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Episode 6

Esther Schwartzman

“We marched for days and days, and my older sister said she can’t march anymore, and a couple of times, she said she’s going to stop, she’s not going on. And there were a lot of people who did, and they shot them on the road. She said, “I don’t care if they shoot me, I’m not going anymore.” And at that point, she sat down on the side of the road, and, uh, my other sister and myself, we stayed with her.”

                       

As Polish Jews fled across the border into Hungary bearing stories of Nazi atrocities, Esther Schwartzman’s family and community didn’t believe that such things could happen to them. Then in early 1944, everything changed.

Photos and Artifacts

The family of Esther Schwartzman, née Ella Fried, ca. late 1920s. The photo was taken before Esther’s birth in 1929 (there are no extant photos of Esther as a child) and shows her parents, Zigmond (Usher Zelig) Fried (1897-1944) and Leah Fried, née Weingarten (1897-1944), and her two older sisters, Magda (1922-2016) and Bella (1923-2015). Esther’s father was killed at Buchenwald. Her mother died in Auschwitz, along with Esther’s younger siblings Roize (1932-1944) and Eliezer (1934-1944). Credit: Courtesy of Shelley Bulman.

Esther Schwartzman in 1945. Although it had been several months since Esther’s return from the concentration camps, she still did not have regular clothing to wear. Credit: Courtesy of Shelley Bulman.

Esther Schwartzman’s certificate of identity, issued in lieu of a passport by the U.S. consulate in Stuttgart, Germany, August 20, 1946. Credit: Courtesy of Shelley Bulman.

Esther’s oldest sister, Magda (Malche) Halpert, née Fried, 1945. Credit: Courtesy of Shelley Bulman.

Esther’s older sister Bella Mermelstein, née Fried, 1945. Credit: Courtesy of Shelley Bulman.

Esther Schwartzman, née Ella Fried, 1945. Credit: Courtesy of Shelley Bulman.

Ella Fried and Solomon Usher / Shloime Usher Schwartzman, April 1948

Wedding of Esther and Solomon Schwartzman, August 22, 1948. Credit: Courtesy of Shelley Bulman.

Esther and Solomon Schwartzman’s five children, ca. 1964. From oldest to youngest: Shelley, Sarah, Hayim, Jerry, and Judy. Credit: Courtesy of Shelley Bulman.

In front of Esther Schwartzman’s childhood home during Esther’s third visit to Mukachevo, Ukraine, 2018. Esther is at center, wearing a pale blue shirt. Also pictured are the house’s tenant, Esther’s daughter Judy Ostroff, and Judy’s children and grandchildren. Credit: Courtesy of Shelley Bulman.

Esther and her sisters with their husbands, 1988. From left to right, Solomon and Esther Schwartzman, Magda and Ben Halpert, Bella and Harold Mermelstein. Credit: Courtesy of Shelley Bulman.

By Dr. Samuel Kassow

Esther Schwartzman, née Ella Fried, was born in 1929 in Mukachevo, Czechoslovakia, to Zigmond and Leah Fried. She had two older sisters and a younger sister and brother. Her father traded in textiles and dry goods and traveled frequently, but he always returned home before the Jewish Sabbath.

Mukachevo (Munkács in Hungarian, Mukaczovo in Rusyn, Mukaczevo in Ukrainian, and Munkacz in Yiddish) was one of the two major cities (such as they were) of the economically backward, multinational region of Subcarpathian Ruthenia, an area with a complicated and fraught political history. Between 1867 and 1918 the region belonged to the Hungarian part of the Habsburg Empire. In the confused aftermath of World War I, it became the easternmost part of Czechoslovakia, until the Hungarians reclaimed it in 1938 and 1939. Since 1944 Subcarpathian Ruthenia has been part of Ukraine.

Most of the non-Jews in Subcarpathian Ruthenia were Rusyns, a peasant group who spoke a language similar to Ukrainian. As the largely impoverished Rusyns slowly began to develop a national identity, they were torn between three different orientations: they could identify as Russians, as Ukrainians, or as part of a distinct Rusyn nationality. The Rusyns were also divided religiously: some were Uniates, while others were Eastern Orthodox.

Compared to other peoples in Eastern Europe, the Rusyns did not have a history of overt antisemitism. There were no pogroms, interethnic violence was rare, and many Jews remembered decent neighborly relations with the Rusyns. But as various nationalisms, including Rusyn nationalism, began to take hold, points of friction emerged between the Rusyns and the Jews.

As elsewhere in Eastern Europe, Jews gravitated towards the most powerful national group that happened to be in charge, thus earning the resentment of their weaker neighbors. Before 1918, many Jews in Subcarpathian Ruthenia, as well as in Slovakia and Transylvania, embraced Magyar culture, a choice that did not endear them to the Rusyns, Slovaks, and Romanians.

When the area became part of Czechoslovakia, large numbers of Jews educated their children in Czech schools. Rusyns suspected, quite correctly, that their Jewish neighbors, who were mostly Yiddish-speaking, had little interest in Rusyn culture and did not support their national aspirations. In short, by the time of the Holocaust, Rusyn-Jewish relations had cooled considerably, even though the Rusyns remained, for the most part, bystanders rather than perpetrators. But they were bystanders who provided little help as their Jewish neighbors faced deportation.

While the region’s countryside was predominantly Rusyn, its two towns, Mukachevo and Uzhgorod, had large Jewish populations. The 1930 census showed the Jews comprising 44 percent of Mukachevo’s 26,000 inhabitants, and 27 percent of Uzhgorod’s population of 40,000.

The Jewish population of Subcarpathian Ruthenia was remarkable in many ways. The percentage of rural Jews and Jews who eked out a living from agriculture was the highest in Europe. While most of the Jews in interwar Czechoslovakia were economically stable, the Jews in this region suffered from a very high poverty rate.

Another noteworthy feature of the Jewish population in the area was its exceptionally high proportion of religious, Hasidic Jews. The famed “Munkaczer Rebbe” Chaim Eliezer Shapira (1871-1937) was a fierce defender of rigid religious observance, and his long list of targets included not only Zionists but also more moderate religious Jews. Yet, despite the strong religious character of Mukachevo’s Jewry, the modern world was making real inroads during the interwar period. Zionism was gaining supporters, and in the 1920s an important Zionist political figure and educator, Hayim Kugel, settled in Mukachevo, where he established—much to the chagrin of Rabbi Shapira—Czechoslovakia’s only Hebrew language high school. In 1935, he was also elected to the Czechoslovak parliament.

Esther’s childhood experiences and memories reflected the complex nature of Jewish life in her hometown. Her father was a follower of the Munkaczer Rebbe, and the family was very religious, as were all of their family friends. But Esther’s sisters went to Czech schools, while Esther, somewhat surprisingly, attended a Rusyn primary school (she called it a “Russian school” in her testimony). And while most of the region’s Jews were Yiddish speakers, Esther recalled that the language spoken at home was Hungarian—a vestige of the “golden age” of 1867-1914, when the Hungarian nobility courted and protected the Jews and earned not only their gratitude, but also their love of Magyar culture. Esther’s family’s choice of language may also have reflected the fact that, by Mukachevo’s standards, they were solidly middle class rather than lower class.

By the time Esther turned nine, Jewish life in Mukachevo took a definite turn for the worse. Czechoslovakia collapsed, and the city was annexed by Hungary in 1938. Once again under Hungarian rule, the Jews, including Esther’s family, soon discovered that this was a different Hungary from the benevolent Magyar rule they remembered from the old days. Anxious to recover the territories lost after World War I, Hungary allied itself with Nazi Germany and joined its attack on the USSR in 1941.

The Hungarians also began to implement a new series of decrees that limited Jewish economic activity, Jewish access to the free professions, and Jewish admissions to universities. This dealt a serious economic blow to Hungarian Jewry. Esther’s father’s business went downhill. Another shock came when the Hungarian government began to draft Jewish young men for labor battalions in which—unarmed, ill-nourished, and poorly clothed—they followed the Hungarian army into Russia, clearing minefields and digging trenches. These Jewish conscripts suffered an appalling mortality rate.

Yet, despite the fact that the Hungarian government enacted one antisemitic decree after another, it drew the line at allowing the Germans to deport the Jews to the death camps. The landowners and bureaucrats who served under Admiral Miklós Horthy, Hungary’s then regent, had no stomach for such extreme measures. This meant that by early 1944, after most of European Jewry had already been murdered, almost 800,000 Jews in Hungary still lived in their own homes— economically beleaguered but, to all intents and purposes, physically safe. But this safety was more precarious than most Jews realized. The Hungarian army had already carried out massacres of Jews in Ukraine and Yugoslavia, and there were many Hungarian fascists who were chomping at the bit to take power from the conservatives and do Hitler’s bidding by deporting all the Jews to the death camps.

Until March 1944, Esther and her family lived in Mukachevo in tenuous security. Millions of Jews had been killed—many just a few miles away, across the borders with Galicia and Slovakia—but in Mukachevo, Esther’s father eked out a living, the children went to school, and the family continued to observe Jewish holidays. Yes, they had heard about the mass killings in Poland, but such things, they believed, would not happen in Hungary. Admiral Horthy and his friends would never allow it.

In March 1944, Hitler, having learned of Hungarian peace overtures to the West, abruptly summoned Horthy and informed him that Germany would occupy Hungary and install a new, radical right-wing government, led by Döme Sztójay, a rabid fascist and Jew-hater. Horthy remained as regent, but he now toed the new line. Within days, special groups of SS “Jewish experts,” headed by Adolf Eichmann, arrived to plan the deportation of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. Between May 15 and July 7, almost 450,000 Hungarian Jews were sent to Auschwitz. About two-thirds were immediately sent to the gas chambers.

The destruction of Hungarian Jewry proceeded smoothly and efficiently, mainly because the Germans enjoyed the full and enthusiastic cooperation of the Hungarian government, civil service, gendarmerie, and military. The Catholic church showed some interest in speaking up for Jewish converts but otherwise maintained a deafening silence.

One might well ask, how was it possible for the Germans to deport almost half a million Jews out of Hungary so late in the war? Hadn’t the Hungarian Jews already learned of the Final Solution? Why didn’t more try to escape or hide? After all, the Red Army was by now approaching from the East. But such questions are easy to ask after the fact. For years the Jews in Hungary had been physically safe, and their leaders had assured them that they would remain so, even if Hungary’s government might harass them. The young men who might have organized some form of resistance were scattered in the labor battalions. And the Jews of Mukachevo, as well as those in the rest of Hungary, were surrounded by a wall of hostility and indifference. Even if they knew where they were going, what could they have done? To quote Yehuda Bauer, “They were caught on an island in shark-infested waters, and they had no boat. If the island was flooded, they were doomed.”

The Germans and the Hungarians rounded up the Hungarian Jews from east to west, so Mukachevo was one of the first communities to be deported. In April 1944 the Hungarian authorities established two ghettos in Mukachevo—one for the city’s Jews and the other for Jews from nearby rural areas. For about a month, the Jews in these ghettos faced humiliation and near-starvation, which a hastily established Jewish council tried in vain to alleviate. Jews were forced to sing and dance as they dismantled the Munkaczer Rebbe’s famed yeshiva.

On May 15 Hungarian gendarmes forced all Jews to march five miles to a brick factory under an onslaught of beatings. Once they got to the factory, they were robbed of all they had left and then pushed into boxcars, up to 100 to a car, without any sanitary facilities. Many Jews died along the way and some killed themselves. In her testimony, Esther laconically described the journey as “terrible,” unable to put into words the sheer horror of the experience.

Once Esther and her family arrived at Auschwitz, they faced a “selection”: Esther’s mother, younger sister, and younger brother were immediately sent to the gas chambers, while her father, her two older sisters, and she herself were selected for work. Like many Hungarian Jews who were selected for labor, Esther did not spend much time in Auschwitz, but she suffered the searing humiliations that awaited each new prisoner.

Esther’s experience in Auschwitz and the subsequent labor camp highlight once again how important it was to have a network of close family and friends to help one survive. Esther recalled how her father made his way to a fence near her barrack to tell her to volunteer for any transport leaving the camp, convinced that no matter where the Germans sent you, it was better than staying too close to the crematoriums in Birkenau.

By 1944 the Germans were so desperate for labor that Hitler reversed his previous policy and allowed the SS to import Jewish slave workers into the Reich. Esther and her sisters left Auschwitz on a transport that went first to Stutthof and then to a labor camp at Braunau, where they stayed until January 1945, making munitions. Like other prisoners, Esther used whatever chance she had to sabotage the grenades she was filling with explosives. Camp conditions were dismal, but she survived, thanks to the emotional support of her sisters and the moral support of French prisoners of war.

The major Red Army offensive of January 1945 forced the Germans to hurriedly evacuate every concentration camp and labor camp east of the Oder River, resulting in long death marches of hundreds of thousands of prisoners heading deeper into the Reich. In the final months of the war, as the Reich was collapsing and the Allied armies approached from all directions, up to 250,000 Jewish and non-Jewish prisoners died—killed by SS guards, burned alive in barns and barracks, or left to perish from hunger and disease in now overcrowded camps in the Reich. Esther’s father died in Buchenwald shortly before the end of the war.

No Jews survived the German occupation without luck and well-timed miracles. For Esther and her sisters, one of those miracles came when they succeeded in abandoning the death march they were on without getting shot—the customary punishment for not keeping pace. Esther and her sisters now set out on a long and dangerous trip home, which led them through Warsaw, now a heap of ruins, and Lviv. During the entire journey, they enjoyed the help and friendship of other Jewish survivors. One of Esther’s benefactors was murdered, a stark reminder that liberation brought new dangers, especially for Jews in Poland, where up to 1,500 Jews were killed between 1944 and 1948.

Esther returned to Mukachevo to find little left of what had once been a thriving Jewish community. With the entire region about to become part of the USSR, Esther and her sisters left for Czechoslovakia. From there they made an illegal crossing into the American Zone in Germany. Four of their mother’s sisters lived in the United States and sponsored their immigration in late 1946. On Yom Kippur 1946, just before they sailed, a Jewish chaplain warned them not to talk about their experiences when they arrived in America. People did not want to hear about what they went through, he argued, and they would probably not believe them.

Esther earned a diploma from Washington Irving High School and went to work for a company that made thermometers. In 1948 she married Solomon Schwartzman, who would go on to serve as a rabbi in several small towns across the U.S., including Greenfield, Massachusetts, where they lived from 1959 to 1975—and where Esther was president of Hadassah and the local synagogue sisterhood.

Esther and her husband retired to New Haven, Connecticut, in 1989. They had five children, 13 grandchildren, and 39 great-grandchildren. Esther did not go out of her way to talk about the past with her children, but they knew why they had no grandparents. In Esther’s own words, one can try to bury the past, but “press the right button, and it’s there again.” Yet, despite her pain, she lived a life that was suffused with those same values of Ahavas Yisroel (love of the Jewish people) that had imbued her family and her community back home in Europe.

Esther Schwartzman died on July 26, 2020. She was 91 years old.

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Additional readings and information

Esther’s unedited testimony at the Fortunoff Video Archive (available at access sites worldwide): https://fortunoff.aviaryplatform.com/collections/5/collection_resources/1790.

Braham, Randolph L. The Politics of Genocide: The Holocaust in Hungary. Condensed ed. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2000.

Segal, Raz. Days of Ruin: The Jews of Munkács During the Holocaust. Jerusalem: Yad Vashem Publications, 2013.

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