Book of Life Stories

The Story of Thomas, a Holocaust survivor

R Sugarman

Thomas, age 4

Born in 1936 in Banska Bystrica a provincial city in eastern part of Czechoslovakia. I was three when the country was subjected to dismemberment. The Germans decided to acquire the western part of Czechoslovakia (Bohemia and Moravia) to form a Protektorat. Slovakia, where we were living, was to become an “independent” state – a satellite of Germany.

In Slovakia, the anti-Jewish racial laws were quickly implemented. Jews couldn’t have businesses, own any shops, couldn’t be employed in Government or go to university.

In their grocery shop, my parents worked at least 10 hours a day. Suddenly when I was about four, they lost the business without compensation and my father became instantly unemployed. A year later, with no income we moved to a smaller flat. Being between 20 and 50, my father and all the Jewish men like him were rounded up for menial forced labour on roads, or in the forests. He came home for a day or two on the weekend. After several months he was ordered to pack a bigger suitcase, a sign that he would go further away, he could not know where. On 26th March 1942, we embraced and said goodbye, and that was the last time that I saw him. I found out years later that he was on the first transport to one of the most vicious extermination camps, Majdanek.

Unexpectedly one day, my uncle arrived from a distant town, and said, “pack the most essential things. I heard that all the families of deportees will go as well, you can’t stay here”. So we packed what could fit in the taxi in a few minutes, and we went to Sered, my mother’s birthplace. In Sered was one of the concentration camps in Slovakia, used mainly as a transit camp before the inmates were sent to extermination camps. We went to my grandmother’s house but when we arrived she wasn’t there. In the short time that my uncle went to pick us up, the Nazis had taken her. My uncle was lucky enough to bribe some guards and bring her home. It was dangerous to stay because the raids could happen any day. We hid indoors all this time. When we heard of coming raids, we went behind a cupboard that hid an unused bathroom, shifting the cupboard so no one could see the door behind it. But later we were caught up in another raid which surprised us. We were ordered to pack 15kgs each. My grandmother, my mother and myself, went across the road to an estate where all Jews were ordered to assemble and we were waiting until the trucks came to take us to the railway station.

Of course at that time I didn’t know what was going on as I was only 6 years old. My uncle had a permit as some Jews essential to the economy could get exempted from going to concentration camps. So there we were, 100 to 200 people, families with children, old people mainly. It was quite hot, I think it was end of May or June, European summer, and my uncle once again came to the rescue and advised us to go behind a haystack in the yard. “If somebody asks you, say that Thomas is sick”. We were standing there and a soldier came and asked what is going on. My mother explained that I was vomiting, and he disregarded us and we stayed there. A few minutes later the trucks arrived and all the people were herded into the trucks and taken away, including my grandmother.

They went to Auschwitz. The day behind the haystack was the last time we saw my grandmother. My uncle tried to save her but he couldn’t do anything.

We waited until dark. My uncle organized peasant clothing for my mum, and we returned home hoping that no one would recognize us. But it was dangerous to stay because they would come again, so we moved to the attic, where in European houses they dry the washing and the fruit. It was quite large, but very hot in summer, cold in winter. My grandfather had a hardware shop and a workshop where 3 or 4 people worked. The person in charge of the shop lived in the other part of the house, the only one who knew about us. The front part of the house comprised a hardware shop owned originally by my grandfather and in the backyard a workshop. During the day we couldn’t go to the yard because of people working and customers, so we had to be in the attic. We couldn’t talk the whole day and could move only slowly that no one should hear us.

I got used to it because it was explained that it was dangerous. My transformation from childhood to adulthood was instant, because I was in a life-threatening situation. There was no time for adjustment, no time for preparation and no time even for explanation. It was a matter of life or death. I was deprived of my childhood, of my playmates and friends, of my basic education and basic living conditions.

With my mother we devised different games, games that we played with words. I remember that I had quite a good fantasy. I imagined that I have a plane factory situated in Ankara, Turkey, and my mother was a customer. I had an old Atlas and knew the capital cities. During the day it wasn’t very light but we could still see. My mother taught me to write. She tried to teach me the basics. I think we had only one book for Grade 1. During the night we left the freezing attic for the cellar, which was reasonably warm.

So it went on for several months. The person who lived in the house was an alcoholic, but he understood that this put us at risk of discovery, and then he would be shot. He didn’t want to risk it, and so my uncle organized Christian papers. It cost a lot of money but would do us no good if we stayed in the same city because everybody knew us. We moved about 60kms away. A friend of my uncle who he knew from school arranged a room above an old restaurant. We stayed there for about a week, but the owners came one afternoon and said that the Nazis were searching for Jews in that area. Even without us telling them, they knew we were Jews. We contacted the friend who had organized the room, and he took us to a village which was a few km’s away. We used the excuse that the Americans were bombarding the capital city, and I was sick, and needed fresh air. It was the same story again – they thought that we were Jewish so we had to pay them. They cooked for us, as we didn’t have facilities. We went to another smaller village where everybody knew everybody. We had to hide. Again they had a cellar by the farmhouse. Once a day they brought us some food. Some people were not sympathetic to the Nazis and risked their lives for us. We went from one place to another with the help of such people. I became sick because it was very cold, probably I developed pneumonia or pleurisy, and there were no antibiotics at this time. We had to go to a doctor in the nearest town, one we knew was not a sympathizer. I was undernourished. She told me I must eat much better and must keep warm, which was sometimes difficult.

We couldn’t stay in the cellar and had to move again to a different village and tried to go to a family so that we can live inside where it was warm, and pay for board. We stayed there for a few months in the winter. On Sundays, they invited my mother to the church: she couldn’t refuse because they didn’t know that we were Jewish. Copying them, she would cross herself, kneel, and do exactly as they. I stayed in bed. And so it went on for quite a while. It was dangerous and we were advised we should move again to a different place. I learned later that some people had become suspicious and reported us. We went to a different family, about 50kms from the other village. We were hiding in some type of attic. There was a mattress, but food was scare. My mother didn’t eat at all; she gave everything to me. When we were liberated she was like a skeleton. Now nine, I had worn the same clothing since I was six, I was so small. They cut my hair with shears because I couldn’t go to the barber. Hygiene did not exist, it was not important. Sometimes we washed. I don’t remember about brushing teeth. It wasn’t important, it was a matter of life and death.

We went from one place to another. These memories are actually secondhand. I can’t remember but I know that my mother was very desperate, and couldn’t see any outcome or solution. After two years of this, when she was afraid there was no place to finally go, she decided to give herself up. In the village there was only 2 or 3 telephones, and she phoned a taxi. From the closest town came a taxi. She wanted to go back to Sered where we came from, and go to the authorities and give ourselves up. We had been in hiding for two years. The taxi driver asked where we wanted to go. It was probably a 90-minute drive to Sered. My mother told him to go to the Nazi headquarters and he said, “don’t be like that, it is not worth it; the war will be over very soon. I have some friends, I will take you to another village”. He took us there and we were once again in hiding. If we had a different taxi driver, we wouldn’t be alive. There were not many who cared, but there were some.

There were a few others like us who went into hiding and survived the war. Many were caught even if they were hiding. Every life saved is extraordinary in one way, but the odds were never in our favour, there were so many near misses. My mother once went with somebody to a mill to buy some flour; on the way back they stopped her. She had her ID with her, they looked at her and she didn’t look Jewish, luckily. But, if I was with her, it would be easy because I was circumcised. In Slovakia only Jews were circumcised, nobody else. That’s why I was always hidden. Either I was in the bed or I was hidden somewhere, because I was a liability. I carried the proof that I was Jewish.

In October 1944 the German Wehrmacht occupied Slovakia, but we were so remote that they didn’t even think that there were any Jewish people in hiding there. We were with a family who were not sympathetic to the Nazis. Most of the time we were in a barn or a farmhouse cellar, but sometimes we went to the forests when they heard that the Germans were coming.

The last two weeks before liberation were spent in this cellar. We could hear the planes and distant fighting. The Russian army arrived on 1 April 1945. We didn’t want to come out; we didn’t believe that we were liberated. That’s how it went in the three years since my father left until 1 April 1945. Exactly three years in hiding.

After the liberation my mother told me to start to be happy because we are free. We don’t have to worry to be uncovered and I should try to wipe out all the bad memories from the past. We did not have counselors and psychologists. We had to deal with all our problems ourselves. After liberation I looked forward to being reunited with my beloved father, whom I missed so terribly during my hiding years. I waited for many years with hope that one-day he will show up.

For my uncle the working permit expired and he joined us in hiding. Luckily he managed to bring sufficient sums of money to pay the family.

A few weeks after liberation we returned to our grandparents home in Sered. The population was not very sympathetic towards us. One night my uncle was ambushed on the street, beaten unconscious, but he miraculously survived.

My mother remarried after the war. When we finally had evidence that my father was killed, people advised my mother to remarry because of me. It is difficult to bring up a child alone. My mother was very protective. If I survived everything, she did not want to lose me afterwards. If I analyze now, I?m sure that it affected me, and my children. My stepfather’s three children perished with his wife in the Holocaust. He wanted to marry a woman who had children, to replace his children. Because I didn’t believe that my father died, I was expecting him for many, many years. I didn’t accept my stepfather for a long time.

Much later when I tried to do a family tree, I could not account for 24 close relatives. They had a similar fate as my father. The Nazis murdered them all.

Based on an interview with R Sugarman 5 June 2003

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