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כתב עת בנושאי תרבות ותוכן

Memories from the Holocaust period


written by bennny keidar, israel, a child of 8 at the timei was born in budapest, the capital of hungary, on september 2nd, 1936, as the fifth child of a somewhat unusual family. my father, ben – zion kleinmann, of blessed memory, was born in a small village in russia named verecke, and i don’t know why he came to miskolc, a city in the north of hungary and settled there. he married and had three children. the firstborn was aliz, two years later jeno, and after two more years the youngest - flory, who was accidentally harmed by the midwife and remained limping for life. a few years later, my father lost his wife and until today, i don't understand how he managed to take care of three little children, when the oldest was less than ten years old. neither my parents nor my brothers ever spoke about this situation and i myself didn't bother to ask and investigate it.my mother ilana, of blessed memory, my father’s second wife, came from a very religious family with seven children, two boys and five girls and was born in a small city named haydunanas near debrecen, the second largest city in hungary after budapest. ilana was a very pretty woman. as i heard, she didn't like any of the matches offered her, and what she really wanted had never been offered to her, so the fact was that she remained single until she passed her thirties and her prospects didn’t look too good. in those days, to be unmarried at her age was very rare and in the environment of the orthodox families it was even rarer. what caused the young beautiful girl to marry a widower with three little children is a mystery to me and this secret remained a mystery for ever.my sister flory, the youngest of my three older siblings, was almost nine when my brother erwin was born, and after 17 months the coming of the messiah occurred and humanity was blessed with my heroic appearance. by the way, until i became a grown boy i didn't know the fact that i have three half brothers and that the other one is of a different kind. it was told me by the neighbor's children, not out of kindness, i suppose. i clearly remember that i was surprised but it didn't really make any difference, concerning my feelings toward my half siblings. erwin is close to me more than anyone else in the world, because we are almost of the same age and because we grew up together and almost never separated. the relationship between us has always been strong and is only getting stronger. jeno was always naughty and my two sisters were for us like two little mothers more than sisters, but to me all three were true and natural siblings. one day before i celebrated my third birthday, on 1/9/1939, the second world war broke out when the german army, the wermacht, attacked and conquered poland in just a few days. this damned year was the beginning of an inhuman tragedy, without precedent for jews and humanity.millions of jews were going up in the smoke of the crematoria and the hungarian jews still lived their lives almost as peacefully as ever. the rumors arrived slowly but nobody did anything, life went on as usual and only a few discovered or suspected that the danger is coming closer and closer.the first memory that was inscribed in my mind most profoundly, and i am only a little child six years or maybe seven, probably at the end of 1942 or the beginning of 1943, was a family meeting at our house and me hearing my father reprimanding someone angrily and loudly as he was used to. in spite of my tender age i can remember almost every word: "you are absolutely crazy, they will not dare do such things to us, we are hungarians and such things are impossible! it happened to the jews of poland maybe because they weren't really citizens, they were ”polish” (used as a derogatory term), we are hungarians and these terrible things won't happen to us!" thus my father determined with absolute confidence and i don't remember anyone of the people present arguing or protesting. i knew in general what they were speaking about, and got some understanding of the issues and the terrible events that were happening not so far from us, but because i was a little child, it didn't bother me too much.the second memory i have in mind is when my father, who had been drafted into forced labor in the hungarian army, deserted and through may hardships succeeded in returning to budapest, to be greeted with great relief and joy by the family. in the middle of the living room, the tattered valise of my father was standing with a lock broken. the discussions of the elders didn’t hold any interest to erwin and me, and we were playing hurdles and my father's valise was the main hurdle. one of my jumps wasn't high enough and the result was a deep bruise on my left knee followed by crying. until today i have a mark on my knee, a mark that eliminated my only chance to a flourishing modeling career.contrary to most of the little towns and villages, for whom the passage from their regular lives directly to the bottom of the hell was very sharp, in budapest it was different and the way to destruction progressed slowly. in the beginning - the orders to wear the yellow patch, including little children of my age. after this, only a few weeks later, all the jews were forced to move to special apartments marked by a yellow star. my family was forced to leave our apartment and to go and live crowdedly with my grandfather and my aunt.i reacted strangely to the massive bombardments by the allied forces: i was frightened hearing the alarm and the fall of the first bomb, but after that i became apathetic and didn't even mind the coming of the rain of bombs and remained phlegmatic and didn't feel any fear. i remember my brother erwin gathering all the little children around him in the shelter and telling them stories, to make them forget their fear, and erwin himself is only nine and half years old.at this time i noticed the panic taking hold of my parents and of all the family, the uncles and the aunts and everyone around me.a somber atmosphere held everyone under its power. the picture that got engraved most strongly in my mind was my grandfather (my mother's father) sitting on his chair and the enormous book of the talmud placed on the window sill facing toward the interior backyard of the building. grandfather had a long white beard, his clothes and bowler hat conforming to the style of the chassidic community to which he belonged. it was a common ritual that erwin and i received constant reprove on account of our behavior that was not jewish enough to him.in those days, panic begun and grew more and more, the rumors were no rumors any more, replaced by the real knowledge of what was happening to the jews in the east. my mother was frightened for she knew what kind of fate was awaiting all of us. she made a crazy attempt to try and find where and how can we christianize ourselves and in this way rescue our lives at least. finally, i don't know why, it didn't happened and i remained a jew until today. later on everyone learned that even those who succeeded to christianize themselves didn't obtain recognition as christians and didn't succeed to avoid their grim fate.the buildings marked with yellow stars finished their duty and budapest's jews were crowded into a ghetto. soon we learned the meaning of terrible crowdedness when sanitary conditions became a great problem and going to the toilet a difficult operation.in those days i was already a big boy, eight and a quarter years old, but i can't remember and have no idea what we used to do in the nights and how we spent the long hours of the days. maybe we were playing? maybe we were staring absentmindedly at the void? maybe the elders kept us busy somehow? i really don't remember and this disturbs me and makes me frustrated until today when i think about it. not many days did pass and we began to learn the meaning of feeling starvation. very soon a link was formed between your stomach and your brain: whether you want it or not, you think about it and thinking about food is the main issue occupying your mind and all the rest becomes trivial. many years after the war my mother and all my family used to laugh at me because in the height of starvation, my mother succeeded to get some rotten tomatoes and cooked a tomato soup. it was very precious, but her youngest child (me) refused to taste this soup and declared that he doesn't like tomato soup. neither supplications nor threats had an effect. there was nothing that could be done, the child refused to taste the soup.my mother wasn't a big hero ordinarily, but the anxiousness and survival instincts to protect her chicks had given her the courage, and in those days it must have been a great courage, to smuggle erwin and me outside the ghetto to bring us to a red cross institution, a place where many children were huddled together, most of them orphans. she had the unfounded illusion that we could find security in this place. the way there was frightening, budapest's streets dreary and lonesome and only a few dared leave their houses. the sound of alarm could surprise us anytime, announcing a new wave of bombs; more than that, we were afraid to meet patrols of german soldiers, but most of all, we were afraid to come across the hungarian arrow cross fascists. their hate, their bestiality, their mania to kill was much greater than that of the german soldiers. to meet them meant death. in those months, in the end of the year 1944, the danube river became the scene of a mass murder for budapest's jews. groups after groups - men, women and children – had been escorted to the edge of the river by the hungarian arrow cross fascists, shot and painted the blue danube red with their blood. many thousands of budapest's jews found their death in that way.in the red cross institute we, erwin and i, found ourselves, for the first time in our lives, alone, absolutely alone, without parents, without siblings, only the two of us, and our feelings were very dark. an elderly woman, to my childish eyes, rudely pushed into our hands a pair of scissors and commanded us to cut each other's hair. weeping, we began the sheep shearing but soon our rebelliousness overcame every logical thought and we decided not to complete the task. since nobody paid any attention to us and no one cared, we didn’t pay a price for this rebellion. years later, when i was a young parachutist in the israeli army, my friends decided that all of us would shave our heads to complete baldness; although i had usually been an eager partner for any kind of mischief, this time i firmly refused and wasn't able to explain why. i don't remember how long we "enjoyed" the cold and cruel hospitality of the workers of the red cross. was it days? maybe weeks? i've really no idea. three events remained in my mind from those days. the first was a visit of the hungarian arrow cross fascists, most of them young boys, coming in to the red cross institute, shooting everywhere, killing some children, wounding others and leaving with satisfaction. a juvenile naughtiness it was to them and no more.the second event was the visit of aunt manci, who brought us some food and socks. aunt manci and uncle gyula were our neighbors in the building where we were born; she was a simple woman and an enthusiastic follower of the nazi party; he was open minded, a liberal and an educated man, though rough and rude- a man who didn't give a damn and used to fart anywhere without any inhibition. they were childless and loved us very much. we used to spend a lot of time in their house and we loved it. the visit of aunt manci wasn't so easily done, in fact it was extremely dangerous but we were “their” jews and she was truly concerned about us.the third event actually was the end of the romance between us and this cruel place. some hungarian arrow cross fascists came and collecting twenty or thirty children, including erwin and i, and escorted the group toward the edge of the danube. we didn't have any illusions; we knew exactly what it meant. the group marched without any order and i whispered to erwin again and again that we should run away, escape, but he was afraid. when we arrived in an alleyway, i pulled his hand and we ran as fast as we could without even looking at what was happening behind us, and we managed to run far away from the group. i don't know how, but the fact is that we found our way in the destroyed city and through the deserted streets and succeeded to arrive back in the ghetto. somebody went to my mother and told her that there were two children sitting in the square and crying, and suggested to her to check if the two might be hers. this is how we were reunited with our family.the starvation, the diseases and the cold were devastating to the ghetto's inhabitants; i was wandering in the streets and i saw corpses everywhere, because there wasn't manpower to bury them. the shop windows were full with thousands of corpses, children, women and elders, frozen from the cold, and those sights were frightening. but the most terrible thing was that after a short while you just became apathetic.my sister aliz was in the last months of her pregnancy and was sick almost all the time. she survived those critical months in the jewish hospital which, surprisingly, had been permitted to work.a group of german s.s. came and took out from the hospital a group of pregnant women and transported them to the edge of danube river. all were undressed and made to stand naked. the first in the row was shot and thrown to the river. the second in line was pushed into the river. the third, who was hungary's swimming champion, jumped into the water and escaped, and the search after her upset the plan and my sister and the rest of her friends were returned to the hospital and survived.in the waiting period before the six days war, aliz used to say that she could not go through another war, and indeed, the very day the war broke out her heart became stopped beating and she died. she was only 44. she didn't get to see her younger son, dov kehat, become the director general of the israeli ministry of interior.our brother jeno deserted the labor squadron of the hungarian army; he escaped from the ghetto and hid in different places. today he and his family live in haifa.our sister flory found a shelter in the cellar of the synagogue at bethlehem square with my grandfather and other relatives. flory was a little hero: only 18 years old, with a light limping, masquerading as a nurse, she went out from the shelter, wandering in the streets to find some food for all the people in the shelter. it is a big secret in our family that flory succeeded to get pork meat and fed grandfather with it, swearing that it was margarine and that he must eat it. flory is the only one from our family who didn't come to israel and until now she lives in budapest with her daughter and granddaughter.my uncle micky (dr. jechiel zvi moskovitch) who was very active in the zionist movement of the hapoel hamizrachi succeeded to organize, for many of our family, certificates of the swiss embassy. and again we escaped from the ghetto and were marching in the deserted streets of budapest. this time flory took us because our parents were already in the building rented by the swiss embassy. we were making our way in a real battle situation: we were marching at one side of the street and at the opposite side the russian shells and bombs were falling. we hid, got up and hid again and we continued our way like three soldiers, even though the sum age of the three of us was less than 35.finally we arrived safe and sound to the glass house which was in vadasz street. this building was used as a glass factory and this is the reason for its name. our parents welcomed us and poor flory had to return all the way alone. the building that was going to be our shelter, we didn’t know for how long, was rented by the embassy and was declared as swiss exterritorial area. thousands of jews found shelter in this place which in its peak reached the number of 4,000 tenants and all the time came more and more and the crowdedness became unbearable. lutz, the deputy consul, rented the nearest building as well. my parents remained in the first building and erwin and i moved to the new building with my aunt dusy, my mother's sister. dusy was supposed to take care of us but she was so frightened to death, that almost all of the time she was acting hysterical. we tried to calm her but only with limited success. the building was divided into sectors between the various zionist movements: hasomer hatzair, hamizrachi, betar, agudat israel, etc. many years later, when i was a grown up and thought about what happened to us and this ideological division, i felt bad and said to myself: "look at these jews, even in this difficult situation, with death, suffering and danger all around us, we are divided". today i am not so sure that this criticism was justified. maybe it is natural, when you are in trouble, that you want to be near to your friends and to the ones who are close to you physically, emotionally and ideologically.starvation became a dominant factor more and more. there was a central kitchen, but often the supply didn't arrive and our stomachs were close to cling to our backs. it is very very difficult to be hungry all the time. erwin succeeded to convince me that one of the cooks likes me very much because i was a charming boy (i don't know why i say this in the past tense…) and i should go and beg food from him. the fellow didn't fail me and i didn't come back empty handed. i used this trick several times and i thus started a new career as a beggar. until today, the relationship between food and me is a little bit strange. i can eat nothing for two or three days and it won’t bother me; neither dizziness nor stomach ache. but if you put food in front of me, i will continue to eat even if i am completely full. although in the last years i succeeded to educate and restrain myself not to do this, many times i "earned" mocking remarks from my children because “in my house nobody throws away food”. maybe after they read this, they will be more forgiving to me.we were sleeping on hard sofas swarming with lice, and our main activity was hunting them. to the knowledge of all those who lack an elementary education, you must know that there are different lice for hair and for clothing. it was a surrealistic performance to see, under the light of a darkling lamp, couples of men picking in the hair of the heads of each other and crushing louse after louse with great pleasure. it was a frequent ritual every evening.in 1997, erwin and his son guy, and i and my son roy, took a trip to czechoslovakia, austria and hungary and we arrived to the glass house in budapest. it was, for our children, a "roots journey". we stood there, in the courtyard, and we tried to tell guy and roy our story in this place, not with a great success i suppose. suddenly it started raining and we looked for a dry place. a young fellow came out of an office that was there and invited us in. he begged us to sit down and told us that he found a diary written by a twenty years old guy who had been there at the same time as we had. he began to read aloud from the diary; he read one sentence in hungarian and i translated it immediately to hebrew for the boys. it was a very strange, special and exciting moment. even i learned new things that i hadn’t known, like the fact that opposite to our building there was a police station and the hungarian policemen closed their eyes and didn't interfere with what was happening just across the street. we said goodbye and thanked him for his hospitality and kindness.as days and weeks went by and the divisions of the russian red army came closer and closer to budapest, the cruelty of the hungarian arrow cross gangs increased and their domination was absolute. the glass house had its share of their visits and their shootings, there were deaths, there were wounded, my father was really lucky as the bullet that reached him only made a hole in his overcoat. and again i don't know how long we were in this place. several weeks? several months? i can only regret that i didn't ask, didn't investigate and didn't nag my parents when they were alive. today there is no one left to ask.we left the glass house immediately when the red army occupied pest and still mighty battles were taking place in the other part of the city- buda, on the other side of the danube. our way from the glass house to our own house was unforgettable for ever – accompanied by the mighty booms of the guns and the katiusha shells that hit buda non stop. my parents started to walk very quickly and i, the youngest in the group, remained far back and succeeded keeping in pace with them only by running. live persons were not to be seen in the streets. in contrast, there were hundreds, maybe thousands of corpses and parts of corpses everywhere. the corpses of russian, german and hungarian soldiers, the corpses of many civilians and carcasses of horses. it was a frozen winter, the end of january 1945 i suppose, therefore the corpses did not decompose and weren't stinking, but for me it was very difficult to maneuver between them and in my efforts not to lag behind the elders i treaded on a stump of an arm and almost fell on a corpse in my way. in one of the avenues they were probably beginning to clean the road and the corpses were moved and were put around the trees, every tree rounded by nine or ten corpses almost like a flower intertwined in hell avenue, a lovely spectacle. seemingly, the first meal i ate in my house was a beef soup made of horse flesh; my mother took the meat from the frozen carcasses in the streets. our happiness was overflowing when we learned that all my siblings, my aunts, uncles and all our relatives in budapest had survived. we were waiting anxiously to know the fate of our relatives outside of budapest. later we learned that almost all of them had been murdered. my father had only one brother and he and his family were exterminated; only one daughter, friddy, has survived. jozsi, my father's cousin, came back from the army, his wife and three sons were in auschwitz, only one of them came back to budapest and died after a few days from tuberculosis in his father's arms. my mother's brother, uncle jossi, his wife and four children didn't come back from auschwitz. only two years before, erwin and i had a great summer with them in their village farm. aunt sara, my mother's sister, her husband and their two children did not come back from auschwitz. many of our relatives were burned in the auschwitz's crematoria. because i was a little boy, my parents tried to hide from me the terrible stories, but i heard most of them. the story of etju, my mother's cousin, hit me hardest. etyu was about twenty years old when she arrived to auschwitz and she went through the mengele “experiments laboratory”. an american soldier, standing shocked in front of a giant hill of naked bodies, suddenly saw a leg moving, he drew the leg and the body, a "muzulman" body (only skin and bones), this was etju and she was alive. she later married but couldn't have a baby. i never met, in my long life, a woman as joyful as her, always full of jokes, always the center of the crowd; it was a pleasure to be with her. when she was about fifty, she hung herself in her apartment's bathroom and died. there had been a debate between eichman and the hungarian ministry of interior, whether the transports to auschwitz should commence with budapest's jews or with the jews from the provincial towns and villages. finally it was decided that the destruction of budapest's jews will come at the end of the process, but they didn’t have enough time to complete the plan. i suppose that if the decision was the other way around, our destiny would have been different and nobody would have remained to write this document. the germans, with the enthusiastic assistance of most of the european people, assassinated 48% of the entire world’s jewish population, and 72% of the european jewry. we immigrated to israel in september 1950, by train via austria and italy and on the ship "kommemiut". the sailing took four days on that cranky tattered ship which was sunk immediately after we arrived to the haifa port. the lower deck of the ship was occupied by a hospital with mental patients, fifty or sixty patients were there, and almost all of them were survivors from mengele's “laboratory”. there was nothing to do on the ship and i was standing on the upper deck almost the entire journey watching, like hypnotized, these patients’ behavior. the sights were very difficult and the scenes were terrible, and i, a fourteen years old boy, couldn't remove my eyes from them. my brother erwin, who accompanied me each and every minute since i was born until we arrived to israel, was educated in kibbutz givat chaim, became a lieutenant-colonel in the parachutists unit, had 651 parachuting jumps, most of them skydiving, he took part in the entebbe operation, and is today a father of two children and lives in kirron.i was educated in kibbutz givat brenner, served in the parachutist force (with erwin), was awarded a citation for valor in the six days war (1967), and worked at the ministry of agriculture as the head of the budget department. today i am a father of three children and reside in rishon lezion. erwin and i almost never talk about this period of our life and about what happened to us, but when we did talk on occasion, we always asked ourselves what we would have done if in those days we were not children but ten years older. we can only fantasize but we don't have real answers. maybe we can find some consolation in the fact that we later participated in almost all the wars and fights since the 1950's retaliation acts until the war in lebanon in 1982, and were still active many years after the war.i wish to end these memoirs with an article i read about fifty years ago. there were in budapest many young jews in their twenties who were masquerading as hungarian arrow cross fascists, and were active in rescuing jews by risking their own life. two such masqueraded jewish boys met with a group of fifteen jews who were being taken to the danube river to be killed by five drunken fellows. one of the disguised boys was shocked to see his beloved young and beautiful sister, seventeen years old, among the group."let us finish this job, we are thirsty for jews’ blood" said the two masqueraders to the others, and the others agreed in exchange for a promise to buy them a lot of drinks. but they also put up a condition that they would take the beautiful young girl with them. her brother was faced with an impossible decision: save the group and loose his sister, or loose all of them. finally, he agreed to their condition, leaving his sister to the predators in order to rescue the others. i don't know why it is important for me to tell this story, but it touches my soul profoundly and i asked myself a thousand times what would i have done in this impossible situation, but never had answer.epilogueusually writing is fairly easy for me, but to write these memoirs was extremely difficult. i felt like spitting blood and wanted to stop the writing a thousand times, almost after every few sentences. but i forced myself to continue and finish this writing.who can explain to me why, in spite of the difficulty, i eventually finished it?who can explain to me why, after sixty years of silence, all these events come out?on thursday 5/5/2005, the memorial day for the holocaust, early morning, an unexplained force took me to my computer and i typed the word "memories".today i ask myself: who am i commemorating? the six million victims? my parents? our relatives burned in auschwitz? my cousin etju maybe? who is this for? my children? my grandchildren? the young generation?so many times i wrote in this document the words "i really don't know" and again, i must say: i really don't know!

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