“We came, arrived in the city of Flossenbürg in Bayreuth. They let us out of our cages and we looked up… beautiful mountain, wintertime, snow, people going around with skis, and we could not make sense of the whole thing, what this is all about and why we came there, if we had to work… we couldn’t figure it out. Until we got to the gates of the concentration camp on the top of the mountain with a big inscription. It says: ‘Arbeit macht das Leben süss.’ I said to my friends there: ‘Für die, die nicht arbeiten.’ That means: ‘Work makes life sweet. For those that don’t work.’ Once we went through the gate inside, then we started to realize what was waiting for us. We saw people walking around there inside in pajamas in sub-zero weather, Dutch wooden shoes. (…) We stayed as we were born for seven days, in sub-zero weather. We were put in barracks, just two levels of wood and people were sitting like sardines right next to each other. Just the width of your shoulders for your place to sleep overnight, you couldn’t turn, you couldn’t do anything, sleeping naked like sardines in the barracks. (…) There were about 40 000 people in there and they lined them all up from the barracks, chased you up and lined you up and they were counting. In this dynamic situation where every minute somebody is dying. The crematories on all four corners burning, the fire was burning, the smell was so choking, the smoke of the flesh. They kept us about an hour lining up. The commander came and he said he had to have 40 200 or whatever it was. He could not find them, because the people were lying dead on the path. When you wanted to go out to the latrine, they had an open latrine, so you had to say: ‘My number is so and so and I ask for a permission to go to the latrine. There was a machine-gun tower right in front of you and he had to hear it, if you had the strength enough so he could. If he did not hear it, he just burst of the machine gun.”
“They had there almost every day this guy named Mengele, the doctor Mengele, who was so famous for selecting people – you go this way and you go that way. They undressed them all, my sisters too. The sister, who is alive in Chicago, she had a blister on her body and she was selected for the crematorium. The other sisters and my mother, they managed some way to get her back from the group. They told her to go this way, to the group, but they were busy there checking other women and my sisters they pulled her away. She still lives in Chicago now. But my mother… she was 43 years old. The last time they had an inspection, they had dogs around there. It was so strict that once you were selected, nothing in this world could pull you out of that. My sisters were trying to. So she was selected. I don’t know, either they noticed so is no youngster or she had something on her body. I don’t know why. He picked her to go to the crematorium. The sister who is still alive in Chicago was running after her as my mother was going towards the gas chamber, screaming at her to go back. She knew where she was going. She lived through a few of these selections and never saw these people again after they were selected. So, she knew exactly where she was going and screamed at my sister to go back, because if they caught her there, she would have to go.”
“So, we all got up and we went down to the city center to see what would happen, what was going on there. Good enough, they were lining up, tanks along the road on both sides, along the sidewalk, tanks, and artillery. So densely packed that nobody who was on the sidewalk could go in the middle of the road. They were expecting Hitler in person to come in. Good enough, there was he coming before noon. He was coming, and he marched in personally to the city of Brno where I was going to the university. I went to the school the next day. I did not know whether we have the school or not, so I went to the school. In the school the students knew more or less, who was Jewish. They picked us up and they threw us out of the window, from the first floor. They were just waiting there, Nazis. They may have been Germans, because the city of Brno had about 70 per cent of the population Germans. Only about 30 per cent were Czech. So, there were lot of German students at the university. They knew generally who was Jewish, and they picked up every Jew, opened the window… So I landed on my feet, it was not very high. I was lucky enough, and I was not injured; it was just slightly inconvenient. From then, I had to report every day to the German government, to the Gestapo. As Jew, I had to report every morning. I was doing so for two weeks and then I got tired and I said to myself, I want to go home. But there, it was already occupied by Hungary, my hometown where my parents lived. (…) There, they started to gather everybody, the Jewish boys and the non-Jewish boys too for semi-military training. They gave you wooden weapons and you had to march like an idiot through the town and sing Hungarian nationalistic songs.”
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Collection, Gift of Jane Akerman
Stephen Akerman was born into a Jewish family on 1 June 1919 in the settlement of Tuří Paseka in what was then Subcarpathian Rus. His father ran a grocery store and the family lived quite well compared to the poor local conditions. Stephen had four younger sisters. In the predominantly agricultural area of what is now western Ukraine, only few children went to school. Mostly they had to help their parents on the hard to cultivate land. But that was not the case for Stephen, who started primary school and later graduated from high school in nearby Uzhhorod. He remembers especially the strict regime and the emphasis on religion and exemplary behaviour. The diverse ethnic composition of the mountainous region in the east of Czechoslovakia, combined with various influences, meant that Stephen was able to master at least the basics of several languages quite early on. In their village, an uncodified Ruthenian dialect was spoken, but in order to enter high school he had to learn Czech. Then German and Latin were added in the school. He graduated in 1938. The expanding Germany and the growing anti-Jewish sentiment in society caused great tension. Stephen, as a Jew, could no longer enter faculty of medicine. So, he chose engineering in Brno. But in 1939 he abandoned his studies. The Germans declared the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, anti-Jewish sentiment grew, and Stephen decided to go home. But Subcarpathian Rus was already occupied by Hungary. So he went to Budapest, where he worked as a helper in a plumbing company. Soon, however, he was called to a labour camp for Jews. After a few months, another call-up came and Stephen headed with his work unit under Hungarian command to the Eastern Front, where he remained until 1944. He built trenches, walked as a vanguard of troops to uncover mined areas, and witnessed atrocities committed against the people of Ukraine, Belarus and Poland. He moved on foot or in cattle cars. In late 1944, the Hungarians handed his unit over to the Germans, who sent them to the Flossenbürg concentration camp in Bavaria. During the week they spent naked in the concentration camp in sub-zero temperatures, half of his fellow workers died. He was then selected to work in a telephone cable factory in Niederoderwitz, from where he was transferred to a labour camp in Litoměřice at the end of the war, where he contracted typhoid fever and almost did not survive. At the very end of the war, he was in Terezín. After the end of the fighting, he returned to Subcarpathian Rus, from where he subsequently fled to Czechoslovakia and to the American zone in Germany. He studied there briefly and emigrated to the USA in 1947. Almost his entire family of more than sixty people died in the concentration camp at Auschwitz.
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