Elizabeth Deutsch was born in Hungary. In addition to her parents, she shared her home with three older brothers and an older sister.
Half of them died in the Holocaust.
While Deutsch wonders why she was lucky enough to survive, she says, “I believe — perhaps, I survived so that I could tell my story, what I endured during the Holocaust. The world has to know what happened to us, the Jewish people.”
Deutsch, who lives in Fairfield with her husband, Andrew, spoke to freshmen at Foran High School in Milford recently, telling them of endurance and survival in the face of devastation.
“I came from a loving, great big family,” said Deutsch, whose maiden name is Egri. “We had cows, horses, no cars; transportation was horse and carriage.”
Born in 1927, she was about 16 when Hitler invaded Hungary in 1944. She lived in Bodrogkeresztúr, a small town of about 3,500 people — about 700 of them Jewish.
“We had a very, very big garden, and fruit trees, and chickens,” she said during her presentation, and later in a private interview with the Milford Mirror. “We had two beautiful synagogues. We got along well with our non-Jewish neighbors.”
Before the invasion, fear and restrictions had been growing steadily among the Jewish people in her town as they followed the news of the war.
“After a couple of years we could feel something was not right,” she said. “We had to wear the star on our clothes. It was curfew at 5 o’clock and we had to be in the house. Food was rationed and we had to stand in line for flour, sugar and many other things.”
Her father and three brothers were taken away, and Deutsch, her mother and sister weren’t told where they were taken.
“We didn’t know where they were. We didn’t hear nothing from them,” she said in an accent that reveals her roots and the languages she has learned along her life’s journey,
In 1944, just two weeks before German forces invaded Hungary, her father and the oldest of her three brothers returned home: They had been forced laborers in the Soviet Union. The family hardly recognized them when they returned.
“The SS men were all over Hungary,” Deutsch said. “We had to darken our windows. It was a Saturday night and we heard a knock on the door. I was hiding under the dining room table. I was so scared. It was our Jewish neighbor that told us all the Jewish people have to get ready by Monday morning to be at the synagogue. You could only bring with you what you could carry in your hands.”
Deutsch spent her last hours at home saying goodbye to the animals — the horses, the cows and the chickens, and then touching the things in her house — the bed, her windowsill … the things she would never see again.
Monday came quickly
“Monday morning came very, very quickly,” she said.
The Jewish people made their way to the synagogue and then were forced to walk to the railroad station
“The Hungarian soldiers made us walk very fast,” she said. “And then they made us sit on the ground and get up very fast. People who couldn’t get up fast enough, they would hit them — and it was mostly the elderly people who couldn’t get up fast enough.”
In April of 1944, Hungarian authorities had ordered Hungarian Jews living outside Budapest to move to certain cities, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website. Gendarmes were sent into the outskirts to round up the Jewish people and move them to the central locations.
Deutsch and her family were taken to a large city: A fence surrounded “the ghetto” — what they called the areas where the Jewish people were forced to live. Deutsch said her family crammed into a house with other Jewish families; she and her sister slept on the floor.
“In early May, they started to empty out the ghetto, and we have to walk to the railroad station again. This time we didn’t sit in a regular train. We were shoved into a cattle car,” she said. “It was very dark when they locked us into the cattle car. Many many people in those cars; we could hardly sit on the floor.”
They rode for days. Sometimes the train would stop, perhaps, to board more Jewish prisoners — those in the cars didn’t know.
“One evening it was dark and the train stopped and it didn’t move no more,” Deutsch said. “It was only standing there, the doors didn’t open up. Then we hear doors slamming, we hear crying. We were wondering what was going on. Where are we. We smell smoke coming into our cattle car, and we wonder what place this is.
“My father was a tall man and they had a little, little window on the cattle car, and there was a shutter on it. He tried to get up to that little window. He saw a chimney. He saw the flame coming out of it and the smoke, and he made a remark when he came down, ‘We are in hell.’ And it was hell.”
They were in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Auschwitz was established by the Germans in 1940, in the suburbs of Oswiecim, a Polish city that was annexed to the Third Reich by the Nazis, according to Auschwitz.org.
“All over the world, Auschwitz has become a symbol of terror, genocide, and the Holocaust,” according to Auschwitz.org. “Birkenau was the largest of the more than 40 camps and sub-camps that made up the Auschwitz complex,” the website continues, stating that it served as a center for the extermination of the Jews.
“The majority — probably about 90% — of the victims of Auschwitz Concentration Camp died in Birkenau,” states Auschwitz.org. “This means approximately a million people. The majority, more than nine out of every ten, were Jews.”
“We were in hell,” Deutsch said.
The doors of the cattle car opened the morning after they arrived, and there were SS men all around, with German shepherd dogs, and there were men in striped uniforms, whom Deutsch later learned were Jewish prisoners, forced to unload the transport cars when the prisoners arrived.
Once outside the cattle cars, men were forced into one line; the women into another.
“I didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye to my father or my brother,” Deutsch said.
Josef Mengele, nicknamed the Angel of Death, was an SS physician, infamous for his inhumane medical experimentation on concentration camp prisoners at Auschwitz, according to the Auschwitz website.
Deutsch saw him when she entered Auschwitz-Birkenau: She said it was he who started the selection process, who pointed them to the right or to the left. She was sent to the right with her sister, Frieda, nine years older than her, but her mother, aunts and cousins were sent to the left, a line that led to the crematorium.
She wanted to go to her mother, and a man pushed her back to the right. She tried again, but he saw her, and he went after her, and he was angry — he called her a “not very nice name,” and told her she was young and could work. He saved her life.
“After that my sister pushed me behind her and I always had to be behind her,” Deutsch said.
Heads shaved, arms tattooed
Their heads were shaved and they were given one dress to wear: Numbers were tattooed onto their arms with a needle. The number on Deutsch’s arm is still visible — A6145. Her sister was A6144.
“It was so painful you have no idea,” Deutsch said.
They were sent to a barracks made of solid wood, devoid of insulation so that in the summertime it was very hot and in the winter very cold.
“The food was so terrible that you couldn’t eat it. Black coffee and black, hard bread. You couldn’t eat or drink it,” Deutsch said. “Dinner was soup. This thick soup, and it smelled so bad.”
They were awakened at 4 a.m. every day, then stood in line for hours to be counted before going to their day’s work.
“I saw Mengele every single day,” Deutsch said. “He came and he was the one who looked over every line. Who looks good. I used to pinch my face so it would be nice and red. I smiled not because I wanted to, but I did.”
Her job was to sort the belongings that the Jewish prisoners had brought — shoes, dresses, coats, and the items secreted into coat seams.
After the transports stopped and there were no more personal belongings to sort, she dug ditches.
One day, she took a shortcut through the grass after digging all day, not knowing that an SS man was watching her from a window.
“He asked, why did I step on the grass. I tried to explain it to him. He took out his rubber stick and he started to hit my back.” She outran him and made it back to her barracks. “The pain was so bad I couldn’t even cry,” she said.
One day when they were working they heard a big explosion. Sirens sounded, and the workers were forced back to the camp. Prisoners had blown up one of the crematoriums.
According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “On Oct. 7, 1944, several hundred prisoners assigned to Crematorium IV at Auschwitz-Birkenau rebelled after learning that they were going to be killed. During the uprising, the prisoners killed three guards and blew up the crematorium and adjacent gas chamber. The prisoners used explosives smuggled into the camp by Jewish women who had been assigned to forced labor in a nearby armaments factory.”
The Germans crushed the revolt and killed almost all of the prisoners involved in the rebellion, according to the museum website. The Jewish women who had smuggled the explosives into the camp were publicly hanged.
Deutsch remembers being forced to watch.
“We had to stand in line, and they hanged all three right in front of us,” she said. “And that was terrible.”
Moved from Auschwitz-Birkenau
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website states that in mid-January 1945, “as Soviet forces approached the Auschwitz concentration camp complex, the SS began evacuating Auschwitz and its subcamps.”
Deutsch said it was about that time that during the night SS men came into the barracks looking for girls to leave Auschwitz-Birkenau to work elsewhere.
“We were picked,” she said. “Next day getting us ready, it was very odd. We went into the sauna, and they took our prison dress away. They give us just any kind of dress that fitted. I remember mine was a black dress. And a little big on me. We were sitting in the cattle car, that was our transportation all the time, and the train is not moving, it is just standing there. We thought that they fooled us, that we are not going to go away, but then after a long time the train started to move. Oh my God, all the prisoners they hug and kiss each other that we are leaving this place.
“We came to a place called Bergen-Belsen. Well, that was another death camp. That was not a working camp. Dead bodies were like mountains. You don’t work, you don’t get to eat. There was nothing to do there the whole day except sitting around, watching the dead bodies. The typhus broke out, and I said ‘Oh my God, I wish we could get away from here.’”
The selection started again and Deutsch and her sister were picked to leave Bergen-Belsen. They were taken next to Braunschweig, a bombed city.
“We were the only survivors there. We were there to clean up the city with a shovel,” Deutsch said.
Home there was a stable with a concrete floor and hay on it, and that’s where they slept. The first night they all got infected by lice.
“And then we were there for a while,” she said, adding that whenever the Allies got close, she and the other prisoners would be moved to a different location.
It was April of 1945, she said, when the women were taken to a munitions factory to do assembly work.
“We were working there a while, it was the middle of April 1945, and in a hurry we had to get into cattle cars. I found out later that some of the camps were already liberated, and we were still away, and then the train was going. It stopped to pick up more prisoners. They locked us in without food or an empty pail; many times it stopped. We heard the bombing, we heard the shooting, and many times the train was dancing on the tracks. We were wondering what was going on or where we are.
“We were so weak. We were just skin and bones. So many girls died in the cattle cars. I think so much how did I survive?”
And then the cattle cars stopped.
“They made us go out, stand five in a row. Machine guns was all around us. They were going to shoot us. That was our end, that was our death ride, but we didn’t know what was waiting for us.
“And then a miracle happened,” she said. “Airplanes over our head. We had no idea what kind of airplanes it was, Allies or Germans or what. But the air in the sky was black overhead from the airplanes, and then when saw the SS men is running away with their dogs. We were all alone and the machine guns were there.”
They lay there, and then they heard trucks coming, and the trucks carried Allied soldiers.
She said it was May 2, 1945, and Deutsch, her sister and the other women were finally free.
A new life
The women were taken in the cattle cars to the railroad station, to Denmark for two days, and then Sweden, where they were quarantined for six weeks as they rebuilt their strength. Younger girls like Deutsch were then sent to school near Stockholm, where they learned Swedish and received regular meals and regular exercise. “They were so, so nice to us. They give us a little spending money. They give us clothing and everything,” Deutsch said.
When she finished school, she and her sister took jobs in a sewing factory on the outskirts of Stockholm, and rented an apartment. Her sister paid for her to attend hairdressing school, and Deutsch got her license and went to work in a salon. Then, relatives in America sent papers so they could travel to the United States when the quotas allowed. They learned the youngest of their three brothers had survived, and was getting married and moving to Palestine. He wanted his sisters to join him, but they chose America, eventually getting permission to travel to the United States. They arrived at Ellis Island in March of 1950.
“I was so happy to be there. Our relatives were waiting for us. We saw the lady and we waved to her,” Deutsch said.
They began their new life quickly, arriving on a Tuesday and starting night school on Thursday to learn the English language. They settled in Bridgeport, where they worked again at a sewing factory until Deutsch could go to school again and earn a hairdressing license here. She met her husband, Andrew, in the Hungarian community where they lived in Bridgeport: His family was also from Hungary, but arrived in the United States in 1940.
Her sister, Frieda, married and moved to New York and then, New Jersey.
In 1970, Deutsch moved to Fairfield, where she lives today: She speaks regularly to students and other groups so that people don’t forget about the Holocaust.
Students moved by presentation
Jessica Hoffer, social studies teacher at Foran High School, arranged Deutsch’s visit to Foran May 25. After the presentation, students gave Deutsch a thunderous applause, and several lined up to shake her hand.
“Hearing your story is so different from reading from books and websites, and it gives a better understanding, even though we still may never understand the level you went through,” one student wrote in a thank-you letter to Deutsch later.
Another wrote, “I was honored to have shaken your hand after hearing your story and to be in your presence. You have really touched my heart and your story really changed my outlook on life.”
The student concluded with, “You are so brave.”