Martin (Mermelstein), Andrew (Ignac)
Andrew Martin was born Ignac Mermelstein on October 13, 1925 in Pavlovo, Czechoslovakia to Benjamin and Jolan (nee Mermelstein) Mermelstein. They had nine children: Esther Leah, Joseph, Malka, Ignac, Helen, Basha, Mindel, Rose, and Israel. Esther, Mindel, and Rose died of illnesses before and during the war. Basha and Israel went to Auschwitz with their parents and all four perished that day or the next day; Malka and Helen also were sent to Auschwitz, but they survived. In addition, 12 uncles and aunts and 15 cousins were lost.
There were about 27 Orthodox families in the Pavlovo Jewish community and Benjamin took out a mortgage on his house to pay to build a new synagogue in 1932. “There was no electricity, no running water. I slept in the kitchen; in the morning there was half an inch of ice on the bucket of water when it was very cold. But my parents had chickens and geese and made pillows and covers from the goose feathers. So even sleeping in the very cold room didn’t make any difference. We were very comfortable.” Benjamin worked in a mineral water bottling plant and Jolan was busy taking care of the children. They had a few acres of land that they worked by hand, with potatoes, corn and other grain, and vegetables. “Life was very primitive and very hard but on the other hand, it was very, very, very sweet, very good. We didn’t know anything else.”
Ignac went to Hebrew school, and when he got a little bit older, he went to shul very early in the morning, came home for breakfast, and then went to public school. He went to a state-controlled Czech public school for 7 1/2 years; “and it was a very, very good school.” But, he felt he had “so many obligations around the house because father was busy and, although school was very important to me, I figured it’s my responsibility to see that there is wood in the kitchen for the stove. I was not a bad student; I was a good student in arithmetic or writing a poem or something; but to learn history or geography was so useless because there was so much more important to do. After I grew up, I see what I missed, that I haven’t learned the things I should have learned before.” In1939, the Hungarians came in and the Czech school was eliminated and we had to go to a Ukrainian school that “was so much less than what I had in the Czech school.” However, because of his earlier education, “I have a plumbing and heating and a boiler’s license; I made each one in one shot.”
Ignac experienced anti-Semitism “all my life because Ukrainian kids were very anti-Semitic. Sometimes we were meeting each other and we happened to get a little friendlier; but then they went Sunday to church and became reenergized and we were fighting again.” One day when he was 8 or 10, he was taking the geese to pasture “through a goyish area, and an adult man in his 40s or 50s called after me ‘Jew go to Palestine.’ So the anti-Semitism was there all the time and a lot of times we had to fight the Ukrainian kids. I happened to have been a very small person, but I was tough; I was always able to put up a good fight.”
When he finished the eighth grade in 1939, Ignac went to work with his father in the mineral water plant, “a very miserable job; we had to work in cold water; the hours were unlimited; yet the pay was minimal.” After a couple of years, he started to work in the woods, planting trees, clearing under the pine trees, sawing wood, and cutting paths through the woods in the summer. In the winter, he bought a sled to move the wood that was stacked in the hills down to a little railroad in a little town nearby to send to England for shipbuilding. One time, he couldn’t make a sharp turn and the sled jumped off into a hundred foot drop and broke to pieces, “but I didn’t get killed because I landed in the snow.” After the accident, just after Passover in 1943, “I decided, naturally it took a lot of talk, that I should go to Budapest to learn a trade because there was nothing to do by us anymore; besides that the Hungarians put so much more restrictions on the Jews.”
Through the volunteers at the Jewish Center in Budapest, he got a job treating cloth in Újpest a suburb of Budapest. From there he went to Rákospalota, where he delivered wax paper on a tricycle to retail stores. “Then he found me a place to learn cabinetmaking. It was not a very good place and they were kind of anti-Semitic too. In Budapest, we were taking off the wooden boards from the apartment buildings so that if the Americans bombed the city, there shouldn’t be too much wood to burn. These buildings are hundreds of years old; everything has loads of dust. It didn’t matter what you do, at the end of the day I was black, plain and simple black.” He rented a place with a Jewish woman and when he came home, “She gave me a big pan of water and soap. I washed for a half hour; I could wash for 45 minutes. I go in that beautiful white bed, I laid down, and in the morning I get up and I look at that beautiful white thing, and where I was laying, around me the rest of it was black.” He had to leave and then rented a room with a very religious Catholic woman. After a short while, he found a place to learn cabinetmaking by two brothers named Fesler, “who were possibly of German descent, but were very fine people.” Close-by was the Orthodox synagogue, “the most beautiful shul, nicest Jewish community that you could imagine, and generally I used to go in the morning to daven before I went to work and then a lot of times in the evening I also went to shul. Because I was just working and going to shul and minding my own business, my Catholic landlady was very fond of me; and I had a very good relationship with her.”
Once, when his father needed a pair of shoes, Ignac’s cousin, who owned a shoe factory before the Nazis took it over found him a pair of top-quality, mountain climbing shoes and gave it to him for very low price. Although his father was liked by the Ukrainians and very respected, nevertheless, they reported him to the police, thinking that he was a non-Jewish businessman of the same name, Benci Mermelstein, from the next village who they did not like. So the local police sent a letter to the police headquarters in Budapest to find out if Ignac Mermelstein was black marketing shoes. While Ignac was out, a detective came to look for him and left a card for him to appear next day at the police headquarters. That day happened to be the day that the Germans marched into Hungary, so on his way to police headquarters, Ignac’s streetcar was stopped on the Steel Bridge over the Danube to check identifications, “and some of the boys that were my friends, they checked their identification and took them off and you never saw them again. Fortunately, they didn’t take me off.” When he came to the police headquarters, “I thought I’m not going out of there alive anymore.” The detective read him the letter and then started to ask questions. Instead of telling him that the shoes are from the cousin, Ignac told him he bought them at the Eastern market and gave some kind of description of the seller. The detective said “G-d bless” and let him go. As he left, Ignac realized he had missed going to the paramilitary, and actually went back and asked for a letter showing that he had to go there. “I had a couple of close calls. That was a matter of dead or alive and I’m still here. So I have special z’chut or something.”
Ignac had a beautiful year in Budapest before the camp, but in May 1944, when the Jews were going into the ghetto in Budapest, he was sent to Vác to a labor camp. After four or five days, they were taken to Bor Yugoslavia, where 5000 Jews were taken a year and a half earlier to work in the copper mines. During the three or four day trip to Bor via a regular train, freight trains, and then open wagons, “there was no food, no cover, no nothing, and we were sitting there from morning in the sun. We came to Bor and they put all 1500 of us in a big tent for a few days. The sun was coming down; it was very hot in the tent. We were so packed that if you were sitting, you didn’t have room to stand up; if you were standing, you didn’t have room to sit down. We were getting something like a little cabbage soup; it was just some kind of liquid with little cabbage flakes floating in it, and it smelled. Most of the people couldn’t eat it. In the meantime, they lined us up to work, we’re in our clothes, we had to stay in line, soldiers with guns walked around us, and here and there they gave somebody a good kick or a good push or stepped on your foot to give you a good warning. After a few days we were divided on a stretch of about 60 km in different camps to dig the mountain for the railroad by hand.”
Ignac was put in the camp Laznica, “a village that was even more primitive than my area where I grew up. As far as the camps are concerned, we were there for five months and we talk about it for five minutes, but sometimes the hardship and the difficult times was so much misery that an hour seemed to have lasted for days; but that’s the way things are. The misery began right when we arrived there. In our camp, there were 500 people to start digging the hill for the railroad. We were getting black coffee in the early morning, and then we were taken out to the job to do the digging for the railroad. We had to walk through muddy fields on narrow paths; they took away our shoes, so we were barefoot all the time. I was 17 or 18 already, and walked barefoot as a kid until I was 13 or 14; I didn’t just walk barefoot, I played soccer barefoot, and I was kicking the ball pretty good. So for me to go through that march was not a big thing. But I was looking at a 60-year-old man that never was barefoot in his life, maybe he was a businessman or whatever, and how he struggled there for how long to get through that, I just felt sorry for him.”
“We were given a pick and shovel and had to load 10 or 12 little wagons with dirt by hand per day. Actually most of these people might never have held a pick or shovel in their hands before. The Germans sent four people to work each wagon. I was small but I was very muscled. So a lot of big boys see I am so muscled, they want me as one of the four. But I saw four fine boys that I went to school with and even ate by them, so I said to them, ‘listen boys, I don’t care how much digging you do, do so much that the Germans shouldn’t bother you, I could take care of the digging myself.’ So they started to work, they did what they could, but they had no problem, I could get the job done, I could load it up as fast as the four strong city boys. It took about 4, 5 or 6 weeks and the boys put on a little muscle and were much better than the big strong boys. For me, it was not so much the digging, but hunger that was the problem and being exposed to the sun all the time.”
The people in the camp were mostly from Budapest and there were many talented people. Besides business and a few doctors, they had the champion violinist of Hungary, the top saxophonist in the country, another person who carved detailed figures out of stone, a portrait artist, the heavyweight boxing champion of Budapest, and a teamster who could carry a big piano down five stories down with a rope on his shoulder. Also, in the camp, was Rabbi Duschinsky from Rákospalota; he was a doctor rabbine, a doctor and a Rabbi, and a very educated person. On Erev Yom Kippur he arranged for services to be held in the mess hall, “that we never used. So we gathered, we had mincha, he was giving a speech, and then we were going to have the Yom Kippur services. While he was talking, and he did not offend them, two flagmen, two officers of the Hungarian army, came in with sticks. Either they were drunk or they pretended to be drunk and swinging left and right and threw us out of the mess hall, like a bunch of cattle; and that was the end of the Yom Kippur services.”
In charge of the camp was a zászlós (flagman), who was a Hungarian lawyer in civilian life. “He was a very strict person but he was not a bad person. When we first got there, they gave us a few candies a week and 4, 5, 6 or 7 cigarettes for the week. Naturally, we didn’t have enough food and I never smoked a cigarette in my life. So I gave away a little piece of bread to a boy my age for that cigarette. The flagman was a decent goy and instead of paying us a very small wage, he said that he was going to buy goats and that was going to improve our food. So for a little time, the food was not so bad. But then it got much worse.” He was replaced by Lieut. Nagy, “who was a very good man, a very decent man, but he had the Germans above him and there was still just so much food that we got.”
“So the time flew away, because it was very difficult and it was hot and sometimes we thought it would never be over and here we were working under the sun, and you see the Americans or British planes flying over and we didn’t care. They should kill us; they should throw the bombs and do something with the war because we were all so miserable.”
As the partisans were pushing the Germans to retreat and the Germans were losing ground, they headed back to Bor. “On the way there, some people escaped from our group and in the morning they came jumping over the fence back to join us. ‘What’s the matter?’ ‘We haven’t where to go.’” When they got to Bor, in the daytime they dug trenches around the city to shoot at the partisans if they attacked. In the evening, “the bedbugs were so bad in the barracks that you could not fall asleep.”
They heard that, in the fall of 1944, one third of the group of the 5000 from the copper mine, started walking towards Hungary. “On the third or fourth day on the road, they slept overnight in a brick factory and in the morning Germans came in with machines guns and machine-gunned everyone out. That happened to the first group; that happened to a second group; and that happened to a third group. So all 5000 Jews that were working in the copper mines were machine-gunned out by the Germans.”
Finally, Ignac’s group was ordered to leave Bor and start walking towards Hungary, with Lieut. Nagy in charge. “There were about 1500 of us because 250 people who were supposed to be sick remained in the camp in the barracks. We heard an order to return back to the headquarters in Bor because the road is cut up by the partisans, but the lieutenant in charge said nothing doing we’re going. On the second day, we’re stopped by the partisans from Tito. The lieutenant gave an order, no shooting although he had 15 or 20 soldiers with two wagons of munitions and guns. So there were no shots fired and we were all taken into the woods. It’s in the fall, it’s raining, it’s drizzly but we’re happy that we’re already by the partisans.”
In the meantime the 250 people, they found out later, that remained in Bor, “the Germans made them carry straw into the barracks, nailed down the doors and the windows, and set it on fire and took off. But not everybody was sick; one Romanian Jew who is possibly 65 and was almost like a skeleton, but a tall person and a very strong man, when the Germans left, they pulled out everybody, and nobody got killed in that fire.”
In the woods, the partisans established a court and all the soldiers were going to get a hearing. “Sgt. Chassar was very brutal; he was hitting people left and right and punishing them for whatever little thing possible. So him they hung. There were some soldiers that they gave 3 1/2 years or seven years. When it came to Lieut. Nagy, everybody was willing to go testify for him that he was good and that no harm should come to him. They gave him a hearing and said ‘you’re free; go when you can go, wherever you can go.’ They gave everybody a hearing; they said you want to stay with the partisans you’re welcome, you want to go, we’ll let you go. More than half of us said that we wanted to stay with the partisans.”
After 2 or 3 weeks, 125 of the group who were not from the Budapest area, and came from other areas of Hungary, formed a Czechoslovakian Brigade within the partisans unit. They walked through the mountains until they reached a little town, “I’m hungry like a dog. My bare feet are so hot that my whole body is on fire. We’re weak. Do you know how many were there from the 125? Eighteen, but I was there, I was a very tough kid.”
Since nothing was happening around there, they were asked if they wanted to leave the army. They spent a few days in a small town on the Danube on the Yugoslav-Romanian border and earned a little Yugoslav money and food by helping a family clear out their bombed out house, By then, “there were 16 of us. We got together and we paid a Yugoslav man with a boat to take us across the Danube to Romania.” They walked, possibly three days, until they came to a little town in Romania, Oravitse There were Hungarian Jews there and a Jewish Center, where they slept on the floor, were fed, ate like wild animals, bathed, and clothed. Finally, they put them on a civilian train to Timi?oara in Romania. Ignac was placed with a Jewish family that had a wholesale textile place, where he helped them a little; “they didn’t pay me anything, but I did get a little money from some Jewish organization there.” Next he went to Arad, and to the Jewish Center there, where he and another person volunteered to pick up bread for the kitchen. “As we’re going, there were two Russian soldiers and the Romanian police stopped people and took us away. They let the other volunteer go after a while. I didn’t talk Romanian so they gave us to the Russians who took us to a bridge over the river Arad and we had to carry rocks and throw them off the bridge into the river.” Since he spoke Ukrainian, he tried to get friendly with the Russian soldiers and asked them to let him go. After a few attempts, “I see you can’t deal with these people, so I ran away from there, but I had to go an extra 2 or 3 km around to get to the next bridge to get to the city.” A few days later he returned to Timi?oara where he stayed maybe 4 or 6 weeks and then went to Bucharest, where again he registered and got a few Romanian dollars from the Jewish organization.
Although some people were going to Israel, he didn’t know what was happening with his family, so he volunteered into the Czech Army in November 1944 and “that’s where my military career started.” After a few weeks in a house that belonged to the Czech Consul in Bucharest, he traveled from Bucharest, through Romania, to Bukovina, then through Poland, and then over the Slovakian border to Czechoslovakia, a trip that took over four weeks by civilian and military freight trains.
When they finally made it to Poprád Czechoslovakia, he finally was put into the Army, signed up to become a tanker, and went through training for a few months. “We trained very hard and we were just eating bean soup for about three months and maybe a black coffee in the morning. I could barely drag my feet because I was so weak and didn’t have enough food. The tank training didn’t stick much with me because what did I know much about war.” Finally, they went to some cities and some of the officers were from the Carpathian state, “and they were very fond of me and I had a very nice relationship with them. There were 180 Czech soldiers and I was the first one to be picked because I’m ready to go in the field.”
While he was on patrol in the city by himself, “I see a man walking with a tin on his back. So I stopped him because I had the right to do it. He was a Jew from Poland and we’re talking Yiddish to each other, and he’s from Munkács, from my city. His name is Braun. I sent a note with him that I’m in ?eský T?šín. My neighbor got my note and gave it to my brother and a few weeks later, my brother is on the way to ?eský T?šín to find me. At the same time, it was already July possibly 1945, I didn’t know what happened with my family. The Army didn’t want to give me a leave of absence, so I wanted out of the Army. On the way home, we stopped in another city Moravská Ostrava overnight in the barracks, One of the soldiers, a non-Jew, went to the railroad station just to go there. My brother is on the way to find me and stops at that same station. They meet and he tells the soldier, ‘I’m going to find my brother in ?eský T?šín, Ignac Mermelstein.’ He said ‘don’t go to find Ignac Mermelstein, he’s with me, he’s in the barracks.’ And that’s how I met my brother Joseph. That’s the first time that I knew what happened, that the rest of the family was murdered in Auschwitz.”
Shortly thereafter and only eight months from the time he signed up, he asked to be let out of the Army. They agreed if he could show them how he was going to make a living. “My cousin had a small textile store in the city of Teplice-Sanov, but what did I know about business? I haven’t finished the cabinet training and I wasn’t a factory worker. I knew a little bit about farming because our family had a little land and there were a lot of German farmers that the Czechs kicked. So I went and found a farm that I could rent from the government and I became a farmer to get out of the Army.” He decided to go back home to Pavlovo to get his two sisters and brother to join him on the farm because nobody wanted to stay with the Russians. His father’s stepbrother [Hermann Katz] who was also in Pavlovo came and lived with them on the farm.
In the spring of 1946, his two sisters and brother went away to Germany. “I stayed because there was no risk for me because I was a soldier and I’m automatically going to be a citizen. Maybe I should’ve gone too, but I stayed and I was farming for 4 1/2 years until 1949. Finally I figured I have to get out of there.”
Meanwhile, while he was on the farm, he met and, in 1948, married his wife Margaret Klein, who was studying sewing at the ORT school in Ústí nad Labem where his younger sister was also studying. Margaret had a brother in America who came out in 1926. He lived in Huntington Woods, Michigan and became a plumber and then a builder. Her brother wasn’t for the marriage. “He said she should get married in America because he was going to find her some rich American, not a greener like me; but Margaret said ‘what does he know, I have to survive over here and I’m getting married.’ I told her we could get married if she agreed to go to Israel.”
Although he had previously experienced the nearly impossible passport procurement process for his uncle, in 1949, Ignac decided to go to the county security office for permission to go to Israel. “I did not have too many 50,000 crowns, but I offered him 50,000 crowns; he didn’t say anything. I bought ham on the black market and the third time he took it; when I asked him to give me the paper, he said nothing doing. I could do nothing to him; I could call him pisher. I still could not make a passport.” So finally, they decided to cross the border to Germany. With the help of his American brother-in-law’s wife’s parents in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia on the Austrian-Hungarian border, they contacted a Jewish organization that assisted Hungarian Jews going across the border to Austria. Ignac and Margaret left the farm and waited at their sister-in-law’s parents for ten days or so until somebody came to take them across the border. “I went with a group of Hungarians because I spoke Hungarian, and I went across the border without a passport because I could not get a passport.”
They went to Vienna and stayed there for four weeks. And from there, they were taken to a DP camp in Steyr. “In Steyr, I signed up for the ORT school to continue to learn cabinetmaking and I graduated with a number two carpenter’s license. There were a Jewish teacher and an Austrian teacher and they were both very good teachers. Both teachers said that as long as we were learning cabinetmaking, if we want to do a little work, just come into the shop at any time.” So after graduating with a carpenter’s license, he started to do a little work in the camp. “People were going to emigrate and there weren’t enough suitcases, so we made boxes for travel. But the director of the other trades was an Austrian Jew who didn’t let us take the tools; and if he came in and saw we were in there, he would chase us out. I talked to the Jewish teacher and we became partners. He had access to the shop. He was working like a good machine; anything he touched is beautiful in his hands. Whatever money we made, I told the teacher ‘okay you are having the tools, you are the real mechanic, why don’t we split the money 60-40; you get 60 and I get 40.’ He said ‘nothing doing, 50-50’; what a mensch.”
After a little while, they were moved to another DP camp in Wels, where there wasn’t a shop. However, American army headquarters were in Enns or Linz. “I have an English diploma as a carpenter, so I came to the American headquarters and showed them my license in English. He hired me to be the carpenter in the Yankee club in Wels, but the person in charge was an Austrian woman who was an anti-Semite. She’s not going to give the carpenter’s job to the little Jew when she has a friend there. She didn’t need a carpenter, they just needed a handyman and the carpenter shop paid maybe 25 or 50 cents more an hour. So I started to work in the Yankee club, not as a carpenter, but in the sports shop and had to take care of the tennis court and the baseball court.”
After almost a year, the American consulate called that his wife’s quota had come up and they had to go to the consulate. “The Austrian women who worked there were very unfriendly and they could see that I was a Jewish person. Then an American woman came; she talked German and her name was Miss Starr and she was from Detroit. She filled out my papers. I think if it wasn’t for her, I could’ve hung around there for months longer. She treated me like a million dollars and helped me make my papers and everything. Every person makes a difference in life, whether it was Lieutenant Nagy or Miss Starr or that cabinetmaker or the teachers”
Looking back on his experiences, he is grateful that, “as a youngster, I had a happy growing up while I lived in my parents’ house, with all the difficulties, because the parents did the best they could. The Jews in general had a good Jewish education and they had a secular education also. The misery started when these Hungarian came in and made it so much more difficult. Then I went to Budapest for a year and lived beautifully among the Orthodox Jewish community who were generous and brilliant and a volunteer found me a place to work where I was making double the wages as all my friends. Rabbi Duschinsky, what a giant of a person he was in the camp. The Army was not easy, but it was still army and I felt safe, and I was doing it voluntarily, and I would’ve done anything for the Czech people who were the finest of the Slavs. They were not anti-Semitic, and if once in a while you run into an anti-Semite, it was because he was misinformed or something. My experience on the farm was very difficult because it was under communism. But thank G-d, I am in America. I came with a whole two dollars that I made on the ship selling cigarettes. I’m already 87 and with all the bad experiences, I made my life in the Detroit area. I worked and after 15 years being a plumber, I went into business on my own. Since there were no computers at the time, I had to think everything with my elementary education and I worked very hard but I was very happy with what I was doing and I was glad to do it and I was able to provide for my family. But I made it; and thank G-d I have what to eat; I have where to put my head down. I go to synagogue where I was president for four years and I enjoy the services morning and evening. I live like a millionaire. I live at this time like I have a preview of heaven, a preview of gan eden. My thing is that every person makes a difference. You have got to make the best of it; be good to everybody and polite to everybody; you just thrive while you’re alive.”
After his wife Margaret passed away in 1975, Andrew married Judith Robins in 1977. He has three children with Margaret [Judy Krupkin, James Martin, and Peggi Martin Schmelter] and three with Judith [Beth Robins, Mitchell Robins, Howard Robins] and he had eight grandchildren from both marriages.
Date of Interview: February 28, 2013
Length of Interview: 3 hours 25 minutes
Interview & Synopsis by: Zieva Konvisser
Videographer: Fred Safran