משפחת בירינבאום: סיפור חיים בשתי מערכות (אנגלית) – חלק א'

The Birnbaums

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Today we’re telling you a story out of Israel. But like most stories from Israel, it doesn’t begin and stay there. This story centers around Ervin and Hadassa Birnbaum. It’s a story that includes at least five countries, several languages and one very big war, more specifically, World War II.

Ervin and Hadassa Birnbaum live in Netanya in the center of Israel. It’s the kind of neighborhood where everybody knows everybody else.

This is turning into a neighborhood meeting… This is our lovely neighbor.

That’s us standing in the street, next to the Birnbaum's apartment building on the morning I visited. We chatted with neighbors and family in a mix of Russian, Hebrew and English.

I sat with Ervin and his wife Hadassa, who are the main characters in our story, in their living room, as well as two of their three sons, Aiton and Liel. We’ll also hear from their third and youngest son, Dani.

Oh and we can’t forget Ervin and Hadassa’s dog, a 12-year old mixed-breed named Dolly. She’s considered an important member of the family, and the Birnbaum’s wanted her in the room for our interview. So if you hear something like this:

{Ran} Is she licking herself? Yeah, She’s quiet and she’s licking herself and I can hear everything (laughter) OK, I’ll be the dog watcher…

at any point of this audio story, that’s Dolly putting in her two cents.

{Ran}: Introduce yourself.

{Ervin} I’m Ervin Birnbaum, I was born 86 years ago, and a half, in what was at that time Czechoslovakia, now its Slovakia, in the city of Kosice. And I came to Israel in 1970. And in between, many things happened.

Born in 1929, Ervin was the son of a street-smart businessman and shop-owner Eliash, referred to as Reb Eilish, or Eliyahu in Hebrew, and his mother Marian, known as Marishka to the family. Ervin was the youngest of three brothers. Franz, the eldest, 7 years older and the middle brother Michael, or Miki, two and a half years older than him. Inevitably, the three boys spent plenty of time roughing around.

I remember once I picked up a pencil holder, in Europe it was made out of wood, and I hit my bother on the head. And my mother was crying on the side, for a short while, covering her head. But we were really a close bunch.

Ervin also spent parts of his childhood in a town that’s located in the northeastern corner of Slovakia, then called Lipiany, now named Lipany, from where he recalls some of his fondest memories.

In my hometown we had grandparents on my father’s side. And there was a small village about two-hours’ train ride on the Polish border where my mother’s parents lived. And that was actually the town I loved above all the other places in my childhood. I spent a lot of time there. All the years that it was possible, I would be in constant communication with that little town—called Lipiany. And actually, I always referred to that town as the Garden of Eden of my childhood, of my life.

The village was idyllic, the kind of place where milkmaids would offer Ervin a cup of steaming milk straight from the cow and people regularly fished in local streams.
In Lipiany, Ervin’s childhood revolved around school, extended family and friends. He attended public school during the day followed by class in a one-room Hebrew school, called a cheder, and was taken care of by his grandparents, the Krischers, but also his aunts and uncles.  And his schooling pretty much went without incident, well, almost.

{Ervin} I don’t recall any difficulties with it. I had a good time with it. Even though once, when I arrived to the cheder, the teacher asked me, probably a few minutes later, to continue reading. And I couldn’t find the place. I wasn’t oriented (again this word orient.)… But the fact is this, he had a stick next to him, which was very common in those days. Not only in the cheder, also in public schools. And he gave me a hit from a distance because I couldn’t find the place, so I was smacked over the hand. But to smack—they called me Nusn, the Hebrew name was Natan, so they called me Nusn—that was a dangerous thing and they didn’t know that.

So I told some older boys that I wanted to get even with that stick, with that teacher. So according to instructions by my older classmates. When he went to the kitchen, he always went out at 4 o’clock to cut his onions and his bread, and while he was out there, I rubbed the stick in the middle, because by that point if you rubbed it, it would break in the middle. But I didn’t have the patience to wait until it would break, the next day or two days later. So on the spot I thought I’ll take the situation into my own hands. And I broke the stick and put the two pieces under his book on the seat.

And he comes in with his plate with bread cut and onions and sees the broken stick and all hell broke loose. ‘Who did that?!’ And of course since the whole group there—20,25 young people, stand accused. So I told him, I did it. So he was burning with rage at me, ‘You go home!’ He knew that I was staying with my grandparents, my mother was in America, my father was in the city running his business. So he says ‘You do not come back without your grandfather!’ So I went home and I told them what I did. I didn’t at all paint it or try to explain it. To my great amazement, ‘til this day I look back on it with amazement, my grandparents didn’t at all reprove me. I wasn’t at all set straight. They just told me, should that happen, please come and tell us before you take any action on your own. And the next day my grandfather came with me on the one condition that I express apologies, I would say I was sorry. And I did. And I was taken back to the class and I was never hit again. So that’s one experience in the early days.

The small town had a population that was about 20 percent Jewish, and Ervin quickly joined a close-knit group of friends with whom he would play soccer and chess after school. But though he had a good group of Jewish friends, not everything was perfect.

{Ervin} Here and there, I remember, when we were on the bank of the river Torrissa, it was a little river-lette actually, which was big enough where it had to carry a name. It’s on the map I would say. And we would be standing on the shores of the river and a Goyish kid passed by and he picked up a stone and threw it very gently at my brother’s head.

It wasn’t uncommon ‘cuz we were the dirty Jews in their eyes. And they would call to us: Jews go to Palestine. Now they want us out of Palestine. But then they wanted us in Palestine. But at any rate, the fact that the Goy did that. I picked up a stone, and the way I was you know you could tell by the way I broke the stick of the Rebbe, I picked up a stone it was at some distance, and I threw it with full force at the Goy. If it would have hit him it would’ve killed him. But luckily it zoomed by his head. So we had such moments too you know, we had such encounters with the Goyim. I couldn’t tolerate it when they tried to hit at us. When they called us words that were not so nice, that were cursing words, I didn’t care about the words. But I very much cared about the action.

The Krischers didn’t own a radio. But back in the city, Ervin’s father owned a radio shop, and his parents spent time listening to their favorite stations at home.

My father loved to listen to the Belgrade station, because he loved the Oriental music, the Oriental beat. And Yugoslavia, at that time Belgrade, the capital, they were already under the influence of the Oriental music, the Oriental culture, the Arabic beat. And my father loved it. I had a wonderful childhood

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Meanwhile on the other side of the world, thousands of miles away, a young girl was listening to a very different radio program. One with an anonymous, but very famous Texas Ranger catching bad guys in the old American West.

{Hadassa} I would run home from Hebrew school to listen to the Lone Ranger, because he was on at seven o’clock. And I’d finished my regular Hebrew school and get home to listen to the Lone Ranger.  That was very important because of course we didn’t have television in those days.

That’s Hadassa, Ervin’s wife. I’ll let her introduce herself because her name’s, well, a little complicated.

{Hadassa} My original name was Helen Halperin, and I’m one of three children to my parents. My father was Charles Halperin, my mother Ida Halperin, and apparently when I was very little somebody asked me my name and for some reason I said ‘Honey.’ And the name stuck. So my entire family only knows me as Honey.
But when I was in Hebrew school—my fourth year I got a new teacher, Dr. David Greenberg, who was a survivor of Auschwitz, and he became my teacher. Somehow there was a great connection between me and him. And he asked me about my Hebrew name. My Hebrew name is Huddle, which is Yiddish. It’s like in Fiddler on the Roof, one of the daughters is Huddle. And he said ‘We’re not calling you Huddle, your real name is Hadassa.’. So I’ve got all these names.

Hadassa came from a Russian immigrant family. Her father was born in Belarus and immigrated to the United States in 1906. Her mother was born near the Polish border and immigrated in 1905 after her grandfather witnessed a pogrom in the paint shop where he worked. In the United States that grandfather became a house painter and did relatively well for himself, eventually owning property, including the home where Hadassa lived with her parents and grandparents.

The middle child of three (she had an older brother named Lloyd and a younger brother named Arthur), Hadassa was born in New Jersey in 1934. Franklin D. Roosevelt was the President. “It Happened One Night,” starring Clark Gable was released; F. Scott Fitzgerald published “Tender is the Night.” And America was still in the clutches of the Great Depression. Like millions of other Americans, Hadassa’s father found himself struggling to find work.

He was a very outgoing type of person. He loved to meet people and socialize and sing with them. He was less, he gave less attention to his own children than to people outside, but he had a lot of worries on his head. He had to grow up real fast. He took over this brother. His mother died fairly young.

Hadassa’s mother, Ida, worked as a grade school teacher.

{Hadassa} She was a teacher like they don’t make them anymore. She loved teaching and if she saw a child didn’t understand the material she would go to the child’s home afterwards and teach them for no money. She had some really rough kids in the class who would bring her presents. They would walk by a store and something in the store, maybe a pin, would stick to their clothing. And they bring it to her, and bring her a present. And she would know that they couldn’t afford it but what could she do? She’d accept this little, we’re talking about something that’s grushim. But she was beloved by the children and she loved doing it.

On Sunday December 7th, 1941, Japanese aircraft launched an attack on the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor killing more than 2,400 unsuspecting Americans. FDR declared war against Japan the next day. Germany and Italy, who had signed the Tripartite Pact with Japan in 1940, declared war on the United States, officially bringing the ‘Sleeping Giant’ into World War II.

The United States went into the war on December 7th, 1941 after Pearl Harbor and immediately they had to start making weapons, because they were, the United States was completely unprepared to go into war. And they opened all these munitions factories, and my father got a job.

While the war helped pull America out of the Great Depression, life had already changed for millions across Europe.

By 1938, things were changing for Ervin. A portion of Slovakia was under Hungarian rule. As part of Hitler’s agreement with Hungary, called the First Vienna Award of 1938, Hungary would get a southern slice of Slovakia. The new border meant that Ervin’s hometown of Kosice was now in Hungary, while Lipiany remained in Slovakia.

At first, Ervin didn’t notice the changes. He still managed to visit his grandparents and relatives in Lipiany, crossing the border on the train and having his papers checked along the way.

{Ervin} The first time I was aware that the war was on, not that the war was on, but that there were clouds on the horizon, that dangers are approaching. But it didn’t upset me because I wasn’t yet aware, I didn’t know what it could lead to. I was still in a childish approach in a sense. It was 1938, I was 9 years old when my father turned on the radio to Austria, to Vienna and it was Friday afternoon. It came to—lighting the candles for Shabbat and going to shul. My father said, by contrast to all former Shabbats, we’ll leave the radio on and just make it quiet. And you come to shul. We went to shul with the radio on. We came back, we made Kiddush, we sat around the table, we observed the Shabbat. At close to eight he knew that now was the decisive moment, he made the radio louder and we listened to the farewell message of Schuschnigg, who was the Chancellor of Austria who gave his farewell words to the Austrian people. Because by that point, we knew—we heard the announcements that preceded the whole day—there were announcements coming from Austria on the Vienna station that the German troops are marching, they’re advancing forward, they’re approaching Vienna. And Hitler also stopped by the grave of his mother who was buried in a place called Braunau and after putting a wreath on her grave and paying due respect to his mother, he’s back in his vehicle and they’re approaching slowly, but they’re approaching Vienna. At eight o’clock Schuschnigg gave his farewell address to the Austrian people and I remember his closing words: ‘God should protect Austria.’ And he made it clear that we are German speaking peoples—we are not going to war and kill each other. I hope that we Jews could be as good to each other because we speak Hebrew…    

But the fact is this, it was eight o’clock and the radio was on.  I remember that episode very clearly. And then we didn’t go to sleep which for me at my age was probably fairly unusual. It was close to 12 o’clock midnight when the radio was on of course. You could hear the ringing of St. Stephen’s church bells, it’s the big church in Vienna. When you go to visit Vienna, you probably go to that church, it’s a major church in Europe. And the bells were ringing triumphantly and you could hear the shouts of the crowds around, welcoming Hitler, who was entering the city.
Once that happened, we knew. That was in March 1938, and Vienna is less than an hour from Slovakian capital of Bratislava. All you have to do there is cross the Danube and you’re in Slovakia from Vienna. So that’s when my father said, I recall he said, ‘That’s the beginning of the end.’

Still, Ervin says he didn’t know what the war would mean for him and his family. For a while, things continued along as usual. He spent another summer in Lipiany. He already spoke German, Yiddish and Slovakian, and learned to speak Hungarian during this time.

But in September 1939, Germany invaded Poland. France and the United Kingdom declared war on Germany. This was the start of WWII in Europe. Now things began changing quickly.

By the middle of 1942, the entire Lipiany family had been deported and, as later discovered, exterminated. By then, the family had lost touch with another aunt and her 3 children, who lived in Poland. They feared the worst.

After the war, an uncle received a postcard written by Ervin’s grandfather that had probably been thrown out of the moving cattle-car transport.

Only after the war, did I hear that my uncle in America, that he received somehow in a postcard written by my grandfather by Lipiany, that writes, that your mother, or my wife, I don’t know the exact language but the intention was obvious, went for a visit to an aunt and we hope that she’s alright, something like that. But that aunt had already died some years ago and now in this postcard he writes that she went for a visit. It was probably a postcard written under duress, something every Jew had to write upon arriving at Auschwitz. Or the other approach to that story is that he may have thrown it out of the wagon, that my grandmother actually died in the wagon on the way to the camp, and he managed to somehow throw the postcard out of the side of the wagon, one of the windows, and some Goy picked it up outside and somehow mailed it.

It was a clear indication that the grandmother had died on the way to the extermination camp.

In 1941 I believe, the end of 1941, was the last time I got to Lipiany. And in 1942, sometime  in the beginning of 1942 a person came from Lipiany who managed to escape to Kosice, now Kassa by the Hungarians. And told us that the Jews were concentrated there in the synagogue courtyard and from there were taken to wagons and transported to Poland. They didn’t know where, if it was to Poland, but they were taken out of Lipiany. Lipiany was made Judenrein –  free of jews. That was the end of my travels to Lipiany. I was now in Kosice.

Other horrific stories were coming out. Ervin heard, for example, that officers on the home front who wanted vacation had to be sure they didn’t let even a single Jew from the work battalions under their command remain alive.
I must admit, maybe because I was childish, maybe because I couldn’t comprehend so much evil, I couldn’t take it in that these stories, these events may have a meaning that I’ll never see these people again. And I lived with the belief that it was impossible that I should never see these people again. Until the deportations in our hometown.

At this point, 1942, Ervin’s father Eliash was already busy building relationships with individuals who would prove invaluable to helping people in this difficult time. Ervin recalls how a police detective named Geza would supply his father with blank documents of people who had left town. Ervin’s father in turn would give them to Jews fleeing from Poland and Slovakia into Hungary. Ervin remembers how Geza would visit them at home and drink three shots of whiskey with his father.

He would take one, this policeman, he would really pour it down his throat, and then a second one, and then he lifted up the third one and said, ‘A Hungarian drinks thrice,’ and that too would go down. And then they were ready for business.

Eliash’s good deeds didn’t come without serious risk to his life, however. At one point, he was implicated after one of the Slovakian Jews he helped was caught and tortured for information. Eliash himself was moved to a Gestapo interrogation center at Kohner Castle, where he was held for months in terrible conditions and developed a technique of fainting to withstand torture and keep from giving up information. Eventually the family, together with the Jewish community, pulled together enough money to buy Eliash’s freedom.

Eliash also built a relationship with a military officer named Rutka who would later help Ervin’s mother Marishka, Ervin’s brother Franz and three other relatives escape to the Hungarian capital of Budapest.

My father was a person who really knew how to establish human relations. He was nice to people, he was pleasant to people.

Ervin was in 10th grade when the Germans occupied Kosice in 1944.

That was on March 18th, 1944. The Jews were being concentrated in Kosice, in our hometown, into the Brick Factory—that became the temporary ghetto in town. When this began happening, my parents escaped to Budapest with my oldest brother and my middle brother—Miki and I remained in our home. We were meant to go individually, on the day of the deportation to a place that my father had arranged, in an attic in a particularly home on the main street—something like the Anna Frank thing.

Ervin recalls the last time he saw his paternal grandparents Leizer and Malcsi.

When we saw that the police is beginning to surround the block, beginning to take the Jews from that block, ‘cuz they did it block by block, we went in, Miki and I, to my grandparents. My grandmother’s sister and brother were there. That’s where they met, and they were going to go together. And we have to say goodbye to our grandparents. I remember I still couldn’t believe that that’s the last time I see them.  I remember how both of us were sort of saying that we are pretty sure we’re going to see you again, our last words. Grandfather didn’t allow us to speak too much. He stopped us. And he came over and embraced me and he whispered in my ear, 'My child, I want to live.' Then he gave me a push, ‘Go already, go already.’

The boys tore off the yellow stars that identified them as Jews and nonchalantly walked to a theater house on the main street, where their father had arranged a place for them to hide in the attic with a group of other Jews. Eliash was already in Budapest with Marishka and Franz, and Ervin and Miki were to hide in the attic with 20 other people. But the hiding place wasn’t safe for long. After 10 days, the woman who looked after them presented the group with a blackmail letter. The group decided that if they gave the blackmailers the money they demanded, they would come back for more and eventually turn them in. Those who could escape should do so immediately.

So Ervin, Miki and their cousin Shloimi left that night on a train for Budapest.

The two brothers had Aryan papers, but Shloimi, who was concerned that he looked too Jewish, came up with a cover story that he was in a work battalion and on leave to Budapest to visit his sick mother. On the midnight train to Budapest, Miki and Ervin sat together facing Shloimi, who sat next to the door at the end, rationalizing that if they checked papers, he would be checked last and be able to slip out. One hour from Budapest there was indeed a check, but the officials came from the back and checked Shloimi first.

Of course, they didn’t accept his story and I remember until now his big eyes—he was aware what would happen now. They took him off the train, and no one ever saw him again.

Miki and Ervin got to Budapest, which was considered to be relatively safe, since Jews weren’t immediately forced into ghettos and instead lived in apartments scattered throughout the city. Once there, the boys settled in with two different Jewish families. The Birnbaum family, now reunited in the same city, wanted to meet with Rutka, the high ranking military officer who helped Marishka and Franz and other relatives get to Budapest. The family invited the officer to the place where Ervin was staying, but the meeting didn’t go as planned.

There was a knock on the door, and it’s the police. It was a pure coincidence, no one reported us. Occasionally they went from house to house and they were searching for Jewish escapees and what not. After some commotion, of course the door was opened to them, the owner of the house couldn’t keep the door locked constantly. They came in and we were standing in the living room there. I had two sets of papers on me. That was my worry. If there was a body search, and I has two sets, that surely betrays something is wrong. In the meantime my roommate, Honigwachs, heard this commotion and he heard police and he didn’t speak Hungarian well, so he ran to the window and climbed out the window to the fire escape and went down to the third floor. But he didn’t realize that downstairs, while the police were up going from door to door, some policemen remained downstairs and they caught him. So he too wasn’t seen again anymore.

Honigwachs unsuccessful escape indicated to the police that the building and even the apartment might be harboring Jewish refugees, increasing the danger for the rest of the group. Ervin managed to slip one set of papers under a cabinet. But it was the military officer Rutka who saved the family again by vouching for them, saying he knew who they were and that the family was from his hometown.

Somehow they bought his story. He kept his cool, I can tell you he was really, he would’ve deserved to be one of them—the people in Yad Vashem—the Righteous Gentiles. He really deserved it. I could never follow him through. You also helped us in trying to locate him, and he certainly would’ve deserved it because he saved a few Jews. Not only us, but also some others.

But the family knew they had to move. It was more dangerous on the flat side of the Danube, known as Pest. The family decided they would meet in Buda, on the mountainous side of the Danube.

As we walk there, I see a sign that they’re looking for workers. I didn’t know what that place is; all I knew is that they’re looking for workers. So I went in and it turns out that it’s the most famous bath in Budapest. It’s a sanatorium. It had a hotel, it had the baths, it had the sanatorium where they took care of officers who were wounded in the army and they had to be sent for treatment—it was a rehab. So they had these divisions.

Eventually all three boys got jobs in the sanitarium, working under Aryan names and papers. During daily air raids, as part of their job, they would wheel sick patients, including high-level military officials, to underground shelters. Even their mother checked in as a patient to be closer to her sons. Everything was going pretty well until staff started to notice that the boys, especially Ervin and Franz, looked alike. Since they weren’t related according to their papers, they were at great risk of getting caught.

They had one extremely close call when a distraught relative unexpectedly burst into the building.

So we were at this high level spa with the hotel and sanatorium, and my uncle, my father’s brother, Miklos, checked in with his family to a neighboring hotel also on the Buda side because this side seemed to be safer. It was after an attack—the bombings from the allies came usually before noon in the morning and the Russians would come at night,  at about 7 o’clock the warnings would start. In the morning came the all clear, and at that point Miklos and his family left the hotel, and as far as I remember, they were trying to go to town, to the other side, for whatever reason, to meet family or friends or just to get out a bit.

And there was a big explosion and stories began flying in the sanatorium that there was an explosion in a nearby place or from a delayed bomb or whatever, and a rock came flying through the air and killed a child, or tore a child’s hand off, all sorts of things. For some reason, it’s one of those things that one has to attribute to some other source that is not in our capacity to explain, I decided that I would leave the place where the staff was meeting at that point and talking about this.

And I went to the staircase of the sanatorium, we were one floor up, and who do I see coming up the stairs, all-shaking, is my uncle. And he wails ‘They killed my child! They killed my child!’ It took me a while but bot that long, to put two and two together that the person, the child they were talking about, whos hand was torn off or wondered what happend to the child, seems to be his child. So I stopped him dead in his tracks. He wanted to come up the stairs. He knew that my mother is at the sanatorium. And I told him, no don’t go up. I tried to comfort him but I didn’t know what to say… he kept saying ‘the child is dead’ and I kept saying ‘no but the child is only hurt.’ But he stuck to his version, the child is dead and he needs my mother. So I said you must wait here and I’ll bring my mother out. If I had let him in, it would’ve finished us all.

The family realized they had to come up with a new set up, and the boys were again on the move.

Back in the United States, Hadassa was fighting her own battles and surviving her own hardships during and after the war. She faced anti-Semitism in New Jersey, starting with having permission to attend a school that was closer to her house revoked when her Christian neighbors complained about it.

{Hadassa} There was plenty of anti-Semitism in the United States of America. It must have been during …  so let's see: I was born in 1934, so 38'… 39' I was in first grade and the war was in Europe. So when I was in third grade, all of a  sudden the permission to go to the special school was cancelled. We found out our Christian neighbors had reported us and said 'why should they have special permission,' and therefore it was cancelled.

It was particularly hard for Hadassa because her family was one of the only Jewish families in the neighborhood.

My brothers and I were sometimes we were prevented from leaving the house, because the glass was shattered by rocks. The Christians would gather at the next house, which had an open section and they would toss rocks across and we were inside this glass house until they got tired and then we were able to leave. Then there was a kid on the block whose name was Peter Dalton, Catholic; the ones next door were Protestant. His mother they said was a drunk, and she’d be upstairs and sometimes when I walked by she’d shout at me 'You dirty Jew!'  And Peter one day, we’d have an occasional horse and buggy come down the street, and he ran after us, my brother and I, and he picked up horse manure with his hands and was throwing it at us, trying to catch up to us and throwing it at us.

She recalls another incident while visiting a neighborhood department store.

I was in the store one day and I finished looking around and I wanted to go out and there were some of the goyim standing at the door and they wouldn’t let me out. I didn’t even know them. And then I went to another exit and there were several exits and I went there and there were a group of them and they wouldn’t let me out. And I had to stay in the store and it didn’t occur to me to ask a grown up to help me. I was scared.  Ididn't know what did they want from me? Apparently they knew me because my father had the store and everyone knew that we were Jews. We were different. The neighborhood was 95% Christian, we had a very small Jewish community.

Despite this, she had good friendships with Christian children, even though her friends knew there was something different about her. Her friends would even invite a Jewish boy over for her to kiss during kissing games. But she never truly fit in.

She recalls the helplessness she felt living with institutionalized anti-Semitism.

There was rationing in America. Sugar was rationed and meat and eggs, and certain things, and you had little coupons, each family each person had so many coupons, like Tzena' here. And I remember so vividly, when I was nine—so it was 1943, America was in the war—my mother stopped next to the next-door neighbors’, the ones that were the troublemakers regarding the school. And we stopped there and she was trying to ingratiate herself. And she gave them our sugar coupons, because we didn't use almost any sugar at all. And I remember standing there mad as hell—I wanted to say something and do something and I knew I couldn’t do anything but stand there and swallow.

Back in Europe, the USSR had joined the allies in 1941 after Hitler broke his non-aggression pact with Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union. With the counter-invasion that started at Stalingrad, the Soviets pushed the Nazi army back, leading in late 1944 to the siege of Budapest. Having worked for a brief period on a farm in southern Hungary, Ervin was by now back in Budapest dealing with daily air-raids in Pest and living with an elderly Christian couple in a building across the street from the opera house.

{Ervin} That house was, I believe, the very first house that was hit by Russian bombing, because they had surrounded the city that day and they wanted to knock out the anti aircraft guns, because they knew they were going to start strafing the city. So they wanted to knock out the anti aircraft guns. And on the opera house, which was just opposite the street from where I was now with that couple—stood on top of it was a beautiful big gun and they wanted to hit that gun. But they hit short a bit, we were right across the street, so the house that I was living in was amongst the first to get a bomb and then a second one, and then the house was declared unlivable by the local agencies –  every house had aits comander. And the next morning we left, and that’s when I got over to where my father was.

So the house was declared unlivable, and he was reassigned to another residence. Amazingly, it was the same house where his father was staying.

In the morning, as soon as dawn broke, we left the house and were given an address across the street, on the main street, and we had to cross the street. So each one was on his own. There was a woman and a man and me, and as soon as I left, stepped out, came the rattle of machine gunning. A Russian plane came strafing by, and I jumped behind a tree. And that tree was hit several times, so that tree saved me. And after the war, every time I went back to Budapest I went back to that tree.

And when I got to the other side, I went to the house where they sent us to and it was the house—and again, to show how much you depended on the unknown really, my father was hiding in that house, it was in that house. I didn’t know and the authorities didn’t know!

He recalls the beginning of the Soviet siege of Budapest.

The beginning of the siege was Christmas day, I remmber it because we were sitting at the Christmas table, and the couple wanted me to help them bring the Christmas tree out from the basement. We sat at the Christmas table. I  don't know what what food they had, but it was very meager. It began on Christmas night and it ended on January the 18th. The Russian occupation began on January 18th.

The Siege of Budapest was a critical and decisive victory for the USSR, since it ultimately opened the road to Berlin. A few months later, the war in Europe ended.

Then I had to make up my mind what I wanted to do, and I decided that I wanted to go to Israel. I don’t want to have anything to do with Europe anymore.

In New Jersey, Hadassa remembers the end of the war.

{Hadassa} August 1945 the war ended, both in Europe and in Japan, in the Pacific. And the day it ended, they closed all the munitions factories and fired my father among all the other millions of workers. So once again he had no job, because he didn’t have a profession. And my mother quit teaching and they bought a store. It’s ice cream, candy, greeting cards, newspapers, magazines, books, pocket edition books. There was two telephone booths inside. Cigars, cigarettes. Milkshakes. We had a fountain with ten seats and when they first bought it I was 11 years old. Just turned 11. I remember how people who were starved for rich ice cream—and they sold the best ice cream—Häagen-Dazs? No no, not Haagen-Dazs, it was even better—Dolly Madison—it was made in Philadelphia and it had very rich heavy cream, which made it fattening of course, but delicious.

Hadassa worked in the shop throughout summers and when she wasn’t in school, filling pints and quarts with ice cream and serving customers. They owned the store until 1962. And Hadassa worked there until she went to university.

I had a muscle in my right arm, wow, for a young girl.

So Hadassa was surviving anti-Semitism, working hard and getting tougher by the day in New Jersey after the war. Though Ervin lost several family members in Europe, miraculously, his entire immediate family survived the Holocaust.

But what would come next? If you’ll remember, we’ve been telling this story from the couple’s home in Israel. In our story so far, Ervin has already set his sights on Palestine. But before he could get there, he would face a fierce battle on one of the most famous ships in Israeli history.

All that and more, next time, on the second half of this two-part Family Sounds podcast.

Media notes

Shalom Aleichem by Aiton Birnbaum

Dort Vu Di Tzeder by Cantor Beny Maissner.

Miriam’s Song by Bat-Ella

וארשתיך לי לעולם by Aiton Birnbaum

L’chi Lach by Bat-Ella

מה דודך מדוד by Aiton Birnbaum

T’filat Haderech by Bat-Ella


Hitler arriving in Vienna
Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum


At the Stream
Glass Breaking
Cow Bells
Radio Tuning
Lone Ranger Theme Song

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