Tuesday, September 12, 2017

TOP STORY >> Holocaust survivor’s final journey

Ferenc and Ilona Feldman
Leader Executive editor

“For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked shall perish.” — Psalm 1:6

Hurricane Irma was forecast to hit Miami last Sunday, and my 91-year-old-mother, who’d been in failing health in recent years, was getting weaker every day. She’d lived through four hurricanes after she and my father moved to Florida, and it was as if she did not want to go through another awful storm.

Looking out her window from the nursing home where she’d been living for two years, she must have felt the hurricane approaching far away in the Atlantic. She lived through so many horrors of the 20th Century — she was a survivor of Auschwitz, Ravensbruck, Frankfurt and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps — and now, in her old age, she did not want to see another catastrophe.

My mother, Ilona, passed away in her sleep at 5:20 p.m. last Tuesday, five days before the hurricane and five weeks short of her 92nd birthday.

She was strong for most of her life and never lost her faith. More than 60 years ago, she walked all night across the Hungarian-Austrian border as I held her hand while my father carried my baby brother on his back fleeing the Russian army.

“The past is with me every day,” she said.

She was a teenage survivor of the death camps, which meant she had to be strong as millions of Jews perished during the Holocaust. An only child, she lived with her widowed mother Ida in the tiny village of Nyirtura not far from the city of Nyiregyhaza in northeast Hungary, where my parents married after the war.

When the Nazis ordered the deportations to Auschwitz in the spring of 1944, she and her mother and their extended family were rounded up at 5 a.m. Sunday, April 16, the day after Passover, and made to walk several kilometers to one of the ghettoes in and around Nyiregyhaza.

Between May 14 and June 4, some 6,500 Jews living in the area were marched to railroad stations. Each transport had up to 40 cattle cars, each holding between 70 and 100 people who were forced to stand, without food and hardly any water. The 250-mile journey to Auschwitz took several days while many inside suffocated.

My brother Steve, a scholar at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, has sent me more details about their journey to Auschwitz as the Germans kept meticulous records about every transport.

She was deported on Saturday, May 20, with 3,274 people listed as passing through Kassa, Hungary, on May 21. They arrived in Auschwitz on Tuesday, May 23, the first day of the Hebrew month of Sivan.

The living got off the trains, dazed and hungry and thirsty. My mother was separated from my grandmother, who was immediately sent to the gas chamber, along with all the elderly, mothers and their children and the sick.

The trains kept arriving for the next seven weeks that summer, carrying 437,000 Hungarian Jews to the death camp. Most perished in Auschwitz, except the able-bodied like my mother, who were used as slave laborers in the German Reich.

My father, Ferenc, was also in forced labor battalions but was not sent to Auschwitz. His parents, brothers and sisters perished there.

The Nazis were losing the war — the allies were closing in from the east and south and D-Day was just days away — but the killing machine went into full fury. About a third of the more than 1.1 million people killed in Auschwitz died during that summer of 1944.

“The machinery of destruction...was structurally no different from organized German society as a whole,” wrote the historian Raul Hillberg in his pioneering Holocaust study, “The Destruction of the European Jews.” They made the trains run on time to the death camps, ordered the poison gas and plundered the prisoners’ belongings, which they sent to the Fatherland.

The British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper called the Holocaust “the greatest planned crime in history.”

My mother was in Auschwitz for three months. She had a writer’s eye for detail. She heard the cries of the Gypsies, who were kept in barracks near her. Some 20,000 Gypsies were gassed that summer. Many resisted, but they were pushed into the gas chambers like millions of others.

During those seven weeks, as many as five transports a day arrived at Auschwitz with around 16,000 Jews, according to Nikolaus Wachsmann, author of the recently published “KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps.” KL stands for Konzentration- lager — the thousands of holding pens and killing centers the Germans built across Europe during the Nazi terror. Wachsmann’s book is the most complete study of the Nazi genocide, well written with maps and statistics that ordinary readers can follow.

They were not all teenage survivors: One transport, which included a young mother with several children, stopped in its tracks outside Auschwitz as the Germans began to negotiate with the Allies to ransom the hostages.

Anne Frank arrived in Auschwitz on Sept. 4 in one of the last transports from Holland and was moved to other camps like my mother. They both wound up in Bergen-Belsen, where Anne and her sister Margot died a few months before liberation.

Magda Schwarz was three months pregnant when she was deported from Nyiregyhaza and arrived at Auschwitz in June 1944.

She didn’t tell the guards she was pregnant and gave birth in December to a girl in Dachau, where she had been moved a few weeks earlier.

I knew that girl when I was a boy in Hungary. A former schoolteacher, she’s now 72. Her mother died in 1990.

My mother was a prisoner in the death camps for one year almost to the day — when she first went into the ghetto on April 16, 1944, and her liberation by the British army on April 15, 1945.

My father was liberated at Mauthausen concentration camp by the U.S. Army on May 5, 1945. The black soldiers who entered the camp wept at what they saw.

My mother was buried last Wednesday next to my father at Mt. Sinai Cemetery in Miami less than 24 hours after she passed away, as required by Jewish custom, with two rabbis participating in the funeral. My parents have a grave of their own, unlike their parents and dozens of their relatives and millions of other victims who were gassed and cremated, their ashes rising through the chimneys of Auschwitz and buried under Polish soil.

She passed away exactly 10 years and a month after my dad.

The week after she passed away, a gentle rain fell over Arkansas, the remnant of Hurricane Irma, as if the skies wept for all the victims of man-made and natural disasters.

There will be no more horrors for them from now on.