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Only The First Four Hurt: Part V October 3, 2010

This is the fifth 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, Only the First Four Hurt: Part III and Only the First Four Hurt: Part IV..slf

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We had bunks and I don’t remember who was next to me or who was my neighbor. We were all in our private worlds.  Trying to survive.  That’s what we thought about all day long.

I remember one guy who was with me in Auschwitz from the town I came from.  I didn’t even know he was there in the camp.   But he must’ve known that I was there because one day — we each got a small piece of bread every day to eat.  It wasn’t really bread.  It was made of sawdust.  Every person got half a loaf of those sawdust breads every day –  A few months into being in the camp this man from my town came to me with half a loaf and said:  ‘Take this. I can’t eat anymore.  Maybe it’ll help you.’  Maybe he knew something I didn’t.  I never saw him again.

There are a lot of things you try to push away.

Irving’s face crumbled.  He bowed his head and with shoulders heaving with sobs, he divulged:

All these years I tried to black all this out.  For me it was natural.  That’s why I’m breaking down now. For me it was always natural.

He continued sobbing quietly.  And then he wiped his face with one of the white, paper napkins on the table and pressed on:

Things continued like that until February 1945.  The Russians were coming close to the camp.  Of course we didn’t know that.  But the Germans decided to clear out the camp and sent us marching.  I don’t know how many days we marched in the snow and rain without food.  But if anyone fell, they were shot dead on the spot.

Irving was referring to the death marches.  As Russian troops advanced from the East and U.S./British troops approached from the West, a panicked German army attempted to clear out concentration camps and “erase evidence” of the atrocities committed within by marching camp prisoners to remote locations. Lacking food, water or insulation from the freezing cold, scores of already weakened and ill prisoners died en route.

After walking many days without food or water we got to a camp.  It wasn’t a camp but that’s what they called it.  It was a forest called Gunzkrhin.  And I remember that when we walked into this forest area, dead bodies were piled one on top of each other as high as a building.

I fainted.  And from that point I don’t remember any more until…I have no idea how long I was unconscious but it must have been a very long time.  The next thing I remember is that one day  the army – the SS army – came in and they were passing out food.  Gift packages to everybody with drinks and food and bread and chocolate and I don’t remember what else.

Nobody could believe they were doing that.  We thought they just wanted to bribe us before killing us.  The Red Cross came in the same day to see how they were treating the prisoners.  Then it was clear why they were feeding us.

I don’t remember if I ate anything but I lost consciousness again.  I do remember that whoever stayed alive….

Irving trailed off here…crying quietly.

Most people died.  There were only a few hundred of us left that were even able to move anymore.

The next thing I remember is that the Germans disappeared.  People were laughing and screaming, saying that the Americans had come.  I was in and out of consciousness.  But I remember them yelling and screaming that the Americans had liberated us.

The Americans were passing out food and feeding people.  But whoever ate dropped dead.  I wasn’t strong enough to eat or get up onto my feet. I guess I was just lying on the ground. I was lucky.

When liberating concentration camp survivors, unknowing soldiers offered food to the starving victims.  The sudden onslaught of solid nourishment was such an overwhelming shock to survivors’ systems that many died of “food overdose”.

I remember the American soldiers had taken SS as P.O.W.’s  and they were helping to feed us.  After people died from the food, they sent SS people with porridge and very light food to eat.  I was there for two days.

Then I was taken to a sanitorium in Lindz, Austria at an American army camp. I was unconscious and I woke up in the sanitorium a month or maybe a few weeks later.  I don’t have an exact recollection of time but at the beginning May or something similar, they took me to a recovery place.  That’s when I got my mental faculties and consciousness back… he indicated, tapping his head.

We were there until they got ready to send people who had stayed alive off to different places.

Some of the long time of blackout from the time I was in the field to the time I was taken to the  sanitorium I was unconscious.  Sometimes today I try to remember things like the day before the Red Cross visited us when the Germans gave us those nice things. I also try not to remember other things.

But there must have been a time lapse from the time the SS left the forest to when the Americans came in.  I’ll tell you why: I was weak but I left the camp with one of the boys and found a dead horse in the town where normal Germans lived. We decided to cook the head for ourselves.  I remember this and the horse very clearly but then I don’t remember all of it.  Maybe it was a delirious nightmare.

Off to the side, my Aunt Babe had been listening.  She signaled and shook her head ‘no’.  “Hallucination” she said, looking at Irving.  “There’s no way you would have had the strength to go into town and get a horse and cook it.”

But I do remember waking up and discovering that the SS were working for the Americans. 

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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.”

 

Only The First Four Hurt July 20, 2010

This past Holocaust Day I stood with head bowed during the moment of silence, attempting to contain the flood of emotions that washes over me each year when the sirens sound.  But this time as the wailing powered down, I had an epiphany: It’s time to get Uncle Irving’s history.


Uncle Irving is married to my dad’s sister Esther or Aunt Babe.  It’s been her nickname since childhood.  Growing up in Cincinnati, my Aunt Babe, Uncle Irving and my four first cousins were fixtures in my life: We dined together at our house on the Jewish holidays, BBQ’d and played badminton on the lawn of theirs on July 4th, the cousins and I went to the same sleep-away camp each year and we attended the same youth group.

When I needed information or immediate advice while both parents were at work it was Aunt Babe I phoned in search of answers.  For new gym shoes, socks or underwear it was off to the downtown warehouse Uncle Irving worked in & up to the top floor inside the creaky freight elevator to take my pick from multiple boxes and shelves of assorted wear-ables.

Whenever holiday dinners rolled around, though, my siblings and I were instructed prior to guest arrival:  “Put the dog in the laundry room.  Uncle Irving is coming over.”

We had been briefed numerous times:  Uncle Irving, a Holocaust survivor,  was frightened of dogs.   The Nazis had used German Shepherds to instill fear or attack Jews in the ghettos and camps.  And although we didn’t have Shepherds – ours were small Boston Terriers – we had to  enclose them regardless.

Uncle Irving had a whole bunch of “isms”.  He was super careful about the food he ingested, the utensils he used and the venues in which he was willing to eat.  He had a habit of inspecting all three for a measure of cleanliness only he could grade.  He would wake up at 4 a.m., his family joked, in order to arrive at the bakery doors prior to the 5 a.m. opening.  He wanted to buy his rolls fresh from the oven before anyone else had a chance to touch them.

Our mother told us his food “isms” were a result of camp survivors being forced to use the same container for receiving doled out “meals” as for collecting personal waste.

That’s what our Mom told us.  Our parents also shared that both of Uncle Irving’s parents and several of his siblings had been gassed to death at Auschwitz.  And we knew he hailed from Hungary.

But I never confirmed any of the stories with Uncle Irving himself.  Except for his Hungarian roots which was an obvious personal characteristic because he spoke Hungarian with his brother and sisters whenever they were together.

The truth is, decade after decade, nobody, including his wife and children, confirmed anything about the years he spent in the ghettos, concentration camps and hiding out  in the forests.  His kids and Aunt Babe knew he’d been through tremendous trauma but the unspoken rule was that he didn’t talk about his past.

And no one dared trespass into that realm.

As years passed and he moved to Israel with Aunt Babe to be closer to three of his four children and the grandchildren, the silent oath remained in place.  Even when his grandchildren worked on obligatory family tree school projects necessitating interviewing and digging, information regarding his past had to be gleaned from Babe.

But something shifted after Uncle Irving suffered a sudden bout of agoraphobia in his 60’s that kept him house-bound for a year.  Agoraphobia, I discovered while writing a story about 2nd Generation Holocaust Survivors, is common among survivors who have internally buried their trauma.

When he was able to leave the house again, he began disclosing bits of information about the past.  Seated at a dinner gathering, someone’s comment or remark would spark a personal story.   The family, starved of information thus far, would sit in silence absorbing the revelations. Or, upon discovering that a new acquaintance had also been in the camps, he would swap information in the presence of Aunt Babe or other family members.

The instances were random, unprovoked and family members were stunned but grateful when they occurred.  But they were the stirrings of something looming larger and as I stood with head bowed last April, it occurred to me that as a non-immediate, once-removed family member and a person who routinely interviews others for a living, maybe my uncle would talk to me.  I knew it was important to document his story and I also felt that this was something I could do for him and his family to repay them for their generosity and kindness throughout the years.

I live in Tel Aviv, about twenty minutes from Aunt Babe and Uncle Irving’s place.  In recent years I have been through some taxing personal times and Uncle Irving, Aunt Babe and my cousins have been staunch allies providing refuge,  advice, legal counsel, love & faith.   Uncle Irving even put up his house as equity on my behalf in a time of need.

And so I approached him with my proposition:  Can I come over and document your personal history?

And he agreed.

I spent several sessions talking with him, asking questions, probing and typing.  The sessions were not comfortable and he warned in advance that he would cry.  And he did.  At times he sobbed heavily into dining room table napkins.  I  offered to stop saying I could come back another time.  But he wanted to continue.

In the coming blog entries I will share Uncle Irving’s story because I believe that re-telling his history is as important as the documentation itself.  As I share, the above title will become clear.

 

Crying on the Job May 6, 2009

I think I committed a faux pas.  But I’m not 100% certain.

I cried during an interview.

The interviewee didn’t seem to notice – I didn’t wail or tear at my hair or anything.  My face simply went screwy and got hot and a few tears spilled over my lower eyelids.

That’s probably not something you’re supposed to do if you’re a truly professional journalist.

It happened when I was out on assignment for my Manhattanite book-author friend who I’ve been helping on his latest project.  I interview concentration camp survivors living in Israel in their Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, etc. homes asking questions e-mailed by my friend.

So far the work has been incredible:  hearing stories, witnessing two survivors compare numbered arm tattoos,  looking through old photo albums…

Spending time with survivors I realize how very privileged my life has been and how honored I am to sit with them and document their lives.

But maybe I’m hardened.  Because in all the years I have covered all sorts of stories nothing has reduced me to tears.

And there have certainly been moments.  Like interviewing a man hours before he was to attend the double funerals of his wife and daughter, both killed in a Tel Aviv suicide bombing.  Or witnessing an elderly man sitting despondently in the rubble of his just-bulldozed home.  Or sitting with an inner city teen who stared blankly into space in the aftermath of his sibling’s shooting death.  Didn’t cry.

What did it for me yesterday was a certificate.

To be exact:  The Certificate of Liberation i.e. the “Provisional Identification Card for Civilian Internee of Buchenwald.”

On April 22, 1945 the survivor I interviewed was liberated from Buchenwald Concentration Camp by the American army.  He has held onto the wallet sized, brown leather-bound document signed by American General Bertel something or other  for 64 years.  It’  states that “Herr (blank blank in the interest of privacy) was kept in captivity from 16.4.1944 to 22.4.1945 in Nazi-German concentration camps and was liberated from the concentration camp of Buchenwald.”

It blew me away to see the authentic signed military document.  I traveled in my imagination to the place and time  that document was received and imagined the officer handing it to the survivor and the incredulity on both parts.  The significance of holding onto that document for six decades struck a chord.

I know, though, that I’m not the only journalist who has ever broken down on the job.

Some years ago B.Z. Goldberg’s documentary Promises was shown in cinemas worldwide. In what was the film’s most poignant scene, Palestinian and Israeli children are shown sitting together in the West Bank living room of one child’s home after having spent the day playing, laughing and getting to know each other.  Separated by politics and army checkpoints, they live a mere 20 minutes apart but would have never met had the filmmaker not brought them together.

Suddenly, one of the Palestinian boys begins crying.

What’s wrong? director B.Z. queries.

They’ll go back to Israel today and then we’ll never see them again, the boy answers, knowing all too well the reality of his situation.

The camera then pans to B.Z. who is also crying.

I was awed by that scene because  B.Z. allowed himself to spontaneously shed tears and he kept the shot in the film.

It was nominated for Best Documentary Oscar in 2001.

So about the crying thing…I dunno.  Mypersonal jury’s still out.