Yom HaShoah is this coming Thursday, so I thought I would share an abridged version of the Yom Hashoah speech I delivered at B’nai David-Judea Congregation on April 21, 2009. Many in attendance were young people listening to the testimony I gave in my parents’ name as well as in the name of others who suffered the Holocaust. The speech and this piece would not have been possible without the invaluable contributions of my two sisters, Chana Stein and Fay Shapiro.
Hello. I am here to talk about my parents’ experiences during World War II. My mother’s Yartzeit was a couple weeks ago and my father’s will be in a few weeks, so aside from this being about Yom Hashoah, it is fitting to speak about them. What I will tell you about my mother is from her own words, in an interview she gave. My father was not as open about what happened to him during the war, so I will do the best I can with what I heard about him as I was growing up.
The Nazis and their collaborators took control of the part of Czechoslovakia known as Slovakia, in 1939. This was where my parents were born and lived. In 1942, thousands of Jews were transported in one way or the other to the Auschwitz concentration camp, or other places. It was not completely certain, but that group included my mother’s parents and most of her 12 brothers and sisters, as well as my father’s parents and his two sisters. It also included close relatives such as aunts, uncles, brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law and nieces and nephews. In the end, only my mother and one of her younger sisters survived and my father alone survived from his small family.
In March of 1942, my mother Regina, or Rivkah Schonfeld, 17 years old, and her sister Anna, 13 years old, were among a group of young women who were told to gather in one of the area towns. After 2 days, all the girls were loaded tightly into train cattle cars. It was very cold and these young ladies could barely breathe. After a night of travelling, the girls arrived just outside the city of Auschwitz in Poland. It was the first day of Passover.
When the cattle cars were opened, there were Nazi Gestapo troops with whips and dogs waiting for them. The Gestapo screamed, the dogs barked and the girls were forced out of the cattle cars, organized into lines, counted and marched into barracks. The Nazis were always counting, God forbid someone should escape.
The next day the girls were ordered outside and marched to a tent where their hair was shaved off and they were given work clothes. My mother found her sister Anna and they stayed together as much as they could. They were marched back to the barracks where they were hungry and cold. There was hardly any food and there was no heat, and Europe in March can still be very cold. Whenever the girls were counted, if someone was bent over sick or said something, she was whipped and dragged out of the line never to be seen again.
The girls and all the Jews who were to work at Auschwitz at that point were tattooed with numbers. They were no longer people; they were now just like animals branded with numeric symbols. My mother’s number was 4278; my aunt’s number was 4280. The girl whose number was 4279 did not survive.
Very early each morning, the girls were ordered outside the barracks, many days in a cold rain, where they were counted of course, and then marched off to do different jobs. The first job my mother and her group did was to help with the demolition of Auschwitz city houses that had been bombarded by the Germans. Many of those homes had Mezuzot on their doorposts.
The first Shabbat the girls were forced to work was very difficult. Many were observant and they were used to keeping the Mitzvot, the commandments. They cried that first Shabbat; they did not know if they could survive what was happening to them. At first the girls would only eat the bread, and not the tiny amounts of filthy old cheese or soup given them. Sometimes on a weekend, pieces of meat were given out. My mother never ate the meat.
To get rid of the weak, every so often, the Nazis would tell the younger girls that if they wanted they could go see their parents. My mother heard that those who took the offer ended up somewhere else, most probably the gas chamber. My mother was in an infirmary once, where she was told not to be sick, but to work. Those who were sick would also end up in a very bad place. My mother and her sister both tried their best to continue to work.
In the early days of my mother’s time at Auschwitz, no one really knew what was going on inside the camp – its real purpose, the extermination of the Jews. The girls saw people coming all the time. They didn’t know where they went, but more people kept coming and coming. They could see a big chimney which always had smoke pouring out of it, and they heard screaming, and as they saw other horrible things they finally realized what was happening.
At some point, my mother and her group were marched to do work at another camp near Auschwitz called Birkenau. The Nazi SS soldiers who ran the place had a band established and every morning and afternoon when the girls marched past, the band would play. The SS would watch the girls closely and whoever did not march straight or whoever looked sick, was pulled out of the formation and taken away. The girls used to pinch their cheeks before starting each march past the band and the SS, to show they were not pale and make it appear they were not sick.
My mother’s barracks started getting more and more crowded as more and more people came. It was like a multi-level chicken coop. There was no light or heat and although they were given thin blankets, the blankets were full of lice.
Periodically, there would be a “selection.” That was when, at times, all the girls were marched in front of the SS to see who would stay and who would be taken away. One time a selection was on Shabbat Chanukah. This time the girls were told to jump across a ditch. Those who made the jump survived. Those who could not clear the ditch were taken away.
In the beginning of 1943, the girls built a barracks inside the Auschwitz camp for a new job they would have. The job included folding clothes, and gathering and organizing the belongings of those who were going to the gas chambers. The Germans called the area Canada, because it was full of all kinds of items brought by the Jews, and the Germans deemed the country Canada as some kind of land of plenty. At that time, my mother’s barracks were close enough to the gas chambers and she could hear the screams and the crying.
When the SS guards were not looking, my mother would at times smuggle some jewelry out of the belongings area so as to bribe the German or Polish overseers to get information on a prisoner for a loved one. Or so that those overseers, known as Kapos, would be a little less brutal to the Jews under their control. My mother knew that were she to be caught it would mean instant death. But she did it anyway, helping others survive.
Some mornings it was discovered that one of the girls had died overnight. “But there were no more tears left,” my mother said. All those still alive could do was take the dead girl’s piece of bread and try to continue on.
In late 1944, as the Russians advanced against the Germans, my mother could hear the bombs and shooting not that far off in the distance. The Germans started destroying some things and shipping other things off to Germany.
In January of 1945, my mother and her sister and the rest of the girls in her group were marched out of Auschwitz; she had been among the first to arrive there, and now she was among the last to leave. The girls marched day after day with very little food. It was bitter cold and there was a lot of snow. They would eat the snow because there was no water. After arriving at a small city, they were herded into open train cattle cars and the train slowly headed off. Periodically they were ordered off the cars so that the piles of the dead could be removed.
After a couple weeks, the train stopped somewhere in Germany and the girls were forced into another barracks in another camp. But the Allies were now closing in. My mother saw both British and German planes in the sky. And because of the nearby bombardments, things in the barracks would fall and the walls would crack. But the girls didn’t mind because they were overjoyed at the events.
In March, the girls were marched out of that camp to some barns. Because of the advancing Allies, the SS guards became less careful. My mother could see that, and so, when the orders were given to leave, she and several girls including my aunt, hid and stayed behind. They kept hiding in and around small German towns. In July with the war over, the girls left Germany and were able to get to get back to Czechoslovakia.
In late 1941, my father, Leo, Aryeh Yehudah – which means Lion of Judah – Altman, then 27 years old, along with other men from Slovakia, was sent to the Novaky labor camp. A Jewish underground group was formed in Novaky and some of the Jews, including my father, escaped and formed partisan brigades. Partisans were organized groups of men, and even women and children, who fought and harassed the Nazis. Jews did join non-Jewish partisan groups, but mainly created their own, because of anti-Semitism in the non-Jewish brigades.
These Jewish partisan groups of only a couple hundred fighters at the most tried to prevent deportations of Jews to the death camps and also took part in sabotage. They blew up railroad tracks and bridges among other things, and actually fought in combat missions against the German army and Nazi SS troops, the ones responsible for rounding up and sending Jews to their deaths. My father and his small group hid and fought until the end of the war.
Now my father was a very humble and quiet man. He never talked about his experiences. Maybe he could not relive what he had gone through. Maybe it was just part of his personality. Some of the things we heard about him were from other people.
At a Bar Mitzvah a long time ago I met a man who told me he was my uncle and that my father saved his life. Of course he wasn’t really my uncle. None of my real uncles survived the war. But these men who fought side by side were the only brothers they knew after their real brothers had been taken away, many never to be seen again. This “uncle” told me what my father had done for him. He had been shot during a firefight with the Nazis, and my partisan father, acting as a surgeon, dug the bullet out of his chest. I never imagined my father doing any of the things I just mentioned.
When my sister, Fay, went with my parents to visit Czechoslovakia in 1981, my father opened up a bit. He told my sister of areas where his brigade’s weapons might very well still be buried and hidden. He showed her where he had blown up a bridge used by the Nazis. He was able stay hidden because of the help of a few righteous gentiles, and in gratitude, my father gave them his family’s farm.
Can you imagine your own mother and father living through their own respective nightmares, doing such amazingly heroic things? I guess one does what one must do to stay alive, and help others stay alive even in the worst of circumstances.
At some of the family functions I attended when I grew up, relatives and friends were singing songs I did not understand. As the men and women sang I saw a fierce pride. I think I now know one of the melodies. There was a song the partisans used to sing and one of the lines translated to, “And wherever a drop of our blood has fallen, from there sprouts our heroism and courage.”
You might have already heard more than once, “It’s hard to be a Jew.” If you think it is difficult now, think about what you have just heard. I did not go with my sister and parents to see the ‘Old Country’ in 1981, and relive what had happened there. I was too uncomfortable with it then, and I have to admit I am uncomfortable just talking about it now. I cannot explain why something so horrible happened, why the world let it happen, and why even today, when things should be so much more clear and civilized, we as Jews here and around the world still endure so much hatred. Why Israel, the Jewish State, is constantly criticized for defending herself. It is so frustrating.
But I can tell you, that because a woman of valor, against all odds, survived the horrors of Auschwitz, and because a lion of Judah, also against all odds, was able to fight one of the strongest armies of his generation and persevere, I am here. I am here in their names not just to bear witness to what happened but to share in a victory. Because here stands Shia, the son of Leo and Regina Altman, and you are here, and your children will be here, and their children and their children, and on and on and on.