I was born in western Hungary in 1930, the second youngest child of six. My family was Orthodox – we observed Shabbat and Kashrut, and I attended Hebrew school. My father owned a grocery store, so although we were by no means wealthy, I didn’t lack anything growing up either. I walked around wearing a Kippa without issue.

This changed with the Nazi occupation of Hungary in March 1944. We were aware of how the Nazis treated Jews in neighbouring countries, so we were very afraid. A few days after the occupation, restrictions were announced which included the compulsory wearing of yellow stars, restrictions on movement, forced closure of Jewish businesses, etc. After this, we were forced out of our home and into the Jewish ghetto in the neighbouring city of Sopron on 18 June 1944. There, we ‘lived’ in the open air with community toilets and kitchens. A few weeks later, on 5 July 1944, which was my 14th birthday, we were herded onto cattle wagons and deported to Auschwitz Birkenau.

The journey took about 3-4 days, and we weren’t allowed to leave the wagon during this time. There was a bucket of water for drinking and another for personal hygiene. When we arrived at Auschwitz, I found myself standing in a line with my older brother and father. I told my younger brother to stay with our mother, and that was the last time I saw both of them. My mother and brother were gassed on arrival. The man who greeted us (I was later told that it was Dr Josef Mengele) asked me how old I was, and I told him that I had just turned 14. I think that this caught his interest as he wished me happy birthday and instructed me to go towards the right. My father tried to follow, but he stopped him and pointed him to go left. So my older brother and I headed into the registration section of the camp. That was the last time I saw my father. He too was taken straight to the gas chambers. I wonder if my mother and brother were reunited with my father as they were taken there.

It took time for me to accept the truth of where we were and what had happened to my parents and younger brother. Prisoners who had been in the camp for longer told me, but I could not believe that they were gone. It’s still very difficult for me to accept and for a while after the war, I suffered from nightmares. Before entering the main camp, we were showered and shaved and given our uniforms. We were also given numbers that replaced our names. My number was later tattooed onto my arm – it’s a constant reminder for me.

In November 1944, I became very ill and had to stay in the hospital until the beginning of 1945. At that point, we started to hear the gunfire and knew that the Russians were close to liberating the camp. We prisoners were driven west on the death marches. Anyone who remained, they instructed, would be shot. I hid beneath the low bed in the hope that the Russians would arrive shortly. Sure enough, a few hours later, when the officers had left the camp, Russian soldiers wearing camouflage white uniforms appeared and told us we were liberated.

Liberation was a physical and psychological process. It took time to re-establish myself and to return to Kapuvar. I was reunited with my sister, who had been in the women’s division of Birkenau, my two older brothers, who had been called up for forced labour before the rest of the family had been deported, and my other brother who I was with in Birkenau.

Fast forward a few years, I met my wonderful wife Judith, who was also survivor from Budapest. We married and had four beautiful children. We settled in Northwest London and became very much part of the Jewish community there. Unfortunately, my wife passed away six years ago, but I enjoy a busy life, travelling when possible, speaking at events, spending time with my grandchildren and great-grandchildren, etc. I am also involved in the restoration of Jewish cemeteries in Hungary. I feel grateful for what I have and am thankful to God for allowing me this opportunity.

It’s very moving for me to have participated in this project with my granddaughter and great-granddaughter and to declare that WE! ARE! HERE! The Nazi regime has fallen, yet the Jewish people continues to thrive.

The 15 participants of the Wannsee Conference met to discuss a solution to the ‘Jewish problem’. How one group of people can be defined as a ‘problem’ is beyond comprehension, and how the ‘final solution’ can be to annihilate a people, is devastating. These men had families, they were educated and some were leaders in their fields, yet their hatred was so strong that it overwhelmed them, and they became united in their goal of destruction for what they believed was the betterment of society.

The Jewish people are a peace-loving nation. I hope that the beautiful and powerful message of this exhibition will ring loudly in the ears of humanity and remind us to hold tolerance as the highest value so that we can erase prejudice and discrimination from the world.

Yisrael Abelesz

Born in 1930 in Kapuvar, Hungary