Adler, Olga Kesztenbaum
Berehovo (Beregovo, Beregszász), Czechoslovakia; Budapest, Hungary; Hungarian Forced Labor Camp; Prague, Czechoslovakia
Olga Kesztenbaum (Adler) was born July 30, 1922 in Berehovo, Czechoslovakia to Maurice and Frieda Moskovitz Kesztenbaum. She had a brother, Erno, who was seven years older and her sister, Blanca, was four years older. “We had a beautiful family life with my aunts and uncles and grandmothers and cousins and loving parents, a normal life in a beautiful home. We lived together with my grandmother, my mother’s mother, Katherine (Kathy) Winkler; and, in Europe, grandmother was the queen of the family.”
Maurice was in the hardware business and was a tax man, renting machines for working in the fields. Frieda stayed at home; “Being a housewife and a mother in Europe was an occupation, a full-time job. It’s not like you can run out and buy things; everything had to be homemade.”
Olga was 14-years-old when the Czechs lost the war. “As Hitler came closer, Jewish girls couldn’t go to school anymore. So, I stayed home for four years without going to school and was having a good time. There was always anti-Semitism, but it was pushed aside. So, I could just be a girl who had no school and I had to be home by 8 o’clock. I went to the swimming pool and all the young girls went…. There I saw my future husband, Ernest (Ernie, Poffi) Adler, for the first time when I was 14-years-old. He was a lieutenant in the Czech army and he was home on leave. From that moment on, I couldn’t think of anybody else but my handsome young guy who I saw in the city.”
When Olga was about 19½, the situation worsened. “We decided that this is no life. That it was not going to be good. That I should go away from my small city because I can’t be locked in the room all the time and they would find me anyway. I didn’t look Semitic, so my parents sent me to Budapest, a big city, where you could get lost. I got some money from home but I had to find a job. First, I went to a shop, named Nagoly(?), where they taught people how to sew and cut clothes because you didn’t buy ready-made clothes there, you had to order them from private salons. They said to me, ‘Why would you use up all your life and all your things to learn how to sew? You have a model’s body, why don’t you go to those salons and ask for a job.’ I went and, right away, they hired me as a model. I had to stand there like a dummy, trying the dresses on me and when the customers came, I could show how the dress looks.” After a year or two, the owner of the salon, who worked with his wife, his son, and his daughter, “took a fancy to me and wanted me to do more than being a model. First, he wanted me to take his son to be my boyfriend and leave his girlfriend who worked in the sewing room. When I refused, he waited a few more weeks and he said, ‘If you don’t want him then I want you to be with me.’ So, I went to his wife, crying, and told her I have to leave. And she understood.”
Olga was then hired by another salon, Couture Parisienne and worked there for a while. “When the Germans came, everybody who was Jewish had to wear a yellow star. They were so nice, those French people, they told me to just put your purse on your shoulder and cover it up. Later on, I couldn’t work anymore because the Germans moved everything that might hide your yellow star…. When I was working in the salon, two young men were always hanging around there and after I had left already, I asked their names. Kamil (last name unknown) and Erdant Fallegy became really very good friends of mine…. Erdant found out he was Jewish and ended up being shot into the Danube…. Kamil had a Jewish aunt, Rose Geiger, whose husband, Hugo Geiger, wasn’t Jewish and killed himself because he did not want to see Rose harmed. Rose had no children, just nephews, and was alone. She took me in right away. She was like my mother. She was a lovely woman, wealthy. They had an apartment in the city and a gorgeous home on the outskirts.”
After Szálasi came into power in Hungary in October, 1944, Olga and the other Jewish people were taken to forced labor camps. “They had no wagons anymore; so, we had to go by foot and carry rucksacks with maybe three pounds of something on our backs. Look at how disfigured my foot is; I walked almost a whole country barefoot…. We went to the other side of the Danube and had to go out every day and dig trenches around Budapest, so that the attacking tanks would fall into the trenches…. I met two girls there who were from Budapest and I became friendly with them. Olga was a piano teacher and the other one had a very nice store. They decided that we are going to elope. They had friends who are not Jewish and somehow, we will be able to survive. But, as we walked, a peasant came and saw us three girls and turned us in to the authorities….
“That was the most terrible thing that any human being can go through. All three of us were caught and put into a stall where the horses used to be. One of the officials was sitting at a desk in the stall and they interviewed us. They sent the two other girls out of the stall…. It was on a Sunday; the church bells were ringing in the little Hungarian village and on both sides were hundreds of Jewish women. Two graves were dug and the two girls kneeled there and were shot in there…. I was still sitting in the horse stall and all of a sudden, I heard the gunshots. Then I told myself that since I am going to be killed anyways, I will just ask, ‘What were those shots… they shot those girls?’ He said, ‘No they are shooting some birds.’ A few minutes later, he told me to stand up and questioned me. I said, ‘I don’t have any family in Budapest. I am from the country. And I just went there with those girls because they had families there.’”
Olga happened to be wearing a shirt that her father wore in the First World War and that she had embroidered to make it more feminine. “I went outside and there was the hole and the two girls shot, half in the hole, half out. I was taking off my shirt and I looked back and thought to myself, ‘It wasn’t even so bad that they shot me.’ I thought I was dead already, they shot me. And I saw something running, a skull on the head with a paper, running. And before he pulled the trigger, a soldier came and gave the paper to the man who had the gun. In the paper was ‘for that and for that reason, we are going to forgive this girl.’ And then he said, ‘Take the shirt and give it to people who were bombed down in the city’….
“When I left Budapest, the pictures of me as a model were the only things that I took with me. I don’t know why. I just loved those pictures and I had them in my shirt. They fell out of my shirt and I wanted to bend down and pick them up, but he pushed me with his bayonet and picked up the pictures.… I was standing in the middle of the two lanes. And then I thought to myself that I can open my mouth, what can they do to me anyway. Because he was close, because he took every tenth Jew from the lane, I said, ‘Now I know why you didn’t shoot me there. You wanted to shoot me here?’ He said, ‘No, go into the schoolroom.’
“So, I went to the schoolroom and I sat there for a little while. And then he came in and he started talking to me and I told him, ‘Yeah, I know why you put me there to see what’s happening to me and you brought me in here to tell me that.’ He said, ‘No, but I want you to sign this picture.’ He took one of my pictures. I signed this picture, ‘Thank you for saving my life.’ And then he said, ‘I will put this away. At the end of the war, I will be able to tell them that I wasn’t killing. That I was saving lives.’ And he kissed my mouth and it was terrible. But this guy helped me all the way. He never touched me. When we were standing in line, hundreds of us, he always took me out of the lane so that I shouldn’t be the tenth of them to be killed…. And I will never forget, he brought me an apple. You know what an apple was there? It was unbelievable. Hundreds of us were standing in line and he took me and pushed the apple into my hand…. And he thought that the paper that I signed would be very good for saving his life.
“Then we started walking and walking and walking. No more trains to take us so we had to start walking by foot. We went through a village and people shut their doors; but as I was standing in the lane, a young girl ran out and gave me a piece of bread in my hand. I will never forget that. I would think about her, what happened to her that she made such a wonderful… she didn’t know me because it just happened that I was there….
“When we stopped at a horse farm, I took my shoes off just over night. The next morning when we had to continue going farther and farther, I couldn’t put my shoes on because my foot was so swollen. I shouldn’t have taken off my shoes, I didn’t know. At the gate where we were supposed to leave, I had my shoes in my hand. There was a high official who was a German or Hungarian, kind of a middle-aged man, a little bit on the fat side, and I told him that I can’t put shoes on and my foot is swollen. So, he looked at me and he said, ‘Go back and wash your feet.’ And that’s how I went back from the gate and wasn’t taken to the German border…. He never did anything; he was just very good…. Everybody was sick with typhus. So, he told me, ‘I give you a paper. Go into one of those peasant’s house and ask them to take you and give you a bath. And stay here and every day when the new transport comes in, you will help me take off the old Jewish men and women they were sending to the camps.’”
“So, I lived through the war. I don’t even remember how it was. I remember when I close my eyes and I go through it, but putting it into words, it’s very hard because it was just unbelievable cruelty, unbelievable.
Olga was in many different places and then went back to Budapest. “They had designated places where they put the Jews. Then they started bombing the city. Budapest was a shamble. We were in a basement without a toilet, without food, without facilities or anything, in a basement with the walls shaking from the bombs. After the bombing stopped, we had to go up from the basement and take the dead people out and look at them and go through their pockets for their papers to know who they were. I can’t even talk about it because it was so horrible…. When the war was over, there was no food. People were cutting dead horses and cooking in the street because there was no electricity. People were standing in the street or sitting with the little things that they could sell; even a needle to sew with. It’s indescribable what a bomb can do…. The Danube was in the middle and the other side was Buda; that was a little bit better, but you couldn’t go there because the bridges were bombed down.
“After the war, I stayed in Budapest because I met somebody in Budapest. He was a lovely, lovely gentleman, very nice, very handsome. Right away he said this is the girl because I addressed him by his name, not like the other girls who addressed him like a brother and he did not like it because he was no brother. So, he was with me whenever possible…. But then somebody came from my hometown and recognized me and said that Ernie came back and is at home. And then I went home.
“My family, nobody survived. Nobody in my family came back. Nobody…. I found out because people who came back went to Budapest and signed their name at a temple or other building. I went there every day. I didn’t find any names. So, nobody came back. Not my sister. Not my brother. Not my parents. Not my beautiful grandmother. Nobody came back. But thank god I found my husband.”
Olga and Ernest Adler moved to Prague and had a daughter, Judith (Scheinfield). They came to America in 1948 and had a second daughter, Vivian (Sanfield). “And now I have a beautiful second family.”
Olga wants people to know her story “Because I didn’t want to repeat it. They asked me to write it and I didn’t want to write it. I somehow didn’t want to remember. But that’s wrong, I should have written down because you forget lots of things. But I just wanted to put it out of my head. I had enough worry that nobody else came back and I had nobody to talk to about old times. I never had anybody who would know my sister or my brother or my father or my mother and I had wonderful parents and a beautiful home life. And my grandmother was such a lady. And my mother’s sister lived next door and they got together every afternoon. It was just lovely.”
She tells the younger generation to “Enjoy life and think about the future. That’s all. Be sure that you keep your family. Don’t fight, talk it over. Talking is the best medicine. You keep something in yourself, it grows. If you talk it out it, it somehow smooths out.”
Date of Interview: August 2, 2019
Length of Interview: 65 minutes
Interview & Synopsis by: Zieva Konvisser
Videographer: Mark Einhaus