Nagypapa was a special guest speaker on Thursday, 5 May 2005 at Peninsula Temple Sholom for a Yom HaShoah program entitled: Witness to Liberation: 60th Anniversary.
Both my parents lived through the Holocaust. Tonight, you will learn about my father's horrific experiences in Hungary and Austria. You will learn how he overcame conditions unimaginable to us.
Having survived the Holocaust, my father arrived in New York as a 22 year old where his only possessions were the clothes on his back. Ten years later, he enrolled as a 32-year-old freshman at MIT, to continue his education. Starting in the early 1960's, my Father spent his career educating children and teachers on how to make computers part of primary and secondary education. To this day, my father still teaches seniors how to use computers.
Judaism teaches us to continue our education throughout our lives.
My father taught me what his father had taught him, and I teach to my children. That is that everything you have - your business, your home, your money and even your family, can be taken away from you. Everything that is, except your education.
Each generation teaches the next. It is a pleasure to sit with you and my children here tonight, as we learn how their grandfather survived because he never gave up hope.
Please welcome ... my father, George Heller.
Today we came to bear witness to Liberation. And we are truly grateful that Mr. Floyd Dade, one of the liberators of Gunskirchen, is here with us. When Mr. Dade entered Gunskirchen, he saw the barracks, the dead bodies, and some emaciated ghosts, the survivors of the camp. On that day, on that morning of May 5, 1945, exactly 60 years ago today, I was inside one of those barracks. I was one of those emaciated ghosts, worn out by slave labor and starvation under the Waffen SS.
Today, we come together - the liberator and the liberated - to remember, recall, and share memories. Today, I have lived for 60 years on borrowed time. What a blessing. What a gift. Boruch Hashem.
We celebrated Passover last week. We told the story of the liberation and the Exodus of Jewish slaves from Egypt. Many of us also remembered our own slavery and our own liberation. And at our Seder, this year, each of us was asked to answer our 5th question: What did I do since last Passover to enhance the cause of freedom?
Passover of 1945 has a very special meaning to me. It includes the story of my own, personal Exodus and my own liberation. I remember that Seder, prior to my liberation, 60 year ago, on March 28, 1945. It was a Wednesday evening. I was in a slave labor camp in Burgenland, Austria. Our unit arrived 150 strong just a few months earlier. By this time all we had left were the 100 plus emaciated, tired slaves. It was Seder night, and we made Passover. Somehow we even had a tiny piece of Matza. We sang Passover songs from memory. And the word Dayenu must have been prefaced by If I could only have something to eat!!!!
What was it like in this slave labor camp? We were housed in a large barn, sleeping up in the rafters, about 2 feet of space per person. No heat. We had a leaky roof where the snow fell thru in the winter. There was one water tap for 150 people. There was a latrine we dug, outside. We got up early, and had some warm black liquid called coffee. At lunch time we had some thin soup with sometimes a piece of potato in it. In the evening we had a small slice of bread and a small piece of cheese or a small piece of salami. Escaping was not an option. Those who tried it paid with their lives.
As the first day of Passover dawned in 1945, we began the most brutal, the most bloody march of my Holocaust experience. It was a forced, slow and steady march. Everything we owned was in our backpacks. Along the way we threw away almost everything, except our toothbrushes and our blankets, anything we did not have the strength to carry. It was a steady march. If one could not keep up, the guard warned once; GO. And if you had no more strength to walk, and stepped out of the group to stop, you could hear a gunshot, and another dead body was left behind by the roadside. The march lasted for three days. We had no food. I ate some of the grass I found in the fields.
Those of us who completed the march boarded a large barge on the Danube. The boat trip to Mauthausen lasted for approximately eight days. No food on board. It still boggles my mind how anyone could have survived it.
I would like to share with you one of the very sad experiences I had in Mauthausen. This must have happened sometime late in April 1945. We no longer worked. Inmates were dying from starvation in large numbers. Several of us who had been together during our Holocaust experience were standing in a small group and talking. One of us, a classmate from high school I had known well for ten years sounded very desperate, "I know the end is very close, but I cannot see how we can get out of here alive. I just cannot take it any more." As he finished his sentence, this brilliant promising young 21 year old dropped to the floor. He gave up hope and he died. He no longer had the strong faith and the glimmer of hope needed to survive.
I recall the day of my liberation. On Friday, May the 4th, the guards disappeared. As best we could tell, they were all gone by the evening. On Saturday morning, we started to leave. I did not know, but Mr. Dade's tank battalion had come and left and we were safe. Four of us walked out together. Along the road we saw some freshly planted potatoes. We dug them up and ate some. We had something to eat!!! We saw an American Jeep approach. They stopped. We spoke English. The American soldier said, "Hitler is dead, Mussolini is dead, Roosevelt is dead, the war is over and you are free."
Shortly after liberation I took very ill with Fleck typhus, an illness carried by lice. I was 21 years old and approximately 84 pounds. When I eventually got to a hospital, I was so sick I did not have the strength to turn in my bed. I was convinced my life was over. When eventually I recovered, and had the strength to walk, the hospital discharged me. I was homeless, barely able to walk, no place to go in a foreign country. And all I had was the shirt on my back.
I spent a year in displaced persons' camps working as a volunteer and interpreter for the United Nations Teams that managed the camps and for the American Army. I came to America when immigration opened in 1946.
I should say a few words about my life in Hungary. I was born and grew up in Budapest. We were a middle class family, owned a printing business where all of us worked. Hungary had anti-Jewish laws since the conclusion of World War I (1919). When Hitler came to power in Germany, the life of Jews in Hungary rapidly deteriorated. And for most Jews there was nowhere to go. There was no Kristallnacht in Hungary. However the Dohany Synagogue in Budapest, the largest Jewish Temple in Europe, was bombed by the Hungarian Nazis on a Friday night in 1942 at the end of services. I was there when it happened. Luckily I did not get hurt. Since Hungary had an anti-Semitic government, the Nazis did not occupy it until 1944. Then all Jews, except the ones living in Budapest were deported to Auschwitz. The Jews in Budapest were put in a Ghetto, including my family. I was in a slave labor camp in Budapest, and in the fall of 1944 - eighty to a boxcar - I was deported to Austria and was a slave laborer under the SS.
What happened to my family? My brother Pista was a slave laborer, who perished on the Eastern front in World War II. My sister Kato and my cousin Eva were brutally murdered in the Ghetto in Budapest. And a large part of my extended family was deported to Auschwitz and never returned.
Today, all of us came to remember the six million. And so many of us came to remember special people we loved, special people we cared for. Some perished in Concentration Camps, some in ghettos, some as slave laborers. Today we remember them all, all our martyrs. We must remember the Holocaust and make sure it never happens again! And I would like to suggest that there is something very simple each of us, all over the world, can do, starting today: We can learn to change our thinking from tolerance to acceptance. We tend to treat people we accept a lot better than those we only tolerate. For those of us in the audience, who survived the Holocaust, I would like to offer a special prayer, a prayer of our teacher Moses, I paraphrased from Psalm 90 verse 12. Teach us to count our days, so that we can make every one of them count.
For me, the Holocaust ended sixty years ago today. The memories live on. But today they are shared with my wife Iby. We celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary last year with our four married children and our nine grandchildren. And if on that day sixty years ago, when I walked out of Gunskirchen, starved and beaten, homeless, alone in the world, my body full of lice, with no hope for the future, someone said to me, "Sixty years from today you will be living in America" and described to me my world today, I would have said, "There is no way to get from here to there. It is just NOT possible." Yet, we just remembered the Holocaust together, Today, in America. Perhaps, just perhaps, IT IS POSSIBLE!!!
Please join me in reciting the Shechecheyanu, my family's favorite traditional blessing: Blessed are you, Lord, our God, king of the universe who has kept us alive, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this season (Amen) And let us all - say -- together: Amen
By George G. Heller
ggheller [at-sign] alum.mit.edu