Weiss, Erzsébet (Elizabeth) Rein
This oral history video interview is available at the USC Shoah Foundation website through the generosity of the Eugene and Marcia Applebaum Family Foundation
Holocaust Survivor/False Personation
Erzsébet (Elizabeth) Rein was born June 9, 1920 in Kemecse, Hungary, a little village about 200 km from Budapest, home to about 70 Jewish families. Her father (Lipót Rein) was a tailor; and her mother (Julianna Goldstein Rein) was a homemaker; they were European Orthodox. There were seven children: Piruska/Pearl (moved to the United States in 1930); Sándor/ Zev (went to Israel in 1939); László/Shimone and Paul /Yakov (survived the Holocaust and then went to Israel); a brother who died at age 12 from the measles; and Ferencz Rein (killed with 195 other labor campers by the Nazis at age 17 in Kiskunhalas, Hungary; seehttp://degob.org/index.php?showarticle=2014#_edn35). “We were a well-known, well-respected family, and we were happy.”
Although they knew that there was anti-Semitism in the village, personally, Erzsébet did not feel it at that time. When they moved to Budapest in 1936 so that the boys could find trades and have a future, “it was okay for a few years.” Life in a two-bedroom was much easier than in the village, especially for the women. “We didn’t have to go to get water from the outside or go to the bathroom outside.” Erzsébet was 16 and started to work in the grocery section of a department store, working her way up to the cash register, and then as a bookkeeper. In 1939, she was laid off because she was Jewish. She never went to work again. On March 2, 1941, she married Sándor Weisz, the son of Dezs? (David) Weisz, one of her father’s friends from their small synagogue.
When the first labor camp started, Dezs? Weisz was the first one called up, even though he was older. “He ended up being killed for nothing. When we were hiding and they were looking for a young man named Weisz and didn’t find him, they find Weisz, 60 something years old, and they took him and they shot him.”
On September 5, 1940, Sándor spent three months at Nagyvarad forced labor camp. On June 2, 1942, he was taken into service again and forced to walk to the Russian Front from Monor to Stalingrad, where he was pressed into forced labor, until he was released in February 1944. In June 1944, Sándor and his sisters (Sari Weisz Rein/Ran and Rozsi Weisz Salgo) and brother (Imre Weisz/Feher) were taken from home and sent through a series of labor and concentration camps. They were first taken to Aszód, a central distribution site, and sent from there to camps in Budapest, K?szeg, Mauthausen, Gunskirchen, and Hörsching. Sándor was liberated by American troops in May 1945.
After Sándor left in June 1942, Erzsébet received only one postcard from him in September, addressed in his handwriting; “the other side was the same as to everybody else; that we should send winter clothes for them on the Russian front, but no address, just the army base name.”
Meanwhile, Erzsébet, who was pregnant, moved to her parents’ house when the Nazis came. Her infant son László (Leslie) was born prematurely on October 2, 1942. A “miracle” happened shortly after László was born. ”He was very tiny and he was early and we can’t have the bris on time. So 30 days later, when he had the pidyan haben . . . we sent a telegram, but we don’t know if he got it or not.” Two days before the bris, an older, gentile lady came to the apartment looking for Weisz. She had a letter from her son, asking her to give them money “because your husband helped him over there, and my husband was wearing a yellow star and the boy was wearing like a white star. I don’t know what my husband did,” but she gave Erzsébet exactly the amount of money needed for the pidyan haben, to redeem her Jewish son. And every month after that until the end of the war, they gave her enough to pay the rent on her apartment, although she didn’t live there.
In May 1944, after the Nazis marched in, Erzsébet, her son, her parents and two sisters-in-law were forced to move to a Jewish-only house, just outside the ghetto—a Yellow Star House (Csillagos Ház) at Ér utca 2. “We had between 11 and 12 or 12:30 to go out for something or to do something, and the rest of it was there. It was a one-bedroom apartment, with I think eight or nine people.”
In October 1944, when Ferenc Szálasi took control of the government, thousands of the laborers’ families were taken by Carl Lutz, the Swiss Vice-Consul in Budapest, to some 76 “safe houses” around Budapest, declared annexes of the Swiss legation and thus off-limits to Hungarian forces or Nazi soldiers. Erzsébet and László went to Bethlen Square Synagogue and lived in a small building which was made up as a false hospital. Her parents were in a separate building for older people on the synagogue grounds. At some point, Erzsébet bought false identification papers, purchased with a piece of jewelry hidden in her shoes; their fake names were Erzsi and László Tóthné. “The hardest part was my son was two years old and screaming and crying. ‘Give me food because I’m dying for water.’ He doesn’t know. When you heard your two-year-old crying and screaming, ‘Grandpa go ask, they’ll give it to you. I’m dying. I’m hungry and give me water.’ He doesn’t know what was wrong. That was the hardest part.”
While they were in hiding, Erzsi’s pregnant sister-in-law Sari went into labor and needed to be seen by a doctor. So Erzsi put on a nurse’s hat and covered her yellow star and took Sari to an emergency clinic, even though it was extremely dangerous to do so. The doctor at the clinic said Sari was in false labor, and said that they should go to someone inside the Ghetto. But Erzsi decided not to take Sari into the Ghetto, and they went back to the safe house instead. Sari gave birth to twins a week later, and neither of them survived the hardships of life at that time. One of them lived for about a week, the other one, Kati, survived for a month or so.
A week before Sándor came home from Mauthausen, Erzsébet’s two brothers came back and told her that her husband was alive and would be coming home. A week after his return, their son István (Steven) was born.
Erzsébet’s two brothers went to Israel “and we stayed there because my mother-in-law was alone and stayed with us and we stayed in Hungary, like a dummy, for 10 years.” My parents begged us to come to the United States.” Sándor worked as a shoemaker in a children’s shoe factory and they had another child, a daughter Zsuzsánna (Susan). They lived a secret Jewish life. “I kept kosher at home to respect the tradition and the family. But at Chanukah and holiday time, we had to close the wood windows, so nobody should see the candlelight.” And the children went to a secret Talmud Torah Hebrew school after their regular school. When László was 14 years old, after the Hungarian revolution, the Russians came to the door, put a gun to his face, and wanted to take him away. He was so terrified that he could not remember any Russian that he had learned; but he was saved. “You don’t know why they did something; they just did.”
So, after ten years of a hard life, “I went to ask a very fine gentleman, what kind of responsibility a parent has with three children to illegally cross the border when your life and your children’s life is really in danger? He said not bigger than staying three Jewish kids in Hungary.” So they walked from Budapest to the Austrian border and crossed illegally on December 15, 1956. They dodged searchlights, with László carrying his little sister, and arrived at Andau, an Austrian village. “I had to give my little daughter a sleeping pill; I was scared that she doesn’t wake up at that time, but it was okay and we crossed. There were 11 or 12 people with us.” Because her parents and sister were there, they received special permission to come to the United States. They arrived on January 29, 1957. “I came with three children with open arms to my sister’s house. And I tell you something, 27 years we were separated, and 2 days later, 3 days, the 27 years never happened.” Compared to Auschwitz, “it was a much harder life than mine. It was hard but the hardest part was your little kid crying from hunger and you can’t help it.”
“When we left and the ship started to come to the United States, and the music was playing the Hungarian anthem, I started to cry; at that time I didn’t know why. And then I said to myself, you cry because of the shame, the hurt pushes you to cry. My parents’ family were there for 150 years . . . and you have to leave with a backpack and three children. Later, in America, it was alright to cry, but that cry was different. I cry because the joy of the personal and the religious freedom make me cry.”
They became U.S. citizens in 1962, changing their name to Weiss. Sándor died in 1997 after suffering with dementia for 11 years. Sándor and Elizabeth had four wonderful children, Leslie Weiss (m. Avra), Steven Weiss (m. Linda), Susan Schonberger (m. Rabbi Joseph), and Linda Wolok (m. Richard), eight grandchildren (David, Jeffrey, and Michael Weiss, Jason and Jeremy Weiss, and Dav?d z”l, Samuel, and Eliana Schonberger), and 14 great-grandchildren. One of her great-grandchildren is becoming a bar mitzvah in June 2013. “I said to him, ‘you know Ari, you’re celebrating soon your bar mitzvah.’ He said ‘Grandma, Bubbe Weiss, I’m not celebrating my bar mitzvah; we’re celebrating your birthday together.’ That’s why it’s worth to live, the kids.”
In closing, Elizabeth recalls and wants to share the important lesson she learned from her father when they were in the Bethlen Square Synagogue safe house. “My father said ‘go out and eat, bacon, whatever you have a chance, eat.’ And that was a very big thing for a Jewish Orthodox man to say. I said, ‘did you eat?’ He said, ‘no, I don’t have to live anymore. You are young, you have a little boy, and you have to tell the next generation what happened. That’s why you have to eat, and you go and eat.’ That is my message for the next generation. That’s what he said, ‘you are young, you have children, and somebody has to tell what happened for the next generation.’”
[Oral History Interview supplemented with information provided on Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany Questionnaires for Elizabeth and Sándor Weiss and follow-up with Steven Weiss and Avra Weiss.]
Date of Interview: March 12, 2013
Length of Interview: 50 minutes
Interview & Synopsis by: Zieva Konvisser
Videographer: Fred Safran
To view this oral history video interview, please click here.