Havas, Ilona Fischer
Sajopetri, Diósgy?r Ghetto, Budapest, Miskolc, Hungary; Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Markkleeberg, Theresienstadt, Mauthausen
Ilona Fischer Havas was born in Sajopetri, Hungary on October 17, 1927 to Jozsef Fischer and Borbala Szasz Fischer. She had an older sister Piroska and a younger sister Magda. “We had a very, very nice family. Close family…. We had a hardware store…. We were not Orthodox, but religious. My mother kept a kosher home and father went to the shul.”
Ilona attended Jewish school and public school, where there were Jewish and non-Jewish children and where she felt anti-Semitism. “My parents told me just ignore it. I was trying to ignore it. But, I remember, just like it happened yesterday, when I was in school one day and we were outside playing, a young girl said to me ‘Well, you filthy Jew. Why don’t you go to Palestine?’ I said to her, ‘Leave me alone. I don’t bother anyone. I don’t want you to bother me too. Because I’m just Jewish. I am a nice person just like you are.’ She didn’t leave me alone. I got angry and we had a fight, a big fight. I pulled her hair. She pulled my hair and then she beat me up. And then she had the nerve to go to the teacher and told him I beat her up. The teacher asked me what happened and I told him. The teacher then told the other girl, ‘You didn’t tell me you called her filthy Jew? I don’t want that to happen again. No matter what, Jewish or non-Jewish, we are all human-beings and be nice to each other.’”
The Fischers did not talk about leaving Hungary. “We had family, grandparents, great-grandparents there. They were older and we never thought about that. We had a happy life there before Hitler…. We children didn’t know too much. My mother used to talk to her parents in Yiddish or German because she didn’t want us to hear what was going on. We were young and they didn’t want us to be sad or cry…. But I remember my mother told me, ‘If you have to leave for somewhere, you and Piroska, you are going to be together.’ She knew what was going on, but she didn’t want to tell us. And I am thinking about it now, how could she know we were going to be together? Because we were together actually” … in the beginning.
From April to June 1944, the family was in the Diósgy?r Ghetto, not far from Sajopetri. Jozsef was in the ghetto with them, but the Nazis soon took the15-45-year-old men out from the ghetto and sent them away for hard labor. Jozsef was in Mauthausen Concentration Camp, but “We didn’t know what happened with father. And my father didn’t know where we were or what happened.”
Ilona cannot forget the atrocities that happened. “When we had roll call in the ghetto, we had to sit on the ground. I don’t know how many, a thousand people or better. I was sitting on the ground with my mother and the family, and next to me was a 60-something-year old woman, a nice lady. Her 24-year-old son was sitting next to her. A Nazi came into the ghetto and, on purpose, stepped on her hand that was resting on the ground. Her son jumped up and said, ‘How dare you do this to my mother. My mother, she never killed a fly. You son-of- a….’ He was very upset and they started fighting. The Nazi shot him, the young man. And the mother had to look at that. I will never, never forget that. I still see it. That poor mother…. I wish I could forget the whole thing. I wish I could take a pill and forget what happened. But, that’s impossible.”
Then, as they were being taken from the ghetto to the train station to board the boxcar for Auschwitz, Ilona’s 82-year-old great-grandmother was brutally murdered. “She was a very religious woman. She was a nice, nice woman. I loved her dearly…. One of the Nazis with big dogs said to my great-grandmother, ‘Hurry, hurry, you old, old dirty woman!’ And my great-grandmother said to him, she spoke German, ‘I am an 82-year-old woman, I can’t run. I’m sorry. I try my best.’ She had to apologize. The Nazi said, ‘Well, it’s an old lady and not even worth taking anywhere,’ and he shot her in front of the family’s eyes…. I remember that when I went on the train and looked back, I saw my great-grandmother laying there full of blood, blood all over. We were numb, completely numb. My whole family, my mother, my grandmother, and everybody. My great-grandmother’s son, my uncle, had a prayer book in his pocket. He took it out and was saying Kaddish.”
They arrived in Auschwitz on June 13, 1944. “Mengele asked my mother how old I am and my mother told him I’m 14. So, he separated us. My mother and my younger sister right away went to the gas chamber and I was with my sister Piroska, who was five years older than me. I asked my sister, ‘How come my mother said I’m 14, because I am 16?’ She said, ‘Probably she was lying to Mengele because she wants you to stay with her.’ She thought if she says I’m 14, Mengele would let me go with her. Whoever thought, it was a miracle, the whole thing. Usually a 14-year-old would go to the gas chamber. But, Mengele said, ‘You go to the working place.’
“When we arrived in Auschwitz, it was horrible, horrible. They took us to a big, huge, huge building and we saw a lot of young girls already sitting there, cutting their hair all off. When we were all done, I didn’t recognize my sister and she didn’t recognize me either, with the bald hair and no dress. They took away our dresses from home and gave us clothes from the people who already were dead. I was size 5, and they gave me a dress, size 20. You can imagine how we looked…. Then we were working very, very hard. We built a barrack and we had to carry a brick, heavy, heavy, brick. No food; the food was horrible, horrible. Every morning we had to get up at 4:00, 3:00. They counted everybody, and if people were missing, it was horrible.
“I was with my sister for two months and we were always holding each other’s hands. We were always worried that Mengele would make a selection and separate us. We were always together. Then one day, Mengele made a selection and separated us and I was running after her. And he beat me so much. First, I felt my left eye go out, and then a couple of minutes later I fainted. I didn’t know what happened. Somebody took me back to the barrack. About two days later, I woke up, naked, full of blood, and I was looking for my sister. Then I realized what happened. So, I was there all by myself in Auschwitz.
“I was in Auschwitz three months. Again, a selection. We left Auschwitz about the first day of Rosh Hashanah, September 18, 1944, to Bergen-Belsen. I was in Bergen-Belsen about three months, and I spent my 17th birthday there. Especially that day was like a nightmare, even now. We had a barrack built not from brick, but built from canvas. Somebody cut out a piece of canvas, and the Oberscharführer said, ‘Everybody has to come out from the barrack and stay in line. Somebody cut out a piece of canvas, and the person who did it, you have to come out from the line and tell me who did it.’ Nobody said anything of course. And he said, ‘Okay, nobody wants to say who did it? Then we are going to have this gun and every ten of you, I’m going to shoot you, if nobody can say that.’ So, we were scared. He was counting, one-two-three-four-five-ten. Who was going to be the next ten? It was raining and cold, and finally we were out about 12 hours. No food, nothing all day. I remember they even brought food in the horse and buggy and an Oberscharführer said, ‘No food for these people.’ About 9:00 at night, we were waiting for who is going to be the ten who die tonight? Then, he said, ‘Go back to the barrack.’ I never forget that day.
“People were dying, and starving, and we had to work hard. Every morning we had to get up at 3:00, 4:00, standing for hours and hours outside. We were freezing, and cold, and hungry. Bergen-Belsen was a horrible place. People had typhus and were dying every minute; and the people who were very sick were taken to the gas chamber. This was our life over there. It’s impossible to tell and impossible to write a book what happened over there with us.
“After Bergen-Belsen, around December, they took us to Markkleeberg Airplane Factory. We had to work very, very hard. The Oberscharführer was a monster. We had to stay in the line when they were counting us and he always picked out somebody from the line and beat the person until the person was bleeding. One day, he asked me, ‘How old are you?’ I didn’t speak German, so the girl next to me spoke German and said, ‘The Oberscharführer asks you how old are you?’ I said 16. He took out a paper and a pen from his pocket and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m the next one who he’s going to beat or kill.’ Instead, he said, ‘Go give this paper to the kitchen and they are going to give you some food.’ Everybody was numb. He was a monster and he was so nice to me. So, I went to the kitchen and I had food. It was amazing. It was a miracle.
“Then we were working very hard, shoveling the hard ground. We had no coat. No socks. No underwear. Freezing. We had a Nazi over there who was watching us, hurry, hurry working. One day, we had to go to work in the airplane factory. That was horrible too. We had to work from 6:00 in the morning to 6:00 at night, standing on my feet all day long.
“The Nazi lady, who was watching over how we were working made us go fast, fast, fast, faster. One day, I had to cut very heavy paper all day long. I saw my bones bleeding and I had to do it. No bandage. Nothing at all. I showed it to her, ‘I’m bleeding. I can’t do it.’ She said, ‘I don’t care. You have to do it! Do it!’ So, I had to do it. And I was bleeding every day. That finger is still crooked.”
On another day, no one would admit to stealing Ilona’s piece of bread that she was saving “for tomorrow. In case they don’t give us food or nothing.… Although the Nazi woman in charge was a monster too, she cut a tiny, a very tiny slice, piece of bread and then she put it together for me, the bread. And she gave it to me, the bread. So, it was nice of her, yeah.”
Finally, as the Americans were approaching, the women were forced to leave Markkleeberg and walk 16 days and 16 nights to Theresienstadt. “We had a horrible, horrible time. People were dying on the road; and whoever wasn’t able to walk anymore, they shot us right away. We were walking and sleeping and dreaming about home and the family. Finally, we arrived in Theresienstadt and we were liberated May 8, 1945 by the Russians.”
Ilona had typhus and almost died. “I had 104 temperature, and they weren’t able to take me to the hospital, because the hospital was full of rich peoples. So, we were laying on the floor and a nurse came to the barrack and gave us medicine and was trying to feed us. After six weeks I got better. I was stronger. And then they told us, everybody can go home. Now, I thought, now comes the hard part… who is going to be home?”
In Budapest, the Jewish Family Service was waiting and took them to the hospital. “I was sleeping in a bed; pillows and blanket. After I ate, sleeping in a bed was like heaven. We took a shower and everything. And then they gave me some money for the train to go home.
“When I got off the train, I saw a man who was my neighbor. A non-Jew person, a nice person. I looked at him and he looked at me and he didn’t say anything, just shook his head, that meant nobody is home…. So, you can imagine. I arrive at home and only the cat was waiting for me. The cat recognized me; and the cat was skin and bones. The neighbor told me they were trying to feed him but he wouldn’t eat. So, I picked up the cat and I said to myself, ‘That’s all you have…. and I don’t want to live any more… I don’t have anybody. I want to kill myself.’
“My mother’s helper, who cleaned our house, heard I was home. She was a very nice lady and she said to me, ‘Well, so far nobody is home. But, don’t worry, just come to my house and I’ll give you food. You can stay with me forever or however long you want.’ Since I don’t want to go into the empty house, I stayed with her…. Then I heard my family doctor is back and he’s practicing. So, I went to see him. He knows my family. I told him, ‘Doctor, I don’t come here to make me feel better or healthier. I just want to die and give me a pill. I don’t want to live.’ He took his time with me and said, ‘What are you talking about? You are 17-years old. Your whole life is ahead of you. You’re young. You survived the hell and now you want to die?’ I said, ‘Yeah, definitely.’ And he said to me, ‘Not too far from here, there is Lillafüred Sanitarium. A lot of young Jewish girls stay there. It’s designed to help the young people get better. I want you to go there for three weeks and maybe in three weeks somebody will come home.’ So, I said, ‘Okay, three weeks. If you promise that if nobody comes home for me in three weeks, then you will give me the pill.’ He said, ‘Just go, go.’
“I went on a Sunday morning. A beautiful place. I was crying and crying…. Sunday night, about 9:00, somebody knocked on the door. A nurse came in and said, ‘Somebody is looking for you, Ilona Fischer.’ I said, ‘My God, who comes looking for me at night and whoever knows I’m here?’ So, I look out down the hall and see my neighbor’s son. He said to me, ‘Ilona, come home. Your father is home.’ Home was about 40 kilometers from the sanitarium. So, I said to him, ‘Okay, let’s go.’ He said, ‘What are you talking about? It’s 40 kilometers.’ I said, ‘Well, not so long ago I made 16 days, and now I can’t walk? I can!’ And he said, ‘Well there’s no transportation.’ So, I said, ‘I don’t care. Let’s go and walk.’
“So, we walked all night long. We started at 9:00 at night and I got to see my father about 9:00 in the morning. I saw my father… if I see him on the street, I wouldn’t recognize him. And he didn’t recognize me either…. He asked me, ‘Where is the rest of the family?’ I told him, ‘My mother and my younger had to go to the gas chamber right away. But, we have a chance maybe for my older sister to come because she didn’t go to the gas chamber.’ And I thought she’s somewhere, some lager, the camp. We talked about her coming back, but she never came back…. So, then, we had to go to the house. We have to stay somewhere. And slowly, my father went to the furniture store. He bought a bed. He bought a stove. And slowly, we were trying to live as much as you can…. My father never, never asked any more what happened really. I never talked about the camp again with my father.”
A couple years later, Jozsef married a very nice lady. She was also a Holocaust survivor…. In 1949, Ilona married Barna Groszman Havas in Miskolc, Hungary and in 1950, their daughter Edie Havas Rome was born.
“A lot of things, it’s impossible to remember what happened. But, it’s here with me after so many years, I’m still suffering. I can’t sleep. When I’m going to bed, I don’t want to think about it because it’s always there. When I wake up, if I sleep a little, it’s always there… Always I close my eyes and I am looking for the faces.”
Ilona doesn’t know where she got the strength to survive. “That’s a miracle I am here. But thank God now, I have a wonderful daughter and son-in-law, and two wonderful granddaughters and four wonderful, beautiful great-grandchildren. I never, ever thought I am going to live for 90 years and I thank God I have a nice family. But still, I still have the pain. Something you can’t forget, what the Nazis did to us. Why? Just because we were Jewish, that’s all.”
On her 90th birthday, Ilona finally shared the unspeakable with one of her granddaughters. “We had a neighbor, a Jewish family, neighbors. Wonderful, very nice people. They had an 18-year-old son and he was in Auschwitz too. When he arrived, the Germans, the Nazis, picked out strong, young Jewish men to work in the gas chamber. He had to throw the poison in the window and he had to wait 20-minutes until everybody died…. He recognized my mother and my sister. And he was miserable because he knew my mother and he, himself, pulled my mother to the oven and my sister. He was saying Kaddish…. I never was able to talk about this. I never told my father. I never told nobody. So, that was unspeakable. How can you forget that?”
A book has been written about Markkleeberg – “Snow Flowers: Hungarian Jewish Women in an Airplane Factory, Markkleeberg, Germany” by Zahava Szasz Stessel.
Date of Interview: February 7, 2018
Length of Interview: 54 minutes
Interview & Synopsis by: Zieva Konvisser
Videographer: Mark Einhaus