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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.”

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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.