Adler, Sandor (Alexandru)
Maramos Sighet (Romania), Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Flossenburg, Oberwustiegersdorf, Death March
2003 oral history summary
Sandor Adler was born in Maramaros Sighet, Romania in 1929. Adler and his family lived in relative peace in Romania until 1940 when Hungary began occupying the region in which Adler’s family lived. Once Maramaros Sighet was occupied, all the city’s Jews were rounded up and placed into a ghetto in April 1944. From there, the fourteen-year-old Adler was transported with his family by cattle train to Auschwitz-Birkenau. There the men and women were immediately separated into lines by the German soldiers to be put into the gas chambers. Adler lost his mother and sister, but he remained with his father. Adler and his father were then forced into a gas chamber; however, the gas chamber miraculously malfunctioned. Adler and his father were then transported with hundreds of others to Oberwuestiegersdorf, Germany to be placed into a work camp. There, Adler and his father worked by unloading sand, cement, and railroad supplies at the railroad track.
One day while unloading railroad tracks Adler’s father severely injured his leg, making him unable to work. Afterward Adler’s father was dragged off by German soldiers, and Adler never again saw his father. In January 1945, upon hearing news that the Allies were closing in on the area, the German officers forced all the prisoners to march. During this very chaotic period, Adler was forced to move from camp to camp, including Buchenwald and Flossenburg. On one death march from Flossenburg to Theresienstadt in April 1945, the German officers heard word that American troops were on the road, and they fled leaving the prisoners behind in German farmland.
Adler and 56 others sought refuge at a nearby farm, but Adler was so malnourished at this point that he could no longer hold in any food. Unfortunately, the SS officers soon returned to this area in order to round up and shoot the surviving prisoners. Adler was one of only a few in the group to flee death. Adler then escaped to a nearby German city where he was placed into a Catholic hospital for medical care. Adler’s stomach was operated on (unbeknownst to him by a former high-ranking Nazi doctor who was later imprisoned for his crimes), and he remained in the care of Catholic nuns for seven months until he was fully recuperated.
Date: August 2003
Format: DVD Recording
2022 interview and oral history summary
Alexandru (Sandor) Adler was born in Sighet, Romania on September 9, 1929, to Isaac and Ester (Esther) Kepes Adler. His sister, Fanny, was two years younger.
Isaac had a horse-drawn coach transport business. “My father’s family lived within walking distance – my grandmother, Gisa Wiesel Adler, my grandfather, Farkas Adler, my father’s sister and two brothers lived in Sighet. My grandmother and Elie Wiesel’s father were sister and brother…. Sometimes my uncle, my father’s younger brother, would take me to the beach because Sighet is in the middle of two big rivers, Iza and Tisza.
“My mother is a country girl and was born about 12 kilometers from Sighet in Sanapotek which is in the countryside (they were the only Jewish family in that county). I think she had a brother and two sisters. They were very well to do and had a grocery store and a bar for dancing. A big hall. And the whole county come there every weekend and I was watching them dancing in the summer when the school was out.
“We lived on the outskirts of the city. It was a very nice single house and my neighbors were all Gentile and I got along fine…. I had a childhood. Whatever it was it was. And I’m happy whatever it was, it was not bad…. School was mandatory in Romania and everybody had to go for four years. So, I went to public school in Romania.
“In 1940 when the war started, Hungary took away the state Maramaros. It was a very rich state. It had agriculture and a lot of lumber. Then I went to Hungarian school. Of course, it’s different.… They changed my name from Alexandru to Sandor. They had different teachers, Hungarian, and we started learning Hungarian…. In 1942, they didn’t let the Jews go to school anymore.
“I was a kid and went to synagogue whenever they took me, but did not have my Bar Mitzvah in 1942…. We were not experiencing any problems. I didn’t have any experience of antisemitism. I did not know anything about it even after the Hungarians came. My parents didn’t talk in front of us and, for some reason or another, I did not have too much communication with anybody.
“We didn’t know really what was going on in the war until April 23, 1945, when we saw American and British planes flying like birds to the Russian front. Thousands of them passed by us. Then, the regular German army, the Wehrmacht, came and stayed in our city until they left for the Russian front. So, each house had to take in German soldiers. At my house, the four of us stayed in our bedroom and the rest of the house was for the German army. There were two soldiers, but they were very nice.
“One day, it must have been in May, the Hungarian gendarmes came to the house and said, ‘You have got 15 minutes to take whatever you can wear and get out of the house.’ No why, they didn’t say anything…. I just took what I had on. That’s it…. I also had rabbits and pigeons and when they told us to get out, I went to our shack and I opened up the rabbits’ cages and said, ‘Guys get out.’ They looked at me and didn’t want to go. I said, ‘Get out, you are free. You are free. Go wherever you want.’ And that’s it and then I left them there with the door open. That was pretty sad for me.
“Then they took us to a ghetto, not far, walking distance. We had one house which happened to be where my grandmother lived and where some relatives lived. We couldn’t go out. No barbed wire, but there were the Hungarian gendarmes They were very nasty. Something worse than the SS.
“We didn’t stay long in the ghetto, maybe a month at the most. Then they took us out from the ghetto and they took us to a big temple, also walking distance. The gendarmes took away from the women their rings, every gold, every jewelry they had. And the men, whatever they had valuable they took away…. There were quite a few thousand people, I guess. After the war. I learned this was the second shipment from Sighet.
“We waited there until the train was ready. They marched us to the train and we all went into one car, one boxcar. We went in, all of the family – my grandmother, my aunt, and my parents, and my sister. But my two uncles were in the Hungarian brigade on the front so they were not with us. My grandfather was already old. So, they did not take him. The Hungarians must have killed him there after we left.
“We went into the train and they closed the train. The Hungarians took us as far as the border line, probably to Germany. And then the SS and German guards took over the whole train.… We didn’t know where we were going. We didn’t know why they took us. And everybody asked why, why, why, why… There was no answer. This is it.
“I cannot tell you how long it took. But we were going many, many days, a long ride. The train stopped to take out the waste buckets, but there was no food. Nothing…. Then, the train stopped right in front of the gate to Auschwitz…. They came and hollered, ‘Get out! Get out! Leave everything there. Don’t take anything with you.’ There was a lot of commotion. There was a lot of noise. And we were scared. We were kids, we didn’t know what happened. It was terrible, terrible.
“My aunt, my father’s sister had a crippled leg and she was limping. So, I helped her to get out of the train. And she said to me, ‘I know you are strong and you are the oldest of the children and I know that you are going to survive.’ Then she told me that they dug big holes behind the stove in my grandmother’s house and they put jewelry, gold, their money in there and they covered it. And she told me where it is. ‘When you get out from here, you go home and you dig and there you will see that whole thing is in there.’ That’s all she said…. Then, they separated the women and the children and that is the last time I saw my sister, my mother, my aunt, and my grandmother.
“I was pretty strong and so I went by my father and they didn’t ask me anything. They took us into a big hall, took off all our clothes, and we went right into the gas chamber. I did not know this. I did not know what was going on at Auschwitz. We did not know. And we went in and they packed us in just like sardines. So tight. And we didn’t know. It’s supposed to be a shower they said. And it never happened…. For some reason the doors opened and they let us out.
“They right away gave us the striped uniform, the special uniform in concentration camps. And we went right away on the train and came into Oberwustiegersdorf. That camp was made for the people that were on the transport. There were round huts made from cardboard or something that can stand the rain and for each one there was like 20 people. And on the floor was straw and we slept on the floor. And then we just sat and waited. We didn’t know what’s going on.
“Then they came and took 50 of us, including me and my father, to the Außenkommando, a subcamp in Germany, a working camp where we unloaded cement, sand, railroad tracks, reinforcing wires. And that’s all we know. We found out later that the rest of the people were building a factory in the bunker in the mountains. They were building a factory in 1944, mind you, when they know already the war is finished.
“We worked 7 days a week, May, June, July, August, September, October…. We got food once a day. In the morning was just a little coffee like water; outside, we grabbed another coffee, hot. And that was it for breakfast. No lunch. No nothing. At night they gave us a piece of bread and some kind of a soup. That’s the rations…. Then we went back and we slept on the floor…. In the morning they called out Außenkommando and that was us. And we walked out from the camp to the railroad. The guards were all German soldiers. They were not bad but we didn’t see any guards because the railroad is pretty big. But outside the railroad the guards were standing.
“There were three kids – two more brothers and me. We were the youngest. I went to stand by the big train and they put 50 kilos of cement on my back and I walked to the warehouse and dropped it in there. And then sometimes I walked and unloaded other stuff, wires for the cement. I unloaded also sand.
“One day, it was warm already, summer, a guy from Sighet who knows who we are. says, ‘I think your father got hurt.’ My father was on the other end of the railroad and I ran out and I saw from far away they were bringing my father. I saw his leg was wrapped around with papers or whatever they had. There was no hospital in the camp. So, they took him away from the camp…. The foreman was a German and didn’t let me go to my father. And that’s the last time I saw my father.
“I was alone, 14 maybe, going on 15. Day after day, after day, doing the same thing. When the winter came, it was starting to get cold. They put together two big, wood barracks for all of us, with wooden bunks…. I was alone. There was nobody take care of me. But I had my God and he took care of me. And I have my guardian angel. That’s what I believe. And I guess he pushed me. I saw many times he did what he needed to do.
“Just before they were talking about liquidating the Außenkommando, they brought in the Polish Jews from the Lodzer (Lodz) Ghetto. There was no room for these people. So, it was pretty crowded. And they were sleeping on the floors outside…. And when all those people came, the SS came as guards. So, of course, there was shooting and killing because they didn’t do what all what Wehrmacht did.
“We started figuring out they are going to liquidate the camp and we were going on a train. But during the day, the American airplane bombed the train and knocked out the engine. They thought it was a trainload of soldiers because they saw the guard. So, we ran out of the train and then they collected us and we started walking from Oberwustiegersdorf. Now I know they called it the Death March. Whoever fell down, they stayed there. That’s it. No food. No water. Nothing. We were marching and we came into Buchenwald which was in Germany.
“Buchenwald is another story. There was a big concentration camp. It was all SS there. There was shooting, killing and hanging. I was a kid and I had no idea what’s happening, where I am, what’s going on. I don’t talk. I don’t say anything. We stayed there for a while until they liquidated that camp because the front was coming closer…. They called out the Jews on one side and on the other side the Aryans – gentiles who were criminals, homosexuals, or people against the German government…. Then they said, ‘Jews come on.’ So, I’m standing there and I was the only kid. I’m looking around at hundreds of people standing in line. It’s daylight and it’s already winter time, somewhere between December and January or February.
“I’m standing there and the camp commander, a big Nazi officer, came and grabbed me by my neck, kicked me in my behind, and said, ‘Du bist keine Jude,’ you are not a Jew. I didn’t know what he was talking about. But there was a big pile of civilian clothes and I went and grabbed a big coat. There’s nobody around there just me and them standing there waiting to get out. Now when the commander was not looking, they started walking out. The Jews first. When they started walking, I ran behind and somehow, I made it out of the camp.
“Maybe a thousand people walking until we came to another camp in Germany, Flossenburg, the factory where they made the German Messerschmitt fighter planes. There were so many people, we did not go in the lager. I was in a huge hall with the body of the Messerschmitt, the body of the plane without the wings. So, I laid in the body, in the hole, and it was good, until they came and said you got to go. No food. No nothing. I don’t know how I did it but I survived I guess somehow.
“And we were there for a while. And then they shipped us out from there. Again, we could not take the train because the minute we were on the train the Americans and English bombed the engine of the train…. And so, after they collected us again, we started walking toward Theresienstadt. We walked during the night; during the day we laid down and rested. We went by cities and barns and we got us a little food from people.…
“We marched like this for weeks. By that time, there were left 52 or 53 of us. And behind was going the SS, maybe 15 or 20 of them. They were running away too. And we were pushing their equipment in their wagon…. We were in the woods and a farmer came running up and told the SS that the American tanks are going on the road. So, all the SS ran away, but two SS came back and whoever they can catch they shot them dead. Later on, they caught those two SS.
“We ran down to the farmhouse to get food. I ate, but the minute I took some I’d throw up. I was already sick; I could not eat the food. Next day, two guys took me on a wagon and into Cham, a small German town surrounded by farmland. They brought me to the hospital, Christ Krankenhaus, that was across from the biggest Catholic church in that city, and was run by nuns…. They operated from the bottom to my belly button; they opened me up and they cut away my colon that was all rotten.
“I was lying on the bed. A nun opened my eyes to see if I’m alive. When she opened my eyes, I cried. I remember that. I was crying, and I saw the doctor standing in front of me. He was a handsome man; he was about six foot something….
“They took me in a room, a very nice room and I had a big statue of Jesus over me. He watched over me. And the Catholic nuns took care of me and got me where I am now…. Every night, the head nun came and was praying and reading the Bible and she sprayed the holy water on me and made the sign of the cross. And of course, the Christian father, it was fine. It was good at that point.
“The doctor came every morning. My name is Adler. Adler in German is the big eagle, the black eagle, the bird. So, he came in every morning and flapped his arms like an eagle’s wings, ‘How is the Adler doing?’ … One morning I see the doctor didn’t show up. Two days, three days. So, I asked the head nun, ‘Where’s the doctor?’ She said, ‘They arrested the doctor.’ He was a big Nazi doctor. He was a big officer in the SS. He was a big, big-ranked doctor. So, he had a cyanide capsule and he killed himself. He is not alive anymore. They would have killed him anyway…. But he did a good job. I’m here.
“I was there in the hospital for almost a year until I start gaining weight and until I was able to get up or sit down. When I left there, I was hardly able to walk. Mind you, maybe I was 15-16 years at that time and I walked with a cane…. Now, where did I go? There was no DP camp there. So, I walked out and they gave me a room in a German house as a boarder. I was with Abraham Feldmaus, who also was liberated. He was about 2 years older than me, but he was healthy.
“All the Germans got ration cards for bread, for clothes, for shoes, glasses. So, I registered. They took me to the city hall and they took a picture of me and I got the kenncarte document, like all the Germans. I got double coupons for everything because I was under 18…. I was there. They had to take care of me…. I didn’t do anything. I’m lucky I could get up and go outside…. We had a lot of stuff that we used to get from the GI’s and we sold it to the Germans on the black market. So, we had money to go to town to buy something.
“I believe a year after that, the Polish Jews who ran away to Russia when the war started in 1940, came to Germany to DP camps where I guess the German military had been. And there were schools and they gave them food. They had everything there. The Joint Distribution Committee from the United States, the Joint, used to bring clothes…. I lived in town and had nothing to do with the camp. But about 200 Jewish people from Russia came to us in that little town and they lived in a hotel that had housed American soldiers. The chef in the kitchen in that hotel came from Sighet and was liberated with me. So, I used to get some food there. And it was nice there.
“But otherwise, it was horrible. It was terrible. Nothing was moving. No trains. Nothing. Everything was crumbled…. So, we lived there and then we tried to go to Israel a few times. The older Polish Jews were Zionists and they made right away all the young of us to want to go to Israel. They called it Aliyah Bet. The transport there was organized. They had younger guys and they were taking you on bus and trucks to the border, to Marseille on the Mediterranean…. But the English soldiers were watching and they brought us back.
“In 1947 or 1948, I went back to Sighet from Cham. I was sleeping on the train and the train didn’t move maybe a couple times a week. Like hitchhiking with a train. Then, all the borders were still opened so I was on the train from the American zone to the Russian zone which was Czechoslovakia already. The train came into Czechoslovakia and somehow it got over to the Hungarian side. I found some Jewish people who told me, ‘There is a Russian military camp; they travel to Sighet.’ I went up to a solider, said ‘I want to go to Sighet, Romania,’ and waited there for a truck. It was an open truck. It must have been January, February, cold like crazy.
“When he came to downtown Sighet, I got off the truck and I look around and a couple of Jews came up and approached me and said, ‘Oh, this is Adler’s son.’ They recognized me. And they told me that they saw my father at Auschwitz and his leg was in cast. So, they did not…. I was so hurt. You cannot imagine. So, whatever they say I didn’t pay attention…. And then they said, ‘Your two uncles are here,’ my father’s brothers. ‘And you have three cousins that came back.’
“I walked to my uncle’s house in Sighet and then we went to my grandparents’ house and we got out everything that my aunt told me about. But he’s got it all; he did not give me anything…. I was there three days, four days, that’s all.… It’s 6 kilometers from his house to where my cousins were in Vaad. Meanwhile, they lost one brother, the youngest one; he died on the farm. So, I came and I see them and stayed there one hour and said goodbye.
“I walked back the same road and I walked at night. My guardian angel and my god, he must have protected me every step because you hear the wolves howl at night. Sighet is not far from the Carpathian Mountains. I’m the only one on a lonely road and with every step, you hear the scrape of the snow and the ice. I walked 6 kilometers back to my uncle’s and the next day I said goodbye and went back to Germany.
“The trip was not easy. It was hell…. I went from Sighet on a train to Satu Mare which is 120 kilometers from Sighet. Another big city in Romania on the Hungarian border. Then I took a boat across the river when it got dark. Then you go in the snow in the mountain and cross over the border from Romania to Hungary. The borders were closed, but I managed to get across. From there, I went to the DP camp in Graz, Austria and on the weekly transport to Munich where the train went back to Cham. Hell is not the word. I don’t know but I made it.
“Because I wasn’t dressed for the weather, I got pneumonia and wound up in a sanitorium for maybe three or four months. And then they sent me away to a rehabilitation center… And it was ORT (Organisation for Rehabilitation through Training). I was there for a couple of years and I learned to be a tool and die maker.
“Then I registered to go to the United States. They held me back for a while because of my health or whatever. In 1951, I came with a visa from the United Service for New Americans (USNA). I sailed from Bremerhaven, a port in Germany, aboard a military ship, the USS General Greely, for displaced persons….
“And then there’s another story, a new chapter. I got on the boat; I go to heaven. That’s all I know and I was very naïve then. Very, very hurt. I can’t explain the word, how hurt I was and no family, nobody, and nobody to take care of me and nobody to talk to… nobody says nothing. But I did everything myself and I did a good job. I did whatever I need to do. And I’m on this ship… and three weeks later, I saw the Statue of Liberty that day. I said, ‘We are here.’”
The USNA got Sandor to Detroit where the Jewish Family Service helped him with a room, clothing, bus passes, and job training at Wilbur Wright Vocational High School, where he studied math and designing for tools and dies…. He became a tool and die maker and worked for two companies for 30 years and the other 20 years he worked at General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler and some other smaller companies. He was drafted into the US Army during the Korean War and served in Germany for two years and in the reserves for another six years.
He is married to Elana Abramovitz and they have three children, Larry, Jeffrey, and Jenifer Rosenwasser and eight grandchildren – four boys and four girls – and all went to the University of Michigan.
“Many years later, I still was not ready to tell the story. When I got on the boat from Germany to America, I said to myself, ‘Here you are. You are going to a new country, the United States of America, and whatever happened in Germany, I left in Germany.’ I came here. I started a new me. I said this is where I was born. I was re-born in 1945 and this is where I think I was born…. I made all my life all myself. I was a kid of 15-years-old, 16-years-old. I had nobody telling me ‘No, don’t do that, don’t go here, don’t go there, don’t live, don’t sleep, don’t eat.’ I did everything myself. I talked to myself. I lay in bed and I said whatever was it was horrible but I’m here now and this is a new page in history for me. And that was it…. I got my job and I worked. I went to school and did everything well. But I made it. I’m here and I did very good. And that’s what I did. I keep working and that’s it.”
Date of Interview: May 27, 2022
Length of Interview: 116 minutes
Interview & Synopsis by: Zieva Konvisser
Videographer: Mark Einhaus
Editorial Comments: Elana Adler and Jeffrey Adler