When I was born in the town of Zilina in present-day Slovakia, about 2,500 Jews lived there. My mother, Matilda (*1896), was a nurse, and my father, Karol (*1894), a shoemaker. He ran a shoe shop for orthopaedic shoes. I had three older brothers – Vojtech (*1921), Arpad (*1923) and Dezider (*1935) and my sister Pepi (*1920), who was already happily married to Max, the son of a well-known Jewish lawyer. Their little daughter, Erika, was a ray of sunshine.
The persecution began in 1941. Slovakia collaborated with Hitler’s Germany. I remember that as a child I now had to wear the Star of David. My brothers and I cut off our sidelocks. Before the Slovakian Jewish Codes of 1941, in my memory from my childhood, the relationship between us Jews and the Slovakians was good and without problems.
In 1942, at the age of thirteen, I was concentrated with about 18,600 Jews into a collection camp. ‘Extermination transports’ also began from there. My brothers Vojtech and Arpad, sister, Pepi, with her husband, Max, and little Erika were taken away. With time, it became clear to us Jews that these deportations led to death. There was talk of Auschwitz.
At the end of December 1944, I was driven into a wagon with my brother Dezider and our mother was driven into another. The fear and the brutal loading of people into cattle cars left me speechless – and in all this chaos, I heard my mother screaming. She screamed as loud as she could, the words, ‘Hang in there! Be strong! We’ll see each other again’! I’ve never forgotten these words. They gave me the strength to endure all that was done to me in the following months.
I was taken to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp with my brother Dezider. I was fifteen years old when I was herded through the gate of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp from the Oranienburg train station, being beaten and yelled at. ‘Arbeit macht frei’ was written on the gate. We first had to ‘stand roll call’. When I looked to the left, I saw ten people hanging from the gallows. ‘If you’re not good, you’ll end up like those people there’, was the message.
From January 1945, I belonged to the shoe running commando. My commando moved 170 pairs of footwear around 6,800 kilometres a day as part of a ‘scientific’ test series to try out the best materials, fits and so on for the SS and its clients in the shoe industry. Not all the men who started the march in the morning were still alive in the evening.
At the end of March 1945, in a transport with thousands of prisoners, I was deported to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where I came very close to my own death. Later followed a transport to the Dachau concentration camp before I was liberated by U.S. Army units at the beginning of May 1945.
A few weeks after the liberation, I found my mother in Prague and, shortly after, my father in Zilina. My brother Dezider also survived. I never saw any of our other relatives again.
The Wannsee Conference, where educated men in a luxurious villa also spoke about the murder of my family, was a world away from the horror that I saw in the camps. I never wanted to deal with that.