The Three Weeks is the time period during which we mourn the churban of the [First and Second] Beis HaMikdash as well as the countless atrocities that klal Yisrael has endured over the centuries at the hands of those who hate us and want to annihilate us. We know on an intellectual level that life without the Beis HaMikdash is not as it should be. We also understand that there was much pain and suffering during the Spanish Inquisition, pogroms, blood libels, the G’zeiros Tach v’Tat, and the Crusades. But many of us are most able to relate on an emotional level to the more recent events that hit closer to home. There is an abundance of museums, books, videos, testimonies, and programs designed to ensure that the Holocaust will never be forgotten. Despite the fact that the number of Holocaust survivors is dwindling, our generation continues to be impacted by their experiences and inspired by their spirit and m’sirus nefesh. It is especially poignant when there is a personal story within one’s family.
In the 1930s, my father lived with his parents and three siblings in the town of Kittsee, Austria. It was one of the “sheva k’hilos” in the region of Burgenland, on the outskirts of Vienna. Jews lived there peacefully for many years, side by side with their non-Jewish neighbors. As my grandfather was the assistant rabbi of the shul, as well as the town chazan and shochet, the family lived in an annex of the shul and shared a very close relationship with the German caretaker and his family. My grandfather played chess with the caretaker, and the children played with each other. Shabbos and Yamim Tovim were filled with excitement. Even the non-Jewish neighbors would come to the shul to watch the celebrations, especially on Simchas Torah. It was a carefree, fun-filled time.
All this changed on March 12, 1938, the day of the Anschluss. The annexation of Austria to Germany sealed the fate of the Jews of this country. Kittsee was among the first communities to fall victim to Hitler’s murderous plan to eradicate every vestige of Jewish life from Europe. The Jews of Kittsee were among the first to be expelled from their homes and community. Some have suggested that the Nazis used Kittsee as a test case, waiting to see what world reaction would be before they continued on to other communities. There was no reaction at all, so they felt free to continue their expulsion of Jews from other towns and cities.
When Kittsee was taken over by the Nazis, the change was felt immediately. German flags with swastikas appeared over the town’s official buildings. Not long after that, in the middle of the night, the Nazis forced the Jews to take cans of paint, and to smear the word “Yuden” on the sides of their homes. Following that, the Nazis led all the Jewish men down the street and forced them to cry out, “I am a Jewish swine.” My grandfather, a leader of the community, was at the front of the line, leading this group of humiliated Jews. He was forced to shout louder than everyone else. The women and children stood on the thresholds of their homes and cried as they watched this pathetic scene. My uncle, six years old at the time, saw this procession from the window of their home. In his innocence, he thought that the fact that his father was at the head of the line was a sign of respect. He couldn’t understand why my grandmother was crying. Little did he know that this was all part of a malevolent plan to strip the Jews of their dignity. The Nazis poured buckets of water on the men to make them shout even louder. Many of the non-Jewish friends of my father’s family had tears in their eyes as they witnessed this event. Only a few thugs were happy and made fun of the suffering Jews. A growing sense of fear and unease began to creep into the lives of the k’hilah. Another edict followed hard on the heels of this one. The mayor of the town announced that non-Jews did not have to pay back anything owed to the Jews, nor were they allowed to purchase any merchandise from them. The Nazis were systematically eliminating any sense of stability the Jews had.
All this took place just before Pesach. All preparations for the Yom Tov were done under a cloud of fear. While sitting at the Seder, my father’s family could hear the Nazis marching up and down the streets in their goose-step style. It was actually on April 15, on the morning after the Seder, that the Nazis finally expelled the Jews of the town from their homes. My father was always reluctant to speak about his traumatic experience in pre-war Europe, but on occasion he would share some of his memories during the Seder. He told us that the Nazis came to tell them that they had to get out of their homes within ten minutes and gather at the square of the storm troopers. Everyone was forced to come: young, old, even those who were sick in bed. There were no exceptions. My grandmother, fear clearly etched on her face, rushed the children out. They did not get a chance to take along any of their belongings. At the station, the Jews were forced to sign over all they owned to the Gestapo. They were further told that they would never see their homes again, and in fact, they never did. The Gestapo forced them into a cold cellar without food and kept them there for an entire day. My grandfather was given a paper that he was told to read out loud to the group of about 50 people. The gist of it was:
“Moshe led the Jews across the sea,
And the waves hardened.
And the water divided in two;
The Jews successfully crossed.
“And I, like Moshe, will lead you across the water;
But the waves won’t recede.
The current won’t calm down,
and you will all drown.”
When reading this, my grandfather’s voice cracked and the entire k’hilah broke down and cried.
At night, they were split into a few small groups and loaded onto wagons normally used to transport horses and cattle. As if the experience itself wasn’t traumatic enough, this all took place on a very stormy night. They were very cold, very hungry, and very scared. They rode in the wagons for an hour or two and suddenly felt a change in the air. They could feel the cold, moist winds that were blowing, and they could smell a river nearby. The wagons crunched over the sand until they were ordered to stop. The Nazi guards shone small lamps and ordered everyone to get off. The young people got off first and then helped the old, the women, and children. In the darkness of the countryside, they were surrounded by many sounds. Somewhere below, a river was flowing, slapping itself along the banks. A baby squirmed in its mother’s arms. An old man sighed deeply. “March!” the guards demanded. They were guarded in the front and back by young men in uniforms carrying guns and small swords. They led the Jews over ridges and through bushes with the light of their lamps, and through a wide area where the guards turned off the lamps. When they came to the border, they commanded the people to stop. They were then put onto motorboats and rode in them until they reached a shoreline, at which point the Nazis instructed them to get out. Once the large group was standing on the shoreline, the Nazis took off in the boats while shooting into the air, and left the Jews stranded. The group included the rav of the town, my grandfather, a community activist, and many children. Nobody knew where they were. When they saw signal lights from the left and they heard the church bells from Kittsee, they realized that they were on an island known as No-Man’s Land, a disputed piece of territory in the shape of a triangle between the borders of Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. The area contained a forest and some open fields.
Some in the group thought they should sit out the night and wait until the morning before looking for a way out of their dismal situation. Others thought it would be best to search for shallow water where maybe they would be able to sneak across the border into Hungary or Czechoslovakia. The group decided to look for a breach in the border. They searched all night as they carried the children. Day broke and they still hadn’t been given anything to eat or drink. They crossed a low stream and found themselves in the woods. There they came across a frost-covered pool and drew water with their fists. They decided to wait there until dark, and then they would resume their search for help. While they waited, they davened and cried out to Hashem with overflowing tears. They said T’hilim out loud together. When they said the perek of MiMaamakim, they truly felt like they were crying out from the depths. They huddled together to try to keep warm but it was bitter cold. Their hands and feet were numb. The children were crying. Their small limbs had become blue and stiff. Old people were fainting. The younger people talked of suicide, while the elders davened that Hashem should have rachmanus and send them all a merciful death so that they wouldn’t have to go against the Torah and commit such an aveirah.
During the day, the Jews covered themselves with branches. At night, they walked many miles from one border to another looking for refuge. They were repeatedly turned away at each border. Besides being homeless and unwelcome in any country, they were also starving. Due to the cold, there were no fruits on the trees or vegetables on the ground. Years later, my grandfather told the story of a piece of candy that he found in his pocket. My father and his siblings all wanted the candy. My grandfather decided to have the children share the candy. Every couple of hours each child would take a couple of licks and then automatically pass it from one to the other. This was all they ate for four days. The situation was becoming increasingly insufferable.
To be continued...
By Suzie Steinberg