Today’s guest columnist is Teresa (T.K.) Thorne.
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How could students from a Birmingham-area school think it’s cool to draw swastikas on each other? This happened recently and brought home a warning.
As the currents of time stream forward, the events of history can be twisted, misunderstood, forgotten, or even denied. Time is taking from us eyewitnesses to the reality and atrocities of the Holocaust, the people who can say, “I was there, and this happened.”
Louisa Weinrib realized this three decades ago and began recording interviews with survivors who lived in Montgomery, Alabama. Working with the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center, I had the honor of writing a biographical sketch from Louisa’s interview with Susan Eisenberg Petrov—a teenager in WWII. Susan had never told her family about her experiences. The interview was the first time she had talked about what happened to her to anyone other than those who had gone through it with her. Hers is a story of amazing strength, resourcefulness, and friendship.
Susan Eisenberg’s childhood was full of promise. An only child, she was born in 1924 into a family that proudly traced their Hungarian lineage back a hundred years. She grew up in the small town of Miskolc, where her father had a successful business buying and exporting livestock and grains for a farming cooperative.
Susan was aware of anti-Semitic sentiment, but it didn’t touch her early life. The Jewish community was well integrated into Hungarian society, and she had many Christian friends.
She spoke Hungarian and German, loved to ice-skate and ski, and wanted to go to college, but by the time she was of college age, Jews could not attend.
Her loving and close-knit family gathered after synagogue at her home, where they also celebrated the Seder. On weekends, they offered a tradition of high tea for family and neighbors.
Trouble began in 1938 with a small Hungarian Nazi party that grew in strength, paralleling the party’s growth in Germany. After Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939, Polish refugees fled into Hungary, bringing what seemed unbelievable stories of what was happening in Poland. Without a birth certificate validating birth in Hungary, officials shipped the fleeing civilians back to Poland. An army friend confided to Susan that, in reality, the Poles were taken across the border and shot. Even when people began wearing brown shirts with swastika armbands and spouting slogans, Susan recalled, the Jewish community just ignored it.
In 1940 Hungary became an Axis power. Hitler, who invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, demanded that Hungary join that war. Susan’s uncle died when he was forced to walk with others into a field between the German and Russian armies to test for the presence of land mines. Her father was taken to a work camp. Released the following year, he was ill and depressed and died soon after at 44. After his death, Susan and her mother moved to the city of Budapest to live with relatives.
Although the Jews in Hungary suffered under tightening restrictions, Hungary’s regent protected them for a time from Hitler’s “final solution”—extermination—until Hitler discovered the regent was secretly negotiating an armistice with the US and the UK. On Easter Sunday in March 1944, Susan was having coffee with a friend on a cafe terrace and saw German panzer tanks rolling over the bridges into Budapest. The Germans occupied and quickly seized control of the country.
The Nazis rounded up her family members who were still living in the countryside. The relatives sent postcards—which Susan and her mother later learned the Nazis forced them to write—advising they were well and going to Thersienstadt (a concentration camp/ghetto in Terezin). All of them perished in that camp.
In Budapest, Allied forces regularly bombed the city. Everyone carried bags of food at all times, never knowing when they might have to run into the air-raid shelters. Jews were required to wear a yellow star patch on their clothing and live in designated housing. Restrictions dictated when they could leave the house and forbid them to go to public parks or even walk on the sidewalks. They could work only in manual labor positions. Jewish professionals, doctors and dentists, could only practice on Jewish patients.
Susan was 19, with light blonde hair and blue eyes. She pulled off the yellow star from her clothes and snuck out into the country to get food. Once, on her return, Germans soldiers in a vehicle, not realizing she was a Jew, picked her up. They asked for a date. Heart pounding, she agreed, lying about where she lived, and promised to meet them later. Safely home, she looked down at her clothes and realized that a closer inspection would have revealed the stitch holes from the star she’d removed.
When the Russian army was approaching Budapest, the Hungarian Nazis ordered Susan to report for labor with her age group and sent them to dig foxholes. Their Hungarian Nazi guards were 14 or 15-year-olds. When a young girl working at Susan’s side sat down and cried for her mother, those guards immediately shot her.
For two days and nights in the cold and rain, with no food, the guards ran them back to Budapest to work in a brick factory where she met two girls her age, Ferry (Ferike Csato) and Katherine (Katherine Goldstein Prevost). Susan, pretending to be crippled and part of a group of sick and injured destined for Budapest and death. She escaped and made it to her aunt and uncle’s house, but the following day Hungarian gendarmes (police) rounded her up with others. The gendarmes forced even mothers from their babies to join with those in the streets.
Their Hungarian guards told them they were taking them to Germany to die. “The one who dies on the road is lucky,” they said. Over a ten-day period in October, they walked in rain, ice, and cold from Budapest to the German border (125 miles) to Hegyeshalomover. Thousands were shot for lagging behind or collapsing. A few country people along the way gave them a piece of bread. Others stripped them of their clothes. Guards kicked them. They slept in flea-invested hay.
Anyone who had anything of value traded it to the peasants for food. They fought for a share of rare carrot or bean soup.
One night, the guards packed them onto a barge on the Danube River. Overwhelmed by the press of dying people, Susan escaped by swimming to the bank in the freezing river. She begged a man she encountered to help her or just get her something dry to wear. He agreed but instead returned with police who escorted her back to the prisoners.
At the German border, they marched another ten miles to trains. Jammed into cattle cars, they traveled for days but couldn’t see out because black slats covered the cars. She was only aware of repetitive stopping and starting.
Finally, in October 1944, the trains arrived at Dachau concentration camp in Germany, their destination. The smell of the crematorium camp would stay in her nostrils for the rest of her life, as would the shock of her first sight of the skeletal prisoners who mobbed them, begging for bread. Guards beat the prisoners back.
The newly arrived assembled in a large open field, waiting to go in. But even with bodies being constantly cremated, there was no room for them in Dachau. Susan and her two friends, Ferry and Katherine, went with other girls to Camp Two and then Camp Eleven (nearby work camps). They slept in bunkers below ground on a wooden floor and a pallet of straw. Camp Two, they quickly learned, was the “sick camp.” The next stop for Camp Two occupants would be the crematorium in Dachau.
At the satellite camps, they were given striped uniforms. About 500 people lived in each barrack with a block leader in charge. Food came once a day in a big wooden barrel with hot water and big hunks of sugar beets. At night they received a piece of bread that “oozed sawdust and a piece of artificial marmalade.” At first, she couldn’t swallow it. The older inmates encouraged her to “eat it, no matter what.”
Each day, the prisoners were called out to stand, sometimes for hours, in the cold for a count and work assignments (Appell). “If you fell out, you were beaten or shot. If a friend was dying, you made sure that she stood up, no matter what, and wasn’t left in the barracks.”
In the first Appell, Susan was picked to work in a kitchen where she peeled beets. Germans brought in prisoners for punishment, hanging them from rafters and beating them. She and the kitchen workers constantly cleaned the blood from the floors. She hid beets inside her baggy shirt and shared it with her camp mates and the Muselmann—the starving, skin-and-bones prisoners resigned to their impending death.
Susan was transferred to different camps for work assignment. At one, German engineers of the Wehrmacht (Armed Forces), instead of SS troops, ran the camp. More humane, their military task masters distributed pieces of food to the workers, food that kept Susan alive. Barehanded and dressed only in the thin striped uniforms and sockless wooden clogs, Susan and her fellow prisoners pulled wagons of wood in the Bavarian winter mountains. Sometimes she was taken from the camp to wash clothes for German housewives. She also worked in the Sonderkommando (work groups at crematoriums) to remove teeth from the corpses of the murdered for the gold fillings.
Her health was deteriorating. She had lost weight and suffered from reoccurring high fevers. Typhoid broke out in the camp. There was no medication. To isolate the prisoners, the guards stopped letting them leave, throwing beets and bread over the fence.
In early March 1945, after the epidemics, a female guard beat her for speaking defiantly to a camp commander. People all around her were giving in to despair, but she refused to do so, vowing she would survive.
At another work camp, Susan joined women prisoners building an underground airplane hangar. They were forced to carry 100-pound bags of cement across a catwalk several stories high. The Muselmann went down instantly under the burden, falling to their deaths. “There was,” Susan said, “as much blood and flesh in that hanger as cement.”
An inmate orchestra played as she and other workers left the camp and on their return. Guards made the orchestra watch and play during beatings and hangings and while starved prisoners–who had tried to grab potatoes from a wagon—were strung up between the electrical barbed wire, potatoes stuck in their mouths.
Once, the Germans spruced up a barracks, putting in furniture and stocking it with people they found “not in terrible shape” for the Swiss Red Cross, who had come to inspect the treatment of prisoners. As soon as they were gone, the Germans took the untouched piles of canned foods, condensed milk, and chocolate the Red Cross had left for the prisoners.
One barrack’s occupants were expectant mothers. They were allowed to give birth to their babies and tend them. Then one day, without warning, all the infants were taken away, the women sent to the work groups.
To use the open trenches to relieve themselves, Susan had to walk through knee-deep mud at night, sometimes stepping on top of the bodies of those who had fallen there and died in the mud. Survival, she knew, depended on not allowing yourself to feel and thinking only of the moment.
Her last assignment was in a dynamite factory. By this time, the air raids were almost continuous. Landsberg, a nearby town, was under siege by the Americans. In April 1945, guards took her and her friends to the main camp in Dachau. They spent a night in the showers at Dachau, believing they would next be taken to the crematoriums, which were still “going strong.” But the next day, with thousands of young people, they were marched out of the camp. As they left, they could see the trains that continued to bring prisoners from other camps [to keep the Allies from discovering them], many already sick and emaciated. When the doors opened, dead bodies fell out. Inmates stacked them like mountains in front of the crematoriums to be burned. But the Germans had run out of time. The American guns were days away.
They marched from Dachau, walking at night and hiding in the woods during the day. Allowed to dig in the fields they passed for roots and potatoes, they ate them raw. All understood the guards’ orders were to march them into the mountains and kill them in the forests where the Allies would not discover their bodies. Guards shot in the head anyone who lagged or fell. Susan was sick and feverish. She could not walk on her own, but three friends, Katherine, Ferry, and another supported her, keeping her from collapsing.
As they struggled through the mountains and meadows of Bavaria, guards began deserting in the cover of night. American planes flew low enough Susan could read the insignia on the wings. The pilots, who surely saw the striped uniforms, refrained from dropping bombs.
Five days later, what remained of their group arrived at a work camp for Russian prisoners in the small German town of Wolfratshausen. The first task of their remaining Nazi guards was to take the Russian prisoners of war and shoot them. Knowing they were next, Susan lay on the roadside, too sick and exhausted to react. Then she heard a roar—the first American jeep of the Third Army coming down the road—liberators.
The German guards fled, but their liberators were combat troops, unable to care medically for the freed prisoners. The Americans moved on, and the liberated were left to fend for themselves.
Typhoid once again thinned their ranks. Her friends held out tin cans for food the passing American soldiers threw to them. Survivors that were able, brought supplies from the town and cooked soups. Reports that Americans fed and clothed German prisoners, playing baseball and basketball with them in the prison camps, ignited bitterness and anger. Many Jews took abandoned weapons and hunted the German SS who had tortured them and killed their friends and families.The sound of gunfire in the surrounding forests peppered the nights.
They spent the summer in the woods, slowly regaining their strength, then Susan, Katherine and Ferry trekked to a displaced persons camp. Although her friends wished to immigrate to Israel, Susan wanted to go home to Hungary. And they chose to go with her.
They walked to Prague, a journey of 145 miles, where a Russian troop train allowed them to ride. Arriving finally at their destination of Budapest, they found it devastated. Susan couldn’t find her house in the rubble . . . or her mother. They tried to find work. Inflation made money worthless. A friend of her uncle finally gave her a job in the ministry [government] which paid the workers in potatoes and bread. They lived in a room open to the elements; bombs had destroyed the windows and doors.
Ferry convinced Susan to go with her, Katherine, and two Sabra (Israeli) agents who were attempting to get fifty Polish Jewish children to Israel. The children had survived by hiding in Christian homes. Susan and her friends rode with them by train to the Hungarian border where they had to walk about 200 miles.
The friends, with the two Sabra agents and three other men, accompanied the children through heavy snow in the fields and woods. Twice, they paid off Russians who stopped them, but the third time, at the German border, they had to make a run for it. They abandoned all their belongings in their dash for freedom. Older children carried the younger ones. Russian bullets followed them. Once safely across, the children continued through Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Cyprus and then into Israel. But Susan still did not want to go to Israel.
Later, Susan said she regretted that decision and felt pride in what Israel stood for. “You know, even if you have to die, if you die on your feet fighting, it’s a heck of a lot different than to be shoved into a gas chamber [to] die like mice or cockroaches, or whatever.”
Susan lived in Germany for three years, then married a GI and came to America in 1948, becoming a U.S. citizen. She had two children, Diane and Leslie, and lived on Long Island, NY. Struggled with multiple health issues, she worked in various factories to pay her medical bills before getting a clerical job on Mitchel Air Force Base, which turned into a civil service career of 30 years.
She divorced and eventually married another serviceman. With his transfer to Maxwell Air Force Base, they moved to Montgomery, Alabama.
Ferry and Katherine joined relatives in America, and the three friends kept in touch for the rest of their lives. Finally locating her mother, who had returned to Budapest, Susan brought her to Montgomery in 1956.
Susan Petrov Eisenberg died in Montgomery, Alabama, in 2008.
The past can seem superficial and meaningless to students barraged with dates and names. Maybe if they heard Susan’s story, or the stories of other survivors, they would have a better understanding of history, of what the Nazi regime did, and what the swastika symbolizes. It’s our job to make sure they do.
(Susan was one of the survivors who made Alabama their home after WWII. Others’ stories and a wealth of educational material is available at the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center website.)
T.K. Thorne, a retired Birmingham police captain and former director of downtown’s CAP, explores murder, mayhem, and magic in her newest novel, House of Rose. Her books include award-winning historical novels, Noah’s Wife and Angels at the Gate, and her nonfiction, Last Chance for Justice, details the investigation and trials of the 1963 Birmingham church-bombing case. Her forthcoming nonfiction is Behind the Magic Curtain: Secrets, Spies, and Unsung White Allies of Birmingham’s Civil Rights Days. She writes from her mountaintop Alabama home. TKThorne.com
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