Listen to the complete Helen Lazar interview here
Interviewer: Beth B.
February 13, 1989
Producer/Director: John G.
Copyright 1989 Holocaust Oral History Project
San Francisco, California
Tape 1 of 2; tape 2 not transcribed
I: How old are you now?
L: I just turned sixty January 1. It hurts.
I: Where were you born?
L: I was born in, at the time of my birth it was Czechoslovakia. It is now I believe Russia, Russian occupied. It was Austria-Hungary in my father’s time when he was a little boy.
I: So for you it was Czechoslovakia. How many children were in your family?
I: Which one were you?
L: Third from the bottom. I had two younger sisters and there are four of us left, one brother out of four and two sisters and myself out of six girls. All the others were too young. One, my oldest sister was married and had three children. So she went with the kids. Everyone, there was a different reason of course, but the others that are all gone. There are just four of us left.
I: Well we’ll be talking about that alot.
L: Yes, there’s a good story in that one.
I: What kind of work did your father do?
L: My dad was at one time mayor of the town. He also had an inn with lodging, food, I believe a bar you would call it as well. And also property, he had an orchard of assorted fruits, several hundred trees, things like that.
I: So he was a prominent member of the community.
L: Yes, very much so. As a matter of fact he was a man that everyone in the community looked up to so much that when this whole business was coming to a head, when we were going away, everyone came looking for him, (asking); “what do you say?” And in town, which is kind of humorous I think, whenever there was a problem whether it was between husband and wife, or if a cow was sick or if the wife was not happy or a child was sick, before they ran to a doctor or veterinarian or anyone, first they came for my Dad. So he was very well loved, a brilliant man I believe. He was in the United States for a couple of years too.
I: So what was your family life?
L: Well needless to say with 10 children every meal was a party. And I had wonderful parents. Not just to glorify them in the mind, because they were gone so long ago. But truly wonderful people. My mother was my father’s first baby and he always treated her like that. And the rest of us were very special to my father. He was exceptional. I loved my mother very much. I absolutely idolized my Dad. To me he was God. If he stood next to me I knew nothing could possibly go wrong.
I: So when were you first aware of things starting to go wrong?
L: That’s interesting, the first time I think that I was aware, but I was really young. We weren’t rich people, I would say we were very comfortable. Certainly with everything that you could want, food clothing, a nice big home, things like that. But we always had also help in the house and my awareness of it was when Jews were not allowed domestic help anymore. Or when I think it must have been somewhere in ’39 or ’40 that the Hungarians occupied our area. And that’s when Jewish businesses were taken over by Hungarian people that were brought in. They were collaborators with the Germans. And instead of German Nazis we had Hungarian Nazis. It was the same idea. And they took over Jewish businesses.
I: But how did your parents explain to you the help disappearing, or how did you become aware of it?
L: I don’t really recall an explanation of it. I just recall that Jewish kids were not allowed in school anymore and Jewish businesses were being closed. And Jewish people weren’t allowed help and what I heard my Dad talk about, that there is a war going on and there is alot of discrimination. And I’m pretty sure that they had no idea the extent of how bad it was.
I: Were you going to school at that time? Were you going to public school?
L: I was in public school, as a matter of fact this friend of mine, a next door neighbor, a boy and myself, were the only two Jewish kids at school. So it wasn’t something that I wasn’t used to, you know anti-semitism, because all my life that I remember the boys would pull my pigtails or beat me up, and that poor kid, the only other Jewish kid in the class, he came home with a bloody nose more times than that fighting my battles.
I: You didn’t grow up in a Jewish community.
L: Yes I did. But when I was born, my father believed in higher education. If you went to a certain school, you couldn’t go further than elementary school. But if you went to the school where we went, all my family went, you could go although you had to go out of town for high school and college as my sister did, I wasn’t old enough, we did go to this particular school for that reason because further education was possible from there.
I: So do you remember the time of being told you couldn’t go to school anymore?
L: Yes, I remember my Dad saying for awhile we’ll just have to do without it. People of that time did not go into details. Like now, our children ask a question and we feel compelled to be very honest and very straightforward, as much as they can comprehend. In those days it was quiet, the kinder are here. Don’t say it. So we just took it. If my father said you can’t go. You didn’t question him.
I: So did you learn at home
L: There wasn’t that much time before we went to the ghetto.
I: So tell me what happened, to your father…
L: First, actually, to begin with my first and clear awareness of it was in ’41 when the Hungarians, there was some of the people, some of the men I should say like my sister’s husband, my oldest sister Goldie, she’s not alive. Her husband went to what was called a Shovel Army. The Hungarians took those young able bodied men to work, to dig foxholes, to work for the Hungarian Army, for the German Army, to do labor. So in ’41 they took all the Jews except the families of those men, which included my sister and her children. And being that my sister was alone with the kids for so long, I was with her alot. I stayed there, helping her with the kids, I always loved children and so that was one of the reasons. And when they came, really without warning, without anyone knowing about it, when they came to my family, to take away my Mom and Dad and the kids, all of them, this boy that I went to school with, our next door neighbor his name was Solly, is thank God. He came running to my sister’s house and he says, Haichu, come quick, come home, they’re taking your parents away. So I ran and they were already out of the house, in the middle of the street, going towards the headquarters, the police headquarters I guess you would call it., and I hung myself on my Dad’s neck. And I…(pause)
I told you he was my ideal. I said no, I want to go with my Dad and this policeman, his name was T., who spent alot of time in our house.
I: He wasn’t Jewish.
L: No, he was a Hungarian, a gendarme or a policeman. And he tore my arms open from my Dad’s neck and says no. And I was left sitting in the middle of the street while they were taken away.
I: All the children.
L: All the children and my Mom and Dad. And the reason that he didn’t take me is because as I said, I spent so much time in Goldie’s house, they kind of felt like I belonged there. And that was the last time I saw my Dad.
I: And you were how old then?
L: Let’s see, it was ’41? I was almost twelve.
I: You were almost twelve when you were ripped away from your father’s arms.
L: That was the last time I saw my Dad and my brothers. And they were taken to a place in Poland called Kamenets Podolsk.
I: How did you find out?
L: My sister, my oldest sister Toby, not the oldest but older than I, my sister Toby they stopped in place called Horodenka and it was just like a stopover place for alot, I don’t know, thousands and thousands of Jews.
I: How did they move the people?
L: With those famous trains, they were not exaggerated by the way in the movie Holocaust. Toby is a very, very brave soul. She somehow, and I can’t tell the story I wasn’t there, smuggled out my mother and two little sisters from that camp during the night into town. When she was coming back for my Dad and my brothers, they were already gone from that place.
I: And you never knew…
L: Yes, I know what happened, believe it or not. My oldest brother Max came back literally from the dead. When they left in Horodenka and went to Kamenets Podolsk the place called, to a mass grave. They of course made them dig the grave. And they ran machine guns where my Dad and my four brothers were. And my father and three brothers got killed. And my fourth brother Max fainted as the machine gun ran and they all fell into that grave. During the night, when he came to many hours after that, he pulled himself out of that grave from under all the bodies. This was close to the Russian border. Moving only at night in the fields of high wheats, grass, whatever they had there, not to be seen, he crossed the border into Russia and spent the remaining of the war there. And of course we never knew about that until after the war, when my sister Toby and I, we were together and we came back and we saw him and he saw us. He thought we were dead and he fainted that away and we thought we lost him. And that was, to retrack, the beginning of it all.
I: Is Max alive today? Where is he?
L: Thank God yes he is, a gorgeous handsome man living in Cleveland Ohio. He did, he witnessed all of that.
I: Helen, to go back to that time. Was your father’s business taken away? Do you remember that?
L: Oh yes, very well. We had, it probably wouldn’t be considered now but it was considered then a very big house. And the Hungarians that occupied took over the entire front of the house, where the business was. We had a dance hall in that house, a ballroom right, a ballroom which we had two dances Saturday nights. The youth, all the young people, I peeked, I wasn’t allowed, I was too young. The Hungarian army officers took over the entire front of the house, the entire part of the big house, we had in the back of the house what was called a summer kitchen, it was a small little house attached to a barn like that we cooked in the summer and baked and ate so that the big house doesn’t get too hot or messy or stuff like that. We lived…my mother by the way and my sisters that were escaped were in hiding and they came back from Poland tracking back to the house, to our hometown.
I: I’m a little bit mixed up in this sequence.
L: In 1941, when my family was taken away, and I told you they went to Poland. My father, my brothers got killed. That’s when my mother and my three sisters escaped. And they tracked back from Poland to my hometown. But they were in hiding.
I: So who was living in that summer back house at that time?
L: Well, just the Hungarians. We only lived in the back of the house until ’41, until the family was taken away and the Hungarians took over.
I: When the Hungarians weren’t there, the twelve of you were in the back of the house, the family was all together.
L: That’s right. That was until ’41, right.
I: And then what happened?
L: And then as I said my mother and three sisters came back, they were in hiding. My oldest sister Goldie who I stayed with, she and her husband had a grocery store which was closed up of course. It was a dark small room and that’s where my mother and my sisters would be during the day because they were not allowed, I mean officially they were not there. And they stayed there and every now and then the gendarmes, you know the Hungarian policemen, would make it is called a Rosia. I don’t know the English word for it but they would kind of surprise you and come in and search the house for people like that, like my mother and my sisters. I was living with Goldie so I officially was there but I had two other, Mirian and Hanya and Toby, the three sisters and my mother. And ask me what you want to know.
I: Like what happened next, the whole story.
L: Well next I guess it was just kind of existing for a couple of years and hiding, hiding from one place to another. Going to the barn and to the hayloft, in my town. And then in ’43 the last day of Passover, my mother had just broken the hummetz, you know they were allowed bread, my mother had just made flour, the beginning, you know when you mix yeast, for bread for after Passover. And at dawn then they came, again the Hungarian policemen and all of those soldiers. They came and just chased, said we’re leaving. We were allowed, I’m not a hundred percent sure on that, but we were allowed just a few things and we went to a ghetto, which was just maybe twenty kilometers from our house. I don’t think it was more than that. And there of course we were given very very small quarters it’s needless to say. My mother and my sisters and myself.
I: And Goldie and her family?
L: And Goldie and her family.
I: And what about her husband?
L: Her husband was still in that working army, I don’t think she ever saw him again. And this was called a ghetto and we were all hustled in there. I believe we were there somewhere between six and eight weeks, I’m not really a hundred percent sure of that. And in there, there were rumors that we were going to be taken away to another place.
I: Did you have any idea where, what that place was?
L: No, no, the name Auschwitz did not come up at the time. But there were rumors that_I had very long hair, very pretty hair too. There were rumors that anyone maybe kids that had very clean hair or very shiny, whatever the rumor was, will be cut short. And they very last thing my mother did for me was wash my hair, and brushed it (cries)…She brushed it and brushed it until it was like a mirror and then she said in Yiddish you know, she said” My goodness, anyone that would have the heart to cut this hair short, has got to be a murderer. I mean, he couldn’t have a heart.” Needless to say, they didn’t cut it short, they cut it off within a matter of days in Auschwitz.
But, things like that you know?
I: Tell me the sequence of events, from the ghetto to Auschwitz.
L: Okay, give me a second. (Cries) Yeah, tough Helen huh? Yeah, you wouldn’t happen to have a Kleenex handy?
L: That’s embarrassing.
I: No it’s not, it’s real.
L: Well, it’s been a few years since I thought about this or tried not to, at any rate. But anyway, when we were in ghetto and we heard these rumors and sure enough the rumors came true much sooner than anyone expected, within days. We were on the famous trains and it was not exaggerated in Holocaust, the movie, at all. And while we were on the trains for I don’t know how long, I would venture to say about a week or so, everybody said that you can’t take any luggage with you, just what you have on you. Each one of us put on three, four dresses, whatever you could put on the body.
As a matter of fact for that Passover, that famous last Passover, my, I used to get a pair of new patent leather shoes. (Cries) No, I’ll leave that one out.
I: Do you have to?
L: My dad, I would get new patent leather shoes for Passover and a new dress. And that last Passover, when things were not so easy anymore, my dad looked and he said in Yiddish, he said “Haichu, I think your shoes from last year are pretty good and you know money is tight for Jews right now. Maybe I just won’t buy it. I said, that’s alright Daddy, my shoes are good.
And when I used to put on my new patent leather shoes and I got a new white hanky, and you’d put it on erev Passover in the afternoon, and you’d go in, on every step you’d take you’d polish the patent leather because it had a little dust on it. And when I put on erev Passover, that last one, my last year’s shoes, and I did not polish them. And my Dad looked. He had bought himself some shoes because he needed them. And he said, “You know, I think you need new shoes.” And he gave his back. (Cries) We can stop for a minute?
L: He was so special Never before or after or in between, I adore my daughter, but my Dad. Okay. I look okay, alright I’m okay.
I: I’ll tell you if your mascara’s running.
L: (laughs) Oh well, anyway, so when we were getting off the train, I put on the very last dress that my parents bought me. On top of three others. Little did we know that when we got off the train in Auschwitz, my mother, my little sisters, my sister Goldie and her children, went to one side. And myself and Toby went to the other side. I might divert a little bit. I was really young, but I was the same size I am now, I think I was chubbier. I had a bosom, developed. Which none of my friends had. So nobody my age went with me. All the kids my age, like skinny little girls and they did not look old enough or strong enough to work. So in my age group from my hometown, I was the only one, I was the youngest survivor and am. Well they mistook me and they asked how old I was and first thing that came out was 16, and I wasn’t. And then as I said my mother and my sister Goldie and the other little kids, hers and ours.
I: Was this actually as you got off the train?
L: Immediately as we got off the train there were German soldiers standing there. I don’t even remember if they were Hungarians or Germans, I think both. And they said you go here and you go here. And still…..
I: What was it like being separated from your mother?
L: Well that’s just it. We still were not aware of the fact that we were separated and I was never to see my mother again. When I was in Auschwitz about two or three days, I had asked a Nazi lady, I said, “Where’s my mother?” And she being all heart, pointed to the chimney. She said, “You see that smoke coming out? That’s probably her.” And that’s, that was a really the first time that it hit. This is where we are. This is what is happening. By this time of course we were already shaved, our heads and everywhere else that hair grows, and given the grey and blue striped dress, and …
I: Can you stand to tell me the process when they brought you in and went through that.
L: Yes. When we got off the train, and we were taken to, you know marched, to a place nearby, which was close to where the chimneys, the crematoriums were. We were asked to strip, that’s why it was so ludicrous that we put on two, three dresses, to have them. We were asked to strip, totally in the nude, and stand at, and we stood, waited, lined up, many of us, many of us. You have to understand that now, and now you don’t like standing in the nude while bad people are parading back and forth. But we were so much more sheltered, so much more modest, that even in front of your own Dad I don’t think you would ever go with less than a full slip or anything like that. And there we are standing totally in the nude and all the people that shaved our heads, and as I said everywhere else, were men. They were inmates, most of them Polish Jews that were there already in Auschwitz for several years. And so, as I said, when we got there we were asked to strip and throw everything in one pile. We stood in, naked for hours and hours, and after that we went through a place which was like a shower, but it wasn’t water it was like a disinfectant. And then we were given those striped dresses, with no underwear. The shoes you were wearing you had left. So whatever you wore it better last you for the duration. And then we went to the barracks in Auschwitz. And the barracks were…
I: At what point did they put a number on you?
L: I don’t have one. There were barracks that we went to. And the number was afterwards you’re tattooed, they would take one barrack or two barracks at the time. And when it came time to our barrack, you know our place, just hours before that we were taken away to another camp from Auschwitz. We were at Auschwitz, my sister and I and five cousins, for six weeks. For myself, personally just for me, Auschwitz was worst than for most. I became very very ill, days after we got there. I had, my kidneys were infected and you know there in Auschwitz, it wasn’t that you needed to go to the bathroom and you just went in. They took you twice a day to the bathroom and that was it. And of course bathing was totally out of the question, so was a toothbrush or anything else. I don’t know how much you know about kidney problems, but you have to go to the bathroom frequently. And that was a big problem for me. The reason that I knew or we knew what was the matter with me, was because one of the inmates was a doctor. She knew my body was swollen and I was so hot.
I ran such a high fever that on this little square thing, with slats about this far apart, that 13 of us slept on it. We could only lie on one side and in the same direction, all of us, otherwise there wasn’t enough room. I ran such a high fever that on one side my poor Toby was burnt all night. On the other side, the other 11 kept changing off because I was too hot, I was so hot I was burning them. So some of them were my cousins. They kept changing off who would sleep next to me because it was so close and they were like, you know. And of course when we got out every morning we would have to go out and stand at attention for any amount of hours to be counted. If they found out that you were sick, you went straight to the ovens. So however I felt, even if my sister half the time would hold me up in the back, I had to stand there, because if they knew I was sick that was the end of me. So I didn’t for the six weeks I was there, I never touched a bite of food. Just a cup of water that we got. And one time my sister Toby _ who loves to eat, fortunately for her probably that I didn’t eat_ because she ate hers and mine and she cried all the time that she was hungry.
I: What was there to eat?
L: Well, we got a slice of bread which most of the time had green mold on it. For a day. A cup of water. For the day. Or was a cup of tea, really, it was a horrible smelling thing. And then you got, which was your dinner as far as I remember, it looked like there was a couple of, a few potato peels, dirty ones. I believe I heard someone say that there were a couple of pieces of meat floating around that if they found a dead horse someplace they used it to throw it in there. A couple of pieces. I believe that was, I don’t really know a whole lot about it. That was the food, it was…I don’t know whether I was so fussy or what, I couldn’t I could not deal with that. And I’m not really a super hungry person in the first place, but it didn’t look like anything you could open a mouth to. You had to really be hungry, like my sister Toby.
I: So they kept you there just a matter of weeks?
L: I believe, anywhere from six to eight weeks and then we went to Stutthof.
I: How did they decide who went where, or you don’t know?
L: I really can’t say.
I: It was by train again?
L: It was by train again, yes, and we went to Stutthof.
I: And what was there?
L: Another concentration camp. Alot of TB. Alot of illness, alot of people died there. And from there were alot of Polish non-Jews of course, that were the collaborators with the Germans, I think if possible they were worse than the Nazis.
I: Really, in what ways?
L: Beatings, I got hit once, his name was Marx. I remember his name. That we slept like here and his quarters were here (points), which he slept in and he had some girls with him. And the bathroom, you had to go to the bathroom to pass his place and you didn’t do it frequently. You didn’t do it unless it was an absolute must, and one time I just, again my kidney was really quite bad, and I had to, I kind of flew past his place, I ran. And he went right after me. As I was sitting on the toilet, he came in. And I guess he was insulted or whatever the reason was that I just went through so fast or went period I don’t know really. He slapped my face so hard that my face blew up like this and I was deaf on that ear for months and months. And just because I went to the bathroom.
We stayed there, I don’t know how long, it was months I would say. And from there we went to many, many working camps.
I: What kind of work did you do?
L: Digging foxholes for the front line, for the German soldiers. That’s where I got the muscles. I can hit tennis balls good.
I: I guess it was good for something.
I: Were you together with Toby and your cousin through all this?
L: With Toby, all the time. With my cousins, I was almost to the end, except that towards the end, we, every time the Russians advanced. Or the Americans or whoever. We were evacuated by foot and it was in the winter time. We walked, days and days and the only time we rested once in a while and it was usually outdoors in a schoolyard or some kind of yard, or in a barn with a little hay or straw. But it was always smelling and it was cold and we had that gray striped dress _ I have a picture of it too if you want to see it later _ and one of those horse blankets.
I: Who took that picture?
L: No, that picture was taken after the camp, but I still have it, right after I came out in Bucharest, Romania. We walked and walked, you know what? This is an interesting…When after, we were in this working camps, from one to another and we dug foxholes. There was alot of sickness, alot of beatings, and then when the Russians advanced and we had to walk, retreat, the Germans would be on motorcycles and cars, on horses and we walked, all of us. Whenever a woman or two or three or however many, couldn’t walk any further, because maybe her feet were frozen or she was dying anyway of starvation. If she fell down the Gestapo would just go over there, shoot her, and you walk on. And you just picked up your feet, stepped over her and if it happened..
I: You literally did that?
L: We literally did that, it’s strange that I can’t look at a dead body now but I stepped over many of them then.
I: Men and women together?
L: No. Just women. And many, we walked for about two weeks, or maybe longer than that. and it was in January. You know, in Germany and Poland, the snow is the coldest, bad, it is really. I hadn’t taken off my shoes for the entire time we were walking. I didn’t feel my feet either. Then we were walking one day and a Wehrmacht, a German soldier in the green uniform, not the black, on a motorcycle saw us and he came over to me and he told me to fall down. He says, don’t worry I’ll protect you. And I didn’t know quite what he meant. Whatever it was, I wasn’t, and I did. And he took me into a barn, out of the line where all of us walked. I told him, hey I got a sister and I got cousins, and he brought all of them there, to me and the barn, he wanted us to escape.
I: You fell down and he went back to get the others, one by one. Tell me what the green uniform represents.
L: One by one. The green uniform was just the military. They were not the Gestapo, they were called the Wehrmacht.
I: And the black is the Gestapo.
L: Yes. Unfortunately we were caught.
I: How were you caught?
L: He, we were let’s see 3, 5 cousins, and my sister Toby and myself, there were seven of us so there was too many. He told us to go from here to there where he could hide us and the Gestapo, that were from our group you know watching us, we were caught. And they of course were ready to shoot us. This green uniformed soldier said, you do and you’re shot. And he put his life on the line for us. And he saved our lives but couldn’t save us. So we continued…
I: So you were back in the line.
L: Back in the line. And we continued our evacuation.
I: Did he let you out because you were a pretty young girl?
L: I was a kid, I must have looked pretty pathetic, believe me. I remember once, just to divert for one second, I remember once in Auschwitz the barracks that we stayed in had just slats on the windows, not glass, and in one corner there was a little triangle, a little piece of glass left. And after a few weeks there I had walked past that and saw in that little piece of glass I saw my image and I looked and I thought, “My god, who is that dirty, ugly looking little thing.” When it turned out it was me, when you hadn’t bathed for several weeks and you have no hair and it grows in and you know, it was really hideous.
But anyway, when we did continue in our evacuation. A few days later we stopped in a schoolyard to rest. And I said to Toby, Toby this is it, I do have to take my shoes off. Because she wouldn’t let me, she knew, Toby is a few years older than I am, she knew once I took those shoes off I could never put them back on. And if I couldn’t put them back on I couldn’t walk in the snow barefoot and they’ll shoot me and she’ll have to watch. So she says, No. I said, I don’t care what you’re saying, I have to take these shoes off, I’ve got to see if there are feet in those shoes because I don’t feel them. Of course, as Toby feared, I took my shoes off and my feet were totally black, frozen, and they just popped out like a balloon. There was no putting those shoes back on. So we were faced with, either Toby watches me die or we take a chance or both of us die or survive.
At dawn, before we got going, Toby and I, we didn’t even tell our cousins or anybody. In the schoolyard where we were there was a big field full of snow. At the end of that field were two houses, one on one side and one on the other side. Before it was complete daylight, Toby said, we’re going to there, go into one of those houses and seek help. If we get caught, both of us get shot and I prefer that to watching them kill you. I do not want to live without you. And sure enough we did that, barefoot, I could never get those shoes back on, barefoot in the snow the two of us in the dark, ran away. And Toby says, should we go to the left or to the right. And I said, you know what? I’m left handed, let’s go to the left.
Fortunately for us, on the left was a house where we went in, there was a Polish family, quite sympathetic with us, not Jewish but sympathetic with the Jews. On the right side the house were Nazis, a house full of Nazis, which would have, needless to say what our fate would have been. And the man, we went into that house, he absolutely got petrified. He says I have nine children. If you are caught in my house, we’re all shot, my children, you, and us, we’re all killed immediately. But, he says, I also have God in my heart. I cannot put you out just the way you are. He says I’ll give you some clothing, I’ll do something about your feet, I’m going to give you some food and before it’s daylight you have to leave. And he took my black frozen feet, and he bathed them in hot and cold water, hot and cold, until I had a little feeling in my feet. And he gave us food, what he had, it was very little but he shared it with us, and he gave us some clothing that wasn’t a striped dress and with tears in his eyes he says, I am so deeply sorry. But I have nine children and I cannot…And we didn’t blame him, we perfectly understood. We started walking, he says walk in that direction, you’ll be going away from the Jewish camps, from all of that, and you’ll be going towards the military and if you can lie well enough who knows, you may survive.
And so we did. We walked and walked, Toby and I, all day long. And when it came at dusk, we were very hungry, and very cold, and very tired, and really didn’t give a damn if we lived or not and didn’t know where to turn. And Toby remembered the story my Dad used to tell. When he was in World War I, in Russia or some place, in a cold place, he said that once of the most easiest deaths was freezing to death, because once you fall asleep, you just don’t wake up. And Toby said, that’s what we’re going to do.
On the side of the street there was like a ditch. It was snowing, it was very cold. She says, let’s lie down in that ditch, you and I, and let’s try and fall asleep really quickly and then we just won’t wake up and then we’re lucky. That’s over with. And we did that. As we were laying in the ditch, trying very hard _ and I still can’t fall asleep that must be, maybe it’s something to do with that _ a German soldier, one of the green uniforms as I said before, came over and looked at us and he says, for heaven sake’s what are you girls trying to do, freeze to death? And Toby said, well we have no place to go. And he said who are you? And she’s a very clever lady, my sister, always was, very brilliant, so she immediately decided on the lie that we’re going to live if we’re going to live. She said well, we’re Cryianians, that we’re Gentile. Our parents were pro-Nazis and they were killed by the Russians because they were pro-Nazis, and I have this little kid who is a mute. She says, I don’t know what to do with her, I don’t know what to do with me, she’s sick, and she says, I’ll guess we’ll just lie here and die.
And he says, I wouldn’t let a comrade like you, that your parents were one of us, die, you come with me. And he took us into a house, which were, in Poland, was Nazi occupied. And he said to the man, the owner of that house, he says, do me a favor, put these two girls up for me, just until I find a better place for them, just for hours. And this man took us in and it was warm in there and first thing he did is put me in bed, because I was running a very high fever. I was very sick and lo and behold, I fall asleep and started not only talking which I’m not supposed to be able to, but talking Yiddish. And Toby, my poor Toby, she stuck her hand on my mouth, she almost killed me, she almost suffocated me, and woke me up. We stayed there quite a bit, quite a bit, I would say the entire evening and then this soldier came back. Proud as can be of himself, he says I found you the best place. He says, I spoke to my officer, my superior, and I told him about the unfortunate plight of the two of you. And he said we don’t have _ every battalion of German soldiers were allowed two women to wash their underwear _ he says, we don’t have those two women and my superior officer says that you can come and stay with us, with soldiers, with German soldiers. And I was all for it I have to tell you, immediately. One I was very tired and two it sounded very good to me to just be someplace and Toby being a whole lot smarter than I was at the time she says, My god. He says, no I’m not going to take no for an answer. You’re coming with us.
I: Toby didn’t want to go.
L: She was scared. She had enough brains to be scared, and I didn’t. And I had to be a mute.
I: She was smart, had you covered.
L: Well, the thing is that if you got me here and someone got Toby on the other side and every step on our way had to be a lie, we wouldn’t tell the same lie. Bingo. You know; so there was only one way. Actually, my German was better than hers at the time, but she was smarter and older and that way. And so we did. We went with him to his superior and they did take us as their washerwomen. And that was in the evening. They had a bathtub full of little chickens, little roasted chickens, and being the good eater that my sister Toby, she ate so much, she almost died. They let us eat all we wanted, and I don’t know what I did but I know she overdid it.
But anyway the following morning this German, I think whatever his rank was I don’t really remember, but he called his entire battalion of soldiers together. He said, he explained who we are, and why we are orphans, and why we are in the predicament that we are. He says anyone that lays a hand on these two kids would be shot immediately. And so fortunately they did not touch us because of that. But because we had to live an entire lie every step of the way, we six o’clock in the evening we would go to bed. We never never spoke to each other even because we were afraid, suppose someone hears us. Our biggest pleasure was, I have to tell you, we were very close to the front line. My biggest pleasure was because they would take from where we were, the kitchen, took food to the front line, German soldiers and in turn they brought back the dead. And so first thing in the morning we would raise the shade a little bit and count the feet, how many Germans were dead. And that was a good thing. We were with them as washerwomen, for a long time. Every time the Russians advanced, they had to go back.
At one time they had to retreat and I was sitting on the kitchen, you know it was a wagon with horses, and next to me was this man, this soldier, and he was always talking to me. Of course being a mute I couldn’t answer him. And he looked at me and he was, at the time I thought an old man, he was somewhere in the late 30’s early forties, and he always told me that he had a daughter about my age and he always talked to me without me answering and at the time he looked at me and he said in German, for God’s sakes if you have never said a word in your life, you will say at least my name now because I want you to so much and I’ve been talking to you for so long. And I looked at him and I said (she shrugs), like that, and we continued and we went, and we continued for a long time, retreating.
I: When they moved you moved.
L: When they moved we moved with them. I’ll say Toby wasn’t all for it all the time.
I: What were your choices?
L: Our choices were to remain behind and hopefully be liberated by whoever was fighting, and it was the Russians I wasn’t for it. I really and truly was feeling more secure. It the not talking, the going to bed, the just living in total silence and darkness, somehow was a more secure feeling than I had had for years. And I couldn’t think beyond that. Just as when I was in the camps, my girlfriend and I, when we were very hungry, like in Stutthof that I told you. We were very very hungry, she would say, let’s go in the corner and eat. Which meant you would go in the corner and talk about the food your mother used to cook. My girlfriend would say, you know, when we get out of here, I will never, when I will be a grown up person, I will never wear a purse. I’ll just put a bread under my arm instead. So if I am someplace and I don’t, I’m not near a kitchen and I want to eat something, I’ll have it. It was so important.
I never thought for a minute that would happen. No more than I ever thought we’d get out. Or when we were in the working camps and we never never bathed. We used to just takeoff our clothes and brushed off the lice and all of that, and there was a lady who was a nurse. She was from Latvia and she would take a pail of snow and she would say, Haichu come here, I’m going to show you how to clean your body. That’s important. She’d take the snow and rub me all over. She said it’s not only going to make you feel better, you’re also going to be cleaner. And she said, you know how nice it will be when you get to take a bath. I never believed it. The same way when we were with the soldiers. As much as Toby wanted to stay back, I never believed that it would really ever be liberated or that there is anything else left for us or any future. I just wanted to be secure in that little hole of ours.
I: From day to day.
L: Even if it was just for tonight. I just, I never thought beyond tonight anyway, I never cared beyond tonight.
I: So you had to convince her not to make a change and stay where you were.
L: Toby is a soft touch to this day. And if I started to cry or to tell her I don’t want to or I’m scared or I know I’ll die or any of that, she’d say alright alright we’ll do it your way. So that’s what we did. We continued with them until almost the end of the war.
I: How long a period of time?
L: It was just a matter I think of maybe, I would guess 6 to 8 months. And then, when we were in the woods with Germans, the Russians were already on the main, you know, in town, and we could hear them, they shelled us. You know, I mean you could hear them shelling, I’m mean not here, it was there. As a matter of fact when the shelling from the tanks became so intense, Toby and I when we were in our foxholes, we always laid down on top of each other. Because we wanted, whatever hits one should hit the other. Our main pardon me our main concern was one shouldn’t have to watch the other, whether it be hurt, wounded or dying, that was our main concern that whatever happened should happen to both of us.
I: What a bond between you and Toby, what a bond.
L: Well, there wasn’t much else or anybody else left. As far as we knew, we never, we didn’t know anyone else survived, I don’t think we ever gave it any thought that anyone did.
I: How did the liberation go for you?
L: So we were in the woods with the German soldiers. It was a battalion of I would venture to say about 100, 200, 300, I don’t know. It was a big, whatever takes a battalion.
I: Were you ever sexually assaulted?
L: No, no, they never never laid a finger on us. Of course they also didn’t realize who we were. I have to tell you while we were with them. One time I, we did everything, anything they wanted us we did, and one time I was sitting on the floor and I was cleaning this officer’s boots. And that was one of the last speeches Hitler was making and he was still saying, we will win we will win, you know, all of this stuff. And this officer looked down at me and he said, you little dummy, you don’t even know what I’m talking about. But he said, you know something, if I had here one Jew I would take him and just tear him into two pieces because they are the ones responsible for this war and the predicament that we were in. And I looked up at him like, I don’t know what your talking about.
Because they thought that who we were, no they never touched us. They, in fact an officer from another battalion, betted the officer with us a case of champagne because our officer said, I have these two girls, he says. They were hurt so badly that you never see them smile, you never see them talk, you never see them with their heads up. The other officer said, sure, sure, you must be having a great time with them. He says, no, come six o’clock or before dark these girls are in bed, these girls do nothing but work and just do nothing, they don’t even talk and one is a dummy. The other officer didn’t believe it, he thought we’re having a great time and stuff like that. He bet him a case of, I don’t remember it was champagne or some kind of something, that it’s not so. He says, I will show you. And it was barely dark, it was still dusk. And he brought the other officer and very very quietly opened the door to our room and he says, you see they are in bed already. And so…
I: What was it like not to talk?
L: It wasn’t easy, especially for me.
I: It must have been really hard.
L: After awhile it was a matter of routine.
I: And survival.
L: And survival. And you’d be surprised, a person wants to live so badly, that you never think about it on a daily routine, you know, thank god this morning I woke up and I’m on my feet. You don’t really think about it as much except when it is you’re biggest gift from God that you did wake up this morning and that you did survive the day. Living is something you really want very badly, under any circumstances. And so to go back, when we were in the woods and the Russian tanks and bombs shelled us heavily. The soldiers that we were with were dying, were getting killed, I mean so many, so much, and Toby and I as I said would always on top of us. And after the bombing stopped for a few minutes, we were completely covered with blood. Toby would go and say, is that your blood or somebody else’s? No, no, it’s not mine it doesn’t hurt. So as long as it wasn’t yours, fine. By the next morning there was us, Toby and I, and I believe one soldier remained alive. Everyone else was dead or wounded or you know.
I: Weren’t they fighting back, didn’t they have ammunition?
L: Yes, they sure did, but you have to understand that we were like here in the wooded area, and here was the town and in town were Russians with tanks, above us were Russians with bombs, and on the ground were Russians with rifles, whatever. By the morning there was, that’s all there was, Toby, myself, and a German, I believe he was an officer. Toby said, she said to him, my sister and I will go into the town, to the Russians, and we’re going to tell them a lie. That we are Jewish and that you, the Germans, that you saved our lives, and all of this whole big story and we’ll come back for you. He showed us a rope that he had and he said, if you’re not back by noon or whatever it was I’ll hang myself. And Toby having a heart as big as a barn, you know, when we walked away she said, maybe we’ll come back for him. I said, you are crazy. All I’m going to wait for is the time that I can tell that he is dead. Don’t be ridiculous. He’s a German isn’t he?
And then our problems began. We were liberated by the Russians.
I: So you walked into town.
L: We walked into town, we walked into town. I’m going to say something I’m not liking. The first Russian officer that we met was Jewish. I for one was ecstatically happy. I said Toby, you see?
I: How did you know he was Jewish?
L: He told us. He didn’t believe that we were Jewish and so he asked us to say the Modeh Ani, the prayer that we used to say every morning before breakfast. He asked us to speak Yiddish which we do very well. He asked many questions that only a Jew would know. When he finally was convinced that we were Jewish it was great, we were there. There was Toby and I and there were many other refugees. That was in a town called Grossmelon. It was German, the border of Germany and Poland. There was a lot of fighting, a lot of bombing, and there were girls that were liberated the day before and Toby was talking to them. They were crying and this and, I was a dumb little kid I didn’t know from anything and I didn’t know what was, not that my sister Toby was so worldly in these matters but she knew a little more why these girls were crying.
Sure enough, came in the evening, two soldiers with rifles and bayonets on the rifles, came for the two Jewish little girls from the Carpathian mountains, which was us. Me, I was delighted, I thought they were coming to get us, to give us dinner, to liberate us, they were really going to celebrate with us. That was not exactly what they had in mind and my sister is crying and crying and protesting that she is not going and I don’t know why. And I’m saying, Toby, what’s the matter with you, why are you crying and she’d say, shut up you little kid. The soldier said, look ma’am, I was told to get you, no matter what it takes, I’m going to get you. You come with me. If you have any complaints, got any protests, you tell it to my officer, the one that sent me for you.
Naturally, we had not much choice in the matter so we went. We came in there, the table was set for a feast. Food, drinks, and two beds were made up very nicely like this, you know one was this way and one was this way (indicates), and there was this Russian officer, the Jewish one, and another one, also a Russian officer, a non-Jewish one. And guess who was the prize? My Toby and I. That was what they sent for us for. I didn’t know why Toby was crying, but that’s why she was crying, because they sent for us so they can sleep with us. I was a kid, Toby wasn’t so old herself and certainly not so worldly in the matters but old enough to know more than I did.
When she started talking to the Jewish Russian officer, she said look, she’s just a child, and she told him…by this time I had very little hair, and I was very thin and I am very short and very little, and I look like an 11 year old little boy.and I was more than 11 by this time. She said, look she’s only 11 years old, she’s a child, you can’t want to sleep with a child like that. He says, are you kidding? In Russia, children like that already have children. So that didn’t matter. At any rate, my sister has the gift of gab and she talked and talked until he said, you get the H out of here. I’ll find someone who will be happy to come here. So we ran out and we spent the night in an armoire, standing up with other refugees, men, sleeping in front of it, closed, and we stood up in that armoire all night long. Just to be safe from other soldiers.
The next morning the Germans bombed that town and were ready to take it back. And guess what? We were in the middle of bombing, and no where to go, so where do we run to? To those two officers that we didn’t want the night before, were in a jeep with the two girls that didn’t mind going with them and Toby ran over to them and crying, please help us, the town is on fire. Both sides of the streets are burning with the bombs and all over. And he said, you get away from here. Last night you were crying, today you can do anything you like. You’re on your own. And we were. We ran through town, holding our hands like this because from the intense heat and fire from the bombs. But we managed, we ran.
I: Where were you running to?
L: Just running, we didn’t know where to we were running to. Just trying to run away from the fire really, that was our main concern, and we did and I cannot tell you how long it took. It seems like weeks and weeks and weeks before we got to which was the capital of Poland, Lodz, and there was a Displaced Person’s camp.
I: How did you sustain yourselves when you were running, what did you eat, where did you sleep?
L: We slept in fields, we picked up a potato here in this field, something we found here, whatever we found, however we managed, it was just a matter of really trying to survive anyway you can.
I: Did you know what direction you were going to, (when) you were going towards Lodz?
L: No, no, we just went, occasionally there was a train that we would just kind of go and went. We just hopped on a train whether it was a coal train or a train or someplace we could hide on a train where the soldiers wouldn’t get us. See, it was a constant battle with the Russian soldiers. The minute they saw a female, whether you were young or old, whether you were 8, 80, 18 or 28, they didn’t care. They raped you whether you were pretty, ugly, fat, skinny, it didn’t matter. It was a female. And so with us it was like a matter of, can we outsmart them in that department. Our survival as far as eating or sleeping was almost secondary.
I: Just staying alive was not the…
L: It was, it was, as Toby said at one time, she said, I don’t think I would have fought as hard for our virtue, my own, I just couldn’t think of me watching anyone doing it to you because your a baby and your my baby sister. And I think _ I’ll will retract that I don’t think, I know 150 percent for sure _ that if it wasn’t for Toby, if I survived, which I would have never survived the camps, I would have never survived the liberation. I just wouldn’t have. I would have never gotten that far, but had I by some miracle, I wouldn’t have. That we went and I do believe that after awhile, we did go in the direction of Lodz. We were told by other refugees and you know, people, and when we came there we were supposed to, we thought…
I: You never joined up with anybody, it was always the two of you?
L: No, it was always the two of us. And we thought once we get to the DP camp, displaced person, my goodness they want to make a big to do with us, and send us home of course. Which was not the case. They were supposed to but every time the subject came up, we don’t have enough trains. We will. You’re going on the next transport. It was always on the next one. It was always on the next one. And again of course, the liberators were the Russians and I think there was one lieutenant, I don’t even remember really, there was one that I didn’t think he ever looked at me or did anything, I believe he asked my sister if he could marry me and take me home. I don’t know why or (if) he asked to marry her. I don’t even remember which one he wanted to marry. But after being there for a few months we really wanted to go home.
I: What was it like in the DP camp, day to day life?
L: There wasn’t alot going on, we were there, we were just there. I tell you the truth, I couldn’t give you a total description, I don’t think we were overfed but we were not starving. I think we had clothing from German homes, whatever.
I: And the Russians were overseeing it?
L: And the Russians were overseeing it, yes. And they weren’t particularly in a hurry to let us go.
I: Were you all Jews in there?
L: Yes. There was, I believe there was one girl that, she said that the Russians who liberated her kept her in a room for something like 8 days and nights. The Russian soldiers stood in line and just raped her continuously, night and day. It was tough. So after awhile Toby had heard that there was a transport going to out part of the world where we were born. If we could manage to get to the station, they would take us. They didn’t really want to. So we did. We ran away once again from the displaced person camp and got to the station. And the Russian officer who was in charge was, he looked like an Eskimo, he was from the Bulgarian, what, Siberia yes. He, I guess, took a liking to me and he said that it’s very dangerous for him to take us but he will take us on the train and will deliver us home. And once again we thought we were home free.
I: What were the consequences if you had been caught leaving the DP camp?
L: I think we would have been kept there for a long time, I don’t really know for sure.
I: So where did he take you?
L: Well his transport, this long train with many hundreds of people, were going to my part of the world, to Czechoslovakia where I was born. Displaced people, you know. So he snuck the two of us on and so let’s say it was, for argument’s sake, 550 on that train; now it was 552, there were two people he couldn’t account for if he was asked. But he did, he took us. For the duration of the trip, I was his girlfriend, believe it or not. And there was one lady on that train that I would love to find. He decided that I was going to be his, he was going to sleep with me, oh my, he was going to sleep with me and he was going to marry me, and he was going to take me home to his parents, whatever. This lady, a Jewish lady who was in the concentration camp and who had been married before the war. She wasn’t old, I don’t think, oh God maybe she was late 20’s early 30’s or thereabouts. She slept with him, I can’t say made love because that’s not what I would call it, but had sex with him so he shouldn’t touch me. And while he had sex with her he held my hand. And he definitely decided that when we got to where we were going, and we were supposed to get off, he wasn’t going to let us off. And once again, we were in trouble.
When the train would stop someplace near a stream, because you know we went forever, if they needed a locomotive for the military they took the locomotive from our train and the train stood there for God knows how long. And everyone was allowed to get off the train, go to the stream or in the field for fresh air. I had to sit on the train with him. There was a young man on the train that I didn’t know before the war but he was from around our place. And it wasn’t a romance, certainly not, but he was my age I think or thereabouts. We had, our thing in common was that we were both alive. And we talked. And the minute he saw that he and I talked, this Russian officer, everyone was ordered in the train. So was I, Toby and I and the rest of us were locked in the train cars. And that was the end of that.
And when we got, after a long time and I cannot tell you how long, I don’t remember, when we got to, it was a place called Bisteiner, it was very, very close to my home town. It was as close as we were going to get. And we wanted to get off. He wouldn’t let us. He barred, he locked up the train, cars and windows and everything, and wasn’t going to let us off. He was going to take us back. And we were sitting in the train station, in these blocked, you know, boarded cars, and along came a Russian soldier. A young, nice Russian soldier. And he was Jewish. He said, where are you girls headed for?
I: Did you think your family was there, that you would find your family there?
L: We were hoping, we were hoping, we were hoping someone would be there.
I: After all, where else would you go?
L: Where else would you go. Everybody went there first, where they were born, hoping to find somebody. And this Russian soldier started asking why are we not getting off. And we told him our sad tale of woe. That we would like to and he won’t let us. And he said, you know, he is a superior. And Toby said, we’re not even legally on this train. On that note, he came and came to the officer that was in charge of our train and he said, I do believe that you have illegal people on this train. And he says, no no no no, he started denying, however. He says, well I just want to see your papers and we are going to count these people.
After the long battle of words and whatever went on there, we got off. And it was, believe it or not, I think on a Purim. And we celebrated in a Jewish home, whoever the people were. This Jewish Russian officer got a little bit tipsy and he said, you see? You see? Do you want to know why this child was punished? Why she was in a concentration camp, and her hair was cut off, and her parents were killed? Only because her name was Haika. Because Haika signifies a Jewish name. And so he went on and on and after that, after that we set out to go to our home town.
I: Walking it again?
L: Part walking, part we got we hitched a ride on a wagon with a horse, however we got there we got there. And my brother was there, the one that earlier in the story I told you, Max, that came literally from the dead. And when we had escaped from the concentration camp and remember we left the cousins there. They had heard that two people, two girls who had escaped were killed, that they assumed it was us and they told Max, don’t get your hopes up too high.
I: The cousins had survived?
L: The cousins had survived. I believe that they continued also to a degree and escaped and were liberated like us, you know. And some of them are in Israel. One is right here in Oakland, who you know Barbara, very well, my cousin Helen T.. And Cleveland, Canada, all over. At any rate they told my brother Max, don’t get your hopes up too high, we believe Haiku and Toby are dead. And so when we got into town, because there wasn’t exactly the phone system or anything to let anyone know if we knew anyone was there. My brother took one look at us and fainted so badly we could not revive him. And I don’t have to tell you how we felt, oh dear God, we went through all of this and now we’ve lost him. When we finally got him to and he looked at me and he says in Jewish, “Haiku, is that you?” And he faints again and oh my God, it was frightening, really frightening. Thank God he did revive, he came to, and needless to say I had enough hugs and kisses to make up for all the years.
My brother, by the way, has always, I have been his favorite and he is mine and we are kind of, very, as the whole family is, very devoted to each other but the two of us are a little bit naughty together. Anyway. We are very much the same, Maxie and I. After a few days home already, he looks at me and looks at me and says, “Haiku, how old are you?” And I told him he says, “Isn’t it about time that you look like a girl? Maybe you need a permanent.” I’ve never had a permanent, I have curly hair but I didn’t have enough hair. So he didn’t quite know what it was that I needed.
I: What about the other two sisters?
L: I only have Toby and one other sister. One other, her name is Ruthie, she lives in Cleveland. She left for Belgium when I was, I don’t know, three or four years old. I did not recognize her. When I, the first time I saw her I did pass her.
That’s another interesting story. See in, we were home and then Max and Toby went away. They left me in our home town or close to our home town and they went looking for a new home I believe, because there was nothing left in that town for us.
I: The ghetto had been emptied out.
L: Nobody came back of my parents or nobody else and the houses were occupied by Gentiles that were very happy that we were taken. It was chaotic, it was, it wasn’t any place that you wanted to stay. We needed to get away. So Max and Toby went looking for a new home and I remained, and it was once again…
I: The first time you were away from Toby?
L: Yes. It was probably the only time in my entire life that I was totally alone, for several months. And they found a new home, it was close to Prague, and I went there, I was almost closed in by the Russians there. I think when I left the borders were closed within a matter of days afterwards.
I: Do you know what year that was?
L: It was in ’45. I have to tell you, I went from Hurst, which was close by where I was born, in the Carpathian mountains, to Ostenutlabem, which is close to Prague, on my own. I don’t know what money was in circulation at the time, I certainly didn’t have any. I walked out one afternoon, I walked out from the room where I stayed. Walked to the train station where, I didn’t have no luggage or anything, just as I was _ I had a Navy blue skirt_ and I walked to the train and I just inquired and I don’t know how or from whom, which direction I need to take to get towards Prague, remember where Toby and Max were, and I started on my journey. And once again I was battling Russian soldiers, and I slept under coals and I hid under many places.
I have to go back a little bit to my story for one very interesting thing. Because I have said many things about the Russians that was not favorable. I have one story that is beautiful about a Russian officer. When Toby and I were going from Grossmollen, from where we were liberated, to Lodz, to the Displaced Person’s, I told you we walked, we took a train, we walked, anyway we could. At one time we were on a train and Toby put on her little babushka to look like an old lady, she kind of covered me up I should look like a baby. And we were on this train and a Russian soldier came. He said, you two, with me. And Toby said, oh come on, I have a baby here, we can’t go with you. And next to us was a Russian soldier, which looked, older man, plain soldier’s clothiers, we did not see a rank anywhere, and this Russian young soldier in leather uniform kept at us. Come on, you come with me. And Toby says no, come one we’ve gone through so much, you know she’s a child, always made me younger maybe, that didn’t help. And this older soldier said, leave them alone. Very quietly, very softly. Leave them alone. He says, why, you want them for yourself? He says, come on, just leave them alone. And he did not, and kept saying what’s the matter old man, you want them for yourself, or something like that. And in turn, this older soldier took out something, we never saw what it was, and showed it to this soldier. And man he went away within seconds. Saluted him, he must have been an officer. Big wheel.
Because he saw how much we were bothered, and he saw how very sad we were, and Toby of course told him our sad tale of woe, what happened to us during the war, he said, you will never have to worry about that again. And he was the one that took us to Lodz, all the way, to the Displaced Person’s camp. There he got to the superior officer, whoever was the overseer, and he said, I brought these two kids a long way. You asked me before, earlier in the story how we go there, and I didn’t remember. I remember this. He said, I brought them a long way, unharmed, and unless you can give me your word they will remain here, unharmed, and you will do the right thing, I cannot _apparently he was on a secret mission of sorts_ I cannot do it but I will if I have to. That was a beautiful thing of a Russian soldier, so there were all kinds.
And we’re back now to me going to Czechoslovakia. It was a long journey, a tedious one, a rough one, in hiding and I could keep you here for about three weeks telling you about it but I think you get the meaning of it. When I arrived, my cousin Helen’s oldest sister was getting engaged. And I only had their address, I didn’t have my sister’s or brother’s address. So I had Helen’s and her sister’s and brother’s address and I came there and I don’t have to tell you what I looked like, after weeks of being on the coal, on the whatever. First I rang the bell and Adele, Helen’s older sister came out, and said, yes what do you want? She didn’t recognize me. I was really looking filthy. When she finally recognized me she started crying and how happy she was that I was here. She said, could you please stay here? And she wouldn’t let me come in the house because I was absolutely foul. She brought out the bathrobe and I stripped right there. She threw the clothes right in the chute and I was in a bathrobe, I came to her engagement party. Of course, Toby and Maxie were there, and it was the happiest reunion in this world.
And several months later, the Jewish UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, the joint? Said that any kids under 16 that are war orphans from the concentration camps should register and will be taken to England, to an orphanage, and to continue the education that we didn’t have. Toby, once again, was a big girl and decided that I should register since I was lacking in education and truth of the matter is, we didn’t really know which direction we were going anyway. And I did register. And they totally forgot about it to tell you the truth. I stayed with Maxie and we had a motorcycle. And we were wild. We went dancing, ice skating, and if possible we did it all together.
It was a right after war chaotic existence. You did anything you could for money, none of it which I don’t think was so legal or working from nine to five, it was selling cigarettes on the black market and I don’t even know, it was a lot of stupid things to do, but made a lot of money, and my brother did it. We had a drawer full of money as a matter of fact. And I was with him and whenever we would go to a dance. He would go, in fact I have to, once we went to a dance, it was going to be my first ball gown. We didn’t decide to go I believe till about Thursday, so we ran _ you know you couldn’t just go in a store and buy a gown, not only was it right after the war but in Europe, you had to have it made. _ so we went and we purchased the fabric and we went to the dressmaker, Maxie and I. Maxie said we want a very beautiful, long gown for Helen’s first formal affair. She said, sure, no problem. He said yes, no problem, how much is it to make it? She said, three hundred crowns. He said, I’ll give you four and it will be ready for Saturday, right? She said, sure. And sure enough, it was ready for Saturday. Maxie had a date and I didn’t. In Czechoslovakia, when you went to your first formal, usually your parents chaperoned. Since I didn’t have parents, I wanted Maxie to be my chaperone. And Maxie had a date, he was just maybe twenty himself. I think I started crying at six. And by nine o’clock he broke his date and went with me. He also had a very hard time because I think the last time I counted it was something like fifty little buttons on the back of my dress.
I: So you’d forgotten about signing up for the orphanage, what happened there?
L: Totally, that was something we never thought of and completely forgot about it. Till one day, maybe it was around May in ’46, yeah it was May in ’46, we got a letter. To show up in Prague in two days I believe at the train station to the Jewish Joint and we’re going to England. Well I have to tell you, Maxie and I cried so bitterly, he didn’t want me to go and I didn’t want to go and that was it. Toby was the only smart one of the lot, she said, you’re going. Not that she wanted to get rid of me but it was the only sensible thing to do. I mean she was too young to be a mother to a fifteen year old or whatever old I was. It was just, what was there to do? You know, see it wasn’t like now, if a sister said to a little sister she would tell you, I’ve got to find myself forget me. But I did exactly as she said. But Toby did not have the heart to take me to the train, she couldn’t go that far. So Maxie took me to the train. And we cried a whole lot when we said good-bye.
I: So you were the only member of your family to go?
L: I was the only one.
I: Oh, that must have been so hard.
L: It hurt alot, really, it was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done. And I went to England, I went on the train with a hundred other kids. Maxie remained in Czechoslovakia and so did Toby. But shortly after Maxie went to Germany, to a Displaced Person’s camp. We had relatives in America and they sent to the oldest one, which was Toby at the time of the three of us, an affidavit to go to America. So Toby had papers to go to America and Maxie didn’t. So Maxie went to Germany, I was going to go to Israel. Toby remained in Czechoslovakia, I went to England which was a long long journey.
Once again, I am on a train for a couple of weeks. You asked me earlier in private before this taping when I started smoking? That’s when I started smoking. Because on the train, we got left over K rations from the American army. And it was breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and each one had the little pack with four cigarettes in it and with nothing but time on our hands, all hundred of us smoked. By the time we got to France and we got off that train, we were full fledged smokers, all of us. And we stayed in Paris, for a couple of weeks. Then from there we crossed the Channel on a boat, which had over a hundred, my girlfriend Ginga and I were the only two on our feet, the others were lying seasick. Then we got to England in a hostel, in Whitechapel, on the East side of London. That was my first time I ever saw a black man or a black person really. Anyway, we stayed in the orphanage.
I: You got to learn English.
L: Yes. As a matter of fact, something, in Hungarian which we spoke a lot, (the word) sorry. If you don’t say it quite that fast and fully out, the “ry” it’s a dirty word. My girlfriend and I when we went on the bus, and people would say, sorry, she said, you better watch it I think they understand Hungarian. But we did, we learned English, although I still have an accent, which is kind of impossible to lose, especially when I’m nervous like I am a little bit now. I can manage to speak without an accent but not at the moment.
We went to school part time, a little bit, and then they kind of placed us in Jewish organizations, mostly in factories, clothing, mostly it was the clothing manufacturers who said, yeah I’ll take a couple of kids. That’s when I learned, which was the last thing on my mind ever thinking, I never thought I would go into the dressmaking business or anything to do with the fashion world. As you know I’ve been in it ever since and still am. After a year, no I was in the orphanage for quite a while. That’s when my oldest sister Ruthie was in Belgium, whom I hadn’t seen since I was a very little kid, and she wanted me to go there. She had tried for many years to get papers to go to America. Her husband also was an Auschwitz survivor. And couldn’t. So she had asked me to come there. I went to Belgium thinking that maybe I would stay there with her and I think that’s how I convinced the people in the orphanage to pay my fair and let me go to. I don’t know if fortunately or unfortunately that no sooner did I get there then my sister got her papers. The interesting thing was, when I got off the boat from crossing the Channel and I was standing in Belgium. My sister was waiting for me and I got off and she said, Helen, and I didn’t pay any attention. Mademoiselle, it didn’t go for me and then finally as I was walking past her my sister says, Haiku. And I turned around and I see this lady who is not at all familiar to me and I say, Rifkula, is that you? She says, oh my God yes. So I gave her my cheek, let her kiss me, and I continued walking.
I: She was such a stranger.
L: Yes, I don’t know, I was three or four, something like that.
I: So did she leave and go to America and you were left behind in Belgium?
L: No, no, I stayed with her for awhile and then she got the papers. You know, then I went back to England. Surprise. Here I am again. And then a friend of mine…
I: Back to the orphanage?
L: Back to the orphanage but not for long. You could leave the orphanage as long as you made enough money to support yourself. You were still under the supervision of the Joint. But they did not pay for you. And by this time I had made enough money.
End Helen Lazar interview
Return to Witnesses