WALK IN MY SHOES
Collected Memories of the Holocaust
as told by Shiku Smilovic in his
autobiographical memoir "Buchenwald
We were separated from the camp mainly for our safety and to be given a proper medical check-up. In the new place we were assigned to: ten boys to each room. The rooms were fairly large, and each one of us had a bunk, an upper or a lower; it depended how quick you were when we entered the room. The lower bunks were the more favored ones, and I managed to get one with no problem. At the outset there was very little supervision at the new quarters. Therefore, some problems arose, especially when we moved into the rooms. A disagreement occurred since friends wanted to stay in the same room, and that was not so easy, since each room only held bunks for 10 boys, and all of a sudden everybody had too many friends to fit them all in one room. But after a little while, things got settled and everybody was happy. One morning, three tall handsome men in Russian uniforms enter our room 5, and we were told that all boys from the Carphatian area were to meet in the dining room at 5 p.m. These were Jewish men sent by the Russian government to persuade the children to come back home to Russia.
We met each day for two hours and they taught us some Russian songs and told us how well we would be looked after when we got home. We would have our choice of schools or trades, and they also gave us propaganda speeches about the Russian workers and Communist achievements.
In the meantime, another wing was at work. Rabbi Shachter and some American officers called a meeting for all the Jewish boys and we were told that we could go immediately to France, and from there, we would be able to go to Israel or the United States. They also told us going home was in vain, since there was nobody left back home to take care of us: "You join our group and we will arrange your travels to France and then you will go to Israel or to the U.S.A." Since we were only 15 years old, we were mystified with the two factions fighting to gain our approval. These politics did not enter our young minds. We were very confused and didn't know which way to turn.
The next day we were told that all survivors had to register at the main office in camp. As I stood in line for the registration, I noticed my friend (Jankel) Jack Reiss, standing in line for the registration. Jack and I embraced and a few tears were shed at the same time. We grew up together as children, we were the same age. Their grocery store at 32 Puspog Gass, and also their home, was in the same court where we prayed daily. His father and my father were the best of friends for years, as we all prayed in the Zedichov Rebbis Shtiebel. Jack and I went to cheder together, we sang in the same choir. We attended the same Yeshiva. Whatever he did, I did, and whatever I did, he did, throughout our youth we always stuck together. We also spent time together in the Zeitz camp where his father died in his arms from pain and suffering.
We were separated when I left the camp on the way to Buchenwald. Now we met again, just by luck. We talked and talked for hours. He told me how sick he had been a few weeks earlier. He was afraid that he was not going to make it, since they were giving poison injections for all the sick who had diarrhea while in the hospital. He kept washing his pants and tried to get some spare pants in order to avoid the fatal injection. He survived, and he said to me: "I still have to go back to the hospital. I still need medicine to be cured. Let's promise each other to stay together from now on." I agreed and invited him to come and stay with the boys' group outside the camp.
He was happy for the invitation. After one week, Jack looked much better, but needed to gain a few pounds since he was still skin and bones. We decided that he was ready to join me in the new special place for the children outside the camp in the old SS officers building, since the care and the food would definitely help Jack to gain weight and get his strength back. Some problems arose, since all the rooms in our place were full and there was no extra bed to be had anywhere, plus the boys in my room were against having him with us, since Jack looked dehydrated and they were scared that he has a contagious disease.
After a long talk with the boys, I
persuaded them to let Jack stay for a while. I shared my bed with him. But
the trouble did not end, and the boys wanted him out, period. But since I
had some influence with the boys, being the captain of the soccer team, I
threatened to move to another room if they didn't allow Jack to stay with
us. My threat worked and Jack remained. After one week the boys got to
know the real Jack and were happy to have him as one of the boys. He never
made it in soccer, but he was always the best in everything else. I
managed to organize some new clothes for Jack, and a week later, he felt
and looked like the rest of us. We stayed together, and again, whatever I
did, Jack did, and vice-versa. We reminisced about our past and looked
toward the big road ahead of us.
May 9, 1945
We heard on our loudspeakers from the radio room that the Czech people were calling for help. "THIS IS PRAHA CALLING S.O.S. The Czech people are fighting the Nazi occupiers in the streets of Prague. We need your help immediately, our ammunition is running low." The message was repeated again and again, until someone shut off the loudspeaker. The loudspeaker was on again, and this time "The Voice of London" was calling: "The war is over... The Nazis are defeated." "We are Free! We are Free!" voices came from everywhere. "The War Is Over." People were dancing in all the capitals of the Allied world. The loudspeaker was sounding off from Paris, London, New York, Moscow. The celebration of the war being over was in high gear all over the world. We joined in the celebration in the hallways and on the camp grounds It was a celebration that we had longed for a long time. But now that the war was finally over, we the children of the Holocaust had a new problem, our minds were in a spin. What were we going to do now? Who of the family had survived?
We were torn between the two alternatives we had in front of us: do we join Rabbi Shachter and his group and go to France? The doors were now wide open, since President De Gaulle opened the doors for the orphaned children survivors. Or, do we go home and see who was alive in Munkacz or elsewhere? We read the lists daily, which were provided in the main camp. Perhaps we could find some one of the family on the list? At night we awoke in a sweat, the tragic stories of the last year were now catching up with us in our dreams, and we walked around the next day in a daze.
Our strength was back to normal, we all
regained our weight, the only question that remained for all of us is:
What now? Where will we end up? And who will take care of us? In the
meantime, a big explosion occurred on our floor. Two Jewish young Belgian
boys were killed and part of the building was blown away. Apparently, the
boys were playing with anti-tank grenades that they found on the outskirts
of the camp and they had brought them back to their room when they
suddenly exploded and took two lives; three persons were also badly
injured. The whole building was in shock and also in mourning for the two
young lads killed in the explosion. The American M.P.s moved in quickly
and checked all the rooms for arms. They found lots of grenades and other
live weapons in the boys' room in the building. They lined us up in front
of the building and explained to us that we had just escaped with our
lives. The Belgian boys had enough ammunition in that room to destroy the
building and everyone in it. We were warned by the M.P.s not to engage
weapons that we found in our pathways or in the woods of Buchenwald; there
were tons of weaponry just strewn all over.
May 11, 1945
It had been four weeks since we were liberated by the American army. All the survivors were asked to assemble in the main camp to celebrate the end of the war and to thank the Allied forces for their heroic sacrifices and their victory, bringing peace and freedom to us all. We were all lined up and we marched into the main camp, about a mile away from our barracks. We marched along thousands of other survivors from all over occupied Europe. The victorious armies were well represented, and so were their Generals. Flags of all the victorious armies were fluttering in the nice spring breeze. We felt elated since we had the great honour of being together with the greatest generals of the war from the Allied armies. What a great feeling! We never thought that we would be able to see this great victory and to see freedom in our lifetime.
The bands were playing the hymns of all the nations represented here: American, Russian, French, Czechoslovak, Polish, Dutch and Belgian. Every statesman spoke about the heroism of his forces and how, together with the Allies, they managed to crush Hitler and his army and bring peace to Europe. It was not easy. But when the Allied forces joined together with one objective, to crush and destroy the Nazi forces that were destroying and robbing the freedom of Europe and its allies, there was only one way: fight hard, together, and the outcome must be "Victory".
We all listened to the long speeches. Europe and her Allies suffered heavy losses, close to thirty million killed in battle, plus another 20 million injured. They all said: "We must make sure that this shall "Never" happen again. We must unite and work together for a long lasting "Peace" forever." We all agreed with the speakers; the question on our mind was: how will justice be brought for our dear six million fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, among them one million innocent children killed for no other reason, just that they were born Jewish. Was there a punishment for such a crime? We wondered, and talked about it. What kind of a just punishment did the Germans deserve? One idea was to remove all Germans, destroy and level all their buildings and factories, and then let them go back and start from scratch. Make sure that all the SS men pay for their crimes with their lives. These wild ideas were with us daily because it hurt so much.
On the outside, we started to look normal,
but inside our hearts were crushed. We had to fight insanity daily from
the experiences that we had endured in these inhumane camps and working
places. The celebrations were over and we marched out in front of the
generals in step: we looked like some army. Since we received new suits
made from military cloth, we were marching in step and everybody was
watching, not knowing who we were. We looked like soldiers, but, in
reality, we were a group of lost souls, looking for a place to go and
build a new future.
May 18, 1945
A decision had to be made soon as to what direction we wished to go. Was it home or Israel? We were aware of the fact that England was in control of Palestine, and that Britain was very strong and resisting the influx of Jewish refugees to Palestine. We also knew that one had to go through Italy to go to Israel and that we would have to wait for legal or illegal ways to get there. Our friends from the Russian mission advised us to go home first. Since the trucks were arriving the next day, we had to decide on our travel plans. They also told us that we would have an option when we got home: if we still wanted to go to Israel, they would arrange for our travels to Italy, where we would be looked after by the Bricha in order to get to Israel.
Jack and I sat down and had a discussion
about our plans. After thoroughly discussing the pros and cons, we both
decided to pack and go home first, and then we would see how the situation
May 19, 1945
Five trucks arrived from Prague, Czechoslovakia. We were informed to pack, since the trucks would be leaving at noon. We were saying goodbye to our friends and we headed for the trucks. It was a short walk to the trucks; they were parked at the old camp site. As we walked by the camp, we thought of the times we were locked up in them like dogs and treated even worse than dogs, but we were free now and we were walking with our heads high. We reached the trucks, our Czech friends were welcoming us and were giving us chocolates and cakes, we felt delighted. At last we were heading for home!
In the last few weeks, we stayed in the SS officers barracks, together with about 200 Jewish orphans from all over Europe, mostly from Poland, Hungary, Ruthenia, Belgium, and Greece.
We made a lot of friends, especially among the boys that played soccer twice a week; we had games mostly between the Polish boys and the Hungarian boys, the Ruthenia boys usually played on the Hungarian team. After each game we had a victory party, no matter who won. We had a very good relationship with the group. It looked like we would have to make new friends wherever we ended up. The Czech soldiers in charge told us to get on the trucks, since we were ready to move: "Make yourself comfortable, the trip will take about two days."
For the first time in a long while, we saw Jewish girls who were also survivors from our part of Ruthenia, namely Munkacs, and they were travelling with us on the same truck. The trucks started rolling and the roads were just awful; it was a bumpy ride. But who cared? We were going home. By now, everyone had a spot for themselves, with blankets to soften the bumpy road. The girls were in their late teens or early twenties and were very anxious to talk about our families and our backgrounds. Since we were very polite boys, we gave them all the answers and we had a good conversation. This was the first time that we were so close to girls, ever. During our days in the Yeshiva (Talmudic studies), we had no idea about girls and now we were sitting so close, and it felt great. During the night, one of the girls fell asleep on my side, and it felt really nice.
It reminded me of the story of Ruth when she goes to sleep next to Boaz, son of Elimelech and Naomi, she made her bed next to him as instructed by Naomi, her mother-in-law. But I was no Boaz and she was no Ruth. In short, Bekitzer, nothing happened, we slept through the night, nice and cozy.
We traveled for two days and nights, and we finally arrived in Prague, Czechoslovakia at a large soccer stadium. Lots of Jewish soldiers in Czech uniforms surrounded the trucks from Buchenwald.
They were all seeking for a loved one. They were Jewish boys who joined the Czech armies in the Soviet Union after being released from the prison camps there. They were captured by the Russians during the war while they were in the Hungarian forced labour camps. General Swoboda of the Czech government organized a Czech brigade in Russia in 1943; in the spring of 1944 they were parachuted into Slovakia as a partisan detail. The soldiers were mostly from the Carphatian area. They played a big role in sabotaging the German war machine, but they paid a heavy price: more than 20,000 Jewish Czech partisans gave their lives in the woods of Slovakia.
And now, they were looking for a father, mother, sister, or brother. What happened to the Jewish people from the Carpatin, Munkacz, Chust, Ungvar, Beregszaz, Szeredne, Svalyeve, Czenyediev, Kalnik, Paczkenyev, Volove, Verecki, Rosvigef, Kliczanov, Biczkev, Koponowitz, Kivjazsd, Terneve, Licivice, Dibrivice? When we told them that all men and women over 45 were dead and that all children under 16 were also dead, and maybe ten percent of the rest was alive and in poor shape. Most of them cried with bitter tears, some of then tore their lapels (a custom of mourning). Some of them recited the Kadish (a prayer, when in mourning).
The terrible news of the Holocaust has not been reported yet; we were the first people arriving in Prague from Buchenwald. The world has not yet got the horrifying news that 6,000,000 Jews had been killed by the Germans in the gas chambers of Midanek, Birkenau, Auschwitz, Dachau, Buchenwald, Bergen Belsen, and many other concentration camps all over occupied Europe.
While still standing on the truck ready to get down, someone called my name, Smilovicz! One soldier was pointing his finger at me. "Are you a Smilovicz?" he asked. "Yes, sir!" was my reply. "Your brother Leo is a big man in the army, he is somewhere in Slovakia. He is in charge, of the food supply for 2nd division paratroopers. He is alive, and his rank is Captain." All of a sudden, I started to scream: "My brother is alive!" I jumped off the truck and ran over to the man that gave me the good news. I embraced him and thanked him for giving me the good news. I was puzzled, how did he recognize me as a Smilovicz? He explained to me, that we were somehow related and that he used to come to our house and tavern while serving two years in the army in Munkacs. As to how he recognized a Smilovicz when he saw one, I looked exactly like my brother, Leo, he said.
"Go and look for your brother, he will be happy to see you."
After a few minutes, I pinched myself. I wanted to be sure I was not just having a good dream, this was too good to be true. When I looked around me and saw all those Jewish boys looking so fit and handsome, I realized, maybe there was still some hope left for the orphaned children.
Among the people that came back from Buchenwald were political Czech individuals who had spent 3 to 4 years in Buchenwald. Their families and friends were also present as we arrived. There was also a delegation from the Czech government and the Red Cross was there especially to look after the children and to welcome everybody arriving from Buchenwald. We were told that we were going to be placed in a sanatorium and that we would be looked after properly. After a little while, we were taken to a beautiful sanatorium on top of a hill. We could see Hradczani from our place, that was the President's palace. We could see the Vltava river and its beautiful bridges. You could see the city of Prague and its beautiful buildings, its beautiful architecture on the horizon. It was the greatest scene we had ever seen in our lives.
The next day, they threw a home-coming party for us. Lots of government officials and military officers were present. They all wanted to hear of our experiences from the camps, where we spent our last year. When we told them about our losses and our sufferings, their faces changed colours and most of them cried with bitter tears. They didn't know how to please us or how to console us. They told us about their sufferings during the years of German occupation. This was the first time we heard about the German atrocities in the small town of Lidice, Czechoslovakia, a small place where the Czech underground shot and killed SS General Heidrich, the butcher of the SS. The next day SS General Himmler, his murderous partner, ordered the instant annihilation of the whole city of Lidice. Men, woman, and children were shot, and the city was burned to the ground.
They also told us about the last days of the German occupation, when the Czech underground started to revolt against the Germans. Most of Germany was already occupied by the Allied forces. The underground figured that it was just about the right time to start and repay these murderers, with interest. Fighting broke out, mainly in the capital city of Prague. In the streets, in the alleys and in the main square, the fighting was fierce. They killed every German that moved: on the trucks, in cars, or in any vehicle.
They made the streets and the whole city seem like hell for them. The losses were heavy on both sides, but they fought for every inch in the city. The fighting lasted for three days, then the U.S. armies replied to their call for help and within a few days they wiped out the remnants of the German armies. They told us, "We took revenge with interest, we showed no mercy to those murderers. After the defeat, we took all the prisoners and paraded them, down the square. All the people came out to the square and spit in their faces."
"We feel your pain," they continued, "the pain is still visible on your faces. History will record the greatest injustice done to your people and that the whole world just stood and watched in silence.
We concluded that the Czech people received us with real heart. All that we would like to say that they are a class of their own. This was not true in other European countries, where our people returned to from the camps. For instance, Poland had pogroms and killed hundreds of Jewish people when they returned to their homes from the K.Z. Camps. And they are still looking for forgiveness for that crime.
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