Stryj, Berehovo, Czechoslovakia; Auschwitz, Jawischowitz, Buchenwald; Budapest, Hungary
William Sperber (Bela in Hungarian, Wojtcek in Czech, and Shmuel Dov or Shmuel Ber in Jewish) was born on May 29, 1931 in Berehovo, Czechoslovakia, at the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. “Before the First World War, our area was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and was predominately Hungarian speaking. But my ancestry is from Stryj within the region of Galicia, which is now in the Ukraine. My great-grandfather and my grandfather were born there, but my grandfather moved before the First World War to Gat (Huta).”
William’s father, Joseph, was born in Gat. He was a soldier in the First World War, and was married twice. His first marriage was to Tsipora Weinberger and they had four children: Rose, Pearl, Yitzchak, and Henry. After his first wife passed away, he married Fanny Rozner, who came from Muzsaly (Muzhijevo), a small village near Berehovo. William was their oldest child, followed by Jacob, Moshe, Vilmos (Velvel), and Malke, all of whom perished in the Holocaust. At first, Joseph managed an estate in a small village but decided to move to a bigger city where there were more possibilities for children, including Jewish schooling. He moved to Berehovo and worked for the Jewish community.
Of the 30,000 residents of Berehovo, about 7000 were Jews. “Our life there during the Czech period was really very liberal.” William attended a Jewish school, cheder, starting when he was three or four-years-old, as well as public school when he became six. He went to the synagogue on Saturday, and daily as he got older. “When the Second World War started, our area was given by the Germans to Hungary; then our life didn’t change much as far as I was concerned, as a child, but they passed some anti-Jewish laws. We continued school regularly. We had no ghetto and our population was very integrated; Jews and Gentiles lived next to each other. Everybody respected the religions.”
“Hungary was an ally of the Germans and most of the military-aged people were drafted into the Hungarian army and Hungary entered the war in the Axis side. The Jews, who were not allowed to have guns, were sent to working brigades. These labor brigades were under Hungarian officers, and they were doing all the hard labor near the front, like digging tank traps and clearing mines. Those people were taken away in 1941, including my brother-in-law. His wife did not see him until 1949. Otherwise, the Jews in our area were left alone.
“Then, in 1944, as the German army was retreating from the Eastern front, they came into Hungary. The Gestapo came in and first of all, all schools stopped. They immediately started to have pogroms against the Jewish population. At first, they took all of the prominent people of the city and then they asked the whole Jewish community to ransom them. Then they started to bring in from the surrounding areas Jews and initially they put them in the synagogues, sort of like a semi-ghetto. That went on for a few weeks and then on the last day of Passover in 1944, all 7000 Jews were taken into a ghetto by the local police. It was a big brick factory with huge open areas where they would dry the bricks. We could take a suitcase and some sheets for bedding. Eventually we had to turn those sheets into walls to separate different families. Somebody must have provided some food, but we had to take care of keeping the place sanitary.
“My whole family was there, except for my father who got very sick about six months or a year before the Germans came in. He went to Budapest to the Jewish hospital and he passed away in 1944, three days after Purim. The whole family came back to our city to sit Shiva and while we were sitting Shiva, the Germans came in. So, the whole family was there except for my father, who was lucky, in our opinion, because he would not have survived when we got to Auschwitz.
“We were in this ghetto for about a month when the transports to Auschwitz began. We went in railroad cars that were enclosed cattle cars, stuffed full of people. When we were being loaded into the trains, the Hungarian military was watching over us and some of them became impatient. One of them knocked on my head because I guess I wasn’t going fast enough. A lot of us were kids; I was 13-years-old…. On the way to Auschwitz, quite a few people died on the trains. The trains were never opened. I don’t remember that we got any food or water.
“After three days or so, we got to Auschwitz and the inmates, who were there a long time already, helped us off the trains and whispered in our ears in Yiddish, ‘Say that you are 18-years-old and don’t go with your mother. Go with the men.’ That’s the last time I saw my mother and my four younger siblings.
“As we started to walk away from the train, there were two rows of SS, with guns, like a funnel and at the end of it was Dr. Mengele. You stopped at the end and one at a time you walked up towards Mengele and he would ask your age and then he would point to one direction or the other. We didn’t know if you pointed in one direction you got to live and another direction, then you died. When I got there, I was thinking to myself what the inmate told me, but I couldn’t imagine saying I was 18. I wasn’t even 13 yet. How can I say 18? So, I said I was 15. And I wound up being pointed towards the living people.
“My two older sisters, Rose and Pearl, went with the able-bodied women and were immediately sent to Germany. We didn’t see them again until I came to America…. My brother Yitzchak was old enough and they took him to the labor brigades, so, he didn’t come with us to Auschwitz…. My brother, Henry, and I were the only two from our family that went with the men and we stayed together most of the time.
“We were first taken to Birkenau and then they took us to Auschwitz. It was raining and we had to march there and when we got to Auschwitz, we were standing outside in the rain for a long time…. Eventually we went into one of two tall three-story buildings connected by a bridge. In the middle of the night, we had to go through this bridge and in the middle of it were people that were tattooing us. I have a tattoo and it’s A3860…. After a few days, they started calling us by the numbers. Nobody had names; it was just numbers.
“There were hundreds of children from our city and other close-by cities. I think I was just about the youngest one and some of them were as old as 15 or 16. We were sent to a very small labor camp called Jawischowitz…. Jawischowitz was close to a coalmine and the inmates from Jawischowitz worked in the coalmine. It was a large coalmine and most of the local people from that area also worked in the coalmines…. However, us children worked in the factory part, standing on each side of a conveyor belt and picking stones out from the coal. We worked ten-hour shifts, either morning or afternoon shift. Luckily, we didn’t work on Sundays because one of the advantages of being in the coalmine with a lot of civilians is that the mine closed on Sundays…. There were other advantages too. For instance, in the morning at 9 or 10 o’clock, they would blow the horn and we got a rest because the local people had their breakfast…. I also was lucky that I was very skinny and I was never a big eater. My late mother was always worried that the wind was going to blow me away. We got food twice a day. Once it was bread with some wurst on it and another time it was soup that wasn’t exactly loaded with food. I wasn’t that hungry and the food they gave me seemed to be enough. Not only that, but I could share with my brother who worked in the mines, which was hard work.
“Talking to other inmates from other places after the war, they were absolutely amazed because they had never taken a shower the whole time they were in the camps. Since we worked in the coalmine, by the time the shift ended and we came home, we were all covered with black soot. So, we had showers and we took a shower when we came back and also, we had two sets of inmate clothing. We would take off the dirty clothing and fold them up nice and leave them somewhere in the bath area. Then we would put on the clean one and when we went to work again, we would put on the clothing with the coal dust. That was a benefit to us and I’m sure that kept a lot of people healthier and we did not get lice.
“If you got sick and couldn’t work, then you were sent back to Auschwitz and you were probably killed. You had to be able to work…. Another lucky thing for me was that my shoes were not taken away when we arrived. But if you wore out your shoes, then you got those Holland wooden shoes and nobody was used to that. So, I was lucky. I had a pair of shoes and they lasted the whole year that I was in camp….
“Because we were a small camp and everybody worked in the mines, we were basically left alone if you didn’t do anything bad…. I remember once two people managed to escape. They did find them eventually and brought them back to the camp; and we all had to go out and witness them being hung to teach us a lesson.
“This went on until January ‘45 and then the Russians were getting close. They were not going to leave us to be liberated. So, they told us we were going to start marching. This is January. We had no coats. We marched all night until early in the morning, when we stopped and everybody was told to get off the roads. There happened to be some houses in the process of being built but they had no roofs, no floors, just a couple of walls. If you were fast enough, you could manage to stand against the wall so at least the wind didn’t blow so much. I was pretty fast…. After a few hours, we started marching again. We marched all day until we got to a train marshalling yard. There we were loaded onto open-top trains that were used to move wheat and grains…. It took us about three days and we were taken to Buchenwald, another big camp near Weimar in Germany.
“Buchenwald was started in 1933 by the Germans and initially they put all the political prisoners, criminals, and homosexual people in there. Buchenwald actually had a post office and the inmates could get packages and mail. Not the Jews, of course. When we got there, the main camp of Buchenwald had a lot of Germans and also people from Norway and Denmark that were captured doing something wrong.
“What I heard later on is that Buchenwald had sort of an underground. It was a big camp and the SS didn’t come into the camp except if they wanted something special. Other than that, they relied on the inmates to sort of run things inside the camp and provide the labor needed by the SS…. When they started bringing children into Buchenwald around ‘44, somebody made the proposal to the underground group that ‘We have a chance to save the children, why don’t we do that?’ The group agreed and so when we arrived in Buchenwald, they put us in the children’s barracks. And the children’s barracks were very good. We didn’t have to go to work. After the first few times that we walked around the camp to look around, they told us that we should just stay in our barracks. So, we were left alone. Nobody bothered us. And that’s how we spent our time…. There were hundreds of children and I found out later on there was a second children’s barracks down in the small camp. That’s where Elie Wiesel was.
“My brother Henry was older, so he was sent to a satellite camp. He was in a very bad camp in the middle of a forest and the barracks were half-way into the ground and it was very wet. As the allies were getting close to us, they started bringing in the people from the satellite camps and put them in the small camp. Then the Germans decided to march these people towards Czechoslovakia. Each time they did that, they would blow the sirens and people had to go into their barracks and then they would march these big groups out towards Czechoslovakia.
“When my brother came back and found out that there was a children’s barracks, he walked from the small camp up to the main camp and showed up in front of my window. I told him to come into my barracks. And that’s when they blew the sirens, so they couldn’t select him. The next day he came back again just as they were blowing the sirens and he came in again to my barracks, so he was safe. The third day, he didn’t come and I got worried. Later he told me that he didn’t come that third day because he was worried that he was putting me in jeopardy….
“The day my brother didn’t come to see me, all of a sudden, we saw that there were people from the underground running around near the barracks covered with blankets, with guns. And that afternoon we were liberated. We saw the German swastika being pulled down from the gate. And I guess they may have put up an American flag. It was April 11, 1945; an American tank showed up at the gate. That was a lucky day for us and all I can say is we all went wild.
“My brother was sick so they took him right away to the hospital…. We were in Buchenwald for a while and we moved into the SS barracks…. While I was there, I remember General Eisenhower and Patton showed up in the camp and they made the people from Weimar come into the camps to see what was going on. Although we didn’t have any gas chambers, there were individual crematoriums where they would burn the people that died. Towards the end, there were a lot of inmates that died and they were just piled up near the crematorium. And so, all these people from Weimar had to bury them. They all marched through there saying, ‘We never knew’… Weimar was walking distance and they said they didn’t know anything about what was going on in Buchenwald. Yet, all the SS guards from Buchenwald spent all their free time in Weimar.
“We were interviewed by the American authorities and we were asked, ‘What do you want to do? Where do you want to go?’ We had options to go to France or Switzerland. Quite a lot of the young people that I knew decided that they wanted to be taken to France. But we wanted to go back to Berehovo to see what was going on…. The Czech government eventually sent busses for us and took us to Prague. They put us up in a vacant sanatorium for a few weeks and then they said, ‘You’re in Czechoslovakia, go back to your homes.’
“We took a train and traveled maybe 24-hours or more to Budapest. We all got off the train there and I didn’t know anything about the city. But people walked somewhere and I just followed them and we wound up at the Joint Distribution Committee building in Budapest in the evening time. We slept on the floor there; then my brother-in-law, Pearl’s husband Jacob Herskovits, showed up. He had been in the labor brigades and then in the mostly Jewish Czech brigade of the Russian army. When he got out of the army, he stayed in our area and was waiting to find anybody from our family. He went up to Budapest all the time and took food there and each time he would go to the Joint Distribution Committee building to see if anybody from our family was there. And that’s how he found us – me and my brother and some cousins. And so, he took us back home.
“My older brother Yitzchak was also home already. He may have wound up in Mauthausen, but he never talked about it. He and Henry decided to leave right away because our area was going to become part of the Soviet Union. My brother-in-law did not want to leave because he did not hear anything from his wife and my other sister. By that time, I was 14 and he had a place where he lived and had somebody that cooked for us. So, he said why don’t you stay with me until we find out what happens to your sisters and then we leave….
“It turns out that my sisters were taken to Germany and they worked in Essen in the Krupp factories and then towards the end they were sent to Bergen-Belsen. They were liberated on April 15th by the British. One of my sisters had typhus and the British managed to get the Swedes to take all the sick people to Sweden to recuperate. Once they were in Sweden, my oldest sister, Rose, knew that we had relatives in America, in Detroit, and she just wrote a letter to Sperber in Detroit. My great-uncle got the letter and they decided to come here.
“While they were still in Sweden, another woman from our area came back home and found us and told us that my sisters were in Sweden and they are ready to go to America. If the woman found anyone from the family, they urged us to get out of there. So then, my brother-in-law decided to try to escape…. You had to escape through the Soviet border, which was very dangerous. If you were caught, you were sent by the Russians to labor camps, maybe even Siberia. He was afraid to take me then and I got stuck in Berehovo for another year. I moved in with my cousin’s friend and I did nothing that first year. I just walked around the city. I had no ID card or anything and nobody bothered me.
“About a year later, again by accident, a friend of my brother-in-law’s, found somebody in Prague, Czechoslovakia, that was willing to go across the border to come to our area to bring his brother out. He mentioned this to my brother-in-law, who was still in Prague waiting for a visa to the United States. The guide also agreed to take me…. We had to take the train to a little town, right across the border from Hungary. From there we had to take another train to a big city Uzgorod, which is close to Slovakia. And from there we had to take a narrow-gauge railroad up into the mountains to go across the Carpathian Foothills…. We started to walk. We had a local who was supposed to walk with us to the border, but this guy cheated us and he turned back before we reached the border. We continued walking – me, my companion, and the guide …. The other guy, my companion, also turned back and the guide and I continued walking. It got dark and we had to lay down in the forest for the night. In the morning, we continued our trip. This was in October of ‘46, it was slippery. I kept falling and I was getting tired. I decided to rest. Suddenly I saw light, which happens when you are close to the top of the mountain where the border was. So, my adrenaline kicked in and I just got up and ran after my guide and within ten minutes we were at the border and we got across the border…. And then we started walking towards this first town, Humenne, which took a few hours. There were a lot of people that seemed to be Jewish people in the village bakery. I walked in there and I recognized a person from camp. I told them where I came from and they right away took me in and arranged for me to go up to Prague where my brother-in-law was waiting for me.
“When I got to Prague I had absolutely no papers and the Czechs decided since I wasn’t there right after the war that now I am a Russian citizen. So, it took a while to get a passport that I could use. A year later I got my visa to the United States… I wound up in Bordeaux. There I went on a freight ship to New Orleans and from New Orleans I took the train to New York to Pennsylvania Station. And there my sister and my father’s cousins and my sister’s father-in-law were all waiting for me. It was 1947 and I was 16-years-old.”
What gave William the strength to survive? “I always had a positive outlook on things. Even though I knew that in the camps you could get killed anytime. Even though our life was routine, you never knew what was going to happen. Nevertheless, I still had a positive outlook. I just didn’t think ahead of the fact that I may not survive…. And the same thing after we got liberated and I went back home. I knew I wanted to get out of there. My whole family was out. There was nobody there for me to be with. I had some cousins, but that’s all. And when you are young, you aren’t as afraid of things. I was taking a chance. I did all my traveling from Bordeaux to New Orleans to Detroit, without knowing English. I was lucky I guess. And had a positive attitude.”
His message for young people today is that “you should not think of anybody as enemies because of their religion, race, or something like that because it just leads to genocide. Try not to learn the bad things about people and get influenced by it and to be tolerant of other people. And help other people and hopefully it’s going to be a better world.”
Date of Interview: July 13, 2018
Length of Interview: 67 minutes
Interview & Synopsis by: Zieva Konvisser
Videographer: Mark Einhaus