PERRY: This is tape one, side A of a oral history by Mr. Alexander Schonfeld, S C H O N F E L D.
PERRY: Doctor. He was trained as a physician.
SCHONFELD: I was a graduate from Prague. I studied in Prague.
PERRY: In Prague, and he was born in –
SCHONFELD: 1902, October 13.
PERRY: October 13, 1902. It was then a town called Mukacevo, and it was – at that time it was Hungary.
SCHONFELD: At that time it was Hungary when I was born.
PERRY: At the end of World War I, Czechoslovakia was reformed –
PERRY: – and this territory became part of Czechoslovakia.
SCHONFELD: Became Hungary.
PERRY: Part of Hungary? 1918?
SCHONFELD: No, no, no. In 1918, Czechoslovakia.
PERRY: It became part of Czechoslovakia. In 1939, when Czechoslovakia was once again taken over and territories taken away, and it became part of Hungary.
PERRY: This interview is taking place on October 28, 1985. Now I will ask you a question about – starting your story in 1939 when the Germans –
SCHONFELD: The Hungarians, the Hungarians –
PERRY: The Hungarians –
SCHONFELD: Took us over.
PERRY: – regained Mukacevo. Will you please tell me your story from there?
SCHONFELD: Yeah. So, the Hungarians, they were rough on the Jewish people because they took away the licenses from their businesses so they became unemployed and they were all the time whatever they could do for the Jewish people was wrong. And then, about in 1942,’42, ’43, we started wearing, you know, the yellow badge. And not long after that we were taken in a brick factory, all the Jewish people were incarcerated in a brick factory and then gradually, they were taken to Auschwitz. We were deported to Auschwitz. We didn’t know where we go. You understand?
SCHONFELD: We didn’t know whether we go to a concentration camp. They deported us.
PERRY: What year was that?
SCHONFELD: This was in 1944.
SCHONFELD: In 1944, after Pesach, after Pesach. It must have been in May. Yeah, in May we were taken straight to Auschwitz. In Auschwitz we were separated, the women and the men. Here was Dr. Mengele, and he selected the people, one to work and the other one to the gas chamber. I was already selected to the working people, the working people, but I saw coming my wife with the two children. She had – one was a little boy seven months old and my other boy was 10 years old. So I took my boy, my 10 years old boy, and between dogs and such things, I took him away to me. I took him away to me. And this is the way how he was saved, see.
He was a tall boy. He is today also six foot two inches. So he was a tall boy, so I was said in concentration camp that he is 16 years old, not 10. So we were in Auschwitz 10 days. We didn’t do no work. But you know, they tortured us. For example, whoever went by gave me a slap –
PERRY: A slap on the face or kicked you.
SCHONFELD: A kapo or a SS soldier. After 10 days, I was taken to Warsaw. This was after the Warsaw –
PERRY: That was much earlier. The Warsaw uprising was ’43, Pesach.
SCHONFELD: Yeah, but we were taken in ’44 to clean the bricks.
PERRY: Oh, from the uprising.
SCHONFELD: From the uprising and to put it in what goes to Germany.
PERRY: Yeah, but therefore, you spent 10 days in Auschwitz and then you were sent to Warsaw.
SCHONFELD: To Russia.
PERRY: So you actually –
SCHONFELD: 4,500 people were sent to – to Warsaw to clean the bricks, and I mean this was ruins, all ruins. Everything was in ruin. So we were, we were taken to Warsaw, and in Warsaw our job was to clean bricks and to transport them to Germany. But the 26th of August, the Russian soldiers they came a little bit closer to Warsaw. They started stunning – how you name that?
PERRY: The bombs?
SCHONFELD: Not bombs, but –
PERRY: Molotov cocktails?
SHONFELD: Molotov cocktails. Yeah, they started throwing Molotov cocktails over the concentration camp and we had to hide, you know, we had to hide. They came mostly in the night.
PERRY: Yeah but you were in Warsaw.
SCHONFELD: In Warsaw, this was in Warsaw.
PERRY: There were no concentration camps in Warsaw.
SCHONFELD: Yeah, in Warsaw was a big concentration camp, for that.
PERRY: Okay, fine, I understand.
SCHONFELD: There was a big concentration camp.
SCHONFELD: But in the meantime the Russians were getting closer to Warsaw, so closer to Warsaw. So one day we were lined up in there and it was said that people who cannot walk 100 kilometers walking, they should step out. So about 216 people stepped out from the 4,000, 4,500. And all these people were killed, were shot to death the same day, the same afternoon.
PERRY: Let me ask you a question.
PERRY: When you went, after 10 days in Auschwitz, and you were sent to Warsaw, was your son with you?
SCHONFELD: Yeah, mine son was all the time with me.
PERRY: Okay, I wasn’t clear.
SCHONFELD: He was all the time with me. You know, I didn’t left him for a minute alone. He was always with me. So, after the 26th of August, we started – we left Warsaw, the 4,500 of us – I don’t know, 4,200 people or 4,300 people – we left Warsaw and we went to Zychlin. This is a city in Poland, walking. And in Zychlin we were put into wagons – not wagons –
PERRY: Railroad cars.
SCHONFELD: Railroad cars and we went to Dachau.
PERRY: Uh huh.
SCHONFELD: I want to tell you, this trip from Warsaw to Dachau, this was a horrible – this was a dead, a –
PERRY: Death march.
SCHONFELD: Death march.
PERRY: Well, first you marched to Zychlin.
SCHONFELD: To Zychlin, yah.
PERRY: And then you were put on the flat cars of the railroad.
SCHONFELD: Yah. You see, when we walked, we walked 10 kilometers a day. I don’t remember exactly, but we walked about five days to Zychlin, and here the greatest thing happened. You see, they didn’t give us water. They didn’t let us drink water and from Warsaw to Zychlin 1500 people died from thirst. I have never – as a doctor, I have never seen that. This was such a – you know, 1500 people, their own people, fell down in the street but until we arrived to Dachau, we were only about 3000 – 1500 people died from thirst. And then from Dachau – we were also about 10 days in Dachau, and from Dachau we were sent to Muehldorf. Muehldorf, this is a city near – in a forest but, I don’t know, 20 miles from Dachau.
PERRY: This must have been in 1945 then.
SCHONFELD: Yeah – ’44, ’45. Let me see. No, this still in ’44, still in ’44.
SCHONFELD: So, in Muehldorf people carried cement, you know. Then Hitler was thinking that the west is bombarded all the time, so he tried to make his factories –
PERRY: Secure against bombs in Bavaria.
SCHONFELD: In Bavaria, yeah. And this was Muehldorf. This was a big forest. The people worked 100 feet deep. They carried the cement up and down, up and down. And so we were living there in this Waldlager Funf. It was named Waldlager Funf where I was with my boy. Waldlager Funf. And then the American army approached our Muehldorf, and they liberated us.
PERRY: That had to be in 1945.
SCHONFELD: In ’45, yah, in ’45 liberated on May 8. On May 8 we were liberated. So this is the full story of our being in concentration camp. And you see, in the last period of the war, they saw that a lot of people became injured by the work, so they built up such a little “sanitat stube,” and I was here the doctor and whoever became injured so I had to take care of them. And my boy, he cleaned – he worked in the kitchen. When he was a little boy, in the kitchen. And then, when they liberated us, they took us to Pilsen and then to Prague and then we started already our life in liberation. This was a short story.
PERRY: May I ask you a few questions?
PERRY: We’ll have more detail about it then. Was your son able to do this heavy work, with the long march, the cement?
SCHONFELD: He work in the kitchen.
PERRY: Yeah, but before that, when you were taken to Warsaw?
SCHONFELD: Yeah, in Warsaw he was cleaning bricks.
PERRY: He was able to do that?
SCHONFELD: He was able to do that. He was a strong boy.
PERRY: You said he was only 10 or 11 though.
SCHONFELD: Yeah, 10 or 11 years old.
PERRY: But then he took this long march too?
SCHONFELD: Yeah, he took this long march too.
PERRY: And then he was forced labor in these factories.
SCHONFELD: In the factory, yeah, yeah.
PERRY: They never tried to take him away from you?
SCHONFELD: No, no. I kept him all the time near me and they didn’t take him away.
PERRY: But they never tried. They never –
SCHONFELD: They never tried. You see he was a tall boy at that time. He was almost as big as I am.
PERRY: Well what – obviously there was a great deal of suffering.
SCHONFELD: Oh, ohhh, oh. You see the suffer, I cannot explain. You understand me. You suffer – you see, we in Warsaw, we lived in concentration – we had such buildings. In Warsaw there were buildings. But in Muehldorf, they had such – how you say –
SCHONFELD: Barracks, we slept in barracks. And every day at five o’clock we had to get up. “You going to work.” And at five o’clock in the afternoon we came back from the work. And all day it was this –
PERRY: Up and down.
SCHONFELD: Up and down.
PERRY: I’m sure some people didn’t survive.
SCHONFELD: No, no, there were several hundred, several hundred people who died there.
PERRY: But these were people who died from overwork or starvation –
SCHONFELD: Overwork, starvation –
PERRY: But it wasn’t like inside a concentration camp. There were no ovens or things like that around?
SCHONFELD: No, no, no.
PERRY: That was a different area.
SCHONFELD: Yeah. We were in concentration camp and we had already a little grass soup in the morning and grass soup in the afternoon with a little salami and when we came home after work.
PERRY: Well, they obviously knew you were a physician.
SCHONFELD: Yeah. They didn’t bother – they didn’t care for that.
PERRY: But at the end they were using you as a physician. It was to their advantage to do that.
SCHONFELD: I had the same food. I slept in the same cottage, you know, but I did no privileges, no privileges.
PERRY: Let me ask you this too. The Americans took you to Pilsen, to Prague?
PERRY: You were brought to Pilsen and to Prague by the Americans?
SCHONFELD: Pilsen, and then I came to Prague. Of course I studied there. And from Prague I went to a village where there was a TB sanatorium.
PERRY: A tuberculosis sanitarium.
SCHONFELD: A tuberculosis sanitarium and they employed me there as a doctor, you know, until I came to America.
PERRY: So you were not at a displaced persons camp?
SCHONFELD: No, I was never in a displaced persons camp.
PERRY: You had a skill, so you were able to –
SCHONFELD: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I took a job in a TB sanitarium near Prague and in the meantime I became aware that my wife was alive. She was in Poland in a concentration camp.
PERRY: Was she in Birkenau?
SCHONFELD: No, she was in Stutthof, near Danzig.
PERRY: Danzig. Well, did you have any trouble getting visas to the United States or…?
SCHONFELD: No, my brother and my wife’s brother sent us affidavits.
PERRY: Ah, so that made it easy.
SCHONFELD: They sent – they paid the fee, you know, and I came to America.
PERRY: No, you’re a very tall man.
PERRY: You must have lost a great deal of weight.
SCHONFELD: I was 100 pounds less, I was a musulmann.
PERRY: A musulmann, yes, I know. When were you reunited with your wife?
SCHONFELD: We were liberated the second of May. She was liberated on the eighth of May. She went to Munkacz and I stepped out from the train in Prague because I started there and I didn’t want to go because the Russians were already there, so I didn’t want to go home. And so, in this TB sanitarium I worked. I worked there until I prepared my emigration to America. And I came to America the 20th of June, 1946.
PERRY: That’s because both you and your wife had brothers here.
SCHONFELD: Yes, she had a brother and I had a brother.
PERRY: I see.
SCHONFELD: They sent us affidavits and money. I mean they paid for the tickets.
PERRY: Now, were there other members of your family who did not survive? Your son did not survive, the little one?
PERRY: How about other brothers, other sisters, mother, father –
SCHONFELD: I had a brother. He was 47 years old. He perished in gas. Michael was his name. I have a sister – we were six boys and one sister. She was the youngest. She was also perished with two children. And then my sisters-in-law, another sister-in-law, we also buried them in –
PERRY: How about your parents and your wife’s parents?
SCHONFELD: No, my parents died already.
PERRY: They died very young, yeah, yeah. Then at least you know the fate of all the close relatives.
PERRY: You know they are living here or they were killed.
PERRY: You know their fate. I see. Will you please go back and tell me a little bit about your everyday life before the Germans came to the town?
SCHONFELD: You see, I was a doctor, I was a practicing doctor. I had a – I was a steig, a district physician.
PERRY: A district physician.
SCHONFELD: A district physician in Munkacz, a district physician in Munkacz. And I married in 1931 and we had a good life there in Czechoslovakia.
PERRY: Yeah, the Jews were free there. They were fairly free there in Czechoslovakia. There was no problem.
SCHONFELD: No, in Czechoslovakia was like paradise, paradise.
PERRY: You had synagogues and community organizations.
SCHONFELD: Ahhh, nobody bothered us. Synagogues and everything. A Jew was a full-fledged citizen. Yeah, it was a real paradise, just like America.
PERRY: So you had a very comfortable life at that time.
SCHONFELD: Yeah, a very comfortable life. I had a big house. I had three houses here in Munkacz. I made nicely money, you know.
SCHONFELD: I had a new house where I lived and the children grew and they went to school. Also a Hebrew School. In Munkacz was a Hebrew School. And was a gymnasium also.
PERRY: When you say the “Hebrew School,” is that separate from the public school? Or was it a parochial school?
SCHONFELD: Parochial school.
PERRY: It was a parochial school? In other words, did they learn Hebrew as well as mathematics?
SCHONFELD: Yeah, yeah.
PERRY: It was a Jewish school that taught all the subjects including Hebrew, Tanach, the Bible –
SCHONFELD: Yeah, the Bible, yeah. And they had a gymnasium. This is like here a middle school.
SCHONFELD: And you were accepted to all your universities. It was a very nice life.
PERRY: After they finished the Jewish school, they went to the gymnasium – is that right?
SCHONFELD: After the elementary schools, they went to gymnasium.
PERRY: That was not a Jewish school, the gymnasium?
SCHONFELD: Yes, a Jewish gymnasium.
PERRY: Oh, there was actually a Jewish gymnasium.
SCHONFELD: Oh, it was the only Jewish gymnasium in Czechoslovakia.
PERRY: Because I didn’t think that was very common.
SCHONFELD: Yah, it wasn’t common, but this was the only Jewish gymnasium middle school in Czechoslovakia.
PERRY: How big was the town, how many people?
SCHONFELD: And 12,000 were Jews.
PERRY: Oh, it was a big Jewish population.
SCHONFELD: Oh, ho, ho, ho, the Munkaczer Rebbe, you know, he was famous all over.
PERRY: Did you go to the Jewish school when you were young?
SCHONFELD: No, I went to – I think at least that time when I…
PERRY: So you went to the public school. So your children probably had a better Jewish education than you did then?
SCHONFELD: I’m sure. They went to school in Hebrew lectures and they learned everything, Chumash, Rashi, yeah. This was big – about 12,000 Jews were there in Munkacz.
PERRY: When you were living in Czechoslovakia, of course it was free, but you must have heard about what was going on in Germany.
SCHONFELD: Oh sure, yeah. We heard everything.
PERRY: Did you have a chance to flee at all?
SCHONFELD: Not at that time, not that time. The war started and we didn’t have the chance to go. We were taken in 1944 to concentration camp.
PERRY: Did any Jews flee Czechoslovakia when the Germans took back the Sudetenland?
SCHONFELD: The Sudetenland?
PERRY: Did any Jews leave then?
SCHONFELD: Yeah, they had on the roads a lot of Jews.
PERRY: Yeah, but did they get out?
SCHONFELD: Some of them got out and some of them were taken to Auschwitz.
PERRY: I see, I see.
SCHONFELD: Some of them.
PERRY: And is there any other thing about the town that was unusual in your memory, about your growing up in the town? First of all, it was a town with a population that was about 30% Jewish. It was very highly advanced educational wise. You were – obviously everyone got along.
SCHONFELD: There was a Jewish newspaper.
PERRY: And the relations with the Christian neighbors was fine – no problems at all.
SCHONFELD: Czechoslovakia was everything okay.
PERRY: What happened when the Germans came in? How did your Christian neighbors react? Did they try to help anybody or did they try to save themselves?
SCHONFELD: They didn’t help.
PERRY: They just tried to save themselves.
SCHONFELD: They were glad that the Jews were taken. They got rid of the Jews.
PERRY: Well, I thought you got along so well with them before.
SCHONFELD: We were seemingly in the group.
PERRY: There was no open fighting.
SCHONFELD: No open fighting, but when the Germans took us away, they were happy.
PERRY: Did that surprise you?
SCHONFELD: It doesn’t surprise me.
PERRY: At the time did it surprise you?
SCHONFELD: At that time it surprised me. You see, we could hardly find one Christian who was trying to hide us.
PERRY: Yeah. Is there any other thing that you remember, particularly during the time of say, ’38 to ’46, anything that stands out particularly in your memory that ought to be recorded on this tape that you haven’t told me yet?
SCHONFELD: No, the main thing, the most horrible thing was this – the death march.
PERRY: The death march.
SCHONFELD: The death march from Warsaw to Zychlin.
PERRY: That was the most horrible thing, watching the people –
SCHONFELD: You see, we walked under the burning sun and no water, no water. And 1500 people died. This I will never forget.
PERRY: That was done on purpose, of course.
SCHONFELD: This was done on purpose, yeah. They didn’t even give us water.
PERRY: Let me ask you this about your growing up a second. What languages did you speak in your home?
PERRY: Hungarian, but you knew how to speak Czech.
SCHONFELD: Not my wife. My wife was a Hungarian girl. I spoke Czech, German, a little bit Russian.
PERRY: Any Yiddish?
SCHONFELD: And perfect Jewish.
PERRY: Perfect Yiddish. How about –
SCHONFELD: This is my mutter sprachen.
PERRY: Your mutter sprachen. And also, did you speak Hebrew at all?
PERRY: You had a very good life there. How about the other Jews, did they also have a comfortable –
SCHONFELD: Comfortable, yeah.
PERRY: I don’t mean they were wealthy, but –
SCHONFELD: Nobody bothers them. They went in and they had national streimel and bekeshe and Shabbas. Nobody bothered them.
PERRY: Did you come out of a religious home?