Passover 1945: Memories from the Holocaust

This is a true story. I am writing it to share with my children and grandchildren a part of what happened to me so many years ago.

It adds to the story I tell at the end of our Seders. As our family sits around the Seder table, we discuss the significance of this holiday of survival and freedom. And I ask each of the participants to tell us, what she/he did since the last Passover to enhance the cause of freedom. For me, this night is different from all other nights.

It was just recently that we celebrated my 81st birthday, in good health, with a loving wife of 51 years, four happily married children and nine beautiful grand children. I am now enjoying my retirement after thirty good years with IBM. It is hard to believe Passover, the Passover of 1945. If anyone had ever told me during that Passover in 1945 how wonderful it would be to celebrate the same holiday sixty years later, I would have never believed it. Freedom was so close, yet so far.

Passover of 1945 occurred toward the end of World War II. I was a slave laborer (Zwangsarbeiter) on the Austrian side of the Austro-Hungarian border, building bunkers for the German army. I was transported to that task with other slave laborers from my native Budapest, Hungary, late in the previous fall. The transport was crammed into box cars, 80 of us in a car, all slave laborers. The trip took several days. We were given no food or water, and those who died during the trip were taken off the train, as it stopped several times to unload the dead, before we arrived at our destination.

The close quarters created a new problem for the survivors. By the time we reached our destination we were all infected with lice. It was only after liberation that we were able to free ourselves from this plague. We now had first hand experience with one of the ten plagues included in the original Passover story.

To survive, we all needed to share a glimmer of hope

It was a bitter cold winter in Austria, that winter of 1945. Our group of slave laborers was housed in the rafters of a barn. There was no heat. Sleeping space was about one foot wide. We had one water faucet for the entire group. Latrine was a ditch outside the barn.

We did get food every day; some warm liquid called coffee in the morning, some soup at lunch, and some bread and cheese or salami in the evening. There was no help for those who got sick. We had a doctor among us, but no medication or other facilities. By Passover of 1945, the initial group of 150 shrank to a number closer to 100.

The Death March

By the spring of 1945 the German army was on its last retreat. We all knew the end of World War II was near. We also realized that surviving to the end was almost impossible. Yet, to survive, we all needed to share a glimmer of hope.

The night of the first Seder, before we went to sleep, we celebrated Passover with song, and a piece of Matzo. The unleavened bread, a reminder of the slavery of our ancestors in Egypt many centuries ago somehow appeared from nowhere. We did not need bitter herbs to remind us of what slavery was like in the past. We were slaves ourselves in the present. Our very lives were on the line daily as the guards could, and did kill anyone they wanted, without having to account for the killing in any way.

The march west that started on the first day of Passover of 1945 marked what turned out to be the beginning of the end for most of us. The Russians were very near on the eastern front. German soldiers and their support groups were to be moved west. And our unit, essentially young men able to work, started its deadly march. We marched during the day and slept in the open field at night.

When we had a chance, we picked up some of the grass from the fields and ate it. It was food. Fortunately, there was no rain. At least we kept dry. I recall three days of marching. Anyone who could not keep going was shot to death by the guards on the spot. Many perished and were left dead by the roadside.

At the end of this march we reached the Danube River. There was a boat waiting for us to take us further west. We understood from the guards that they were trying to get us food, but there was none to be had. We boarded the boat with no food, and there was none on the boat. For some time I recalled that the boat ride lasted eight days. In retrospect, it must have been shorter. It still boggles my mind how anyone can survive this kind of starvation.

I still had an Omega pocket watch that once belonged to my brother Steven. He did not take it with him when he was taken a forced laborer in 1942. I was able to hide this watch through many searches, without the searchers finding it. I saved it for the day when it might save my life. That day had now arrived. I found a way to exchange the watch for a loaf of bread, which four of us shared. Each day we had a slice. It saved our lives.

When we left the boat, we walked up a hill, and entered the Mauthausen Concentration Camp. As we walked through the gates, I was convinced that a troop of German soldiers with machine guns would be waiting. They would complete the task of annihilation. But there were no machine guns. Death came quickly and naturally to many whose system could no longer take the starvation.

We were housed in large tents that each held many hundreds of people. Every morning those still alive carried the dead to the edge of the tents. Others came with wooden carts and carried away the dead. Any of the dead who had good shoes did not depart with them. Some of those who were still alive would take them. Perhaps those shoes may still make the difference between perishing and survival.

There was not much food in Mauthausen and we no longer had to work. We got up in the morning, carried out the dead, and were counted. Our numbers were fewer every day. We were in Mauthausen a couple of weeks.

He had given up hope and he died right there and then.

I recall one morning, as several of us were standing up and talking, all 21 year olds, who made it this far, one of my former classmates of eight years from the Gymnasium in Budapest was saying that we had reached the end of the line. Survival was no longer a possibility. He barely finished saying this and fell to the floor. He had given up hope and he died right there and then. Those of us still standing realized now, as we have realized so many times in the past, that the most crucial element needed for us to survive was our firm conviction that we can and will somehow overcome any surmountable obstacle.

There was one more fairly short march, from Mauthausen to the Gunskirchen Concentration Camp, near Wels, Austria. Here the barracks were made out of log cabins. The routine did not change. Just people were dying faster. We knew it was only a matter of days before the war must end. Surviving longer than a few days seemed very unlikely. All that remained was our hope that we survive and our faith that we will overcome any surmountable obstacle in the process. My enslavement in Gunskirchen lasted more than a few days, but I was still alive when it ended.

In the afternoon of the fifth of May 1945, the guards began to disappear. There were none by the evening. Yet I felt that venturing out was dangerous. If we made it so far, it was not wise to take unnecessary chances. As darkness settled, I ventured out, found the food warehouse, and found a large open bag of sugar. I had some, as I thought that eating sugar would give me strength.

By the morning mostly everybody who could walk has started on the long journey toward a new life. Four of us left together late that morning. As we walked along the road, we saw some signs of freshly planted potatoes. We dug some up and ate them. It was food.

As we walked along the road, a jeep with American soldiers was approaching. When they saw us they stopped briefly. One of the soldiers said: "Hitler is dead, Mussolini is dead, and Roosevelt is dead. The war is over, and you are free." Officially World War II ended in Europe two days later. For us the meaning of freedom had just begun to sink in.

Along the road we learned that there was a large food warehouse that the Americans opened up so the former concentration camp inmates would have food to eat. We found the warehouse, found some pasta, sugar and vinegar, and proceeded to prepare a feast. Having starved so long, we reminded ourselves to be careful, as our system was not ready for a major change of diet. The vinegar, diluted with water was like wine. We drank it and it caused us grief, primarily diarrhea.

Staying there in the open plaza made little sense. We found out that the Americans were gathering the former inmates at the Alpenjaeger Kaserne, a former German army barracks in Wels, where we could be de-loused, and prepared for the way to be transported home.

We found our way to this assembly center. I observed that by nighttime an organization began to emerge from the total chaos that prevailed before. Some who had the strength and know-how began to organize the kitchen. To this day I marvel over how this volunteer force emerged, and started running things.

Those who were sick were gathered in the yard and taken to hospitals in trucks. Those who died were also gathered in the yard and taken in trucks to a cemetery. The first large group of dead was buried in a mass grave. Later when I became the camp's supply officer; I found the record of the names that died after liberation in Wels. The number I remember is 1206.

Early on, for a short period, I had the strength to walk but I was not involved in getting the camp organized. The lessons I learned from observing how order can be created out of chaos has stayed with me to this day.

What happened to the four of us who walked out of Gunskirchen together? My friend Zoli and I had been schoolmates since age ten. The two of us survived the entire experience together. It was he who found a way to exchange the Omega watch for bread. That was how we both survived. He was on his way home as soon as possible. He had hope of finding family back home.

The other two people we met at Gunskirchen. They were father and son. When the Americans used DDT to de-louse everyone, they left some of the powder around. The father thought it was medicine. What the Germans could not accomplish, the DDT did. He thought it was medicine, took it and I believe it killed him. I am not sure what happened to his son but my recollection is that he did not consume any DDT.

My health did not hold up well after liberation. I developed diarrhea. The extended typhoid fever I had the year before may have returned. I spent over three months in the fall of 1944 in a hospital for infectious diseases in Ujpest, a city outside of Budapest. I was a forced laborer at the time. It was a true miracle that I survived that sickness. I was the only Jew not only in the hospital, but also in the entire city of Ujpest. All other Jews had been rounded up and sent to death camps the year before.

What was to come did not look like a happy future. At the Alpenjaeger Kaserne there was no medication. There was a doctor on the premises. He thought eating pasta might help.

Entering the Hospital

It was not long before I could no longer walk. I gathered my strength to get down to the yard, and waited for a truck that would take others and me to a hospital. After the truck drove around for a while I found myself in a clean bed in the hospital.

As the days went on, I was getting weaker and weaker, until I did not have the strength to turn around in bed. I felt the end was near and made peace with myself. But Divine Providence must have had another plan.

I began to gather strength, and eventually learned to sit up, and then stand up from the bed. Getting up from the floor took me about a week to learn. Walking stairs was another major accomplishment. When I had the strength to walk to a scale, it showed that I weighed approximately 84 pounds. Eventually the day arrived when I was to be discharged from the hospital. I received a few units of the local currency and was told that I was free to go, anywhere. I now regained my freedom. The question was: Where do I go and what do I do next? The world I grew up in was totally destroyed.

There I was in a strange country, in a strange city. All my possessions were the clothes on my back. It was summer in Upper Austria. Cold was not a problem. Neither was the language. I was fluent in both German and English. And I was homeless. Where could I go now?

I carefully considered my options. Should I stay in Linz? Probably not. Where could I go? Home? Hungary was no longer my home. As far as I knew no one in my family could have possibly survived, and there was nothing to go back to. The world I grew up in was totally destroyed. I needed to create a new life for myself. At this point I had no idea of how to go about doing it.

As the day wore on, I felt hungry. How did I get food? I walked to the back of a restaurant I found and asked them for and got a plate of soup. Where did I sleep? A local school was open to give shelter for the night for the homeless. I spent the night there.

Back to the DP

There were actually two of us released from the hospital at the same time. The other man was somewhat older. I had just recently passed my 21st birthday. At least I had someone to talk to. After two days I reviewed my earlier conclusions. Going back to Hungary made no sense whatever. As far as I could tell there was no way for anyone in my family to survive. I felt that there was nothing to go back to. I also realized that I needed to be in a more structured environment. Returning to the assembly center, which by now became a Displaced Person's camp made sense. We boarded the train back to Wels.

The lessons I learned about what volunteers can do started to take on meaning. I had special language skills and I perceived an opportunity where I could make a difference. The camp's population was rapidly changing. Most of those who were liberated and had the strength started home. I chose to stay.

Before World War II the Hungarian quota to the USA was about 900 a year and it had a 20-year waiting period. There was no immigration now. But we were under American occupation, under the direction of a United Nation's Team headed by an American. I felt that looking toward America, where I might have a future, was now a possibility.

To Help Fulfill the Promise of the Promised Land

While the camp shrank by departures, it soon started growing by new arrivals. People, who returned home from other concentration camps, found that no one in their family survived. They started returning, hoping to find a way to go to Palestine, to help fulfill the promise of the Promised Land.

We were on the American side of the Russian-American border. The people who were coming had excellent survivor's skills. I now had a mission in life. Help people toward a new life. At first I did what my meager strength allowed me to do. I became the DP supply officer of the camp. I managed the store. Made sure people were fed.

Hello America

There is much more to this story. Eventually the DP Camp was moved to Linz and I became the UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration) camp director's interpreter and assistant. I found out that my mother was alive in Hungary, and she sent me my aunt's address in New York. And I arrived in New York City during the summer of 1946.

I went through a long struggle to find my way in America. I did manage to get three American college degrees and worked very hard to make a difference in teaching young people about computers.

Perhaps Divine Providence did have a plan for me. As I look back, I feel that I have successfully contributed at least to part of that plan.

A true Passover story by George G. Heller


The above is part of the book of On Borrowed Time, in preparation
Last updated: 05/17/2005

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