Hilda Lebedun: Part III

Story was recorded at the Covenant House on May 20, 2008, by Michael Naclerio.

On May first, we got to the German border and were told to disembark. We were guarded by two of them, and they were reading a newspaper. I peaked over their shoulders and was reading it, and in big black letters was: “All is lost, the Furor is Dead.” They were reading it, and the older one said, “Ach! That’s not true, the dog abandoned us.” That’s how we got to the border. We saw people with the Red Cross. There were Danish soldiers there too and they made the Germans give them their weapons.  Then we met the Danish people who greeted us with open arms. They came running with bread and cheese and chocolate, but I said, “Don’t touch us! We’re filthy, stinky, disgusting.” We were skeletons. But they just kept on saying, “Don’t worry about it, you’re free.” I still want to wish many thanks to the Danish people.  They wanted to take care of us more, but they had us go to Sweden, because that country had no bombings from the war. The Swedish Red Cross took care of us, and we worked for some Swedish families, taking care of their houses and their children.

While working in Sweden, we were waiting for some papers to enter the United States.  They had mine ready, but my sisters were not yet, so my family in New York asked me to come and then my sister would come later, but I said, “No way, we went through the camps together. We’re staying together.” After a few more months, we finally went to New York.

The first time I met my husband, he took us to a Hungarian restaurant. He kissed me on the cheek, and I told my friend to tell him, “If I was not a lady I would kick him so hard he would forget who he is.”  He answered, “You tell her she doesn’t want to kick the person she is going to marry.” I came to St. Louis with him for a visit, and I just stayed.  My husband and I raised three great children. My oldest has a PhD in sociology.  My daughter takes brain waves and heart tests, and my youngest son has a Master’s degree in social work from Washington University. They are all three in service, and I am lucky to have them.  
There was one thing that I wanted to leave with. Don’t hate. Hate is a very destructive force. I thank God because he gave me the hope and strength not to hate. We all have the same God. We are so miserable to each other, and I don’t understand why people don’t feel it in their souls: there is one God, we just pray to him in different ways. Until we learn to honor each others’ ways to pray to that one God, we always bring misery upon us. If politically there is such a dissention, why in the name of God?

Hilda Lebedun: Part II

Story was recorded at the Covenant House on May 20, 2008, by Michael Naclerio.

Six months later we were told to get our blankets and our bowls. We marched about six Kilometers past the guard towers with the men with machine guns pointed at us. That’s how I met Mengele. Dr. Mengele was tall, but not that tall. His hair was light and he wore boots up to his knees. He had these piercing blue eyes. My sister and I were in line, and we saw many people going left. We knew what that meant. We promised to stay together. I went first up to the desk. Mengele asked my name and the country I came from. I had no hair, I was shaved and I was clinging to my blanket and my bowl. He then said to me, “Repeat my name, Dr. Joseph Mengele.” I did and he asked, “How do you speak German so well?” I told him that my mother had taught me as a child, and he said, “Ok. I’m going to tell you something else. Whenever you speak to me or to one of us superior people, better than you lousy Jews, in German you must announce your name, your position and you must ask for permission to approach us. Repeat.” I was lucky I repeated it correctly, and he pushed me to the right with his stick. My sister got through without any problems.  There were about 3,000 women there, and only about half got through.

After we got through the line and into the camp, we had role call. The day was very hazy, and it was drizzly, but when the sun came out, I looked into the distance and I said to her “There are barracks, some kind, but I see chimneys.” She says “What kind of chimneys?” I said “the smokestacks,” and she relied, “Oh my god, Hilda, where are we?” And I just said, “I don’t know. I don’t know.”

Luckily we were both assigned to Barracks one. When we stood role call again, an educated Polish woman asked who spoke German. I immediately volunteered, and got another job as a scribe and cleaning woman. She was part of a group of political prisoners, and the Germans treated them better than us stinking, dirty, rotten Jews, so they let me use their latrine and running water.

There were thousands coming each day.  We found out about the gas chambers and the crematoria. The Jewish people had to push the people in and pull the people out of the chambers.  They had to gas their mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters.  They thought, “We are burning all the other Jews, that way they won’t dispose of us so fast.” We heard that many of the men committed suicide when they saw they had to gas their family. 

I was also a punished prisoner. There was a woman whose mother was catholic and her father was Jewish. She used to say, “I went to a catholic school! I went to a convent! Why wouldn’t my mother leave that dirty rotten Jew?” I said to her “What are you doing talking against another prisoner? Another poor, miserable prisoner like you? I can tell you something, they have a saying those Germans. ‘They like the treason, but they hate the traitor.’—you can’t help yourself for long.” I was taken away and beaten. They put a big red cross on my uniform to show that I was punished.

A little while later, the head scribe of the camp, who was also Slovakian, told me that the next day, 100 high ranking civilians were coming to take us out of the camp to work in the special ammunitions factory. She told me to cover the cross with my jacket and come in a group with my sister. The next day we made it through the gate to the civilians and were being selected by the civilians. Luckily the man pointed at our group and asked for our names and numbers. I responded in German and he chose us for his factory. The head S.S. woman at the camp said to him, “That one may not go with you!” Then she ripped off my jacket revealing the big x, and continued, “She is a punished prisoner.” He asked her, “Who are you?” and she responded, “Well, I am the commander!” He responded, “I am the one who is above you. I want that woman! I don’t care what she did, but I want her. And if she is not in the front row tomorrow morning, do you know what’s going to happen to you? I have a gun too. You are not going to tell me, you low-life, what to do.”  The next morning, I was the first one in line.

We went to an ammunition factory in upper-Silesia, where we had to check bombs. We were all sabotaging the bombs, making sure they were not air-tight. We heard rumors about the Germans being beaten by the Russians from the east and the tummies from the west. Sure enough, several nights we had to go into the bomb shelter and the factory was bombed. Then we left, and we had death marches upon death marches. We ended up in Hamburg after death marches and rides in a coal train. We had bombardments, and one of the bombs hit the quarters where the German soldiers lived. Some of them were killed, and suddenly we didn’t see them anymore after the bombing, but we saw soldiers in other uniforms, who told us we were going to Denmark. The soldiers were “Home Security”—no more S.S.  The man who told me I would be free was missing an arm. We were told that they took all the able-bodied young men, as young as 16, and sent them to the front, but the wounded were in “Home Security.” We rode packed in trains all the way to the German border.

Hilda Lebedun: Part I

Story was recorded at the Covenant House on May 20, 2008, by Michael Naclerio.

I was born and raised in Czechoslovakia, in the Slovakia part. I had a beautiful family, one brother and two sisters. My father was a government employee. In the smallish city where I was born and raised, we were the only Jews, and we didn’t face much anti-Semitism. When my father went to Prague, he brought back the disturbing news that a person by the name of Hitler was starting problems in Germany and Austria, but we didn’t think anything of it. Nobody thought that Germany was so high up in technology and other things, and we didn’t hear about much. I only found about Krystallnacht when I was in a camp in Poland. Nothing was talked about.

In 1938, there were things starting to trickle down. We heard rumors that Hitler was going to get Czechoslovakia for nothing. We had great trains and uranium that Hitler needed. He then took over Poland very easily. When he occupied them, he interned all of the educated people, the ones who were leading the country. We found out things were going really bad when no Jewish children could go to school, and Jews couldn’t open new stores. That was hard for us to understand, because we didn’t usually feel much anti-Semitism. We sold the house so that the Germans wouldn’t take it, and we kept the money in the bank. We would take 50 crowns for the week and that would be it. Little by little we were put on a curfew, and we had to wear the Jewish star on our clothes. It was unbelievable what could happen to people when there was war, unrest and unemployment in the land. Since the government could not take care of its constituents, they needed somebody to place the blame on, and that was the Jews, because we were in the minority.

I married very young, and they took my husband first. They took men from 16 up to about 45 or 50, where we didn’t know. About two months later, they took my sister. Then two months after that, my parents got the notice, but not me. It turns out that the person in charge of the Slovakian party was my former high school principal. My parents suggested that I go to my grandmother’s house—she lived far away in the mountains—but I refused.  I went to my high school principal and asked why I had received no notice. He told me “Go to your grandmother’s house, hide.” I refused, I asked him to let me stay with my family.

I got the notice, and within 24 hours, we were in wagons on the way to a nearby big city. Our family was there waiting to be transported for two weeks. When we got to the train stations, right away we heard, “You damn, stinking, dirty, rotten Jews. We’re going to put you to work.” We rode to Auschwitz—packed 120 to a cattle car like sardines. In the early morning we stopped, and we jumped out to see S.S. men with machine guns and heard dogs barking. People were screaming. I looked back to see my father, but I was pushed with people that I never knew. We were marched towards the camp, and because I am farsighted, I could see the barbed wire and the towers. I heard the hum of the electric fence, a noise that I can still not get out of my mind. In the distance I saw a huge gate that read, “Arbeit macht frei,” (work will make you free). We went through the gate with the dogs barking and the S.S. men screaming. I kept on looking for my family, but I could not find them.

We came into the barracks, and we got into lines. They asked if anybody spoke German, and I immediately volunteered. They said, “Ok, stand here. You are going to tell them what I tell you. If you talk to us, you are going to talk to us in German.” We were dumped in a foul-smelling bath, then stripped naked. There were five Jewish men sitting there, and then they shaved us—everywhere there is hair on a human body. It was so degrading. We were pushed into the next room, given a generic uniform, shoes—clodhoppers, we called them—a blanket, and a bowl that we were told to guard with our life. They told us, “If you don’t have that bowl, you won’t get fed.” We stood for role call, and then we were marched to the barracks. That was how we got to Auschwitz.

The next day we were marched out for another role call, and somebody told me that somebody was waving to me from the other barracks. In the distance I looked and I saw my sister, so after the role-call was over, I was not supposed to go, but I went over and talked to her. Then we got foul-smelling scoop of soup, made out of rotten beets and rotten potatoes. It took me many years before I was able to eat beets and potatoes again.

Since I spoke German so well, a young Polish woman who had been interned by the S.S. asked me to come help her.  She told me I spoke German better than her, and she also needed somebody to help her talk to the Jews who didn’t speak their native languages. I no longer had to go out to the fields. I was given a sheet of paper to record everybody’s name. I also had to help clean the barracks, with only a shovel and a bucket—there were no floors. We were in Auschwitz proper about six or seven months.

In the meantime, my sister and I wondered what was happening to our brothers.They didn’t separate the mothers and the children, and we were told that they all went to another camp. About four months later we found out that the Germans took all of the mothers and children and disposed of them. My sister found out because the Germans kept immaculate records—my mother and my brothers had a GU, or gas sentence marking, by there names.

Leib Ganz

Story was recorded at the Covenant House on May 20, 2008, by Michael Naclerio.

I was born in Transylvania, Romania, in 1920, and I am a survivor of Hitler. My father used to work with a horse and wagon, transporting goods from the train station to stores. I had two sisters. One had a baby, but I don’t know what happened to them.

I was in the camps from 1941-1945. When I was 21 years old, the S.S. came and took me away. They sent us to Russia, but the trains we were on were broken because of the war, so we had to march for two days. We marched to Kiev, where we took the trains. I was an inmate at Mauthausen, which we called the smallest and the worst of the camps. They didn’t send us to gas chambers or anything, and they didn’t shoot you, but when they wanted to kill you, they would beat you with their night sticks.

I was liberated in 1945. Then, after the liberation, I was sent into a hospital in Italy. I lived in Italy for almost 4 years. There was a girl from the Jewish Federation, and I said that I wanted to go home. When I got out of the hospital, I found out that the Russians were occupying Romania, and I heard that the Russians wouldn’t be good to us, so then I didn’t want to go home. After that, I decided I wanted to go to Israel. I talked to the Haganah, a secret organization that brought Jews from Europe into the then British-controlled Palestine. But both times they were ready to take me, I could not go because I was in the hospital.  Eventually in 1951, the Jewish Federation brought me to the United States.

I had trouble in St. Louis. I couldn’t find a job—it took almost three months. I spoke Italian because I had lived in Italy for 5 years, and when a girl who I knew from Italy was ready to give up her job, she let me take her place. In those years, I used to go to a friend’s house every day because he had a TV, and we all liked to watch TV. One day I was doing the dishes there, and a woman came up to me and asked me why I didn’t have a wife. I responded, “If I have a wife, I’ll have kids, and I’ll have to buy clothes and blankets and things for all those kids.” She said to me, “Well would you get married?” And I said, “Sure, if I find the right woman?” That’s how we met, and in 1952, we got married.

Since the 1950s, I’ve been to Israel three times, and I even wanted to move there and live in a kibbutz, but I was too old. I love this country. I am happy to be here, and I’m happy to be Jewish.

Jerry Baum

Story was recorded at the Covenant House on May 20, 2008, by Michael Naclerio.

I grew up in St. Louis, and my father was one of the men who built Beth Israel.  He also helped bring in Rabbi Eichenstein, the Head Rabbi of St. Louis at that time. We had a fight, the Rabbi and I. When I was growing up, I’d go out with my friends, and I worked with my father in the butcher shop. So one day, the phone rings, and it’s the rabbi. He says to my father, “What is Jerome doing in the saloon?” And my father turns around and says to me, “The Rabbi wants to know what you’re doing in the saloon.” I said, “If the Zodiac Bar on top of the Chase is the saloon he’s talking about, yeah I go there, because I like the entertainment and my friends all go there.” We just didn’t see eye to eye, me and the Rabbi.

So I went through High School at Soldan, and when the war broke out, I was 17, and I wanted to join the Navy.  I said to my dad, “I’m going to join the Navy.” And he said “Why?” and I replied, “I don’t like sleeping on the ground. I don’t like sleeping on a cot. I want a mattress. I want a pillow, and I want to be comfortable.” On my boat, there was this one sailor who came from Pittsburg. He used to tease me about being Jewish, so I would throw things at him. He would call me “Kyke” or “Jew-boy,” and I used to get so mad at him that I would throw things at him. I would throw pots, pans, knives, and one day, I even threw a cleaver at him! I never hit him, but I got so mad at him. He was the only one who was allowed to do it. If anybody would say anything he would be right there, and he would get mad. Only he could aggravate me.

When I joined the Navy, I left behind Geraldine Barg, the most wonderful person in the world, who was my high school sweetheart. I proposed to her when I was 18 or 19, and she was maybe a year younger. She said, “Why don’t we wait a little longer.” After I came home from the Navy, she got married to Eugene and I got married to my first wife, Gloria Polsky. Gloria and I had a son together, but after a while, we didn’t hit it off so well anymore.  We got a divorce, but our son caught polio. We both had to take care of him, so we got back together.

I was still in the Navy, so I had to do a lot of work on the West Coast. Gloria was so angry, and she demanded that I come back to St. Louis. I asked her to come over to the West Coast, because I had a house and everything. She said to me, “You come back home right now or we’re getting a divorce.” So I came back home just long enough to get the divorce. By that time, Geraldine and Eugene had split, so I married the true love of my life, Gerladine Barg.

Alicia Rosenfeld

Story was recorded at the Covenant House on May 20, 2008, by Michael Naclerio.

When World War II started, the Army drafted my father. WWII ended in 1945, and I was 7 years old. One day, I was riding my tricycle, and, all of the sudden, people started yelling, “The War is over! The War is over!” And I was so excited, I started honking my little horn, and I remember thinking, “Oh yay! That means my daddy is coming home!”

My father was a Jewish man and a short man, so he took a lot of ribbing for being the short Jewish guy. They named him “Shorty” in the military. One thing I’ll always remember is how my father walked. He walked like he was 10 feet tall. He said, “Never put your head down. You have to have confidence.” But he took a lot of flak from those guys. Luckily, he was a tailor, so he did a lot of work for the big wigs in the Army. They’d ask him to shorten their pants and whatnot, so they took good care of him. But it was still very hard for him being a short Jew in the military during those times.

Sam Fox

Story was recorded at the Covenant House on May 20, 2008, by Michael Naclerio.

My father moved here from Russia when we was only 17 years old, and then he brought my mother and her family over when he had raised enough money to pay for their trip. They started raising me and my brothers and sisters, but when I was 7 years old, my mother died. My father remarried, and my step-mother wanted us all to learn how to play a musical instrument. I learned how to play the violin, and my younger sister loved to sing. She moved out to California where she once had the pleasure of singing for then Senator, Harry Truman. At age 15, I dropped out of Soldan High School to work in the clothing factory as a bookkeeper. I used to work 6 1/2 days per week for $10. 

When the war started, I joined the Army and ended up as a clerk in Fresno, California. When the War was about to end, they needed some clerks in Europe to help bring American equipment back to the States. I started flying to Europe from Fresno, but I couldn’t handle the flight. I had the air crew let me off in Big Springs, Texas. I was sure I was going to be court marshalled, but the War ended, so the Army had bigger things to worry about.

In the Army, I made a lot of friends. I made an Irish friend who started calling me “O’Brian.” The whole camp started calling me O’Brian. When the officers would pass out checks, you had to wait for your name to be called. The officer went through the entire list and then looked at me and said, “What is your name anyway?” So I had a lot of friends in the army, both gentiles and Jews.

After leaving the Army and working different jobs for a few years, I wound up keeping books at a radio station. I worked there for 7 years, and in that time, I helped on the Arch. We put the background music in the Arch, and I delivered the material to the men. They were exciting times.

Now, I’m 94 years old, and I still call bingo for the Jewish War Veterans Association. I also continue to bowl. My doctor put a pacemaker on my heart, and I wanted to give up the sport, but he said to me, “You bowl until you die!” In the upcoming Senior Olympics, I will be the oldest contestant.