Vas Megye, Hungary
Sárvár Holocaust Testimonies
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Alice Lok Cahana
Alice Lok Cahana was born in Sárvár, Hungary in 1929. She first learned to draw in a Jewish high school (Jews were forbidden to attend public schools, so they set up their own). As noted in her artist's statement, she and her family were sent to Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, where Cahana was one of the few who survived. After the war, she lived in Sweden from 1952 to 1957. She came to the United States soon after and settled in Houston, Texas in 1959 where she has since made her home.
We lived in a town called Sárvár, in Hungary, close to the Austrian border. It was a small town. Since the tenth century Jewish people lived in this town. There were three synagogues — the Orthodox, the Reform, and a small synagogue called BetHaMidrash. Not far from our house was the market, where every morning the peasants from the countryside would bring fresh food in baskets, and Mother would go and buy wonderful peaches, cherries and grapes for our family and for Grandfather, who lived with us.
Grandfather [Adolf Schwartz] was beloved by the community. For many years he was the president of the Jewish community, and he was a very charitable man. I remember when I was maybe ten years old, walking with him in the park, next to the castle where he admired the beautiful spring flowers, when a teenage boy hurled a rock at him that barely missed his head. When I wanted to throw a rock back at the boy in anger, Grandfather stopped me, saying, `We don't do this.' Soon after that I understood that the street was not safe for us Jews. Only on Sabbath were we permitted to play in the park.
Sabbath was always beautifully celebrated in our house. After breakfast we would help to clear the table and make the room presentable, because the elders of the community would come to our house and study Torah. Grandfather was a wonderful leader who also took care of the poor children in town. If somebody was an orphan, before their wedding he would take care that that person got everything that was needed for the wedding and for their trousseau.
There were four children in our family. Edith was the eldest. She already helped in the office of my family's carpet-weaving factory. I looked up to her so much, because she was already what I wanted to be: seventeen years old and independent. She would go at night, when nobody could see her, to take food — some flour and sugar from the pantry — to the poor people. I thought this was such a beautiful act; to give something away because we had a little more than others. So Edith was always special.
I had two little brothers, one was ten and one was five. I took care of the five-year-old — I'd always felt as if I was the mother — and gave him love and attention and dressed him nicely. His name was Imi. My other brother's name was Ocsi. Father was a very handsome man. He had an office in Budapest and commuted, leaving on Monday mornings and coming back Thursday night. We would go to the railroad station to pick him up and he always had some goodies for us. It was always wonderful when Father came home on Thursday nights, and we were sad when he had to leave on Mondays.
Mother took care of Grandfather, but she wanted all of us to live in Budapest and not have Father going back and forth. Father always promised that we would move to Budapest, but then Grandmother died and Mother had to take care of Grandfather: she had to postpone moving. So it never happened.
The first time I really felt antisemitism was when I went to the factory one day and saw a swastika. I talked to one of our workers: 'How can you put a swastika in the workers' dining room?' They said, 'Oh, don't you know they'll take you away from here and make soap out of you.' I replied, 'You know, if you wash yourself in good- smelling soap, remember it's me.' Answering him back, I at least didn't feel like he'd clobbered me. But I never could figure out why we were hated. I always asked myself, 'Why am I different? What am I doing that's so wrong?'
Because Grandfather was the head of the community, the Rabbi always sent over strangers, and they would get lunch or dinner, whatever they needed. Some Jewish people, who had run away from Poland, came and told stories. Stories that Jews were gathered and taken away from their homes. And I remember we didn't believe them. It couldn't happen, not in the twentieth century, we said. It was inconceivable. I, as a child, loved my town, and Grandfather was always optimistic. 'Nothing can happen to us,' he said. We had been in this town from the beginning of time. We were part of this town. Judaism was our religion, but we were Hungarians by nationality. We were hard-working, contributing, tax-paying. Our factory supported a lot of people.
On 19 March 1944, the Germans, the SS, entered our town. They circled it several times, so it looked like it was a big army, but actually it was just a small group of tanks. But that day, it became real. Very threatening. Right away there was a decree that we could not leave our houses in the evenings and, soon after that, they said they would take us to a ghetto. We had never heard the word 'ghetto', but it meant we would leave our house.
I watched my mother's face. How was she reacting? Was she panicking? Scared? What amazed me was that she went to the market and bought flowers. She bought violets. She came home with the flowers and quietly arranged them in a vase. I thought, then maybe it's not so terrible. Maybe all these frightening things will not come to a horrible end. In retrospect, I see this was how she tried to strengthen us. I admire her so much, because this little gesture gave us hope.
Shortly after came a decree that we would have to leave our house. We had to pack up twenty-five kilos of baggage to take with us. At first we didn't understand — what do you take? Think about your home, your own home, what would you take that is twenty-five kilos? How much is twenty- five kilos? Do you take the pillows, do you take your dishes, what do you take? What is precious? What is necessary? We had to sort all this out in a couple of hours.
Our factory was given over to two non-Jewish men, Mr Kroger and Mr Oswald. Mr Kroger occupied our house with his wife. Jews could not own a factory, said one of the decrees. Jews cannot be landlords. They cannot own a home. When we left home, we were all carrying bags. The pillows and the blankets were tied in a bundle, which we children carried. I was so ashamed.
They took us not far from our house, maybe because Grandfather was respected. The Rabbi, Grandfather and about ten or twelve families were taken to the street where the Jewish school and synagogue were. And so we were in this schoolroom, with our pillows and some mattresses and a couple of pots. And a makeshift table and we could cook on a burner. No hot water. Our whole household was suddenly reduced to one room, and that served for sleeping, cooking and eating.
The ghetto was watched on both sides; they erected a little gate and by the gate there was a gatehouse, and a zsandár, a Hungarian policeman, stood on both sides. The able men who could work were sent to a work camp.
A couple of days later, Father took a chance. In the middle of the night he decided to go to Budapest, where his office was, which was six hours away by train. There was a decree that Jews were not allowed to travel on the regular railroad, and the zsandár was at the station, stopping people and checking their papers. But Father was so elegant, he just lifted his hat, greeted the Germans in German, and passed by. Nobody stopped him, and so he went to Budapest.
The rest of us stayed in our small ghetto for a few weeks before being moved to join the others in the sugar factory. A couple of days later we were taken with all the other Jews to the train station, where we were put into cattle cars.
While we were walking through the town to the train station, I remember thinking it was like when the Jews went out of Egypt. We were walking past our house in a big group of people. At first I didn't want to look at our house, and then I looked. And there were Mr and Mrs Kroger by the window, looking at us. I felt so ashamed, so humiliated. How could they watch us going by? But they just watched. And then the gate of our house opened and our dog ran out. I prayed he would not recognise us; let him not run after us, because the SS guard who was taking us to the train station probably would have shot him. And that was the last I saw of our home.
The only word heard is 'rush'. Rush, rush, rush'. Don't think, just get up fast. People are coming after you. I was pushed into a cattle car while holding my little brother's hand, and we were pushed into the corner. It is horrendous, all these people all mashed together, mashed like sardines. And it was very, very hot. There was a bucket in the middle and they said it was for sanitary use, and then another bucket for drinking water. They closed the doors. In our cattle car was our neighbour, Mrs Eckstein, who was nine months pregnant, and I prayed, 'Please don't let her give birth in this horrible place.' And I glanced at Grandfather — distinguished community leader — sitting on a heap of luggage in the suffocating heat. I had brought a book with me, Stephan Zweig's The Restless Heart, thinking I would read on the train, not imagining they would put us in cattle cars like animals. Instead I just wanted to shut it all out, stand in a corner and try to get a little air. Talk about fear. It is beyond fear. As the bucket filled up, the odour became unbearable.
I kept asking Edith, 'Where are they taking us, where are they taking us?' Nobody answered, nobody knew.
The above excerpt (with permission) from the book The Last Days, based on the film of the same name by Steven Spielberg. The film and the book were one of the initial forays into education of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. Both portray the last year of World War II and the accelerated programme of the destruction of Hungarian Jewry using the narrative voices of five survivors: Renée Firestone, Alice Lok Cahana, Tom Lantos, Bill Basch and Iren Zisblatt.
In 1978 Cahana made the pivotal decision to return to Hungary and visit her birthplace, Sárvár, where nothing remained of the Jewish community she had known: "The same railroad tracks that took me to Auschwitz took me back. It seemed like nothing had changed there - the town was still mute and silent - no memorial, no remembrance, no one missed us or cared. It was one of the most shocking events I experienced after the Holocaust."
Dr Emil Eibenschutz
Alice Lok Cahana
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