Thursday, December 12, 2019 -
Print Edition

Survivor Martin Weiss addresses 150 at Regis University

Martin Weiss (Regis University)THE IMAGE of white tablecloths and the smell of food remains vivid to Martin Weiss to this day.

“Right after the war, a restaurant owner invited us in. He put us at nice tables with white tablecloths, then he fed all of us.

“I don’t mention this too often, but that was the first type of kindness that I had experienced and it made a big impact on me. It does show you that not all people are bad.”

Weiss was deported at age 15, struggling to survive while many members of his family were killed, and later immigrating to the US in 1946.

A survivor of Auschwitz and the Mauthausen concentration camps, Weiss now devotes his time to traveling throughout the US speaking about the Holocaust and volunteering at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

While living in the Washington, DC area to be close to his daughter and grandchildren, he would occasionally walk by the Holocaust museum but couldn’t bring himself to walk in the door, buy a ticket or see the museum’s exhibits.

“But after three years of trying, I walked in. They asked me to volunteer and join a survivor group. I had never heard about survivor groups. Although I had friends who I went to dinner with, nobody ever talked about the concentration camps.”

Sponsored by the student honor societies Alpha Sigma Lambda and Lambda Pi Eta of Regis University, Weiss spoke at the 21st Century Library in Colorado Springs before an audience of approximately 150.

Regis University faculty and public library officials were present as well as Rachel Wimberley, program coordinator of survivor affairs for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Captain Sarah Schecter, chaplain, United States Air Force, opened the program.

“To love your neighbor as yourself is one of the main commandments in Judaism. It is also the second of two commandments given by Jesus. Had this commandment been heeded, no Holocaust would have been possible in Europe,” said Captain Schecter.

“To love the stranger, to love the other is repeated almost 40 times in the Hebrew Bible, probably because of its importance and its difficulty. A neighbor is someone we can easily relate to; a stranger is harder, so that tossing them aside represents no violence of human decency.

“My prayer is this: that there come a day when there will be no stranger among us, and my prayer to G-d is that there become a day when our strangeness, our perceived otherness, will be a source of honor, respect and love. Then never again will there be a Shoah.”

MARTIN WEISS said that when he moved to the US he never spoke about the Holocaust because he just wanted to forget and try to have a normal life.

Shortly after coming to the US at age 16, he started night school while working at a grocery store. “It meant a lot that I could live on my own, enjoy some meals with my sister who lived nearby, and become independent.”

Born in 1929 in Czechoslovakia, Weiss was one of nine siblings.

“We had democracy and in fact, my sister was able to go college, where she was the only girl in the college.

“Everyone grew their own food in their yards and we always worked, so a strong work ethic was instilled in us.

“We had very high hopes for a good future, we were full citizens and we lived a normal life.”

Soon, however, things began to change. In 1938, the part of Czechoslovakia where Weiss’ family lived was taken over by Hungary and many citizens voluntarily joined the military.

“We had over 350 troops in our town. There were tanks. As soon as they came in, my father sensed the anti-Semitism but we didn’t worry about it at first. We had hired non-Jews to work in our fields and relationships were good.

“Soon, they took away Jewish rights.

“The first year Hungarians came into our region, they passed anti- Jewish laws like in Germany and took away our businesses. If somebody liked your house, they would take your house away and live in it.”

In 1941, all men of military age were inducted into the Army and were used as labor for cutting down the forest. The Army wanted to eliminate the forest as a hiding place.

Weiss’ two older brothers were shipped off to the Russian front and thousands from their region escaped to Russia. Others were captured while some escaped and joined the Czechoslovakian army to fight the Hungarians.

“We had to wear the Jewish star. All these things really bothered us. They did things intended to humiliate the Jews. They were very good at it.

“They don’t look at you as a person, they look at you as vermin. People have hatred, which can make them do things that normally they wouldn’t do. You’re like a cockroach,” said Weiss.

“In 1942, Hungarians picked up certain families on the pretext that they weren’t Hungarian citizens. They were shipped to the Ukraine in boxcars. They dropped them off in the forest, the snow was over seven feet high and everyone was very hungry and cold. People were wandering from place to place. Sentries were on the corners of roads so when some people were passing by they would find ways to humiliate us.

“I can remember when the sentries took matches and lit the beards of the Orthodox Jews who were walking by.

“They would take a child from their mother, bash them against a rock, throw them in the river. Hungarians did this, which isn’t often written about in the history books.

“Fortunately, now there’s more known about this. So much research has been done.”

Many memories remain vivid for Weiss.

“As we were taken away from our town [to Auschwitz], we were pushed toward the open doors of a train so everyone started holding onto their children and there was lots of shouting and screaming. They pushed us to the ground and we were surrounded by floodlights while watching the soldiers with rifles surrounding us. You would think we were the biggest criminals in the world.

“Even if you wanted to run, you couldn’t because we were surrounded with barbed wire.

“When they separated men from the women, I put on several jackets so I would look bigger.

“My father and brother ran before me and I passed through a line. There was an empty space between my mother and my sister, so I told my father I was going to run over there to join them.

“A guy in a uniform grabbed me on the back of my neck and threw me into the other line. I didn’t know until the next morning that he had saved my life.

“Your brain is your own worst enemy because you can’t believe what is happening. We were sent to Austria. The train stopped. Mauthausen was a very large camp with crematoriums, built in 1938 for political prisoners.”

“MAUTHAUSEN LABOR camp was a mixed population including Spaniards, Ukrainians, Czeckoslovakians and Poles; as Jews, we were also considered political prisoners.

“The work at Mauthausen consisted of mining stones from the quarry. Prisoners had to shovel and carry 20 pound stones up to the top of the mountain. It was like a fortress. All the camps were unbelievably brutal.

“Political prisoners were literally worked to death. People were dying on a daily basis. Our job was to build tunnels. In less than a year, with three shifts of prisoners, we built three tunnels.

“All you could think of and talk about was food. This is very hard to explain if you’ve never been through it.

“My father was in the same camp but on an opposite side with a different shift, but sometimes by accident we would meet. My uncle was there too but he died.”

Despite the horrors that he experienced, Weiss remembers a good thing from the labor camp.

“A kapo [camp supervising officer] picked my cousin to be an orderly, so he had better clothes and better food than the rest of us.

“Once in a great while he would be able to give me a slice of bread. Later, he got me a job in the kitchen, peeling potatoes for the kapo.

“You had to peel a big heavy slice to get to the middle part of the potato; they wanted only the inside of the potato. We weren’t allowed to touch and eat the peel.

“I used to slice up potatoes so that I could put some in my waist of my pants and take out some potatoes for others.

“You can’t picture being in a situation like this.

“When they cut the bread for us, it literally fell apart into small bread crumbs so they had to give it out with a spoon. I still remember the mildew in the bread which was white, green and blue, but we ate it. We got a cup of broth once a day that was it, but only if you got in line soon enough.

“We were taken on a forced march into a forest where there were five barracks.

“In my memory, I believed there were 5,000 men in each barrack at night. A few years ago, I remembered this number of 5,000 and I couldn’t believe it was possible. Eventually, I asked someone at the Holocaust museum to research this and they confirmed its truth.

“Looking back on this, you cannot believe that people belonged to the same human race. If you saw the things the guards would do, you couldn’t believe it.”

SOMEHOW, WEISS survived in Mauthausen until 1945.?   “One day we heard that the guards had run off. The Americans were here, but we didn’t see any so we didn’t believe it. We realized the guards were gone but we were afraid to try to leave. We were starving. We stayed another night in the camp. The next day, we decided that maybe it was safe to try to leave. My cousin was in fairly good shape.

“We came to a field and we saw boxcars along the tracks. We broke in, found some canned goods, but we had no can opener. I don’t know how we did it, but we gouged out one or two cans, maybe with rocks or something.

“Farther down in a field there was an army truck where we found some leather hides which we took with us in case we could find a shoemaker to make some shoes out of them.”

Every day was a struggle, without knowing how they would survive or what their future entailed.

“Thinking back on how we survived, if you could have seen how full of vengeance and hate I was, I feel embarrassed to say it, but that’s the way I felt.

“We saw a farmhouse, so we knocked on the door. We didn’t barge in, which amazes me even today. The woman opened the door and asked what we wanted, so we politely said eggs, flour and water. She went and got the items and gave them to us.

“We went to her barn, mixed up the ingredients, and made dumplings! We all really enjoyed it. But if you ate too much, you died a few days later.

“Then, one of the men in our group said, let’s take some of those leather hides back to the lady. We all went back, knocked on her door, thanked her.

“When I remembered this story it bothered me. I thought to myself, why did we do that? We felt we had every right to be as nasty as you could be to the woman. We didn’t feel like human beings and we didn’t resemble human beings, I can’t justify why we behaved like this.

“The only explanation I can give you is that when you’re raised with Judaic values, in spite of what happened, we still acted like human beings.”

Although most of his family perished in Auschwitz, Weiss feels fortunate to have received help from Jewish agencies to obtain a visa and immigrate to the US. He later married, had two children and four grandchildren.

He served in the US Army during the Korean War. He has been volunteering at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum for 16 years, sharing and contributing his life experiences with generations to come.

Copyright © 2014 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Leave a Reply