This oral history video interview is available at the USC Shoah Foundation website through the
generosity of the Eugene and Marcia Applebaum Family Foundation
Paulova (Czechoslovakia), Hungary, Slovakia, Mauthausen
Mr. Joseph Mermelstein was born in Paulova, Czechoslovakia (near Munkacs) in 1922.
He was the second born of Julia and Ben Zion. Esther was the oldest, followed by Joseph, Malka, Yitzhak, Hinda, Basha, Mindel, Roza and Surl Yisrael. All the people in the village were Mermelsteins. His grandparents, Surl Yisrael and Perl Mermelstein (his mother’s parents) lived next door. There were about thirty-six Jewish families in the village and about one hundred twenty Gentile families. There was one synagogue.
Mr. Mermelstein’s parents, his sisters Basha and Mindel and brother Surl Yisrael went to the gas chambers.
Mr. Mermelstein said that every one of the Gentiles were anti-semites. The Jews went to Czech schools.
His father struggled to make a living bottling and selling mineral water; and his mother was a housewife. Mr. Mermelstein spoke Czech, Ukrainian and Yiddish. Before the war, family life was very religious, going to shul daily, celebrating the Sabbath, storytelling, singing and chanting.
Mr. Mermelstein said he was the smartest student in the village in both the Czech and Hebrew schools. He wanted to be a big scholar and “marry a very rich girl.” He was a Yeshiva Bocher, going to the Yeshiva which was fifteen miles from home. He came home to visit twice a year.
The anti-Jewish laws began in 1939-1940 when the Hungarians came in. These laws affected his family and there was a food shortage. His Catholic neighbor yelled at him, “you killed Jesus.”
When the Nazis occupied Czech, Mr. Mermelstein was at the Polish border, away at school. He saw the Hungarians arriving carrying flags. The pilots were always drunk and chasing the boys.
Mr. Mermelstein stayed in the Yeshiva until 1942. One morning, he was going to Jewish homes in the city to eat breakfast, when the Gentiles (who he always refers to as “the Goyim”) pulled his payos and threw garbage at him.
In September of 1941, the German tanks shot at the Russians and life became more difficult. One Polish family in his village was taken away. He went home and became a Hebrew teacher in the villages.
The Jews were called to be laborers. His father was taken to work. There was no food and during Passover, remembers eating matzoh for two days. His family knew that the deportations were coming and were told that the Jews were being killed. The young were taken to fight in Russia. Most froze to death there. One of his sisters became a seamstress for the farmers who exchanged food for work.
They expected the worst. The Germans were taking Jews to Treblinka and Slovakian Jewish girls were used for sex. His family made no plans but prayed.
Mr. Mermelstein went to Budapest by train to buy thread. There were Jews there who offered him a place to sleep. He carried a duffle bag and, because Jewish law prohibits carrying on the Sabbath, they would not feed him. He went home and sold the threads.
At the age of nineteen he was drafted. He went by train to a town on the border of Romania and was sent to build an airfield atop a mountain. He was given a pick and shovel to build a runway. He woke at 4 a.m., washed in the river and had coffee and bread for breakfast. He also ate goulash. He said he’d shine shoes for food. He was covered with lice and his shoes fell apart. He wrote letters to his family that he was very hungry.
Although Mr. Mermelstein was on the sick list, he went to the city to replace his broken glasses. He had no shoes to wear and was excused from work for three weeks until he got his new glasses. When he returned, life was tough and the weather turned cold. One hundred workers were needed at the Budapest airport and he volunteered. He traveled on a train for two days. He stayed in a small village where there was food. Jews were there and life was better. He had to march two miles every day to work at the airport, the largest in Europe. His job was to clean basements, but he was given steak and noodles to eat and, although it wasn’t Kosher, he knew that he had to eat to survive. He also built barracks for the German soldiers. These Germans, he said, were not killers and there was plenty of food to eat.
Mr. Mermelstein was given permission to go home for five days. He had to walk thirteen miles, stopped by Germans to show his papers. He saw his parents. His father had given up and said “we won’t make it.” His sister sewed yellow star armbands. The men in the village were gone, but the ghetto had not been formed yet. His parents wound up in Auschwitz. His siblings saw Mengele making choices. Two of his sisters were chosen for work and his parents and their younger children were gassed. Mengele didn’t notice that one of his sisters had a lame foot.
One sister sent a card saying that everyone was okay. Mr. Mermelstein continued working at the airport until August. He loaded cement bombs. The Americans began bombing the airport and a few workers were killed. When they bombed the biggest bunker, everyone was killed. He left and slept in the forest, going back because there was no place to run. The Jews were rounded up to build another airport, coming to another village and lived in a big house with a mezzuza on the door. Food was plentiful. The Americans began to bomb the railroad station and everything was blown up.
Mr. Mermelstein was always in “good places” where no one was killed and life and living conditions weren’t too bad and there was plenty of food up until now. He could leave all the Hungarian labor camps and go anywhere, even visiting a rabbi. All the boys he was with were between the ages of 19-24. Many of them worked installing phones for the Germans and they even visited houses of prostitution.
October 15th, 1944, life changed. The Hungarian President told the workers to stop working and rebel against Hitler and the Germans. When the Germans were shooting everyone, he hid under a haystack and he and another boy escaped, walked all night and arrived at a highway in the morning. They saw a farmer who said “The Germans will get you Jews.” The next day, they arrived at another highway near the Danube. They stopped at a farmhouse and were told not to go to the east side of Budapest, but enter the city through the back. He let them sleep outside. They left at 4 a.m., came to the Danube and gave a boatman fifty cents to take them across the river. They went into the vineyards and ate grapes. This was the area that Hannah Senesh was killed.
As they entered Budapest, a German soldier with a rifle stopped them and took them to a suburb of Budapest. He took them to the police station where they were beaten.
They were taken by Jeep, unchained and told they were to be shot. Mr. Mermelstein changed papers with another prisoner “Weinburger” and wasn’t shot the following morning, but Weinburger was. He felt that God saved him.
There was another train from there to Auschwitz. The Russians were bombing every evening. He worked picking up the tracks so that the Russians couldn’t enter Budapest. The Germans put the boys in wagons, but the train couldn’t go to Budapest and crossed into Austria. There were bodies on the tracks. His group split in two and he went to Pressburg, the capital of Slovakia. He saw signs the said “Careful, Jews are here. Don’t talk to them.”
The next day, they were given shovels to dig trenches at the Danube. He put on his tefillin and asked God “Do you want me to die here?”
He built bunkers and nearby were fields of sugar canes, which he cooked and ate. He davened daily and then walked for six days to Mauthausen, arriving in March of 1945. This was his first concentration camp. He was told that his parents were gassed. Men and women were together, sitting outside in the rain. His friends all died that night. When the Americans came, he could barely walk and was starving. The soldiers gave him candy. He was sent to the hospital for ten days, then to a military building. He was only given milk and cookies. He escaped with the linens and the cookies and traded them for bread. An MP caught him crawling under the gate. He went to the station, which was packed with people, taking food and clothing from the Germans.
At SELB Camp, the Russians gave them bean soup. Stalin’s pictures covered the walls. He said there were both Jews and “goyim” there. In Vienna, the train blew up so he walked for days to Slovakia and came to Pressburg. There were Russian soldiers on the street, “raping everybody.” The Russians wanted his shoes. In the town, there was a book with names and he found that his brother was alive. He traveled to Budapest on the train, the Russians robbing everyone.
There was one building, like a hotel, with a kitchen and bedrooms. His sister was ahead of him in line. She had been in Bergen-Belsen and also Auschwitz, sewing for the Kapos. Malka and Hinda were in the line. His brother was in Yugoslavia and in the army.
After being in a DP camp in 1947 through 1949, Mr. Mermelstein came to the United States on Yom Kippur 1949. His sister married in Germany and then went to Israel.
Mr. Mermelstein was always religious. He has four children, eighteen grandchildren and twenty-one great-grandchildren.
His married his wife, Ruth who survived Bergen-Belsen Camp, but was sick. She died of heart failure.
Date: February 17, 2010 Part 1 and February 24, 2010 Part 2
Interviewer: Donna R. Sklar
Format: Video Recording
To view this oral history video interview, please click here.