By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
During my recent trip to Israel, I asked Mordechai Fried of Petach Tikvah (who is also my father’s brother — my uncle) to share the family pre-war and war history. In response, I was treated to many fascinating details that I previously had not known, as my father ob’m was loathe to discuss those years. Though the details are somber in the spirit of Yom HaShoah, I thought to share some of them with you.
My grandfather R’ Yechezkel Shraga Fried studied in some of the most prestigious yeshivot in Hungary, most notably the Yeshiva Levushei Mordechai in the city of Mod and the Yeshiva of Krastil. He was from a Chassidic family, stemming from Sanz, and was close with the renowned Shinover Rebbe. He studied throughout his life while raising a family of two girls and four boys (one of them my father) with his wife Rachel in the city of Debrecen. He made is living through his shoe factory. He was a Torah reader in shul, shofar blower on Rosh Hashanah and often led the services as one of the most respected leaders of the community.
In 1942, he was snatched up by the Hungarians to a forced labor camp. Though a horrible state, being in that forced labor camp saved my grandfather from a worse fate at the hands of the Nazis. Two years later, in 1944, Debrecen became a ghetto, with the Jews forced to clean up the destruction the Nazis had created. The family worked in a brick factory for one month. Afterward, each individual was ordered to fill one suitcase only, and then to board the trains. On May 15 the Debrecen Jews were taken to Austria-Slovakia. Though the Americans bombed the train, it made it through to Vienna. Each day the Nazis provided only one bucket of water per car and one bucket as a toilet. And each day, the elders died in the cars. The eldest sister, Krasu, who was visiting with an elderly aunt and uncle in the countryside when the Nazis took Debrecen, was taken straight to Auschwitz and never returned.
My father and his family were first taken to Gossman work camp near the Danube in Austria, there they remained from May 1944 until January 1945 Their job was to build a road; and they were required to walk three kilometers a day to and from work in all types of weather. All day, they wielded five-kilo hammers that shattered rocks into gravel. The youngest brother, my uncle Gavriel was able to find kosher food for the family — they faithfully kept to the rules of kashruth until their lives were in danger from potential starvation.
In January 1945, when the Americans invaded upper Austria, my family and other inmates of Gossman were forced to walk three weeks to the infamous Matthausen camp in Salzburg, a camp known for its wall of bones. They remained there for one and a half months; then were forced on a three-day march to another camp, Gunskirchen. During that long, terrible walk, the Nazis randomly shot 17,000 out of the 40,000 who began the march, in the middle of the coldest winter and they needed to sleep out in the cold. They arrived at Gunskirchen, covered with lice, weighing some 29 kilos. After a month there, my family was liberated by the Americans on May 5, 1945.
After the liberation there was a typhus outbreak in the camp, and my uncle had to be quarantined for three months. In September they returned to Hungary to look for their father, my grandfather and miraculously found him at home! It turned out that he had been taken to the Ukraine from the Hungarian labor camp — a miracle indeed.
In 1946 my father, who was the oldest and drafted by the Hungarian army, bribed a Russian officer to get him onto a train to get to the DP camps in Germany, and testified in Nuremberg. He eventually received a visa to Canada, and married my mother from Detroit. His brothers Dov and Mordechai paid to get over the border of Hungary to Slovakia in ’49 and from there walked to Czechoslovakia through Vienna, a train to Italy and a fishing boat (fit for 50 and carrying 350!) to Israel, where they immediately joined the army. My grandmother passed away in Hungary after the war. My grandfather made it to Israel with his daughter after the Hungarian revolution in ‘56. The entire family, besides my immediate family who settled in Indianapolis, settled in Bnei Brak.
My uncle said that this brief sketch can’t possibly capture even a drop in the bucket of the untold suffering they endured, walking daily knee-deep in the snow, murder all around them; a total destruction which defies the imagination. No words or even books could truly describe the torment, misery and constant distress they endured. (Due to space confines I need to leave out many of the more personal stories related).
It always amazes me to see people like my uncle, and my father ob’m, after what they endured, to always be happy! It speaks volumes of the Jewish spirit and gives us mountains of hope for the future!
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.