Gelberman, George (Gyuri Gelbermann)
Mátészalka, Budapest, Debrecen, Hungary; Ansbach DP Camp, West Germany
George Gelberman was born Gyuri Gelbermann in Mátészalka, Hungary on July 31, 1938 to David and Rella (Joseph) Gelbermann. He had a younger sister, Erica (Erica Gelberman Shulman).
Although he was a child when the war broke out, what he remembers about his early life is “more of a reverie or images in the mind, smells and sounds, and things of that nature, than actually clear pictures of specific things. I have isolated little incidents that are so clear in my mind.” For example, images of cows on his uncle’s farm and the taste of some ice cream he had as a youngster, before the war came to Hungary.
One experience of anti-Semitism stands out very clearly for George. “We lived on Rumba Utca kilenc (#9) in Budapest. It was a two-story rectangular building, but inside it looked like it was oval because it had an upstairs open balcony that went all the way around, and there was a big courtyard in the middle. Most of the people living in the apartments were Orthodox Jews. The manageress that was in charge of the apartment was fine until things changed and she had a green armband on, being fascist now, and she became to me quite horrible. She would have everybody come down in rain, sleet, snow, two or three or four o’clock in the morning, and have us standing around for hours while she was taking a headcount. She made a lot of people’s lives quite miserable.” Many years later, in Detroit, George’s mother saw the manageress working at a local restaurant and tried to have her extradited for lying.
George’s father, David Gelbermann, was nearly killed three times. “Before he got married, he lived in Paris, and was quite a bon vivant. It was very popular in those days to have gold-capped teeth and he had five or six of them. Early on, before the Germans came in, my father had been taken away to a labor camp. One of the guards, kapos, reported him as stealing government money by having gold-capped teeth. So, two guys held him down and another took a pair of pliers and pulled out five teeth.
“Later on, his detail was sent to dig up dud bombs at the railroad depot. The life expectancy was not great because they used picks and axes and they were also not very knowledgeable on the detonation of bombs. They were told that two machine guns would be set up on both ends of the field where they were working. Should there be an air raid, they were supposed to just drop wherever they are. The air raids were constant… in the morning American, afternoon English, and in the evening Russian…. He didn’t look ‘Jewish.’ He had red hair, lost a lot of weight and was very frail, and wore glasses. He decided that the first occasion of an air raid, he is just going to take off because he was thinking it isn’t worth staying here…. Sure enough, an air raid came and he just started running. Dirt and dust had gotten on his glasses and so he didn’t know where he was running, but he was running as fast as his feet would carry him. Bullets were whizzing by his ear and cattle cars were going up in the air and down. He ran until, out of exhaustion, he just kind of fell down. He must have had a concussion because he had blood coming out of his ears and his shirt had blown off unknowingly…. He was sitting there feeling dizzy, and suddenly there was a German officer standing there yelling at him. He thought that he was caught and that was it. Instead they put him in the half-track in the front seat between a driver and a passenger, thinking that he was a farmer running away from the air raid. They drove him into Budapest and just threw him down in the street…. By that time, the air raid came to Budapest and they didn’t have a lot of air raid shelters, but there was a big arch in front of a huge building and many people were in the arch. So, my father was dumped in there with them. He used to own a coat factory and realizes that the person next to him is one of his workmen. The worker took him to his brother who owned a bakery and hid him in one of the large ovens for about two weeks. My mother thought he was dead until they finally got word back to her.
“Not too long after that, the Germans did come and my parents decided we better move. If you had money, you were able to buy things and my mother was able to buy citizen papers from Sweden or Switzerland from a representative who I always thought was Raoul Wallenberg. Recently, I learned he may have been Moshe Kraus, when I saw a picture in a newspaper article of a Schutz-Pass that is identical to my document, even to the date on the bottom…. The trick then was to go from where we lived to a safe house. With yellow stars, a whole family walking together was not that safe. So, my father had a brilliant idea to go downstairs and wait around until he sees a German officer who looked friendly and honest and was wearing an emblem that said ‘Wehrmacht’ not ‘SS.’ A Wehrmacht was just a regular soldier; the SS were mean, anti-Semites. He found one, a lieutenant, and he called him over and explained, ‘I’m Jewish obviously, and this is my wife and my two children. We are citizens of Switzerland but we have to get to a safe house. If you take us as your prisoner and take us over there, I will sign over my coat factory to you lock, stock, and barrel.’ Of course, he could have taken the document and still arrested us, but he didn’t. He took us to the safe house. And my mother, my sister and I were able to stay there for the rest of the war.
The third time his father nearly died was when he “went out to try to find some food and he happened to walk off of a street car, right into the hands of the captain of the guards that he had escaped from. So, he was sentenced to the gallows. Again, my mother was able to buy a reprieve for him. He was on the gallows, a black hood over his head and a rope around his neck; and right before pulling the lever, the guy who had his reprieve in his pocket all that time, just to dig a little harder, said to my father ‘Gelbermann, David. Oh, I have a reprieve for you.’ And the reprieve was to be sent to Auschwitz…. So again, he was being transferred by cattle car. There was a work detail, 75 people in the cattle car, but they had picks and axes. By that time, word had trickled back that Auschwitz may have not been the summer camp that they were portraying it to be. The train is going 75 miles per hour and they dug a hole in the bottom of the cattle car and they dropped off one at a time; 75 people of which 14 survived. My father, thank God, was very thin and frail and he just fell flat, scraped his knees a little bit, but otherwise no problem. He hid out in the woods pretty much the rest of the war. We didn’t know. Of course, we thought he was dead.
“Meanwhile, the safe house was a two-story building and there were quite a number of families. On one side, there was another building, also a neutral country’s safe house. Across the large playfield from us, was a Red Cross building. On the fourth side, there was a big 10-foot, 12-foot picket fence with ivy growing on it…. One time, I recall the Germans came into the Red Cross building, took everybody out. It was ‘The Danube Incident’ where they threw all the children in the Danube and killed everybody from the building and took it over as their headquarters. They put posters in our hallway, telling us that no one is allowed to even peek towards that building. If they are found doing so, they would immediately be killed…. My mother spoke Hungarian and Jewish, most of the others spoke mainly Jewish, so she was kind of the leader. She always was. She was the strongest of our family. So, we were having a meeting in our first-floor apartment to discuss if we should move in the basement because it’s unsafe to be walking around here. My two-year-old sister was sitting in front of this big picture window and she was coloring. Suddenly one of the bombs that was meant for the Red Cross building came a little closer to our side of the field and the concussion blew out the picture window. Erica was still sitting in the same exact spot, the entire picture window blown out, except for her contour, which hadn’t blown out and she was still coloring. So, they decided they had better move down to the basement.
“We were down there for several weeks, when my mother remembered she had left some potatoes in the kitchen and she was going to go get them because we were obviously starving. And they said, ‘No, don’t go. It’s too dangerous.’ But my mother went up and she came down screaming and yelling, ‘The Russians are here!’ They had killed all of the Germans in the building and you could see them all bloody and lying there. And we all came running out and the soldiers came over and we were hugging and kissing and everybody was all excited and really celebrating the moment.
“My father came back after the war and met us in that blown out building; a first cousin also somehow showed up. They decided that Budapest was in rubble, and we should go to Debrecen. He found a wagon, no horses but a wagon, and we put whatever possessions we were able to find and save on this wagon. I put my sister, myself, and my mother on the wagon. Then my father and my cousin were the horses, they pulled the wagon. I remember sitting on the front of the wagon with a little whip and I would say giddy-up horsey. Of course, I would be very careful not to hit the horses. It would not be very humane.
“We were in Debrecen maybe a year or a little bit less before my parents decided it was not a good place to live as an Orthodox Jew under Communism and they decided they were going to escape. With some money he made on the black market, you could still pay people…. We got to a train that was a known route used for escaping. The solider in the mail car was known to take a bribe. So, my father paid him off. At one point, the train would go from East Germany into West Germany. As it made a turn, it would slow down. So, he put us in the bathroom with everything we had because the guards would come in at one point and inspect. But the guards knew each other and actually maybe he was paid off too. Anyhow we were fine…. When the train slowed down, he rushed us out of the bathroom and we jumped down off the train. We had two shoe boxes, one was all the money that my father had saved up from his work down in Debrecen after the war and the other shoe box had all the photographs and stuff we still found in our apartment. We left the shoebox with the money by accident in the bathroom. In retrospect, it was the right one to leave, because these are memories I could not have replaced…. And so, we ended up in West Germany and we were put on a train for three days until we finally got to Ansbach, Germany, which was the Displaced Person camp, where we waited for almost two years for a sponsor to get to the United States.
“My father’s younger brother, Alex, had come out to the United States well before the war and he was able to locate him. He was a rabbi in a temple in Lakeland, Florida. He offered to sponsor us and that’s how eventually we were able to come from West Germany…. We arrived in New York on December 25, 1948 and took a train for three days to Lakeland, Florida. As we went there I remember taking off more and more clothes because the weather changed dramatically.
“When we first got there, we were the first foreigners that the community had ever seen. So, my cousins, Richard and Shari Gelberman, had their friends come over and we of course didn’t speak English. They were talking and at one point one of the little boys or girls pointed at us and said something and my uncle started laughing. When they left we asked, ‘What’s so funny?’ He said, ‘He pointed at you and said, well I don’t understand it, they look just like us. They have a nose, two eyes, a mouth? They are people!’
“My uncle found jobs for my parents in a restaurant. My mother was always a very good cook. And my father washed dishes…. My sister and I couldn’t go to school. We didn’t speak any English at all. So, they would give us two lunch bags, drop us off at a movie and you could see the same movie over and over all day long for 20 cents, 5 cents, whatever it was. And we would sit there until they finished working and picked us up. That’s the way I learned to speak English, by Roy Rogers and Gene Autry.
“Even though my uncle had a very good smicha, he was no longer as Orthodox as he had been originally. The first time we went to the temple for Sabbath services, we were just completely taken aback. They used a microphone. They had no mechitzah, men and women were together, which is not our style. Later on, my father and uncle had an argument, ‘I didn’t survive the war to lose my children from being Jewish,’ and this really bothered him.
“So, our parents decided we’d better go. A month before Passover, we got on a train and went back to New York, not knowing what will happen because if you didn’t have a sponsor you ended up going back to Germany. My mother, again, was always the one that acted and would react. She put an article in the Jewish paper, looking for a cousin of ours. And instead of a cousin, two of her pre-war classmates responded and they were in Detroit and they invited us here. We arrived in 1950 and have been here ever since.” Rella passed away in 1981 and David in 1992.
George shares a message for children today: “We live in a wonderful, wonderful country that took us in. I have always had HaKaRas HaTov, which means to be thankful to the United States for everything that has been done and was made available to us. But you never should be too comfortable. You should always be aware of who and what you are and you have to be conscious and knowledgeable about what is going on. And hopefully it never happens again.”
Date of Interview: January 25, 2016
Length of Interview: 69 minutes
Interview & Synopsis by: Zieva Konvisser
Videographer: Kevin Walsh