Terrible journeys

Terrible journeys

Irene and Manny Buchman talk about their Holocaust experiences

Manny and Irene Buchman at a family celebration in 2011.

There are many paths into hell.

There is the short, direct one that Irena Berkowitz, as she was called then, was herded onto. It led straight to Auschwitz.

Manny Buchman took a much longer, circuitous route; it allowed him some interesting vistas, and he was able to pause occasionally, toward the beginning. Eventually, though, he too ended up in a death camp.

Manny and Irena – now Irene – Buchman have been married since 1958. They live in a neat, sunlit townhouse in a cozy, prewar Englewood court off a street of grand houses. They rebuilt their lives, had two daughters and now six grandchildren and so far one great-grandchild. They talk to and about each other with the love and ease that comes from decades together.

But they have terrible stories to tell.

In January, they went back to Auschwitz to mark the day, exactly 70 year earlier, when its gates were opened and its prisoners were liberated – or at least those prisoners who were strong enough to withstand the shock to their enfeebled systems that food, water, and human compassion gave them.

Last month, back at home, they told their stories again. After all these years, after so many retellings, some parts of the story come quickly, but other parts are so painful that even after all these years and retellings, they can be told only haltingly and with obvious effort.

Both Irene and Manny were born in the Carpathian Mountains, in what was then Czechoslovakia, had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, became Hungarian during their childhoods, later was taken by the Soviet Union, and at least for now is in Ukraine. He is from Kobiania and she from Bilke, close to the city of Munkatch.

Although they did not meet until much later, they described very similar upbringings, taking over each other’s stories, finishing each other’s sentences, filling in missing facts.

The culture in which they lived was profoundly Jewish, and it influenced their entire lives.

“Our families lived for Shabbes,” Irene said. “Their lives focused around holidays and Shabbes. On Friday, we used to help my mother to clean. We even cleaned the brass on the door. We used to have brass clocks, and we had to polish them every single week. We had to polish the floors every week.

“My father used to go to shul, and my mother used to make challah. We used to make soup and chulent and kugel.”

“On Thursday nights, my mother prepared the dough for the challah,” Manny said. “She would get up at 3, 4 o’clock on Friday to bake the bread for the whole week, and to cook for Shabbes. We would put all the soup and the meat and the chicken in the oven on Friday afternoon, and it would cook all night.”

The boys went to cheder, but the girls went to public school, and “the government paid a rabbi who came once a week and taught us Hebrew and religion,” Irene said.

She loved school. “The Czechs were so progressive when it came to education!” she said. It began with kindergarten. “When my father took me, I must have been 4 years old. He wrapped me in a big shawl, so I shouldn’t be cold, and he carried me to kindergarten, five days a week.” It was a public school, but “everyone in the kindergarten was Jewish,” she reported.

The area was polyglot, and so were its children. “We spoke Yiddish at home, and we didn’t associate too much with gentiles,” Irene said.

“We boys went to cheder, and we translated from Hebrew to Yiddish,” Manny added. “We spoke Yiddish at home, and outside we spoke Ukrainian.”

“Our parents went to Hungarian schools,” Irene continued; “My mother would write to her sister in Hungarian,” the Buchmans’ daughter Diane Strobel, added. Eventually, toward the end of Irene’s time in school, Hungarian became the language of instruction.

The people of the Carpathian region were used to change.

The Nazis did not enter Hungary until 1944, but bad news started filtering toward them much earlier. “When Hitler came to power in 1933, we heard about the anti-Jewish laws in Poland, in Hungary, in Czechoslovakia,” Manny said. “We knew about it from the newspapers. We still had a democracy, and we used to pray for those Jews.

“When Hitler occupied Poland in 1939, we prayed for the Polish Jews. When he conquered France and Belgium, we prayed for the Jews there. And when they occupied our lands, no one remained to pray for us.”

Irene, who was born in 1926, tells her story first. “I had a very normal childhood,” she said. She went to shul if she wanted to and didn’t if she did not – “I was a girl,” she said – but she was defined by her Jewishness. And pretty soon also by a new idea, Zionism.

“There were a lot of Zionist groups in our town, so they used to rent a big room, and we used to go there,” she said. “It was a very nice get-together. We used to learn Hebrew songs and dances. It very much influenced me. I would love to be in Israel one day.” But that move seemed much more a dream than a reality. “Our rabbi said that we would be going to a treif land, that we wouldn’t be Jews any more in Israel.”

And moving would be hard. “Most of the people there didn’t want to leave. If somebody came and offered to send families to Israel, and get their property there, they still wouldn’t want to go. They were afraid to leave.”

Very quickly, everything went bad.

In 1944, on the last day of Pesach, when Jews are meant to be celebrating liberation, two weeks before Hitler invaded Hungary, the world went black for the Jews of Bilke. They were told that “all the Jews have to gather in the big shul, and that we could bring as much as we want,” she said. “Passover ended with Shabbat, and on Sunday morning we had to pack whatever we wanted – bedding, some dishes, and whatever little bits of foods we had – and we went to the shul, and from there, after the shul, on the trains.” She was with her family – her parents, sister, and brothers.

“They took us to a brick-making factory.” It had been made into barracks, but it was open from both sides, like a backless dollhouse. “There were no walls,” Irene said. “There was no nothing. Everybody took a piece of property there.” Families, stuck next to each other, used bedsheets to demarcate their few feet of floor space. They lived like that, in little wall-less compartments, for six weeks. “We had down covers, so at night we were okay, and then in May it started getting warmer,” she said. “But nothing was private.”

She does not remember where the food came from, beyond the few meals people had been able to bring from home. They also had almost nothing to do but sit and worry, although sometimes, some of the girls were able to go to work in a local factory; their captors would bring them there in the morning and return them in the evening.

And then, six weeks later, they put some of the captives “on cattle trains, going to Birkenau.

“They squeezed us all in, and left all our stuff behind.” They didn’t know what was next, although they knew it wasn’t going to be good. “We didn’t know we were going to a concentration camp, to a gas chamber,” Irene said. “We didn’t have any idea where we were going. It was very disorienting, and it was frightening.”

Manny broke in to tell a story. “We had a young lady who was abnormal, although she was physically okay,” he said. “My sister told me that when they took people to the trains from my town, when they pushed them into the trains, that girl was screaming in Yiddish, ‘They are taking us to burn us.'”

“We were on the train for 10 days,” Irene continued. “The train was going very slowly. Children were crying, and people were not feeling good. Somehow we all made it until we came to Auschwitz. We didn’t know where we were going. We went like little lambs who have no say going to the slaughterhouse. We didn’t know what would happen to us. We just went.

“It was unbelievable. We didn’t even cry. We didn’t do anything. When we saw the capos, those Jewish boys – I had cookies, my mother had baked them, I don’t know how, in a frying pan in the ghetto. I offered them to one of them, and he said, ‘oh no no no.’ He didn’t take them. But he didn’t tell me what would happen.”

The men and the women were separated. The women were undressed, and their hair was cut off. They were put in a shower, and then given something rag-like to wear, and they went to the barracks. “My mother was with us for two weeks, because she was still a young woman,” Irene said. “And an aunt was there, and also my sister. We all got our hair cut off, but my mother somehow got a kerchief, and she covered her head. But they left us with nothing.

“We were put in barracks, they had walls, and wooden bed planks, 13 girls sleeping on one of them, with nothing. No cover, no pillows, no sheets, just 13 girls on each plank, in two rows.

“Each and every morning we went out for counting, rain or shine. That was our daily routine. We did hardly anything. We used to go and wash ourselves – we had a little piece of soup.

“After two weeks, they pulled out my mother and my aunt, and I started to cry. I went to the one who was in charge of the whole barracks, and I said, ‘They pulled out my mother, and I would like to have her back,’ and she was sorry for me, and said, ‘All right, I will go and see what I can do.’ She came back to me and said, ‘I cannot do nothing.’ I didn’t believe her, but my aunt said, ‘You have nothing to do here. You go back to your place. Me and your mother, we are going to take care of children.’

“That was a big lie. That’s what they used to say about the people who are not with us, that they are taking care of children.

“I was hugging and kissing her, my mother, and she said take care of Olga. And that was the end of my mother. And I couldn’t do nothing about it, and that was it.”

Her father and brothers already had disappeared forever. “I don’t even know what happened to them,” Irene said.

Josef Mengele, the psychopathic Nazi doctor who experimented on living people, left orders to “choose some girls there,” Irene said. “When the orders came, I was standing in a row with my sister, and she was taken into a big ring of children, who were sent to the back, and they were all holding hands. Probably those kids would have wound up in the gas chamber.

“I don’t know what came over me, but there were a few hundred girls there, all holding hands, and I went and I cut the line, and I pulled Olga by the hand, and then when I did that, all of them dispersed. That’s how I saved my sister.

“Nobody saw it – Mengele was away.

“I went running back to the barracks with my sister – I had cousins there – and I was pounding on the door, yelling ‘Open up! Open up!’ There were some girls in there who were afraid to open it, but finally they did, and that’s how I saved my sister.

“I saved so many kids. I didn’t even know it. Courage came over me, although I was a very timid little girl.”

(That self-assessment clearly is not accurate, as her story proves.)

“From those barracks, they took us deep into Germany, to an ammunition factory. We were about 500 girls. We had individual beds and we got food. We went each and every day into the factory, and I was putting phosphor in the bombs. We stayed together until the end of 1945.” Then, at the end of the war, with Hitler about to lose, the remaining German soldiers forced the girls into trains, which just “went back and forth, back and forth.” Once, one of them was hit lightly by some kind of blast, “two or three girls were hit, but they were all right,” Irene said.

“We were in the woods, and the train stopped, and the Germans ran away.” Telling the story, for the first time since she had begun it, Irene smiled. “And in the morning, the English appeared.”

The surviving girls were taken to a place near the Atlantic. Their rescuers “took care of us. And a lot of girls got sick, because the food – they couldn’t eat it.” They had been so starved for so long that their bodies had lost the ability to process food, and it sickened them even more. “I was probably so scrawny, but I cannot tell,” Irene said.

The British soldiers who cared for them “kept us there for two months, so we could recuperate,” Irene said. “They were kind. They were nice. And after two months, we could go back home.

“So we picked ourselves up, and we went into the trains, and we stopped in Bratislava.” The Jewish Agency and the Jewish community there “pitched in with food, they were very hospitable and made sure we had where to live,” she said. After a few weeks, they went to Budapest, where again the community helped them as they tried to learn what had happened to their families.

“I heard that my uncle was alive, so I left my sister in Budapest and went to a city in the Carpathians and I stayed by my uncle for eight days, my Uncle Hillel, but I never went back to my hometown.”

Life began to seem a little more solid – Irene and Olga went to a friend’s wedding, something that would have been unthinkable less than a year earlier – but “we knew we don’t have parents. We don’t have nothing. We have to make what we can for ourselves.” So they moved to Bamberg, Germany, settled into a Displaced Persons camp, and lived there for three and a half years. During that time, Irene, who always loved to sew, and who had trained as a dressmaker in her mid-teens, “became the DP camp dressmaker.

“In 1949, we got our visas, and we came to the United States,” Irene Berkowitz Buchman said.

We will leave those two valiant women here for a while as we consider Irene’s husband, Manny Buchman, whose story is part picaresque, part pure horror.

Manny, who also was born in 1926, worked in Budapest as a delivery boy in the early 1940s. “In March 1944, I came home for Shabbes. It was 500 kilometers” – that’s about 400 miles – “so I would take the train to Budapest on Saturday night, and I was home by Monday morning, and when I got in, I went right to work.

“On March 19, I was home, I left around 5 in the evening, I traveled the whole night. I got off the train in Budapest, and there were Nazis, Germans – I didn’t know that they had occupied Hungary – and they were screaming and yelling, ‘All Jews to the left! All Jews to the left!’

“I didn’t go to the left.

“At the exit, there was a policeman who asked for papers before you left. I didn’t want the officers should ask me for my papers, so I said, ‘Listen, officer, you want to check me out? Because I have to start work at 8 o’clock.’ And he looked at his watch and he said, ‘Run! You’ll get there on time!’

“And then I went to work.

“A day or two later, a law comes out that every Jew has to wear a yellow star. There was an intersection – we didn’t have traffic lights – with a policeman directing traffic. I was at that intersection four or five times a day.

“Sometimes I wore the yellow star, sometimes I didn’t. The policeman stopped me. He beckoned to me – the police in Budapest were known to be relatively nice to Jewish people – and he said, ‘You are Jewish?’ I said to him, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘How come you don’t wear the yellow star?’ I said, ‘Officer, I don’t have one on every jacket, on every shirt. I have one, on one jacket.’

“He said, ‘I don’t care if you wear it or don’t wear it, but either way, do it all the time. Either wear it steady or don’t wear it ever.’ And he let me go.”

He didn’t wear his star after that.

Manny had papers, and they should have identified him as a Jew, but for some reason they had been filled out incompletely. The space that should have said “Jew” was left blank. He used that to his advantage when he was stopped by a young Nazi, who started quizzing him about his identity. “They used to call each other brother, and I said to him, ‘Listen, brother, you might have time to bull••• but if I am not in my job in five minutes, my boss will fire me.’ And I say to him ‘Heil Hitler’ and he says to me ‘Heil Hitler’ and I left.”

He wasn’t nervous, he said. “If I was nervous, I would be lost.” His looks helped, he said. “If I met gentiles, and they didn’t know me, and I told them that I was Jewish, they would say that I didn’t look Jewish.” Beyond the looks, he was blessed with the kind of sangfroid that allowed him to think clearly and keep going.

He kept himself well informed about the war because “Hungarian stations used to report it, and we used to listen secretly to the BBC in Hungarian.” That also helped.

In the end, though, he got caught. First, in 1944, when he was 18, “I had to register in a military camp, because I was Jewish.” He couldn’t get around it. He was put in a group of young men his age, and “they sent us to work in southern Hungary, in a city where the Germans had a big military airport. We were building runways for them, making concrete by hand.

“There was a German engineer in charge. He wasn’t an anti-Semite – he was a very nice man – and he said, ‘Kids, all that I’m interested in is that you should make as much concrete as you can.’

“There were Hungarian civilians working at that airport who went home at night, and every Friday they got a check. The engineer said, ‘You have to make such and such number of pieces of concrete a day. If you finish it and you make more, I will pay you extra, the way I pay the gentile.’ I had a partner, and by 10 o’clock in the morning we used to be finished, and he’d say, ‘Okay, whatever you make from now on I will pay for.’

“He used to pay us every week. Of course, we didn’t become billionaires, and we were still sleeping there in the barracks.”

He has far too many stories to tell, Manny said, but, to make his story significantly shorter, after the job in the cement factory, he was sent to a labor camp. “I ran away from there,” he said.

“We had an officer in charge, a very nice man. He was a priest, Hungarian, and he was in charge of the Jews in the group. He used to learn with us the Bible.

“In October 1944, the Hungarian prime minister was fired.” (That is shorthand for some very nasty Nazi black politics, too convoluted to go into here.) “We were stationed in Hungary, and the priest said, ‘Listen, kids, if it is true, what we heard, then we will have to work for the Germans. Everyone should be very careful.’

“I heard that statement as we were marching to work through a cornfield. When they had gone, I came out from the cornfield and I saw a highway far away. I went to the highway, and there were a lot of Hungarian refugees who had run away from the Germans, with horses and wagons and cars, all on the same road.

“I had a story. I said that I was a scout, in the Russian-occupied territory, and they believed that I had run away. You had to have stories, or otherwise you wouldn’t survive.

“I jumped on a military truck, because I wanted to go to Budapest. They wouldn’t let us in – they would only let in Nazi party members. And one said to the other one, ‘Do you know if any Jews remain? Because if a Jew remains now, we will kill him.

“And I think I said amen.”

Eventually he got into Budapest, where his brother Yisroel was hiding. Eventually, during a raid, the Buchman brothers were turned in, and they were forced onto a train that was going to Dachau. “They pushed us in, 100 people to a car, pushed and pushed until we didn’t have air. “And in each car was a Nazi with a gun, watching. And they said that they would come every day, and if anyone is doing anything, it would be capital punishment and everyone could be punished.

“We were 10 days on that train. No food, no water. People were dying. They were throwing out dead bodies.”

“We decided that we were going to jump off that train. We decided to commit suicide.” Death seemed inevitable, so why wait for it passively? Why not make one last move, take one last risk?

But they were young and resilient, and even more to the point, it was snowing. Manny had jumped off trolleys often, so he knew how to do it. “We saw a light in the snow, which was chest high, and we walked to it. And it was a Saturday night, and there were young men singing Communist songs.

“I said to my brother that I was afraid to say that we were Jewish, so we said that we were scouts, that we were going to Germany. We told them a whole story. You had to have a story! And they said, ‘Where are you going? The Russians are almost here already!”

Manny and Yisroel Buchman were able to keep ahead of their tormentors for months, but eventually they were caught and sent first to Mathausen and then, when it was too stuffed with living and dead bodies even for the Nazis to allow, to a satellite camp called Gusen.

“On Friday, May 4, you could see the SS guard had left. Nobody was watching us. Most of the people there couldn’t walk, but at around 4 in the afternoon my brother and I said, ‘Okay, we have to go to the main highway,'” which was about a mile and a half away.

“I went to the main highway with my brother and a friend from town. American trucks were on the highway. The war hadn’t ended; they were moving from west to east. We jumped onto a truck and we came to Gratz. Those were the first troops who came to the city. We were walking, the three of us, and two American soldiers, a black guy and a white guy. They said, ‘Hold up. Who are you?’ and we say we are Jews, liberated from a concentration camp. He says to me, in Yiddish, ‘You are lying. Hitler killed all the Jews.’ He says, ‘What kind of soldier are you supposed to be?’ and we tell him that it’s just before Shavuos,” something that only Jews would be likely to know.

“He stops, and wipes his eyes, and tells us that he’s Jewish too.

“Then he stops crying, and says, ‘All right, you are coming with me.'” And for a few days, he took care of them; made sure they had food, drink, the chance to bathe, and clean clothes. “I never knew his name,” Manny said regretfully. “If I remember properly, though, he was from Florida.”

He spent some time in a hospital recuperating, then he and his brother both went to a DP camp in Italy for two and a half years. Then, the Buchman brothers went to Cyprus, and from there to the new state of Israel.

Manny’s adventures in Israel could fill many more pages, but there is no room for it here. Readers now just should know that he was very happy there – and even happier because another sister had made her way there, and he had cousins there as well. Family had always been overwhelmingly important to him, and some of it was back.

Meanwhile, Irene and Olga Berkowitz had gone to the United States. They moved first to Atlanta, courtesy of HIAS, and then to Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and learned English.

“It didn’t come that easily,” she said. “Not at all. But I was thinking that I don’t even know how to read newspapers, so how am I going to get along? So I learned.”

Then Irene, the DP camp dressmaker, got a job as a seamstress. She worked at S. Klein, the department store, “making dresses from scratch,” she said. From that, she moved up, making custom dresses, getting a degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology that made it easier for her to get better jobs.

“I got pleasure from it,” she said. “That is my passion. I love creating.”

In 1955, after many years of hard work, she decided to splurge on a trip to Israel, crossing the Atlantic on the Queen Mary. (“It was very very nice – but I got seasick,” she said.)

Because they came from nearby towns, Irene Berkowitz and Manny Buchman had many connections, and so, quite logically, they were introduced. They met on Pesach, and were married right around Shavuot.

It was clear that Irene was not likely to be happy living full time in Israel, which was her ideological home but could not give her the comforts she had earned, through her own very hard work in New York. So the two came back to Washington Heights, home to many Holocaust survivors.

Irene continued to work as a seamstress, and Manny became a plant manager, running a big business, working very hard, almost all the time. The couple has two daughters. Diane and Ronald Strobel live in Englewood – and enticed the Buchmans to follow them there. Carol and Roberto Krutiansky live in Manhattan.

There is more family here now, for both Irene and Manny. Olga Berkowitz Jaeger lives in Fair Lawn, and Yisroel Buchman lives on Staten Island.

When Manny and Irene Buchman went back to Auschwitz in January, their 17-year-old granddaughter, Hannah Krutiansky, went with them.

“I was very reluctant to go,” Irene said. “But I wanted my granddaughter to know what happened to us. I wanted her to see the place where we were brought to be eliminated.

“We are human beings, and we live in the world.

“No one who didn’t go through it can grasp what we went through. I feel this all the time. To this day, the world doesn’t acknowledge our losses and our tragedies.

“This is something that no human being should have to go through.”

They have remained active Jews, Manny said. “I wasn’t religious, but what was I going to do? Go to another religion? My religion has a lot of history and I am very proud of it. We shouldn’t just let it pass away, just assimilate and forget about it.

“But I am not a fanatic about it. I am just an observant Jew.”

Irene and Manny’s granddaughter Hannah Krutiansky went to Auschwitz with them in January. She wanted to bear witness.
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