malice of prejudice. In my previous contacts with non-Jews I noted that although we had different customs and religious beliefs, we had the same value and respect for life. Jews had gone to Czech and Hungarian schools together with non-Jews. We had worked and played together.

With the Swabians I learned to avoid confrontation. We were cautious with the Gypsies in Kustanovice. In Munkács there had been more contact with them as they were musicians in taverns, at weddings, and in the streets. They had menial jobs and did the most unpleasant work such as removing human waste from the outhouses. I would never have conceived of attacking a member of another ethnic or religious group because he was different from myself. I attended school with the Gentiles. They were my friends and there was a harmonious relationship between the many different ethnic groups in this Carpathian town.

Jews of Munkács were frightened; life was totally disrupted for everyone. Unfortunately the community leadership was not with us to support or reassure us. The kehilla were still in the ghetto. The rabbis in the brickyard tried to reassure us that conditions would improve. The message my father kept repeating was that G-d would make sure that nothing would happen to us. Under those circumstances, based on what I had experienced only during the months of April and May 1944. I had already lost faith. My respect for the rabbis was long gone.

Unrelenting religious faith and belief in the coming of Moshiach (Messiah) predisposed my parents and many Jews to accept the deceit that we were being sent to work in Germany. We were convinced that soon we would be relocated. Some of my family from Svalyava, Polyanka, and Bustyahaza were sent directly to the brickyard. The Nazis saw to it that the Kleinmann and Kallus families were all assembled in one place for the first and also last time in their lives.

During the few days we were in the brickyard, men from the Jewish police were continually updating and circulating lists of names. This was a sight we were familiar with from the ghetto. We all hated these men for what they were doing, although we knew that they did not have the freedom to not do so. In a way, they were helping the Nazis control and humiliate us. It was also obvious that they were keeping their own families as far down as possible on the lists. They were among the last ones to leave the ghetto for the brickyard and the last to leave on the trains.

View of Munkács ghetto, which was set up in the Sajouits Brickyard, April 1944.
(Beit Lohamei Haghettaot, 9880)

On 22 May 1944, a beautiful, sunny day, a very long freight train whose end was out of my sight pulled into the brickyard. At dawn we were awakened by guards shouting, telling us to immediately gather our belongings, line up, and prepare to board the train, on which breakfast would be served. People were shocked to see freight cars being used to transport human beings. No one dared to say a word or to protest. Many had already felt the heavy hand of our enemy; men who had protested while fathers and brothers were abused and humiliated knew that it would be best to keep silent. My parents were totally helpless and unable to protect me. I was devastated because I too was powerless. It was painful and agonizing, especially since I had become accustomed to helping them. If I did not help, then who would?

Some today might be wondering why, at moments like these, no one tried to escape rather than calmly step aboard the train of death. No one wanted to be alone. Remaining with my family was both the most difficult and the most comforting thing I could do. At that time, the way out was on that train.

It took about 20 minutes to load the cattle car I was on. There must have been 50 or 60 people herded into the car in which my family and I were on. I remember some of the people who were in the cattle car with me—the Adler family, the Moscovitch family, and the Stern family A wooden ramp was placed on the ground at the foot of each railway car. People attempted to stay together either with family or friends. The loading of the train was orderly and systematic. An established number of people was assigned to each car. After what seemed like a few hours the train started on its journey.



  Peter Kleinmann    4


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