Caian (Romania), Dej, Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Magdenberg, Bergen-Belsen
Ernest Kappel was born in Caian, Romania; he would eventually change nationality when the area became a possession of Hungary. He grew up with four sisters, only one of whom would survive the Holocaust. Their father was a tobacco farmer and businessman. Mr. Kappel describes his family as a religious and tightly-knit one. He attended public school until eighth grade. Once, his class had to read aloud from a religious textbook when he was nine; he remembers being assigned the portion dealing with the death of Christ.
There existed a Zionist organization that he would have liked to join. It tried to arrange trips to Israel, something that the local rabbis frowned upon; they were, he says, against going to Israel before the Messiah came. He holds religion responsible for the fact that many people were talked out of going to Israel, something that might – though nobody knew it then – save their lives. When the war began, his parents heard rumors of Polish people fleeing to Czechoslovakia, Budapest, and Romania just to save their lives. Nevertheless, it was hard to believe that people could be taken away and never seen again. It was easier to speculate that they were being sent to labor camps, he says, only to be reunited with their families afterward. In the meantime, his family had nowhere to go and nothing to do but pray. Just before they were sent to a ghetto, he remembers none of them being able to go outside without a Star of David on their chest. If caught trying to disguise the fact that they were Jewish, they risked being shot on the spot.
They were ordered out of their home by Hungarian police (backed up by teenagers with wooden rifles who were proud, Kappel says, to help). At the police station, their belongings were taken away from them and they were put on the wagon that took them to Dej. They lived in the ghetto there for several weeks before being put on a train to Auschwitz. Before being packed into cattle cars, they were bullied by Hungarians in green shirts – he remembers beard-pulling and bleeding. In the cars, they could barely move. He heard somebody say they passed Krakow on the way, but he didn’t know where they were going and or what Auschwitz was. When the doors opened, they were greeted by yells to get out and sticks waving them in one direction or another; they directed him toward a group of younger children, all of whom were sent to work. His father was pointed elsewhere, and his sisters, as far as he knows, simply disappeared.
He spent only the night at Auschwitz, in a barrack that must have housed over a thousand people, before being put on a train to Buchenwald. At Buchenwald, too, he stayed overnight (in a long tent) before being sent elsewhere. He had a cousin with him; they were both given showers and issued uniforms. They were also given numbers to wear on their uniforms, one on their chest and one on their trousers. Their pictures were taken by young S.S. officers, who recorded their names and ages – his cousin was 16 and told Kappel, 14, to say that he was 16, too. He was tall for his age and they believed him. Afterward, his number was called and he was sent to Magdenberg, a labor camp. His cousin went to another camp. He did not survive the Holocaust.
At Magdenberg, he was forced to do heavy labor from April of 1944 until early 1945. The living conditions were clean, but they were fed very little. Their movements were closely monitored; every time they had to leave camp in order to work, they were arranged in rows of ten and flanked by S.S. men and Gestapos with bayonets and rifles aimed at them. Upon their return, they were counted. He remembers that a man once missed the counting, having gotten lost in a sugar beet field (he had strayed in order to take a beet). The camp’s dogs eventually caught him and killed him. He witnessed other punishments, too; people getting in line for food a second time had hot soup thrown in their face. Some of them were thrown down and beaten.
When they were at work, sirens alerted them to air raids practically every day. They were told to flatten themselves on the ground and keep their heads down. Bombs did occasionally fall near them, and he remembers seeing people thrown into the air from the impact. One impact left him bloodied and covered with sand, but the injury turned out to be only to his nose. Others, he remembers, were less fortunate. He watched the Germans shoot down a plane once; the pilot bailed out, but they shot him before he had a chance to reach the ground.
Nobody really looked out for him at Magdenberg; on the contrary, he usually found himself helping older people who had difficulty returning to their barracks from work. If anyone fell out of the lines of ten, they risked being summarily shot. He knew one boy, about three years his senior, who had lived near Caian and now worked in the Magdenberg kitchens, but the boy was unable to smuggle anyone food without risking his life. To the best of Mr. Kappel’s knowledge, he survived the war.
In the beginning of 1945, his number was called and he was transferred to a different barrack overnight. The following morning, he was sent to Buchenwald – to Block 8. It was like heaven to him at the time – they saw whole potatoes and the guards actually punished another child for spitting in Kappel’s food. For the most part, the children there were Russian or Hungarian and younger than he was; ten or twelve of them (all Hungarian Jews) were sent to Bergen-Belsen in a passanger train, the comfort of their journey somewhat outweighed by the fact that the German guard accompanying them threatened to shoot them if they tried to escape. At Bergen-Belsen, he saw other people being marched into the camp on foot, crying badly. He was there until liberation. The conditions were miserable. He thinks that if liberation had occurred a few days later, he would not have been alive to see it. The camp was overcrowded and infested with lice – he could have reached anywhere, he says, and drawn a handful of them - and the prisoners saw little food. He had typhus afterward.
When British soldiers freed them, they took them to the German nurses’ headquarters to clean them up. Those who were still alive had been reduced to living skeletons. People couldn’t believe what had been done to them. Mr. Kappel could barely stand. There were no mirrors, but he knew that he looked like everyone else there. He remembers seeing a mountain of corpses, and being put into stretchers and Red Cross ambulances with the others. He stayed at Bergen-Belsen for several weeks, until he was asked whether he wanted to be sent back to Romania or go to Sweden. He chose Sweden. Just before going, he was also asked whether he wanted to locate any of his family members, and he gave them his parents’ and sisters’ names. In Sweden, he stayed at a religious school, where he received a letter telling him that one of his sisters was alive and in Romania. She eventually chose to go to Israel.
He came to Canada in 1948, and to the United States in 1958. Of the twenty-some members of his extended family, only one survived (the brother of the cousin with whom he spent his first night at Buchenwald). He rarely discussed his experiences, even with his family, wishing only to forget the nightmare that he had been through. His wife and son are present with him at the interview, however. When asked by his wife whether he would be passive again if he were arrested today simply for being Jewish, he says that it wouldn’t happen. Back then, he says, his classmates were raised to be conscious of the betrayal of their God, and to carry the grudge over to people who had nothing to do with it. They were taught, he says, to hate. When asked whether he hates, he says that it wouldn’t do much good if he did. He thinks that it was his health and, more importantly, his hope that let him survive.
Date: September 8, 1987
Time: 57 minutes
Interviewer: Esther Weine
Synopsis: Rachel Resin
Format: Video recording