Notes from Yale University Archives Interview with Etta Freilich Wandrei

(Etta W. Holocaust Testimony (HVT-1482)

Fortunoff Video Archives for Holocaust Testimonies, Yale University Library.)

The following is a transcription of  my mother's testimony pertaining to pre-war life in Vishni Bystry.

My mother, Etta Freilich Wandrei

My mother, Etta Freilich Wandrei

I lived there until I was 17 in 1939. There were about 100 Jewish families. The rest were Christians. It was "lovely" until the War.

We didn't know anti-Semitism. We got along fine with the Christians. Most Christians worked for the Jews. There was lots of lumber that they harvested and sent to the city for sale. There were no fights. There were no police - just a Jewish guy and a Christian guy who did everything: police, judge, lawyer, and the post office. Each community didn't aggravate their neighbours on holidays. For example, Christians wouldn't hang laundry on Shabbat and Jews wouldn't hang laundry on Sunday. We knew everybody. That's why it was so hard to accept later when they turned against us.

There was no Czech school when I started in school so I went to the Christian school that was in a church. Site of the synagogue and Czech schoolWhen the prayers happened the Jews just bent their heads. Around 2nd grade the Czechs took a big house and made it into a one-room schoolhouse. The lower grades went in the morning, the higher in the afternoon. All the Jewish kids went to the Czech school. The Christian kids went to the Ukrainian school. They didn't want to go to the Czech school and the Ukrainian school was connected to their church.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Site of the Synagogue and Czech School

There were also some Roman Catholics. A minority of the Protestants burned the Roman Catholic church (see a painting of the church that burned) and it was rebuilt. Afterwards all the Christians went to the same church (the Orthodox).

The Christians were "hillbillies." They'd come into the village, go to the beerhouses owned by the Jews, and had dances on Sunday afternoons. We couldn't go. We couldn't dance with Christian boys. Even the Jewish girls couldn't dance with the Jewish boys. It was a very strict Orthodox village.

My father was teaching at the Yeshiva (a Jewish preparatory school for rabbinical studies). Behind our house a school was built for my father.

house where my mother grew up

Site of the house where my mother grew up with the original shed

On many occasions my father would walk with the local priest and they'd talk seriously. I didn't understand it at the time and didn't ask any questions but now when I think about it how lovely it was that they could have that kind of relationship, which later on just died away.

There wasn't much on going on in the village. We had mineral baths, water coming out of the mountains. In the summer it was very hectic with tourists coming in for the baths. They bought groceries. There were no hotels so people would rent rooms. Buses brought them in. Everyone ran to the bus to try to grab a tourist to bring them to their house.

mineral spring

The mineral spring

In the winter it was quiet. We'd go to school. I learned how to ski and skate from our teachers because our school was in the mountains. We'd ski and skate at recess. It wasn't a very strict school. Maybe once a year the superintendent of schools came to inspect it. If our teacher thought we weren't prepared we'd take off to the mountains and forget he was coming. We had "PTA" meetings. Kids would put on a show for the parents.

My grandmother was very strict with me, especially after my sister left. She wasn't going to let anything happen to me. If I was out after dark, she'd take a candle (we had no streetlights) and look for me and call for me. I'd hide because I was embarrassed. I couldn't go on a date (except I did). She had to set the model for the town. Anytime I did anything wrong, she knew. I talked to a Zionist boy from another town, which was forbidden, and I was reprimanded. I said, " at least what I do I do openly."

I have so many wonderful values I learned from my grandmother. They make up for the bad things. We weren't rich but comfortable. Apparently way back we were a rich family on the Freilich side. During those days girls just didn't marry for love. They had matchmakers. My grandmother didn't like my father and took me away from him when my mother died. Apparently my father and mother fell in love. My father was from a poor family but was very self-educated. In order for her not to be a spinster they let her marry him but my grandmother never accepted him. There were only two sisters of my father that my grandmother would be in touch with in the same village. The rest were poor. She didn't want anything to do with them. She didn't want anything to do with my father after my mother died. My father re-married and she took us away.

My grandfather wasn't alive anymore and my spinster aunt was like a mother. She'd say, " don't worry, I'll fix it," and she would cover up for me. We had a lot of poor Jewish families then. We had everything we grew and then some. She'd give away food in the harvest time. Every Thursday afternoon my cousin and I had to take baskets to collect from the better families for flour, rice, sugar, or money to take to the poor families so they would have stuff for the Sabbath. We hated this. We were the only two kids who did this. My cousin Rhea said some day she wouldn't come for the summer (she didn't live in my village). My sister and I did it year round. We had arguments about it. In a kosher household you don't cook on Shabbat. You do preparation on Friday afternoon. We had an oven to bake bread. We'd fix food and took bean soup, kugel, and meat, put it raw in the oven and paste up the door so no heat would escape. We made tea in a bottle and wrapped it up in towels. There was a cabinet above the oven. We put it above the oven to stay hot.

stove inside old Jewish house

Stove inside an old Jewish house

So every Friday my cousin and I had to take the food for those people before we could eat. We used to have beggars coming to the village in spring and summer on Friday night. For Jews to do a good deed for Shabbat is to have a beggar come. We lived near the main street. I read the Bible a lot when I was young, but I didn't really know Hebrew well. We had a huge eating area with a big table. One window looked out on the main street. My grandmother would stay in front of the window hoping for a beggar. We'd run and get him before someone else did. My aunt had to wash them. She'd be upset if we didn't get the beggar. My poor aunt Miriam! There was a 20-30 year old woman who was a "mental case" but did no harm. She came from another village. She was "retarded." She'd come in the summer, and always came to our house. She'd come before we lit the candles. We had no running water. We had to heat the water. On Thursday night we all took a bath. My aunt had to take off the lady's clothes, which were full of lice and burn them, wash her and delouse her so she could sit with us. This was once a year. We'd put two benches together by the stove for her for a bed.

Sometimes I have bad dreams about my grandmother because she yelled at me. I could never be good enough. My grandmother's children were light skin and hair. My downfall was I looked like my father's family. We were dark. I'd cause her to die because I was radical. For that age I was. One time they called the rabbi to talk to me and I threw him out, I was punished. I threatened to run away. I was a teenager but it was untypical of that era to talk back. It was very hard for my grandmother. She was a leader in the village. Anything her children or grandchildren did if it was all right, it was all right for everyone. For example, I had private German lessons so it was OK for the other kids. Once in awhile I think, "why don't I think about the wonderful things?" I became generous because of my grandmother. I'm thankful for that and I shared it. I used to say, "you have compassion for everyone but me."

One Passover my sister hadn't been home because she was disowned and I wanted to see her. Usually relatives would come for the holidays. I was crying, missing my sister. My cousin Rhea and I went to a village where there was a post office to send a telegram. If you had a telegram the telegram boy yelled at the whole town. Someone usually had died. We went to the post office run by a Czech Christian and sent my sister, who was in Czechoslovakia, a telegram. It said, "Your sister is mortally ill. Her last wish is to see you one more time." She got it on a Sunday. When she got to Chust (where the train arrived) she went to the bus station (there was only one bus a day to our village) and she met a neighbor and asked him "Is my sister still alive?" and he didn't know what she was talking about. Everyone in the village knew about my sister. "I never heard anything was wrong with her." He said. "Oh, I just know she's dead" my sister said. It was a two-hour bus ride. I met her at the station with lipstick I wasn't supposed to use. She grabbed me and said, "Don't you ever do that to me again." She walked in and they accepted her. Everyone wanted her to be home but no one else had the guts to do it.

My aunt, Pnina Fixler Lesser

My aunt, Pnina Fixler Lesser

Life went on like this. In 1938 we first became aware of the war. Older people were talking about it. I had heard about war all my life. My grandmother was one of the oldest ladies in the village and her grandson would talk about World War I. Most younger kids couldn't imagine what war could be. They were starting to believe maybe there was more to it than they knew. If anyone had come to anyone of these people, and said, "here's a passport to Israel, just walk out, follow me", none of them would have gone. They were born there, lived there; no one is going to take it away. They lived through a war before. My grandmother told stories about the war. She told stories about World War I where she put charcoal on the faces of her daughters and dressed up as old ladies because they were afraid of Cossacks. They figured they survived that so they'll survive this.

At the end of 1938 we had teachers in the Christian school who were getting real nasty. They told the young Christian people they should beat up the Jewish kids. They didn't want to go to Jewish stores anymore. They started to beat up the kids and older people. We still didn't believe it would get that bad. There was no radio, a newspaper only once a week. People would talk but couldn't believe it was really going to be like this. No older people even had a thought off leaving.

By that time I had joined (with others) a Zionist group with a little village next to us that was very Zionist. My sister had joined and had gone away to Czechoslovakia to Ha Shara (a Zionist program that prepared young people to immigrate to Palestine/Israel). They learned how to live together boys and girls without any monkey business. They learned how to share, how to farm. It was very much against our religion. Usually they were waiting to go to Israel. My sister was there already when I joined. My sister was 6 years older than me. I looked up to her and wanted to do whatever she did. My grandmother (who brought me up because my mother had died when I was very young) wouldn't let me join but I did anyway. My sister did the same. She went away to school and joined without them knowing about it. The very orthodox believe it would be the Messiah who would take us to Israel and we shouldn't go before that. I had another sister who died who I don't remember. My mother died in childbirth when I was a baby. I don't remember her.

We had a little Zionist organization. Some religious people finally agreed to let a religious one come in. I joined them to dance and sing with boys. I wasn't the only one who left. Among the girls my sister and I were the first ones. Some left and went to Ha Shara and couldn't take it so they came back. Most of them were killed. I can count on two hands how many were left alive. I have cousins (4 in the US) from my mother's side who survived, two we've never seen. The one in Canada I haven't seen for 37 years. There's a cousin on my father's side that now lives in Canada. I went back to Czechoslovakia [near the end of the war when she was in the British Army in Italy] to find him and take him to Italy because he was hiding from the Russians. They were looking for him. My cousin Zvi went to Israel before my sister, when he was very young.

I was a Zionist and hoping to go to Ha Shara. I was around 16. The Hungarians came in, the Czechs went out, and the Ukrainian schools were still open. The Ukrainian teachers put up the whole younger generation (not only the school kids) to beat up on Jewish kids. We didn't lock doors. They came in and beat up people in the night or put on your house a notice that you're the next one. They'd threaten to hang your kids on a telephone pole. No one believed it would be that bad. One Friday night men went to the synagogue and a whole bunch of teenagers (the same we grew up with) took sticks and went to the synagogue and beat up on the men. The women didn't know. We had no police but the next county had police for the area. They would come once or twice a week. Two little brothers ran out of the synagogue and went through the river and the mountains to the next village. They were afraid to go on the road (the village was only half an hour away by the road) to call the police. By the time they came there were a lot of wounded people. They were Hungarian police. They didn't do much about it. They kept on doing those things.

My sister and I becoming Zionists is what saved us. There were no Zionists in our village. The neighboring village had a Zionist school. Israel sent out people to Europe to train people there. Several cousins in that village were Zionists. In our village it was against our religion, our beliefs. People degraded it. Boys and girls could camp together but were chaperoned, and danced together. The religious Jews fought Zionism. People were very religious; there was no reform synagogue. I didn't know about Reform Judaism. My sister left home at 18. She went to another village. No one knew she went. It was a 30-minute walk. She would meet with them without anyone knowing. She went to trade school in Munkacs and became a Zionist. No one at home knew about it. They disowned her when they found out. This was the end of 19 37 or the beginning of 1938. She didn't care; she wanted to go to Israel.

By 1939 you couldn't just go to Ha Shara. You had to have been in the organization long enough. My sister came back from Czechoslovakia because the Germans occupied it. She was supposed to go to Israel but got stranded because you couldn't go anymore so she went to Budapest. She stayed for a while to await going to Israel. Hungary was still civil at that time. The Nazis hadn't come in yet. There were still places to have a Ha Shara. Jewish farmers would take you to work for them. Some of us couldn't go into the country. By the time I went we worked as housekeepers or in factories It was unbelievable that it was going to get that bad. Older people didn't want us to leave our village.

I stayed in the village until 1939. My grandmother and family were relieved to let me go to Budapest. I was a troublemaker. I said I would run away.

mother and an unidentified friend

My mother and an unidentified friend shortly after she left home

Hitler didn't start from the beginning taking people to concentration camps but to labor camps. He said Jews should just leave. Even the Czechs started saying the same thing - "Jews get out, Israel is your land." Not everyone wanted to go. The British wouldn't let them in a due to the quota. When I left home and went to Budapest to wait I got letters saying they were in a way glad because it was unbearable in the village. In 1941 I went home once before I left for Israel. It was very hard for Jews, there was no business. My uncle had 9 kids, a real good business, a grocery store, and it went to pieces. Only Jews came (and there were several Jewish stores). The Hungarians moved in and took part of it away. They started to train people. They weren't taking Jews yet. The Nazis didn't take Jews yet. The Hungarians moved into Jewish homes. They were moving their military into the area. First the Hungarians weren't that cruel. In Hungary in 1939 you didn't hear Hungarian anti-Semitism. It was very tense. The Hungarians didn't know what was going to happen.

I left in 1941. I went to say good-bye. My family was just managing. We grew corn, wheat. We bought a very few things such as oil, salt. We had enough to eat when I left. Just before I left Hungary the Hungarians started to take the men into labor camps. For Jewish guys especially, it was not safe to walk on the street. Men would beat them, undress them to see if they were circumcised. At the time it was just the young men. A short time after I left the Nazis came in and took over homes. They threw out the Jews and took most Jews into concentration camps. They first took men into labor camps.

Today I can be bitter about it and the rest of the world too. The whole world saw us and nobody wanted us, not even the US. Roosevelt didn't want us.

There was no way I could have gone back to Hungary or Czechoslovakia after the War.

I really didn't know anything about what had happened. We had no connection with Europe any more. All we knew when it finished up was what our cousins told us had happened. My family was taken from our house to Poland to a concentration camp, Auschwitz. Some were killed in the village. One of my cousins was among the first killed. He was a very clean guy. He worked for the Germans. One day they told him to wash their car. He didn't do a good enough job. They killed him there. My aunt and uncle were waiting in the concentration camp. They didn't divide kids from parents and they were waiting for him.

Some were killed in the village, others were dragged to some farm in Czechoslovakia, some to Hungary. Some of my family met in the concentration camp. My cousin five years older was in the same concentration camp as my grandmother. She was a beautiful girl who now lives in Canada. The Germans sterilized her and used her as a prostitute. Some of the stories I can't believe that anyone can live through this. She said when they didn't need her as a prostitute she worked in the crematorium. When I left home my grandmother was in her 80s. My cousin took my grandmother to the crematorium. She told her she was taking a bath. She could barely walk. She said, "I'm going to give you a nice bath." My grandmother was so delighted. She had to put her in and listen to the screams.

The stories I know are second hand from this cousin and a few others who survived. Most of the time I would run out and cry. I asked my cousin "I don't think I could have done it? Why fight it? Let them shoot you." She said it's a terrible thing what I've been through and seen (she lost 3 out of 7 siblings and her parents.) The reason they fought for life is because they knew their life wouldn't be any good anymore. They were skeletons. They didn't believe that the outside world knew and they wanted to make sure someone would survive and tell the world so it would never happen again. It looked like more of the weak people than the strong people survived who just gave up.

Lots of people in my era were brought up so strictly orthodox that when we started to use our own brains, we thought there was something more. It was never explained to us what things like Yom Kippur meant. Some turned away completely. Some survivors really embraced the religion because they figured they were "chosen."

I had a terribly guilty feeling, that I survived and that all my relatives and friends went through torture. Sometimes I'd have someone come into the hospital when I was a nurse in Israel that I knew and they were sick and had diseases. They told me stories and I'd cry and couldn't go to work because I was upset. I was happy I survived but why me? So many family members who were better people, believed in God more than me, they didn't survive.

Copyright © 2003 Karin Wandrei 

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