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2-Jewish Family Practices & Beregszász Ghetto
Describe your religious practices in you family?
Judaism here has three branches: Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. In Europe there were not three movements. We had Judaism, period. It was up to individual families to decide to what extent it wished to practice. Most everybody I knew had a kosher household and the ritual slaughterer who would slaughter the chickens, the ducks, or the fowl as well as the cows and the little calves. Eventually, the ritual slaughterer was taken away and we would have to go quite far in search for a ritual slaughterer. The reason for the ritual slaughterer was that in accordance with our religion the animal must be slaughtered in such a way that the animal would suffer the least. And consequently it was the jugular vein that had to be cut and all the blood must be drained for the Jewish people are not allowed to eat the blood of the animal for that was the life of the animal. I always think that was such a wise law. We know today that we pass on illnesses through blood. And subsequent to that, once the slaughterer slaughtered the animal that animal was dissected and had to be salted, and kept salted for three hours. Then it was rinsed of its blood and of its salt so that we could eat it. This was a health law, part of our health laws.
Everyone in our town, until the very end, was in this one movement conservative Jew. Well I would think it would be equivalent to a conservative Jew but we thought we were Orthodox at the time. Because there were many who were much more religious on the Sabbath. They were the guardians of the Sabbath in other words they did not violate the Sabbath. But we had a farm and animals. My father always felt the animals must be fed and they have to have clean straw under them and so he made sure that they don't suffer because we are Jewish. Now we had a person who came in to light the fire on the Sabbath and that was our next-door neighbor's young boy who came and earned a little money doing it. Just like when I am gone here and I cannot take my dog with me, we have somebody come in to feed him and keep him company and so on. And that's just about how it was there. Except for religious reason the animal counts and held in high esteem.
Did you ever go to synagogue?
Yes, my parents, actually the men folk, my brothers and my dad, went to the synagogue every Friday night and every Shabbat or Sabbath. The women folk stayed home and prepared the food so that when the men folk came home we could start eating after we said our prayer. Even at home. We lit the candle on Friday nights. And I still do today welcoming the Sabbath. It transforms the household to a holy place. There has to be a difference between the profane and the Sabbath. On the Sabbath you took it easy and rested. The women folk went to the synagogue mostly on special holidays. My sister and I would go with our mother and my whole family but we were divided into the ladies section and the men's. This was done so that they would not be distracted from God. That is one reason the men wear the prayer shawl to put it over their heads so they would not be distracted by a beautiful lady on the side or somebody else on the other side and so they can concentrate on their prayer and God.
Did you believe in God?
Oh, of course, I believed in God, a compassionate God. I believed God was the creator. I believed God had his hand in everything good. Yeah, definitely we all believed in God. We said our morning prayers before we had to wash our hands first thing when we got up. Then we said our morning prayers and then we proceeded with breakfast. Looking back now it gave me a lot of strength and faith, which later helped me through the Holocaust. Even though later I had some problems vis-à-vis God but this may be too early in the game to talk about that.
Sent to Beregszász, Hungary
At what point were you no longer able to practice your religion?
We were restricted when the men in charge of ritual slaughtering were taken away and never came back. They were among the first ones and it was done so purposely to deprive the Jewish community of its religious freedom. We really didn't eat meat rather than slaughter it [the animals] ourselves in the end.
When Jews were being taken away to concentration camps how much did you know?
Nothing. I understood nothing about what was going on. It made no sense to anyone, not only me. Suddenly the Germans showed up. Looking back now, I can see that this was step by step. The dehumanization process was beginning to be put into effect. But why are they taking us away from our homes? We were told we would be much more comfortable and safer. We're not in any danger. Why? So nothing made sense. They tried to keep this without causing a lot of problems and without getting us too excited but everybody was questioning but we could not do anything about it. Once the Germans came in they secured the town and there was no escape.
Then they took us in to Beregszász into the beautiful synagogue. This was only the Jews in our town. And that's when we realized that something very strange is really going on here because they didn't want to separate us, men and women. We all would stake out a place in the synagogue by the pews. That's where we stayed for a while as the Nazis were setting up a ghetto in the brick factory. This was where my oldest brother, Józsi, was in an industrial accident. He was an engineer there.
Eventually we were all transferred to the brick factory, because that was outside of the town. It would keep the people away from it. Some didn't, some just came to see what happened to us from our town and brought us some food. She was caught. This was our neighbor across the street. She brought some food. The SS caught her and there were others as well that I will talk about. Elvira Páva was her name. She's still alive, I saw her in 1991, and we talked about this. She said – and I remember this commotion when she was caught – she was told that "if you do this once more" – actually she had to come into the ghetto – I almost forgot that – and that people in our town protested. They came into Beregszász to tell the SS, "she's not Jewish, why are you incarcerating her?" They didn't want any troubles with the town's non-Jewish population so they let her out, but they gave her a good talking to, and among the things they said, "If you do this once more you will not see daylight again." This was their favorite expression, and they used it often. A major threat to her life. Of course she didn't [come again] and they let her out.
What was the name of the town you were in?
The town where we were incarcerated was 8 kilometers away. In Czech it was Berehovo, and in Hungarian it was Beregszász. It was a very charming town in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. That [Beregszász] became the gathering place of all the Jews in the entire province of Bereg Megye, and from there they shipped us out.
Do you remember the first time you saw the Nazis?
Oh, yes. During Passover in 1944, you know it's an eight day holiday during which we don't eat bread, we eat matzohs. It's the story of the exodus that we are celebrating, the freedom from bondage, from slavery, in Egypt 3,000 years before. By the way, this is what Jesus was celebrating at the time when the Romans came to pick him up and executed him on the cross. He was celebrating Passover seder, the meal. During our seder in 1944 they [German soldiers] began to come in [to Nagy Bereg].
I saw them in the middle of Passover. When I had to take the geese – there were two mother and father geese with the little ones – to the nearby church where there was a large green area and where they would just enjoy eating the green grass. I had to cross the street to get there. There I saw German soldiers with SS, with the SS marks, sitting on the benches in front of the houses. I was scared. I crossed the street sooner so I will not be near them, so I saw them from across the street. I didn't stay as long as I would have normally, because I was scared. I saw them all over sitting on benches. That's the first time I saw a German soldier. I was barely 14 at the time. This was in April of 1944.
I came back with the little geese, and my mother wondered why I came back so early. I reported that "the Germans are all over town, they're sitting on benches sunning themselves and joking and laughing." I remember my dad listened as well, and mother and dad looked at each other and they didn't like this report. He said, "I'm glad you came back early." I didn't go back out there anymore.
The day after Passover ended, the very day after, we were picked up. At five in the morning was the knock, knock on the door, and we were ordered to leave our house in a half an hour and turn the keys over to them. But the night before, a friend of my dad's came to tell him that we were going to be rounded up the next morning. So mother brought the flour out and started to set the yeast so it would rise – it would take a few hours for that to do. But the following morning when the knock came so early in the morning, the bread was still in the oven. About seven or eight big, round breads that she baked were not complete and we had to leave them behind.
When the news came that we were going to be taken away, my dad first sent my two oldest brothers to tell other Jewish families what's going to happen in the morning, and told them to pass the word to yet other Jewish families, because we didn't have telephones. Only the post office and city hall, and probably the police - I don't know - had telephones.
When my brothers came back, my dad held a family gathering and said, "We're going to be picked up tomorrow morning. We don't know where we are going. Let's hide the family valuables, such as the silver candelabras, and the silverware at the far end of our seven-room house." That was a utility room and it had a dirt floor, very packed. It was a nice room, but it was cool in the summer. That used to be our summer kitchen when it was too hot. The family jewelry [was hidden] under the hardwood floor in one of our bedrooms, and that we children should know these hiding places. Dad and mother told us that these valuables could always be sold when we return. But, little did we know that we may never, ever return.
While the men folk were busy burying the family jewelry under the hardwood floors, mother was busy getting the bread started. She had this very long wooden – I don't know what they call it, I never saw one here, it's like a little bathtub, of course it's not a bathtub, it was only used for getting the dough ready for a large family to bake bread with. We were busy that night just getting things together. We took along such items as leftover matzos from Passover, and smoked meat - we had a smokery up in the attic. We took all that would not perish – would not spoil – and some blankets and warm clothes. Dad told us that we should use our best shoes and our best clothing that's warm. That is how we left home. We had to go to City Hall on orders in a half an hour.
I remember the Hungarian police and the German SS putting this hook on our front door and a lock. Then they lit a candle and dripped wax, brownish liquid wax, onto the lock. Before it hardened the German Swastika, or the Nazi Swastika was imprinted on it. When Dad saw that, that's when he began to cry. I saw tears rolling down my father's cheeks.
We were in the yard and mother said, "Where is Dad?" I said "He's in the barn." She said, "Please get him." I went into the barn, and there he was using a brush that had a leather strap on it, on the horses and the cows. He gave them each a hug. I told him, "They're waiting for you dad." And he says, "I'll be there honey in a minute." Dad just had to finish hugging those cows and horses, and then he came. We had to put everything in our wagon, and horses pulled us to City Hall. We had to leave the wagon and the horses right there as they loaded us into trucks, and drove us to Beregszász, into the beautiful synagogue of Beregszász. Eventually, we walked from there into the ghetto. We were there for four weeks before they began to ship us out.
Strange things happened, I don't know whether I should include this, but I had my first marriage proposal in the yard of this synagogue. Looking back as an adult, as a mature adult, I realize how desperate young people were. My cousin and I were walking in the backyard, we had nothing else to do. It was a nice spring afternoon. This young man came up to us and said to me "Would you please wait for me until I come back?" I said, "Excuse me, but I don't know you." He said, "I know you and your family very well. I am so and so," I don't even remember his name. "I want to be sure that when I come back that you wait for me." I said, "I'm sorry, but I am too young to get married. But, my cousin Leah," she was seventeen, "she's more of a marriageable age." I couldn't believe it! When I think back I think how naive was I! There was this fiery feeling in his speech, he was very anxious. It wasn't a romantic encounter whatsoever, that one would expect. This is what happened. I turned down my first marriage proposal. "I'm too young. I'm not ready to get married yet, but my cousin Leah is." He said, "No, but I want to marry you, not cousin Leah." I said, "I'm sorry. I have to wait until I grow up." At 14, we really considered ourselves children yet, not adults, definitely.
But, this happened a lot, apparently. I heard from others, because it was sort of a joke at first I thought. But, apparently young men were staking out certain girls so they would have some hope coming back to someone that they would like to marry.
Do you remember any songs from your childhood?
Yes, indeed. I remember one song that the Anti-Semites would sing. If you like I'll sing the parts that I remember. But what was significant about it was that it was so melodious that even the Jewish kids got caught up with it. I remember singing it at home and mother said, "What are those words? Sing that again. Do you realize that this song is against the Jews?" "Well we're just having a little fun with it." "Don't sing it again, please." She had to call my attention to it, because I enjoyed singing, but it wasn't a song that any Jewish kid should sing, or anyone should sing for that matter.
It goes something like this: [sings a song in Hungarian - not transcribed]
It says that whoever has a Jewish girl for a lover or a Jewish woman for a lover should put a rope around her [his] neck. It's not funny. My mother was right. This is not a song for any Jewish kid, and it was alarming when I realized that.
But, we used to sing a lot of other songs, and one of them comes to mind that my brothers taught me. It was about that young man who had to leave home and he wonders if anyone remembers him, and is that acacia tree still standing in front of the house? And what about that young beautiful girl, does she ever ask about me? [sings a song in Hungarian - not transcribed, "Did anyone shed a tear for me?"]