Uglya (Ukraine), Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bunzlau, Görlitz, Flossenburg, Mauthausen
Mayer Lebovic was born in 1925 to Hayim and Batya Lebovic in a family with six younger brothers. He was born in the city of Uglya, Ukraine, located in the Carpathian mountain region. When he was only three years old, his parents moved east to Tyachiv, Czechoslovakia, which today is part of the Ukraine. Up until 1918, this region of Carpathians belonged to the Austria-Hungarian Empire, but, once World War I came to an end, this land was redistributed and became part of the newly formed country of Czechoslovakia. Hungarians, who were left over from the previous regime, made up a large majority of Tyachiv’s citizens, while Jews and ethnic Ukrainians made up a small minority.
Mayer points out that there were approximately 335 Jewish families living in Tyachiv at the time, and the city had two synagogues. Under the Czechoslovakian government, its people had freedom of press and freedom of religion, which helped make life between Tyachiv’s citizens harmonious up until the Nazi takeover in 1938. As a young boy Mayer attended Hebrew schools in the morning and Czechoslovakian schools in the afternoon. His father worked buying and selling goods in the community. The whole community of Jews living in Tyachiv was Orthodox, making the Sabbath and Jewish holidays very important in the Lebovic household. When 1938 came, Mayer could not be more excited, because it was also his Bar Mitzvah year. Only one month after Mayer had celebrated his coming of age, trouble began in Czechoslovakia. One day in August 1938, a messenger came to Tyachiv in the middle of the night, calling for all able men to join the Czechoslovakian army. Mayer’s father left to aid the army, leaving behind his family for about seven months. By the time Mayer’s father returned home in 1939, the German army had successfully occupied the entire country. The Carpathian region of Czechoslovakia, where Mayer and his family lived, was soon handed over to the Hungarian government, which received the land in return for their support of the Nazi regime.
For seven weeks, during an uprising, the Ukrainian army took over the city, until the revolt was eventually quashed by the Hungarian army, who seized the area once again and lynched all the Ukrainian people living in Tyachiv. Soon afterwards, the large majority of Hungarian people living in Tyachiv, who had once been friendly with the city’s Jews, began to sympathize with the Hungarian Nazis. By 1940, all the Jewish businesses in Tyachiv had been overtaken by the occupying forces, and redistributed to the Hungarian people. The Lebovic family suffered under the Hungarian regime, as they barely had enough food to eat. In 1941, the Hungarian army forced Mayer’s father to work in a labor camp in Szeged, Hungary, leaving his wife and children to fend for themselves in Tyachiv. Mayer’s mother was able to scrape out a living at home by buying and selling firewood and growing vegetables and canning them for the winter.
In 1942, as the situation worsened, all of the Lebovics’ relatives, that they had left behind in Uglya after moving to Tyachiv, were rounded up onto trains and taken to the Ukrainian city of Kamenets-Podolsk, where they were all shot and buried with approximately 60,000 other Jews in mass graves by the Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units). At the end of 1943, Mayer’s father was finally able to return to his family in Tyachiv. During the period from late 1943 to April 1944, Mayer was forced to train in a camp for youngsters who were only a year away from being able to join the Hungarian army. There, all the Jewish youth were ridiculed by the Hungarian boys. One day, Mayer was pushed to the edge by a Hungarian boy who was going around pushing all the Jewish kids over in the mud. When it came for Mayer’s turn, Mayer pushed back. In a fight that lasted almost twenty minutes, Mayer was able to beat the other boy back. Despite the altercation, the Hungarian officers did not punish him. Mayer laughed when he admitted this, because he had always prided his family as being very tough-skinned, even in the most difficult of situations.
In April 1944, the ruling Nazi regime formed a ghetto in Tyachiv that housed nearly three-thousand Jews from Tyachiv and other local cities. During Mayer’s time living in the ghetto, he was forced to work in the army kitchens along with other youth for the occupying Hungarian and German soldiers. Two weeks later, Mayer was assigned to be a Jewish officer, whose job was to ensure that the Jews were not moving from house to house in the ghetto. One day on the job, a transport of Jews arrived from the city of Vyshkove, Ukraine. While going over to converse with them about the events of the war, Mayer was spotted by Hungarian officers, who noticed he was not following his duties. Upon asking him what he had been doing, Mayer told the Hungarian officers that he was on his way to see doctor about a toothache. The officers then asked Mayer to show them the tooth that had been bothering him. When Mayer opened his mouth to show them, one of the Hungarian officers hit him in the face with the butt-end of rifle, causing three of Mayer’s teeth to come flying out. As Mayer began to run home, the officers pursued him. When Mayer arrived at his home in the ghetto, he told his mother and father what had happened. Mayer’s mother was so infuriated that she threatened the Hungarian guards, who were now at their door. She brandished a butcher knife at them, and told them that if they did not leave her son alone, she would personally stab each one of them to death. Afterwards, the officers took off.
On May 5, 1944, SS officers came to the ghetto in Tyachiv and informed all the Jews that the ghetto was to be liquidated. Mayer and his family were forced to line up, while they watched all the Hungarian citizens loot their houses. The Jews were then marched to the train station and forced onto the train cars, one-hundred and fifty people per car. Mayer and his family traveled three days in the packed cars, until they finally arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Arriving at Auschwitz and disembarking from the train car, Mayer and his family immediately noticed a rancid smell emanating from the chimney of the camp’s crematorium. The SS guards then forced all the Jews to line up. The guards then began selecting which of the Jews would go left and which would go to the right. Mayer, his father, and the second eldest child Mendel went into one line, while Mayer’s mother and his five other younger brothers went into the other. Mayer did not realize until much later that his mother and other brothers were sent directly to the gas chambers.
Next, Mayer, Mendel, and their father were taken to the barracks, where they were stripped head to foot of all their clothes and any valuables they still had. They were then sprayed down with harsh-smelling chemicals and sent to the showers. Most of the Jews stood there and drank the shower water, as they had not had any water in days. After the shower, all the inmates were given blue and white-striped uniforms to wear. One man complained that his uniform did not fit him and requested another one; he was shot on the spot by the SS guards. Only two weeks after arriving in Auschwitz, the SS guards came around inquiring as to which Jews had any experience being a carpenter. Mayer, Mendel, and their father raised their hands, hoping to escape their imprisonment in Auschwitz. They were chosen along with about three-hundred others to travel to a Polish labor camp named Bunzlau, where the prisoners built barracks for the German army at a nearby factory. They also manufactured camouflage airplanes, wooden planes that appeared to be real German aircrafts that were set up in fields, whose purpose was to confuse the enemy, who would bomb the harmless structures instead of the real aircrafts.
Mayer was caught stealing food more than once at Bunzlau. The first day they arrived there, he stole a head of cabbage, which he tried to smuggle into the eating area. He was severely beaten for this by a German SS officer and bitten by the guard’s dog. The next day he tried to steal potatoes; he was then sentenced to forty-eight hours in an underground cellar full of rats. The third time Mayer attempted to steal food, the officers finally sentenced him to hang. However, Mayer’s father, who Mayer points out was very shrewd and persuasive, convinced the officers to spare Mayer’s life, because those three were some of the camps hardest workers. They remained in Bunzlau until February 17, 1945, when they were given the choice of staying there or moving to a new camp, as they wanted only the strongest workers to come. Mayer convinced his father that it was best to leave the camp, which they did that night. Unfortunately for them, Mayer later found out that Bunzlau was liberated by the Russians the day after they left, and all two-hundred prisoners that remained behind survived.
Meanwhile, Mayer and his family were sent on a nearly two-week march to a German camp called Görlitz. They stayed there only momentary. The prisoners in Görlitz, who were subject to attack by dogs that had been trained to kill the prionsers, told Mayer and his family that it was best that they not remain there if they could help it. Asked whether or not they wanted to leave, they once again said yes. They continued their march in the German countryside. One night, while resting at a German farm, a few of the Ukrainian SS guards, who were marching with the group, convinced many of the prisoners to remain hidden in the hay stacks, so they could later be freed. The next morning, the Ukrainian officers informed the other SS men that the Jews had been trying to hide away in the farm. The officers then opened fire into the hay stacks, killing at least one-hundred and fifty of the prisoners on the march. Mayer and his family had decided not to hide the previous night, so they were spared.
Their march soon ended, when they came to a crossroads a few days later. The officers told the prisoners that the weak ones could stay in a nearby camp. Eighty-three of them, including Mayer and his family, decided to stay at the camp called Flossenburg. It was now nearly April. One day, while returning to the camp’s barracks, Mayer and Mendel found their father lying on the floor, having been severely beaten by the camp’s guard. They quickly rushed him to the camp’s medical clinic. They left their father at the clinic, while they ran off to buy their father some potatoes and tobacco in the camp’s black market exchange, hoping it would help their father regain his strength. Upon returning, the medical examiner told them that their father had been buried alive in a mass grave in the forest behind the clinic, as he was in too bad of shape to survive. Mayer and Mendel were devastated, as their father had been their physical and emotional support the whole time on the journey.
As the Americans came close to the camp, Mayer and Mendel were shoved onto separate cattle cars to be shipped to Mauthausen. They traveled almost two weeks in the train cars with no food or water. Every day, each train car’s Totengraber buried the car’s dead upon being prompted by the guards, who shouted “Toten heraus.” This line reverberates in Mayer’s mind even today, as it was one of the only things he remembers while traveling to Mauthausen. On the seventeenth day of travel, the transport of prisoners was stopped by the Czech people, who refused to let the train travel onward, if the guards did not feed the prisoners. The moaning of the starving Jews was more than was bearable to the Czech people. The Germans reluctantly agreed to let the prisoners out of the train cars to have a meal. Meyer, so weak he could not stand up, rolled out of the car. His brother Mendel, who had been in another car, lifted his brother up and carried him to the food line, where they were given a quart of soup and bread. This food helped Mayer regain his strength and carry on.
Days later, the transport of prisoners arrived in Mauthausen. The prisoners were forced to climb a hill to reach the camp, but Mayer was once again too weak to walk. A friend of Mayer and Mendel carried him up the hill. Later when Mayer asked the man where his brother was, the man replied that Mendel had been shot to death by the guards the previous day. A few of the inmates in Mendel’s train car had been hollering from the pain of starvation. When the SS guards opened up the car to ask who had been hollering, the inmates, who had actually been crying out, pointed at Mendel, who was shot to death on the spot. Mayer only stayed at Mauthausen three days, before the camp was liberated by the Americans. Mayer was fed and clothed by the American army, but it was hard for him to move on after losing both his father and brother. He returned to his hometown of Tyachiv, but, when he finally, realized that none of his immediate family had survived, he moved on. Mayer moved to Israel shortly afterward, before finally settling down in the United States in 1959.
Date: June 20, 1985
Interviewer: Rabbi Charles Rosenzveig
Length: 2 hours 50 minutes
Format: Video Recording