WALK IN MY SHOES
Collected Memories of the Holocaust
as told by Shiku Smilovic in his
autobiographical memoir "Buchenwald
Jack and the rest of the group left the next day, and I was left holding the bag, all over again. I talked to Mrs. Green daily and she gave me a different answer every day: "They can't find your file. The Consul is away for the day. Come back tomorrow." I stopped going to her, and concentrated on my studies. I had mastered the English language pretty well. I corrected the teacher writing on the black board. His spelling was wrong. He was no Professor, just an Estonian school teacher who learned English while in Germany as a D.P. person. I was liked by him since I played well in soccer and I was the best in class. We learned mostly about U.S. History, Geography, and Mathematics. Our tests were very hard. We had to know all 48 states, their capitals, their size, their raw materials, population, and their most famous commerce. I studied hard daily, and managed to get honourable marks. The teacher put me in charge of conducting the tests, while he was also in the room marking the papers. Some of the students asked for easy questions, and some did get them, especially the girls.
The first letters from Jack arrived. He
found an uncle, also by the name of Reiss. I never knew he had an uncle in
New York. Perhaps, he was a distant uncle, and Jack adopted him as his
uncle for now. He was looking for an apartment of his own, it seemed that
he was not very happy there. It has been a year since my sister Heddy and
Arthur left for the U.S.A. and I didn't hear a thing from anybody in the
family. No correspondence was possible, since we were supposed to be all
alone, with no family left. Therefore, no mail could be had by any of us
if you wanted to stay in the orphanage. Mrs. Green would kick you out of
the home if she found out that you had family of your own.
The time of decision has come: next February I would be 18 and all my privileges as an orphan would be diminished. I would have to leave the orphanage and go on my own. I had a message that Mrs. Green wanted to see me. By now, I was the senior of the camp: one and a half years in Aglasterhausen. Since I was the program director, I thought that she probably wanted to discuss some new programs. I was wrong. She told me that a new chance had arisen for the Jewish orphans to immigrate, but this time to Canada.
The Canadian government had finally agreed to allow 1,000 Jewish children to immigrate, providing that the Jewish Congress would take the responsibility for the caring of the orphans for the first two years. Mrs. Green continued, "I thought, Szija, that since you will be 18 next February your best bet would be to go to Canada, and maybe you can find a way to go to the U.S. in a few years."
Mrs. Green, I pleaded with her, I don't
even know where Canada is located. All my friends immigrated to the U.S.A.
But, I will think about it, and I will let you know soon. I walked out of
the office and I was dizzy from all these suggestions. I felt sick. I was
all alone again, nobody to ask for advice. I pondered as to what to do. I
felt I was going to be sick. I got into my bunk and cried my heart out. I
couldnít fall asleep. What was I going to do? In the meantime, I found out
the boys that were also refused immigration to the U.S. were all
registering for the trip to Canada. Among the group that registered for
Canada was a very good friend of mine my age. Teddy Schwartz, he played on
our soccer team as an extra. We used to call him Tartalek. In
Hungarian that meant replacement. He was a gem of a fellow. Since he had
already registered, we knew that there was going to be another transport
going to Canada in about two months, he promised me that he would inform
me about the Canadian story in detail, as soon as he found out about the
situation. I was a bit relaxed now, I felt much better now, and I returned
to my studies, tomorrow we were having a lot of tests.
The group left for Canada and I was waiting
anxiously for the information from Teddy that I needed so badly so I could
make my decision. Mrs. Green kept reminding me, "Your time is running out.
Have you made your decision yet?" My replies did not please Mrs. Green,
she kept telling me, "Szija, you missed your chance."
A five page letter finally arrived from Canada. Teddy outlined all the possibilities that were made available for the orphans, like schooling and finding homes, some kids were even adopted. Also enclosed were a number of maps indicating the borders of Canada and the U.S. Toronto was only 2 hours away by car, he continued. The Jewish community of Toronto welcomed the children with open arms. Every child was placed in a Jewish home in a very nice district of town. Every child received new clothes and shoes.
Every night they were invited to a
different home for dinner. After dinner, the rest of their friends come to
visit and to see the Holocaust children survivors. We were telling them
about our losses and also about life in the concentration camps. They just
sat there stunned, listening to our horror stories, and at the end they
always ask: "How did you manage to come out alive?" The answer: "Just by a
miracle." Every Holocaust survivor that made it out alive had a story a
mile long, and miracles how he or she was saved. The letter gave me a new
picture of Canada and its possibilities. I immediately went to see Mrs.
Green and told her about the letter I just received from Teddy, and that I
wanted to go to Canada if there was another chance. Mrs. Green smiled and
said, "Don't worry, Szija, we have another group in January going to
Canada, and you can be its leader." I thanked Mrs. Green and walked out
from her office crying. Oh, God, how much more will I have to suffer to
have a peaceful existence, like any other teenager? Well, by now I thought
my suffering and pain had made me tough as a rock, nobody could hurt me
anymore. The world was not worth my tears. But I continued to cry in my
sleep, and asking, GOD WHY? Why?
About 60 boys and girls were picked to go to Canada from the orphanage. We were told that we could select the cities we wanted to settle in. The option cities were Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg, and Vancouver. Most of the kids wanted to go to Toronto since we had the information that most of the kids settling in Toronto were well looked after. Mrs. Green called me to her office and handed me the list of the kids, and said to me, "Szija, from now on you are in charge of the list, and since you are the senior of the group, you will also be in charge of the complete trip till you land in Toronto."
I accepted the job, and thanked Mrs. Green for having great faith in me to carry out her order. Since I was in charge I figured I could rearrange the list to ensure everybody's satisfaction. A problem arose with the list after it was finished. Some of the kids changed their minds. Child politics entered the picture. Boys wanted to go where their favorite girls were going, which required changing the list again. Since we were all busy packing, the list was not discussed any more. I promised to look into it when we would be on the train to Bremerhaven. In the meantime, I have no way to inform my family that I was leaving for Canada. My sister Heddy was in New York with her husband Arthur Spitz. Brother Leo and his wife, Ruzsena Rose, as we call her now, were in Liberec, Czechoslovakia. The other sisters, Shari, Rivczu, and Florcza, I had not heard from for the past year. It was impossible to receive any mail in the orphanage. You faced expulsion for having family alive somewhere. Shari was the only one that I knew was on her way to Israel with her husband, Hershi Mermelstein, whom she married after I left Munkacz. She once wrote to me while Jack and I lived in Stuttgart, saying they were in Linz, Austria, on the way to Israel. I hadn't heard from her since. At night I dreamt about the first meeting with brother Leo in Banska Bistricia, Slovakia. How we all talked for hours about the old home. Mostly about the things that I was not aware of, since Leo was 14 years older than I. He remembered how, in the year 1918, World War One was over and Leo was 4 years old. He remembered how father and one of his cousins came riding on two white horses down the road and gave him the ride of his life. They were still in their uniforms and the whole village of Packenov was out there to greet them. After all, father was still mayor of town. Also, the stories about his violin lessons when he was 10 years old after mother bought him a violin. Feri Baczi, our steady Gypsy band leader in our dance hall, was teaching him to play. After one year with Ferri Bacsi, mother found a more sophisticated teacher for Leo on the violin, but it ended very shortly soon after. One day, while Leo was playing his violin, the teacher smacked him with a stick over his fingers because he played a false note. Polda took off in a hurry and smashed his violin to pieces as soon as he stepped out of the teacherís place. That ended his violin career for good.
In 1927, he had his Bar Mitzwa at the Zedichover Klazel the same place I had my Bar Mitzva 14 years later. It was a Saturday affair after the services, his long Dvar Torah Pshetel was prepared by his Rabbi from the Wisznitzer Klous Reb Elje Strier. He was destined to become a great Bal Torah (Pious Learned Man). After his Bar Mitzva, he attended the Yeshiva in Dunaszerdehely, Slovakia. After he attended the Yeshiva in Kezhmarok Slovakia.
During the Second World War, while fighting the Germans near Kezhmarok as a partizan in the Paratrooper 2nd Division in General Swoboda's Czech Army, an old lady came looking for some food to the base; she heard that there were some Jewish boys among the partisans. This was in March 1945, the lady was liberated in Auschwitz by the Russians and they just got back home, finding no one, no food, no furniture. All houses were destroyed, just bare walls. He helped the lady with sacks of food and some straw for the house to sleep on. As it turned out, the lady was the daughter of his Rabbi from the Kezhmarok Yeshiva. He also attended the Munkaczer Yeshiva where the Minchas Eluzer was the Rosh Yeshiva. He was also the Famous Rabbi of Munkacz. I kept dreaming about these stories and more and re-living my familyís past and their stories.
We were finally on the train heading for Bremerhaven, the kids on the train were full of life. Everyone was telling stories, what he or she would do, once we got settled, what schools they would attend, what kind of clothes they would buy, and on, and on. They dreamt of things to come.
Thoughts were flashing through our minds as the train kept going faster and faster, and we looked out the windows and the sunset was so pretty. Reality was a major worry in our little heads. Who would support us? What was in our future? In what kind of home would we land? Would they like me? Would I be able to attend school? While I was breaking my head with all these questions, the train keeps klaking away, klak..klak..klak. I fell asleep, and again I dreamt about Leo and his growing up stories. He finished with the Yeshiva studies at the age of 16, and was enrolled in business school, which he attended for 2 years. After his graduation, he took a job at one of the most famous hotels in town the Czilag (The Star). He worked as a bartender in the large dining room. The job was very interesting, but they insisted that he works Saturdays, which was out of the question. After six months, he became head waiter, but had to quit the job. "No problem," said father, "you can take over our tavern and run it like the Czilag."
He was pleased with the offer from father. It was the first that he trusted him with the job. Second, the pay was very interesting and appealing. It was a very hard job since our tavern and dance hall were very popular in town and were very busy. Other tavern owners were very jealous and tried to create trouble by sending in special people to upset the peace in our establishment. They created fights and other disturbing incidents. Our customers were mostly military men in uniform. One night, two soldiers were creating disturbances, the bouncer approached them and politely asked them to leave, knowing what they were up to. They started to resist, and started to throw beer glasses and ashtrays into the crowd. One ashtray hit father on the side of his head and he was bleeding badly. As Leo had always the metal club in his apron, he attacked the troublemaker from the back with two solid blows to the head. They managed to run out the side door and were chased by Leo and the two bouncers, removing the tree supports lining the street supporting the just-planted trees and beat the two disturbers to a pulp. We never had any trouble after that fiasco.
"Bremerhaven...Bremerhaven!" yelled the conductor. We were awakened; the train was slowing down; we saw one of the largest port cities in the world. Train tracks as wide as your eyes can see. We could also see the ocean, with hundreds of boats anchored to the port.
Wow, we are sure going some place! No more camps, no more orphanages. Canada, here we come!
From the train, we were taken by bus to the transit camp in a place called Diepholz. The camp was very neglected and we feared that a new camp life was upon us. There was practically no supervision and everybody was on his own. We were housed on a second floor dormitory with two large rooms: one for the boys and one for the girls. Since we were supposed to leave in a day or two, we didn't care very much about the appearance of our new home. In the morning, we found out that we were having a handlerís strike on our hands. We were worried, since the food that we had on us was gone and we had to find new resources for food. We looked around and we found that there was one soup kitchen in existence. Most of the kids depended now on my orders. Since I was the man in charge, I went down with some of the older boys to investigate the soup kitchen below. We were disappointed to see the primitive ways of handling the food and the type of food they were serving, mostly pork: pork chops, pork soup, ham, and mashed potatoes. The mashed potatoes looked like somebody forgot to peel them, and everything smelled awful. We returned to the kids and reported the situation in the kitchen.
Half of the kids lost their appetite and the brave ones followed me to the kitchen. When we entered the kitchen, we discovered most of the people running the kitchen were Polish. Their faces were not the inviting kind, rather they were sarcastic and welcomed us by saying, "Zsidky prijechali." (The Jews are here). We were shocked to find ourselves in such a predicament. But, we were all hungry and we had to take what they were dishing out.
The next day, none of the kids wanted to brave the kitchen again. I had to find another way to feed the kids. I invited David Aptovitzer, one of the senior boys, now head cantor for the last 40 years in an orthodox Synagogue in Ottawa, capital of Canada. We both headed for the office of the Joint Organization that was situated in town.
As we entered, we were invited in by the Director of the Joint organization. We explained to him that we were a group of 100 orphans, survivors from the Holocaust, and we had no food and no bedding. For the last three days we are fasting, fearing the people running the kitchen. We needed help badly. The Joint Director assured us that within 4 hours he would have lots of food and blankets delivered for the children. Dave and I were very thankful and grateful. We returned to the group and told them that help was on the way. Within a few hours, two large trucks arrived with lots of food and blankets. The kids were very happy and ate with a very good appetite.
A new group of children arrived from a different orphanage in Germany, with a Dr. Klighoffer as their leader. I was very happy that I had a partner looking after the welfare of the children, Dr. Klinghoffer was willing to undertake the leadership of all the children. Since he was a gem of a person, I was very glad to give up my leadership and work very closely with him for the welfare of the children.
While waiting for our departure the children were busy playing all kind of games provided by the Joint Office. The most popular game were chess and checkers; a lot of the older kids played rummy or gin.
There was a few love affairs starting between Regina and Monyek, and between Celina and most of the boys. She was a very nice, good looking individual, liked by everyone. Small fights started between some of the group, nothing big, just a few loud words. It was getting to be a little too much, sitting around inside these rooms, day in and day out. Everyday we were told about the ongoing strikes; it should end in a couple of days. Then we were told that the workers rejected the company offer, which meant another few days or weeks.
We were all getting impatient and jittery.
Why can it not go smoothly for us for a change? The only thing this place
had given us was close friendly feelings to each other. We became melted
into one big family. We felt like brothers and sisters, which remained
with us for a long time. Dr. Klinghoffer was a very great help. He was the
real Pappa, and all the kids with troubles turned to him and he treated
every one like his own. The day of departure finally arrived. We were told
to pack and get ready to board the General Sturgis military boat
for our voyage to Canada.
January 31, 1948
We finally boarded the General Sturgis vessel and we were stifled by its appearance. It was a hulk, the bunks were hanging from the ceilings, and the ship appeared to be all one big room, except that the girls were separated from the men on a different level. But what the heck, who cares? Nobody knew what a real boat was supposed to look like anyway. Within minutes we were on the deck meeting our friends; we were all huddled together since the air was real brisk and that's one way we knew to keep warm. We really felt close, we sang and talked about our trip and our future.
Due to the strike we were on the boat sitting around for a full day without moving an inch. They fed us on the boat every few hours; we felt well taken care of. The crew on the boat seemed very friendly, but the general passengers were very hostile and anti-Semitic. The passengers were Ukrainians, Polish, Estonian and some Yugoslavs.
We had a lot of chutzpa and courage: those anti-Semites didn't bother us at all. "Hey! We are moving!"
"We are moving! Goodbye Europe! Farewell! Farewell!"
CANADA HERE WE COME!!!
Holocaust Main Page
Copyright © 2007 Museum of Family History. All rights reserved. Image Use Policy