WALK IN MY SHOES

Collected Memories of the Holocaust

PRE-WORLD WAR II EUROPE

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Life in Pre-War Mukacevo

as told by Shiku Smilovic in his autobiographical memoir  "Buchenwald 56466"

 

 February 8, 1928 

The eleventh child is born to the family of Mordche Shmiel and Chane Smilovic in the town of Mukachevo under the Czechoslovak regime at that time. Our family enjoyed a very comfortable lifestyle since we had a very successful tavern and a grocery store which was located next to the tavern.

My name is Szija Falek also known to my family and friends as "Shiku" which was a very popular name in my childhood years. My first memories of my childhood begin when I was 3 years old. I specifically recall my family and friends celebrating my birthday and the cutting off of my hair as is the custom in orthodox Jewish homes.

Very shortly after my haircut, my mother took me to get registered into cheder (school of Jewish learning). I remember very clearly that I resisted going to cheder.

As my Mother was dragging me along, I noticed a group of people sitting around a fire next to a new construction site. I asked my mother what these people were doing around the fire? She replied that they were waiting for the children that did not want to go to cheder! At that moment I started to move real fast - I didn't want to end up in the fire. I remember that I did not like cheder very much because the Rebbi was extremely strict and used to beat children with a stick if they misbehaved or didn't pay attention to his teachings.

After two years I was transferred to the Machzike Torah school which was also attended by my brother Beri. It was a different world. All off a sudden I loved going to cheder. My brother Beri took me to cheder with him every morning. The Rebbi for this school was a very pleasant man and he gave candies to the good students. I was among his favorite students. The Machzike Torah school consisted of about 500 students. It was a very well organized school with good teachers and lots of classrooms and was under the Congress supervision so that all children, rich or poor, could attend without any problems.
 

 1934 

I am 6 years old and I have to attend elementary school which was the start of a new era in my life. Since my early childhood, I never removed my cap or hat from my head except when I went to sleep. It was very uncomfortable, but as time went by I got used to the idea and started to realize that there were different people around us with different customs. Our school was situated on the second floor of the building. On the first floor there were many stores; my favorite store was the candy store.

Every morning I used to buy my favorite chocolate covered ball made from biscuits and chocolate filling; I can still taste it. It was so popular that you would have to hurry in the morning to be there early to be able to get one.



THE FAMILY SMILOVIC
Mukacevo
1935

Upper row, from left: Sheindel, Golde, Henu (Heddy) and Rivczu
Lower row, from left: Shiku (Sam), Eizekleib, mother Chane, father Mordche Shmiel, Beri and Freidy
Bottom row, from center: Etyu (Eva)
 

 1938 

I am 10 years old. Our city is being occupied by the Hungarians. Thousands of soldiers on trucks, on tanks, on bicycles, on horses, and foot soldiers are marching in. We are all excited since father told us how much better it will be under the Hungarian regime. He remembers prior to 1918 when the Austria-Hungary regime ruled our territories it was very good and taxes were very low, practically zero. Under the Czech regime taxes were very high plus wage controls; it made life impossible. To our surprise it turns out that the Hungarian occupiers are a bunch of anti-Semites; they are cutting off beards and beatings are occurring on the streets while they are marching in.

A new leaf is born in our little town of Munkacz; since I can remember I never heard or witnessed any anti-Semitic outbursts and now all this mess. A few weeks go by and things are not getting any better; a new law is announced. All licenses owned by Jews are revoked immediately like liquor, tobacco products, and drugs. Since we owned a liquor license we had to hire our head waiter or rather we made arrangements with him that we would operate the tavern as 50 % partners. He was happy to receive this offer and we hoped that we would be able to continue on this basis for the meantime. It seems that our gentile partner got cold feet and one day he just said to us: Sorry our partnership is over, and that was another new leaf under the new Hungarian regime.

Munkacz was situated in the most eastern part of Czechoslovakia when I was born in 1928. The population was about 28,000. The population of Jews in town was about 50%. Mukachevo, as it is called under the Czech regime, is a bustling town. Jewish life is like in Jerusalem, some call it the Jerusalem of the East. Chasidim from every sect Shtieblech all over town. We also have a large Beis Hamedresh, nusuch Sfard and a large Shul nusuch Ashkenaz, a famous Cantor and a 35 unit male choir which includes children. The Shul and the Beis Hamedresh have a capacity of 2-3 thousand seats; they each have a three tier balcony for the ladies. All Zionist organizations are well represented. B'nei Akiva is most popular; since all my older sisters belong, I'm sure that they are the most popular. Life was very pleasant in that period of our life.
 

 September 1939 

The Germans attack Poland. They are very successful and conquer Poland in two weeks. Polish soldiers are retreating through our town, among them are Jewish soldiers. They tell us about the suffering in the last two weeks they had to endure. We gave them some food, drinks, and within a few days they left town. Since Hungary was allied with the Germans, they handed over all Polish soldiers to the Germans as prisoners of war. We found out later, that all Jews and high-ranking officers were killed and the rest were taken to concentration camps in Germany.
 

 Spring 1941 

A new order is being posted, All Jews without citizenship papers must report to the railway station the next day, or they will be arrested and harsh punishment handed out to all not obeying the order. We had in our town about 2,000 Polish Jews that emigrated from Galicia in the years of Austria-Hungary occupation and failed to integrate into the general population. They never applied for citizenship status, just carried on and on without applying. Citizenship was secondary to them. Thousands are affected and there is no way to avoid being deported. Families are being broken up. Since some have citizenship, the wife or the husband, the ones with citizenship can remain with the rest who have citizenship. The others must go. It's a very sad situation in town. People we know, the Kliver Rebbi's son plus so many others had to go; the situation is very bad. The next day all these people were loaded into cattle cars and taken to destination unknown. We found out that most of the people were killed as soon as they left the train in Ukraine. Our uncle and aunt were also taken with their five children from Terneve a small village about 100 km from Munkacz to Ukraine with the same group.

One day a young boy walks in to our house and says to Mother: I am your nephew from Terneve, my mother Taube Einhorn was your sister. Mother fainted; she always used to faint whenever she heard bad news.

Tell me what happened to your mother and family?

With tears rolling down his face he tells about the grueling story. As soon as they were told to get off the trains when they reached Kamenic Pedolsk, soldiers dressed in SS uniforms all black, started shooting at the people with machine guns. Since father was protecting us from behind, he was shot immediately. We ran toward an overpass and hid under it. After a while they discovered us hiding, and started shooting at us. Mother was killed first since she spread her hands over us. Also three of our siblings were killed; only my sister and I were left in the bottom of the bodies uninjured.

We lay there for hours without moving a muscle, then a woman appeared and noticed that we were alive. She took us to her farm. After a few weeks she said to us, have you family in Munkacz? We said yes. Children, she said, I will keep you (my sister), you can help us on the farm, and you will have to go back and find your family in Munkacz. I shall take you across the border and show you the way to Munkacz. The next day, I was given some food and taken across the mountains; it took me three days to get here. We were all stunned and shocked that these horrors are really happening. We take our cousin to the large crowd in front of the big Synagogue and have him tell the story to all the bystanders. Unbelievable, impossible, childrenís imagination. Is that boy telling the truth? Nobody wants to listen, they are scared to believe the truth.

My cousin stayed with my uncle Jeno Weiss in our town and perished in Auschwitz in May 1944 at the age of 12.
 

 February 1941 

I am 13 years old and my Bar Mitzvah will take place in the small Zedichov shtiebel on the Puspuk gass (lane) where the Kliver Rebbi, Chaim Joseph Eichenstein, the son of the great Zedichov Rebbi Menashe Eichenstein is in charge. This shtiebel was like a second home to me; we pray in this place daily and my School of Jewish Learning cheder is also here. The Kliver Rebbi often asks me to take him to the Mikve twice a week, Mondays and Thursdays. I walk with him and he leans on me with his right hand and tells me all about his son that was taken away, and how worried he is about him. On Fridays, I have the duties to pick up some meat for his mother, the old Zedechov rebecin, from the butcher Ackerman on the Yidishe gass (lane) at no charge. My Bar Mitzvah was nothing like you see in North America; all the trimmings were gefilte fish, challes and bilkes, wine and beer, served at the shaloshudes (Shabbat third meal) for the whole congregation on Saturday. I said a Dvar Torah (explication of Biblical text). The Kliver Rebbi seated at the head table was very pleased with my presentation. As I finished, he pinched my cheek and said: You will grow up to be a Ben Torah (a son of the Torah). I liked the Kliver Rebbi very much. In all his talks he warns the people, he is aggressive, look what is happening in Poland. And look what is happening right here! Run to wherever you can, and escape the destruction of your families. Start a collection for arms, you will need it badly soon. Like a Prophet he foresaw the dark clouds gathering upon the Jewish people and tried to persuade the congregation.

But the people thought that he was too aggressive, crazy, and bewildered,
 

 1942 

The German armies are pushing toward Moscow. The Hungarians are proud of their allies; the anti-Semites warn us that Hitler is coming and will kill you all soon. We have rented a sty for our cows down the street, and I have to go daily to feed the cows and in that place live some young boys who call me names. Dirty Jew! Hitler is coming to kill you soon. Anti-Semitism is so open that it scares the living daylights out of everybody. All businesses are taken away and replaced by non-Jews. People are without work and money, children are begging on the streets and open kitchens are being opened all over town. The news from Poland is frightening: they say that over 2,000,000 Jews are dead, killed by special German Police, the 101 divisions that go from town to town, round up all the Jews and then take them to the woods where every one is shot through the head in a pit that they had to dig for themselves. It boggles your mind. How can educated Germans, mostly married man with children, ordinary citizens, kill women and little babies? Unbelievable, After reading Hitlerís Willing Executioners by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen (1996), I am convinced that this gruesome killing was done by ordinary German citizens, willingly, without protest. Our business now, we have a restaurant, located on the Fo'Utsza across from the Grojse Bais Hamedrash before the Latorca River bridge. The store is very busy, since we feed most of the Polish Jews that are running from Poland, which is against the law. But father used to say, "Chesed Kneged Kulam": no matter what, you must help your brother in need.

I am now singing in the Grojse Bais Hamedrash choir, which is across the road from our restaurant. We are now in a new house. We had to sell the old place since the upkeep was very high and no income to carry the mortgage payments. We sold the properties, paid off the debts, and purchased the new place from the monies left over. The new location was in the Yidishe Gass where the neighbors were 99% Jewish; what a contrast of neighborhoods. Here the houses are very old and the neighbors are non-observant Jews.

The old neighborhood was located in a very nice new location; the streets were lined with trees on both sides. And in the spring they used to bloom with pink flowers, it was just beautiful. Our neighbors were mostly Government employees and some very close friends that belonged in the same Shul (Synagogue). These new neighbors stand on the street and smoke cigarettes openly on Shabat and talk a language we never heard before. Father keeps saying I wish we wouldn't buy in this neighborhood; the reality of the matter was, father never even saw the place before he bought it, his friend, the agent who handled both transactions, was the only one who knew the best for my father.

One Saturday when we came home from Shul, as we entered our gates we noticed two men standing under our peach tree, just across from our entrance to our house. As we approached the men, one of them asked my father: are you Marcus Smilovic. Yes I am, answered my father.

You are under arrest, you have five minutes to say goodbye to your family and do not take any luggage; you will be back soon. Father asked what are the charges? We don't know, was the reply. But we knew better.

There were more arrests in the week, for helping the Polish Jews, among them also our uncle Jeno Weiss. The Cushtodias who also owned a restaurant where the Polish runaways were fed, plus other people involved in catering to the Polish Jewish escapees, were arrested. We also found out that the Hungarian police planted spies among the Jewish population in order to find out who was involved in helping the escapees. They were successful in planting a Jewish boy named Guttman who sold out to the police all the people that were involved. He paid a heavy price for his deeds. After the arrests someone threw acid in his face one morning and that was the end of Guttman as a musser (snitch). After the war my cousin Toivy Weiss confessed to me that he was the one that finished off Mr. Guttman after his father's arrest.

My father's tears are running down his face while he is saying goodbye to us and is being taken away by the men. They are walking along our street to the jailhouse. Sister Rivczu walked behind them just to find out where he was being taken. She returned and gave us the news that he was taken to the Kolner Kostely for interrogation. This place was known as the worst interrogation police force in the land; torture was so severe that people died from the blows. We tried to contact all the people that could possibly help dad. We hit brick walls; there was no way of getting father out from this place. After 10 day's of interrogation he was sentenced to 18 month in jail to be served in Garany near Budapest, Hungary. Sister Rose who lives in Budapest could visit father once a month, and informed us about him.

Since we moved to the new neighborhood I managed to make new friends. Their best playtime, is the game of soccer. Since I never played soccer before I stand around and watch the boys play. After a few weeks I am invited to join in and play, and after a few month I master the game and I'm invited to play in their Junior Soccer League team. Problems invade my mind, since all the league games are played on Saturdays. How can I, a Jewish boy from a religious family, even think about playing soccer on Shabas?

Because of the situation of father being away in jail, I find myself torn between the prohibition of playing on Shabas and the eagerness to play soccer. Of course, the game of soccer prevailed and I joined the team and proved myself as one of the best players. Our team became the talk of the soccer people; we won most of the games, and the news appeared in the daily sport section of our town paper. The spectators for our game became larger every week and everything went well until one Saturday afternoon, while playing on the field, I notice my sister Heddy and her boyfriend Arthur Spitz walking through the gates of the field. At first she didn't recognize me because I had a handkerchief around my head covering my side locks. But, since I had possession of the ball, the kids started yelling my name Sziku, Sziku, I immediately realized that I'm in trouble !!! I just ran off the field without any notice, heading for the dressing room with the whole team following right behind me. Nobody knew what happened, except Heddy and I. That ended my soccer career and I promised my mother not to play again. To repent, I enrolled in the Yeshiva where the head of the Yeshiva was father's very good friend, Reb Shlome Chaim Schwartz.

In his building he had a Rebbi, Reb Wolf M'Lancit, who was a Polish escapee who ran the Yeshiva. The fees were collected once a week from the Jewish population in town. In the stores or wealthy homes. The idea was that you would be performing a great mitzva (commandment) by making others give charity for learning Torah (Jewish learning). I didn't like the idea of going around town begging, but I had no choice in the matter, plus that was the only way to attend this Yeshiva. All other Yeshivas in town had a large fee, which we couldn't afford. So every week, my friend Jack Reiss and I paired up and went on the road to fulfill our duties. Jack and I used to haggle: who is going to ring the door bell? We decided by tossing a coin, and Jack was always the winner; I never could figure out how that was possible. But since Jack was a close friend of mine I didn't put up a big fight. We were a very good team since most of the people we visited knew us and our families; therefore the denominations were somewhat larger than normal. The days in the Yeshiva (School of Talmudic Learning) are very long. I start at five o'clock in the morning, head for the Yeshiva till noon, back to the Yeshiva at 2 P.M. till 8 P.M. and that's 6 days a week. On Saturdays we prayed at 9 a.m. until 12 noon and we came back at two p.m. for a special lecture until Shabat ends.

On Sundays, I go to the soccer match watching the M.S.E. our town club play. I watch through the holes in the fence that were there cut out by others for the purpose of watching the game without entrance fees. The games are played at 1 P.M. which gives me a chance to watch during my lunch break. I'm late each time I go to the games for the afternoon session, but I always have some excuse for being late. My soccer fans in the Yeshiva can't wait for my report of the game. They huddle around me with the books in their hands while I give them a blow by blow description of the game. This was going on until one day one of the senior boys listened in on my report and told the Rebbi the reasons of my being late on Sundays. I was very embarrassed when I was approached by the Rebbi (head of the school) and questioned about my behaviour; excuses did not help this time. I received my punishment, to learn a number of pages extra to our regular weekly lectures, and that I will be tested in front of the whole Yeshiva. The boys helped me with the extra work and I managed to pass the tests with flying colours.

This ended my soccer reports on Sundays.
 

 Spring 1943 

We receive our regular reports from sister Rose who lives in Budapest. She writes that a week ago she went to visit father in jail. She was surprised to hear, when some one called and said are you Rose Smilovic from Munkacz? She looked at this officer and said yes, I am Rose. Don't you remember me? I used to live just across the road from you, and spend a lot of time in your tavern. By now she recognized him, and told him about father being held in this place. "Don't worry, Rose, I will have him out in a few days."

Within a week dad was released and came home. The whole city was happy with father's home coming. Father's absence in town was felt very much. Especially the poor people whom he used to help day and night. For years he was the President of the Chevra Linas Hatzedek (welfare group) and president of the Chevra Hachnuses Kale (marriage assistance for orphan brides); he was never home, always busy with helping others, leaving mother to take care of the 11 children plus the tavern and grocery store.

Mother was a special person. She disregarded what father was doing, she even encouraged him to go on with his work. Don't worry Mordche Shmiel! I will manage just fine and she surely did. We had a nanny and the older children helped in the business. Mother had it well organized. She received her business education in New York City when at the age of 16 she was sent to her uncle in New York where she spent 2 years in business school. Then she worked for the uncle for a while until one day the uncle noticed his son kissing her.

"What's this? How long has this been going on?" he said.

They said that they were in love, and planned to marry in the near future.

Oh no!! Never, never. According to our tradition, we don't marry cousins. Within a few weeks mother was shipped back to Paczkonyov, the village where grandfather Shmiel Arje Hakohen Schwartz lived and also father lived in the same village. Within six month of mothers arrival back home, she married father. She bore 6 children in Paczkonyov, named Rochel, Feige, Aizik Leib Golde, Sheindel, and Henyu. Since grandfather was a very rich man he promised father a large sum of money to move to the city of Munkacz. An offer father couldn't refuse. Packed up his group and headed for the city. With all that money he purchased a great piece of real estate in a very nice neighborhood and built a large tavern with a dance hall, a grocery store, and new living space, four bedrooms, living room and kitchen. He also brought his friend Guttman the baker and his family from Paczkonyov, he purchased a bakery across the road from our property which was ready to go when his friend the baker arrived.

These were the greatest years of our lives. The bakery was very popular in town and business was very good. It was a 50-50 proposition at the outset, but as business improved Mrs. Guttman became very hostile toward mother and father. One day she chased father out of the bakery saying we were no longer partners, you have enough businesses; the bakery is ours. Father stood stunned not understanding the outburst of his best friend's wife. After some hearings at the Beis Din (a religious court) a settlement was reached and we had cholent (a special food cooked in the oven for 24 hours, meat, beans, potatoes in one pot) baked free for life.

Father was a broken man since he came back from jail. He was 54 years old and looked much older. The suffering during his arrest is a book by itself. Very few people survived that terrible jail and the ones who managed to survive were all broken human beings. The lost will to live had diminished the individual to non-existence, like someone living and feeling dead.

Sitting in his room most of the day and night reading Tehilim (Psalms of King David) with tears rolling down his cheeks soaking the book held in his hands. After a few months he managed to crawl out from his dark past and went to the store to help out.
 

 November 1943 

The war in the east has changed direction; the Russians were moving really fast. They recaptured most of their territories, and were only about 200 km from Munkacz. At night we could hear the rumbling of the heavy Russian guns; everybody was saying the end of the war was just around the corner.

Dad, Beri, and I are digging a bomb shelter in the back yard and we loaded food and water into the bunker; we create a natural vent with some metal ducts ready for the real stuff. As a 15 year old young lad, I walked around the neighborhood with my friends inspecting all the shelters in the neighborhood; we were having a ball. In reality things were not so good; there was trouble in the streets. Jews were being rounded up for heavy work by the military personnel and gendarmes; they were very cruel; anyone running away from work was shot on the spot

One day we heard a commotion across the road from our house; we run out to see what was happening. We heard a gun shot and saw a German SS in black uniform jump on his bike and disappear into the night. We crossed the road to our neighbor: the crying and yelling was unbelievable; some dead bodies were lying on the ground. This was my first taste of seeing death in front of my eyes.

One Saturday afternoon we heard that they are collecting Jews for work. Most of the men hid or ran away trying to avoid forced labour. I must point out, at this time, that most of the men between 20 and 50 had been in Hungarian forced labour camps since 1941. The only men that were home were children or men over 50. Brother Leo was somewhere in the Ukraine when we last heard from him in 1943. I remember when he left for forced labour camp in 1941.

He called brother Beri and me to the attic of our old house showed us a gun and said: I am leaving this gun for you to have in case of emergency. He showed us how to load the gun, and fire. We were thrilled at the time, but we had to promise not to tell anyone about the gun. So when we moved, I managed to bring the gun with me and hid it in the attic of the new house. The gendarmes were going from house to house looking for able men. Father and brother Beri hid in the bomb shelter which was well-camouflaged, and I ended up in the attic with the gun in my hand shaking like a fish. But I was ready, loaded the gun and with both hands held it tight facing down to the opening of the attic. If someone dared to open the access door I would let him have it. To my luck nobody came to the attic and I came down without telling anyone about my experience.



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