WALK IN MY SHOES
Collected Memories of the Holocaust
as told by Shiku Smilovic in his
autobiographical memoir "Buchenwald
The next day we had our medical and the
sick were placed in special care units for immediate attention. Jack and I
passed our medical and were given a clean bill of health. After one week
in the sanatorium, we were transferred to a different location in the
heart of Prague, where most of the returnees were placed, hoping to meet
with some of their family. The place was nothing like the place we had
just come from.
It was a six floor old school building with hundreds of rooms in it. Some rooms were occupied, but most of them were empty, just waiting for more returnees. At the main entrance of the building, there was a registration office where everyone who arrived had to register in this large book in alphabetical order. Therefore, if someone registered with the same name, you would be able to see it instantly. My G-d! I screamed to Jack! Rivcsu is alive! I could see sister Regina Smilovic registered on the page. We called her Rivcsu at home. Regina was her Czech name. We were both happy. I said to Jack: "Let's look for your sister Matza's name. Perhaps, she is also registered in this book."
Matza was my sister Rivcsu’s age and they knew each other well. From the times that sister Rivcsu slept at the old Zedichof Rebicen's house, for a few years after the Rebbi Menashe Eichenstein died in 1937, to keep her company. The Rebitzen shared the same court with the Reiss family, that is Matza’s and Jack’s family. Matza was always waiting for Rivcsu at night, when she came to sleep at the Rebitzen’s place.
Jack and I were looking and looking, but there was no Matza in the book. I felt terrible and sad for Jack, his eyes turned blood red and tears started running freely. Saying quietly to me, "You are very lucky! You found out your brother Leo and sister Rivcsu are alive. And who knows if I will ever find anyone of my family alive?" I tried to console Jack, but everything I tried was in vain. Jack was suddenly very bitter towards the world, and couldn't find a place for himself.
After a while, we decided to go and locate Rivcsu, since she was registered in the book, she must be in the building somewhere. We decided to start looking on the top two floors designated for the girls. We ran from to room and we could not locate her. Finally, I recognize a girl from our home town, Munkacz. I asked her about my sister Rivcsu. "Yes, yes, she lives here, in this room, but she went looking for you. She found out that you arrived from Buchenwald on trucks, and were taken to a Sanatorium." My G-d, there we were in the same building, and the pain we had to go through to meet my sister.
It took us two days to meet, since I went to town looking for her and she, in turn, found out that we had moved from the sanatorium and were located in her building. So she was on her way back to the building. In the meantime, we went to town looking for her. And so it lasted for two days till we finally met, after the whole building was notified, and posters posted all over the building.
We hugged and kissed and cried. Then Jack joined in, and we hugged and cried some more. I told Rivczu about Leo, that he was alive and also the stories that the soldiers told me about Leo when I arrived from Buchenwald on the trucks next to the soccer stadium. She was delighted to hear the good news. We hugged and cried again, and we all went to bed; it was getting daylight out; the time was after 4 am, we were really tired.
We stayed in the central location for about three weeks. During the daytime, students from the University of the city of Prague took us to town and showed us the beautiful sites of the city. We were also delighted to see the buildings, the wonderful architecture, plus the beautiful Vltava (Waldow) river and its beautiful bridges. We also took boat rides on the river with our guides telling us the history of the city and its significant architecture. We were seeing a new world. A world that was removed from us in Munkasz, in cheder, or yeshivot, (House of Talmudic learning). We started to assess our primitive upbringing as far as the outside world was concerned. All these beautiful things were strictly off limits to a Jewish boy growing up in Munkacz.
A new beginning with fresh thoughts were jumping around in our young minds. It was nice to forget for a minute the suffering and pains we had just endured, and witness a new awakening. During the night we dreamt about our tragedies, we woke up in a sweat and could not fall asleep again. We sat and thought: "What now? Where are we going from here?" The horrors of the past were with us every night. I saw Dr. Mengele in his tall shiny boots, directing the people to the left and to the right. I could still hear the people cry from the gas chambers in Birkenau-Auschwitz. The stench of the burning flesh was still in my nostrils. I was trembling from the cold after our showers in Birkenau and standing naked outside with father and brother, Beri, huddled together to keep warm from the blasting cold winds. I awoke in a sweat and I realized that this was another bad dream. I tried to fall asleep, with no luck at all. I just lay there and waited till the morning light would brighten up my day.
The day I met my brother-in-law, Engineer Hanch, walking on the Vaclavski Namesti, the main square in Prague. Someone hugged me and called me by my Czech name Pavel. "I am your brother-in-law, Hanch, your sister Cilka (Feige in Jewish) has sent me to look for you. She read in the papers that you are alive and that you are in Prague." I was in the daily papers on a list of people that had returned from Buchenwald. "I have been in Prague for the past two days looking for you." I looked at Jack, who was witnessing this meeting, and he suggested to go back and tell Rivcsu about your sister Feige and perhaps you both can go and visit her. I thought that this was the best way to handle this matter. We all went back to the school building and looked for Rivcsu, but she was nowhere to be found. She must have gone to town with her girlfriends, but Hanch insisted that I go and we both left for the railway station, asking Jack to tell Rivcsu about my meeting with Hanch, and that I went with him to meet my sister Feige in Doksy, that I would be back in a couple of days. While sitting on the train I observed my brother-in-law and I was very disappointed with his looks and his size. I imagined him as being at least six foot tall, with blue eyes like a movie star. I was two years old when he married my sister Feige. I never met him, nor did I remember my sister Feige. All I did remember were the words "Hush, hush" whenever the name Feige was mentioned in father's presence. Father did not want to hear her name mentioned in our house. The story went that when she fell in love with Engineer Hanch, who was not Jewish, father, a respected Orthodox Jew, found out about this dilemma, as I mentioned earlier in the story. The shame was driving father to the grave. And now I look at Engineer Hanch, a mere 5"2, a very intelligent man, and I thought, was all this trouble really worth it?
We finally reached Doksy, where I met with sister Feige for the first time in my life that I could remember, and her three children. I told her that I remembered one day in the late fall 1944 in Buchenwald, when I was talking to father and he asked about her. She was elated. She hugged me and cried for a long while. We talked about our losses, and how painful it was, the last days with father in Buchenwald. I also told her about our experiences in Auschwitz and other camps I was in with father. And how father asked me twice: "Did you say goodbye to Mother in Auschwitz?" since he couldn't remember saying goodbye to her. Feige told me about the two years time she spent in Therezinstat concentration camp; she worked in the kitchen 12 hours a day and sometimes longer, seven days a week. And how lucky she was not to be taken to Auschwitz in 1944 when most of the Therezinstat Jews were taken to Auschwitz, and within a few weeks they were all gathered up and taken to the gas chambers.
We talked till the wee hours of the morning, and we retired for a good night’s rest. We concluded the night with more hugging and crying. In the morning I met their three wonderful children. Lorinka, the oldest a girl, then Lolo, the only boy, and Miluszka, the youngest girl. Lorinka, and her daughter Eva with her husband Michael, and their seven children, now live in Israel in Kfar Chabad, a very lovely religious family, Lolo and their family, and Miluszka and family still live in the Czech republic to this date. I also met Hanch’s father. He was a very nice old man. He managed to save the children from certain death by hiding them in his barn for two years. His only wish in life was to meet with my dad. He was very heartbroken when I told him that dad was killed late in January 1945 in Buchenwald. My sister showed me the family picture we made in 1935, when she already lived in Czechoslovakia. I cried again when I saw the family picture with mom and dad, sister and brothers, a picture of our beautiful family in Munkacz.
I spent three days in Doksy and I returned to Prague happy to see Sister Rivczu and Jack again. I told them about my trip and the meeting with sister Feige and her three beautiful children. Jack and I were making plans to return to Munkacz, when Sister Rivczu came running through the door, she could hardly talk, she was out of breath from running, to tell me more good news. She found out from a friend of hers, just arrived from Budapest, that Sister Ruchel, Mendel, her husband and their three children were alive. The oldest, Gershon Jankev, was named after our grandfather, our father's father.
Gershon Jankev married a wonderful girl from New York. She bore 15 children. Her name is Neche, she has six boys and nine girls. A beautiful, Orthodox mishpoche. Gershi, as the family calls him, is a graduate Rabbi from the Baltimore Yeshiva. He is the head master of Jewish learning, in the great Yeshiva of the late Reb Moishe Feinstein, called TIFERET JERUSALAIM in Long Island, New York. And then came the twins, Danny, or Dudu, has three wonderful children and twin sister Ritta, or Zisi, has two beautiful daughters, They survived the war with the help of the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg who made them Swedish citizens overnight. Plus, one hundred thousand other souls who were saved by this great individual. It is said that Raoul Wallenberg saved more Jews during the war than all the nations of the world put together. The Russians couldn't stand the good deeds this "Man" did for the Jews, single-handedly saving most of the Jews from Budapest. The Russians arrested him in Budapest and took him away to Russia, never to be seen again. The reason of his arrest remains a mystery to all that are so grateful for his deeds.
She was also told that sister Henyu, or Heddy, as we call her now, was also alive and was expected to be in Budapest at sister Ruchel's place. Well our hearts felt very happy, so we hugged again and decided to go to Budapest and meet sister Rose and her family, and also to see sister Heddy. It looked like Jack couldn't take the good news. He just disappeared and we couldn't find him for hours. Late that night Jack returned, and we asked him, "Where did you go? We were looking for you all over." He replied in a somber tone, "I went for a walk along the river banks of the Waldou River." I felt sick inside because I knew what was bothering him. I wished that he also would get some good news soon.
In the morning, we said goodbye to Jack and promised to be back within a few days. We headed for the main railway station on foot. It seems funny how you handle the situation of each day. There is no script, it just happens. For instance, who would even think in 1996 to walk to the railway station on foot for close to 2 hours? Nobody, but the situation that day was as follows. First, there were no taxicabs running. Second, who had a penny to his name? The money we received from the Jewish Agency, and a few more Kronen from the Czech Government Charity Offices. Well, that money nobody would touch, that's all we had. We held on to it, like our life would depend on it. We would go hungry for hours; who in his or her right mind would even think of purchasing a piece of bread, or a hot soup in a restaurant, which were plentiful in the city of Prague. Everybody expected a free soup or a free piece of bread; that's what we are supposed to eat, that was our way of thinking. It took more than a few months to realize that we had to try and be more resourceful and create our independence.
We finally reached the railroad station. On the train to Budapest we met a lot of Russian soldiers going home, or just going, since all the trains were free of charge to the soldiers, and to all the survivors. Trains were all very crowded with people hanging from the sides of the train and some even on the roof of the train. The Russian soldiers were very rough with the girls, they were just grabbing and seducing them in front of everybody. Rivczu was hiding behind me and I confronted a few of them, telling them in Russian: we have just returned from the concentration camps and this is not the way to welcome us. A Russian officer approached me and said to me "Are you AMCHU?" "Yes," I replied. He took me and Rivczu and placed us in a special compartment, where we stayed for the entire trip to Budapest without any more problems. We finally arrived at sister Ruchel’s (or Rose) house in Budapest. I spent most of the time talking about father and the details of the last moments with him in Buchenwald and when I said goodbye I felt that it was the last time I would ever see dad alive. Liberation was only a few weeks away. It hurts to this day, every time I tell the story about dad. As I talked about my experiences in camp, Rose and the children sat around me on the floor and we all had a good cry.
Sister Rivczu talked about her camp
experiences. Sisters Shari, Henyu, Rivczu, Freidy and our cousin Rivczu
Weiss, also from Munkacz, managed to escape the death march and to avoid
being shot for the crime of escaping. Settling in a village, pretending to
be Ukrainian peasants, losing their employer in a bombing raid in Bavaria,
managing to survive in that village till the Russian liberation in May
1945. While she was telling the stories someone yelled "surprise!" The
door swung open, and our sister Heddy entered the room. We all embraced
her and we cried some more, but this time they were happy tears. She told
us that sister Shari and sister Freidy were in Munkacz and that they found
a beautiful house which they shared with the Schneider family from Volove.
There was a mother with three daughters, Goldie, Feigy, and Rivczu, the
youngest, they got along like family. Since Heddy did not hear my story
about father, I repeated the days with father in Buchenwald all over
again. It was already 3 a.m., we could hardly keep our eyes open, we all
retired to our cots. The next day, Heddy started to tell her
story. We all
sat in the living room on the floor while she started.
Although I was only 15 when we were thrown out of our homes and taken to the slaughter, I blame our elders for not trying to implant in us a resisting force, to enable us to resist these sadistic killers in every town, and in every village, on the trains, on the highways, and in the streets. What an immense force to deal with! Instead, we were given a strict diet of Chasidim that made zombies out of us. The attention that was paid to all the six hundred and thirteen Mitzvot (Commandments) in detail was an example of your character for generations to come.
To touch a candlestick holder was forbidden on Shabat. It was Moktze, a sin that you probably would get your hands chopped off for touching it. Of course this was not true, but we, in our minds, felt that chopping off your hand would be the proper punishment. Just an example of our upbringing back in the Carphatian cities and villages.
How does one understand why Jews did not resist: this question was often asked by misinformed people sitting in their plush studios who put the reason of our great human losses on the shoulders of the degraded, hungry, confused, bewildered, lifeless, frozen individuals. Understanding the mentality of these people can only be judged by the people who were there, in person, and who witnessed these tragic occurrences day in, and day out. As a survivor, I wish that someone would have given us instructions to resist.
Simple instructions: Do not board the cattle cars! They are taking you to be killed! This could have started the ball rolling. It was no secret any more! The news of the burning and the gassing in Auschwitz was revealed to the world in March 1944 when four Jewish boys escaped Auschwitz camp and brought the sad news to Rabbi Weissmandel in Slovakia. He, in turn, notified the Swiss delegation in Slovakia. They informed London and Washington with solid evidence in their possession. The sad news was also transmitted to Tel Aviv, to the Jewish leaders. The whole world just stood by, and did not answer the urgent call for help. Bomb the railroad tracks leading to Auschwitz! Bomb the crematoriums and gas chambers! We were left at the mercy of the Nazi butchering machine. The final score is well known to the world.
We spent a wonderful week talking, reminiscing about our past, and also talking about the possibilities for the future.
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