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"Remember Your Heritage!"

May 8, 2009 | by

How I survived in war-time Hungary by posing as a non-Jew.

I was born in Berettyoufalu, Hungary, to a family of a rabbinic dynasty. My father's great-grandfather, Rabbi Shmuel Frankel, was considered one of the leading rabbis of Hungary in the 19th century. My father was the rabbi in a hamlet called Zsaka.

When my siblings and I grew a bit older, our family moved to the nearby city of Debrecen, which had better schools.

In 1941, I married Shimon Friedman, a scion to a prominent family. He was drafted into the Hungarian army immediately after our wedding, in the midst of our Sheva Brachot celebrations. When he got the draft notice, I begged him to go into hiding. I was willing to hide with him in a cornfield, but he was frightened he refused to do so. He was taken away to a slave labor camp in the Ukraine.

I received a few letters from him, but I sensed that the letters were written under pressure and strict censorship from his captors. Nevertheless, it was a sign of life and a flicker of hope that he would one day return. When days and weeks went by without a letter, I was filled with worry and despair. Then suddenly a letter would arrive, sending me again into the fluctuating cycle between hope and despair.

At the end of 1942, the letters completely stopped. I was totally devastated. Shimon and I had only been together as a married couple for a few days, while I was still a teenager. And as the years past, I nearly went out of my mind, with no proof of him being alive or not.

My father woke me early in the morning and said, "Esther, you have to go into hiding."

On the morning of April 16, 1944, my father woke me early in the morning, and in a voice choked with emotion said, "Esther, you have always listened to me. It is a dark time now for the Jewish people. You have to go into hiding. Take the next train to Szbadka, a small town in Hungary, and try to set yourself up in an apartment as a non-Jew. Later we will send your brother Yidel, and maybe some other family members. Please take care of Yidel so that at least two members of our family should survive. First and foremost, remember that you are a Jew. Remember your heritage! Keep all the mitzvot as best as you can in the given circumstances."

We both cried as I left the house in the predawn hours to catch the train to Szabadka. We knew that this might be the last time we would see each other. Unfortunately, it was.

On the train, I tried to keep my composure and hold back my tears. It was difficult for me as a young woman traveling alone, heading to an unknown town, with no contacts and no real destination. My father had given me money that could sustain me for a while, but not for long.

When I arrived in Szabadka, I checked into a hotel for the night. The next day, I went apartment and job hunting. Being very nimble with my hands, I was able to find a job twining the hair of rabbits. I was also able to find a room to stay.

Sibling Reunion

Months passed, and one day I saw a familiar face on the street. We passed each other and then we both turned around for a second look. It was my brother Yidel! With his unusual attire of an army hat, it was difficult to recognize him. He told me of his difficult experiences, such as hiding in a tree for two days with no food. In Szabadka, he had survived by using a non-Jewish identity document that he'd once found, and was kept by my father "for a rainy day." Yidel had been sent out of the ghetto by my mother through a hole she dug under the fence. He told me the sad news that my father was arrested and sent to a slave labor camp.

(My mother later tried to use the same escape plan for my younger brother Simcha, who was 14 at the time. However, he was caught, beaten, and returned to the ghetto.)

We split up, so that if one was caught, the other could survive.

After giving Yidel some food, and letting him sleep in my apartment, we set out to find him a room to rent. My father had instructed us to do this, so that if one of us was caught, the other would have a chance to survive.

With Divine providence, my manager at work asked if I knew someone who could assist with the twining work since one of the workers had become ill. I immediately suggested Yidel. Besides the additional income, it was important that he not be seen roaming around without work. Yidel did not have working papers, so I went to the police station to get him the appropriate documents. It was always safer for women to be on the streets; male Jews were often stopped and checked for the "physical sign" of being Jewish.

Throughout this period, Yidel did not have a tallit and tefillin, but he would hide in a closet and pray with tears. He was a young teenager, with a maturity far beyond his age. He worried about his parents and siblings, and never stopped praying for them.

Late at night while lying awake, weak and weary from my clandestine lifestyle, I would sometimes hear the trains with human cargo speeding by on the nearby tracks. I could even hear the anguished cries of the children and adults, crammed into the freight cars, with barely any air or water. Rivers of tears flowed in those trains, and in my little room in Szabadke, I would join in their crying and prayers.

Fighting for Survival

Because Yidel was always praying and studying Torah from memory, and never socialized, his landlord suspected he was Jewish. One day, when Yidel came back from work, the landlord asked in astonishment, "What are you still doing here? The police are looking for you." We realized that the landlord was an informer, and decided to leave Szabadka immediately.

In middle of the night, we ran away from the town, and hid in a distant forest. My father's parting words rang loud in my ears: "Take care of Yidel, so that at least two family members will survive."

We were frightened to death in the forest, lest we get caught and sent to our death. We felt like hunted animals fighting for survival. We prayed and cried until we saw the first light of dawn. We walked to a different town, and took trains in a roundabout way to our destination, Budapest. We understood from radio and newspaper reports that the evil decree had spared -- at least temporarily -- the Jews in Budapest.

When we arrived in Budapest, we went to the home of family acquaintances, Mr. and Mrs. Mandel. Without saying a word, they fed us and gave us beds to sleep in. When we woke up, we went out to search for rooms to rent in the non-Jewish section of the city. We found rooms, and settled in.

Saving the Frank Family

Yidel was very daring and often climbed the walls of the Jewish ghetto to provide food for needy families. This entailed risking his life.

One day a decree was announced in the ghetto that all able-bodied Jews from 18 to 40 should report for "relocation." (This typically meant slave labor or the gas chamber.) When Yidel heard this, he climbed into the ghetto, and went to speak with Edith Frank whose family we'd known from before the war. She told him that they were planning to cooperate and be deported. Yidel was shocked: "You are not reporting for deportation! That is a certain death sentence. Tonight, I will come back at midnight and will help you all escape."

Edith was beset by doubts: "Even if we're able to navigate the physical obstacles of escape, where will we find shelter for even one night?" Yet the desire to live made her decision: "We will not go like sheep to the slaughter. We will at least try to escape!"

Yidel bribed the guard with some whiskey, and everyone climbed the fence.

Evening came, darkness set in and Yidel kept his promise and arrived. This would be no easy escape plan, as there were 17 members of the Frank family -- adults, children and babies, too. Yidel bribed the guard with some whiskey. The Franks tore off their yellow stars, and took out the forged Gentile documents they'd prepared.

The real trick was that everyone had to climb over the gate and jump from a great height, without making any noise. Yidel took the baby in his arms and climbed the gate. As he was climbing, the drunken guard started screaming, "Who's there?" Yidel froze in his place, until the guard eventually calmed down and went back inside. The real miracle was that the baby did not make a sound.

Yidel whisked away the Frank family and brought them to my small rented room. Since I was disguised as a non-Jew, and my German landlady had no idea that I was Jewish, this was a tremendous risk to my life. But my landlady had gone away for the night to visit relatives. Except for that crucial night, she rarely left her apartment for an overnight stay elsewhere.

The Frank family -- all 17 of them -- managed to fit into my tiny room, with people sleeping under and on top of the table and the bed. It was very frightening. We were especially concerned that the baby should not alert any neighbors with her crying.

The next morning, the family split up and went apartment hunting. But in spite of the great care we all took to hide their presence, my landlady came home and found a pair of tzitzit fringes left over by one of the children. She confronted me in an accusing tone, "What's this?"

During those trying and dangerous times, I learned how to answer quickly, sharply and without emotion or fear. "I have never seen such a thing," I said. "What is it used for?" She was convinced that it had nothing to do with me.

My landlady was a vicious anti-Semite. She would constantly curse and degrade the Jewish people. I had to listen to all of this and not respond. She even bragged about the parties she threw for the German soldiers in a local restaurant. Every Sunday, I would disappear from the house, pretending to be at church. She made my life miserable, checking my every move. But she was convinced that I was not Jewish.

(After the war was over, I made it my business to visit her. I told her that I am Jewish, and how much I despise her despicable behavior. When she heard this, she nearly fainted, but did not utter a word.)

Safe House

After a while, when it became too difficult for me to hear all the anti-Semitic remarks from my landlady, I moved into a building which served as a safe house for Jews. It was a glass factory that belonged to a wealthy Jew, Arthur Weiss, who sacrificed his life in order to establish this safe house. Mr. Weiss had offered a large ransom, and his own life, in exchange for the thousands of Jews he helped save. He was taken away by the SS, and unfortunately never returned. Blessed be his memory.

Some activists were able to obtain Swiss diplomatic protection for the building and its occupants. The food was distributed very sparingly. The hygiene was atrocious. Everyone was full of lice. There were two makeshift outhouses. Yet Jews from all over were constantly begging entrance into this safe house. When the conditions became unbearable, the next building was rented as well.

We stayed at the "glass safe house" until the liberation of Budapest by the Russians in January 1945.

After the war, Yidel and I decided to go home to Debrecin, to see if other family members had survived. We had no money to travel, so Yidel got us passage on a train by offering to help shovel coal into the engine.

When we arrived home, we realized the magnitude of the tragedy. From our family, there were no other survivors. We found out that my mother and siblings had been transported to Auschwitz, where they were all murdered.

Yidel and I were alone in the world. We set up a household there, and earned our living through buying and selling jewelry.

All those years, I never knew my husband's fate.

Months passed, and my cousin Mendel Waldman came to visit, trying to find relatives. We dated for a short while, and decided to get married. However, in order to get married we needed evidence that our former spouses had been killed. It had been over two years since I'd heard any information about my husband Shimon. It was only then that a witness revealed that in 1943, he had been burned alive in a barn. All those years, I never knew his fate. Now, on the basis of this information, I was able to remarry.

After my marriage to Mendel, we moved to France, where our first child was born. A few months later we finally received our visas to enter the U.S.

Thank God, Mendel and I were able to rebuild our lives, and we have a beautiful family of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren -- all following the footsteps of our parents, in the very spirit of my father's parting words: "Remember your heritage!"

After the war, the Frank family moved to Israel and New York. Many of them are still alive today. The ones in New York remained in contact with me, and we often meet in the neighborhood and at family celebrations.

Last year, when I visited Israel, I had a reunion -- after 63 years -- with some of the younger members of the Frank family. We recalled the events of that crucial and fateful stay at my apartment. They told me how they were forever grateful for saving their lives.

My brother, Rabbi Yidel Frankel, had a fruitful life continuing his ways of self-sacrifice to help others. For many years, he was the right-hand man of the holy Klausenburger Rebbe. Yidel also built the Imrei Shefer shul in the Har Nof neighborhood of Jerusalem, and established various Torah study institutions. He passed away during Chanukah 2005; may his memory be blessed.

Read the war-time account of Esther's husband: " Anchor for Survival"

Some information courtesy of the book "K'Chachlom Yo'uf" (It Will Pass Like a Dream") by Dov Frank.


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