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Only the First Four Hurt: Part IV August 20, 2010

This is the fourth part in a series documenting my Uncle Irving’s account of his personal and family history during and after the Holocaust.  Previous entries include Only the First Four Hurt , Only the First Four Hurt: Part II and Only the First Four Hurt: Part III...slf

My Uncle Irving has a habit.  When he tells a story he sometimes breaks into a wide grin. And a slight chuckle.  His narration continues but within seconds his face goes distorted, his voice cracks and he breaks down into sobs while delivering some sordid twist to the tale he is telling.  At this point, the narration stops and he hangs his head, shoulders heaving with sobs.  This is a habit I witnessed numerous times while documenting his story…slf

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After Mauthausen I was taken to another camp – Gusen II.  This was a real work camp.  A camp where people were sent to different kinds of factories and were given jobs.  It was very serious.  First they took me to – I have no idea what the factory was but it was underground and there were real big pieces of wood – trees – that we had to move from one place to another.  They brought them in with trucks and we had to move them.

One time a big piece of lumber fell off the truck and I got hit by it, I think in the head, and fell over.  After that they decided I was too weak to do that work anymore.  So they took me to a place where we had to fill up small wagons the size of cars with broken stones.  The wagons sat on train tracks.  Somebody would push the cars away and when they brought back the empties we’d fill them again.  What they did with it I have no idea.

Between all these things, something happened every day.  People got killed, people got close to the fence and were shot or electrocuted, people committed suicide by throwing themselves onto the electric fence.

Something, indeed, happened every day at the Gusen Camps.  Gusen I, II and III, three of 49 Mauthausen, Austria sub-Camps, came to be recognized as particularly tortuous.  “Compared to Gusen,” one historian commented “the other camps were paradise.” Scores of children in Gusen were “euthanized” by lethal injection to the heart and the elderly and ill were put to painful, slow death by being forced underneath pummeling, freezing cold shower water in freezing cold temperaturesThe main focus of Gusen labor centered around mining stone quarries.

The inmates’ nickname for Gusen II:  “The Hell of hells”

I remember it was very snowy and cold.  That was winter.  We would stand out there for hours in our pajamas  and wait for them to count us. And people got beaten up for all kinds of reasons.

I had no friends. No people I talked with or anything like that. It didn’t work that way.  We were all trapped in our own private worlds. Everybody was out to save his own life and to survive.  There are a lot of things I didn’t tell you because I wanted to block them out.  There are so many stories that I could tell you….

In Guzen II they had a latrine for the whole camp.  For everyone.  It was a long toilet where you sit on a wooden plank that has holes.  You sit there to do what you need to do.  It was walking distance from the barracks – a 5-10-minute walk.

One night in middle of night – I didn’t know it but they knew it.  I guess I was sort of sleep walking .. I went to make pee pee and I couldn’t make it.  So I must have made in my pants.

The next day, they called me – the Kapo to the Schreiber’s office at the end of the barracks. I didn’t understand the language. But they had decided I would get 24 lashes with a stick.  I asked: “For what?  What did I do?”  It was because I made in my pants in the middle of the night. And I didn’t even know I had done it.

In case you ever have to get 24 lashes with a stick….

my Uncle looked me straight in the eye and then grinned and chuckled.  It was his habit.

Only the first four hurt.  After that you feel nothing.  I fainted.

His head bowed and shoulders heaving with sobs, he paused for a few minutes.  His sobs audible, he wiped at streaming tears with a table napkin.  A few minutes later, he resumed.

You lie naked and they hit you on your toochas.  They don’t hurry.  They take their time.  And you faint. And you can’t sit down for a week.

So many things happen in the camp that you black out.  Certain things I remember but I’ve blacked out a lot of things. I remember standing in line and every third or fourth person is getting shot and I happen to not be the third or fourth person.

I remember that people who couldn’t work or who got too weak were put into a room at the end of the barracks – it was a long barracks.  The room was closed and it was for people who couldn’t work or stand up anymore. Once a day they came with a wagon pushed by two people and they carried the people away to the crematorium while they were still alive.

Everybody knew that if you were put into this room, that’s the end.

One day I got an infection – I don’t remember exactly when this was – and it was on my inner ankle and it was very bad.  It was getting worse and worse.  It wasn’t painful but there was no way to treat it.  So you just ignored it.  Every time they talked or decided what to do with me I had no way of knowing what was going on because I didn’t know the language.

But they decided I couldn’t work anymore with my foot the way it was and they put me into that room.  It was a closed room with a wooden slide that went directly down to the wagon that takes you away.  I don’t know if they wanted to scare me or send me to the crematorium but I was there for half a day.  At the time you don’t even care.  That’s what they’re doing so you do what you have to do.

After half a day they took me out of there to a place where you get bandaged.

A long time later, after I got home I thought to myself: I was so close so many times. Why was it that so many times I got out at the last minute?  I can’t remember everything.

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The Globo-Life August 15, 2010

Years ago while sitting in a San Francisco cafe, I moaned to an Israeli friend: “I like being here but I miss Israel.  And when I’m in Israel the things that drive me crazy there make me want to come back to the States!  I’ve moved around so many times I feel like it’s time to make a decision about where to settle down but I just don’t know where that should be!”

My friend, bless her Zen-filled heart, replied calmly:  “Why?  Why not be a global citizen?  That’s the way I feel.  I’m  comfortable wherever I go.  Of course there are places I prefer to be but I’ve learned to relax, enjoy and take the best of what each place has to offer wherever I am.”

I didn’t get it.  My then-mindset dictated a MUST DECIDE attitude backed by conviction that loyalty to one-place-only indicated good sense.  Die hard locale fidelity was my internal dictator.

But this summer the meaning of her advice clicked.  And as the surreal nature of realizations go, it hit me head-on right in the middle of a two-step move to Toby Keith’s Trailerhood as I line danced with total strangers in a small Cincinnati working class neighborhood bar.

I spend summers in Cincinnati with my 8-year-old so that he can get to know his aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents, go to an English speaking summer camp and gain exposure to the multi-cultural experience of Israel versus the U.S. For me it’s a break from the intensity of Mid-East living and work and it’s also an opportunity to spend quality time with family and loved ones.

Thanks to Facebook, I started reconnecting with old Cincinnati friends each year, adding a dimension of fun and depth to our stays.

Over steamy cups of coffee and at dinners, parties, meetings, restaurant openings, Salsa on the Square, movie nights and art exhibits or during hours spent poolside, on shopping excursions and meeting new people via my old friends, I discovered I have arrived. I am globalized.

Because as I broke into a slight sweat alongside our a 60+ year-old line dance instructor Patty all decked out in her denim miniskirt and matching vest that I was reminded of Tel Aviv.  Saturday morning folk dance sessions along the Med pulsate to different strains but the Patty’s, Rex’s, Letta’s and Jimmy’s of Western Hills are alive and well inside the bodies of the Itziks, Chanas, Loolees and Shai’s of Israel.

As one friend shared the story of her beloved husband succumbing to cancer, another talked about Botox treatments, others spoke of job and financial woes,  methods for cutting costs in a flagging economy, choosing an education plan  for a 1st grader and facing the challenges of elder parent care, I realized I was physically in Cincinnati.  But I had lived all of these talks in Tel Aviv.  And Paris, London, Thailand and Singapore.

Vive la difference, I didn’t have to choose anymore.  I was having a damned good time with my global family and friends and rather than seeing the differences that separate us all, I was noticing the similarities forging our paths.

SO…..to my collaborating partners in crime – dear family, global friends, colleagues and an extra special someone held close to my heart:  Thank you for conspiring with me to make life richer, fuller, more meaningful and funner wherever I go

See you next year…..!

 

Only the First Four Hurt: Part III August 8, 2010

“A week after we got there they started transporting people out of the ghetto.  They  picked a certain number of families each time to transport to Auschwitz.  We didn’t know where we were going at the time – we just knew we were going to a labor camp“… Only the First Four Hurt: Part II.

The following is Part III in an ongoing series documenting my Uncle Irving’s account of his personal and family history during and after the Holocaust. Prior entries include Only the First Four Hurt and Only the First Four Hurt: Part II. . . slf

“We were among the first transports.  About a hundred of us were forced into a train car with two sliding doors.  Space was so tight we could only stand and there was no toilet for us.  The Germans put a bucket in the train to be used by everyone.  So if you had to go, it was in front of everyone in this bucket.

“We traveled like that for two or three days – I’m not really sure how long.  It was April so it wasn’t really hot but on a sunny day on the train it could be.  We passed through towns where we’d stop to wait for other trains to pass.  I remember people watching us – town people – and everybody on the train was screaming for water.  We were so thirsty.  There was no food or water.

“We got to the final destination which was Auschwitz but at the time I didn’t know what it was or where I was.  Germans were there with whips and dogs and they were yelling and screaming for us to ‘Rush! Rush! Rush!’ to get off the train and go stand in line.

“I was with my two youngest brothers and my mother and father – there were only three of us kids at home at the time.  My four older siblings had moved to Budapest to stay with family and get an education.  I remember my father was holding my youngest brother Deszo’s hand and my mother was holding my other brother Gyorge’s arm.  He was about three or four years old.

“When the Germans formed lines, they separated me from them.  Now I know it’s because I looked older.  My relatives in Budapest were rich and they owned clothing stores and  they had sent us clothing to hide.  The anti-Jewish laws were affecting all Hungarian Jews, even in Budapest.  So they sent men’s suits to our house for us to hide in case their stores were taken away from them.  At 15, I had dressed in a man’s suit before leaving home; never in my life had I ever worn a suit like that.

“Because I was dressed in that suit I looked older and I was sent to the line for people going to the work camp.  My family was separated into the other line and sent to the crematorium. But at the time, I didn’t know where my family was going.

“They took us into Auschwitz into a camp where we got undressed and went to take a shower.  We had to undress completely and get our heads shaved and then we were issued our pajamas.  They were like striped overalls.

“The kapos in the camp weren’t German – only Polish – and I didn’t speak anything other than Hungarian.  So I asked them when I would see my parents and they pointed to the sky. We were so scared at the time that I don’t remember understanding what that meant.  I couldn’t think about it.  I was scared and shaking. It all happened very fast.

“On the first day I was taken to a barracks and there were hundreds of people inside.  But there were no children around.  And if there were, they were kept alive for medical experiments.  They didn’t leave any kids alive that they didn’t want to use for something.

“Each barrack had a Schreiber and a kapo.  A schreiber (literal translation from German: “scribe”..slf) keeps records and the kapo carries out Nazi orders.  These people weren’t Jewish.  They were Polish or from some other country the Nazis took over.  Usually they were criminals who had been given authority.  Some of them were homosexual and although I didn’t know it at the time, a few kids were spared for each barracks for the kapo and schreiber to….

Irving trailed off at this point and looked down at his hands, resting folded on the dining room table.  He resumed a moment later.

“When we got out of the wagons at the barracks and were being rounded up with whips and dogs and they yelled ‘run!’ and go here or there, 99% of the kids were gone.  Teenagers, like me, were beyond kid status.

“I remember the first night.  We fell asleep on bunk style slots that ran three to four levels high.  We were so tired from standing on the train for days that as soon as we got our clothes and went in, we went to sleep.

“The next day they gave each of us a container to be filled with soup once a day.  I didn’t want to look at the soup let alone eat it.  It wasn’t soup.  It was grass mixed with water.  I refused to eat mine that day and some of the people who had already been there for a bit were more than happy to take it from me.  They said:  ‘By tomorrow you’ll be hungry enough to eat it.’  Sure enough, after 2-3 days of not eating, I ate.

I was curious:  Did he see anyone from home?  Did he recognize anyone?

“That first day I met a guy from the neighboring town where we went to synagogue.  He was an older person, my parent’s age, in his 40’s or so.  He was the only person I knew from our area because most of the others that I remember were Polish.  But I spent a very brief time at Auschwitz – maybe three or four days.

“We basically stayed in the barracks all day long.  Once a day we went to stand in line for soup and we also got counted every day and the schreiber took note.  But I wasn’t there longer than a week.  After that they transported us to Mauthausen by truck.  It took a few hours to get there and when we arrived, we were put in the same style barracks.

“There they separated different people off into different work areas.  It was more of the same: We stood in line a few times a day to be counted.  They kept counting us to make sure nobody escaped.  I would say I was there a couple weeks and it was standing in line, getting beaten up and sometimes, randomly, they would shoot every third or fourth person in line.  Standing there you never knew if it would be you.  Or if they didn’t like the way you called out your number, they would shoot you.

“My number is 71943, by the way.  It was on a band I wore.  Most people who got there before me had tattoos.  I mean, people started coming in the 1930’s in Poland but by 1944 they didn’t have the time to burn the numbers on people’s arms anymore.  I don’t remember where we got the band but I remember my number.”

 

Only the First Four Hurt: Part II August 1, 2010

I still have nightmares about the camps.  It’s always the same:  I’m in a camp and I can’t get out and I’m hungry.  I’m always hungry….Irving Kutas, May 2010

My Uncle Irving isn’t really named “Irving”.  His real name is Tibor Klein.  But after WWII his siblings changed the family name to ‘Kutas’ because they wanted something less Jewish sounding.  Despite the war being over and all, Hungarians weren’t particularly fond of or kind to their Jews.  And with the Klein parents no longer there to make decisions, the  children felt they couldn’t take any chances. So Sandor, the oldest of the boys, had the family name officially changed to Kutas.

Irving, or Tibor, was born in January 1929 in Fulpos: a small town in northeast, Hungary on the Romanian border.  He was the 5th of Andor and Maria Klein’s five boys and two girls and his siblings were Erszebet, Borbala, Sandor, Erno, Gyorge and Dezso.

Fulpos was a tiny, close knit, agricultural community of about 100 families with a population of 100,000 characterized by cohesive families. “Not like today,” Irving commented as he shared his history while seated at the dining room table of his Tel Aviv suburb home.

Irving’s father Andor was in the business of buying agricultural products to loan out to farmers who didn’t have funds to pay for equipment.  When they eventually turned a profit the farmers paid him back.  It was semi-lucrative because everyone in town was a farmer subsisting off of corn, potatoes, poppyseed, wheat & barley crops.  There were also a lot of cows in town and most families, aside from Irving’s, owned at least one cow for seeing to their dairy needs.  No one had electricity.

Aside from loaning money to farmers, Andor also ran a small mini-market out of one room of their farmhouse style home and he operated a pub out of another room.  His ”enterprises” were the only official businesses in town.

“My mother raised us kids and managed the bar and washed clothing by hand.  My father was smart but they had too many kids to support so we were poor.  We had enough to eat and we owned our home – it had the bar and store and the main house had three bedrooms, a balcony and an outhouse –  but that was it.  I remember that it was cold in the winter,” he shared.

“They were good and kind parents but they didn’t have time for us.”

Andor and Maria were born and raised in Hungary and both were observant Jews.  They observed the  Sabbath and except for days Maria stayed home to prepare meals, the entire family walked 3-4 miles to the neighboring town every Saturday to attend synagogue as there was no synagogue in Furpos.  There wasn’t a hospital either.

A total of four Jewish families lived in Furpos and until the 1940’s the Klein family was well liked by all.  “Everyone in town came to borrow money from my father; they knew he was approachable and that if they were having a bad year, they could hold off on paying him back until things were going well,” Irving recalled.  Knowing Irving today, it is clear he inherited his father’s generous spirit.

“My childhood was very good until the 1940’s.  I was a good student in school – I was best at math and I got straight A’s all the way through.  But when laws against Jews came into play in the 1940’s, we weren’t allowed to go to school anymore.  And my friends became anti-Semitic overnight,” Irving shared.

He was referring to offshoot decrees throughout Europe resulting from Germany’s insidious 1935 Nuremberg Laws that strangulated Jewish populations by barring them from basic rights.

As Irving relayed, around 1940 the anti-Jewish laws kept him and his siblings from attending school.

“I went to grade school until age 12 and after that I wasn’t allowed to go to junior high or high school because of the laws. Instead, I was ordered to go work for the “public youth  organization” which meant doing whatever town officials told me to: cleaning out cemetery grass, weeding lawns… whatever they decided.

“Luckily we weren’t really supervised so we did whatever we wanted to do.  But we made sure to stay away from our peers.  If I had played cards with my friends before, all of a sudden they’d beat me up. So we stayed away from them.”

At the time, his three older siblings – Erszebet, Borbala and Sandor – were staying with wealthy relatives in Budapest so they could get a better education.

The laws and growing anti-Semitism lasted from the time Irving was 12 until he was 15, in 1944.  That’s when the home and family life he had known all of his life came crashing down.

“In April 1944, the Germans ordered all Jewish families to leave their homes and go into a forced ghetto.  It literally happened overnight.  One night they announced that at 9 a.m. the next day we were to leave everything and congregate in the town square – each Jewish family with its horse drawn wagon.  We loaded onto the wagons and the  police escorted us… Within a few hours all of us were placed in a centrally located ghetto –  Mateszalka.”

Irving’s parents had already heard stories leaked across the borders from Poland, Czechoslovakia and other Eastern European countries: Jews were being taken away to concentration camps.  But the children were unaware. “We weren’t old enough to catch onto what was in store for us but our parents knew what was going on.

“But that day we were put into the ghetto and in the ghetto we had homes. . .”

At this point, Irving trailed off.  He wept quietly into the table napkins, his shoulders heaving.

“There we had homes.  They closed a few city blocks off and the Jews were concentrated into five or six blocks and everybody moved into the homes together.  It was one family to a room so there might be five or six families to each home.  There was no bed, no food, no nothing.

“I remember we kids went out to the street together to cry and beg for food for the family…”

Overcome, Irving trailed off again, crying.

“The police were on horses all the time both inside and outside the ghetto to make sure nobody escaped. They would beat up Jewish children and openly rape the girls.  The Hungarian police basically picked up young girls and did whatever they wanted to do with them.

“I don’t know exactly how often but maybe every few days or every week there would be a transport and people would be taken from the ghetto. They didn’t do it all at once because there were too many people.

“And Jewish community leaders were elected to make sure everyone was following orders.  Probably a week after we got there they started transporting people out of the ghetto.  They  picked a certain number of families each time to transport to Auschwitz.  We didn’t know where we were going at the time – we just knew we were going to a labor camp.”