Betlen (Hungary), Dej (Romania), Auschwitz, Leipzig, Buchenwald, Theresienstadt
Mr. Pasternak was born in Betlen, Hungary in 1924, which had a Jewish population of about 1,700. He went to public school in nearby Romania where the King was on the cover of all his school books.
There was great corruption and bribing during that period. In 1940, part of Transylvania was awarded to the Hungarians. Although they were told that the Hungarians were nicer, their songs included messages such as “anyone who has a Jewish friend should put a noose around their neck.”
One night in May 1944, the Hungarians broke down his family’s door, telling them to take a few shirts and go to the schoolyard in exactly thirty minutes.
His mother disappeared and when found, said she was taken by the police to be interrogated. She told her husband that she had taken some money to a neighbor/friend of thirty years and said “if we come back, please return our money. If not, give it to our children. If they don’t come back, then you may keep it.” The good friend, Mrs. Alessi, then turned Mrs. Pasternak in to the police.
The Pasternaks: father, Oseas; mother Serina; and six sons (Menachem and Bezalel, both of whom died, Abraham Isaac, Joseph and Shlomo.) were all kept in the schoolyard until dark.
Drummers announced the news: that every able bodied Jewish man, age 22-44 should report to the Police. Some were drafted into the labor force. Abraham’s two oldest brothers were drafted. Abraham had to clean the streets, soccer fields and latrines and begin to wear armbands. They knew nothing about what was happening in either Poland nor Germany.
Abraham was then eighteen when they were marched sixteen miles to Dej. There was no shelter and hardly any food. Those who were sixteen to twenty had to dig ditches for twelve hours at a time.
The Jews who wore beards and side curls were quickly shaven. His mother didn’t recognize her husband after being shaved.
There were screams of “Jews to the railroads!” They were given one loaf of bread and two buckets as they boarded three boxcars, traveling three days and nights to Czechoslovakia and then on to Poland.
They arrived in Auschwitz where the stench was unbearable. The SS had whips and screamed “Juden, Raus!” They were asked for money, gold and diamonds; teeth were pulled out and fingers cut off to take the rings quickly. There was a lineup headed by Dr. Mengele who made the decisions.
While he was at Auschwitz, 3200 people were killed every day. Polish and German civilians still said they didn’t know anything. His most precious possession became a wooden spoon and a bowl. The prisoners were also given one pair of underwear and three pairs of pajamas. They drank dark water (supposedly coffee) and bread, which they couldn’t save, as another prisoner would kill for it.
They were given postcards to write home and told to lie down in barracks. They did nothing for ten days except to be counted. They wore striped pajamas that were used and soiled. They were told by prisoners that from arrival to death was approximately ninety days. They suffered through five to six counts every day.
Next they were transported to Buchenwald, stopping on the way in Leipzig where they saw the headlines in newspapers that said “Allies Landed.” However, it took another year before the liberation.
Two of Abraham’s brothers were shipped to an area called Seitz where they worked in a factory. He was kept in Buchenwald for four months. Everyday there was a new job. He was in Barrack 57 where his number was 57929, meaning 929 people were there. They slept ten in a row and the food was at midday: one loaf of bread for three prisoners. They were shipped to the Schleben area to work on Bazooka missiles.
One of the prisoners was a chemist who told them to sabotage the missiles by putting in salt. These missiles were used at the Battle of the Bulge. They were not passive and tried everything they could to sabotage the German war efforts.
The guards brought sandwiches loaded with knockwurst and salami and threw their crusts on the floor. The prisoners would try to eat their discards.
Next stop for them was Theresienstadt where they were liberated by the Russians on May 8, 1945. Abraham weighed only eighty pounds. His two brothers who were sent to Seitz survived. He was sent to the hospital.
He still thinks about his decision to send his younger brother to “go find our parents,” on the left hand side, not knowing that “left” meant death. He said “It was insanity over there.”
After the liberation, he had to recuperate for three months because he was so weak, then he went home and found nothing there. He chose to come to the U.S. instead of Palestine because the refugees were put in camps there. He had $7.50 in his pocket and was the acting chaplin in the U.S. army. He married and has a son, Marty and a daughter, Judy.
Interviewer: Sidney Bolkosky
Length: 40 minutes
Format: Video recording
Length: 50 minutes
Format: Video recording